Nestled at the feet of the Pirin Mountains you’ll find a little-known Bulgarian village with a burgeoning digital nomad ecosystem. This is Bansko, home to Coworking Bansko, a small but internationally recognized coworking space founded by Matthias Zeitler and Uwe Allgäuer. With its bright orange signs (and walls), Coworking Bansko may be small, but don’t let that fool you. The founders regularly speak at coworking events worldwide as leaders in rural coworking and the space has garnered a following that’s the envy of most community managers.
In this interview, Matthias discusses his experiences running this rural coworking space, the unique benefits that a rural location offers, as well as some of the obstacles encountered in this venture. He also shares with us the bigger vision for Coworking Bansko and some insights gleaned from his experience in the industry.
Opening a rural coworking space was an insufficient challenge for Matthias, so he decided to move to a foreign country to do so. Originally from Germany, he relocated to Bansko in 2016 and co-founded Coworking Bansko with his partner Uwe Allgäuer.
When Matthias and Uwe came to Bulgaria, their primary intention was not to open a coworking space, but to turn Bansko into a base for digital nomads.
But while Bansko is a regionally recognized winter destination, known for its ski slopes and alpine landscapes, it is relatively unknown otherwise. Matthias and Uwe could generally count on a captive audience during the ski season, but once the season was over, they’d need other ways to attract people to the village.
And so the idea for a coworking space was conceived. However, sustainability would prove to be a significant challenge.
“Initially it was a pretty crazy idea,” Matthias told me, “because there were absolutely no local people that wanted to do coworking. Basically, every single member, you have to get them here to this small village.”
Even though there’s a large British expat population in Bansko, none of them quite understood the concept of coworking, nor did they need the space for practical reasons. They had community amongst themselves already, and most worked in the local tourism industry.
What’s more, the primary target for Coworking Bansko, digital nomads, had no idea whether Bansko was a village in Bulgaria or a brand of Bulgarian laundry detergent.
With these challenges in play, the team set about getting their house in order.
Their first move was to hire a local community manager, Irina Pandeva.
“I think you always need a local partner,” says Matthias. “So your first key hire has to be a local. It would be even better if this is one of the founders, but at least the first employee needs to be a local that can help you to navigate the local laws, a lot of the culture, and make all the connections because otherwise you’re really lost.”
That allowed them to communicate with locals, the city government, and get a better understanding of the ecosystem. Eventually, after some significant road bumps at the outset, including moving the location two weeks before opening, the team managed to pull it off, and Coworking Bansko was open.
But the challenge of attracting digital nomads remained.
One of the key tactics the team used to put Bansko on the map was the creation of events, mini-conferences, and retreats that would entice digital nomads to visit the village. Examples include a Freelancer Weekend, a Travel Bloggers conference, and a Womenpreneurs event.
Another critical component of their marketing strategy was attending international events that already attracted digital nomads. Events like Coboat, DNX, and Nomad Cruise are great targets. And all the while, at the event, they’d sing the praises of the Bansko lifestyle.
These tactics took time, but eventually, they paid off.
Now, even in the summer months, Coworking Bansko is developing sufficient interest to attract over 30 full-time members, true digital nomads, which has finally made Coworking Bansko a profitable enterprise.
What's more, because the word is spreading about Bansko as a nomad destination, the coworking space the team opened up a new location at the end of 2018. The space is closer to the ski slopes, and the team is expecting to welcome up to 75 monthly members this winter season.
“I think we have managed to get to where we want to go with the space,” Matthias said. “But now the question is what's next?”
Now that they have reached their initial goals with the space and attained profitability, Matthias and Uwe have a more ambitious agenda.
Matthias explained, “So what's next for us is we are trying to turn the coworking space, that we started as a private business, into a co-op. This will let the members that come here, those who form the community, to become shareholders of the coworking space. We then all together can tackle bigger projects.”
As such, the team has been researching potential projects, mostly umbrella services, to develop via the co-op model. These include assisting freelancers with visas, providing training programs for digital business models, and creating a nomad incubator for startups looking for scalable teams.
As Matthias points out, “It seemed like a nomad incubator could be a cool thing in a town like Bansko, where you have a very low cost of living – where you can bootstrap for a very long time and really work on your projects and work on your ideas and let them grow.”
While Coworking Bansko is considering the concept of a nomad academy, they feel it would need external funding to launch. Fortunately, there are EU funds available, especially for helping traditionally disadvantaged populations such as immigrants, Roma, and women entrepreneurs.
