Story of my life.

1980s

I was born in 1982 to a couple of young artists.

They split soon after. My mother was left to raise me and my yet to be born little sister. Things got difficult for her, barely earning a living as a high school teacher, and in 1984 my grandmother took us in. We meant to move out as soon as possible, but never did. The four of us would become something of a perfect family unit, unsoluble, held together by the unbreakable bonds of blood and love.

No one missed my father much.

We would spend some time with him from time to time, my sister and I, but never grew any kind of affection for the man. I asked him to come back to our mother once, and don’t really remember his answer. I only remember it didn’t matter. We didn’t really want his presence. He was a stranger and would remain one for the rest of his life. He was also, we would later learn, a drug addict.

I remember colour everywhere.

My earliest memory is spilling a small drawer made of transparent plastic, full of tiny, multicolored glass beads, all over my sleeping parents. I must have been just over one at the time. We don’t usually start keeping our memories until we’re around three, but I kept that one. It was a lazy afternoon, probably Sunday. There was a warm yellow light coming from the windows. Sensations are imprinted in my memory much, much better than words. Mom and Dad woke up, quite startled, and that’s where it gets fuzzy. I seem to remember laughter. There was never any shortage of that. I guess things were so difficult sometimes, we had to always be able to find something to laugh about. But anyway, the colours. And the sounds, and the smells, and the textures and the flavours. Between my mother’s atelier, the quiet streets and gardens we played in and the rare visits to my father’s workshop, my childhood was quite the feast to the senses. I’ll never forget the smell of turpentine, or the taste of leather or the unique texture of fresh oil paint casually brushed on canvas. My senses drive me. I’m sure this is true for everybody else, I’m just maybe overly conscious of the fact.

My body wasn’t quite on par with my mind.

One morning, about a year before school, my left leg stopped working. I remember getting out of bed and just falling over. They diagnosed me with Perthe’s disease and for two years my leg was encased in an unwieldy brace. I quickly learned how to run by skipping sideways and broke the braces some half a dozen times. School was awkward, though. Being the skinny kid with the cyborg leg had a huge impact on my social life. Not wanting to deal with all the questions and jokes, I became shy and reserved. I had a great time with the handful of kids who somehow befriended me, but shoved pretty much everyone else away. I also suffered from strong athsma attacks – which landed me in ER a few times. I wore glasses. And for about one year in middle school, I wet my bed. So yeah, weak, shy and prone to stop breathing. The one thing I had going for me was my indestructible skeleton – which was promptly put to good use when I learned to ride a bicycle. Also my banzai wrestling skills, completely out of character but invaluable at putting bullies in their place.

Loved school, hated homework.

I loved learning but hated following orders. As of the time of this writing, this still hasn’t changed. School was extremely easy. Grades were good and homework was avoided by working out which questions I’d be asked (factoring in the question number, my seating position and any missing classmates ) and doing only those, hastily, while my classmates answered theirs. I think that had a huge effect in building confidence in my ability to perform under pressure. The time I saved by not doing all the homework, I spent reading my mom’s encyclopaedias, building my lego contraptions and taking my electronic toys apart. Also, riding my bike like a lunatic.

1990s

I was always gazing at the stars.

For the longest time, it was one of my main hobbies. Everything about space fascinated me, from astronomy to science fiction. I read Sagan and Hawkings like the pages were cocaine. Astrophysicist sounded likej a really cool profession. I started writing science fiction, largely because what I read at the time didn’t contain enough cool starfighter scenes. I think the writing was my first attempt at adding something to the world, at leaving my little impression on it. I wrote and I looked wistfully at the stars for a good long while.

I learned a lot from my parents.

