Location independent - Copywriter Kelly Dunning

Kelly Dunning Freelance Podcast.png

Digital nomad Kelly landed her first freelance writing gig while she was on a working holiday in New Zealand. Broke and struggling to find work locally, Kelly was introduced to the online world of content mills and freelance market places.

After falling in love with a zombie-clad Brit she’d met in a haunted prison (true story!), Canadian-born Kelly found herself living and working in the UK. She spent her days looking after three-year-olds and her evenings and weekends climbing the freelance ladder.

Eventually, after more than a year of building up her portfolio and establishing a name for herself, Kelly took her freelance business full-time and hit the road again.

That was in 2011, and Kelly’s been travelling the world while she freelances ever since. We chat about how she balances work with travel, how she feels about the security of freelance life, and why she chose to de-monetise her travel blog.



Steve: Let's find out what it's like being freelance for copywriter, Kelly Dunning. Hey Kelly.

Kelly: Hello.

Steve: Where are you right now?

Kelly: At the moment I'm in Macedonia.

Steve: Oh wow. That's quite far removed. Well let's find out how you got to where you are, both geographically but also, more importantly, as a freelancer as well. How did you get started being freelance?

Kelly: Oh that's a really long story. See, I'm a freelance writer. I think I always knew that I wanted to be a writer from when I was really young. My first ever sort of publication was when I was about 10 or 11 years old. I had one of these big Macintosh classic. The big, beige box of a computer that takes up your whole desk. And those dot matrix printers that sort of scream as they print out things.

Kelly: I had one of them in my bedroom and I wrote this monthly newsletter. I sent out to all of my subscribers. I printed it out and photocopied it and sent it out by mail. It had jokes and stories and little bits of poetry, and updates about my cat and things like that. It was quite a publication and I had a little list of subscribers which was probably just my cousins and friends from school. But I even had a short story contest in there as well.

Steve: Wow.

Kelly: People wrote in with their stories and I chose a winner. The winner won a gift certificate to the bookstore that I bought with my babysitting money. So from a very early age I knew that I wanted to be a writer, and do this kind of thing.

Kelly: Of course, then I grew up. Then the internet became a thing and I had websites ever since I was a kid. Ever since I was like 13 or 14 years old. I was making my own websites. And then when I got to university and I'm trying to think of a career. I went to school, went to university but didn't actually learn anything from that about how to actually make a living as a creative person, as a writer.

Kelly: All the resources that I found on it were quite outdated and not really relevant for this day and ago of the internet and the way that publishing ... Writing is just so different now. So at the end when I was finishing university I was just fed up and I just went, " Ugh, I just want to go travelling."

Kelly: So I got a working holiday visa to New Zealand. I just went off to New Zealand and just did random odd jobs while I worked my way around. So I did everything from milking goats to ... I worked selling tickets for a pub crawl, I was fundraising for Green Peace which was horrible, hated that. I even was working in an old haunted prison doing tours and things-

Steve: This already sounds like the truth and lie bit at the end.

Kelly: -Yeah. Yeah. Wait.

Steve: I was milking goats, working in a haunted prison ...

Kelly: These are all true believe it or not. I know. I struggled with that part because I have enough weird stories to come up with one ... Sound like lies but are actually true.

Kelly: So in New Zealand, and that's where I met my boyfriend who is from England. He's from Lancashire. I met him in the creepy haunted prison. I did. When I first met him he was dressed in full zombie make-up. So that was like love at first sight.

Steve: It's a strong look. Yeah. Beautiful. Yeah.

Kelly: Yeah. So we met anyway, and we were travelling around New Zealand together. I ran out of random, weird jobs and I couldn't ... I was in Christchurch and I was struggling to find work. I was running out of money. I was like looking through the couch cushions for coins to buy lunch, kind of thing. And I was the epitome of the, broke backpacker.

Kelly: I wanted to travel the world. I wanted to a wondering vagabond, but I was tired of finding odd jobs where I was. My mom actually sent me a link to this website that was looking for writers, remotely. At that time, this was 2009, that wasn't really a thing in my head at that point. I didn't see that as a concept of something I could do but that link from my mom just sparked this idea in my head. Like, " I could be a writer online. People would pay me. Then I could do that from anywhere. It wouldn't matter if I was in New Zealand or Timbuktu. And I could make money that way."

Kelly: So I didn't get that job on that particular website that she sent me but I kept looking, and I kept finding things. I actually signed up for, what is now Upwork. Back then it was oDesk. I made a profile on there and I started looking for jobs.

