After college, Matt Kepnes spent much of his time sitting in a cubicle at his $35,000-a-year administrative job at a hospital Boston. It was supposed to have been a temporary gig, but more than two years later “I was still there,” Kepnes tells CNBC. He was also in the midst of getting his MBA.
But a trip to Thailand changed all that.
“My buddy Scott decided that he wanted to go somewhere,” explains Kepnes. “He was like, ‘Hey, I’ve always wanted to go to Thailand. It’s warm and it has beaches.’ And I was like ‘I just want to get away from Boston in January, so that sounds good to me.'”
It was there that Kepnes decided he was going to quit his job and travel. In Chiang Mai, he met a group of people who traveled full-time. “I liked their lifestyle. I liked their idea of just like roaming the world and meeting cool people and doing amazing things,” he says. “It was sort of a counter to my boring cubicle job.”
When Kepnes returned to work after the vacation, he gave his boss six months’ notice. Kepnes, who says he’s a Gemini who tends to make impulsive decisions, faced plenty of resistance from his worried parents. But “I wasn’t going to change my mind,” he says, so eventually they got on board with the idea.
It ended up taking a year and half, but Kepnes finished his MBA (which he calls “probably one of the biggest wastes of money”), lived with his parents and worked enough overtime to save $30,000 — that was $20,000 to fund his travels and $10,000 to live on when he got back until he could find a job. Then he set out on an 18-month trek around the world.
He traveled across the U.S. for two months, spent three months in Europe, a year in Asia and three months in Australia. “Some places I stayed two days, some places a week or a month – I just went with how I felt,” says Kepnes. He spent seven months in Bangkok teaching English as a second language to make additional money when the dollar turned against him and his stash dwindled.
When Kepness returned home in 2008, he knew he couldn’t go back to his previous life. That’s when he started his blog, Nomadic Matt. “It was really more like I wanted a job that would keep me traveling. Travel writing seemed like a good job,” he tells CNBC. “What are you gonna do? Well create a website so people can see my work and I can pitch myself.”
At first Kepnes continued to teach English while he traveled. But thanks to great timing, good SEO and a few viral posts, the site began to take off after about a year. “I was there in the beginning,” says Kepnes of the travel blogosphere. “I guess I just filled the void that people wanted.”
By 2010 the site was bringing in $50,000 to $60,000 a year says Kepnes, from e-books he had written (which he sold for $6.99 to $29.99), sponsored posts and a little bit of affiliate marketing, so he decided to focus on Nomadic Matt full time. Kepnes soon added media courses and wrote a New York Times best seller, “How to Travel the World on $50 a Day.”
All the while, Kepnes kept traveling. “I went scuba diving in Fiji, safaried across Africa, went to the Galapagos, went hiking in Patagonia,” he says, “to name a few.” To date he’s been to more than 90 countries.
During that time, Kepnes says he’s continued developing his travel courses, upped his affiliate revenue and regularly launched new products. By 2013, the site was bringing in six figures. Now, Nomadic Matt has 1.5 million visitors a month and grosses about $750,000 year, according to Kepnes. He has three full-time employees a stable of freelancers. He also co-owns a hostel in Austin, Texas.
These days, Kepnes, 36, says he travels about six months of the year, and splits the rest of his time between New York City and Austin. “If I’m not traveling, I’m probably working. I pretty much am always working, but I like my job so I don’t mind it,” he says.
When Kepnes spoke with CNBC, he was staying at a hostel in Paris. “I get to work from wherever I want,” he says. “I haven’t opened my computer in the last five days, so I get a flexible schedule. With good time management, I get to actually do things I like and not have to worry about work.”
Kepnes has both more work and travel on the horizon. He’s writing a memoir and has a top secret TV project in the works. After spending some time city-hopping in the U.S. and Canada for Nomadic Network meet-ups, Kepnes plans to spend August at home in New York, and then in September he’s off to Madagascar and the Seychelles.
What advice does he have for those who want a life like his?
“People just worry so much about tomorrow that they don’t live [for] today,” says Kepnes.
“They get so hooked up on retirement and the future and blah, blah, blah that they don’t see the opportunities in front of them,” he says. “They say, ‘I have tons of debt.’ I did too — and still do — but I taught English and found ways to work overseas. There are lots of jobs around that can help pay the bills if you are open to them. When you talk to people, there’s always an excuse. They say, ‘I could never do it,’ and I’m like, ‘Why?’ They say, ‘Well I have a job. It isn’t that easy.’
“Well, it is that easy. You just go in and quit, and then you just go travel.”