Lessons Learned After Working From Home For 4 Years

Since I quit my job 4 years ago to work on my own, I’ve been working from home. Here are some of the things I’ve learned along the way that help me be productive and happy.

Find your sweet spot

Some people recommend having a home office, others going to coffee shops and there’s also people who like coworking spaces. I’ve tried them all (and so should you), and I prefer having a home office. If I don’t have space for a proper office, then at least a good desk, comfy chair and big monitor. Failing that (this happens a lot when travelling), a desk that can fit my laptop and mousepad, and a chair that isn’t crap will do. While travelling, I’ve been surprised at how little I need to be productive. There are a few things I can’t compromise on, though, if I want to really be productive, which leads me to my next point.

Get rid of productivity killers

We all have certain things that totally kill our productivity. Get rid of them. For me, a temperature outside of a certain range, is a productivity killer. If it’s too hot or humid (again, this happens sometimes when travelling), I can’t get anything done. If it’s too cold, the same thing happens, but this is rare where I usually choose to live.

Other productivity killers of mine:

  1. Using a trackpad instead of a mouse. I can get some work done with a trackpad, but less.
  2. Having a crappy chair or desk (i.e. being uncomfortable while sitting on my computer).
  3. Not having a list of things I need to work on (more on this later).
  4. Too much noise. I can deal with some noise, specially white noise. I don’t need total silence, but having people talking around me can distract me pretty easily. That’s one of the reasons I don’t like to work from coffee shops.
  5. Slow or unstable Internet. Nothing kills my productivity more effectively than having the Internet go down (not for all tasks, but for most).
  6. Interesting things happening around me. I always thought having fun and interesting coworkers was great, and it is, but it also kills my productivity if we’re sitting next to each other in an open space. I guess I don’t want to “miss out” on whatever’s going on.
  7. Other distractions: someone talking to me or buzzing the door (remember I work from home), phone calls and notifications (when working I always have my phone on “don’t disturb” mode), computer notifications (I close Facebook and Gmail tabs when I want to get shit done)…
  8. Bugs I can’t fix quickly. This is one of the most annoying ones. When I hit a roadblock with my programming (say, spend half an hour to an hour trying to get something simple to work), it kills my productivity rather quickly. It’s just not fun at all. And it’s always, ALWAYS, something stupid.

As you can see most of my productivity killers can be avoided with proper habits and planning. You should make a list of yours and also plan accordingly.

Respect the Zone

In case you don’t know what being in the zone is, here’s a description I found online:

Expression used to describe a state of consciousness where actual skills match the percieved performance requirements perfectly. Being in the zone implies increased focus and attention which allow for higher levels of performance. Athletes, musicians, and anybody that totally owns a challenge of physical and mental performance can be in the zone.

For people working on their own schedule and doing any kind of creative work, being in the zone is critical. It’s not like you need to be in the zone to get work done, but that when you are in the zone, you will effortlessly get shit done properly without even noticing it. So you should figure out what helps you get in the zone (step 1: get rid of your productivity killers) and also find a way to stay there for as long as you can (zero distractions or breaks).

Take breaks

There are people who advocate for the Pomodoro technique, which forces breaks on you every fixed amount of time (i.e. you need to take a break 5 minutes every hour). I find this can get you out of the zone pretty quickly, and I prefer to take breaks in between tasks. If a task takes me 15 minutes to do, I might take a 5 minute break afterwards. And if it takes 2 or 3 hours, I will probably not stop either until I’m done. Of course, there are always tasks that might take too many hours (or days!) to finish and you need to break them down into doable smaller subtasks. I don’t know about you but I personally hate leaving a task half done (if , for example, I need to go somewhere), so I prefer smaller tasks that I can finish before calling it a day.

Define what needs to be done

Once I get down to work, I don’t want to have to think about what I need to work on. I should know that already. That’s why I plan at least one week in advance (usually two) worth of tasks in advance. On the weekend, I sit down and review my tasks for the week: are they doable? too many? too few? is there anything that I can anticipate may stop me from doing those tasks (if so, take care of that in advance or create other tasks to deal with it)? Then I create those tasks on Basecamp and arrange them on the calendar view (which is my favorite way of looking at my projects).

I also like having other not-work related (but still important) tasks visible at all times. Read more about my To-Do List setup.

Finish something every day

You should always finish the day having accomplished something. For example, replying to a thousand emails doesn’t count for me. I need to have “produced” or built something. At least one thing. Write a blog post, mock up a design, code a new feature, fix a bug… You need to be able to “check” some task off your list every day. I also use iDoneThis to write, at the end of the way, everything I did, and get that feeling of “I got work done today”.

On top of actually finishing something every day, I suggest you add some physical action to celebrate it. For example, if your to do list is on paper, crossing that task with a pen would be it. If you use an online tool, marking it as “done”. Or writing it in a “what I got done today” journal. You get the idea. Soon enough you’ll be hooked to that and you’ll be pushing yourself to get more things done just so you can get that rush of satisfaction again.

Take time off

For the longest time, I wouldn’t take a single day off. Or if I did (either because I wanted to or because I was too burnt out to work), I felt guilty. Now I understand that weekends serve a very important purpose. They allow us to unwind and recharge batteries to start the following week with all the intensity that our work deserves.

Also, take holidays, not just weekends off. It’s easier to believe that you need to be on top of things 24/7 in order for your company to run properly. That everything would explode if you took a week or two off. Turns out it doesn’t. You will have a longer list of unread emails when you come back, but that’s it.

Last week I was in Bali and we rented an amazing villa for the weekend (the rest of the month we were staying in a nice, but not super nice, house). We decided to stay an extra 2 days until we had to leave Bali. And then we had a day of moving, flying, etc (spoiler: you won’t get anything done on those days). I decided to take that week off, on the spot. I had a bunch of tasks I wanted to get done that week. Important stuff. But I knew they could wait, and I also knew I wanted to take that week off, and that I hadn’t taken a proper holiday in months. This is why I didn’t publish anything last week, by the way :)

Actually disconnect on your time off

I know this is easier said than done (been there), but you can’t be constantly checking your email or thinking about work when you’re on your time off. It will make you feel guilty for not being working, not present in the moment (which means you’ll enjoy less whatever it is you’re doing) and overall, a less happy person. If you come across a brilliant thought, send yourself an email and forget about it.

If you happen to run a business and you also do the customer support for it, I understand the desire to be available and reply quickly 24/7. I’ve been there. Outsource it. Trust me, it’s the best decision you’ll ever make. Yes, they may not reply 100% as quickly and with as much passion as you do, but you’ll be a much happier person and that will reflect in all aspects of your life.

Outsource as much as possible

Technically, everything is outsourceable, but I don’t think you should outsource everything. Things that you do repeatedly, that are easy to teach, and that don’t make you happy? Outsource those as soon as possible. Depending on what you do for a living, the list can be very different. Also, some tasks are easier to oursource than others (for example, I’ve found that outsourcing any kind of development work is just not worth it unless you’re willing to pay top dollar or you don’t care much about the quality of the work produced).

These are the things I successfully outsource: customer support, community management, logo design, system administration, content creation, data entry and research. Yes, I also do some of those myself depending on the situation, but only when I want to, or personally doing it would be much, much better for the business than outsourcing it (it’s fewer times than you think).

Work smart, not hard

When I hear about all those Silicon Valley startup founders who claim to work over 80 hours a week, I don’t know if they lie, count “not really work but kind of” stuff as work (say, reading TechCrunch or commuting), overestimate the amount of time they actually work because they don’t track it (I do), or are just a superior race. Me? I rarely crack the 6 hour of productive time per day. And by productive time, I mean it. I use Freckle to track the time I spend working every day, and I stop the timer every time I’m not actually working. So when I’m reading TechCrunch, going to the bathroom, making a (non work related) phone call, going for a glass of water, etc. the timer is stopped. Start tracking your time this way, and you’ll be surprised how much time you think you work but you actually don’t.

Also, when you work for yourself (this doesn’t apply if you are working remotely for someone else), a big part of working smart is deciding what to work on. There’s always an unlimited amount of things fighting for your attention. Every time I look at the backlog of “pending features” for my company I want to laugh or cry, depending on my mood. Bottom line is, there’s always going to be more work to be done, it’s never going to stop. So don’t kill yourself by trying to do too much of it. Pick the right things to work on: high impact, easy to implement. Came up with a high impact, hard to implement task? Rethink it and come up with another task that gives 80% of the benefits for 20% of the work.

What Makes A Good Freelancer?

Reading a post on How To Hire Outsourced Developers made me remember I’ve been meaning to write some of my thoughts on freelance developers, since I’ve been on both sides of it (I’ve worked as a freelance web developer and hired freelancers myself).

