Imagine you’re in Tokyo driving a fast car and you’re getting paid to write about it. Forget about the 9 to 5 grind, bad office coffee, and your annoying cubicle neighbour. Your office is wherever there is wifi and a quiet place to flip open your laptop and start writing. Sometimes that is in a cafe in Beijing or a chalet in the Swiss Alps.
Sound like the stuff that only daydreams are made of? Think again. This is Mahmoud Kamal’s real life.
Mahmoud Kamal is a 29 year old Egyptian social media micro-influencer in the travel and motoring space. As part of our series on Instagram Influencers, Moju caught up with him to ask a few questions about what it’s really like to be a motoring writer and a digital nomad. He talks about why travel shouldn’t wait, even if you’re flying solo, and how you too, can make your work and travel daydreams your reality.
On Work and Travel and Living Your Daydreams: An Interview with an Instagram Influencer:
No Really! This Is My Actual job
Mahmoud’s answer to the question, ‘What do you do?,’ tends to be met with scepticism. Apparently his answer, ‘I travel all over the world to write and produce content about international car shows and to test drive the latest car releases,’ doesn’t resemble ‘work’ to people.
“My job is a real job. It’s a hard job. But there is this idea,” says Mahmoud, “That work should be in an office with clearly defined roles and that that is ‘work’, and anything else is not ‘real’ work. We are in 2017. That should change.”
Mahmoud’s primary source of revenue is the money he earns as a nomadic freelance motoring writer, and he also receives revenue from partnerships on his website travelanddrive.com and his Instagram account. Mahmoud notes that with all the potential for connectivity that technology has provided, “We need to embrace this freedom of movement.”
Mahmoud’s geographic flexibility enables him to attend motoring shows all over the globe, producing articles that review the latest cars on the market, as well as creating unique travel content. Indeed, Mahmoud credits most of his success as a motoring and travel writer and social media influencer to leveraging this geographic flexibility. He encourages others to find new opportunities by freeing themselves from their desks.
Turning Pastimes Into Paycheques
So how does a disillusioned office worker free themselves from their desk? Mahmoud started by attending motoring shows, on his own dime, in Paris and the United Arab Emirates. He networked at car events and arranged meetings with top car executives. Attending car shows in person not only provided him with great networking opportunities, but also with a unique journalistic point of view. Mahmoud says that not being tied to an office drastically increased the value of his written content, “I wasn’t just translating [another person’s experience]. I was creating news myself.”
He started his own website from scratch, writing his thoughts about new cars on the market. His knack for producing compelling content organically attracted a cadre of loyal social media followers including Maserati Middle East and Chevrolet Arabia. Car brands started inviting him to events and motoring shows all over the world, offering to cover his expenses.
However, Mahmoud points out that even if a car brand pays his production and travel expenses, he’ll still write both the good and the bad about the car, “It’s really important not to mislead my readers.” Likewise, he doesn’t rent out his Instagram account as if it were an advertising channel. Instead, he looks for genuine partnerships with brands where the content is a good fit for his audience, “I always make sure that my personality fits with the campaign and that my followers will get something informative, inspiring or at least entertaining. I always make sure there is an interesting story.”
I Wanna Walk Like You, Talk Like You
Mahmoud is now able to produce sufficient income from his writing to fund his lifestyle and his travels. A quick glance at Mahmoud’s Instagram profile is enough to make anyone with an ounce of wanderlust envious. But despite the apparent glamour portrayed in some of his photos, Mahmoud is incredibly down-to-earth about his lifestyle.
“I am a backpacking hostel traveller all the way,” Mahmoud confirms when asked about his travelling style, “Sometimes, if I’m invited to an event I get put up in a hotel, but only about 5% of the year. It’s really icing on the cake.” A lot of times, Mahmoud is invited to stay with friends he has made throughout his travels. In fact he notes that one of the main benefits of being a digital nomad is that, “I have friends, as well as a professional network all over the world.”
In his opinion, living and working in another country for an extended period of time is the best way to dispel prejudices. “We all have stereotypes about the ‘other’,” he explains, “how ‘they’ live, and what ‘they’ think about you. The only real method to understand what people think is to go where ‘they’ are and to start making friends.”
Mahmoud wants to inspire his followers to do just that. He’s created an online community called ‘No Fixed Address’ to drive home his point: you can work and travel, even if you’re doing it solo.
“You can be travelling solo,” says Mahmoud, which he does regularly, “you don’t need to wait for your friends to be ready! You can make friends all over the world, and you can work while you are travelling!”
If you’re an aspiring digital nomad, in Mahmoud’s opinion, there is no ‘perfect time’ or ‘perfect way’ to start travelling and working. There will always be challenges but he wants to demonstrate that obstacles can be overcome with the right mindset.
