Interview with Kevin Casey

Kevin Casey is a freelance copywriter with an inspiring story. Having built a thriving location-independent career, Kevin is able to travel the world on his own schedule while pursuing his passion for exploration. Kevin was kind enough to answer our questions on how he became a digital nomad, how to avoid common mistakes, how he stays healthy on the road and much more!

Please can you give us some background on who you are, where you’re from and what you do for a living?

I am a professional freelance copywriter, book author, wilderness river explorer and documentary film-maker. I was born in California but migrated to Australia in 1991. I am currently based in Brisbane, but spend 4-5 months of each year travelling on my profits. I run The Jet-setting Copywriter blog
– that shows people how to fund all their overseas adventures through freelance writing.

What is a typical day like for you?

There’s no such thing, really. Last month I was trekking the Larapinta Trail in the central Australian desert. Yesterday I was working on my new eBook, ‘The Over-40 Digital Nomad‘ and finishing up some client work (medical-related articles). Some days I’m in Brisbane writing and some days I’m off overseas, either writing from an AirBnB apartment in an interesting foreign city (I just got back from a month in Salta, Argentina, for example), or exploring a remote river system somewhere, or having a ‘normal’ holiday (I’m off to Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic shortly).

What pushed you to take the leap towards a nomadic lifestyle?

I started my writing career as a self-published print book author in 1992, but my efforts were sporadic and spread over nearly two decades. I wrote Jobs Abroad: The Australian Traveler’s Guide to Working Overseas, Attracting Frogs to Your Garden (over 30,000 sold and still going strong twenty years later), Australian Bush Survival Skills (which went out of print but was recently resurrected as an eBook) and several other titles. My most popular eBook at the moment is ‘The Jet-setting Copywriter: How to Fund All Your Overseas Adventures Through Freelance Writing‘, which is available through my website. My habit of exploring pristine global rivers was getting expensive, and I wanted a more flexible, consistent way to fund it, so in 2013, I decided to become a freelance copywriter. The nomadic part of things has always been my normal way of life – I was always an avid traveler. Starting up a thriving copywriting business simply made it easier.

What is the first thing you do when you arrive in a new place?

If I’m going to be working in a new city, I grab a new SIM card and local phone number for my mobile. Normally I already have an apartment all organised, so I just move in and start writing and sight-seeing.

What are your inspirations?

Personally, I’m inspired by pristine, pure rivers that are rich in wildlife. Exploring rivers (usually alone) is my religion. Professionally, I’m inspired by Bob Bly, a US copywriter who is probably as good as anyone on earth at what he does – he makes about $700,000 a year as a copywriter.

Why did you decide to write your book The Jet Setting Copywriter? And please can you tell us a bit about the process?

A couple years ago, I was sitting in a cafe in Rurrenabaque, Bolivia, getting ready to go upriver and spend a month in the Amazon, and chatting to some other travelers about all the places I’ve been and how I find the money to travel so frequently. They were all shocked that a ‘mere writer’ could afford to do all the cool stuff I was getting up to around the world. It dawned on me then that people don’t really understand how it’s possible to completely pay for endless travel with profits as a freelance copywriter. So that was when I decided to write the book – to better explain what I do, how I do it, where I find high-paying clients (the biggest problem for so many writers), etc.

I wanted to explain in detail how to make a ‘living wage’ from copywriting for businesses. In the book I provide samples of some of the pitch emails that work for me in approaching new clients, plus a breakdown of the industries and target markets you should be going after if you want to make the big money. I mean, last year I made nearly $60,000, but only had to work about 7 months of it, while doing things like snorkeling with manta rays on the Barrier Reef, visiting the Amazon jungle for a month, spending the European summer in Spain and Italy, etc. I just wanted to lay out exactly how I created that lifestyle so quickly – because honestly, it’s within reach of many people if they can just be pointed in the right direction.

