A Couple of Nomad Makers: finding friends and side project profits
Co-Founder of Squarecat.io & LeaveMeAlone.app | Indie Dev 👩🎤 Dog Lover 🐶 Nomad 🎒
This article is the second in a three part series. If you want to read the first one you can do here.
Christmas on the beach!
Spending Christmas on the beach in Australia was the perfect way to celebrate surviving a year of traveling
James’ childhood friend emigrated to Australia a few years ago and had been badgering us to visit ever since. We kept telling him it was too expensive, but since our Estonian e-residency cards were there we ended up with no choice but to hop on the cheapest flight we could find. I guess he was pretty happy that we’d finally made it halfway around the world as he surprised us at the airport!
Living and working in a campervan
We were unsure if we could afford to travel Australia and weren’t particularly interested in doing so if it was going to cost a fortune. The original plan was to spend a couple of weeks with our friend Dale, visit Canberra to collect our identity cards, and then leave.
At some point in the first two weeks, the constant sunshine and beach life changed our minds and we decided to buy a campervan in which we would live and work while we travelled some of the East coast.
(I guess it was easy to fall in love with this lifestyle!)
Almost as soon as we decided this we were lucky enough to land our second freelance job. We were recommended as reputable developers by a mutual friend which resulted in a contract for three months work.
This contract was another perfect fit for us; the client had an idea and wanted us to architect, design
, and build the product. Another job meant we would need to have power and internet available (despite still living like hippies)!
We found a van with solar power so we could charge our laptops (and a fridge to keep the beer cold) and solved the internet problem by splashing out on a SIM card with 40GB of data.
(Our first coffee in our home on wheels!)
We drove and worked our way from Sydney to Adelaide, back to Sydney, up to Brisbane, and back to Sydney again. The route was a little weird, but we didn’t want to drive all the way to Perth and our visa meant we could only stay for 3 months at a time.
The wifi in Australia was not great. Outside of the big cities we struggled to find places to work but our SIM cards were fantastic. With the sun charging everything for us we were able to work from our van most days using our 4G.
With the exception of the terrible wifi, the public services in Australia are incredible. Every beach and park has clean toilets and showers (some of them even have hot water but a cold shower is often welcome), BBQ’s, seating areas, and drinking water stations. I despise camping so I was surprised how much I loved living in a van — I think the facilities and weather were huge factors in this!
(Gotta work where you can)
We worked when and where we could, often sitting outside the van or using picnic tables at campsites. On long drives whoever wasn’t driving would usually try and get some work done, at least until our laptops overheated in the non air conditioned cab!
Living and working in a car
After 3 months our visa was up and we had to leave Australia. As we were so close to New Zealand we decided it would be the perfect time to visit. With our new found love for van life we hired a campervan. However, we didn’t have an equally amazing time…
The internet was practically non-existent even with expensive local SIM cards we were without signal for days at a time. This was frustrating as we were trying to work, but luckily the project was coming to an end and we were able to put on the finishing touches without good wifi.
Our van, (which was basically a family car with a mattress in the back) was one of the cheapest rentals we could find. Despite this it still put us way over budget — at the time of writing NZ is the most expensive country we’ve visited. Even though we were trying to save money our daily expenditure doubled our budget to €100 a day.
(A bit colder than we’d like | Queenstown was beautiful)
We really enjoyed visiting New Zealand and we did some amazing things; took our first helicopter ride to hike a glacier, white water rafted the highest waterfall, bathed in hot springs, and visited the wettest place on the planet.
However, though the landscapes were absolutely breathtaking at every turn, we visited at the wrong time of year — it was cold and the days were short. Van life is no fun when you’re freezing, damp, and in the dark!
(First time in a helicopter! | First time hiking a glacier!)
Back to Europe
Whilst we had been away our friends had been busy. We were invited to four weddings in the summer!
I would never have missed my two best friends’ weddings, and luckily for us they were only a week apart (though unfortunately 850km apart too). We were also seriously starting to miss Europe after 18 months away and decided this was a perfect chance to spend the whole summer there.
We spent one more month in Australia which we ended with a scuba diving liveaboard in Cairns on the Great Barrier Reef, and then started our journey back West. To round off our time in the east we spent a few last days in Bangkok, where it all began. It also meant we could avoid spending an entire 24 hours on a flight back from Sydney 😅
Berlin is one of our favourite European cities, and we have visited several times but only in winter — and Berlin winters are brutal! We wanted a travel break had some client work to finish off so we decided to spend a couple of months there. We spent a month in Neukölln and a month in Wedding — two of our favourite districts.
For the first time working on the road we tried out a co-working space. It was a novelty for the first few days, but we found it too much like getting up and going to an office — we even brought our own lunch a couple of times! We confirmed our suspicions that we prefer a constant change of environment to stay productive.