When I first started I wondered wether anyone would be interested in paying top dollar for my services. After all, I’ve never been that great a developer. I consider myself a jack of all trades but master of none. So I’m good at design, frontend and backend, but great at neither. This actually is what most clients need, and I would soon find that technical expertise is definitely not one of the most important qualities in a freelancer.

On Technical Ability

Let me say this upfront just so I don’t send the wrong message: yes, you need to be know what you’re doing. And yes, you need to be able to perform the job the client needs. So if someone needed, say, an iOS app, I would kindly tell them I’m not the right man for the job and redirect them to someone else. But most projects you’ll be hired to tackle are not very complicated from a technical standpoint. Most will be CRUD or simple apps, really. So it’s actually very easy to know up front wether you have the right skills for the job or not (or you can learn them fast enough). Also, as the client, testing for technical ability is usually kind of easy (assuming you or someone on your team has a technical background). The article I linked in the beginning showcases one good way to do it.

What Does Matter?

What I found, in my experience, that matters most in a freelancer, is everything else. Spoiler alert: there are probably thousands of freelancers out there who are just as good as you at programming, design, writer or whatever it is you do. So how do you differentiate yourself and actually become someone that clients refer to their peers? By focusing on what actually matters to clients (once it’s been proven that you have the minimum necessary skills to successfully complete the job):

  1. Be Realiable. Are you going to just disappear mid project without saying a word? Are you going to complete the assignment by the agreed upon deadline? This is absolutely critical, and you’d be shocked at how many freelancers completely fail in this aspect. I had a client once, a good client. They paid handsomely, in a timely manner, their projects were cool (yet simple) and they were good people. They also had a few projects in the pipeline that needed to be done. Needless to say I was very happy working for them. At some point I had to quit working for them for personal reasons. They said they had someone else to continue where I left off, that used to be a full time employee of theirs. We lived nearby so I met with him, explained the current status of the project I was doing for them, resolve all his doubts, etc. He seemed like a nice and capable guy. A few months later I was catching up with the client and they told me that after a couple of weeks, the guy just disappeared never to be heard from again. I know he wasn’t dead, because I still saw him online on GTalk every once in a while, so what would prompt this guy to drop an amazing gig in that totally unprofessional manner, is beyond me. And don’t get me started on the people you hire on oDesk and as soon as they get some money (if you pay weekly), they’re gone.
  2. Be Available. Of course, it’s important that you’re actually available to do the job. If you’re the best developer ever but you’re booked up for a whole year, you’re useless to me. But also the amount of time that you’re available is important. Some people are very good, but only freelance on their free time (say, nights and weekends). This will make the project advance more slowly, and I also know from experience how easy it is to overestimate the amount of free time you actually have, or how capable you are to fight the urge to just relax after your daily 9-to-5 job.
  3. Be Responsive. When a client sends you an email (or calls you), you reply quickly. Personally, I would even do this on the weekend. I know, I know, work life balance blah, blah, blah. Most people won’t be upset if you don’t reply on a Sunday to their emails (unless it’s critical or they’re douchebags), but if you do, they’ll be pleasantly surprised. Overdeliver, always. I can’t understand why people who are being paid thousands of dollars upfront to do some work (on their schedule and terms) will take a week or two to reply to the simplest of emails. Yes, this has happened to me, on several occasions.
  4. Ask Questions & Be Specific. You and the client should always be on the same page as to what is exactly being built. When a client sends you a spec for a project, don’t make assumptions. Ask questions. “By X do you mean this or that?”, “I understand by what you wrote on Y that the projects needs to [...], am I correct?”. It may take more time to finish the spec but it will pay in spades later when you don’t build something that isn’t what they want and an argument ensues about the time you wasted, what the client really wanted, etc.
  5. Stick To The Specs. Then, once you finish the spec, stick to it! I remember this one time I hired a developer to write an app for me. I attached detailed screenshots of how it should like like and a complete and thorough list of functionalities. When he sent the first prototype, I couldn’t believe it. It didn’t look anything like the screenshots I sent him. “Oh, I thought since iOS 7 is coming out, I wanted it to look more like that”. Well that may have been a valuable insight to offer when we were defining the specs, but now you’re giving me something that I didn’t ask for nor want. Very few times will you be able to pull something like this and have the client be happy that you didn’t follow the specs to the letter. And if they’re not happy, it’s up to you to redo all the work for free. If you have any great idea like that, better ask the client first.
  6. Provide Good Value For Money. A few years ago I would’ve told you that this meant “being cheap” or “charging less”. Now I understand it differently. It means, that at the end of the day, the client must be absolutely 100% satisfied for paying your rate. If your rates are high, this will mean turning down clients who can’t afford you. Let me describe for you the only two outcomes that I’ve had when dealing with freelancers: in some cases, I’m very happy with what I’m paying for the job at first. This means that I’m paying either what I had originally set as the budget for the task, or less. I don’t recall a single instance where this ended well for me. Absolutely every time, it ends with the freelancer disappearing mid project or the quality of the work being bad. On the other hand, there are the cases where I had to raise my budget in order to hire the freelancer that I felt most comfortable with. I’m sure you’re thinking “now he’ll say that in this cases where he had to pay more, he always ended up happy with the results”. WRONG! In this cases, about 50% of the times the outcome is just as bad as before (granted, when the quality is bad it’s not AS bad) and only in the remaining half the times I actually have been happy with the results and glad I paid what I did. So to sum it up, what I’ve ended up realizing is that all good freelancers are expensive (unless you find someone who doesn’t properly value her services), but unfortunately not all expensive freelancers are good.
  7. Be Honest. It goes without saying, but you need to be honest. This means not lying to your client (about your abilities or anything important), fulfilling your part of any contracts you sign, not promising things you can’t deliver (“Get to #1 on Google!”), being upfront about what is included in the budget and what isn’t, respecting the client’s privacy, IP and trade secrets, etc.
  8. Provide Sound Advice. Keep in mind that your clients may not be experts on certain things (the Internet, the App Store or whatever) and could use some guidance. It’s your job to advice them on what is good practice or can potentially get them better results (remember that if they want some software done, it’s to make more money or save costs, they don’t care about anything else). If you think the project won’t give them the desired results at all (and can say this diplomacy), I believe it is your right to tell them so. Of course, once you make your case, it’s up to the client to decide, and you shouldn’t be upset if they insist against your better judgement (“One Flash intro coming right up!”).
  9. Have Connections. This isn’t critical, but valuable. Maybe at some point you’ll need to stop working for a client (despite being happy doing so), or maybe your client needs someone else and you don’t fit the bill (p.e. iOS or Android apps while you’re a web developer). For these cases, it’s very valuable to the client if you can put them in touch with other good, reliable freelancers that you can personally vouch for (and you get to help a friend out at the same time).

As you can see there’s a long list of traits you need to have to be a great freelancer, and most people don’t even think about them before they get into it (or while they’re doing it, otherwise they wouldn’t be so many crappy freelancers!). Obviously there are other things you need to be a successful freelancer, like networking or marketing in order to get leads and clients, but that’s outside the scope of this article.

How To Find A Good Freelancer?

Ah, the million dollar question! As I said before, you have to come to terms with the fact that you’re going to pay top dollar. You may get away with less if they live in a cheaper part of the world, but they will still be expensive in contrast to the rest of developers you find in that region. Once you accept this, I actually don’t think there’s a more reliable way than to do what the article I linked to in the beginning describes: select the few that seem good on paper and hire them to do a small test project, and then evaluate how they perform. Yes, it takes time and money, but over time I’ve realized there really isn’t any other way. Even this way isn’t bulletproof, but it’s the best I’ve heard of.

Some other day I’ll also write about what makes a good client. Crappy clients are also abundant and there are many things they could learn in order to have a better relationship with their freelancers, and get better results from them.

Thoughts On Pricing For Developers

Like most developers, I have a problem when it comes to pricing my products and services. I feel like people will think I’m ripping them off or that the price isn’t justified given the value it provides. Basically, I always feel I’m overcharging. Even when it’s clear people would pay for my product (sometimes I even wonder wether I should charge at all!), I have a hard time coming up with a price tag.

The other day I had a powerful realization on this topic. I realized that I pay for a lot of products, yet how much I pay is rarely correlated to the value they provide to me. My train of thought usually is:

  1. Will this tool make my life easier, save me time, bring me happiness, save me money or generate revenue; in any significant way? In other words: is it worth my time and money?
  2. If the answer is no, I close the site. If the answer is maybe, I probably close the site as well (sometimes I bookmark it and never remember it again), unless the potential gain is big enough to warrant dropping the company an email in order to resolve my doubts.
  3. If the answer is yes, then I look at the pricing.
  4. Is it something reasonable given the potential gain I can get from this? This is where most developers tend to underestimate their product. Usually, if the person looking at your product has already decided they want it, has the money (in a B2B environment this is almost always the case) and you have a reasonable price, you’ll make the sale. And “reasonable” is probably more than you thought.

