Today we have another Irish Digital Nomad out in the world! I met Conor Walsh many years ago on an island in Thailand called Koh Tao when he was working in a hostel I was staying at. He saw me swinging in a hammock while working on my laptop and was interested in learning more! Following a crash course in WordPress over a few beers, he now works 100% online while traveling the world.
As a Ghostwriter his content has been published in The Guardian, BBC, Forbes and Bloomberg.
You can follow his personal blog here! https://ctwalsh.com/
Being a Digital Nomad in East Africa
How a chance meeting one day on an island in Thailand sparked the online entrepreneur flame in Conors life.
Getting started as a freelance writer & finding clients online
Moving to Bansko & Africa as a Digital Nomad
There are 30 coworking spaces in Nairobi, Kenya with many multinational digital companies there including Facebook, Google, Oracle and many more
Talking about the vibrant fun & entrepreneurship seen in Kenya
Conor left Ireland 8 years ago to travel and is still going with his adventures!
Conor: There are more ways to build a lifestyle and a work life around your needs and your desires than we realise, whatever our circumstances are. I mean, if you have the ability to have a laptop, and a good internet connection, even if it’s just off your phone, there’s a whole world of opportunity out there that most people in all over the world are oblivious to. Like, you mentioned your brother in Ireland, you know, people would not think of him in a similar situation to a lot of people here in Kenya. But again it just comes down to lack of awareness.
Adam: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Digital Nomad Cafe podcast. I’m here today with Conor, an Irish freelance writer currently living and travelling around Africa and promoting it as a travel work destination for digital nomads. Conor, welcome to the show. Thank you for joining me.
Conor: Thanks for having me, Adam.
Adam: So Conor, you’ve worked as a ghostwriter. Your contents have been published on The Guardian, BBC, Forbes, Bloomberg. We met many, many moons ago, early in a little island called Koh Tao in Thailand. And at that time, you were working in a hostel, is that correct?
Conor: Yeah, I was a professional hostel Bob. I think that was my first hostel job. And then I’ve done many, actually, the year since, before doing the ghostwriting.
Adam: You were just looking to travel. And a really good way to travel is to actually go and work in hostels. This is something I was only talking to my own brother about, recently. But you know, hostels are, if you work for a couple hours, A, you get your own board and your food and everything else and it’s a great way to meet people. So that was what you were doing over in Thailand. Is that right?
Conor: Yeah. So I got that job just by accident. But yeah, I’m on board with everything you said. I was 23 when I got that job. And I tell everybody that I meet, try it, if you have the opportunity, at some point in your early 20s, not your late 20s. At that point, you’re a bit too old for-
Adam: Pick up lines.
Conor: But in your early 20s, if you have the opportunity to work in the hostel, and I mean, there’s so many websites and avenues and ways to do it for six months or more. You learn so much about interacting with people. By travel, working, I really came out of my shell. I got used to hosting and promoting. I had a lot of fun doing this, obviously. Like you don’t think of it as a job when you’re doing it. And then it was only years later that I realised the opportunities that opened up the years after that job, and other hostel jobs that I’ve had. For instance, my first job in Africa, I was managing two backpacker hostels. That never would have happened if I hadn’t just offered to give like five to 10 hours a week, helping people check in and tidying the room, selling their beers, taking them at the party. Yeah, the biggest asset is the people I meet. The people you do meet, like, I met you, as you said. I think you were working online pretty successfully at that point. You sat me down and you introduced me to WordPress and you showed me a theme and all the basics of SEO Google Analytics. You introduced me to Niall Doherty, who was a mutual friend of ours and has become a really big mentor of mine, who actually indirectly got me my current ghostwriting job all these years later. And that set me on the path. It’s really just changed the trajectory of my 20s. I’m 39. So that’s seven years later.
