TRS 022: Building a Thriving Coworking Space in Bansko Bulgaria with Matthias Zeitler

TRS 022: Building a Thriving Coworking Space in Bansko Bulgaria with Matthias Zeitler

Today on the podcast I am joined by Matthias Zeitler, the cofounder of Coworking Bansko, a coworking space in the small mountain town of Bansko, Bulgaria that is making a lot noise in the digital nomad space as possibly one of the best places to chill out and get some work done in Europe.

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the space and afterwards decided to have Matthias on the show to tell us more about why he decided to start a coworking space, why in the world he chose a small mountain village in Bulgaria to start it in, and just what is so great about Bansko that it’s attracting dozens of nomads that are even buying property there.

You will find out all this and more in today’s interview but before you jump into that I wanted to let you know that thanks to the advice from my friends over at Fizzle I decided to try something new with this interview. If you scroll down you can also read a behind the scenes post about my experience at Coworking Bansko, why salsa dancing is better than boxing, and how to turn your laptop into a SpaceX rocket in 5 simple steps.

Header photo by @tripcookbook

What You’ll Learn

  • What originally brought Matthias to Bulgaria
  • Where the idea for starting a coworking space originated
  • Why Matthias and Uwe decided to start their coworking space in Bansko and why they avoided large cities
  • How Matthias and his team used content marketing and their community to popularize Coworking Bansko
  • A day in the life of a digital nomad in Bansko
  • How and why so many nomads are purchasing property in Bansko…in cash!
  • The process and difficulties of setting up a coworking space
  • Why Matthias and Uwe decided to find “co-owners” and investors for the coworking space and how it worked out
  • How the local population of Bansko has reacted to their new nomad neighbors
  • What the future of Coworking Bansko holds
  • The idea around Bansko Nomad Fest

Getting to Bansko, Bulgaria

As many of you probably know by this point, I was born in Bulgaria and lived there for the first 10 years of my life. Even back then I had already heard of Bansko as a beautiful mountain town that was great for skiing and snowboarding. That never really piqued my interest since I’ve never been much of a “winter sport” guy.

It wasn’t until a year or two ago that I began to hear the name Bansko again, and from the least likely of sources. I started hearing fellow digital nomads talking about Bansko and at first I was thrown off.

Why are these globe trotters who have the ability to go anywhere in the world talking about a small Bulgarian village?

Despite my doubts I continued to hear about Bansko. I saw vlogs on YouTube from other travelers who were stopping by, and I listened to other podcasters who’d made Bansko their home for a short while. And all of this because of a single coworking space – Coworking Bansko.

Sarah and I have been spending 2 – 3 months a year in Bulgaria but this was our first chance to rent a car, get out of my beloved Varna, and go on a small road trip to rediscover the rest of Bulgaria. Due to everything that I’d heard about the place I had to include Bansko, but I have to be honest, I was quite worried.

I wasn’t worried that Bansko’s scenery would disappoint, with it nested in the Rila mountains that would be a tough thing to do. What I was afraid of, was that this supposed digital nomad oasis in the Bulgarian mountains would turn out to be garbage.

We left for Bansko from Plovdiv around noon and arrived just after 3pm. While the distance is a short 148 kilometers (about 91 miles) half the journey is spent on a winding single lane road up the mountains. Even though my speed did not exceed 50kph in this section, I enjoyed it to the max. My friends in the back seat had different feelings about it.

We pulled up to our hotel, a lovely little place called Campanella, got situated in our rooms, and I was quickly ready to head out and check out the coworking space I had heard so much about.

I was joined by my friend Ian while Sarah and Ian’s girlfriend Caroline stayed behind at the hotel. They said they had calls, but I think after 3 hours in the car they were ready to be away from us ?.

