Working nomadically: the tools I use

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I’m often asked how I can keep on top of work while travelling around so much. I have to admit, when I took my first location independent leap it was a major concern for me. Nowadays it almost seems like second nature.

In recent years there has been a significant increase in the number of employees working remotely 1. It makes sense to me – companies don’t have to provide the overheads associated with physical desk space, they can retain good employees who require flexibility (working mothers and fathers, for example) and, in my experience, it empowers employees to manage their own tasks and time more efficiently. I really don’t see this trend declining any time soon.

Regardless of whether a company has remote workers, I believe if you think remotely, internal structure, communications and efficiency will improve in the process.

There are two of us in-house at Applingua and a further 30+ freelancers. On the one hand, it’s obviously important that communication and access to information runs efficiently in any company, in case someone is ill or away on vacation. But it’s very important if you want to work remotely from one another. So how do Applingua and I do it?

Internet access

Even before arriving in a new place, I check out potential internet access. At the very least, you need a strong connection where you are sleeping, be that a hotel or sublet. Make sure WiFi is available in your room, so you don’t have to go hunting for it elsewhere in your building (hotel lobbies suck).

Don’t rely too much on coffee shop WiFi access. In many countries it conveniently doesn’t work ‘today’ so they can get more customers through their doors (fair enough, really). While in others, quite considerable charges are normal.

In the next few years, the EU should move to remove roaming charges, but in the meantime the first thing you should think about is getting a SIM card. In my experience, it’s cheaper to buy a SIM even when you’re on holiday for a week. Check which sim card would be the best before you arrive then head right to their store. Data on your smartphone is essential for so many different tasks, from quick email checking to finding your way around a new city (and finding WiFi hotspots!).

File sharing & storage

Most companies have work they need to save and documents they need to share. I’ve been using Dropbox for what seems years now, but it wasn’t until I started working with others professionally that I saw just how great Dropbox really is.

The idea of file servers have plagued small businesses for years. I remember pulling my hair out trying to work out how to set up a file share between five computers at my father’s company when I was still a teenager. Nowadays Dropbox lets you create a folder, right-click and share with friends and colleagues. As it is backed up automatically both off-site and locally, it completely negates the need for cumbersome and un-travel-friendly external hard drives. What’s more, the files can be accessed from any device, iPod touch to Desktop.

(I should enter a quick note here that if you’re keeping company data on Dropbox, it’s probably good practice to keep it in an encrypted image, which can be mounted at the start of each work day. No idea what I’m talking about? Here’s a handy guide.)

Communication & project management

We all know the most important aspect of any business is good communication. It’s important for everyone in a team (remote or otherwise) to know where they stand at any given moment. It’s also important that when communication fails, or when communication is not possible, there is a list of tasks that can be done without the rest of your team.

Over the years I have tried so many different project management tools, shared to do lists, instant messaging apps, but in the end only two have prevailed. Skype and Trello.

Skype lets me check in with my colleague Sarah once a week on video or whenever there’s something more complex than possibly by email to discuss. I also have a fixed Skype line phone number, which means my calls can be routed wherever I am in the world. This is especially useful when my mobile number changes when changing countries.

Trello is an extremely useful online todo list and project management tool. We’ve used it for almost two years now and it’s never failed. I’ll admit at some times I’ve been a bit lazy updating it, but I know that should I ever be stuck for something to do, there is a great backlog of admin and potential marketing duties listed there.

Trello really is a great tool for collaborating on projects – I couldn’t recommend it more strongly.

Business admin

No one particularly likes admin tasks. When I started Applingua I decided I wanted to be completely paperless. Aside from the environmental and cost aspect of running a paper-based office, keeping physical records of everything is a sure fire way to prevent you from remote working or becoming location independent.

I was lucky to find an easy solution early on, meaning all my company’s documents can be accessed anywhere in the world and at any time: Canon P150 Scanner + Evernote.

The canon scanner is a very portable, high speed scanning device that breezes through multiple letters and receipts in no time at all. You can then choose to automatically upload to an application of your choice, mine being Evernote. While I am away from the UK, a friend or relative picks up my limited, usually SPAM, mail approximately once a month, places it on the scanner and clicks go!

The documents then get uploaded to Evernote, which automatically files and indexes them so they can be searched instantly. It’s extremely convenient to be able to search through years of paper letters and documents in just seconds to find exactly what you’re looking for.

There are alternatives to both the Canon and Evernote. I believe Doxie is one of the most popular scanners and many use Google Drive for storage (it also does OCR now). Personally I’m happy with Evernote’s iOS, Mac and Web apps for the time being.

