Bohumír Zámečník

My Digital Nomad Story

I’ve decided to work while traveling and I’ve already made the first necessary steps. Here’s my motivation and how I’m proceeding. Since a lot of people wanted to hear from me I’d like to share the thoughts and stories from the journey.

Digital nomads can be defined as people who are not dependent on a particular location for making their income using digital technologies. Although it’s becoming quite a hype I don’t want to blindly follow the crowd, but rather try to solve problems with my lifestyle after well-thought decisions.

In short I imagine doing the work I can do well on various places of my choice, exchanging material possesions for experience, people and freedom.

Why?

What’s wrong with my present lifestyle?

Basically I see a lot of problems with the way I’ve been living.

After 10 years in Prague (5.5 years at the university, 4.5 at work) I’ve been feeling burnt out and stuck at one place. I feel I can’t move further without making some bigger changes.

I’ve been putting too much energy into work, in contrast to other aspects of life, such as relationships with girls. I didn’t have much energy to go out and look for some girls. Even when I met some nice girl it was very hard for me to become more romantic. This left me heart-broke so many times. Such a long-term imbalance in a life is really not healthy, both psychically and physically.

After almost every workday I was feeling so tired. I’ve been having problems with bad sleep for a long time, usually not being able to fall asleep. This was even intensified by the fact I was working on my hobby projects till night. Then at the work I was drinking too much coffee which in turn made me tired at the work and not being able to sleep at the night. A feedback loop.

Life experience through travel

Whenever I was on a travel it was such a difference to the boring day-to-day routine. Each day was unique, full of stories one could not imagine beforehand. I made me feel happy. Only it was always very limited.

A lot of my travels in the past were in an organized group (with family as a child or with a choir). It was comfortable because I didn’t have to organize anything, but there was not much freedom - to choose where I want to go and what to do. Two years ago I made a solo month-long road trip to Scandinavia and it was a huge difference, more freedom and more happiness.

I believe going out of the comfort zone, taking care of oneself and meeting a lot of people and places is beneficial. It opens up your mind, widens your sight and makes you a less stressed, more humble and a better person overall.

In addition you have a lot of stories to tell the people, so that you have an inexhaustible topic for conversation. It makes you interesting for other people, including those you’d like to date.

More freedom in income

The classical model of making money is to be either employed or run your own local business. Both usually tie you down to a single place. Being employed also ties you in time and in what you are working on.

The digital world of the last years opens up a whole new set of possibilities for income. Doing something useful for other people or capturing attention is far easier and thanks to internet not limited locally. I’ll talk about this in more detail below. The goal is to make the traveling sustainable in the long term.

Unique opportunity

This is an awesome opportunity that may not be there in a few years. The reasons might be various: disease, injury, family with small children, bad security situation (civil war, natural disaster, closed borders), etc.

In my software engineering profession it is quite easy to work remotely these days. Also there’s a huge demand for good programmers (greater than the supply).

There are ten of thousands of digital nomads out there. It’s quite easy to meet some and share the experience. There’s also a lot of services for nomads by nomads, so the journey might be even quite comfortable.

Minimalism

We naturally try to collect things. We think they make our lives more comfortable, they will become useful someday or we just don’t have the mental power to get rid of old things for which we paid so much money.

When I have many things they distract me and make me sad that I don’t have time/energy to utilize them. An example is an electric guitar, my dream at the high school. So let’s just travel with a single carry-on backpack that can fit into the plane cabin! This can naturally lead to a minimalist life-style. I will be forced to think carefully before buying anything physical, because it is a tangible burden on my back and the backpack is not as inflatable as a house.

Location independent family

Being able not to be tied to a big city for making decent living with a family is one of the longer-term benefits of digital nomading. After establishing a family with a wife and children nothing forces me to travel perpetually. It is an option. But nothing would force me to stay in a city. The idea is to settle down on the countryside in a natural house near a forest, do the same digital nomad work, have less stress and the time for raising the children. IMHO this is the most valuable gift I can prepare now and give to my future family.

How?

Goals

When a goal is clarified it is possible to achieve it by a conscious effort, not by pure chance. Still one has to do a lot of things, many of them not quite comfortable.

