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My first year as a ghostwriter, now earning $3000/month while traveling East Africa

  • Conor Walsh

  • From Cork, Ireland
  • Freelance ghostwriter at ctwalsh.com

  • Business Model: Freelance
  • $3,000monthly revenue
  • $2,800monthly profit
  • All info self-reported by interviewee
  • Published December 19, 2019
  • Reviewed and edited by Rita Epps

Who are you and how do you make money online?

Hi, my name is Conor. I grew up in a small town in Ireland, but left home in 2011, when I was 21 years old.

In the years since, I’ve worked a random selection of jobs, while traveling and living in over 40 countries around the world. From the deserts of Sudan to the beaches of Thailand, I’ve had my fair share of misadventures, close calls, and crazy moments.

These days, I’m a bit more relaxed.

I’m currently based in Nairobi, Kenya, traveling around East Africa while working remotely.

My main gig is ghostwriting for a team of ethical hackers doing penetration testing on websites around the world. I translate their work into reports for journalists, and blog posts that non-techie people like me can easily understand.

In my free time, I’m building an online community for remote workers and digital nomads in Africa.

For the moment, this consists of a small Facebook group, but will hopefully grow in 2020.

What does a typical workday look like for you?

I try to wake up around 7.30am, but it’s usually closer to 8.30am by the time I’m out of bed.

It depends on how much sleep I get the night before. Ironically, I’m answering this question during a bout of late-night insomnia. So I won’t be getting up tomorrow before 10am.

I have a solid morning routine that takes an hour when I do it all.

It’s focused on maintaining my physical & mental health, along with some reading (I average 2 books a month, with lots of note-taking).

Most mornings, by 10am, I’ve usually eaten, checked my email, and decided to work from home or a coworking space.

I used to be unable to work from home due to distractions, but now find it more conducive, especially if I’m writing.

I usually use coworking spaces to socialize and for the community, rather than working.

For my ghostwriting client, I work on a retainer, based on availability from 10am-4pm, Monday-Friday. However, this is flexible, as long as I’m available throughout the week.

Within these hours, we average 2-3 reports per week, depending on what the hackers find.

Some weeks I have a lot of work, others less so.

My occasional office in Kilifi, Kenya, with the Indian Ocean a few meters away, 2017

After 4pm, I’ll spend some time on any side projects, then go enjoy my evenings.

In Nairobi, this can mean lots of live music, chilling out with friends, urban exploring, art galleries, dance classes, the gym, and so much more.

I’ll occasionally stop by the park close to my apartment and aimlessly stroll about there for a couple of hours. Or stay at home and read.

And, of course, planning my next round of traveling.

I now take 2 weeks unpaid holidays every quarter, and plan to use this time to go on slightly off-grid adventures.

In January, I’m moving to Addis Ababa and spending the first 3 months of 2020 in Northeast Africa: Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somaliland, Sudan, and Egypt.

I also try to be strict about not working or checking emails on weekends, but like all things, allow myself some flexibility in this.

I’ll occasionally leave the city, as Kenya has many amazing national parks and beach towns that are great for unwinding in nature.

Driving to an Airbnb on a weekend trip to Lake Naivasha, Kenya, 2019

I’d like to say that I’m out here hustling, building my business, hitting 6 figures, etc… but I’m not.

I’ve been ghostwriting for 6 months and I’m currently earning on average $3,000 per month, working maximum of 30 hours a week.

According to Giving What You Can

… that puts me within the top 1% wealthiest people on the planet.

I earn more than I spend, in a job I enjoy (and everybody else finds super interesting and mysterious), working less than full-time, and even saving for my retirement.

For this, I’m incredibly grateful.

So for the time being, I have enough. I’d rather focus on enjoying my life.

In mid-2020, I’ll start thinking about growing my business to the next level and diversifying my income streams further.

What’s your backstory and how did you come up with the idea for your business?

The answer to this question could become an essay. 

