Posts Tagged ‘travel’

How TrekDek Cards came to be a part of the World Domination Summit

From Egypt to Portland: TrekDek, Chris Guillebeau, and the WDS

Last weekend I was able to volunteer at the World Domination Summit in Portland, OR. How did I even hear about this oddly named conference? Well, it all goes back to a time when I was in the exotic land of Egypt.

I had landed a gig teaching English at a private school in Cairo. Teaching was never what I had intended to do, and it was really just a means to facilitate travel. In any case, I was trying to figure out how to get TrekDek up and running.  The process of figuring out how to get this business off the ground involved reading a lot of books, one of which was of course, The Art of Non-Conformity by Chris Guillebeau. I  e-mailed him to tell him how much I enjoyed his book and maybe get some feedback on TrekDek. To my surprise, he actually responded. Awesome.

Flash forward to May 2011. I moved to Portland because a) it is an awesome city and b) I thought it would be a great place to launch TrekDek. After my first batch of cards was made, I remembered that Chris lived in Portland. I sent him a few decks and once again to my surprise, he enjoyed them so much that he wanted to put them in all the WDS gift bags. Score! It was at this point that I looked up what it was. After reading about it, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to be there personally to see all the awesome speakers and get some feedback from the WDS attendees. I begged and pleaded to be able to volunteer for a few weeks and I am happy to say my strategy of wearing the WDS staff down payed off.

The Best Part of WDS

Hands down, the best part of WDS was meeting the fantastic attendees. I’ve never met so many people looking to live life on their own terms. Most of my peers from college are struggling to define themselves through their careers, or attempted careers (sucky economy and all). It was refreshing to meet entrepreneurs, travelers, pastors, speakers, bloggers, and translators. I won’t even begin to tell you how many side projects that were being discussed.

The beer tour was a fantastic opportunity to meet some excellent WDS peeps (shout-out to Group 1). I had a long talk with Caleb Wojcki (@calebwojcik) about his upcoming wedding and plans for a long trip to Bali. Though I can’t say I’m not a little jealous of his upcoming adventure, it was inspiring to hear him talk about his aspirations and the concrete steps he is taking to get there. I wish you the best of luck (though luck has very little do with it) on your journey.

TrekDek reception

 Though I don’t mean to toot my own horn, I received very positive feedback on the TrekDek Playing Cards. In order to work TrekDek into the conversation without sounding too much like a sales guy, I had to make my own TrekDek jewelry. Now I know what you’re wondering and no, there aren’t any pearl TrekDek necklaces for sale. What I ended up doing was punching a hole through a pack of TrekDek cards, running a book ring through it, and attaching it to the name tag chain everyone was wearing. This was a much less awkward way of talking about the cards because most of the time, the person I was talking to would ask “why the heck are you wearing those?” It occured to me later that it wasn’t obvious that I was the guy behind the cards and not just a huge fan.

There were a couple of suggestions that a few people had for the cards:

A. Make it obvious that they double as actual playing cards

B. Have a website where people can upload the stories of their adventures that took place while accomplishing a TrekDek challenge.

Both are good points. In fact, I’ve already been working on B for a quite a while. Its still under development but you can test out some of the features here . Don’t be too harsh, it is still far from complete but I would love your feedback.
See you next year

I saw the amount of people that signed up for next year. All I can say is…Wow.

Good luck on your quest for world domination and I will see you in a year!





First month as a start-up founder in Portland, OR

For those of you who don’t normally read this blog, about a month ago I moved from Lexington, MA (Yes, the famous shot heard around the world Lexington) to Portland, OR. I moved to Portland for a few reasons. My girlfriend lives here, my (now former) co-founder lives near Portland, I like the city, it has a small but growing tech scene, etc.This blog post is about my first month as start-up founder in Portland.