We have a couple of friends from the UK who live in Berlin and when we weren’t working we did a lot of eating and drinking! Berlin has a reputation for fantastic all night (or all weekend), parties, but there is also an incredible bar scene if you’re not a club person.
I love the music in Berlin (mostly techno and deep house) but in our 2 months we only went to one club and I am still not sure if I felt cool for getting home at 10am, or like an idiot. Especially after suffering through the 3-day hangover.
(Park BBQs, lots of kicker, and touristing!)
Four weddings and no funerals
Our journey back to the UK for the first time in 18 months was less than smooth. Our flight was delayed by long enough that when we landed in London the car rental shop was closed and we had to sleep on the floor of their office until they opened! It took us longer to get from Germany to the UK than our flight from Bangkok to Berlin.
A typical Ryanair experience, but we just can’t resist the prices!
Thankfully we had finished all our client work and were free for the summer. This was perfect because it required meticulous planning (obviously by me) to ensure we could see all of our family and friends and attend all the weddings without backtracking and covering the same ground.
Finding the maker community
Even travelling and working as a couple can be a lonely experience. Hostels always look so amazing with a beautiful pool and cheap bar etc, but they are almost always more expensive than an entire apartment on Airbnb
or a local hotel. Plus, when you have to work the next day you don’t want to sleep in a bunk bed and drink shots until 5am.
Sometimes it’s difficult to find people who share the same interests as us. We are never short of backpacker friends and drinking buddies but it’s rare to find long term travellers and fellow developers.
James had seen a new community on Twitter called Makerlog. He wanted to be more accountable for development tasks and needed help seeing a product through to the end rather than continually jumping between new ideas. Makerlog looked like the perfect place to do this, so he joined the Slack and our journey into the maker community had begun!
Lacking fellow female developer support and communication I joined a community on Telegram I had just discovered called Women Make. Both of us found everyone super friendly and supportive and we joked that we had our own groups of online friends now.
Joining these groups made us both realise how much we relied solely on each other for emotional support, encouragement, and feedback. It was suddenly really obvious that if we could get some of that support elsewhere it would benefit our business, and potentially our relationship.
Being held accountable and having friends ask how we were getting on was a big motivator for building our products. It was also great to be a part of such a diverse community of people, with experience in a wide range of topics, all helping each other.
James already used Twitter but we both started to become more active. I thought there were some barriers — such as unwritten rules and expected etiquette, but I soon realised that I just needed to be myself.
24 hour startup challenge
As something completely out of our comfort zones we immediately signed up
. Disclaimer, I took a LOT of encouragement and secretly hoped our internet would not be good enough for me to take part.
Committing to the 24 hour startup challenge was a really big deal for both of us. I regularly struggle with imposter syndrome. The idea that everyone would see how little I really know and how terrible I am at coding, live on stream, was my idea of hell.
James was not as stressed as me, but as an introvert, he was concerned about how he would talk through his problems and explain what he was doing while streaming to keep it interesting for viewers. Most of the time I am an extrovert, so babbling about my code was one thing I was not worried about!
Our biggest challenge for the streaming was finding a good enough internet connection. We would be taking part from Salta, Argentina. We had been staying in a shared house but thought it would be best to have our own apartment and internet connection. I booked an Airbnb but I failed to notice that the property didn’t list wifi as one of the facilities…
The day before the stream we went to our new place for all of 30 minutes before realising there was no wifi. Panicking about not being able to participate we spoke to our previous host and luckily we were able stay there another couple of nights. The accommodation shenanigans meant we had wasted a good chunk of our day for preparation and I was even more stressed.
Stream day was incredible. There was no reason for weeks of nerves as it wasn’t at all scary and was actually really fun! With a couple of hundred other people taking part I wasn’t sure if we would get any viewers but the audience was super supportive. It was incredible to have people watch us build our product and provide help and encouragement.
I am a developer who needs to talk through code problems, often known as “rubber duck debugging”, which is often frustrating for James when he’s trying to focus. Coding on stream was a perfect solution as the audience (or just the camera) made excellent rubber ducks!
Our internet was not stable enough to support us two streams so we used just one laptop and sat next to each other so any viewers would be able to hear us both. We also switched laptops a few times so everyone would get to chance to see each of our faces!
We managed about 18 hours of coding before our eyes started giving up on us and we crashed. Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to finish or launch our startup, our idea was incredibly ambitious to build in 24 hours, but we were very happy with the results!
Taking part in that challenge was so far out of my comfort zone it could have been on another planet.
I attempted to lower my stress levels by preparing as much as I could (as much as was allowed in the rules). I researched the tools we would be using, estimated the core tasks, and planned what we would be doing each hour.