But in truth, my backstory is a cliche as old as time:

I’m the angry, depressed, lonely kid from a broken home who ran away, traveled the world, and eventually realized there’s more to life than aimlessly stumbling about, getting blackout drunk and unsuccessfully chasing exotic women in many far-flung corners of the globe.

My wilder years, somewhere in Chiang Mai, 2013

It all started in 2011.

Ireland, 2011

3 years earlier, when I was 18, my grandfather and mother had both died – from a heart attack and cancer, respectively. A week after my mother’s funeral, I started university, and shortly thereafter basically had to sue my father to continue his child support payments.

Before all this happened, I already had a long history of depression, anxiety, and self-destructive behavior. 

But back to 2011.

I was 21 and sinking ever deeper into a cycle of crippling depression.

In my final semester of university, struggling to pass my degree, I was prescribed anti-depressants by my 3rd therapist in 5 years. 

I decided instead to run as far away as possible – to Australia, with a stopover in Burma and Thailand – and escape all my problems that way.

In hindsight, this was obviously a terrible plan. 

In Oz, I spent a mostly miserable, lonely year on a working holiday visa, in a series of entry-level hospitality jobs and doing lots of farmwork.

I once spent 13 hours a day picking tomatoes, living in a tent, sleeping on a bed of cardboard boxes, coughing up black, insecticide laden phlegm. It was not exactly what I’d hoped for.

Thailand, 2012-2014

After Australia, I moved to Thailand, became a professional hostel bum and earned my TEFL certificate.

I also crossed paths with 2 Irish men who would quietly change my life: Adam Finan & Niall Doherty.

Together they were the first people to show me the path to online freelancing. 

It took just another 5 years for me to actually walk down it.

Working on a train journey in Kenya, 2019

Oz & Portugal, 2014-2015

In the meantime, I continued to fall forward. I moved back to Australia for 9 months, working another series of seemingly pointless jobs: a window blind factory, sex convention, some more farmwork, a restaurant, and a luxury resort. 

At the luxury resort, earning $4,000 a month after tax and living expenses, I suffered a short but intense mental breakdown that inspired me to leave Australia once and for all.

Shortly after doing so, I wound up working at 2 hostels in Lisbon, Portugal for six months. After this, I traveled in the Middle East for the first time, and eventually crashed back into Southeast Asia. 

At some point in all this moving around, I also made my first attempt at online freelancing.

I joined Freelancer.com, earned maybe $15 from 2 content writing jobs, got bored, and moved on to the next shiny object. 

The building in the bottom left was my final home in Australia – a great place for a nervous breakdown, 2014

Kuala Lumpur and England, 2016

At the end of 2015, while in Malaysia pointlessly trying to save a failed relationship, I became friends with my Airbnb host…

…who would also end up changing my life.

He suggested I apply for a fellowship program he was running, funded by the Malaysian Ministry of Finance.

The program was a sort of business incubator for social enterprises working within disadvantaged communities in Malaysia. 

This experience became a major course correction, as I learned for the first time that it was possible to essentially combine altruism & social impact with building a successful business.

Celebrating my 5th travel anniversary in style, Kuala Lumpur, 2016

In 3 months, while under immense pressure (I was the target of two separate bullying campaigns by colleagues), with a lot of guidance, I laid the groundwork for a ridiculously profitable walking tour company that would train and hire members of KL’s homeless community as tour guides. 

Unfortunately, after the program finished, everything fell apart and I had another small nervous breakdown. 

Which inspired me to move to a small village in Cornwall, England. Soon bored with quiet village life, I felt like a change. So I paid someone on Fiverr to improve my CV, looking for management restaurant roles in London & Paris. 

To practice & test my CV out, I also applied for a job I 100% did not want, in a country I knew almost nothing about, in a part of the world that I never intended on visiting: managing a backpacker hostel in Kampala, Uganda.

Uganda & Kenya, 2016-2017

2 months later, I was in Uganda. 

If I have one regret from my 20s, it’s not keeping a diary of those tumultuous 6 months. 