Let me list all the services I pay for, and their cost, before I reach my final conclusion. They’re listed from most critical to least, for me:

So that’s what I pay for every month (or year). Some have completely free or cheaper alternatives, but I just like these a little bit more (or they sold me better). Now, here’s the thing: except on very notable cases (SendGrid) I pay the absolute minimum allowed per service given my usage of them. But as you can see, price is not correlated with value. If all those services announced that they’re doubling their prices from now on (without grandfathering existing customers), I’d be annoyed but would gladly pay. I sincerely believe that if most of your users wouldn’t be happy paying double what they’re currently paying, that means you’re not providing enough value. That doesn’t mean you should raise prices to your existing customers. Unless totally necessary, that’s rude and some will cancel just on principle. As an example from the list, Ink/FilePicker just recently changed their pricing scheme and I went from paying zero to $99/mo. Damn. But still happy to pay for an awesome service that solves a big pain for me. I’m sure not everyone converted to $99/mo. after the change, but I’m sure a lot of them did, and that means a lot of recurring revenue added.

How much extra revenue would all those companies have made during their lifetime if all their prices have been $10 more since the beginning? I think a lot. How many people wouldn’t have decided to pay for it because of the extra $10? I think very few.

When you have a B2B product, all prices should be a no brainer for your customers. And almost any price that you could come up with, will be, assuming your product delivers value. When I saw NathanBerry’s ConvertKit‘s pricing I was surprised. I thought “Where’s the cheap plan?”. $50 is the cheapest plan, and it’s quite limited if you ask me. But the truth is, I wouldn’t get value from this tool right now. I wouldn’t even if it was priced at $25. So I’m not his target audience. If you know what you’re doing, have drip marketing campaigns, email courses and sell something of value, ConvertKit is a steal.

I’ve come to realize that most B2B products’ prices usually have two reactions: either you think it’s too expensive because you’re not the target audience, or you think it’s a bargain because you are. Sure there will be starving startups or freelancers who might want a $100 / mo. product and will think it’s too expensive. But your target audience doesn’t just need to have the pain you’re solving. It also needs to have money to pay for it. You better focus on those potential customers. Plus, if they really have the pain you’re solving, eventually their revenue will grow and they’ll be able to afford your product (or will close shop in which case they didn’t matter all along).

Why Move To Malaysia?

When three years ago I announced to my friends and family that I was leaving Barcelona to travel, and that I was starting in Malaysia, their first question was “Why Malaysia?”. Their second question was “And where the heck is Malaysia?”. It’s in South East Asia, by the way. Next to Thailand, which is way more popular than Malaysia for expats and travellers.

Even though I had never been in Malaysia before (or anywhere in Asia, for that matter), I expected to like it based on my research and what my friend Tom Hayton, who lived in Malaysia for 5 years, told me about the place.

I have to say I didn’t have a good first impression of Malaysia. My cousin (and travel companion) and I arrived in Kuala Lumpur in March and were greeted with a suffocating heat and humidity. Meanwhile, back in Barcelona, they were having the biggest snowstorm ever.

After that, we spent the next few days awake mostly at night due to jetlag, and hanging around a not so nice part of town (where we had booked a hostel for the first week). We realized that wasn’t what we signed up for and booked a ticket to Phuket, Thailand for two days later.

Funnily enough, before we left, we met Hani, an old friend of Tom’s, and we hit it off right away (spiler alert: she’s my wife now). We still moved to Phuket for two months, but kept in touch with Hani and ended up moving to Kuala Lumpur afterwards for three months.

This is my list of things that make Malaysia a great place to relocate to as an expat, which may not seem obvious at first if you come here for just a few days.

PROS:

Language

As opposed to the superpopular Thailand, where the language barrier can be a problem and even reading something is mission impossible due to their hieroglyphic-like alphabet, language in Malaysia isn’t much of an issue.

Malaysia is an old British colony and because of that, English is spoken by a big part of the population. The official language is Malay, the mother tongue of the Malay ethnic group, the biggest one. But there’s also a big Chinese (32%) and Indian (8%) population, so English is often used as the common tongue. Even though some people speak very good English (specially people in their 20s and 30s), be prepared for some heavy accents or situations where the other person simply doesn’t speak English,

Weather

It’s hot (25-35ºC) and very humid (75-95%) in Malaysia, depending on the season and the area of the country where you are. It rains often too. I personally dislike rain, that’s why I’d have a hard time living in London. But rain in Malaysia is different. In Kuala Lumpur, even on the rainy season, it rarely rains more than one or two hours a day. But it rains very heavily. It’s also quite predictable once you get used to it, so it’s relatively easy to avoid being caught by the rain. On the plus side, it cools the day down and because of that, this is probably the only place I’ve ever been where I’m happy that it rains on a daily basis.

Location

Malaysia is very well located in South East Asia. Its borders are shared with Thailand, Indonesia, and Brunei, and maritime borders exist with Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

AirAsia, Asia’s most popular low cost airline, uses Kuala Lumpur’a airport as its central hub, so there’s lots of cheap flights all across the region. Roundtrip prices for next month according to AirAsia’s website: Singapore $70, Bangkok $79, Bali $107, Ho Chi Minh City $115, Melbourne $123, Phuket $131, Hong Kong $189, Tokyo $247, Shanghai $262, Seoul $368 and the list goes on and on. You can find way better deals if you plan in advance, but as you can see it’s pretty affordable. When people living in Europe or the US consider a holiday in any Asian country, it all comes down to the same problem: local expenses will be low, but the flight cost is ridiculous. If you live in Malaysia both the holiday cost AND the flight can be cheap!

Cost of living

Malaysia offers great value for money if you’re an expat. Rents vary a lot depending on where you stay in the city and the type of housing you want (apartment at a condo with gym, whole house, etc ). 3 years ago I stayed at a decent 2 bedroom apartment at a condo with pool in Bangsar, which is a pretty cool area to live in, for $577 /mo. Now I’m staying with some friends at a way better two bedroom apartment in a nicer condo, in the same area, and they pay $729 /mo. There are way cheaper options if you’re willing to give up some comfort (pool, space, location…), and way more expensive as well.

Most condos have a laundry shop where you can get someone to do wash and fold your laundry for like $0.30 a pound. A maid to come for 4-5 hours to clean your house might cost you $20.

Cabs are cheap here as well, with most rides costing around $2-$3. If you choose to drive, even paid parking spots in malls usually cost no more than $0.5-$1 an hour.

Going to the movies can cost from $3 for basic seats and movies all the way to $9 for the comfy seat, 3D movie, etc.

Eating out can be extremely cheap, or just as expensive as in Europe or the US. You can eat a delicious local meal for $1-$2, $5 or so for more expensive options (shrimps, etc) or maybe spend $10-$15 at a fancier restaurant at a mall (still sticking to Asian food). There are some great Sushi places as well for $15-$20 per person. If you want Italian, American, steak, etc. then you’ll probably looking at $20 or higher. Overall, cooking at home is only recommended if you’re going to be eating things like meat, salads, etc. If you’re into Asian food, you’ll be eating like a king for very cheap.

Drinking is expensive, though. Between importing costs and the very high tax on alcohol (it’s a muslim country after all), the cost of drinking is very high compared to everything else. The same wine that in Spain costs €4, here you’ll find it for €20 on the supermarket. A bottle of rum that would cost €13 in Spain, here costs €40-50. Drinks might be slightly cheaper or same price than other places in the US or Europe. A cocktail usually goes for $5, and a beer for $3. It doesn’t get much cheaper if you buy beer at the supermarket either.

What some friends do, considering that flying is cheap and they take regular weekend escapades, is buy their alcohol at the airport, where there is no tax and a bottle can cost half as much as in the city. It’s a good idea, but still doesn’t help with the cost of drinking at a bar.

Food

Other than the cost, which can be really cheap, food here is delicious. Before I came here I had tasted sushi, chinese, thai and indian food back home. After being in Asia I can say the only authentic Asian food I had tasted was sushi.

First of all, pretty much everything is spicy here. Our most spicy food in Spain is probably the lowest here. If you’re not into spicy food (I wasn’t at first), you’ll be sweating and drinking juice or milk tea after every bite. But after a few weeks you’ll be hooked and will love it. Don’t get me wrong, I still don’t go for the “real spicy” stuff here, but the basic spicy tastes great.

