Have you ever wondered how remote businesses develop? Today, we’ve got Tyler Tringas, founder of Storemapper and SolarList, to tell us about his experiences building a remote business and traveling.
Exploring Wanaka, New Zealand
Can you tell us about Storemapper and SolarList?
SolarList was a software company that made the process of switching your home to solar energy incredibly simple. It was my first attempt at building a VC-backed business and it ultimately failed. While working on it I built Storemapper as a side-project that eventually grew into a Micro-SaaS (small bootstrapped SaaS) business. Storemapper is store locator software for brands to tell their customers where to buy their products in physical retail locations, a kind of bridge between e-commerce and the real world.
Working from an AirBnb in Cape Town, South Africa
In retrospect, would you recommend that startup entrepreneurs avoid accruing credit card debt for living expenses while working on their startup, or is it a viable option?
I’m split on this issue. I accumulated a terrifying amount of debt, nearly $60,000, on my journey. Dealing with that, and the process of paying it off, was incredibly stressful. That said, there is no way I could have gotten a bank loan to go try to build products online and for sure I would have had to give up and get a job long before I finally became cashflow-positive as an entrepreneur. Before I quit my last job I was looking at doing an MBA, a fact that I know sounds hilarious, and I told myself if I spent one year’s worth of an MBA tuition on learning how to build a business I will learn more and get better value. So that was the limit that I set for how much credit card debt I would take out. I think it was the right choice but I think it’s crazy that you can snap your fingers and get a $150,000 loan to go to Princeton but there aren’t any better ways to finance learning to build businesses than credit cards with 20% interest rates.
I understand you and your girlfriend traveled around the world from July to May while you worked on Storemapper, any awesome travel tales?
In July 2015 my girlfriend was able to get a year long sabbatical and we decided to do a big round the world trip. I had already been traveling and working remotely but we really put the concept of remote work to the test. One of the first places we went to was Tanzania and over the course of three weeks we hiked Mt. Kilimanjaro, took a jeep safari through the Serengeti and spent a week on the beach in Zanzibar.
Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
Nearly all of that included no, or very very slow, wifi. I had just brought on my two remote employees and had to put my entire business in their hands for weeks at a time. It was pretty nerve-wracking at times but amazing to come back after 10 days offline to see that everything is still working fine.
Definitely the highlight of the trip for me was Mozambique where we were able to swim right up to giant manta rays and a whale shark, grill tiger prawns bigger than your head and watch from the beach as humpback whales jumped and splashed around.
Celebrating Holi in New Delhi, India
What are some challenges that you faced as a couple traveling together? How did you resolve them e.g. do you need time apart?
Traveling as a couple for a year is certainly a surreal experience. You spend almost every waking hour with that person and if you do the math, it’s more face-to-face minutes than a married couple, who leave every weekday to separate 9-5 jobs, might accumulate in a decade. We definitely needed to create some stricter rules and dedicated time to do our own thing in order to keep our sanity. But it’s also an incredible opportunity to really get to know someone in a comparatively short amount of time. Anne wrote this post about things we learned as a couple while traveling.
Could you name a city (or two) where you found the best balance between traveling and working remotely?
I always love going to Ubud and working from Hubud. We went back for a month this year. It was my third trip and not likely the last one. I also really enjoyed being in Tokyo. Amazing food, great cafes for hanging out and working and not nearly as expensive as everyone thinks.
Working together in a coffee shop in Shibuya
You’re a travel bag connoisseur, can you tell us about some of the bags you’ve owned in the past and how they’ve worked out for you?
Yea, I have an addiction to buying travel bags, it’s a problem. First, I have a strong objection to this One Bag theory that a lot of nomads subscribe to. If you’re traveling with only one carry on backpack, you will inevitably run into a situation where some random budget airline says your bag is still too big to carry on, or some long tail boat or ferry wants to toss your bag in a pile on the deck, or a bus driver wants to tie your bag to the roof. If you’ve got everything carefully packed into one bag you have no choice but to hand it all over including your laptop, iPad, passport, and everything. I prefer to always travel with two bags and when everything is all packed up I have a small day pack with all the valuable stuff in it that never leaves my side, the bigger bag just has clothes and things that can get tossed all over and I don’t really care.
I started this trip with an Osprey 46L Porter and the Aer Duffle Pack. It was really solid but mid-way through, two of my favorite brands collaborated on this Outlier X Boreas UltraHigh Travel System which is just incredible. I bought it, had an insane time getting it through Indonesian customs and loved it for the rest of the trip. The Dyneema duffel ways almost nothing and compresses a ton of stuff and both the duffel and the daypack can swap into the same suspension which is really comfortable. Because I’m an addict I also backed the latest Minaal Kickstarter campaign and just received the Carry On and The Daily a few weeks ago. I took them on a few quick test trips around Spain and really love what they have built.