I quickly realized that I was in way over my head, constantly coming to blows with my employers, staff, neighbors, corrupt government officials, an armed gang, and my own demons. 

Getting close to my 3rd breakdown in as many years…

…one morning I woke up, and something just clicked. 

I suddenly quit alcohol, started making my bed every morning, and applied for jobs all over Europe and East Africa, outside of Uganda.

I joined Niall’s 3m1k course to take another shot at freelancing [editor’s note: the course is no longer available], and in the meantime was invited back to the UK to join a workplace mental health startup. 

Founded by a friend and mentor from my time in Kuala Lumpur, knowing this was in the pipeline allowed me to stay in East Africa, accepting an interim job managing an eco-lodge in Kilifi, a small town on the coast of Kenya.

Kilifi, on the coast of Kenya, 2017

It was my first hospitality job without alcohol, and my last. 

As I prepared to leave #hostellife for the world of startups, I took the opportunity to travel in Sudan, Jordan, and Morocco.

Safe to say, I’d also picked up the Africa travel bug.

The UK and Bulgaria 2018-2019

The 9 months I spent in the north of England was a whirlwind.

Lonely, stressful, but ultimately incredibly rewarding – it was a crash course in how to start a completely new kind of online business from scratch, in a fast-growing and very intense industry. 

I started to put to use all the random online skills I’d picked up over the years and apply them to a ‘real job’ – writing, SEO, WordPress, project management, basic graphic design, research, and more.

But also learned an important lesson.

I was still not quite ready for the kind of undertaking that comes with running a startup – despite my dreams of international entrepreneurship. Nor was I actually that interested in it.

With this in mind, I pulled back to a more informal, passive role at the startup, replaced England for Bansko, a small mountain town in Bulgaria, and went looking for a less intense remote job. 

On a snow hike in my “back yard” Bansko, 2019

The Present

After arriving in Bulgaria, I quickly settled into the small, tight-knit community in Coworking Bansko, and somewhat embraced quiet, teetotal village life.

Then, in March 2019 Niall posted a writing job in the Freedom Business Builder group

I applied and that job became my current ghostwriting gig.  

But as anyone who’s spent more than 30 seconds in my presence recently will tell you, I never took my eye off a return to Africa. It’s kind of consumed me ever since leaving Kenya in 2017.

So, I’m back!

I returned to Kenya properly in August 2019 and will be spending the foreseeable future jumping between here, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. 

How did you prepare to launch the business?

I started ghostwriting in March 2019 with zero experience or real preparation. 

However, I’ve been sloooowly transitioning to working remotely since maybe 2015.

That’s 4 years. 

In that time, I’ve picked up a lot of resources, soft skills, and mentorship that helped me land my ghostwriting job and quickly develop it from a part-time, entry-level gig to something more specialized and much better paying.

Working from home in Bansko, 2019

I’ve already mentioned briefly attempting freelance writing in 2015 & joining Niall’s course a year later. 

If I had to summarise the most impactful skills or learning experiences aside from these, they would be:

1. Being proactive. 

One of my least favorite mottos is: ”Good things come to those who wait”.

This is terrible advice.

I’ve never achieved anything sitting around waiting for it to happen.

I could write a very long blog about all the opportunities that have come my way by actively looking for them. 

Instead, I’ll demonstrate a quick example through my ghostwriting.

The following table outlines steady increases in my income from 1 client over the last 7 months.

Every big increase you see coincides with me contacting them asking for additional work, or feedback, or most recently, suggesting a 40% increase in my rate.

April $350
May$939
June$1,603
July$2,158
August$2,158
September (incl. 2 weeks unpaid holiday)$1,079
October (increased my rate 40%)$3,000

This was all deliberate, as I early on decided I’d rather increase my income from 1 client, than have to keep prospecting each week for new ones. 

While I’ve most definitely benefited from a huge amount of privilege and freedom in my life, being constantly actively looking for opportunities has also made a huge difference to my fortunes. 