You’ll find delicious Malay, Chinese and Indian food everywhere. Some good Thai, Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese too, although pricier. And for more money, I’ve also tasted decent burgers, pasta, pizza and even tapas. Basically, if you love food, you’ll be right at home.

On the grocery front, you’ll find almost everything you want if you shop at the right places, but expect to pay a premium for imported or not very locally consumed goods, and the quality won’t be as good as back home sometimes: bread, cheese, pork cured meats, etc. Overall, you’ll find eating in more expensive than eating out.

Being an expat here

White people are usually pretty well regarded here. You could say there’s positive racism towards white folks. Salaries in Kuala Lumpur are OK for locals, but usually expats command higher salaries, even in local companies. Still, the ones who do really well are expats who come here relocated from their country’s office (say, the UK or the US). They usually make the same salary as back home, sometimes with a relocation bonus, and here that means big bucks.

The community of expats, at least those who I’ve met, seems pretty great as well. They mostly have good jobs and are cool and interesting people. It also helps that they make good money when it comes to planning things to do. In Barcelona there’s a lot of expats that have local salaries (not great) or living on savings who are always scrapping by, and the difference shows.

Comfort

With an expat salary, life can be just as comfortable as back home, if not more. Eating out all the time, good apartments, pool and gym right in the condo, frequent weekend escapades, AC on all the time, a fast and reliable Internet connection… The only thing I find more unconvenient than back home is that Barcelona is small, walkable and the public transportation is great, while in Kuala Lumpur you pretty much need a car to move around.

Diversity

The mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures along with a lot of Western influence and expats living in town make Kuala Lumpur a very diverse and interesting place to live. As a comparison, I found Bogotá (Colombia) to be more homogenous. People share a similar look and personality traits, while here that doesn’t happen.

Entertainment

Kuala Lumpur is huge (the metro area is home to roughly 7.5 million people), and there is a big variety of entertainment offers. Clubs, bars, movie theaters, concerts…

If you get into the expat circle you’ll see there seems to be a pool party pretty much every weekend, too.

There are also awesome places to visit without leaving Malaysia during a long weekend: Langkawi, Cameron Highlands, Penang, Batu Caves, Sarawak in East Malaysia…

If you like diving, Perhentian Islands have some of the best spots in South East Asia, although you should only go March to October due to monsoon season. And if you’re into surfing, Bali is great for that and just around the corner.

CONS:

Traffic

Huge city plus crappy public transportation equals traffic jams. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Los Angeles or Mexico City, the formula is never wrong, and it isn’t here. If you skip rush hour you’ll be mostly in the clear, though.

Religion

Malaysia isn’t Afghanistan, Iran or Saudi Arabia, but you can still feel it’s a muslim country in many ways. It’s not too bad, though. As an expat, here are the things I’ve noticed that are quite annoying (some more than others):

  • The ridiculous “sin tax” on alcohol.
  • The annoying traffic jams around mosques on Friday afternoons, during praying time.
  • If you want to buy alcohol or pork at the supermarket, you have to pay that first at a different line and then line up for the regular line for the rest of the products.
  • Less freedom of speech in the arts. It’s quite common to ban or censor movies, shows, videogames, etc. depending on their content.

I hope that by now you’ll be curious enough about Malaysia that you’ll consider visiting if you’re in the region. I’ll be here for another week and then spend a month in Bali (being so close and all), to be back later in Kuala Lumpur for another week or two before moving on with my travels. If you happen to be in town while I’m here or just want to ask anything about Malaysia, get in touch.

To Everyone Who Works Online: Never Forget This


Like everyone, I have problems. And like a lot of people, I worry or stress about them more than I should. Yes, there are big problems or situations in life that  will (and should) stress or worry you, like critical health issues. But 99% of what most people worry, stress or get upset about is just bullshit. I’m of course talking about people with their basic needs covered, which I’m sure includes everyone reading this post.

A few years ago a friend was explaining to me how he realized his life was pretty sweet: he found himself being quite upset about running out of ice while having drinks at home with some good friends. He was right. When your biggest problem in life is running out of ice for drinks, you’re doing well.

Sometimes I’m so occupied worrying about stuff that shouldn’t matter that I don’t have time to be grateful and happy about how extremely lucky I am, and have been most of my life.

I’m from Spain, where the situation for a lot of people is pretty bad right now (youth unemployment is over 50%), and I’m sure a lot of them won’t be having an easy time this holiday season. Still, if you’re as fortunate as I am to work online (and every year more and more people are), we live in exciting times. If you’re a developer, designer, marketer, writer or a multitude of other “professions”, I’m sure you could use a little reminder for when you’re feeling down.

We have found our passion

Sometimes I get sad when I realize that actually, most people don’t really enjoy what they do at work. They might be OK with it (as in, they don’t hate it), but it’s definitely not something they’d do on their free time or that they are passionate enough to discuss with their friends. We are fortunate to have found something we love to do in life. Most people aren’t that lucky and don’t even have a hobby outside of work, and just spend time watching movies, meeting friends, etc. Not that here’s anything wrong with that, but if you have a hobby or passion you’ll agree with me that life would feel emptier without it.

We work on something we love

That doesn’t mean work is always easy or that we always have a smile on our face. Sometimes we work with people we don’t like. But I’d much rather be doing this than anything else in the world. Heck, this is how I spend much of my free time too, and it’s a topic I never get tired of talking about.

We are paid well

Of course, there are exceptions. But right now, everything online is in high demand. Sure, there are better paid professions, but they’re usually just something that is more critical or difficult (say, a surgeon) or that are in higher demand (say, a movie star that can make a movie highly profitable).

I agree there are things that could be better (overtime in certain companies or industries, crappy managers, etc) but the important thing to remember is that we have one of the better paid jobs out there. Enjoy it while it lasts.

We can find work easily

Again, we’re in high demand. There are online businesses everywhere in the world. And if you speak English, you can actually move anywhere you want in the world and, if you’re good, will probably have an easy time finding a job.

We can work from anywhere

The majority of companies still require their employees to work on site. And I’m willing to bet most people are actually OK with that. But if you’re one of those who prefer to work remotely. Either from home, from a different region in your country or from the other side of the world altogether, there are companies out there who could be a good fit for you. You can find some of those jobs here.

There are not many professions that let you relocate to a different country while still being able to keep your job. We should be grateful we have one that allows us to do it.

We’re mostly valued on our performance

Again, there are exceptions and companies that value more the time you spend there (if you work for one, find another job). Still, you’ll agree that in most companies, as long as you perform well and do your job to the standard that is required (or higher), they won’t have a problem with you leaving a bit early, taking some off here and there or playing the company foosball a bit too much. Very few companies (again, the wrong ones) will fire a great performer because he doesn’t “look like one”.

We have incredible perks

Since demand is high, and having the right talent is critical to the success of your company (unlike many positions in other industries), companies resort to not just paying us well, but also offer other great perks. From great offices, foosball and pingpong tables to delicious catered lunches and free massages, I’ve seen it all.

We are treated like human beings

People who’ve only had this kind of jobs (like me) sometimes forget how badly treated employees are in general in certain industries. Horrible bosses, lack of job security, change from day to night shifts every few weeks, safety or health issues, etc. Most Internet companies are run by decent (yet sometimes flawed) human beings and we are generally treated fairly. And some of the policies these companies have are just plain inspiring. Have you ever seen a mining company offering deceased employees’ spouses 50% of their salary for 10 years, or a bank having an open salary policy?

Starting our own business has never been easier

This is probably our biggest advantage over other professions. Very few industries allow you to start a business on the side while having a day job, and grow it successfully until it allows you to make a great living out of it.

I’ve never seen a waiter or chef start a restaurant while having a full time job. Everytime I hear how much it costs to start a small restaurant, bar or shop, I get a shock. It’s ridiculous, to me, as someone who works online. And then I remember, that’s the capital you used to need for starting any kind of business: a lot. And most types of businesses still do. But online, we can start a business dedicating mostly our time.

Every writer can start their own blog and make a living out of it (I did). Every marketer can get into affiliate marketing and make money. Every developer can make an app or website and do the same. Yes, not everyone has the determination to do it. And not everyone who does will pull it off. That’s just how the market works. But we have it easier than anyone to give it a try.

So don’t forget. We’re extremely luck to live in such a short and exciting period in humanity’s history. Let’s be grateful and enjoy it while it lasts.

The Ultimate To-Do List: Your Inbox

I’ve tried a lot of task management systems and to-do list apps over the years. Simple and complex, web-based and native, mobile and desktop. Despite some of them being quite slick, I always ended up ignoring them over time. It seems stupid, but just the fact that my tasks are on some separate app that I have to consciously open and keep updated, makes me drop them eventually. It is “too much work”. Eventually I found a workflow that’s so integrated into my daily routine that it works perfectly for me. Everyone’s different, but I’m sure some people will find it works wonderfully for them too.