Adam: That was it. It was six years ago when we were on Koh Tao. At that time, I remember my girlfriend was pregnant, and I was over there. My two friends were helping to run the hostel as well. Yeah, like you said, I was doing a lot of SEO for people freelance writing back then. You were probably the only person there who was interested in learning a bit more about it. I was more than happy to sit down with you and share with you, like, “This is what I do. This is how I do it.” You were a man after my own heart, in terms of you just wanted to travel. But that was the reason I got into it. I was like, “Oh, I don’t want to stay in one place. I want to be able to travel and work online.” And to me, that was like, “Okay, what can I do? I’ll be a writer. Well, I mean, I can learn how to be a writer. Of course you can. Just practice, you know.” And sales, that becomes a big part of it. Like you said, Niall referred you to a client. A big part of it becomes how good you are at selling yourself. So can we talk a little bit about how you managed to get your first clients as a freelance writer?
Conor: Yeah, sure. I mean, we’re jumping ahead quite a bit. I’d always played with the idea and I’ve been trying to work in any kind of skill that I could do online. I try to work that into offline jobs. So if I was managing a backpacker hostel, for instance, I’d get involved in social media and website promotion, that kind of thing. Just kind of building those skills little by little, but I was not really pushing very hard. I’m just trying to do the timeline in my head without making it too complicated. So basically, last year was 2018, I was working at a mental health startup where I finally got to use a lot of these skills and develop them, and really actually start putting them into practice. After a few months there, after about a year, I phased out into more of a kind of informal advisory role. And on the back of that I started putting together a portfolio website. They referred me to a few people because they had the kind of work that I was looking for, and I thought it was more free and that wouldn’t conflict with my schedule with them. And then I think it was just a case of one. At the time I had just moved to Bansko in Bulgaria. I’m sure a lot of your listeners are probably starting to hear about Bansko, Coworking Bansko Space, a very fast growing digital nomad destination in Europe. So I had been a member of the Coworking space for a couple of months. My main job was going in there and I was looking for clients. I think I posted it on my Facebook. I made a graphic on Canva of all the things that I knew that I could do online and put it out there, that if anybody needed any help with their business, these are all the areas that I can help. I got a couple of job offers from that, actually a few friends. And then I got a lot of feedback about the way I had presented my, let’s say, value proposition was way too generalist and that I would need to narrow down and specialise in something. One of my friends who runs a content marketing agency needed a ghostwriter to do interviews with his clients, like transcribing them, and creating a narrative out of them. So I did a couple of pieces for him. That was going pretty well but he was just starting out, so there wasn’t much work involved, or much more coming my way, I should say, sorry. And then at the same time, we’ve already mentioned Niall Doherty. Niall had a course that he built a few years ago. When I joined that when I was in Uganda in 2017, because I knew I wanted to start transitioning out of hospitality work. Part of that course was a Facebook group that he runs. That has been a really important community for me. So that’s called Freedom Business Builder. I’m in that group nearly every day just seeing what people are posting. It’s really active. It’s really supportive. Actually, before the interview, I posted something for feedback, asking for feedback. And I got like, really good insight after about 15 minutes of posting that.
Adam: The beauty of these Facebook groups is, I’m a member of quite a few of them as well, exactly for that. It’s about having a positive community of people who are interested in similar things who can help you when you need a little bit of help. Be it online, be it something, and be a bit of support. Maybe you’re feeling a bit down. You’ve had a couple of rejections in terms of pitching and freelancing and some things. Just a bit of a camaraderie around. Like, ‘That’s okay, we’ve all had our shits downwards. Let’s just fucking get back at it again.’ That’s the power of communities and Niall has created a solid little community there at the freedom Business Builders on Facebook.
Conor: Yeah. So anyway, just to summarise, Niall posted, and my client reached out to him, I don’t know how they know each other exactly. And said if you know any writers, well experienced in tech, let us know and tell them to get in touch with us. So I did. At that time, I’ve written about workplace mental health, technology startups, co-working spaces, just a little bit here and there. I was able to put that together enough to have like a miniature portfolio and then I just did a test article with them. And that went well, and I was just doing product reviews for a while that I was very proactive about. I liked this client, I like working for them. And I can see they had a lot of work. It’s a very high authority website that people work for.