Mahmoud is clear, however, that having the right mindset is not about being blindly optimistic.
“Be realistic when planning,” he advises, “Most people plan for the good side of being a nomad. Visiting new countries, sightseeing, etc. But you also need to plan for how your professional life will develop while you are on the road. You should never lose sight of how your career is developing,” he explains, “you need to ask, ‘can I afford this?’”. In Mahmoud’s view, aspiring digital nomads shouldn’t measure their success by, “how many countries you’ve visited, but by how many companies you have interacted with.”
A Different Kind of 9 to 5
“I’m usually sightseeing and exploring the new city I’m in from 9 to 5,” answers Mahmoud when asked what a typical 9 to 5 day looks like for him, “Work comes at night when there is nothing to do. I guess I’m the opposite of 9 to 5. I work at night. My free time is in the morning when everyone else is working.”
He admits, however, that as glamourous as it appears, “the digital nomad and freelancing lifestyle isn’t for everyone.” He explains that freelancing can be extremely high pressure, with tight deadlines, more responsibility, even when you’re working in a team, and that sometimes you’re not always certain where your next paycheque is coming from.
He also drives home the point, “When you post a photo of yourself with your laptop in the Alps,” he says, “you are actually working.”
He notes that while sometimes fresh graduates say I’ll be a ‘writing freelancer’, because it looks so glamourous, having experience can make all the difference to a freelancer’s success. “Sometimes having some company or agency experience is a good thing,” he advises. Mahmoud himself studied Mass Communications at university and gained experience working for various top Egyptian publications before taking the leap into freelancing.
Indeed, Mahmoud is keen not to mislead people about the realities of being a freelancer digital nomad. He actively avoids “cultivating an imaginary persona” on social media. He never tries to conceal the challenges he faces while working and travelling. To him, the challenges associated with working while travelling are where the interesting travel content comes from anyway. He wants to inspire people by being authentically himself and by providing a realistic picture of what being a digital nomad is actually like.
That is why he is quick to point out that a digital nomad’s life isn’t the picture of flexibility and leisure that some people portray. For example, the apparent time flexibility is sometimes not very flexible at all. He often finds himself needing to coordinate calls in different timezones, “It can get pretty complicated when you have a client in Beijing you need to speak to during their working hours and a client in Seattle you need to speak to during their working hours, and you’re in a different timezone entirely,” he explains, “sometimes, when writing for a client in a different timezone, I’ll begin to write, “yesterday” or “tomorrow” when “tomorrow” is actually “today” for my target audience.”
It’s not just the professional aspects that can be challenging, it’s the travelling itself.
“I’m always the lucky one who gets stopped for ‘random’ checks at airports,” he says laughing slightly when asked for an example of the sort of travelling challenges he faces, “Europeans and Americans take travel for granted. Egyptians have so many more visa and paperwork requirements. Egyptians in most cases have the resources to travel, they’re just not sure how to navigate all the paperwork to travel.”
Mahmoud is helping other aspiring digital nomads by demonstrating that these sorts of challenges can be overcome.
“With time,” Mahmoud says reassuringly, “You get used to it.”
How to Win Friends, Followers, and to Influence People
Mahmoud explains that while people might understand on a theoretical level that you can, “travel to Germany or Italy or China for interviews with top car executives, or be invited to test drive new cars in Portugal, they can’t really believe it until someone they know does it. People want real life examples. I’m that.”
Quite a few people appear to be inspired by Mahmoud’s “real life example” and are looking to follow his lead. He has attracted over 24,000 loyal followers on his Instagram account alone. To expand his reach and to make sure that he is constantly producing content which is relevant and inspiring to his niche group of followers, he makes sure that he tracks his follower data closely. He estimates that 70% of his followers follow him for his travel content, and 30% for his motoring content.
When asked how he has managed to grow his Instagram following organically and so significantly, he explains, “My target is not to become my Instagram account. My aim is to use my account as a tool to reach people and engage with them. I just provide helpful topics and insightful information. I don’t want to become my Instagram account, I just want to influence people with my Instagram account.”
In short, Mahmoud’s social media influence has grown in proportion to the the quality of the content he produces. His focus, first and foremost, is on producing great content which captures the attention and imagination of his target audience. His social media following has happened as an outgrowth of that.
With brands taking a keen interest in identifying and partnering with micro-influencers like Mahmoud to sell products to niche audiences, and in using discovery tools like Moju to do so, we asked Mahmoud what was the best way to identify and define an authentic Instagram Influencer in his opinion.
His answer was simple, surprising, and enlightening, “An Instagram influencer is a person who would still influence another person, even if their Instagram account was taken from them.”