As an entrepreneur from West Michigan, I share my thoughts about entrepreneurship, startups, technology, and marketing.

Category Archives: Startups & Entrepreneurship

Working Remotely, Advantages of Being an Internet Company
Nov 27, 2013  |   Founders, Startups & Entrepreneurship  |   No Comments

Working Remotely, Advantages of Being an Internet Company

Thanks to Jason Fried’s and David Heinemeier Hansson’s latest book, the idea of having a remote workforce has become a topic of increased discussion. This is something we have talked about and experimented with frequently over the past ten years here at ProTrainings and at the other companies I have been involved in building. But that’s not quite what I’m writing about in this blog post. Rather, I would like to discuss the flexibility that can come from being the co-founder of a location-independent Internet business.

Now, I’m not advocating that a founder whose company is still in startup phase abandon his/her team and work remotely for long blocks of time. During the early stages of building a company, it’s very important to build a good company culture along with building an excellent product, and this takes a lot of interaction with the team. It might be possible to do this remotely over a Google Hangout, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend doing this at such a critical stage in the company. However, once the business has found a successful business model, the team is in place, and systems have been established to allow the business to execute without founder intervention, I would suggest that some time away from the office may be exactly what is best for the founder and for the business.

At a certain stage in the lifecycle of a company, it’s important that the founders are able to pull themselves out of the day-to-day operations of the business and ensure that the business is able to function (and hopefully even grow) without them around. It’s healthy for your employees to feel empowered to make decisions on their own without constant approvals. This is a great test to see if the appropriate systems and procedures are in place to allow the business to function without you, which will also drastically improve its resale value in the eyes of a potential buyer some day.

So, you might be curious about my own experiences with remote working. My first extended time away from the office was a 3-week trip to Florida followed by a brief trip to Colorado for training with another programmer at our company. This was in late 2007, about a year after moving into our first office. I was amazed by the amount of work we were able to accomplish when I was able to leave the distractions of the office behind. And guess what? The business didn’t come to a halt while I was away. We were hooked, so our next trip was a little more ambitious. In January 2008, the same programmer co-worker and I spent a month working remotely in Mexico. January 2011 was spent in Florida with one programmer and our head of marketing, building a new corporate site for our UK branch and redesigning our US site layout. January 2012 was spent in San Francisco and January 2013 in Spain, working with our business partners for the UK side of the company.

And the results have been very positive. In addition to virtually eliminating distractions, these month-long work vacations do two other important things. First, they serve as a change of pace and change of environment from the normal daily routine, which is an excellent opportunity for the kick-off of a new project. Second, they impose a natural deadline on the project — the day of the flight back home. And unlike a typical vacation, spending a month somewhere allows you to really experience the culture of the area and live more like a local.

On the more practical side, I have a few tips to share regarding the logistics of a prolonged work vacation. For housing, we usually rent a house or sublet an apartment through a website like Airbnb, VRBO, or Home Away. Hosts are normally very willing to decrease their rate for a month-long stay, and traveling during January/February tends to be a slower time with even further decreased rates. I would always recommend negotiating with the host when you will be staying longer than a week. Since you will be staying somewhere with a kitchen, you can greatly lower your expenses by getting food from a nearby grocery store and eating most meals at the house. You will be working from the house, so make sure there is a fast Internet connection before you book anything. Most hosts have wifi, but you don’t want to take any risks and be stuck somewhere for a month without it. If you’re going to be traveling abroad, be sure to bring an unlocked GSM phone with you and purchase a local SIM card. US carrier roaming rates tend to be excessive. For calling back home, use Skype, Google Hangouts, or something similar. And finally, make sure you plan outings on nights and weekends so you get to enjoy living in a new and different place.

Spending a month working remotely from an exotic island is appealing. It might not make sense for every Internet business, but this is a winter tradition that my family plans to continue while we can. If anyone else has experience working remotely, positive or negative, I would love to hear about it in the comments. And let me know where you would choose to spend a month working if you could.

Startup Communities: San Francisco vs. Grand Rapids?
Nov 8, 2013  |   Startups & Entrepreneurship  |   No Comments

Startup Communities: San Francisco vs. Grand Rapids?

This article is one I intended to write almost two years ago when I spent a month living in San Francisco’s North Beach and observed firsthand what it’s like to live in the epicenter of the startup world. Now, as I am sitting on my Virgin America flight on my way back to the Bay area, I finally intend to publish my thoughts.

As a tech nerd who has lived in Michigan for all his life, my first trip to Silicon Valley was probably as awe-inspiring as a normal child’s first trip to Disney World (not Disney Land… I’m from Michigan). Guided tours of the Googleplex seem to never grow old! But what else is it about this part of California that makes it so special? I am especially interested in this topic as I witness Rick DeVos and the Start Garden team in Grand Rapids attempt to create a startup culture in my hometown. And so I wonder, what does it take and will it be successful?

During my month-long stay in San Francisco, I made a very conscious effort to immerse myself in the various tech and startup-focused events the Bay area has to offer. These included Ruby hack nights, digital advertising/publisher meetups, startup demo nights, ed-tech panels, local Skillshare classes, co-working Fridays, and a whole series of social media week talks (plus a visit to Google in Mountain View). In attending all these events, I met dozens of other startup founders like myself and listened to their stories of moving out to the area a few years ago to pursue their dreams and start a company. The amount of excitement and optimism around startups is something that I think really contributes to the startup culture of San Francisco and inspires people to leave their hometowns and move out west.

In order for this excitement to be more than just hype, however, it’s also important to have the success stories. For me, it serves as a constant reminder of the success that is possible in the tech world when I can walk down the street and pass the offices for companies like Twitter, Square, Adobe, and Zynga on the way back to my apartment. Unfortunately for cities like Grand Rapids, this sort of success is difficult to manufacture when you are beginning to build a startup ecosystem.

You can’t talk about Silicon Valley startups and success stories without talking about venture capital. Access to money is an important factor, although as a bootstrapped tech company, I believe it is still possible to build a successful and sustainable business without funding. That said, VCs and angel investors play a vital role on several levels in a successful startup ecosystem. Angels remove the initial risk in starting a company, leading to more would-be entrepreneurs taking a shot at it. Venture capital allows startups to scale more quickly and hopefully out-maneuver their competitors or take on a large incumbent. Additionally, choosing the right investors means access to their connections and wisdom, in addition to their money.

Something that really struck me as being unique about the San Francisco startup/tech scene is how willing people are to help one another and how approachable people are in this industry. Not only is it so much easier to strike up a conversation with someone who has the same set of skills and interests as yourself, but even the so-called superstars of the tech world are accessible to chat at a conference. There seems to be a genuine desire by those who have achieved some success to share their lessons with those who are still grinding it out. This spirit of openness is so much more beneficial for the entire community than being guarded and closed for fear that someone will steal your idea, or believing that someone else’s success somehow detracts from your own. It’s not a zero-sum game.

There are certainly other factors to a healthy startup culture – universities that promote entrepreneurship, an adequate supply of engineering talent, local government that is invested in fostering a startup community, investors who understand technology and are willing to take risks, an area of town with many startups in close proximity, among other factors. I have listened to Brad Feld speak on this topic, and he has much more insight and credibility than I do. These are just a few of my reflections on what I like about San Francisco’s startup culture from the perspective of a Grand Rapids entrepreneur. Rick DeVos and team are already making progress on many of these fronts and I am hopeful that we can build our own unique, startup-friendly community.

Start Garden Press Conference

Start Garden press conference, April 2012