Getting plugged into the Portland Tech Scene
I knew coming from Boston that Portland’s start-up / tech scene would be significantly smaller. That is exactly why I wanted to come here. When I was in Boston, I went to a few networking events and met some awesome people, however, I was definitely a small fish in a big pond. Part of the appeal of Portland was that the pond in question is significantly smaller. Though I’m still a small fish, it has been significantly easier and more rewarding  to work with a smaller group of tech and start-up people. I’ll give you some examples:

a) I got to meet Rick Turoczy of the Silicon Florist and am currently helping him out with a few guest posts for the blog

b) Interviewed Darius Monsef IV, the founder of ColourLovers and YC Alum, for a Silicon Florist blog post. Also got to discuss TrekDek with him and received some great feedback (Thanks for backing my Kickstarter by the way).

c) Attended the launch event for the Portland Seed Fund and got to talk with one of the fund managers, Angela Jackson, for a bit. Oh yea, apply by May 31 if you want to be considered for the summer class.

d) Met some fantastic entrepreneurs and start-up founders, including Jason Glaspey, the current Product Manager at Urban Airship, PeeKay Chan from the soon to be launched HubGenie, and Sean Keener and Riel Manriquez from BootsnAll.

When I arrived in Portland I deliberately sought out people heavily involved in the Portland start-up scene. What I didn’t expect was how friendly and welcoming they all were. I pretty much cold-emailed everyone and they were all happy (I think) to meetup for coffee and chat for a bit. I am extremely appreciative of all the people that I’ve met here. Though its possible that tech peeps are just a friendly bunch no matter where they are, I really believe the laid back Portland vibe has something to do with it. In Boston, most of the entrepreneurs and investor types I met were very friendly, but it was a different mind-set all together. It might just be a function of the size of the tech crowd, but I think its also a city culture thing. I would love to read a blog post comparing Portland to Silicon Valley.

Finding a co-founder in Portland

When I arrived in Portland, I had a co-founder. Unfortunately for me, it turned out that he was too busy to take on that co-founder role. He was busy managing his own software that he licenses out as well as several rental properties that he owns. C’est la vie. No hurt feelings or anything but that put me in the position of having to find another tech co-founder.

Progress to date? Several leads but haven’t found one yet. The most promising leads have actually resulted from non-tech related activities. I went to a few Meetups. One was a travel group and the other was a Portland New In Town book club meetup. It just happened that there were a few coders in both groups that liked the concept and seemed fairly interested, but those conversations are stills taking place.

Most of the coders that I’ve met through tech related activities have also been interested in the concept, but it seems as if they are all happy doing consulting work and working on some side projects. I don’t know how this compares to the valley, but that seems kind of Portland like as well. There is definitely an emphasis on “just enough success” and working to live. Though frustrating for someone looking for a co-founder, its great from a lifestyle perspective.

I think I may have to change my approach quite a bit. Suggestions?
The roller-coaster emotions of being an entrepeneur

My personal experience in this area seems to be fairly typical. Most of the time I’m fairly optimistic. My happiness is highly correlated with discover different possibilities for the project, meeting other entrepreneurs, and making incremental progress on the project. The severe semi-frequent depression is highly correlated with mean hacker news comments (amazing how affected I am by anonymous feedback), perception that the project is not progressing and you can’t do anything about it, and the occasional glance at my dwindling bank account. Overall though I think it helps to be in Portland in both cases. When you’re happy, you feel so lucky that you’re in a great city with lots of natural beauty around it. When you’re bummed, well, you’re still bummed but at least you’re still in a great city with lots of natural beauty around it. Boston is a little too much city and not enough nature for the emotional ups and downs of a start-up founder.

Job Search

There’s a certain piece of advice that Portlanders give people thinking about moving to Portland. It is BYOJ, or Bring Your Own Job. Indeed that seems to be the case here. Granted, I haven’t been trying very hard to get a job, but I’m also trying not to end up in a job where I will want to throw myself off the Burnside bridge. I even wrote a blog post about one of my job interviews at a law firm. This may not be a realistic attitude, as I either have to start generating revenue or be homeless. Lame. If anyone reading this post knows about any start-up jobs for non coder positions let me know.

Concluding thoughts

If you want to start a start-up in Portland, I think its a great place to do it. If you want to raise some serious funding, you’ll probably have to leave. But, in the early pre-launch stages, I don’t think you can beat the lifestyle or the culture of Portland. I imagine that the most ideal scenario (other than having funding) is having a part-time job that pays the bills while you work on your start-up. Working part time here is something that is celebrated so no worries about being shunned.