Kelly: I got my first writing job. Somebody asked me to write something and I wrote it. And then they gave me money. And I Was like, " This is amazing. This is genius." Because I saw the potential in it. I love writing, I've always loved writing. I've been writing since I Was a kid. And people will pay me to do it, and I can do it from my computer, anywhere in the world. Then that was it.

Kelly: And so I was travelling around New Zealand with this English guy that I had met in this prison. At one point he was like, " I need to go back to England now. My visa's run out and my brother's getting married and my time is up in New Zealand. I've gotta go." And he said to me, because we had fallen in love at this point, he was like, " Oh, I'm really sad. But you could come with me if you want." I said, " Yeah. Why not? I'm just gonna go to England."

Kelly: We've been together for nine years now, he recently told me that when he said that to me, he did not expect me to say yes. He was like ... Obviously he wanted me to, but he thought there was just no chance. He thought there was no chance I'd come back with him. But I was just like, " Yeah, why not?" Because if I don't I will always wonder what could've happened with that mysterious Englishman zombie that I met. And I didn't want to live with regret, so I just went.

Kelly: So that turns into stage two of actually making a career out of the writing. Is when I got to England, and I got a working holiday visa for the UK. I got there, and I got a job in a nursery with a bunch of little three year olds. That was my day job. On the evenings and the weekends, I kept on doing the writing.

Kelly: I basically just used the stability and the income of the day job to support me as I grew my business. Started finding clients, started marketing myself, started getting the odd-jobs in here and there. After several months it grew to the point where I could go part-time at my day job, and do part time writing. Then a few months after that, I eventually go to the point where I could make full-time income off my writing. So it was about 14 months in total, in England.

Kelly: Then at that point, when I was full time writing, we sold all of our stuff, packed all of our bags. That was May 2011, and since then we've been travelling.

Steve: Wow. I love this. In so many ways. So when you were finding those clients, after you came to the UK, were they still on freelance job sites like oDesk?

Kelly: Yeah actually, they were. A lot of them were from oDesk, which now is Upwork. People per hour was bigger back then. It kind of has died down. I did some stuff for content mill sort of websites, and I don't anymore but in the beginning I was just happy to get the writing work. In the beginning I was writing for really low rates. And I was happy to get that because I didn't have any previous writing experience when I started. I had no portfolio to speak of. I guess I had my little newsletter that I published when I was 11 but that's about it.

Steve: When you say content mill websites, are they different to people per hour and Upwork then?

Kelly: Like the ones where you go on and you sign up and you get approved and then there's just this ... You log into this system where there's just a ton of jobs there. You just claim them and you just write them and submit them.

Steve: Ah. No, I know. Do you know what, I don't know that. So from everything we've heard about before, we've heard of Upwork and PeoplePerHour, and freelancer.com and so on but that's where you tend to pitch for jobs or people approach you.

Steve: But you're saying there's a thing where jobs appear and you claim them?

Kelly: Yeah. The problem is the pay is really low. Because the way they work is the company is pitching for those jobs, and then getting them and then just throwing them into this big system of freelancers. You grab them and you do them and you submit them. So you don't have to do any of the work of pitching but also you're probably getting paid a pretty low rate.

Kelly: But I learned to go on and do them quite efficiently. Even if I was ... In the beginning, in the early years, if I was only making minimum wage, I was happy because I was making minimum wage writing and not like working in a shop or whatever. I was happier to be writing. But those were the early days, and I just wanted something in my portfolio. I wanted something to be able to show that I had done some work and I'd get some positive feedback from somewhere.

Kelly: And from there I grew. So even in the early months of freelancing, I started letting go of my lower paying clients and pitching for higher jobs. It was just like a ladder, I started at the bottom rung and then I climbed one rung at a time and got higher and higher. Now I'm making multiple, multiple times what I made in the first year. It's kind of amazing, freelancing for that because I don't know very many things, jobs, actual jobs that you could take on. You could start at minimum wage and then you could get to making like 20 times that. It's pretty amazing.

Steve: Yeah that's true. Without like becoming a manager and all of that kind of stuff.

Kelly: Exactly.

Steve: Yeah. So actually, your experience, putting the content mill style sites to one side, what was your experience of using the job sites? Where you would pitch for work.

Kelly: Well actually I still use Upwork. I still find a lot of my clients through it. I actually think it's really great.

Steve: Do you think that's because you were there really early and you've built a reputation and so that reputation now helps you when you're pitching for work?