Matthias thoughtfully observed that all of his clients are foreigners in Bansko and are not any smarter than the local population, but still earn more money than the average local. So cultivating these modern skill sets in locals would be advantageous for the immediate community.
Rural destinations have become attractive coworking destinations for many reasons.
Likely, one of the primary reasons is being able to leave the stress and chaos that can dominate big city living. Combine that with a lower cost of living and that companies are increasingly allowing more employees to work remotely, and you have the perfect scenario for rural coworking to expand and thrive. However, while Coworking Bansko has focused on recruiting digital nomads, they aren’t the only demographic interested in rural coworking.
"So in Germany where I'm originally from, it's very difficult for a young professional to buy a house or to buy an apartment in a large city," Matthias explained. "But if you go in a more rural area, it's much more affordable, and you can really start your life there. And you'll realize that the quality of life is also much more attractive than in these large cities."
Many rural coworking spaces cater to the local population to take advantage of some of the cultural phenomena distinctive to rural living. One of the benefits is the camaraderie common to small towns. As Matthias notes, "...rural communities, we're always helping out each other."
Rural communities have been practicing coworking principles long before the digital age; they just didn't call it coworking. One example that Matthias gave me is how many villages have organizations set up to share farming equipment. Some equipment is not used regularly, so it makes sense to spread those costs amongst the community.
Such sharing of resources is at the core of the coworking movement that’s now a global feature.
When Matthias and Uwe opened their space, they were surprised by some of the obstacles they hadn’t anticipated.
The first was infrastructure. Matthias's only prior experience with coworking had been at Coworking Salzburg, in Austria. That coworking space was located inside a managed business park, where the property management company handled much of the facilities maintenance.
So when it came time to scout locations for Coworking Bansko, Matthias and Uwe found that the available spaces for rent were not in the condition the team had anticipated. “So we had to do a lot of reconstruction,” Matthias explained. “We had to paint everything. We had to get to plumbers. We had to do the heating system.”
This situation led to the next hurdle, finding qualified contractors in a small town capable of remodeling their space. “So there are some very good people that we can use for specific jobs,” Matthias told me, “but there's not too many of them. So you need to figure out who is really a good contractor and who is the guy who is just breaking your stuff and making more effort.”
Once the coworking space was ready to go, the next set of challenges presented themselves. However, with every problem, there is also an opportunity.
The majority of Coworking Bansko’s members are not citizens of Bulgaria. They are traveling in from other countries like Germany, Spain, the United States, and even Singapore. As such, they are not familiar with local customs, laws, and many of the basics of life that you can only understand by being a local. This situation has created an opportunity for Coworking Bansko to partner with local businesses and individuals to provide members with a softer landing.
These include arrangements for airport pickups and local lodging, connecting with local attorneys and accountants to assist with starting a business in Bulgaria, and even opening a bank account.
There have been some interesting consequences to this approach. By making moving to and living in Bansko easier for digital nomads, Coworking Bansko has created an effect they like to call the “Bansko magnet.”
People who come for a few days end up staying longer, often for a few weeks. And people who come for a few weeks end up changing their travel plans, ultimately staying for months.
The Bansko magnet is so strong, in fact, that Coworking Bansko has directly accounted for positive immigration to a region that’s seen massive brain drain for years. In one year alone, more than 22 Europeans moved their permanent residency to Bansko. For context, the entire province, which includes full-sized cities, attracted a total of 80 immigrants that same year.
Matthias advises people to think strategically about their initial purchases. Buying cheap items to save a little money, in the beginning, will usually cost more in the long run. Matthias has learned this from experience.
“The coffee maker that we have is a consumer coffee maker that we just had,” Matthias told me. “I mean, it makes good coffee, it just doesn't make 40 portions of coffee in 20 seconds when all the members come in the morning.”
The team also invested in high-quality office chairs and custom-made tables that include housing for electrical outlets in the middle. These expensive upfront decisions have ensured that Coworking Bansko hasn't replaced a single piece of furniture in their two and a half years of operations. Compared to spaces who buy from Ikea, this is a huge difference.
Coworking Bansko started with a unique vision that they were able to realize by confronting and adapting to the specific challenges they experienced. No, it wasn't as simple as renting a space, painting the walls orange, and inviting members. But through hard work and flexibility, they eventually attracted a group of committed entrepreneurs and digital nomads who are putting the village of Bansko, as well as Coworking Bansko, on the map. And yes, they got their orange walls too.
Marketing Director, founder at Coworking Insights, coworking maven, digital nomad, lover of wine & tacos.