Finance & accounting

There’s nothing more off-putting when starting your own business than Finance & Accounting. It’s scary and the idea of Excel spreadsheets makes me want to run away and hide under my bed covers with my first teddy bear, Growler.

I’ve mentioned it a hundred times before, but I believe FreeAgent is the very first service new businesses should invest in. Whether Freelance or Limited, accounting has literally never been so easy (I realise I sound like I’m on their payroll…). It automatically interacts with my bank accounts, giving me a daily overview of all goings on. I invoice from there, manage clients, time, payroll and salary. It even lets me run a trial balance sheet and profit & loss. It really is out of this world.

What I’ve not mentioned before perhaps is the next vital aspect of running your business smoothly, making it even easier to work nomadically or be location independent: a good accountant.

I use Maslins Accountants. Chris and his team are based in Kent, we’ve never met, I don’t think we’ve even spoken on the telephone. His team’s communication is so good and responsive, I’ve never needed to. They work directly in FreeAgent too, which, compared to some companies I know who deliver kilograms of paper to their accountant at the end of every year, is incredibly convenient. Everything is done electronically – even to the point of signing off my accounts at the end of the year.

It is not possible to overemphasise how essential a good accountant is. I know no matter where I am I can send a quick email and get a reply nearly always the same day.

Some might say this is all too easy, but I just think of it as an extra day off a month which would normally be spent trawling spreadsheets.

The answer is in the cloud

You’ll notice that all of the above exist in the cloud. They all store my data on remote servers that can be accessed anywhere in the world. If my computer gets stolen, if my colleague Sarah needs to get hold of something or if I’m away from the desk and someone needs something urgently, I can access the information from any device, any where.

I’ve even gone so far as getting an accountant that forces me to think remotely, even when I’m working from Applingua’s HQ in Cardiff. It’s these things which cut all ties when I decide to just up and leave from one day to the next.

I started writing this post sprawled out in my own night-train compartment watching the sun rise over the snow-capped mountains surrounding Lake Garda in Northern Italy. For me, at least, working nomadically doesn’t get much better.

Goodbye USA! This is what I learned

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After 18 months back in the UK, I decided my motivation batteries needed a bit of recharging. It didn’t take me long to decide on the USA, the home of enthusiasm and tech startups.

I’ve just spent a month living in Boston, MA. During the last four weeks I was lucky enough to attend some incredible lectures at Harvard and MIT, got to listen to world-leading thinkers on business and politics and chewed over hours of strategy with my good friend, and fellow startup founder, Xenia Menzies (keep an eye out, she’s a rising star!).

I also took the opportunity to visit San Francisco for the first time, where I worked on-site at a client’s office on their release day, and I jumped on the train to New York, where I met another client at their amazing office for vegetarian meatballs (the mind boggles).

I want to share with you my biggest take aways from the month and hope they serve as a reminder to me in future.

Celebrate those who try

Of all the people I met, whether at a startup or just in general conversation, they were all enthusiastic about those who try, even if they fail. They applaud those who take risks and they never lament or patronise when someone fails.

Don’t be afraid to ask

People don’t mind calling in favours. Us Brits always feel like we’re intruding or don’t want to bother others with our requests. I almost see a correlation with the Germans here, if an American wants something, they’ll ask for it. And why not? There will almost always be a time when it will be repaid.

Simplicity is always best

Bureaucracy almost doesn’t exist in the US (though I’m sure they’d disagree). Every service had ‘an easy option’. Getting a sim card, there were contracts but there were also simple all-inclusive, one-time-only pre-paid sims.

My gym too. Alongside the annual memberships were hey-you’re-only-in-town-for-one-month memberships too. No ‘sign up and cancel later’, no ’30 day notice period’ like i had on my monthly gym membership in the UK. Sure, it was slightly more expensive, but convenience has a value. In fact, everything in the US has a value.

Everything has a value

That’s right. Perhaps this is the biggest difference between the US and Europe. Everything has a value. You want sides with that main course? Pay for them. You want your luggage taken to your room? Give me a few dollars.

Nothing is bundled. I always feel like we’re taken for a ride in the UK. “Free PlayStation with your mobile phone contract!” Break down your monthly costs, that PlayStation is not free. The American way lets those who use a service, pay for it and the rest of us get the cheapest deal.

Big up your position

Finally, stay humble but do not allow modesty to become confusing. I’ve met many small business owners in the UK who shy away from even the official term “Managing Director”. In fact, I myslef find it difficult to say anything other than “I kinda work for myself”. Americans assume this means you’re unemployed or freelance. If you are director of a Ltd company, especially if you are an employer, then you are CEO or, at the very least, a Founder.