2. Courses & Mentorship

When it comes to succeeding in freelancing, business, or my career in general, I’m indebted to a great number of people who helped pave the way. 

I studied music in college. That is to say, I have no formal education in any of the industries I’ve worked in, including ghostwriting about data security.

But thanks to Google, Udemy and a lot of hands-on guidance by some generous and very smart people, I’ve been able to succeed in most of my many jobs.

This is still true.

I’ve recently hired a short term career coach and have a long term accountability partner with whom I touch base every week.

Occasionally, I’ll still ask more experienced people to review my work or important emails before sending them to a client. 

In The Personal MBA, Josh Kaufman suggests creating a personal “R&D” budget to continue reinvesting in yourself as you progress through adulthood. I think he recommends 10% of your income. 

With this in mind, I’m already working out a budget for some courses in 2020, and freeing up 5-10 hours per week to study them.

They’ll have a direct impact on the work I plan on doing next year, and beyond.

Oh, consuming lots of business and personal development books and podcasts have made a huge difference, too.

3. Communication

Obviously, as a technology/data security writer, this is kind of crucial to my work.

But it goes far beyond the content I write for clients.

Proactively looking for jobs wouldn’t mean much if I couldn’t explain the benefit of hiring me to potential employers and clients.

Notice, I didn’t say anything about asking for a job.

Instead, I learned to approach every job application more as a statement of intent: 

This is who I am; this is what I have to offer you specifically; these are the reasons I would be a huge benefit to your business; hire me!

You’d be amazed at how effective this has been.

I just have to make sure I live up to my own hype.

4. Working on my mental health

I’ve lived half my life thus far with ever-present anxiety and depression, insomnia, and deep-rooted emotional issues. 

Many years, I’d wake up in a cycle of self-destructive thought patterns and carry these around for the rest of the day. 

This held me back considerably and kept me trapped in a very negative cycle.

And all while I was “living the dream” in exotic locations around the world.

Indiana Jones has always been my main inspiration for traveling, ever since I watched The Last Crusade as a kid. Visiting Petra was an emotional experience, 2017

Now, after a lot of work, I wake up most mornings after a deep, restful sleep – feeling great.

In the last 2 years, sobriety, therapy, regular exercise, and a supportive network of friends have helped me finally start making progress building a life that is fulfilling and sustainable, along with a “career” working online. 

And just in time for my 30s – which is nice.

How much money did you have to spend to get started?

For the ghostwriting, not a lot.

While I didn’t track it, I’d say I never spent more than $500 over the last few years learning to freelance online. 

Now that I have started, I’ve probably spent, on average, less than $200 per month running my business.

The breakdown of expenses looks like:

  • $100-150: Coworking space membership
  • <$50: everything else, incl. domains and web hosting, occasionally outsourcing random tasks, business-related subscriptions. 

There are outliers, like in September, when I invested $150 on a one-time coaching session that’s already paid for itself 20x times. 

These costs are likely to go up in the next couple of months, as I start outsourcing some of my work tasks more regularly.

However, I see this as an investment. 

Outsourcing will help me achieve some goals: 

  • Traveling off-grid more
  • Moving to a 4-day work week 
  • Focusing on my Nomad Africa community
  • Studying to improve my writing and business knowledge
  • Getting back into regular therapy

Talk us through your first few months (or first year) in business.

I’ve fortunately skipped over a lot of the pain period that most new freelancers experience.

While I had a couple of smaller clients before I started my ghostwriting job, this one client quickly provided a livable income.

So, I decided to focus on nurturing that relationship, rather than continuously prospecting for new ones. 

However…

…it hasn’t been sunshine and rainbows.

From an emotional perspective, I initially found the work VERY isolating and occasionally lonely.

While the remote working lifestyle is justifiably touted as incredibly beneficial – there are certain caveats.

Having worked in teams my entire working life, I’ve had to adapt to doing everything over text.

I’ve never spoken to my clients, and only know what they look like because of the Google avatars. 

To mitigate this, I’ve worked on building & maintaining a strong network and finding communities to be actively part of, outside of work.

