Time really does fly faster as you get older.
In 2012, I was getting sick of working in finance and found a blog/podcast called Tropical MBA. There were two guys named Dan & Ian that sold portable bar equipment online and travelled the world as they did it. It sounded pretty cool to be a digital nomad, so I drank the kool-aid and joined this adventure with a community of friends.
In October 2012, they hosted their first conference for readers of the blog in Bangkok at the Aloft Hotel. I decided to fly over and check out how legit they were. I was also curious on what the other attendees were like. There were some pretty high profile speakers like Sovereign Man and Derek Sivers. It was a weird crowd as this digital nomad thing was still super underground. Many of them would be great friends in the years to come except those that wear Vibram Fivefingers…yeah.
After a year of indecision, arguing with my mom, and worrying about giving it all up I finally found the balls to quit in August 2013. In hindsight, it took way longer than needed. I was scared that things wouldn’t work out and what people would think of me. In the end, nobody gives a shit. The mind just works in funny ways when you psych yourself out.
Trying Out Bali & Chiang Mai
I decided to try out Bali for a month to see what this whole digital nomad thing was like. It’s an amazing place with great beaches and food. You just have to avoid all the Australian bogans in Kuta. After decompressing for two weeks, I started getting restless and found it hard to get anything done. It was easy to go to the beach, take it easy, and procrastinate.
After all, why stay here if you weren’t taking full advantage of the location?
Once my visa was up, I tried Chiang Mai for two weeks but it never grew on me. It just seemed too boring, quiet, and wasn’t my cup of tea. Living out of carry-on luggage was also starting to piss me off, as I had to keep my belongings under a certain limit.
After this three month stint, I decided that “moving every month to a new place as a digital nomad” was pretty stupid. Half the time you’re finding out where to stay, what places to eat, and getting a routine down. It sounds fun on paper, but it’s very low ROI and distracting to your headspace unless you have a travel blog where it makes sense.
Finding A Home In Vietnam
In early 2014, I decided to try out Saigon, Vietnam after meeting a guy named Jon Myers a couple of months before at the 2nd DCBKK conference in Bangkok. I had never been there before, but it sounded exciting as there was a growing number of entrepreneurs there.
This place would be my home for the next few years with some crazy adventures. Even Casey Neistat made a video about this place when he biked with his son here a few years ago.
With some more travel experience under my belt, I’ve realized every city sends a message.
In Los Angeles it’s fame. In San Francisco it’s power through technology. In Paris it’s art and fashion. And for Saigon it’s chaos. From the moment you land, you’re stuck in a sea of motorbikes and gotta get used to how loud the city can be. Hustlers try to sell you overpriced coconuts, fake handbags, and motorbike pimps try to make a quick buck off horny foreigners at night.
But some people can handle the chaos, while others get driven away.
In the beginning of 2014, there was an incredible crew forming on the ground. Everyone was working on a variety of things like SaaS software, SEO, WordPress Plugins, and eventually FBA private labeling. Our monthly meet-ups started to hit 60+ people and it became difficult to proper venues that could fit everyone.
We Are All We Need
One of the most memorable moments from living in Saigon was seeing Above & Beyond, an electronic music group that I’ve been listening to for YEARS since college. Back then everyone made fun of electronic music and put it under this umbrella called “techno” or “eurotrash”. With a once in a lifetime opportunity, I organized a group of 30+ friends to attend including a bulk purchase of special pizza to enjoy the night.
Inspired by this show, my friend Jon and I started DJing for fun and actually got our first club gig through our network of friends. We had both played in punk rock bands when we were younger, so it was a natural fit for both of us to explore this realm. It was also a good way to decompress from talking about business all the time and switch things up.
An Opportunity In China
In late 2016, an opportunity presented itself to work at a startup with a group of friends in Shenzhen, China. Jon was asked to be the CEO of a SaaS company and was giving it some serious thought. With a finance background, I audited all the numbers from Adwords to Stripe and concluded that it was worth taking a shot. So in 2017 ten of us moved to Shenzhen, China and go all-in on this effort. I would end up doing a bit of everything from finance, HR, to systems administration. By the time things settled, I ended up as a product manager and wrote more about it here: 5 Ways John Wick Made Me A Better Product Manager.
Shenzhen was an exciting place with a majority of the world’s electronics manufactured there from LED lights, iPhones, and Playstations. We originally thought it would be a depressing factory city with horrible pollution, but it’s actually quite clean like Singapore in the city center. Gasoline motorbikes were banned and replaced with electric bikes, cars, and buses. The subway system was also modern and pretty easy to get around once you figured out the directions of each line.
Work Culture Clash: East vs. West
But with a team of foreigners, we encountered a ton of work culture clashes with the parent Chinese company. Talking to other expats, it turns out this was quite normal and we just didn’t expect it to be such a huge problem. My old co-worker Kai wrote about his experiences here that I found had many parallels with the entire team. The best analogy I have is rubbing sandpaper on your face every day when you wake up until you go to sleep. It’s abrasive and eventually wears you down.
Since our software required many online services like Google, Facebook, and Dropbox – we always had to waste time on VPNs and finding a working internet connection to do our jobs. Unless you’re building something for the domestic market, please stay away from China if you want to preserve your sanity. It’s an uphill battle against the Great Firewall and also incredibly difficult to find local talent that doesn’t want to work at a prestigious company like Baidu, Huawei, or Tencent.