I wanted my book to be a BS-free zone that explained exactly how to create a real business and run it well so you can travel whenever you want, to wherever you want, for as long as you want.

Do you work more of less (in terms of hours) than before you became a freelancer (and why)?

The endless challenge for every freelance writer is maintaining a steady income and avoiding the feast/famine cycle that’s so common. For me, when I was first starting out, the key was latching onto several solid, high-paying, long-term clients that could offer consistent work, month after month. I’d say I probably spend just as many hours of the day working as a freelancer as I did with ‘normal jobs’ before, but it varies widely. As a freelancer, you have to be good at organizing your own time for maximum productivity.

Before I became a freelancer, I was working in a camping shop and had to commute on the bus 70 minutes each way – which I considered wasted hours in my day. With freelance copywriting, I get out of bed, stroll over to the computer and get to work immediately. After a cup of tea, of course – I am an Australian, after all.

If you could return to just one location you have lived in, where would it be and why?

It’s a toss-up between Ljubljana, Slovenia and Carvoeira, Portugal. But I also believe there is no better place to be on earth in the month of August than BC, Canada.

What does the word ‘home’ mean to you?

Well, I currently live in Brisbane, Australia, so that’s officially my home, even though I only spend 7-8 months there during the year. I ‘feel at home’ very much in the Kimberley region of north-west Australia, where I have conducted over a dozen solo wilderness expeditions starting back in 1984 (including the first major wilderness packrafting expedition ever conducted in Australia). When it comes to continents, I love South America. Unlike so many digital nomads, I’ve never been drawn to South-east Asia (though I had a great trip to Sabah, Borneo in 2006 to film wild orangutans). I don’t like the crowds and I make enough money to not have to confine myself to super-cheap ‘nomad hotspots’ like Thailand, Bali, Cambodia, Philippines, etc.

Has anything ever scared you while traveling and how did you deal with it?

I was camped alone on a tiny, remote island off Papua New Guinea in 1989 and was robbed (at 1am) by three guys – one with an axe, one with a machete and one with a spear. They got about $300 but didn’t kill me, so I considered that a win. On top of that, I contracted malaria there, despite taking pills to prevent it. How I dealt with it was by never returning to Papua New Guinea again! Interestingly, I often venture into extremely remote parts of the world where huge tarantulas, deadly snakes, bears, crocodiles, etc. are the norm, but none of that scares me. Man is the scariest creature on earth.

Do you prefer to travel slowly or quickly and why?

When I explore rivers, I like to spend about a month. When I do some writing in a foreign city, it’s about the same – 4-6 weeks. I prefer slow travel – I consider rushed holidays a waste of money. I once lived and worked in Istanbul, Turkey for 8 months and it was a great experience.

What is the most common mistake that copywriters make while trying to get started with freelance work?

Looking for work in all the wrong places: on bidding sites, content mills and low-paying job boards. I dabbled in this when I first started out and soon realized it was a financial dead end. Once I ditched race-to-the-bottom, writing-as-a-commodity websites completely and started pursuing my own clients directly, my income soared. I basically went from nearly broke to earning up to $7,000 per month within my first 5 months. Being a successful copywriter is mostly about being an enthusiastic self-marketer: if nobody knows you exist, you won’t make money. You’ve got to put yourself out there and show people what you can do – and charge what you feel you’re worth. I wrote an article on this subject a while back.

How does location independence make you more productive?

No commuting, the ability to turn down work (or clients) that are going to waste my time, the ability to create and manage my own deadlines (I set writing deadlines far more often than my clients do). And I think everyone is more productive when they’re doing what they love and can look forward to the rewards it brings (in my case, another epic journey somewhere!). Because I work alone, I’m not distracted by office politics, noise, interruptions, etc. I choose my hours.

Do you track your time and how does it help you?