Before I go any further let me clarify something. Besides the system I’ll describe in this post, I also use Basecamp, where I have all my projects and their respective backlog of tasks (plus documents, etc). Some of those lists are huge, some are small. It depends on the project. I usually have a vague roadmap of big projects and features (launch X on Q2 2014, etc), but other than that I just have a week or two worth of tasks planned (with deadlines). And I mostly use the calendar to have a visual view of my next weeks’ worth of work.

So I do use some classic project management software. The system I’m about to describe works on top of that. I use it for emails I need to reply, personal tasks (do laundry, call someone, do taxes, etc), work related tasks that don’t necesarily fit into a Basecamp project (or I just feel like it’s important enough to deserve extra visibility), or maybe it’s something I thought about and haven’t had the time to put into Basecamp yet.

Keeping Your Tasks Visible

Something everyone has problems with is finding a way to be aware of their to-do items. Some people try sticking post-it notes on the bathroom mirror or the computer monitor, since they think they’ll look at them every day. I don’t think that’s a useful method, since there’s limited real state available and is harder to maintain than an digital solution.

At some point I realized there is something that I look at multiple times during the day, every day. Even in my off days. My inbox. I always have a Gmail tab open. Or if I’m on the go, check it on my phone quite often.

Using Your Inbox As A To-Do List

There are some people who may receive hundreds of emails a day they need to reply to, and they’ll think they can’t make this work because of the volume. I personally receive maybe around 100 emails a day, sometimes more, although a lot of them are things that I need to know about, but not necessarily need to reply to. My opinion is that this system works whatever your email volume is.

The way the system works is very simple, really: each email you receive is something you need to act upon, and you use email for everything. For every email you receive, these are your choices:

  • You can do nothing (that’s also a choice) if you don’t have to do anything about it. Maybe you were just CC’d on something but your whole purpose on that thread is to know about it. This means you just read it (or mark it as read).
  • You can delete or archive it, if it’s completely useless or you don’t particularly want it wasting space in your inbox. Keep in mind that I don’t strive for inbox zero in the traditional sense. For me, an unread item is an item that requires my attention. A read item is one I already dealt with. So for me, zero unread items is the equivalent of inbox zero.
  • You can reply to it.
  • You can delegate it to someone (forward it or CC someone into the conversation).
  • You can postpone it (maybe it’s something you need to deal with but only in, say, a week from now, and you don’t want it bothering you now).
  • You can create a task into your formal task management software (if you use any). This includes Basecamp, Jira, FogBugz, Flow, Asana, etc.
  • You can take some other action (maybe call someone, run an errand, etc).

How It All Actually Works

The technical implementation of this system is pretty straightforward:

  • Use Gmail in your desktop, configured to show “Unread Messages First”. This effectively separates your inbox in two: first all your unread emails, which are all the items on your to-do list that you haven’t dealt with, and then all your read messages, which could be thousands or more, it doesn’t matter, and you shouldn’t really look at them unless you need to dig up some old data (a flight’s details, an old conversation, etc). In essence, you should only be focusing on the unread items in your inbox.
  • If you for example read an email and you need to do something with it (like reply) but can’t do it right away, just mark is as unread and you’ll keep seeing it at the top of your inbox, and you’ll never forget to reply.
  • Adding a task to your list is as simple as sending yourself an email. From any device in the world, really. In the desktop, I just send myself an email from Gmail since with autocomplete it takes 2 seconds. On my phone, which I use several times per day when I need to remind myself of anything, I use Captio. A 1.99$ app which I use several times per day. Easily best two bucks I ever spent. Just fire it up, write whatever you want to send yourself, and then click Send. You can even attach images and files. Way faster than using the Email app.
  • I wish there was a way I could easily reorganize my unread emails in Gmail and they stayed that way, to reprioritize tasks (keep most important tasks on top instead of latest). But what I do works most of the times: I just reply to it (assuming I sent it to myself), or just forward it to myself. That way it goes to the top of the list. I don’t necesarily take action on items from top to bottom, but I find that sometimes an item I’ve been procrastinating about for a while and has been sitting at the bottom of the list gets more attention from me if I bump it to the top.
  • I use the Gmail iPhone app since it has a “Show unread emails first” and the official iPhone Mail app does not. It’s a pity because other than that, I prefer the official app.
  • To postpone a task, or be reminded some time in the future, I use FollowUp.cc. It’s a great service, and quite cheap (I actually used the free version for months until I needed more monthly emails). You basically send an email to an address like [time]@followup.cc, and you’ll get a reminder after that time. For example: 1w@followup.cc will send you that email back to you after 1 week. 3d@followup.cc will send it to you after 3 days. And so on. The paid version even has a calendar you can look at and it’ll show all your scheduled reminders. It’d be awesome if you could reschedule them by drag and dropping them, again like tasks on Basecamp.
  • For exact time and date reminders (like you have a Skype call next Monday at 2pm, or a doctor’s appointment), I personally prefer to use my phone’s calendar system (although you could always use Google Calendar and have it synced to your phone), and I always include two alerts. One quite some time in advance, the other with very little margin. It depends on the situation, for example:
    • For a Skype call, I’ll probably have one an hour before, and then 5 minutes before.
    • For a doctor’s appointment at 9am, I might have one the day before and the other an hour before, since I’ll need to physically go somewhere for it.
  • I also use labels in Gmail to quickly differentiate tasks at a glance. For example, any emails I receive from myself are labeled as TO-DO. If they’ve been sent to one of my businesses’ address, I label them as from that business. I use strong colors with white text (like bright red or blue) for work or more important projects, and lighter colors with dark text for personal stuff.

How Does My Inbox Usually Look Like?

Usually, when I look at my inbox in the morning it has anywhere from 50 to 100 unread messages. After I’ve deleted all the notifications, dealt with the easy stuff and replied to the quick emails, I’m down to less than 20.

Those 20 are usually a variety of things, which can include:

  • An email that will take some concentration and time to reply to.
  • An email that will require that I perform some other task before I can reply to.
  • A reminder that I need to run some errand (do laundry, buy groceries, etc) or task (change copy, fix bug, etc).
  • Some ideas for features or projects that I need to either do (maybe it’s a possible solution for a bug I’m trying to fix) or just dump into Basecamp (if it’s more of a complex task that will require breaking it into smaller tasks).
  • A link to a blog post, article, ebook, video or any other type of resource I found while browsing the net (probably on my phone) and I want to take the time to look into at some point. Usually these end up either being read/watched in a week’s time or I deem them not that important after all, and just mark them as read.

At this point, and depending on how motivated I am, I start by the easiest or hardest/most important, and use the momentum to plow through as many as I can before I call it a day (or move on to my tasks for the day on Basecamp).

I’d love to hear your feedback on my system as well as any recommendations to improve it or make it even simpler to use.

Everything You Need To Discuss Before Starting A Business With Someone

When most people decide to partner up for a business, they pick someone they already know. Friends, coworkers & family members. Usually they’ve known them for years, and think they know them well. That, I think, plus just a general lack of understanding of everything that can go wrong (and usually does) in a business relationship, leads people to believe they don’t need to talk much to each other about things like expectations, “what happens if”, etc. before they start working on the business. They probably also don’t think they need to put everything in writing either. “We trust each other”, they say.

This is probably the first advice I give to anyone asking me for it. Look, having a thorough and (sometimes) hard conversation with your soon-to-be partner(s) is absolutely critical. And putting everything you agree on in writing too. And the reason for it isn’t that you can’t trust them or anything, it’s to preserve the business and the friendship. If you just talk and one year down the line you each think the equity split of the business is different, who is right? The answer is you can’t tell for sure, but you’re in deep trouble (trust me, I’ve been there).

Because of some past bad experience with this topic (which I’m still paying for), I decided to build an app that’d guide people over that tough conversation they must have in the beginning, and help them also download and sign a proper agreement with everything they talk about so that there’s no doubt in the future of what was agreed to. Here’s a link to the prototype, if you’re interested. You’ll see it doesn’t really “work”, it’s just a proof of concept, and I’d appreciate some feedback on it.

Here’s a list of everything you should talk about (and agree on) before you move on to work on a business with someone. If you can’t agree on any of these topics before you’ve even created anything or invested any time and money, shake hands and DO NOT move forward with the venture. Because you will have problems down the line.

Who is getting in business together?

It sounds stupid, but it’s still worth mentioning. Maybe one of you thinks that someone else (a friend, a girlfriend, etc) will be joining in too, maybe later. Make sure who is on the founding team, and who is out (everyone else).