In the first few hours the app took shape relatively quickly which helped push the imposter syndrome out of the way as I was able to see results. This is a theme I see in my everyday coding — if I am unable to complete a task within my time estimate then this is when the doubt about my abilities starts creeping in.
I am attempting to solve this by measuring how much I get done in a larger period of time, such as a week, rather than agonising over a 2 hour task taking 4 hours — I’ll let you know how this goes!
James managed to talk a lot more than he expected while coding, but this contributed a lot to his tiredness and fatigue. If there was a particularly difficult problem he did tend to go quiet for an hour or so while he worked through it. I don’t think this is necessarily an introvert issue, but something which would become easier to do with more live streaming practice.
Self-improvement cannot be made without action. A lot has changed in a year and I am continuously working on pushing myself out of my comfort zone every day. Currently, I am trying to say yes to podcasts and interviews, because “doing it live” is something which scares me.
Participating in the 24 hour startup challenge would not have happened if we hadn’t found the maker community. We are incredibly thankful to have discovered a group of such friendly, supportive, and wonderful friends all around the world.
Making our first $5
After the failure of our first startup, we had been sustaining our travels with client work but we hadn’t given up making stuff!
We launched our first native Mac app UptimeBar
— a menu bar app to get notifications when your websites go down. People bought it! When we made that first $5 it was such an incredible feeling. We felt like we were finally on the right path.
UptimeBar wasn’t super successful but we made a couple of hundred dollars and learned a lot of important lessons; build products which solve your own problems, build and ship an MVP for validation, and be open. This was the first of our products to be an open startup with a super basic open page
and we got a lot of positive feedback about sharing these stats.
This small success gave us the motivation to keep on building and we decided we wanted to be even more open and share more stats than just revenue (if we had any!) for our next startup.
A possible winner
Sticking to solving our own problems our next project was Leave Me Alone
— a service to easily unsubscribe from spam emails with a focus on privacy. We were both spending so much time sorting through our emails we went searching for a service which would help us find and unsubscribe from ones we didn’t want.
We found a few which would help us for free, but a closer look revealed that they didn’t charge for their service because they were selling all of your data for marketing. Faced with the dilemma of a messy inbox or all of our data being exploited, we decided to build our own solution, and Leave Me Alone was born!
We took a new approach to building this startup by being completely open
and were delighted to start seeing some success. We released to beta users first, who gave us lots of great feedback and within a few iterations, we had something ready for the wild.
Just before Christmas we soft launched Leave Me Alone on social media and to the maker community. The feedback was incredibly positive. It had taken us nearly 2 years but we hoped we had finally built something that people wanted and were willing to pay for.
Side project side projects
With a long stay booked in Cusco for Christmas and New Year we had a bunch of free time. James built MakerAds
— an unobtrusive ad network for makers. There were discussions in the maker community about wanting to monetise their products with advertising, but not wanting to show visitors irrelevant or ugly ads served from big bad corporations.
MakerAds is a network of adverts by makers, and free for makers. James offers sponsored ad spots and plans to add categories in the future to allow sites to further specify what type of advert they want to show.
Inspired by a Tweet from Ben Tossell
I built my first Chrome extension Twitter Search Fixer
— to fix accidental clicks on #hashtags in the Twitter search results. I had a great evening learning something new and I even added support for Firefox!
Sadly Twitter recently updated their web app and my extension no longer works on the new version. They are slowly inviting people to try it but neither of us have been able to yet so I can’t fix it. Twitter Search Fixer is completely free and open source
so if you have the new Twitter and want to help out please feel free!
A new client for the New Year
We were starting to run low on money. When we flew to South America in October we agreed that if we dipped below €5,000 without having client work we would fly have to back to Europe and contract or find a job.
Obviously, we didn’t want to do this but historically neither of us has had much success finding work on freelance websites such as Freelancer and Upwork. Applying is a big time investment and the competition for job postings is too high and the quality of clients is too low.
We looked for better places to find work and found Moonlight
. The quality of developers and clients is much higher. The platform is built by two nomads Emma and Philip who encountered the same problems as us when they were trying to find work while travelling. We love their approach of getting to know their customers and they have reached out to us several times for feedback or to recommend jobs specific to our skills.
It was a dream to apply to jobs with proper specifications and upfront expectations. It wasn’t long before we found a great client and project which set us up with 3 months work and meant we could keep travelling for a while longer yet — phew!
After spending Christmas in the cold and at altitude we were in desperate need of sun, sea, and sand… Onwards to the equator!
Merry Christmas… and a Happy New year from Cusco!
Our 2018 in review
Instagram Story in the Link below:
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This article is the second in a three part series. Find the first one here
. The final part will be linked here when published.
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