Adam: Those are the sort of websites that need constant, updated content that have a high [Inaudible 11:18] These affiliate marketers have built authority websites, which I did an entire episode on. I’ll make sure to link to it in the show notes for anyone who wants to know more about what an authority site is.
Conor: Yeah. So this website, in particular, I’m writing about data privacy and data security. They earn affiliate income off selling products related to this industry. So you can imagine the moment, especially the times we live in these days. That’s a fast moving industry, and there’s always changes, and there’s always developments. Little by little, I just built up a relationship with them. And then about three months in, I’ve only been doing this for, I think, seven months. By three months in, they asked me to drop all my other clients and work for them exclusively. To guarantee this, we worked out a better rating compensation so that I wouldn’t have to spend any time prospecting, and that I’d be secure in this contract to know that they’re not going to turn around in a month and say, “Actually, we’ve changed our mind.” All the clients I dropped to work for these people, I can’t get back. There was a whole process involved, like, much longer to explain it. But to kind of summarise and answer your question, I would say, the two biggest assets I had started now was just being a part of two communities, offline and Coworking in Bansko. And just having that supportive community of people who are much further along their journeys than me, who could kind of guide me and throw a bit of work my way when I needed it. Also the online community that Niall has built, the Freedom Business Builder.
Adam: Okay. So summarising that, it was the communities that you were involved in online, getting a little bit of strategic guidance from people a bit further along on their journey. And the Facebook groups that you’re a part of ,that helped to initially get you all those clients and grow your freelance revenue. Can we talk a little bit now about, I know you run a website called NomadAfrica.co. What made you decide to start promoting digital nomad travel in Africa? How did that come about?
Conor: As I mentioned earlier, my first two jobs here in East Africa was managing two backpacker hostels in 2017. So the first one was in Kampala, Uganda, which is just next door to Kenya. And then I was managing another one here on the coast of Kenya for a few months. At this point, I am well aware of the digital nomad lifestyle. I’ve been living in Thailand, I met you guys, Niall, and all of these people. I knew a lot of what digital nomads look for and where they like to travel, what their concerns, and their preferences, and what they need and everything. The more time I spend in East Africa, I came to realise two things, which is, one, everything that I’ve been raised to believe about Sub Saharan Africa through media portrayals, through the likes of, I mean, you’re an Irish growing up in the 90s. I feel like our perspective of this continent is defined by Bob Geldof and [Inaudible 14:40] and their constant berating Irish people and European governments for not doing enough to save this continent from itself. Realising just how inaccurate, for want of a better word, that was, on how misrepresentative of the truth it is and how oversimplified. And then just little by little, I just fell in love with this region, the people and everything. I don’t want to say like there’s so much potential because that sounds really patronising. But there’s just so much happening here. Aside from the natural beauty and everything, you learn very quickly about the spirit and the character of the people growing up in these regions, and then just how their perspective is on solving the problems that they’re presented with every day. The fun that they inject in everything that they do, even if that’s a really serious social issue. The sense of humour that you find in Kenya, especially, is just infectious. I went to this whole thing that many people who travel here do is a huge cliche, but it’s true. Your whole spectrum of Africa, it gets completely turned upside down, and it gets under your skin. Even though I left, like I had a contract to start in the UK, you leave a little bit of you behind. I really just fell in love with this region and everything that was happening here and the people I’ve met and the entrepreneurship scene and the creative scene here. I also realised on top of that there’s huge potential for people who work online to travel here more, and very few people do. But East Africa is getting on people’s radars, which I know myself, because as I said, I have a website and I have the Facebook group that I run. So I get people actively looking for remote workers like me who have actually taken the step to come here and learn more about it and can answer their questions and can answer their concerns.
Adam: So it’s Let’s talk about a little bit, like you mentioned just before the call, I mean in Kenya, how many coworking spaces is there in the city of Nairobi where you are currently, roughly?