In the past I’ve lambasted those who use the term CEO when they only manage a handful of people, but now I realise that’s due to a cultural difference in the use of the term.

CEO is the word for Managing Director in the UK. So if you’re looking for investment from Americans, or dealing with other American companies, they will probably want to deal with the CEO.

Youth Entrepreneurship Inquiry

I was recently asked to take part in a Wales-wide inquiry into youth entrepreneurship. Although I am now slightly out of the age range to be classed as ‘youth’, I was when I started my business, Applingua Ltd, on my 24th Birthday.

The video speaks to several young entrepreneurs who give their opinion on a wide range of issues around starting your own business in Wales and was shown to the Enterprise and Business Committee at the National Assembly for Wales on Thursday 12th June 2013. You can read the agenda and minutes of the meeting here.

I promote youth entrepreneurship at any given chance and have always maintained that our education system should promote starting a business as a viable form of post-education employment. All too often schools boast about their ‘successful’ pupils who gone on to work for big-city companies across the bridge, when they should also celebrate the 16 year olds who leave school early, train as a hair dresser, and now run their own salon employing 10 people.

Wales is in an ideal position to encourage entrepreneurship through local grants. I would most like to see this being supported by Welsh Government through the expansion of the Enterprise Zone trials in England, whereby individuals starting a business can claim Job Seekers Allowance for the first nine months. I strongly believe this will encourage people without a job to take the leap.

New companies make new jobs and push our economy forward. The more startups we have here in Wales, selling products and services around the world, the more attractive our country becomes to outside investment and high-net worth individuals who can feed back into our economy. Let’s make it even easier for people, young and old, to start a business and promote Wales as a great place to do business.

Cardiff Start Launch

10 months ago I wrote a post on the start of a new community of entrepreneurs in Cardiff. After months of meet-ups, socials and not-so-great delivery pizza, we finally launched Cardiff Start.

On 11th April, over 200 people landed in City Hall for the grand opening of Cardiff Start. People from all walks of life came, from those interested in running their own businesses to those Cardiff’s creative movement. The video above is a short clip detailing what we’re all about.

Check out the Cardiff Start website if you’re interested.

Forgetting the power of face-to-face meetings

I, like many others, hide most of my day behind a computer screen. Social media, instant messaging and email allow me to stay in touch with friends, family and colleagues no matter where they are. It’s so natural to just sit and type, I sometimes forget just how decisive face-to-face meetings can be.

Prior to the Cardiff Start Launch Event a few colleagues and I trying to organise corporate sponsors to help fund a day of free workshops and a launch party in the evening. We identified several companies that we thought were a really good match, but emails and calls mostly fell on deaf ears.

Less than a month before the big day, I happened to be at an award ceremony in Bath as part of a competition I was mentoring. One of the awards went to a company we had previously contacted for sponsorship. I quickly made a mental note of what the guy on-stage looked like and decided to hunt him down after the ceremony.

I found our guy by the bar and took the opportunity to buy him a drink. Now that we were face-to-face, I just came out with our request and asked him about sponsorship for our launch event. We spoke a little about the event’s mission and also what they could get out of it. Within five minutes we’d shaken on it.

To say I was pleased is an understatement.

I, like many others, hide most of my day behind a computer screen, but in doing so we allow people to ignore us or say no without any real thought. It’s much easier to receive criticism and much harder to adapt your proposition during an online conversation than when you’re standing in front of the person you are talking to. It may seem obvious, but after spending several years dealing mostly online, it’s easy to forget.

From now on, if I really need something, I will make much more of an effort to stand in front of the person and ask them in person.

Starting your first business is like learning a new language

Starting your first business is like learning a new language. You progress quickly and only then do you realise you know very little. But that doesn’t mean you should stop learning, stop progressing, because when you get to a point when you can converse with clients and business partners, nothing feels better.

Attending holiday-language lessons gets you only so far, but it’s not until you get into a tricky situation do you realise you don’t have any of the required vocabulary to converse properly. You have a choice at this point: ask someone around you who can translate for you or lose out on what you really want to say.

Running a business is very similar. You progress so quickly, registering your company, getting your first client, a whole world of possibilities seem open to you. Then, suddenly, you are faced with accounting, bureaucracy and legal issues and you hit a brick wall. If you don’t ask for help, you’re likely to get it wrong.