Not officially, but I have a rough idea of how long it’ll take me to write a blog post, a product description, a case study, an eBook chapter or whatever. I charge by the completed project, not by the hour, so I’ve actually never had to track ‘hours worked’. I quote for a finished job, based roughly on a 25-cents a word rate for most writing tasks. I also guarantee my work – if someone isn’t happy with what I’ve written, I don’t take their money. But I’m always happy to do revisions – it’s part of the job.

Can you tell us about one or more of your favourite moments as a nomad?

Checking my laptop while sitting on a bench alongside the shore of Lake Bled in Slovenia, and getting an email from an Australian insurance company asking me to write blog posts for them. That relationship lasted 18 months and made me about $55,000. They were just a LinkedIn contact I had decided to randomly approach about some work – my most profitable single email pitch ever! I also polished off 41 articles in under 3 weeks last year while hanging out in Cordoba, Argentina.

The whole trip, including airfares and AirBnB accommodation, cost a little over $4,000, but I invoiced over $7200 worth of writing work while there. I even found time to sneak in some excursions. I also have fond memories of writing from a balcony on the Algarve coast of Portugal, gazing out at the blue ocean and whitewashed houses: I also once finished off an eBook from a luxurious penthouse apartment in Milan, Italy – ah, the life. There are plenty of amazing moments as a location-independent writer because it’s a life full of choices.

What have you found challenging about the location independent lifestyle?

Many awesome destinations have horrible Internet, or electricity that shuts off for no reason. You have to be constantly vigilant with security (money, passport, laptop, phone, etc.). And I am completely unable to sleep sitting up in a airplane, which is a real pain when you’re doing those long-haul routes (Like Australia to Chile). Most challenges are minor, though, and I’m highly adaptable and self-contained anyway, so I go with the flow. Language can be an issue, as I found out when I went to Gabon to explore the Ntem River with four Baka pygmies (I speak neither French nor the Baka dialect, so it got pretty interesting at times):

How do you choose where to go next?

I wanted to be a remote river explorer since I was ten years old, so I’ve been poring over maps to obscure places my whole life. These days, I just look at my workload, then pick a spot well in advance and start planning.
How do you connect with people while traveling?

I’m old-school – I don’t use meet-up apps or social media to meet folks. I just walk up to interesting people and start talking to them. If you smile, are genuinely friendly and show real interest in other people and their cultures, you’ll connect just fine. I don’t actively seek out expats, digital nomads or other ‘people like me’ – I’d rather hang out with the locals. That’s why I travel, and that’s why I stay in an apartment in a local neighborhood for a month or more, well away from the tourist district when I’m doing freelance writing abroad.

What do you hope to be doing in ten years?

That’s way too far in the future to even think about. I suspect I’ll still be writing, though – this profession has been very good to me. I plan to continue exploring remote rivers until I’m too old to do it.
What do you miss the most when you’re away from Australia?

Cleanliness, beautiful beaches, a nice variety of fruits and vegetables, traffic that (mostly) stays in its own lane, blue skies (it’s amazing how many washed-out brown skies you see when you travel).

What are the main aspects of your personality that have allowed you to live as jetsetting life?

I’m probably a tad anti-social (or perhaps it would be more correct to say I prefer my humanity in smaller doses than most), which helps a lot when you’re a writer (it’s a ‘loner profession’) and also when it comes to spending several weeks alone in extremely isolated wilderness areas. I also have a highly-developed BS detector, which helps me avoid the wrong types of difficult clients. Conversely, I show tremendous loyalty to clients (and people in general) who treat me well. I’m also a bit of a perfectionist with my writing – I value precision and never miss a deadline, which clients appreciate (much of my business comes from referrals from ecstatic customers these days). I don’t make excuses, I just get on with it. “Do what needs doing” is my motto. I’m fascinated by the planet I live on, and always want to see more of it.

Do you have any daily routines or habits that you always stick to?