First Impressions of Coworking Bansko

The walk to the coworking space took us past the center of the town. It’s an interesting mix of a beautiful mountain town that unfortunately was not spared from the “lovely” architecture of the Soviet Union. To the right, you will find a restaurant displaying the beautiful old Bulgarian architecture. Stone walls, kept together with lovely white cement. Above it is the second floor of this once family home which juts out over the street giving the would-be dwellers of this home a few more square meters to work with. This is finished off with a dark red roof tiles. Looking right at it from across the street is a city hall building which looks like it would feel more at home in Mordor.

Our walk took a short 10 minutes and we were soon greeted by a bright orange flag stuck in the ground of the main street pointing down the smaller street to our left letting us know we were almost there.

My first run-in with the coworking space was one of confusion. We walked up to the building and spotted a sign that said that this was a quiet area reserved for members who were hustling away and didn’t want to be bothered. Some nice members outside spotted our confusion and pointed us to the other building down the street which made up the other half of the coworking space. This was certainly odd.

At the second building we were greeted by another locked door, this time no quiet sign, but since we couldn’t get in we were again left scratching our heads. A few seconds later however the door opened and our friend from Varna and fellow nomad, Pavel, greeted us.

Pavel is the type of character everyone wishes they could meet on their travels because he makes any story more colorful. A Russian from Novosibirsk, Pavel moved to live in Italy when he was young. Growing up he trained as a boxer until a trainer poked fun at him and suggested that to improve his terrible footwork he should go and sign up for Salsa dancing. As an attempt to stick it to his coach he decided to indeed go and take a Salsa class but to his surprise, he found he enjoyed it, even more than boxing. Today, Pavel is known in many circles as the best Salsa dancer in Varna, a computer programmer, and thanks to his wardrobe which is heavy in black, possibly a spy.

Pavel came to Bansko after spending several months in Varna to get away from the city life before moving on to Amsterdam for the winter months. He told us that he has been working at the coworking space for the last few weeks. Today, he said, was a strange day in the coworking space since both founders – Matthias who you’ll hear from in my podcast interview, and Uwe were gone at a conference, and the Bulgarian girl who usually runs the day to day of the space was also away on vacation. Today, Pavel would be our guide to the coworking space.

The main room of this building, the second one, was quite small and could only fit one large table with 6 chairs. Behind the main room, there was a small but usable kitchen where members can enjoy free coffee, tea, and water. This is something that seems to easy to do, yet surprisingly I find many coworking spaces who don’t offer it which pisses me off. Why it frustrates me so much is perhaps a discussion for another time.

In one of the corners of the main room, there is a staircase that leads to the basement of the house which has been converted into a larger room for coworking. Here you will find a bit more space to work along with a call/meeting room which is separated from the rest of the room by floor to ceiling glass.

The thing that really threw me off about this basement room were the windows with gorgeous mountain views. On a second pass, I realized they were not actually windows but photographs of mountains that were lit up from behind to give the illusion of windows.

This really annoyed me at first but I have to admit that it actually did help the room feel less like a basement and more like a place I could spend all day working.

After checking out the second building we walked outside and headed down to check out the first building. Since it was locked and everyone inside seemed like they were busy working I decided not to interfere but instead head for the backyard. This for me this is where Coworking Bansko really came into its own and showed us its soul.

The first section of the backyard, closes to the building, was covered by a tarp to give the tables underneath it a nice shade. This actually made this outside space workable. On this note let me take a pause and throw yellow snow at every person who has taken a #officefortheday picture on Instagram showing them working on their laptop from the beach because it’s stupid, it doesn’t work, and here’s why:

  1. The wifi probably sucks ass so you won’t be able to get any meaningful work done
  2. If your laptop is anything like mine the sun will heat it up to the point where it stops being a laptop and turns into a SpaceX rocket circa 2015 (aka it wants to blow up)
  3. If the sun doesn’t cause your laptop to blow up the glare will make it unusable
  4. After precisely 12 minutes that beanbag chair that looked so #dope at first becomes your worst enemy
  5. And finally, there’s nothing quite like being in the middle of writing a moving article that will surely rock your readers’ world, to have it ruined by a perfectly placed sweat drop that rolled off your nose and onto the “space” key.