Conor: Nairobi is the capital of Kenya. And I think last time I counted, there’s about 30 co-working spaces here in the city of 4 million people. But aside from the co-working spaces, I mean, every restaurant, every coffee shop has sockets and fibre optic internet at 4g Plus. The infrastructure here for working online is one of the best I’ve seen anywhere in the world. And I’ve travelled enough that I feel comfortable saying. And besides my co-working spaces, I mean, people ask me, is there reliable internet here? One of the spaces I work from is next to the African headquarters of Oracle. Facebook is just down the road. Microsoft has an office in a co-working space that I work from. Google has a president here. MasterCard down here. So aside from me just managing my WordPress website, my Facebook group and doing my ghostwriting for my clients who don’t even know that I’m here because they don’t mind where I am so long as I’m online, they’ve never had an issue with trying to get in touch with me. I’ve never had an issue with uploading my various assignments to them. But aside from just me as a solo entrepreneur, working from a laptop, the fact that you have so many big name multinational companies working out of the city, is the best testimonial I can give to just how well built the infrastructure for working online here is and then as well, that’s very high level obviously, on the ground when you’re in these co working spaces. Just the most fascinating people working on just amazing, weird, exciting, innovative projects based around our marketing social impact. Anything you can really think of that the person next to you, you just get chatting to them. And you just learn within five minutes about a whole social issue that you would never really be aware of before, poverty or human rights or whatever. And then some innovative tool that they’ve built that has changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the world. That up until that moment, you are oblivious. And when you sit and you have these conversations with these kinds of people, it’s rarely boring. You just learn a lot just from being in this environment the whole time.
Adam Finan: And there is a good there is a good community in terms of like, there’s meetups happening, and there’s stuff happening all the time, I imagine. In a city of 4 million people, I mean, that’s the population of Ireland in a city.
Conor: Yeah, they never believed me. When I tell them that. I can keep up with the social activities I could be doing if I really wanted to. Like we were saying before the call, the biggest for me, I’m telling all about hospitality work I’ve been doing. Spending my 20s working in teams in hospitality and startups. I was always surrounded by people, whether it’s working. And then I’ve gotten to the complete opposite where my entire businesses run off, Google Hangouts, and the entire chase with —
Adam Finan: Google Drive. Basically, Google.
Conor: Yeah. So for me, obviously, it’s very important that when I post my laptop in the evenings and at the weekends that I can easily meet people. And Nairobi I mean, it’s a very international city and Kenyans themselves are very clued in to everything that’s happening in the world. So it’s like, as soon as you meet people and learn where you’re from and what you’re doing, it’s very easy to make instant connections. And then there’s a load of meetups and events, live music, art galleries. It’s summer here and I’m sitting in inverted commas, because they have different seasons. But this is this summer season in Nairobi at the moment. So there’s lots of events running. The co-working spaces all have networking events. I’m actually running one myself tomorrow. While we’re recording this, tomorrow. It would have happened by the time it goes live.
Adam Finan: It will have been in the past. If anybody was listening
Conor: If anyone is from Nairobi and is thinking about coming for a drink, I probably won’t be here because I’m moving in January. But yeah, for me, it just has the whole package. And then it’s in a European time zone. My clients work in European time zones. So there’s no disruption there. I mean, I’m not going to say it’s a utopia for nomads. Obviously, there’s issues, like there is everywhere. But I think for me, it’s probably the most underrated place that I’ve worked online for within the general digital nomad community.
Adam Finan: And that’s awesome. And it’s good to get somebody who’s over there. And actually, like I say, actually doing it and living it and you’re going to intro me to a couple of entrepreneurs who are based over there who were from Africa, and we get them on to talk about being a freelancer in Africa. And I understand that it’s not as easy for somebody to travel as maybe it is for us with an Irish passport. Every country has its limitations. So if you’re a freelancer from certain countries, of course, you may be limited in what you can do. But we’re just we’re here to promote the work and online and you’re running online businesses or at least, so long as you have good internet connection, and you can join these communities, you can network with people, and hopefully, just creating the lifestyle that you want for you and your family at the end of the day. That’s what we help people do.