Kelly: Absolutely. Because I've been on there almost nine years now and my portfolio on Upwork, my profile on Upwork ... I just did my 500th job on Upwork recently. My profile is packed with hundreds and hundreds of reviews from past clients. So when I pitch for a job in Upwork, there's a really good chance I'm going to get it. Because people look at my profile and they're like, " Whoa. She's been around. She knows what she's doing." I have huge advantages.

Kelly: There could be other freelancers who have just made an Up profile like a few weeks ago who could be better than I am but I've got the years and years of the feedback on that particular platform so it's like ... I'm really glad I've been on there for this long, because that is such an asset for me.

Steve: And do you also, alongside those sites then, have clients in the real world, in quotation marks? Even if they're working remotely. I.e. people that haven't come from those sites?

Kelly: Oh yeah, absolutely. That's like one of my ways to find clients. But I've found clients through LinkedIn, I've found them through connecting on Facebook groups, or a lot of them come through referrals or word of mouth. I've got a lot really great clients that way. People recommending me, people that I work with. So it's just one of my income streams. It's good to have a lot of leads coming into your business in a whole bunch of different ways.

Steve: How would you go about, or how did you go about getting work through LinkedIn?

Kelly: I've only been doing that recently. I've only been doing that the last, maybe year or so. I've found that, just in general, for getting leads through social media and LinkedIn and other mediums like that, I've found that the majority of people, when they go on there, they just go like blah blah blah blah blah about themselves. I found that if I take the time to read other people's posts and then put a thoughtful comment, not only does that person that I commented on notice that, then other people see that and notice that, and you really stand-out when you're not talking about yourself.

Kelly: I've had clients come to me because they rad a thoughtful comment that I wrote on someone else's post and then they clicked through to my profile. To see who I was. Because people love personal connection. They love it when you take the time to read what they've said and think about it and say something thoughtful back. It actually stands out because not everybody takes the time to do that.

Steve: One thing that we haven't addressed yet then, is the fact that you both sold everything you had and just decided to hit the road. So how have you found working on the road, for what like nine years or whatever we're at now? How's that been? How've you found it best to balance working and having fun travelling?

Kelly: It's been amazing. It has been the most incredible experience that I could ... Like the best possible way I could've spent my twenties. Because I just wanted to see everything and do everything and live in other cultures and see the wonders of the world, and also have a rewarding and exciting career. I've been able to do both. I feel it's like I get to have my cake and eat it too. It's so great.

Kelly: It has been difficult. There has been times where I've been on a 16 hour bus journey and then have to finish writing a 2,000 word blog post that same day and I'm just exhausted. There's been times when I've been sick or we've been lost or it's been delays or ... Travel can be stressful and freelancing can be stressful so you combine the two and you can have some difficult situations. But also it's so worth it.

Kelly: The great thing that we've learned about travelling and working is that, you just travel as slowly as possible. So if we just stay in places for like a week to two weeks, we don't feel any rush or any pressure to zoom through 10 countries in three months, kind of thing. We just take it really slow and if we feel like ... If I get a particularly busy week where all of the deadlines come in at once and I haven't had enough time to see the city that I'm in, I'm not gonna leave. I'm just gonna stay a few days more and take my time, and go see it. The schedule's always really, really flexible. That flexibility allows us to work around the unpredictability of the work.

Steve: What about the logistics of dealing with clients and getting paid and stuff like that?

Kelly: It's just the same as if I was working at home, really. It's the same as all other freelancers who work from home. It doesn't really matter if my laptop's in a café in Berlin or on a beach in Thailand. It's all good. I get paid through PayPal or whatever and it goes into my bank account. It's all good. It's quite cool.

Kelly: A lot of people say, " Are you worried about the stability of it? When you're travelling?" I actually think that freelancing is more stable than having a full-time job. If I could make a metaphor of it, having a full-time income is like having a river that only flows from one source. So if the source dries up, your whole river dries up. Freelancing is like having income that flows from 10 different little streams. It then is the equivalent of a river. But if one stream dries up, then you still have nine other little streams. You still have 90% of the water that you did before. Then, you can find a replacement for that.

Steve: I love that.

Kelly: That's the metaphor that I think of it as. So it actually ... You have more control over, and you have more stability. Because there's more streams of income coming in.

Steve: Have you found there's lots of people living that digital nomad, in quotation marks, lifestyle that you've gone along ... Is there quite a community? Or is it you two just doing your own thing?

Kelly: Well you see, in the beginning when we first started, when I was first starting to think about doing this in 2009, 2010, it was really strange. There was a few people before me that were doing it. I was reading there blogs and I was like, " Oh my gosh, this is cool." And reading about all the things they were doing. There was a few podcasts out there but I can only think of one or two.

