Nomadic Interviews: Dustin of Skinny Backpacker

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We got to know Dustin Main while living in Chiang Mai last winter and were keen to interview him for the Nomadic Interviews series as he has an unusual digital nomad story. Although he blogs and shares his wonderful travel photography at Skinny Backpacker, and writes about travel technology at Too Many Adapters, his main source of income is from a physical business that he founded in Canada and has managed to set up so that it runs without his presence.

1) How long have you been travelling and where have you been?

I’ve been traveling as long as I can remember, but in terms of traveling full time, it’s been a little over three years.  I left Canada in November 2009 and since then have traveled to all seven continents and around 30 odd countries.

I’ve traveled to the USA, Argentina, Uruguay, Antarctica, The Netherlands, Scotland, Faroe Islands, Iceland, Finland, Estonia, Germany, Czech Republic, Spain, Andorra, Singapore, Malaysia (East), Malaysian Borneo, Brunei, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), New Zealand, Australia, Egypt, and Tanzania.

I’ve lived in Canada, Sweden and Thailand.

2) What made you decide to become a digital nomad?

I started a couple of companies back in Canada around 2005.  After a few years of crazy hours spent business building, I went to Tanzania to climb Mt Meru and Mt Kilimanjaro with my father.  A little over a year later, burnt out and bored from my work life back home, I set out on a one-year trip around the world.

The plan was to continue to oversee the company while I was away, but moving away from day to day operations.  That’s how it all started.

3) How do you fund your travels?

My travels are funded mostly by my salary from the IT company in Canada I founded and oversee.  In 2005 I started my first company dealing with computer services for small businesses, and a year later I started another company that works with major merchant services (banking systems).  They were merged into one in 2008.

I also bring in funds from freelance photography and magazine work, but to be honest it’s a very small part of the pie.  I do it mostly because I enjoy it, as the money / time value proposition is very poor.

The last three years have given me some freedom to try new things, and to find something that excites me as much as starting my first companies back in Canada.  Still looking.

4) How do you manage to run a physical business back in Canada while you are travelling?

Dustin Main

Dustin celebrating xmas day 2009 by trekking on the Kepler Track, one of New Zealand’s “Great Walks”. Photo by Dustin Main.

It took about 6 months to prep my business for my time away traveling.  Essentially I had to step aside, and look in as an outsider to see what needed to be done.  The big question: What work did I do that could be delegated to others?  Turns out that there were a lot of little things that I did, that while simple for me, would be tricky for others to do.  This was particularly true for tasks that needed to be done monthly or quarterly such as taxes.

So I wrote up some procedures, and created my “Dream Team.”  This is a group of individuals and businesses that I already worked with separately, such as the bookkeeper, accountant, lawyer, banker, and my mother who holds power of attorney over my interests.  By getting them all in touch, it meant that if one person needed some information that would usually require going through me, they could make the call and get what they needed themselves.  It also meant that if a signature was required for anything, it could be taken care of in my absence.

In terms of the work I deal with now, after 3 years it’s fairly streamlined.  I have regular skype calls with the staff in Canada every month or so.  We use dropbox for sharing files back and forth.  My corporate e-mail (Google Apps) comes through and is cached on my laptop and Android smartphone so I can take care of it away from an internet connection, and I use remote connection services (LogMeIn) to connect directly to the office in Canada.

While the tech enables me to be nearly anywhere in the world, it’s my staff that keep things rolling on the ground.  I have a couple of particularly excellent people at the company that keep things running smoothly, and can take care of my tasks when I head offline to places like Burma (Myanmar) for weeks at a time.

5) We love your travel technology site Too Many Adapters. What’s your monetization strategy for the site and has it started earning an income yet?

First and foremost, I will say that I’ve never worked so hard for free as I have building Too Many Adapters, but this was the plan that Dave (co-founder) and I set when we started it a little over a year ago.

Now that the site has grown and gathered a following, we’ll be looking to monetize it this year through affiliate sales, and a consultation service for travelers and digital nomads planning on making their mark abroad with technology.

Antarctica

Old, deep-blue ice contrasted with the cold, black Antarctic waters. Photo by Dustin Main.

6)  Do you find it difficult to balance travel and work? How do you manage it?

This is a complicated one.  The difficulty balancing the two was an issue back home even before I left when the business was based out of my home.

When I first started traveling, I neglected the business a bit, partly because I needed a break from it all, and partly because of the horrible internet in New Zealand at the time.  Now a few years in, I travel slower than I did when I began in 2009.  I often spend a week or more in a place before moving on, and have based myself out of a few locations around the world for months at a time even.

I keep to do lists with due dates that sync on my smartphone and notebook to remind me of what tasks need to be done.  I also star and label important e-mails in Gmail for followup instead of replying instantly.  Instead of dealing with these while I’m in a chicken bus as they come in, I try to deal with them once every day or three, depending on how timely of a response they require.  This way I can enjoy traveling for what it is, instead of having my smartphone beep and buzz every 5 seconds like it did back in Canada.

The two have to work together.  Without the work, I wouldn’t be able to travel.  Without travel, I wouldn’t be motivated to work.

7)  Your travel photos are gorgeous. What’s your favourite photo that you’ve taken in the last few years and how did you capture it?

Thank you so much!  One of my issues has been that since I often don’t stand still long enough, I have accumulated a huge library of photos, some of which I haven’t even had the chance to go through yet.

I don’t really have a favorite so here are a pair with different stories and gear.