Conor: I mean, I think you mentioned it to me when we were chatting online before the interview, last week, I think. The flip side of that as well, is you and I, and a lot of people listening to this, enjoy a great degree of freedom that we do take for granted. I don’t mean to be preachy about it or anything, but when you’re in a society where they don’t necessarily have those freedoms. Fortunately, the good thing about Kenya is you can travel somewhere completely different every weekend and you’ve not even left the country. There’s beautiful beaches, safaris,mountains, and everything else. So you can still travel within your local region very well regardless of your passport. So everything I said for digital nomads coming down here, it’s a very underrated destination. On the flip side of that, for people working in this region, they have so many attributes and skills and abilities and the infrastructure to access the online marketplace, workshops marketplace, and the benefits like everything you said. I mean, it’s not just about living out of a backpack and travelling the world constantly. There’s the freedom that it gives you. For instance, you have a daughter, as you said, you’re a lot more settled than I am. But working online —
Adam Finan: I still travel a fair bit but I definitely don’t gallivant around. Not that you have to. As you progress through life, your priorities change, and you may become more settled. We’ve looked at maybe moving to Spain in the future, but I would be settled there. I wouldn’t be moving around cities in Spain. It will be like a similar thing. It’s about that freedom. It gives you the opportunity to be able to do that, while not removing your income. Like that’s the key thing we’re taking away here. When we met originally, as you said, you’re working in a hostel in Thailand, you didn’t really have any way to make money at that time. And you learned about online, just working online. And this is a message that you’ve become passionate about promoting. And travelling is something you’re very passionate about. And you love Africa and you love travelling around Africa. So you’ve kind of been able to tie all these things together, where you could go travel, work there and get involved in a community while also building up your business and your freelance writing, and your online skills. It’s a constant journey. You’re always looking to improve your skills and build websites and assets and online businesses that can benefit you for the long run. It’s not just a do once and forget sort of thing. It’s about the long play the long game. And that’s where it’s inspiring to hear what you’re doing.
Conor: I left Ireland eight years ago, nearly nine years ago now. And people are always shocked by that alone, because I’ve probably spent maybe three months of that time actually in Ireland since I returned from trips. People are more surprised by the fact that I only really started working online in the last 12 months full time. So I found ways to get by before I decided to switch fully remotely. That obviously, again, I’ve been able to do that because I have one of the best passports in the world. But if I’ve taken anything away from the journey I’ve been on, both figuratively and literally, there are better ways to build a lifestyle of our work life around your needs and your desires than we realise, whatever our circumstances are. I mean, if you have the ability to have a laptop, and a good internet connection, even if it’s just off your phone, there’s a whole world of opportunity out there that most people in all over the world are oblivious to. Like you mentioned, your brother in Ireland, people would not think of him in most situations to a lot of people here in Kenya, but again, it just comes down to lack of awareness. And I think the biggest thing that I’ve learned over the last few years, meeting people like you who are startup founders, CEOs, freelancers, all of these things, people making money in ways that you just can’t imagine exist until you see someone doing them. But that’s just some of it. When you have a laptop and an internet connection, a proactive mentality and an understanding of how to look for opportunities, a lot more end up presenting themselves.
Adam Finan: Absolutely. Look, I totally agree. Been playing this game for a long time.
Conor: Yeah, we both have.
Adam Finan: And I’m hugely passionate about it and look, offering a service. So just to kind of come to recap here, the easiest way to get started online, making money online to help fund your travels, or to do as a side hustle or a side business on top of your job if you want to build towards this, is to offer a service. It’s not to build this big website that makes money. It’s not doing affiliate marketing. One of the quickest easiest ways is to offer a service. So what that is depends on you and your skill set. And what it is you’re passionate about. I mean, I pay a guy to do Excel stuff. He’s a wizard with Excel. But the point being that there’s so many, we were talking previously, just a dude on Fiverr that we’ve seen and he sets up your Facebook business page and he charges like, 80 quid. It’s ludicrous. To me, that’s mental. But you know what, fair play too. To each their own. But there’s so many. So if you’re looking for this, if you’re listening to this and you’re not sure. Like, I don’t know. Maybe you don’t feel like you’re a writer. Okay. You don’t have to write. You can get nifty with Canva. You could do these little dizzy software’s that you can do these little video snippets for podcasters and reach out the podcast. There’s so, so many different ways that you can offer a service and get your foot in the door and just get started. And that’s one of the most important things is if you want to get started, offer a service, join relevant communities. Facebook is a great medium. Quorra is very good as well. Answering questions there can drive traffic to, you don’t need a website, it can just be your Facebook profile. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. It’s just like, have your profile, but have your image optimised or whatever you do, and engage and send people there and make sure it’s very clear what you offer and just keep doing it. Keep her keep your nose to the ground. And just keep ploughing on.