So, do like the rest of us and just pretend to work at the beach, take the picture, rake in the likes and then go back to the coworking space or cafe where you can actually get some work done.

Anyways, the backyard of Coworking Bankso wasn’t like this. Since you’re in the mountains the heat wasn’t unbearable, the tarp shielded us from the sun’s rays, and my laptop didn’t feel the need to ignite its launch thrusters. Most of the people actively working were gathered under the shade working at comfortable tables while the beanbags were used for relaxing and perhaps the odd email.

The backyard itself isn’t large but well kept and has a few hammocks, some comfy looking chairs to lounge in and puppies.

Yes, puppies.

A few weeks before my arrival to the coworking space the local street dog which now wears a Coworking Bansko branded leash, had given birth to a litter of puppies. These puppies now have a nice home in the backyard with cages and all sorts of toys for their entertainment.

These little cuties made for the perfect distraction from whatever you were doing. If I used a pomodoro timer it would have been immediately updated to 25 minutes of work, followed by 5 minutes of belly rubs.

Bansko Nomads Know How to Party!

After a few hours of work, the coworking space started to come alive a bit more. The people working in the quiet area began to emerge from their hustle space and began conversing in the yard.

Soon, there were yoga mats being laid out, chill beats were turned on and a handful of people began partaking in acro yoga. While I’ve heard of this type of yoga before (for some reason it seems to strike a chord with nomads) I had never seen it performed in person and was pretty impressed with the movements.

At around 6pm Pavel, Ian, myself, and Sarah who had now joined us decided to head over to the nearby restaurant for some food and drinks. The restaurant we chose was called Chalet Yanitza and we sat outside.

The food and drinks were very reasonably priced and we the 4 of us split a 2 Satches (a type of meat and vegetable grilled dish cooked on a flat rock), salads, and of course some wine. The owner was a very pleasant man who we found out was married to a Russian woman which Pavel and he immediately connected over.

This place is also a favorite for many of the other nomads in town and we spotted a few other familiar faces coming in for dinner as the night wore on. A quick tip if you do visit Chalet Yanitza, don’t leave before you taste their biscuit cake because it is unreal.

After dinner, Ian and Sarah decided to head back to our apartment because they were tired from the journey, while Pavel and I headed back to the coworking space where supposedly there was a barbecue party taking place.

Apparently, after we left people had continued to arrive to the coworking space because the backyard was now filled with people. There was nice music playing, lights had been turned on that were hanging over the covered part of the yard, and there were also people grilling plenty of meats.

Other visitors had brought goodies from home that had filled 2 whole tables with everything from salads and chips, to boxes of wine and bottles of rakia. Pavel let me know that this was a common occurrence at Coworking Bansko.

Several days of the week were known as special days when there was some sort of activity. For example, every Monday night was boardgame night, while Friday nights were reserved for barbecue in the backyard.

I couldn’t help but wonder how the 80-year-old woman I saw tending to her garden next door earlier in the day, felt about these strange foreigners partying late in the night and doing weird acrobatic yoga during the day.

Nonetheless everyone I met that night at Coworking Bansko was very pleasant, and came from all sorts of background and experiences. I was introduced to Yulia who Pavel described as the “digital nomad guru of Russia”, Audrey who was an English teacher on VIPKid, while Solène was a French native living in Bansko and teaching private online clients French.

After several beers and lots of great conversation with other fellow nomads, I headed home to rejoin my friends and Sarah at our hotel.

As I walked home past the lovely Bulgarian architecture and Mordor’s addition to the village and couldn’t help but think about what a crazy world we were living in. Here I was walking through a tiny town in the mountains of Bulgaria, a place where few foreigners would have ventured to just a few years ago, and yet here they were, dozens and dozens of people from all corners of the world working, living, and partying together. Strange indeed.

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