So to be clear the goals in short are:

  • get life experience through traveling
  • make income independent on location
  • be able to control the time for work
  • have less stress, better sleep and more free time
  • make good relationships with girls
  • dedicate time to work that really matters to me
  • dedicate time to create passive income products
  • get around with owning less physical things

My previous attempts

Probably the first impulse that opened my eyes and showed me this kind of life-style was in 2013. Back in Etnetera one of the founders recommended me to read the 4-Hour Work Week book. Not only it described it, also it’s kind of concrete tutorial how to achieve it. From thinking about where to be employed I started thinking about my own products.

In winter 2013 I decided to try turning a hobby project of mine into a business. I was fascinated by music theory and was developing an application called HarmonEye, which listens to music via microphone and shows visually the tones or chords being played. I thought if I had more free time I could write it as a mobile app and make money from it.

So I left the job and started working. It was only partially successful and you can read the experience in a separate article HarmonEye: Hard-won Experience After Three Years of My Life. In short, although I made some money I was not able to make the income sustainable since I took a big goal (like a PhD project) and was focusing too much on the technical details than on the business side. Also I didn’t travel at all, rather stayed at home in a not very good atmosphere.

In April 2014 I learnt more practically about Machine Learning at Coursera. It just came out of blue and I realized this is the tool I need for HarmonEye and which could solve many hard problems I’ve been thinking about since high school.

After burning myself out on this app (working day and night) I decided to make a month-long solo road trip around Baltic sea and Scandinavia (6500 km). It was an awesome experience, but I could not continue, since I ran out of money. Also I was limited by going to another job.

I realized machine learning is a big wave of revolution and it is useful way beyond music processing. So I was lucky enough to find a job in ML and Python very soon. After returning from the road trip I started in July 2014 in Wikidi. It was quite interesting and I learnt a lot about deep learning. Still, soon I found out the projects are a bit like Don Quijote and windmills.

So in February 2015 I was hired to Jumpshot (a spin-off of AVAST) to work as a big data engineer and scale ML models from data scientists. This was the best job I can remember. The people were awesome and very smart, the projects challenging, but still one could excel in its field. At home I was doing some machine learning projects, mostly related to music, since at work there was too much engineering work and too little ML work for me to do. Some bright exceptions were a week-long deep learning workshop on a supercomputer cluster in Ostrava, Machine Learning Prague conference and Apache Big Data Budapest conference. During that time I was attending the Machine Learning Meetups quite regularly and got into contact with interesting people from the local community.

In August 2015 I attended the DNX Global Digital Nomad conference in Berlin. Around 500 digital nomads gathered at one place, many of them had talks, and one could meet and talk with a lot of awesome people. It was one more impetus to go nomad one day. Back then when talking with the people and telling them my story I realized what kind of digital products I can create. More on that soon.

While at Jumpshot There were flashbacks of past travels that filled me with passion for next travel. I was trying to think about how to switch to the digital nomad mode a bit smarter than a few years ago. Also I tried to save some money.

I had a vast amount of ideas what to do, that came to me usually at the night when I could not sleep, but very low energy to actually do something. When I could work at hours of my choice I could sleep better and don’t have to drink coffee.

An insane number of HRs and headhunters have been trying to capture me to do some other job (including for the top players). On one hand I really appreciate it, on the other hand I didn’t want to be trapped just at some other place. Although I’d like to have maintain good relationship with HRs, most of the time it’s very hard to respond to all the offers. After some years in practice as a software engineer I can imagine how a very nice girl might feel when crowds of men are approaching her.

The decision

In 2016 I planned to go somewhere in the summer. At one all-hands meeting regarding bonuses I asked myself and my boss: How can any bonus keep me if I’m not happy at the work? We then discussed this in private and that was the moment I really decided to go. So at the end of May 2016 I quit Jumpshot to start the nomad journey. I have to say the farewell was very friendly and I’m looking forward to stay in contact with the Jumpshot folks.

The plan was to take at least of month free, just relax after years of tension and prepare the travel. I didn’t want to repeat the mistake burning down with HarmonEye.

I started to tell people about my decision which was hardening it. I could better clarify the reasons and plans and it would seem lame to change the mind. A lot of friends wished me the best and “envy” that I can travel. They would like to travel but cannot for various reasons. At least I can share my stories with them on the blog.