When I first started my business, I was shy to ask for help. I wanted to learn and understand everything for myself to maintain ultimate control. After all, a business is like your baby, you want to help it grow, nurture it, but you always want to protect it too. I quickly realised that in order to protect my company, I sometimes needed to ask for help.

Making mistakes can sometimes cost you dearly, but you will always learn from them. Surround yourself with people who know what they’re talking about and never be afraid of embarrassing yourself. (S)he who dares, wins.

My top tips for learning to run your business fluently

- Let people (including clients) know you are just a learner. This might sound totally against everything you think you should do, but believe it or not I got my first client by saying, “Hey, never done this before. New company, want to give us a go?” and landed a contract 15 times the capital I started the company with…

- Find a mentor. Search Google for local mentor groups. Your local authority will probably have a few links too. Otherwise search further afield via the internet. Even a Skype or Email pen-friend is better than nothing. Someone you can bounce ideas off and someone who has done it before.

- Join a business community. There are startup communities popping up everywhere. I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned from chatting to a stranger over a beer in a local pub. I’ve pivoted entire sections of my business just from a single conversation that opened my eyes.

- Look for free workshops. HMRC run them. Your bank will offer them too. Your local authority may also run events. They’ll help you in the beginning with tax returns and legal advice. You’ll quickly outgrow them, but they make a great starting point.

- Choose the right tools. No matter your business, some tools just make work so much easier. Try Trello for project management or reminder lists and Evernote or Google Drive for storing and scanning important documents. It really depends on your business, but there’s lots out there that can make your life a whole lot easier.

- Cheat. Some tools are just too good to be true. My favourite cheat is business accounting software FreeAgent, which makes all your invoicing and accounting a right doddle. Highly recommended.

- Practice makes perfect. Just like learning a real language, the more opportunity you get to practice, the better you will be. Also just like learning a language, make mistakes and you’ll never make them again. It’s absolutely fine to get things wrong once in a while and, so long as you’re honest, most, including the tax man, will forgive you.

In bocca al lupo!

Languages and Entrepreneurship


A few months ago I was contacted by Lizzie Fane, founder of ThirdYearAbroad.com, to take part in some research she was conducting for The Higher Education Academy and The British Academy. The report, entitled Languages and Entrepreneurship: A guide for students, highlighted language graduates who used their experiences abroad to push them to take risks and be more entrepreneurial.

In late October Lizzie asked whether I would like to speak at the report’s launch event. I genuinely believe, and am hopefully living proof, that taking taking a year working or studying abroad opens your mind to new possibilities and makes you less risk adverse – two essential factors if you are to be successful in business. 

And let’s be honest, it’s not every day you get to speak at The Royal Society, so how could I possibly refuse?

Update:
The British Academy have contacted me to let me know the video of my little and hopefully motivational 7 minute talk is now available on YouTube. If you’re interested, watch it above or by clicking here.

Small steps towards a big future: Cardiff Start.

Cardiff Start Hack Night
Take a good look at the picture above. What does it look like to you?

A weekly team meeting at a creative agency perhaps? A brainstorming session for the latest client project? But wait. The clock reads 8:10 and there’s beer on the table so it’s probably quite late in the day, right? They all look pretty relaxed though so they must know each other quite well and not care that much about working late.

The reality is quite different. Many of the fourteen people who attended Cardiff Start’s first Hack Night had never even met before, let alone worked together. Each of the people around this table at some point have started or have been influential in the creation of a new company in or around the Cardiff area. And all these people want to create a community that aids others starting up in this young, vibrant and creative capital city.

The mission is simple: Cardiff Start wants to connect people who make Cardiff an awesome place to start up. The aim is to foster a community that shares knowledge, offers advice and attracts investment for new tech, creative, online and digital startups. Cardiff Start also wants to highlight the benefits of Wales’ most connected city and the great facilities on offer.

After months of discussion on the 180-strong Facebook group, the group now aims to meet regularly, with participants giving up their own time to push the community forward. During the first four hour Hack Night, strides were made deciding an initial strategy, basic branding and a new website. The group will meet again on September 11th to discuss the next steps. 

This is a really exciting time for our capital city. I recently moved my own company, Applingua, into the city centre and haven’t looked back since. It’s amazing to see so many people wanting to help each other without any ulterior motive. Exactly what a community should be! 

Special thanks to Alex Kavel who organised the Hack Night; Michelle Davies and IndyCube for hosting; and of course Neil Cocker, who planted the first seeds.

Go to all-new Cardiff Start website or participate in our active Facebook group.