Kelly: When we started, when people asked us in the hostels or in the pub, " So what do you do?" And I explained it to people, nobody understood what in the world we were talking about. Nobody got it. It was really interesting, the kind of odd questions we got. People just didn't understand it. Nowadays when people ask us what we do and I explain, I get way less weird questions. I get way more people going, " Ah, I get it. I've heard of that." Like, " Digital nomad, yup. My friend does that. " Or, " So and so I know does that." So it's become way more kind of normal. Which makes it easier to explain to people.

Steve: So it makes it easy to explain but do you end up living or working with groups of people? That sort of thing, at all?

Kelly: No. I've never done that actually. That is a thing, that you can do. You can actually sign up for these ... I think they're really strange. Whatever, each to their own because I'm quite introverted when I'm in work mode. I don't want to work in a house with a bunch of other people because that'd be super distracting and I would get nothing done.

Kelly: I really like to socialise when I'm socialising, and work when I work. So I'm really chatty when I'm at the pub but when I'm working I've got my music on, I've got my head down, and I don't want to talk to anybody.

Kelly: But there are digital nomad groups you can join and there's co-working spaces and groups. You can sign up for this program for a year where you go around and live in Prague for a month and then you live in Bally for a month. You live in the same house with all these other people and I just think that sounds like a nightmare for me. I would hate that.

Steve: I noticed when I went to your website that you call yourself, on that particular website I was on anyway, travel copywriter. So obviously at some point you've recognised a niche' that you have, a speciality. Did that help when you started calling yourself that?

Kelly: Absolutely. Having a niche' has helped because travel is something that I have a lot of experience with. I've stopped counting but I think I'm at nearly 60 countries now. Been travelling full time for like eight years, so it's my area of expertise. I think when it comes to choosing a niche', you just choose something that you already know a ton about and then the client will choose you over someone else who doesn't really know that topic too well.

Kelly: Like when I'm writing about travel, see a lot of my clients are tour companies, vacation rental destinations, they're all within that hospitality industry. They might be a hotel or a special ... One of my clients offers luxury train journeys across Canada, and things like that. So when I'm writing about travel, when I'm doing the website content or blogs or brochures or things for those clients, I know what I'm writing about. I know what that experience is like because often I've had a lot of those experiences and I can draw upon that.

Steve: And so has that helped your business?

Kelly: Yeah I think so. I think it's allowed me to increase my rates and charge more because I am an expert in that subject area. It's allowed me to stand out. I know there are other copywriters that focus on the travel industry but there's a lot of travel bloggers who are trying to make money off their blog by promoting certain products and destinations as a sort of influencer but that's not what I am. I'm writer for hire for the travel companies in the travel industry so it's my own little niche' that I've found my way into just by doing what I knew and what made sense and what I was good at.

Steve: It's an interesting point about the, people making money off their own travels. By blogging about it or being on Instagram about it and so on. Is that something you've been tempted to do? Or you've tried or...?

Kelly: No because ... I could rant for the rest of the podcast about that but ...The whole travel blog industry is fascinating to me in the sense that... Do you read any travel blogs?

Steve: Well no because I think it would just depress me because I don't leave much of a five-mile radius of my house. Since having kids, do you know what I mean? So actually reading those would make me go, " Oh ... "

Kelly: Do you know what, I don't read them either. Because a lot of them, there's a few good ones out there but a lot of them are just ... There's a certain type of bad travel blog that I keep seeing popping up around the internet that is like, it feels like an advertorial. Because they're getting sponsored for this trip so it's like, " I've gone to this resort and Belize.," but all the blog posts that I write when I'm there are like, " This blog post brought to you by such and such resort." And it's just an advertisement. It's not really telling me anything about what the destination really was like.

Kelly: You know the blogger's getting that hotel stay for free so they don't want to be that critical about the actual experience or the actual place. So they're just selling it to you. The impartiality and honesty goes right out of it. So on our blog, we actually have stopped doing any sort of sponsored content. We don't make any money off of our blog. We just do honest opinions and honest stuff from our travels.

Kelly: I've done a couple. There was one, years ago, where I got a free stay in this place in Malaysia and I wrote about it. That was one of the worst blog posts that I had ever written because it just felt so fake. I didn't feel like I could express my real thoughts about it. I find the more that I express my honest opinion about stuff on my blog, the more I enjoy blogging. So I left the blogging to be completely my own project. Then I make money just off my freelance work.