Working on the coast of Kenya, 2019

The less of my free time I’m thinking about work, the better.

Fortunately, Nairobi is the easiest city I’ve lived in to meet really interesting people from all walks of life. So, I’m rarely bored or lonely.

Furthermore, as a growing body of research is testifying, financial instability is one of the biggest triggers for mental ill-health.

And until you establish a steady stream of income, freelancing is the antithesis of financial stability.

Immediately before gaining this client, I was seriously struggling with my anxiety and depression – often struggling to get out of bed or get a proper night’s sleep.

I became physically ill for a couple of weeks. 

Fortunately, years of therapy have trained me to notice the warning signals and pull myself out of these funks. 

Less than a year later, I’m maintaining the kind of good habits that will sustain me emotionally if, for whatever reason, I hit another period of financial instability or unpredictability.

How did you make your first $100 online?

Difficult to say. Probably in 2018, working semi-remotely at the mental health startup I mentioned before.

How does the business make money today?

90% of my income comes from my ghostwriting client. 

I’ll be diversifying a bit more in 2020, so I’m not reliant on a single revenue stream.

This includes a couple of side projects, dividend stock investing, and maybe renting out my apartment in Bulgaria. 

None of these will be job replacing income, so there’s potential I’ll take on new clients, maybe in the 2nd half of 2020.

What are some of the challenges particular to this kind of online business?

I suppose one of the biggest issues for ghostwriters is the lack of credit and attribution.

I’ve read words I wrote in articles published on The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, and many more, credited to real journalists.

However, I actually have a strange, detached pride in watching my work succeed without being connected to it. There’s less emotional investment, and it feels entirely merit-based.

Also, I’ve written it into my renewed terms with my clients that I can now privately share my work, upon request, to 3rd parties. 

Otherwise, I’ve only been doing this for less than a year. So, in many ways, I’m still learning about the challenges, as they come up. 

If you were starting the same business today, from scratch, how would you do it?

I’d start years earlier.

I have a basic knowledge of many online skills that I could have used to build a freelance business, if I had just developed them further, since 2014.

That’s five years.

These skills have complimented some of the roles I’ve had in that time, no doubt, and I don’t regret most of the decisions I made.

But I’d be a lot better off financially if I’d kept up some kind of part-time side gig in writing, SEO, or WordPress while traveling through Australia, Southeast Asia, and Africa. 

Still, better late than never.

Editor’s note: you might also enjoy our interview with Matt Rudnitsky, who built a ghostwriting business in the book publishing industry and earns $5500/month while traveling the world.

What books, podcasts, courses or other resources would you recommend to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

While I only started watching it recently, Sean Ogle’s Location Rebel YouTube channel is by far the best free resource I’ve seen for beginner freelancers.

His advice is grounded, realistic, and easily actionable, and he makes a great case for choosing writing as a starter freelance career. I wish I’d followed him back in 2014 when I desperately needed this advice.

I have to mention Niall’s Freedom Business Builder group as well, of course. And not just because being a member is the reason I have my current job.

The community Niall has built has been a constant source of support in what’s been a sometimes stressful and lonely journey.

For actually learning to write well, Shani Raja’s Ninja Writing courses on Udemy are a great resource. He used to be an editor of The Wall Street Journal, and slowly, methodically goes through big and small ways to improve your writing.

There’s also plenty of exercises where he shows you how to rewrite sections of text, making them more impactful and engaging.

Also on Udemy, The Ultimate Digital Marketing Course is the best one-stop-shop to learn the basics of every aspect of online marketing: WordPress, Social Media, Google Analytics, SEO, and much more.

It’s a huge course and, for me, way too slow. I’d suggest buying it on sale, playing it at 1.5x speed, and jumping into specific sections only when they’re relevant to you. For instance, I skipped over entire sections on Twitter, Instagram, and email marketing – for now – as I don’t use any of these channels.

Meroe Pyramids, Sudan. I spent the following night sleeping here, alone, on a bench and watched the sunrise sat on one of the pyramids (they’re about 2,500 years old).