I shot this in Chiang Mai, Thailand during an event where 12600 monks came together to collect alms for flood victims in the southern part of the country.  Most monks were wearing bright orange, while this monk had the deeper, almost purple color.  He also walked alone as the event and energy dissipated.

It was my 3rd early morning in a row (shooting other events in the city), and it was all a bit surreal.  The lens creates a dreamy look that matched my state of mind at the time.

Monks in Chiang Mai

Photo by Dustin Main

I shot this photo with a Lensbaby Muse @ 50mm on a Nikon D90.  You can see other images I shot at the event in my photo story “12600 Monks, 1 Street”.

This second one is definitely one of my favorites.  It’s from a concert of one of my favorite bands, Underworld, who I finally saw in Germany two different times after waiting more than a decade and a half for the chance.

Underworld

Photo by Dustin Main.

I shot this with my iPhone 3G from the dance floor at the end of their set in Dortmund when the flash of lights illuminated the stage from behind, painting the scene and leaving everyone in stunning silhouette.

This just goes to show all of the budding photogs out there that it’s not your gear that makes compelling photos.

8) You’ve been to Myanmar (Burma) many times in the last year. What is it you love about the country? Things are changing rapidly there so have you notice any differences?

I just can’t get enough of Myanmar.

I had hoped to visit during my first time in that part of the world in mid-2010, but it just didn’t work out.  In late 2011 when I was based out of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, I needed to make a visa run to the Myanmar border to activate my new Thai visa.  After passing the market full of counterfeit electronics, prescription drugs, and pornography, I ventured another 100m or so into the town of Tachileik.  What I found was a place that looked and felt very different than Thailand, only a 5 minute walk away from the border on the other side of the river.  I was immediately taken in and began planning my first (of many) trips deeper into the country.

Since then, I’ve been back 4 other times, for a total of nearly 4 months.  Traveling for as long as I have has a way of making you feel a bit jaded, but exploring Myanmar gives me that same feeling I had when I first began traveling abroad.  I’m not overstating it when I say that the days I have there are so unpredictable and amazing that I often have to take an inside day every few days just to process all that I’ve been experiencing.

Burmese students

A group of students chant Bhuddist prayers among the clouds early in the morning at the monastery atop Mt Zwegabin. (Myanmar / Burma). Photo by Dustin Main.

Since I’ve become so enthralled, one of my projects has been to document the change in the country.  A few things that come to mind.

1) After 60 years, Coca-Cola began shipping to Myanmar again in September 2012.  As far as I know, the only other countries in the world are North Korea and Cuba.

2) Before the summer of 2012, the vast majority of mobile phones there were cheap Chinese knock-offs with names like i-Pheno, and SUMSVNG.  With sanctions being lifted, hosts of stores are popping up, and giant billboards from the likes of Samsung are visible everywhere in the main cities.

3) In early 2012, there were essentially no new cars in the country thanks to sanctions and high import tax rates.  The average cab had no interior paneling, some holes in the floor, and had to be opened from the outside (stick your hand out of the window and reach for the door handle to get out).

After returning from a few months away in October 2012, I was surprised to see new(ish) cabs, hybrid cars, and even a few BMW and Mercedes Benz rolling down the streets.

I think that the rapid change in the country has grabbed me like the tech world (which is my background) originally did years ago.  Constant change means there is always something new to find out.  See my ongoing series on “Technology in Burma / Myanmar” on Too Many Adapters and my stories and photography from Burma / Myanmar on my own site Skinny Backpacker.

9) What are some of your other favourite off the beaten track destinations?

Certainly Myanmar is currently tops on my list.  Even with the influx of tourism there, it’s easy to have the place to yourself as I’d say 95% of people just go to the same four locations only.

Malaysian Borneo, particularly Sarawak is a great place with plenty of exciting trekking outdoors, and an interesting mix of cultures.  The beautiful Faroe Islands in the Atlantic Ocean between Norway and Iceland are a rarely visited spot made up of rugged islands often encased in fog.  I’ll also give a shout-out to Finnish Lapland north of the Arctic circle.  Reminded me of my old home in Canada.

10) Where are you heading to next? Do you think you’ll ever settle down in one place?

I’m currently working on a project in New Zealand with a return flight to Bangkok when it wraps up in mid-March.  My initial plan was to head to Europe and walk the El Camino de Santiago, but instead I will likely head back to Myanmar and continue documenting the changes going on in the country.

I’ve learned to never say never.  This was supposed to be one year of travel around the world, but apparently my calendar broke because I’m still going.  I plan to travel slower in the future to focus more on my work projects and relationships, but even when I snag an apartment for a month or three, I’m often trying to keep my itchy feet from buying plane tickets and renting motorbikes to explore something new.

You can follow Dustin’s adventures at Skinny Backpacker, on Twitter and on Facebook.

If you enjoyed this interview then read about other long term nomads in our Nomadic Interviews series.

All images by Dustin Main.

Are you looking for Christmas gift ideas? See our 47 Useful Gift Ideas for Carry-On Travellers. They are ideal for travel lovers who want to pack light and include something for every budget.

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3 thoughts on Nomadic Interviews: Dustin of Skinny Backpacker

  1. Wow!!! Great story of heading towards a life of motivation and a way to adventurous life. Balancing work and travel is quite typical for few. Most of the people leave their work completely to travel, while few not able to make their travelling dream come true. I salute man! You are AWESOME match of experience.

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