As a writer, I research first, write second and edit/proofread third. I don’t try to mix them all up in a mishmash of disjointed activity. I try to take a 10-minute break every hour, although if I’m ‘in the zone’, I’ve been known to keep going for hours. When in foreign cities, I get out and explore on foot a lot, and make sure I do a few day trips. I don’t make work my whole life.

Do you take holidays? If so where and how?

Sure – several a year, whenever I want. That’s what’s so great about my writing business – I control my own destiny. I experience true personal autonomy, month after month. Sometimes I take the laptop with me, sometimes I leave it at home.

What preconceptions do people from countries you travel to have when they first meet you and how do you find common ground?

Australians, unfortunately, have something of a reputation in some parts of the world as (a) heavy binge drinkers and (b) shabby dressers. Many people I’ve met overseas have expressed surprise that I’m not a drinker, I don’t wear singlets and flip-flops everywhere and I speak with a Yank/Aussie combo accent.

Overall, in my experience, the best way to find common ground with anyone is to be open-minded and not to judge them. I once spent an entire month canoeing down the Rewa River in the jungles of Guyana with A Makushi tribesman. He was one of the most civilized people I’ve ever met (in all the ways that matter) and we got along great. I’ve hung out with Turkish carpet sellers, Canadian lumberjacks, African pygmies, Paraguayan farmers, Portugese boatmen, Bolivian animal trackers and Australian Aborigines – they’re all people and you can learn something from each and every one of them.

How do you stay healthy when you are on the move a lot?

I don’t eat junk food – I shop for healthy ingredients and cook for myself wherever possible. I haven’t consumed a soft drink for over two decades, and I avoid French fries (fatty toxin feast). I drink water, not alcohol. I don’t follow food fads, I just eat sensibly and well. Writing is a sedentary activity, so I counteract this with plenty of walking, cycling, hiking, etc. If there’s an affordable gym close by when I’m overseas, I’ll visit (I got a full month of unlimited workouts in Argentina $34 once). If I have a medical issue, I get it checked out immediately.

How do you approach finding accommodation when traveling?

When I’m writing overseas, I almost always stay in AirBnB apartments, usually on a high floor above the traffic noise. I don’t work in cafes or hostels – too much noise and activity to get work done for me. I usually have my accommodation all sorted out at least a month before I arrive in a place.

What makes a good client?

A client who knows exactly what they want and gives clear guidelines on how to achieve the desired result. I also like clear, actionable feedback when it comes to revisions. I love a client who pays on time and doesn’t haggle like a desperate fish monger over price. In several years of freelance writing, I’ve only had to ‘fire’ two clients, which is pretty good. Usually I pick my clients as much as they pick me: I ask enough questions so I have a pretty good idea of what I’m getting into. I actually had a recent client give me a raise in pay that I never asked for (I think they were worried I might go write for one of their competitors!). A client that has worked with pro copywriters before is also a plus, since they don’t need to be ‘trained’. Basically, any client that appreciates value and communicates well is a good client.

Are there any places you would recommend against traveling to? If so where and why?

Well, I won’t be returning to Papua New Guinea again for the reasons already mentioned! I actually talk about traveler safety in this post and why it’s not a bad idea to check out the annual Global Peace Index (which ranks countries for safety) before you travel. The world changes so rapidly that you have to keep abreast of news developments – though I don’t think Facebook forums are necessarily the best place to be getting your travel advice – I’ve seen some terrible (and even dangerous) advice on online travel forums.

What is an issue that you feel especially passionate about?

Human overpopulation. Every major problem we have on this earth – climate change, political instability, poverty, intolerance, environmental degradation, starvation, pollution, dwindling resources – is all hugely magnified because we have 7.5 billion people crammed onto a finite planet that can’t support that ridiculous number. Climate change is just a symptom – overpopulation is the disease.

What do you wish you had known when you started (as a location independent freelancer)?