My mother has always been a hard working woman, but never more so than during the 90s. Being the sol
e provider for the family, she piled freelancing gigs on top of an unreasonably busy highschool teacher schedule and still found the time and energy to throw her own painting exhibitions and take us all on vacation every year. While my father was a hedonistic failure of a person, my mother was an inspiring testiment to the power of gritty determination. Each in their own way, my parents taught me everything I needed to know about how to conduct myself as a person and, one day, a man. Yet I knew none of them could teach me about the path I wanted for myself – the path of the self made man. I like to say I discovered my ambitions one day when I asked Mom what profession she thought I should pursue. She replied that anything I wanted to do was fine, as long as I could provide for her in her old age. To this day she maintains it wasn’t a reply meant to be taken literally, but it became one of my guiding principles in life. Having witnessed the harsh reality of a single person bringing up a whole family on a barely average salary, having felt so disappointed in my man-child of a father, a burning desire was ignited for something better. That’s when I started looking more closely at the “upper class”. It didn’t take long for me to notice that the most well-to-do weren’t teachers or doctors or engineers. They were businessmen. And that they rose from pretty much any walk of life.

Whatever I competed in, I won.

School. Great grades. Soccer. My team always won – for a skinny kid, I put up one hell of a tackle. Lego races. Victory through superior technology – shock absorbers on downhill buggies, low CoG on track machines, low resistance skinny tyres on heavy, high inertia distance runners. Biking – going for the highest jumps, winning races against the older kids. Whatever the competition, losing would drive me mad. Quietly, efficiently, I always sought to find the position or the role in which my greatest advantaged laid, and press it. For me it was never about competing. It was about doing the things I loved and, if they were somehow competitive, winning at them. Usually by skill, sometimes by subtrefuge.

But then I came down with a bad case of adolescency.

Though by the mid nineties I was a bright young boy who could do no wrong, around the time I turned 15 teenage angst and misguidedness hit me like a swift kick in the nuts. My worst flaws came to the fore. Grades plummeted. Hair grew to unreasonable lengths. And the worst thing is, in retrospect, it looks like I didn’t really stop being a teenager until I was well into my twenties. The ten years from 1997 to 2007 were my own personal Dark Ages – in more ways than one. If a person is a kitchen, I was the one stocked with great gourmet ingredients yet staffed by the Swedish Chef.

The only good things to come out of my late 90s were that we got a computer and I stumbled across HTML coding. That and the fact that, no matter how shitty things got in my head, I always managed to stay well clear of drugs and excessive driking. Maybe I was a bit boring – but I had good reason.

2000s

Dropped out of college and learned to code for the Web.

Having gotten only average grades in highschool, a CS degree was out of reach and my applications were nearly all declined. I was stuck in a college I didn’t like, taking a degree I didn’t want just for the sake of going through college. By the end of the second semester at Electronic Engineering, of which I only attended the Computer Programming class (near perfect grades at that, by the way), I learned about a one year training program in Web Development. I dropped out of college and took that instead. Coding a static website for my highschool in ’99 and a bunch of mIRC scripts in 2000 was nothing compared to the newly found awesomeness of PHP and ASP dynamic pages. I fell in love with the Web.

Sadly, as you’ll recall, Swedish Chef was still in charge.

I jumped between lousy jobs like a flee between dying mongrels. With high expectations yet no confidence in the job market, I embarked upon an ill-advised entrepreneurial journey. First, selling websites to local car dealerships. It was the right idea – build a product once, sell it many times – but the market had already become saturated by low cost alternatives. When that well truly dried, I applied the same formula to real estate agencies – only to see the project die on the beach due to the mishaps of a co-founder who turned out to be a rotten piece of work. Then I built Deviant Art before it was time for Deviant Art and with the completely wrong business model. Then I tried my hand at a used car search engine, which was truly awesome yet totally bombed for a lack of promotion. It was failed project after failed project, mostly, I think, because I would never survive the crash after that initial period usually referred to as “uninformed optimism”. I would think of something awesome, do it, then despair when the market showed indifference. And there was no one to talk to about my problems, because everyone around me was either unemployed – and therefore useless at giving career advice – or thought I should get a real job. Oh how I dreamed about having been raised in Silicon Valley instead. Or at the very least somewhere people wouldn’t view aspiring entrepreneurs as complete retards. The whole thing did help me grow a thick skin and a strong sense of purpose, but in the end all I did was spin my wheels.

Days turned into weeks, turned into months, turned into years.