Define the business

Again, sounds stupid, but it isn’t. Define properly and in detail what you want to build. Because if you just talked briefly, maybe you have different ideas of what you’re doing and that will lead to disappointments, confusion and arguments later.

What will each of you do?

Define each of your roles in the company. Who’s gonna do, say, sales? Or development? And if both of you are going to work on one area, how will you split the work? It’s always good to have complementary skills (say a technical partner who develops the product and a business partner who sells and markets it). Otherwise, you’ll have to bring in someone else on board to do those things you can’t do. Or do them yourselves, which may not be the best approach if you don’t have any experience with it.

As part of this, and this is one of the many uncomfortable decisions you must make, you should choose a CEO. Yes, there are companies with two co-CEOs, but it’s not the norm, for a reason. Eventually you’ll disagree on something important, and the CEO must have final call on almost everything. Again, if you can’t trust your new partner to be CEO, and he or she can’t trust you, then you have a problem that you better address before you even start.

How much will each of you work?

You should have an honest hard look at your life and your current work load, and decide (realistically) how much time you can invest in the business. If one of you is unemployed and can work 80h a week and the other has a day job and a family and can only work ten, that’s something you need to discuss soon, so everyone knows what to expect. Again, this avoids disappointment and arguments later on.

As part of this you should also talk about whether any of you will be working on other side projects or businesses at the same time. It’s always better to focus on one thing at a time, specially if you can’t work on it full time.

How much money will you each invest and under what terms?

Is any of you putting any money? If so, how much? And how will it be spent? How about other assets like a patent, existing source code, equipment, raw materials, etc. All these are again critical to discuss upfront.

You should also talk about whether someone else is putting in money and how much. And what happens if they end up falling through or you can’t convince them to. Does the business die right there and then? Do you try working on it without that seed capital?

Last but not least, you need to discuss how those investments (assuming there are any) are treated. And this can be very simple or very complicated, technically speaking. What you shouldn’t do under any circumstances is to just put money for free (unless you all put in an equal amount). At the very least, the investment should be returned to whoever put it, plus interest, when the company turns a profit. Other options (which I personally recommend) are that that cash investment buys extra shares in the company. You’ll need to discuss how many. Again, that’s a tough conversation.

And what happens if you run out of money and you need more? Will any of you be able to? Friends and family? Angel investors? VCs? Under what terms (assuming you can dictate them)? Will you bootstrap?

How much will you each be making?

Most companies won’t pay the founders until the business turns a profit or you raise some external capital, but everyone’s situation is different. Maybe one of you has money to invest and the other absolutely needs to take a salary to be able to spend time working on the business. You need to talk about this, and how you’ll treat it. Of course, someone who gets a salary (however small) is already taking a lot less risk than someone who doesn’t (because your business will most likely fail, by the way).

And what happens when you turn a profit? Do you split them among all of you based on your equity? Do you set yourself a salary and reinvest the rest into the company? Do you reinvest it all and take nothing for yourself? Until what point? And who gets to change any of that? The CEO? An unanimous vote? Money is a touchy issue, so much to talk about in this department. Trust me, waiting until you make money to make these decisions is a bad idea. You should agree on something now, and later on if you agree on something else, then you change it. But agree on something before there’s too much at stake and a failure to decide puts the company in jeopardy.

How will shares vest over time?

To most people who aren’t on the “tech startup” circuit, vesting is usually a foreign term. Vesting means, in layman terms, that you don’t own all your shares in the business from day one, but rather, you earn them over time. Standard terms for technology companies (which I recommend you stick to, even for other industries) is 4 years with a 1 year cliff. That means that if you’re two people and each of you has 50% of the business, you need to work on the business for four years in order to fully earn (or vest) your whole 50% of the business. If you leave after 2 years, you’d only own 25% of it. I hope it’s clear. The one year cliff part means that, if you leave before you work on the business for one year, you own nothing. Not even the proportional part of those few first months.

I understand that a lot of people might be skeptic of such term. I was at first. Why would I need to earn my own shares? What if I want to leave? What if I get somehow fired, or we have a fight? That’s exactly why it’s there for. Imagine it the other way around:

Without vesting, if you and a friend split a business 50/50 and make it official, he can literally quit a week later and still own 50% of the business, even if you end up working for years on it and ends up generating millions of dollars. Your friend, who did absolutely nothing, will own as much as you. I’m sure you agree that isn’t fair. And if you do the same? Then it’s also not fair that you own any part of the business. It’s as simple as that.

Now, of course, it can get a lot trickier. Say you’re three cofounders and two of you want to fire the third one after a few months. He’s clearly done some work but there’s clearly a culture problem, or something like that. What do you do? You leave him with nothing? Well at this point is a negotiation, although you can also add terms to it into the agreement. Something you could do if he worked for 9 months and did solid work is for example vest him a full year and let him own 25% of his shares. If the company’s making money there’s also the option of a cash severance. The options can be many, depending on the individual’s and the company’s preference.

One other thing you should consider. What happens if you sell the company after 2 years when everyone’s only vested 50% of their shares? Do they still need to be work at that company for two more years? And what happens if they are fired immediately after the acquisition? That may not be fair. For such scenarios there’s something called acceleration. A standard term is 50% acceleration on single trigger and 100% acceleration on double trigger. This means that in our example above, 50% of your unvested shares would vest if the company is acquired (so it’d be like you worked for 3 years at the company when it was acquired instead of 2), and 100% of your unvested shares would vest if the company is acquired and you are fired (basically, you’ll get all of your shares).

Sometimes companies screw people with these terms. For example let’s say you’re an employee and are on year 2 of your 4-year vesting. The company is going to be acquired and they want to fire you afterwards because, who knows, they may only want the product. In order to give you less money, your company may fire you immediately before the acquisition. That way it counts as a regular termination and you only get your 2 years vested so far. Of course this is a very unethical and fortunately rare practice.

Still, let me end this section clearly saying again: you need to add vesting to your agreement, and I recommend 4 years with a 1 year cliff. Even for founders.

In what situation can a founder be fired?

Yes, even founders can be fired. Happens often. You need to understand that being a shareholder in a company (owning shares) and working on it are two separate things. Some people do just one (investors only own shares, some employees only work on it) and other people do both, like founders in the beginning. But this situation can change over time. Maybe an employee is given equity, or sells their shares. Or maybe a founder is fired.

Either way, you need to decide under what circumstances can a founder be fired. And I’m not talking about the reasons, but about the procedure. Who can make the decision? The CEO? Does a majority of the shareholders need to agree (whoever they may be)? Does the majority of the founders (this of course isn’t possible if there are only two and nobody wants to get fired). My suggestion is that, if there’s no investors and the company’s just the founders (assuming there are more than two), it should be majority of founders who agree. In any other scenario (just two founders, bigger company with investors, etc), it should be the CEO’s call.

If you’re scared that your founders will just fire you for no other reason but to get a bigger share of the pie (not that you’d want to start a business with these people if you’re genuinely concerned), keep in mind that you could always sue for wrongful termination.

How and when will the company be incorporated?

In some countries, incorporating a company isn’t trivial or cheap, so you may not want to do it right from the start. So when will you do it? Depends on your situation or preference. Some people choose to do it when they start generating revenue. Or maybe after a specific amount of time has passed. Maybe you want to wait until you raise venture capital or get accepted into an accelerator. Either was is fine, but talk about it and put it in writing.

What are your goals for the business?

This is important and not many people pay attention to this. One of you may want to raise VC and join the startup circuit, while the other prefers to bootstrap the business while retaining ownership and control. Either view is fine but you should agree on what each of you considers desirable, acceptable or unacceptable.

Do you want to always run it as a side business or at some point will you quit your job to work full time on this? When would this happen? Do you want to try and join and accelerator? Would you be interested in approaching advisors to join the company? How about selling the company, is that on the table? Or maybe, if you’re one in a million, taking the company public? Is either one of you interested in working only for a couple of years and then moving on to the next thing?

Extra terms

There are a bunch of extra terms you should talk about and add to your agreement. Some of the ones I recommend are:

  • Non compete: you should agree that, whatever happens (one of you quits, is fired, etc), you won’t create or work for a competing business for at least 2 years after your relationship with the company ends.
  • Confidentiality: none of you is allowed to share confidential information about the company with any third party without the consent of the CEO or the rest of the founders.
  • Intellectual Property Forfeit: this means you all forfeit all IP rights to the work you do to the company. This includes whatever you contribute from the start, maybe some source code that predates the creation of the company, or a patent.

How are you going to split the business?

Last but not least, probably the most important thing to talk about and usually the one that causes the most arguments. I like to discuss this at the end because I think it’s important to talk about everything else first.