I wish I’d known that online writing-for-peanuts websites were such a complete waste of time – and that I could make 25 cents a word (instead of 2 cents a word) by creating my own writer website and cold-emailing suitable high-paying clients myself. From a DN standpoint, I think it’s important to realize that this lifestyle isn’t for everyone, and you shouldn’t believe all the hype you read on travel blogs. Understand that’s it’s not all beaches, sleep-ins and zip-lining.

What is the best food you have eaten while traveling?

A superb grass-fed steak in Argentina, a traditionally cooked octopus in Porto, Portugal, freshly caught lobster in the Florida Keys, gelato in Slovenia, homemade gnocci in Italy and a heavenly lamb shank dinner in Obertraun, Austria. The giant, freshly caught yabbies (crayfish) caught with a spear from a river in Australia’s Kimberley (it’s a secret spot, I can’t tell you) were also scrumptious. And of course, I’ve never had a bad meal in Italy – they’re the finest chefs on earth.

And what has been your scariest food experience?

I didn’t much enjoy the shriveled, shrunken, smoked river fish in Gabon (like chewing on fishy leather), or the food poisoning I got in Guatemala from drinking milk, or the monkey roasted on the coals by the pygmies (that looked very much like a human baby with a tail). However, I have happily eaten roasted palm beetle grubs, donkey stew, termite soup (a failed bush survival experiment), goanna tail and baked stingray. Being a global river explorer has exposed me to more unusual foods than most, I guess.

How do you define success?

Living as you wish – not as you must.

What do you do differently to the majority of people you know that (apart from living as a nomad!) that has a significant impact on your life (good or bad)?

I don’t get into debt, buying a whole lot of junk I don’t need. I hardly ever use my credit card. I owe nothing, and that equals freedom. I don’t waste money on alcohol, cigarettes or shiny status symbols.

Which books have had a big impact on you?

As a writer, I probably learned the most from Bob Bly’s ‘The Copywriter’s Handbook‘ and his ‘Secrets of a Freelance Writer‘. Peter Bowerman, Ed Gandia and Steve Slaunswhite are some other copywriter/authors I find helpful. I thought ‘The Four-Hour Work Week’ was a terribly over-rated book, to be honest. Most books aimed at DNs are pretty repetitive – they all tend to say much the same thing, and many of the author/gurus don’t convince me with their self-described level of ‘success’: living in a dingy, $250 a month Chiang Mai flat while experimenting with drop-shipping or life-coaching, surviving on bananas and ramen noodle packets and slowly running out of funds :).

One of the reasons I decided to write ‘The Over-40 Digital Nomad’ was because I got tired of seeing advice from 22-year-old ‘experts’ about how to succeed at this – I just couldn’t keep a straight face.

Resources-wise, I really like Mish Slade’s DN-related books from the ‘Making it Anywhere‘ blog – they’re useful, hype-free and to the point. But I don’t follow many travel blogs.

The older nomad demographic is huge, successful and largely ignored by social media, which invariably uses a stock image of a hammock-reclining Millennial with a laptop under a palm tree. There are 35-year-old (and much older) DNs out there having an absolute blast, but nobody seems to mention them. So (with my Over-40 book) I’m on a mission to explain that DNs come in all types and ages, and teenagers don’t have a lock on the DN phenomenon.

What are the creature comforts you cannot live without?

Love my Kindle, a good set of noise-cancelling headphones, and a big plate of pasta after a hard day’s work.

Please can you tell us about any other inspiring nomads you have met?

Because I don’t use co-working spaces overseas, I tend not to run into other DNs in person when I travel. However, I feature some incredible interviews with inspiring DNs (up to 60+ in age!) in my new book ‘The Over-40 Digital Nomad’, so you can check them all out there. I think there are a lot of ‘unsung heroes’ in the DN world that you just never hear about – these ‘quiet achievers’ inspire me.

Huge thanks to Kevin for taking the time to answer our questions. You can learn about Kevin’s travels, books and more on his personal website. If you would like to hire Kevin for writing work please check out his writer website.

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