Conor: Yeah, and I’d say, just find out what people need as well. Like this guy in Fiverr for the Facebook business page. I imagine he probably had, I don’t know, maybe I’m completely wrong, but did a reach to a lot of people who have businesses but aren’t on Facebook, have no interest to be on Facebook, but they appreciate that they one and just don’t have the time or the interest to learn how all that works. So they want to pay someone to do it. And you just have to be that person. And they can be anything like you said. I mean, for me, I started out because a couple of friends who just outsource their writing, I was able to do it. But there’s a hundred other things I could have done for people, if they identified that as a need that they had. And a lot of people, I feel that if you present it in a way that you’re very open and honest and you just say, “Look, I am trying to learn something new. I’d like to earn a little bit of extra income because I want to travel a bit more or support my family, or just learn a new skill because it’s great to learn a new skill.” And you put the word out there, someone will pick up on that and say, “Okay, I might not actually even need somebody to do this for me, but if you’re interested, I’m happy to give you the opportunity to learn.” And then if you can pick it up quickly, and you can learn how to do it and do it well, you can just ask that person like, “Okay, well, do you know anybody else who might need this service?” And little by little, you just build those blocks, and then eventually you can go on to Fiverr and start doing this for people who you’ve never met before.
Adam Finan: That’s it. You got to build that momentum. But first, you gotta sharpen your skills.
Conor: Yeah. All I’d say is, I’m not a great writer. I’m functional, I can do it, I can write. I write reports, they’re very dry, they’re not very creative. They don’t take a lot of effort. I’m going to say and I’m hoping my client won’t hear that and fire me. But you know what I mean. The work I do is very functional, but it fulfils a need that they have. And that being supports a lifestyle that I enjoy and I afford to build an apartment in the new year. And if I can do that, just learning everything that I did from Facebook groups, and from people like you and from blogs and YouTube and Google, then I think almost anybody could.
Adam Finan: Look, Conor. Thank you very much for coming on. It’s been a pleasure to catch up with you after all these years and hear how everything has progressed. I’m delighted. I’m genuinely delighted to be able to help plant that little seed that led something. All these years, from swinging in a hammock in Thailand, “What you are and what’s on your laptop?” “This is work to me, man.” You’re like, “What do you mean this is work? How do you make money out of nothing?”
Conor: Yeah, as I said, you and Naill, and the opportunity to actually talk to you guys about this, for me, it’s kind of gone full circle, man. That’s a nice feeling. And I’ll always be grateful for the two of you for giving me that guidance all those years ago.
Adam Finan: No problem at all. Conor, for all our listeners tuned in, where they could find you online, where’s the best place to get in touch with you?
Conor: Honestly, I’m not that active online. But the best place is if you just go on to the Facebook group, join the Facebook group, Nomad Africa Community. And I’m sure I’ll send you a link to everything.
Adam Finan: Yeah, I’ll make sure everything is linked in the show notes anyway. So if people do have questions about if they’re looking to travel to Africa, go work online, take a couple of months, that’s a place where they can–
Conor: We talked about everything in the group. Recently, we’re discussing the best payment platforms for online businesses. So that’s universal. I mean, it doesn’t have to be about travelling in Africa. If you just started tonight and he wants some advice, we’re pretty active. We’re happy to answer any questions you have.
Adam Finan: Amazing. Thank you and thanks to all the listeners for tuning in.
Conor: Thanks, Adam.