Where to go?

The path itself is the goal.

In fact it does not matter that crucially where one should go. The act of going of the comfortable home is what matters. Still I was thinking where to go.

Since in mid July 2016 there was a planned trip with our high school choir Corale to sing in Hungary and Serbia so it looked quite nice to continue from Serbia around the Eastern Europe (Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, etc.).

When I’m writing this in July 2016 after the trip I’m still in Czech republic at a lake beach. I just underestimated moving my things from Prague so there was only a little time to prepare for the journey. So right now I leave it a bit open for a short time. Maybe I’ll go to Eastern Europe, maybe I’ll visit other places from the wishlist - Scotland, Madeira, Spain, etc. Let’s roll the Kiwi (Skypicker) dice!

In the winter, however, it would be nice to go to some warmer country in Southeast Asia, such as Thailand or Vietnam.

Overall, I’d like countries that are rather secure and warm, relatively cheap, and hosting other nomads. A nice site that helped me to choose places according to experience of other people is NomadList.

What to do?

Now the “digital” part of digital nomad. In order to sustain long-term traveling I need to make a reasonable income. As I thought about it there are at least three groups of work for a software engineer.

Remote job

It is the least risky, but least free option. You just work as a full-time or part-time employee for somebody, usually from a rather stable place (eg. a month somewhere). The amount of work is rather unlimited, the money is predictable, yet you can’t choose much what to do or when. A good place to watch is remoteok.io.

Remote consulting work

You do similar work as in a regular job, except that you do it on your own for clients. In addition you have to take care of other stuff such as accounting and finding the clients in the first place. The amount of work might be variable and it might take some work to find the clients. At best create such a profile and portfolio so that people in your network offer you consulting work themselves!

An alternative is to offer your services on various freelancing sites. Some of them (E-Lance) are very competitive, full of people from Asia that compete for the lowest prices. Some of them (Toptal) are more high-end and require you to pass a test, then the work is almost certain.

The benefit is that you agree on shorter limited projects, so that you’re not limited to do full-time work for the whole year. It depends how you arrange it. It is possible to do a week for one client, then a week for another and then take a week off for your projects or for relaxing. More freedom for more responsibility. It’s a nice trade-off.

Own digital products

The previous two options are active income - you rent your time. That is, however, limited and cannot scale. There’s another ultimate option - passive income. You once dedicate time to create a product and set up its automated sales pipeline, then you just let it perform and sometimes update it. The thing is that once it’s set up it doesn’t require your continuous attention and you can work on other products. A benefit of digital products is very cheap distrubution via internet.

An archetypical example of a digital product is an e-book tutorial or course. You dedicate a lot of time (years, months) to some activity you do for fun or work and become an expert. Then you can teach it to other people. Ideally it’s a time-consuming activity and it’s useful for making money. So that you can save someone years of work by providing a guidance and that person can in turn make money by learning that activity, not just learning it for fun. That way you can put a high price tag on the product and still let it appear well worth that cost, which is true.

Another examples might be a mobile application or an affiliate marketing website.

This option provides the most freedom, since you can dedicate time to activities you really love. It is scalable, ie. not dependent on a limited amount of time you can rent. The success only depends on your skills and luck. If you do it well you can in the long run make more money than in a regular job. It allows you to make free time which you can utilize to learn new skills and create other such digital products. On the other hand, the downside is the high effort in creating an audience, finding a good product-market fit and creating the product itself, something useful that people really want to buy to solve their problem. Fortunately there’s a lot of help from people who did it the hard way, succeeded and described why.

Personally, I have several ideas for digital products and I’m going to explore the market fit soon. Still the safest start point now is consulting work since I’m happy that a few opportunities already came before I even departed.

The preparation

Since this is a rather long-term project I needs some preparation.

Organization stuff

A quick overview from my particular case:

  • save some money
  • backup data, eg. to DropBox
  • leave the job
  • leave the rented flat and move the things away
  • arrange travel insurance
  • register a self-employment license
    • I have it done a few years ago
  • figure out mandatory social and medical insurance for self-employment
  • buy needed travel stuff
  • sell/give unnecessary stuff
  • take necessary vaccinations
  • have the teeth checked
  • prepare credit card(s)
  • decide where to go
  • figure out options for accomodation at the destinations
    • Couchsurfing, hostels, AirBnb, hotels, etc.
  • setup a computer with a GPU for training machine learning models

Gear

My goal is to travel with a single backpack of carry-on size so that I can take a flight without having to check-in some big luggage. It means going with at most around 10 kg / 40 litres. Thus all the gear must be optimized with respect to weight.