Steve: Wow. That is an admiral integrity tick. But it's nice because that means that your blog then is like a side project as in a place for you to actually enjoy writing. That isn't defined by any client, it's just you doing what you used to love doing when you were 10 years old and what have you.

Kelly: Exactly. It's so much more satisfying. People trust me more too because they know if I recommend something or if I mentioned something, it's not because that business has paid me or given it to me for free. It's because I actually really like that.

Steve: So do you make any money from your blog at all? As in, I don't know, do you have ads on it or anything? Or do you think, " Nah, I just don't need it."

Kelly: Nope. We got rid of all ads. We used to have a few ads. They didn't make tons of money anyway. So we were just like, " Let's make it totally free." Because I actually can't stand it when you go to websites and you're trying to read something and all these ads pop up in your face. You're like, " I just wanna read the thing I came here for." So I kind of got rid of them all and it made me enjoy my own blog a lot more.

Steve: As a writer, as your trade, do clients find you via the site? Or do you point them in the direction of your blog at all?

Kelly: Yeah. Absolutely. I say the blog doesn't make me money itself but it certainly is a fantastic portfolio. When I apply for jobs, I'm pitching to new clients, I show them my blog and it's been ... The blog's been going since 2010. It's got hundreds and hundreds of articles that I've written about travel in dozens of countries and it's just a huge resource. It shows that I've been around the world and I know some stuff. So it's pretty great.

Steve: I think BeingFreelance.com so you can go through and find what Kelly's up to, Global Goose, isn't it?

Kelly: Yes.

Steve: Out of interest, what does your boyfriend do? Since you're both travelling. Presumably there isn't a lot of freelance zombie trade in every country of the world so ...

Kelly: He doesn't really work as much as me. I'm like full time freelance. He does some web design but not a lot. Like maybe a few contracts here and there. But he's kind of in charge of all the logistics of the travel and he finds us places to stay and finds our way from point A to point B so he actually keeps quite busy, just doing that sort of thing.

Steve: Nice. So it's like you've not gotta worry about that. It's like having an assistant. He probably doesn't know that term.

Kelly: Well he does make it really easy because he navigates. Sometimes I'm so busy with work and then I'm just like, " Oh, we've gotta take a bus to this city. Maybe we gotta get to our air B&B. Then he's got it all booked and all lined up and I just have to show up and get on the bus and get off and go where we're going. It makes life really easy. If I had to do the travel side of things and the work side of things, that would be pretty overwhelming.

Steve: Actually, it's a good point. Like if you were to give some advice to people who have heard what you're doing and think, " Yeah. Actually, I'd quite like to give that a go. " What would be your advice to people thinking of living that sort of location independent, freelancing lifestyle?

Kelly: Oh I would definitely say, travel as slowly as possible. Travel at a snail's pace. Because when I meet people, they're already travelling too fast and they're just on vacation. I met this guy in South America and he had come to South America for six weeks. I said, " What are you gonna do in your time there?" And he's like, " Oh, I'm gonna go to Argentina and Chile and Brazil and this ... " And he listed like all the countries in the entire continent. I thought, " Dude, that'll take you like six months. You're gonna try and do it in six weeks, you're gonna die of exhaustion. " So just slow down. Do less. Stay places for a couple weeks at a time. Get an apartment. Cook your own meals. Just live a slow and chilled out life, because not only will you enjoy the travel part more but you'll be able to balance it with the work side of things as well. While also not burning out. The slower I've been travelling, the happier I've been.

Steve: If you could tell your younger self one thing about being freelance, what would that be?

Kelly: Oh there's so many things I've learned over the years but what I've realised that has been the most rewarding and empowering has been ... I think when I was younger, I thought that there was this point that I would reach. Where it would just be all good, and I would have it all figured out. Then I could just coast and rest on my laurels and just enjoy it.

Kelly: Of course I realised that, that is not true. That when you have a freelance career it is like a never-ending, ever-growing, changing, constant project that you are always working on. To see that as a positive, to see that as an exciting, empowering, endless curiosity that you're always ... A puzzle that you're always solving, that is the best mindset shift that I ever made. When it comes to freelancing because then it became that I don't feel like I'm struggling towards something and then once I get that I'll be happy. It's, I'm happy figuring out this puzzle and constantly changing and constantly improving it and always enjoying what I do.

Steve: Man, I love that. Kelly, thank you so much. Enjoy your travels and all the best being freelance.

Kelly: Well thank you so much. It's been a pleasure.