You are what you eat. I would argue you’re also who you surround yourself with. While I’m at it, I’d also argue there’s something wrong with my generation – at least here in Europe. We’re soft and devoid of drive. We drink and we smoke and we muddle through college on the way to dead end degrees we thought were okay to get because someone once promised “you can do whatever makes you happy” but never mentioned the caveats. I love my friends to death but many belong to this mass. They’re 30 and they’ve failed at life so far and they’re angry because The Man doesn’t cuddle them like their parents did. They’re mad because Life doesn’t cut them a chance. They’re mad but they’re limp. Theirs isn’t the kind of anger that drives and propels, it’s the kind that corrodes and destroys. This wasn’t the right kind of environment for someone who believes no one but himself can improve his lot in life and who wishes nothing but to create his own fortunes. But Swedish Chef’s grip at my reigns was tight. I let myself drift down the current, deluded by “projects” which were nothing but placebos. Time, as it’s prone to do, breezed past.

In late 2007, the stars aligned and I moved to Lisbon.

Got a job. A really nice job. Started hanging out with people who actually had careers. Met the girl of my dreams. For a while, all was well. But, just like the Inquisition lingered on well after the Renaissance ended the Dark Ages, I still had one major screw-up left to do. Now, my reasons were entirely valid: I want to have my own business and an opportunity presented itself. Still, in retrospect, maybe I didn’t absolutely have to quit my job. Maybe I should have waited until there was more of a money cushion in the bank. Things went wrong. I got a lot of clients (or pre-orders, rather) but didn’t have the software ready. The partnerships on which my development depended slowly broke off, because those partners weren’t really convinced of the benefit to them. I had designed Something People Want, only not quite been able to get it ready. Vapourware, in a way.

I crashed and burned.

Moved back to my Mom’s old atelier and left the relationship with Dream Girl hanging by a thread. A state of near-as-makes-no-difference depression crept in. My old friends no longer saw me as much of an example. I had debts. It was a slow burning nightmare. Then I almost accepted a job in London. Saying no to that was hard, but it was also an important thing to do. It boosted my confidence. With my family’s backing, I took a month to develop and market a yelp-like website. I launched it to some success. There were businesses ringing in, wanting to advertise. It was taking shape nicely. Then my old boss rang, offering me my job back, with a bit of a raise on top too. Despite the initial success, my little yelp clone would probably take more than a year to get to the point where it would earn me a decent living – Portugal; small market. So I took the job and went back to Lisbon. When the Throughs of Sorrow came for my site, I was intoxicated by the niceties of a stable life with a nice stable income and I didn’t care. I let the project fade and die and, for a good long while, poured all of my energies into my regular job. It wasn’t very entrepreneurial of me, but it was the sensible thing to do at the time.

I eventually discovered the allure of SaaS: enter Threddie.

In June 2010 I watched the video of a great talk by David Heinemeier Hanson on building profitable businesses online. He drove home the point that you don’t really need to swing for the fences if your goal is simply to become a millionaire: 2000 users at 40$ a month each will get you there in a year (sort of). His talk stroke a chord with me and building SaaS started looking like a very viable route to achieving my goals. So in August 2010 I launched a web app and it became one of the most fascinating and rewarding experiences of my career as a web developer to date. It was a simple post-and-comment system billed as a “simplified brainstorming” tool. Threddie got great reviews, attracted a bunch of users and helped me learn the ropes of actual web app marketing, building relationships with bloggers and customers. I never pushed it to TechCrunch, Mashable or the other heavy hitters, but SmashingMagazine did throw a completely unsolicited nod in my direction once. I even had people sign up as customers, though in the single digits. For the first time ever, I had a product that I could sell without any overhead at all and therefore a scalable business model. But there was still a lot of work to do both in terms of the product and in its marketing, and I was still completely dedicated to my job. So Threddie never got the attention it needed to really mature and bloom, but as an experience it was great.

The world economic crysis descended upon Portugal.