Understanding Cookie Law

On 27th May 2012 the UK’s implementation of the EU’s “Cookie Law” will come in force. My own personal opinion aside, I wanted to take the time to actually read and digest the UK’s interpretation of this EU directive and summarise what it means for users and web developers.

The reason why we have this law

Studies suggest that the majority of internet users don’t know what cookies are and what information can be accessed by certain websites. This raises obvious privacy concerns.

The target of this law is to try and prevent or dissuade website owners and content producers from collecting unnecessary information. The main target of this law appears to be third-party cookies, those that are often set by advertising networks to track a user’s global site preferences while browsing. This law makes it very difficult for them to ask for consent.

What the law actually states

The law is based on a privacy-based EC Directive from 2002, which was later amended in 2009 to require consent for the storage or access of information on a user’s device (a cookie). The UK implemented this change on the 25th May 2011, but delayed the compliance date by one year. It’s the Information Commissioner’s Office’s (ICO) job in the UK to inform us, the public, of changes to the law and what is required of us. 

The law is pretty clear. Websites of individuals and businesses based in the EU must comply, regardless of the where the web host is located or where the website’s visitors are accessing the site from.

Websites have to:

  • Tell users there are cookies on the site
  • Explain why you have cookies
  • Get the user’s consent to store a cookie on their device

For example, this blog would be required to tell the user that a cookie will be saved on their device, which anonymously tracks user interactions on this site (Google Analytics). This site would then need to ask the user for consent to store these cookies.

According to the ICO’s guidance, the user’s consent should be required before you set any cookies. In practice, however, the ICO recognises that most websites load cookies as soon as the site loads. In such cases, site owners should do whatever possible to inform the user as soon as possible that cookies are present and explain clearly what the cookies are for. As implementation becomes universal in the future, expect consent to become Opt-In only.

Who needs to comply with the law?

The law will apply to all website owners within the EU. This not only includes organisations and business, but individuals with blogs and private websites. Any site that sets a cookie, where the owner of the site is based within in the EU, regardless of where the site is hosted, must obtain consent.

Like every law, there are exceptions (hooray!):

  • Cookies used to remember goods when they proceed to a checkout
  • Cookies that comply with stricter security principles, such as online banking
  • Cookies that help distribute workload across numerous computers (e.g. Amazon EC2)

As the majority of websites use tools such as Google Analytics, pretty much everyone will need to think about implementing this.

How to comply with the new law

Fortunately for those in the know, satisfying the new law can be achieved by a small script. Unfortunately for those who don’t know anything about front-end web development may find it a bit moredifficult. Here’s two tools than can help:

If you want to fully comply with the law however, you will need to prevent all cookies being stored until the user has agreed. As a cookie is actually required to remember a user’s choice, users that decline to accept cookies will be informed and asked the same question each time they access the site.

The above tools will likely put you in good stead with the ICO for the foreseeable future, but when Opt-In is fully enforced, you should be preventing cookies altogether until the user agrees.

Other Useful reading

My tips on getting your first office

In March of this year I decided to finally get Applingua some office space. Since starting the company in January 2011, I have been travelling around, working pretty much anywhere.

Working from your bedroom, dining room table or at Starbucks may seem glamourous, but when you have client obligations and need to fully concentrate, these places can get frustrating quickly. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the flexibility for a year but eventually I, and Applingua, needed some structure.

Finding an office at first seemed almost impossible. While you will find some properties on websites such as Rightmove, they are mostly long term, high lease, commercial spaces. You’ll also find tonnes of serviced offices.

You’ll find serviced offices pretty much around the world. These cold, soulless places may be good if you’re a team, but on your own the price mounts up quickly. I visited a couple and found them to be the polar opposite of what any web-based start up would be looking for.

I then contacted some commercial estate agents, but they too could only come up with long lease, high service cost places. So what other option do you have?

If you live in a big city, you are likely to be fortunate to have several co-working spaces available. These places are genius: you rent a desk among similar like-minded people and work independently, but share services such as internet and overheads. Mark my words: co-working is going to be the way most people work in 50 years time. It gets people out of the house, into a work environment but gives them the flexibility to manage their own time and work remotely wherever they are in the world.

In a small city like Cardiff however, your co-working options are limited. So I tried something similar.

Searching Google, I made a list of small businesses in the area whose work I respect: designers, web agencies, developers, etc. All businesses that don’t compete with me in any way, but where I knew there’d be people who understood my business. I then emailed them.

My email asked whether they had any space available. Space for two or three desks where I and my first employee could sit. Low and behold, two companies had space! I’ve now moved in with one of them :-)

Nothing ventured, nothing gained I suppose.