I’m going to write more on my gear after getting some more practical experience with it.

My preparation period

I decided to set apart some time after leaving the job before starting the preparation for travel. The goal was to prepare the abovementioned stuff and to relax. Originally I though about going for a month into the woods, just be offline, walk over forests, sleep there, do bushcraft stuff, etc. Just to make some kind of hard reset.

Although this was the best-case idea I had to crop it a bit in order to do other useful preparation activites. Still, I have to say I was able to relax and be really happy.

The first week in June I was just walking around Prague and searching for good travel gear. I managed to buy a lot of useful thing at reasonable prices. The next week I helped my parents at home. After sprinting at work I could not help and still had to code something for the sake of itself. Then my brother returned from New Zealand after 2.5 years. So we made some party together. We decided to make a trip to sandstone rocks and to visit our relatives near Prague and in the nearby countries. This offline week without computer was very relaxing.

The next two weeks I decided to spend with girls in Prague. The goal was to overcome the fear of telling girls: “Hi, you’re pretty. I like you.” The first day I just roamed the streets without much success, but the second day something changed. Indeed, I was able to make a small date with one girl. A shower of adrenaline and happiness. Yet, the next days were much better. I met a lot of girls, some of them wanted to chat, some of them even to go for a date. At the end I met a nice girl on a guitar picknick which was genuinely interested and me too. Unfortunately then I had to move from Prague. Still, there were days where I felt really happy, much happier than in the past many years. This is the beginning of something big.

I left moving my things from Prague to the last moment and underrated any preparation. Thanks to my brother, experienced with packing trailers full of audio equipment, we were able to fit the piles of stuff into the car and trailer. There was absolutely no place left. This morning moving sprint was very stressful for me and at that moment I realized how in fact he things piss me off. So I decided I really have to get rid of as much as possible.

To make things complicated I got recently fascinated by plane spotting on FlightRadar24 and on the sky. My garden was on a crossroads of two landing corridors for the PRG airport and also a lot of helicopters with nice sounds were flying by. During the two last weeks in Prague I decided to build my own receiver of ADS-B signals (plane identification, position, direction, velocity, etc.) which planes transmit to prevent collisions. Surprisingly it is possible to catch them with a cheap DVB-T USB stick and some Raspberry Pi. It might be interesting data for an analysis, visualization and machine learning. More on that in some other upcoming article.

So instead of packing the things I was installing the hardware and software and was staring at the map. Fortunately the moving was done. Only a few hours were left to pack for the trip to Hungary and Serbia. The evening before departure I decided that it not wise to stick with the original plan at all costs. Thus after returning back from the tour I’ll dedicate some time to taming the moved pile of stuff, try to actually sell what’s unnecessary and pack for the journey without a time stress. Otherwise the untamed stuff would subconsciously piss me off and I still could not be happy.

The next day we headed with the Corale choir to sing in Veszprém, Hungary and Kruščice, Serbia. At the latter place there’s a community of Czech people who came there about two hundered years ago. They organize a festival of Czech culture with choirs and folklore dancers. The events turned out very well and the people were very kind and genuinely hospitable. Some people said our concert in Kruščice was the best they ever remember in Corale so far.

However, on the way back I had to say people in Corale good bye after almost 15 years there, since I won’t be able to attend the choir while on travel. Singing in Corale for so long was a unique experience but I feel sometimes it’s good to stop at the best moment.

Indeed, sometimes you have to forego a lot to make room for new people and experience.

How to I imagine myself in a year?

  • be less stressed and more relaxed
  • have more free time and energy to spend on useful activities
  • be able to make money while on travel
  • be more comfortable with girls
  • have made a nice machine learning portfolio
  • have written a lot of articles and some e-books
  • met a lot of great people
  • seen a lot of nice places
  • just be happy more often

Stay tuned for next blog posts!

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