We were working more than ever but posting negative results anyway. Clients were buying less, smaller campaigns no matter what we did. Management in Madrid didn’t care about the ideas and the technologies we were proposing to address the problems – and boy, did I burn the midnight oil coming up with some of that stuff. Results continued to plummet and eventually everyone but the manager and a junior salesperson were laid off in Q1 2011.

Sorrow and perspective.

The lay-off and ensuing severance package turned out to be a boon in disguise because they gave me the freedom to join the rest of my family during my grandmother’s final days. She was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer in March and passed away in late April. It’s too soon to write in detail about those two months. Suffice to say that I saw her as another Mother, grieved accordingly and won’t ever really stop feeling her absence. But her passing, and my looming 30th birthday, did help stoke the fires of entrepreneurship. Motivated by the cruel reminders of the passage of time, freed from the numb
ing comfort of a good day job, my return to the land of the living was incisive and determined.

Which brings me to today.

I’m an independent web developer again. This time there’s nowhere to run to if things go sour, which only fuels my drive to succeed. I’m a much better coder and getting better every day. Plus, at 29, I’m young enough to be down with the latest trends yet old enough to be taken seriously. At the same time, I’m working on Threddie on nights and weekends. I look at giants like yammer and then I look at my own work and I think I’m on to something. Maybe even swing-for-the-fences material.

I’m just missing a network of peers. Successful entrepreneurs in Portugal are rare and aloof. Reaching out to the stars of Sillicon Valley is hard because I haven’t yet given them reason to take notice. I may need to take a little hop across the Pond one of these days…

Starting from scratch

Powering through the Getting Started guide for Rails involves writing a blog app and at some point you have to write a dummy blog post. I found myself writing something a bit deeper than that:

Starting from scratch

Well, not from scratch exactly. I'm not really going to forget all these past ten years taught me about web design and development. What this is, really, is more of a soft reboot. While php puts food on the table, I'm learning ruby via rails.

PHP and the practices it fosters are still stuck in the 90s. Time to evolve. I'm not saying ruby is necessarily a better language, what it is is surrounded by much better practices and tools.

So, in the end, it's less about the language and more about the mindset.

How to install rails on OSX Lion

Fire up a Terminal windows and type:

sudo gem install rails

That's it.

Of course, if you're anything like me, you'll probably wonder why nothing happens. Maybe even ctrl+c / restart a couple times. Well, thing is, the installation can take an inordinate amount of time. That's just normal. If you want to make double sure your mac is actually working, just append -V to the previous command, like so:

sudo gem install rails -V

That'll print out an almighty list of everything gem install is doing, so you'll never have to wonder whether it hanged or not.
While your computer is installing what seems like the Trans Siberian Railway, grab the fattest book in your shelf and go out for a coffee*. Personally, I'm reading War and Peace. Cheers.

* You could also totally continue working on whatever it was you were working on before, but that's nowhere near as cool as lounging in a coffee shop while educating yourself and musing about what you're going to do with Ruby on Rails later.

You keep my startup dream alive

Even though freelancing gigs take up most of my time, I like to take an hour or two here and there to work on??Threddie, mostly on nights and weekends.

Threddie was launched just over a year ago and it's the closest thing I've ever had to a successful business: was featured in a lot of blogs, got great reviews, gained a lot of users and some of those even went as far as becoming paying customers.

The first six months were pretty frantic, between the launch, the re-launch and the (mis)adventures with a couple local angel investors. Threddie evolved, but in so doing it kind of lost its focus. And so did I. For two whole months, I wrote not a single line of code for my little app. Users came, became customers, left. Then my transition from salaryman to freelancer became my only worry and Threddie was left on autopilot.

Still, every so often, my paypal would ring. People kept using Threddie. People kept paying for it.??Every so often, I'd be reminded that someone out there was finding my app useful. Someone who cared enough to give me insightful feedback.??So last May I got a moleskine just for taking notes on what would become Threddie v3. I wrote and I drew. And then I coded.

It's September now.
V3 is still nowhere near finished. I'm a freelancer with not a lot of time to spare on side projects. But still my paypal rings. Still someone lights up my monitoring page. That's who I'm coding for. Thank you. You keep my startup dream alive.