Books-wise, I’d recommend all of the following:

Deep Work by Cal Newport to learn all the good habits and personal skills that will help you do long stretches of intense work, while minimizing all the unhealthy distractions of the modern world. 

I Will Teach You to be Rich by Ramit Sethi is a great first step for learning to manage and automate your finances for sustainable, long term growth. Also, since he wrote the new edition of the book, Ramit Sethi has been doing loads of interviews in the last 12 months.

Check him out on The Mad Fientest and Impact Theory. I regularly rewatch Ramit Sethi videos now any time I’m thinking about shifting my career and finances upwards a couple of notches. 

Personal MBA by Josh Kaufman will teach you the ins and outs of business and corporate finance. A lot of it is high-level stuff and doesn’t really apply to freelancing, but it is crucial to understand if you ever plan on starting your own business or working on big-ticket projects. 

Of all the mental health and philosophy books I’ve read over the years, The Guide to the Good Life (Ancient Art of Stoic Joy), The Art of Happiness, and Reasons to Stay Alive are three easy, practical and fun places to start. 

For some easy but informative business & lifestyle stuff, I always enjoy Matt D’Avella’s Youtube channel and podcast interviews, as well as Adam Finan’s Digital Nomad Cafe

What are your top 5 business tools?

1. Asana & Slack

Technically, I’m cheating with my first choice, but these two tools serve a similar triple purpose: productivity, project management, & communication.

I use Asana every day, as a daily to-do list for my morning routine, and to project manage my entire life. With its Google Chrome & Gmail extensions, I can easily create reminders and tasks for anything that comes up throughout the day and save them for later. 

Slack comes most in handy for working with clients, but I’m also only hiring freelancers who are at least familiar with it. Once I’m working with somebody regularly, I avoid email conversations unless absolutely necessary.

I don’t have my work email, Slack or Asana installed on my phone, which restricts 95% of my work communications to my laptop – very important for switching off.

2. WordPress

Probably the best all-around tool for learning to work online. Almost everything you do as a freelancer can be connected to WordPress in some way. 

For instance, all my ghostwriting assignments end up being published on my client’s WordPress, and I manage the whole process. This saves them a huge amount of time in training, quality assurance, and supervision.

So, they end up sending more work my way. 

3. Grammarly & Hemingway

Cheating again, I know. 

I have terrible attention to detail, which isn’t great when I’m paid to proofread and edit my own work. Fortunately, these two tools have sped up my editing and massively improved my writing. 

4. Toshl

A great finance tracking app, Toshl is linked to all my online bank accounts and Paypal.

It automatically tracks all my income and expenses, excluding cash & MPESA mobile money, in any currency. 

This allows me to easily monitor my spending every month without going through receipts and spending hours balancing everything on a calculator.  

Tracking expenses weekly is great for reducing much of the financial stress that comes with freelancing.

5. Cold Turkey

I’m easily distracted. And procrastination is one of the worst side effects of living with anxiety and depression – a curse when you’re self-employed. 

To get around these issues, I have Cold Turkey set on a daily schedule that blocks me from over 120 distracting websites until the afternoon and later on in the evenings. 

This helps me focus on work during the day, and avoid Youtube rabbit holes when I should be sleeping.

Where can we go to learn more?

I’m really not very active online – maybe writing about internet privacy has made me a bit too paranoid. However, I’m slowly coming out of hibernation.

I’ll most likely be active on Linkedin in the future, which serves as my main professional profile online. 

I’ll also be publishing content on Medium semi-regularly in 2020.

Otherwise, I’m active in the Nomad Africa Community Facebook group I started in 2018.

If you’ve ever wondered about working online in East Africa, join us there. I and other members post updates and answer questions semi-regularly.

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1 Comment

  1. Am really thrilled by Connor experience in our beautiful city in Nairobi Kenya,i would be happy to connect with his as currently am in Nairobi,Neil you are doing a great job,keep up