Before you decide how much of the business each of you belongs, you need to know how time you will all work on it, how much money you’ll invest, how big a salary you’ll take, etc.

As a rule of thumb , you will rarely end up with an equal split. If you do, may be putting yourself up for resentment later on. You don’t want to be thinking “Why do we own the same percentage of the company if I do twice as much work as him?”. It really is a hard place to be at, but at the very least, if you go through all the items on this list and end up knowingly accepting an equal equity split and an unequal time dedication split, then it’s on you. Also keep in mind that if there are two of you and you have an equal 50/50 split, you may end up not being able to make certain decisions. And lack of action often kills companies.

So how should you split the business? There isn’t a specific way of doing it, and eventually it’s up to you, but here are all the factors that should absolutely be part of your decision making:

  • How much time is each of you going to dedicate to the business? Working full time is worth a lot more than working “nights and weekends”.
  • How much money is each of you investing?
  • How much experience do you each have at your role? If for example a very experienced and a very inexperienced are forming a business together, all things being equal, the former will have a bigger share of the company.
  • How much market knowledge do you each have? Maybe you’re not a very experienced coder but you have years of inside knowledge at the industry your new company will be part of (say, real estate). This also counts.
  • How much time and money have they invested so far? Maybe one of the founders have been working on it for a year and the other is just joining now.
  • Who is CEO? Usually they have extra equity for the sole fact of being in charge of the company.
  • Who came up with the idea? Usually they have extra equity too.
  • Do any of you have other companies under your belt? An entrepreneur with a proven track record is a lot more valuable (and should have extra shares) than a first time entrepreneur, if they join forces.
  • Other things each of you may bring to the table: good connections in the industry or VCs, a patent, certain technology…

Now some things that shouldn’t have any importance when considering your equity split:

  • How good friends are you?
  • Will they get hurt or feel unappreciated if they, for a good reason, have less than an equal share of the business?

Closing notes

Well at this point if you’ve talked about and agreed on all those terms, you’re more than ready to actually start a business together, knowing that your foundations are solid. Good luck!

Can We Ever Trust Black Market Websites Again?

After Silk Road was shut down by the FBI earlier this year, arguably the most popular site of its kind, lots of new black market sites popped up in the aftermath, trying to claim the now empty throne and to fill the void in the market left by SR. Users rushed to claim that this new way of buying illegal products online was here to stay, no matter what the authorities tried to do about it, as there’s a lot of money to be made. As the mythical Hydra, cut one head and three more grow in its place.

And they were right. SR’s shutdown brought a whole new set of players, some of them technically better than its predecessor, and business was as good as ever (probably the closure of the popular website and its appearance on the media brought in a lot of awareness to the existence of these black market sites).

But when you thought that customers were safe from vendors because of the review and escrow system, and vendors were safe from the authorities because of all the technical efforts made by the market site owners (and lack of mistakes, unlike the Silk Road owner) to ensure everyone’s anonymity, making the whole thing a great place to engage in illegal activities, turns out there’s a new problem in town: market sites scamming vendors and customers alike.

Atlantis was the first to go, taking everyone’s money. Then Project Black Flag also shut down, also taking everyone’s money with it. In case you don’t know how these markets work, let me explain a bit so you know what I mean when I say “taking everyone’s money”. These sites all transact with bitcoins, since you don’t need credit cards or bank accounts to make payments and thus, you can shop at these illegal marketplaces without having your real identity tied to it (assuming you did things right to protect yourself). So you have your private wallet with all your bitcoins. You’re the only one with the key / password so nobody can access it. For now you’re in the clear. But in order to buy things from these sites, you need to first send money into the site (into a personal private wallet you have on the site, but that the site owners can also access), so that the site can automatically deduct from it the amount you spend on the site. At the same time, vendors have their own private wallet on the site where they receive the bitcoins paid by customers. Both parties can theoretically withdraw any bitcoins they want from their account at any time back to their private wallets (where they’re safe).

Lots of customers (most, really) don’t just send the exact amount they need to buy what they want and withdraw back what’s leftover. They have some extra money for the next time they want to buy. And lots of vendors leave a bunch of bitcoins there, only withdrawing when they feel like it. Some vendors lost tens of thousands of dollars when Silk Road went bust a few months ago, because they hadn’t withdrawn their bitcoins. So when I mean “taking everyone’s money”, I mean taking the money of customers and vendors that still had money in their wallets in the website (where the site owners can access it and send it to other wallets not accessible to their rightful owners). Basically, it’s like you sharing a bank account with Amazon, where you both can operate it, but the money is yours. And at some point, they wire all your money to one of Amazon’s accounts. The safest thing to do in this scenario, is to never have any more money than absolutely necessary in that website wallet.

Sadly, the latest market to join this trend is Sheep Marketplace. Ironically, a lot of people thought this market was a scam or an FBI honeypot from the start because of its name, while others thought that was too obvious a clue. As far as I know, it was the most popular market right now, and given current Bitcoin exchange rates, the admins stole over $40 million worth of it from customers and vendors. Clearly, there’s a lot of money in the space. Remember that Silk Road processed over $1 billion in sales over two years, and its profits were (at the current exchange rate) over $100 million.

A comment on HackerNews made me realize something. How can you trust black market site admins with your money? The author makes some good points:

  1. The admins have made a big effort to hide their real identities from the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. You’re clearly not going to find out who they are.
  2. You can’t even report them to the police because using these sites is illegal in the first place.
  3. Bitcoin doesn’t provide any safety measures to recover your money in case of fraud, unlike credit cards.

Basically, you’re left to trust the admin’s good will and honesty as the absolutely only thing to do. Based on what I read, Ross Ulbricht, Silk Road’s founder, seemed liked a true libertarian and a fighter for the cause. If he didn’t bail out (even just properly closing down the site without taking everyone’s money) after making tens of millions of dollars, he was probably sticking around for the long haul. And it seemed like a good idea when, after years of running a highly profitable and known illegal site, he seemed to be invisible to the authorities. But we all know how that turned out.

So I’m guessing people with the skills to run and grow these sites have come to realize one thing: they can create a great site and provide a good service, gain the trust of our users, and when the time (and the bounty) is right, they shut it down, steal everyone’s money and move to a private island to sip piña coladas. The alternative, most probably, is to end up being too profitable and well known for their own good, and being caught by the cops (nobody’s perfect and everyone makes mistakes). Definitely makes more sense to make a lot of money in a few months and disappear. Most law enforcement agencies probably won’t spend a lot of resources tracking down someone who closed shop and stole money from drug vendors and buyers.

The Story of How I Grew and Sold a Blog for $20,000

A thread on HackerNews prompted me to write a comment on my personal experience growing, living off, and eventually selling JuegosIndie.net, a blog in Spanish about casual/indie games. I’m not sure if you’ll get learn much from it (a lot of it was dumb luck) but hopefully you’ll find the story amusing.

The Beginning

In 2007 I had just joined Softonic as a web developer, after pretty much giving up on making a living making indie games (I’ll write about this another day). There I met Albert García, currently CTO at Verticomm. A few years back he had started Obolog (a free blogging platform in Spanish) as a side project and created NexoBlogs (a more commercial and professional network of blogs) as a byproduct. All the blogs in the network were basically run by some of Albert’s friends and relatives. Some were actually run by other colleagues of mine at the time at Softonic.

At some point I gave him the idea of creating a blog about indie/casual games since it was a niche I thought was powerful and underserved (specially in Spanish), and even gave him the name of a friend of mine as someone who could run it (he was already blogging for a more mainstream videogame blog and knew a lot about the scene). He proposed I write instead, something I hadn’t really considered. After some pondering I said ‘what the heck, why not?’ and started writing right away, before we even got a nicer design for it. After I wrote around 10-15 posts, he officially added it to the NexoBlogs network and uploaded the official design. I was so proud of being part of it.

I have to say that I never started it with the goal of making money off it. Mostly, because some of the other blogs had been running for a couple of years now, and if I remember correctly none of them were making even $100 a month (from AdWords) by then. I saw it purely as doing something fun and being part of something bigger than myself.

I started writing about some games that I loved and it was fun for a while. But at some point I realized I kind of had run out of games that I played and loved or that were so well known they deserved their own posts (even if I wasn’t a big fan of them). I had reached the crossroads that every blogger gets to (most sooner rather than later): should I keep writing even if it’s not fun or it doesn’t come easy anymore? Most bloggers get to this point by week two. At least I had lasted a few months!