As my friend Mike Michelini says there are three results when it comes to China. You go crazy, you leave, or you deal with it (meditation). With a huge culture clash between the East and West on how to approach software development, we eventually parted ways and everyone had a clean slate to start over again.
I wanted to continue working in software as a product manager, having experienced what it was like writing requirements, user stories, creating mockups, and shipping things. What I like about software is that there isn’t a gray zone for emotions or psychology like sales and marketing. It’s a very different and precise way of thinking through logic, problems, and solutions. Compared to the digital marketing world I was immersed in the last few years, this was quite refreshing and fun.
I also missed working in a team having been alone on my own since 2012. Perhaps it comes from my old days working on a trading floor, but there’s something about being in the same room with a group of people to bounce ideas, energy, and execute faster. In most cases, you don’t get that as a digital nomad because your team is remote. And you’ll often pay extra in the form of time, energy, or quality.
Stay In China? Hell No!
I’m OK living in a Mandarin speaking environment because I can speak the language with no problems, but nothing was appealing staying in China by myself. All of my friends were on the way out so it didn’t make much sense putting myself in solitary confinement. With a clean slate to start over again, I started thinking about my options.
After four years, the whole digital nomad script wasn’t exciting for me anymore when I gave it some serious thought. I could go to Europe for a few months, but it’s not really setup to be a permanent home so I’d end up having to move again this year. If I was gonna move somewhere new, I wanted a challenge that I could sink my teeth in for a couple of years and focus.
The startup scene matched my criteria of wanting to work with a software team in the same room, while having the resources to tackle bigger challenges that digital nomad businesses wouldn’t even consider. Hong Kong and Singapore had crossed my mind but my network there is very weak. They’re also just as expensive as Los Angeles, San Francisco, or New York but with a smaller ecosystem. So why not just move back to the US and be in the middle of all the action?
Meeting Perry Belcher
Towards the last few weeks in China, I got a message from my friend Shirley that was in town for the Canton Fair. I interviewed her on my podcast many years back when she was promoting her new book Ecom Hell. She’s a boss of an entrepreneur in her own right, having sold her business American Bridal to the largest wedding portal online called The Knot in 2009.
Shirley was staying a block from my apartment and I got to meet up with her and Perry Belcher, a co-founder of Digital Marketer and a true original gangster in the internet marketing and online space. He’s been attending the Canton Fair for the last 20 years and was also in town visiting some agency clients.
I ran into them with my roommate at dinner and we ended up eating together. Perry’s knowledge of approaching and scaling businesses blew our minds away from building five barriers to entry in the manufacturing process, analyzing the paint chemistry of his products, and working behind the scenes in Shark Tank. Based in Austin TX for the last few years, we found ourselves in the same boat looking for a new city with a bigger challenge.
“As an entrepreneur, being in the top 20% of Austin is very different from the top 20% in a place like New York City or Los Angeles,” he said. It made me reflect on the locations that most digital nomads choose. It’s pretty cool for the first year or two living with geo-arbitrage, but the novelty wears off with time. Having done this digital nomad adventure once, I know how easy it is to go back and can always do that again in the future.
Risk, Opportunity, and Location
Professional fund managers don’t think about individual stocks in isolation, they think of them in terms of an overall portfolio. Every stock has things that can go right and things that can go wrong. Blended into one entity, the portfolio assumes the risk and reward of all the investments as one. That means you can take risky bets on growth ideas and protect the downside with blue chip companies.
Every business, job, or side project you take on has similar characteristics.
Reward could come as income, skills, experience, location, recognition, network, or freedom. Risks could be getting fired, living somewhere you hate, working with toxic people, feeling empty, or getting depressed. Instead of looking at opportunities on a standalone basis, they should be put into context with all the other risk and reward career choices you’ll make in life. It allows your thinking to be much more strategic and long-term.
The decision to try out New York was fairly straightforward. For San Francisco and Los Angeles, you need a car to get around and that wasn’t a layer of friction I wanted to deal with. Nobody I knew in Austin raved about it too, so it was never a contender. As Jeff Bezos said in his 2016 Letter to Shareholders, most decisions should be made with 70% of the information you wish you had.
If you wait for 90%, in most cases you’ll be too slow. Getting good at recognizing and correcting bad decisions is what you should focus on. If you’re good at course correcting being wrong may be less costly than you think, whereas being slow is going to be expensive for sure.
My background is a mix of finance, digital marketing, e-commerce, and SaaS so it matches the footprint of NYC quite well. In addition with my podcast, network of friends, and old classmates living there that was 70% of the information I needed to make this decision. I’ll figure out the remaining 30% once I’m on the ground.
But isn’t NYC expensive? Good. That means there’s no time to fuck around and I’ll have to work smarter, faster, and harder. I’m very willing to sacrifice some living standards in the short-term to be in a high bandwidth city that has a lot of action going on and see where things go.
Let’s Meet Up In NYC?
If you’re reading this and know someone in fintech, e-commerce, cryptocurrencies, AI/bots, or mobile apps I’d love to connect with them. On the side, I listen to a lot of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Jocko Willink, Joe Rogan, Sam Harris, Tim Ferris, and the usual gauntlet of folks in similar spaces. I’ll be there starting Thursday June 15th, 2017 so leave a note here or let’s connect on twitter via @itsmeterrylin.
Also published on Medium.