Tonle Sap floating village, Cambodia
Can you tell us about hiring your remote team? You have a Rails developer and a tech support engineer, how did the hiring process go? Did you work with several people before selecting your team members, or were your selected team members a great fit after the onboarding process?
Exactly, at the moment we just have the two positions at Storemapper. I love my team at the moment but I also hired others in both of those roles before the current team. I basically stole every best practice I could find from folks like Matt Mullenweg at Automattic and the team at Buffer. Some of the things that worked really well were:
Use the same communication tools to hire that you will to manage. In our case that meant talking via Slack and working through tasks in Asana. Most people think by default you should have a Skype video chat when hiring someone but we never video chat for work so why bother? I ran the entire interview process by chat and it was great.
Take the time to build real technical tests, specific to your business, to have the candidates work through. I spent quite a bit of time building out challenges and made it enough work that I actually paid candidates to do them. Then in most cases I would actually hire multiple candidates for a trial run of a week or two and keep the best one long-term.
Have tons of internal documentation. A friend who runs an entire company dedicated to internal operations convinced me to write out and record screencasts for what seemed like an insane amount of onboarding material and internal FAQs. Even though this was for just one employee, and it felt like a lot of work at the time, having so much internal knowledge available and searchable made the onboarding process incredibly smooth and will only help as we grow.
Would you suggest that other remote companies with a similar business model hire their team slowly?
Absolutely. Following the lead of some other awesome remote companies like Buffer and even NomadList, I started publishing all of the details and financial metrics of my business. Through that I was able to meet and interview a lot of other entrepreneurs building what I call Micro-SaaS businesses. I’m writing an ebook synthesizing all the things I’ve learned from the process but one thing all the successful Micro-SaaS businesses had in come was hiring slowly and only after the business built up more than enough cashflow to cover the new employee.
Tyler and Anne in Gulfoss, Iceland (Picture credit: The Travel Darling)
You’ll be traveling slower from now on to focus on Storemapper, where are you headed to next? Do you think you’ll stop traveling and settle down in future?
We’re currently in the middle of a three month stay in Barcelona with a few side-trips around Europe. I’ve been nomadic for more than 75% of the time since mid-2011 and I can tell I really need a home base at this point. My girlfriend and I are heading back to Washington, DC and we’ll get an apartment and gasp sign a lease, but we will still travel and lot.
I think that the version of digital nomad that most people think of, living out of backpack, doing visa runs every month, laptop in an open air bungalow with a beach view, is amazing but only one of many variations. It’s great to start there for a couple of reasons. You can have a a really fun time, meet incredible new people, focus on your business and not spend a lot of money. It’s also a way to really test your lifestyle and business to see just how location-independent it is. If you can grow your business from a beach hostel in Koh Phi Phi, you surely can run it from an apartment in Barcelona. But the whole point of remote work is to build your life so you can live anywhere, not just in the backpacking hotspots of the world. The more you bounce around Cartagena, Chiang Mai, Prague and Paris, the more the pendulum swings back the other way and the idea of spending a weekend drinking beers and BBQ’ing with your friends from home starts to sound really great.
I like being able to choose “both” on options most people think of as either/or. I wanted to travel the world and quit my job to build a business. Now I want to run a growing business, have a nice apartment nearer to my friends and family and be able to travel whenever I want. I want as much as possible to spread this kind of freedom and flexibility to my employees, through my business, and other entrepreneurs, through my writing.
With friends in Hong Kong
What are your thoughts on digital nomadism and remote working?
It is so obviously the future for many kinds of jobs and lifestyles. I’m really happy there is now a thriving community around the entire concept sharing stories and solving problems together. The way that we do work is such a giant proportion of most people’s lives that it’s awesome to be a part of a group of people who don’t take the standard approach for granted and want to push the boundaries. I think we’re pushing through to the back-end of the first big hype cycle and lots of people are starting to focus on the drawbacks of a digital nomad lifestyle like loneliness, disconnectedness and the kind of exploitative mindset of “lifestyle arbitrage” but we will work through those issues too. I couldn’t be happier to have taken the, relatively minor if you think about, risks that I did to become a digital nomad and completely recommend it.
Want more about Tyler’s experiences with startups? See his posts here. For more updates, follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
All photos courtesy of Tyler and Anne (The Travel Darling).
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