A Change In The Fun

Luckily, I realized something. 90% of the traffic to the blog (which was rising nicely but was still way behind other blogs in the network) was coming from a handful of posts in related topics. Hidden Object & Time Management games, which are definitely not my favorites, were driving most of the traffic. So then I started writing not for the fun of it but to see if I could increase the traffic to the site. It became a competition, against myself and the rest of the blogs in the network.

By studying popular keywords in my niche (Google Keyword Research Tool was helpful), what games were driving the most traffic and also what games were topping the charts at popular game portals, I managed to increase traffic to the blog a log, and eventually be among the top 2-3 in the network.

Money Enters The Picture

As I said before, making more than beer money was never in my mind. By now I was probably still making less than $100 a month. But then something happened that made me realize there could actually be money here. One of the other blogs in the network got lucky with a very, very popular (but unfortunately, very seasonal too) keyword and got insane traffic and AdWords revenue. In a few short months the guy who ran it got over $1,000 and used it to pay for a great holiday. That was eye opening.

I started looking for ways to make more money. Other than obviously keep working furiously to add more content and drive organic traffic, I realized affiliate programs could be another source of income.

They way these programs work is, you sign up, send them traffic (via links on your site) appending your affiliate code to the URL (say http://www.gameportal.com/?affiliate=juegosindie) and then if anyone you send their way buys a game, you get a cut.

I started using Reflexive’s affiliate program because it offered a 40% share as opposed to Big Fish Games‘, which was only 25% at the time (now it¡s 70%, although game prices have gone down). I went and changed all the links in my posts so far (over 100) to lead to Reflexive with my affiliate code instead of the developer’s site. I quickly started seeing the metrics. There were a good number of downloads, but few sales. Turns out, Reflexive charged you for bandwidth for the downloads you caused, so a lot of the revenue I should be making was being offset by the low conversion rates of my visitors, eating my profits. Some months I even remember having negative profits! I needed a new plan.

That’s when I looked at Big Fish Games’ program. They didn’t charge me for traffic so even if my commission was gonna be lower, I’d still come ahead. So I signed up and changed again all my posts’ links over to the new master. That was tedious.

Immediately I saw I big improvement. Month after month. Turns out BFG had other advantages over Reflexive that I had overlooked, and it was a big one. First, they converted better. That means I had a higher percentage of people buying the games they downloaded. Maybe that had to do with Big Fish’s design, their purchase process or the fact that they ran sales on certain games. But whatever they were doing, it worked. No wonder they became they #1 Casual / Downloadable game shop in a short few years. Also, while Reflexive only gave you commissions for the sales produced from the downloads originated from your immediate referral, Big Fish store an affiliate cookie on the user’s computer and gave you credit for all their purchases for a whole year (!!). This seems very simple but it’s huge. It means that someone could find my blog on Google, follow a link to Big Fish, and then if they bought, say, 10 games over the next year, I got my 25% share even if they didn’t come back to my blog. Unless of course they affiliate cookie was overridden by another of their affiliates. But still, it was easy extra money.

Soon, affiliate commissions were in the hundreds a month and doubling and tripling AdWords revenue. I absolutely loved it.

Around this point, the worldwide advertising crisis started affecting AdWords’ pay-per-click rates and even though traffic and affiliate revenue kept going up, AdWords revenue went down. That sucked.

Getting Cocky

At this point maybe I was writing three times a week. Which became twice. Then once. Then I didn’t write for almost a year. It didn’t matter, traffic and revenue kept increasing and I was confident it was going to continue this way. At some point, though, Google caught up with it and realized we didn’t have “fresh” content anymore, and we started going down on the search results, affecting traffic.

I started panicking, and since I was used by now to the easy life and didn’t want to write anymore, I hired someone from South America on oDesk to write 5 times a week at a rate of 5€ per post. I started paying attention to keywords, telling him what to write about, etc.

It took a few months but traffic started recovering, although it never got to the peak it once had. Instead of the usual 500,000 visits a month, it hovered around 350,000. Still, revenue was better than ever.

Quitting My Job

At one point I was making around €1,000 per month in profit off the blog. A friend and I had just launched another website that hoped would turned into a big business in a year or two, so I decided to quit my job and work full time on that project. Unfortunately, €1,000 wouldn’t gonna cover the standard of living I had in Barcelona, so I decided to move to South East Asia where life is good and cheap.

For a year, life was good and thought the cash cow that was JuegosIndie was never going to end.

Revenue Crash

Then at the beginning of 2011 something scary happened. Affiliate program revenue dropped 50% from one month to the next, and it didn’t seem like it was coming back. Traffic was normal. What had happened? A year before this, Big Fish revamped his Affiliate Program,  giving ALL active affiliate cookies a life of 1 year from that point on. That was good, because it meant that for cookies that were gonna die, say in 6 months, now I had an extra 6 months of commissions (assuming I didn’t redirect them to the site again).

So basically what had happened is that in one month, all the cookies that should’ve died along the last year (and stopped making me money), all died at once. I made more money this way, but it was also sudden and unexpected, and I didn’t know what to do. Remember I was living off that money, and 50% of it wasn’t going to pay my bills (I was already being as frugal as possible).

So I did the only thing that made sense.

The Sale

Usually, I wouldn’t have been able to just sell the blog to someone else that’d take it off NexoBlogs, but fortunately, a couple of months before, Albert told us all that he was very busy running his new company and didn’t have the time to do all the management that he usually did (for which he took a cut of each blog’s revenue), so he was letting everyone do as they wanted: move it over to WordPress, keep it as it was, sell it, whatever. So I decided to sell it.

After asking some people I knew that might be interested in buying the site (all of whom declined), I turned to Flippa. Flippa is a marketplace where people buy and sell websites. A lot of them are shit, but others are legitimate businesses that sell for real money. You can state a “buy now” price, but it works similarly to eBay. People can place bids and there’s a deadline, at which point the highest bid wins (assuming you didn’t specify a minimum price, for which you pay extra).

After realizing that the last year the site made around $20,000 and that, while now revenue was substantially lower, a motivated buyer could turn it around, I decided to state a Buy Now price of $20,000.  You can check the Flippa listing here. As you can see, I was very thorough. I don’t think there’s any other way to do a Flippa auction. Tell the full story and add all the metrics.

During the first 2-3 days, some comments were posted requiring verified Google Analytics reports (didn’t even know you could do that, so I went and added that). Then they asked for Escrow payment, and added that too. Then a bid arrived. $5,000! I couldn’t believe someone was willing to give me $5,000 for a business I created. 12 hours later, the same dude upped the bid to $12,000. That was the most money I had seen together in my life.

The guy asked me privately how much I wanted to close the auction right now. Since it had just started I said I wanted $20K or wait it out to see what happened. A few days later he offered $15,000 to close it immediately. I said there were other people interested and wanted to see if I could get the full $20K. I was lying, he was the only one interested. A few days later he offered to pay the full $20k. Yay! Success!

The next two weeks were a combination of exporting data, sending HTML templates, passwords for a bunch of services, etc. All in all quite painless. When I saw the money in my account I couldn’t believe it.

This was the end of a very fun 4 year journey that netted me around $40K working in my spare time (I’d say less than half an hour a day on average).

As you can see, a lot of what happened wasn’t because of some master marketing plan or my genius. I’d like to think I did some things right, but I also lucked out and found a good niche by accident. Still, if you have any questions feel free to ask in the comments.

Early Demise of the Experiment

After coming with the idea, building a first final version (which looked awesome), putting the website up and starting accepting orders; only then it crossed my mind that I might be infringing on Mojang’s (developers of Minecraft) intellectual property. I submitted the website to Minecraft’s subreddit to see if it got some visits out of that and it got quickly shut down by moderators, pointing at this very fact. It was the first time anyone had brought it up and it made me thinking they might be right.

I contacted Mojang on Twitter and by e-mail and after two weeks I finally got an answer through their Branding Guidelines:

You may not make any other commercial use of the Minecraft Brand or Minecraft Assets for example you may not sell any merchandise that uses the Minecraft Brand or Minecraft Assets. If you upload videos of the game to video sharing and streaming sites (like YouTube) you are however allowed to put ads on them.

That pretty much sums it up. Apparently they’re not open either to any kind of partnership at this point.

A few days after I put the website up they also announced Minecraft Papercraft Studio for iOS, which even if you can’t print out a flower like ours with it, it’s still a move in the same direction. If you like Minecraft and things made out of paper you should definitely check it out.

After talking to Mojang they said they’re cool with us doing this if we change the design of the flower “enough”. I don’t know how much is enough but if it means it doesn’t look like the one in Minecraft then there’s no point in doing this in my opinion. Anyway, I might still retake this endeavour at some point but for now it stays the way it is: I’m not accepting any orders, although you can download high resolution images of the flower for free from the website (at the bottom).

Stay tuned for the next experiment ;-)