Why you should still go to touristy places

There is a certain type of traveler that displays a certain disdain for tourists and popular tourist destinations. A sense of ruin washes over him as he glazes over the mobs of fanny-pack wearing, Starbucks drinking, Canon sporting visitors that seems to have invaded this formerly exotic land. These mobs, with their overly cheerful local tour guides, will never truly be real travelers. With that observation, our jaded traveler dutifully heads back to his $5 a night hostel to plan his next adventure off the beaten path.

I’ll be the first to admit that tourist hot spots sometimes irk me. When Erica and I arrived in Ao Nang, Thailand, we were a little grossed out with the tacky souvenir shops and the overly expensive chic restaurants that could be found in any yuppie town in the US. It somehow didn’t feel “real.” The area seemed to have developed to cater to foreigners’ imagination of what Thailand really is. This thought enveloped my brain even as I was juxtaposing it against what I thought Thailand should really be like. Oh the irony.

It is fascinating to me how easily we fall into the trap of thinking that the richness of a place is inversely proportional to how many foreigners or visitors hang out there. The snobbish traveler might believe that the only meaningful travel experiences exist in remote, poverty inflicted areas where the modern world has not yet extended its reach.

Anyone who has ever lived in a tourist hot spot knows that its not true.

I recently left Cairo, a world renown hot spot, but the example I would like to use is far less exotic and ancient. I would like to talk about Washington, DC.

DC is a tourist hot spot. The Lincoln Memorial, the Smithsonian, the National Mall, Georgetown, the White House, Adams Morgan, Dupont, and Arlington cemetery are just some of the examples of place tourists may visit while in the nation’s capital.

I spent my four years of college in DC. I was not there as a tourist. However, I would never claim that my time spent there was wasted or unauthentic just because there was a large presence of tourists there. Japanese tour groups around the reflecting pool did not make my frequent runs around it less exhilarating. The presence of hotels filled with out of state visitors did not make my interactions with friends less genuine. And the museums…well ok, I generally don’t like museums so I’ll leave the Smithsonian out of this.

The fact is, even in the most touristy of places, there’s a world of rich, meaningful experiences to be had. They might not be the experiences that travelers may have envisioned, but they are meaningful nonetheless. The richness of life rarely has to do with location alone, rather, different locations provide new contexts for travelers to process meaningful experiences.

I would even argue that tourist hot spots offer even more opportunities for meaningful experiences than the more remote, untouched locations. Its true that one could be shuttled from landmark to museum and never have any experience that wasn’t created by a travel agency or a guide book. However, if you know what to be open to when you travel, you will find that travel can be rich even in the most trendy of vacation spots.

Lets take a hypothetical traveler and one of my TrekDek challenges and place him in a tourist hot spot, say, Rome. The challenge is to “Cook a local dish.” John Backpacker (our traveler) ate an excellent pesto linguini dish the other day and decides he will cook that. John is staying at a hostel that has a small kitchen with some basic cookware so no issues there. He starts by asking the hostel manager, Mario, where the best play to buy the ingredients for this dish. Mario, remembering his mother’s pesto linguini dish, regales him with stories about how his mother always used fresh basil leaves from the Campo dei Feiori market. Mario gives him some basic directions and John Backpacker starts his trek.

On the way to the market he gets lost and ends up wandering through a few neighborhoods with some beautiful architecture. He asks some locals for help getting to the market and one young Italian offers a ride on his moped. John accepts, and finds himself holding on for dear life. Thankfully, he makes it to the market.

He ends up talking to one woman who is selling basil leaves and she gives him advice on how to make the best pesto. She finds his ignorance of Italian cuisine amusing and invites him over to her family’s house to have a real Italian dinner. John graciously accepts and has a wonderful time speaking Englitalian with the family over a delicious meatball dinner.

John thanks his hosts profusely and rolls back to the hostel (meatballs aren’t exactly a diet dish). The next day, flush with ingredients given to him by his dinner hosts, begins to cook his pesto liguini. Some other backpackers at the hostel take an interest in his activities and offer to help. This leads to the classic scenario of “too many cooks in the kitchen” but no matter, it is all in good fun.

The travelers all share what what was supposed to be a pesto linguini dish over some cheap wine and regale each other with their travel stories.

I admit I exaggerated John’s hypothetical experience a little bit. It is quite possible that nothing overly interesting happens on John’s quest to make pesto linguini. However, having some travel experience, I find that this type of story is not completely off base either. The point is, this kind of story can definitely take place in a touristy location, and arguably, has a higher chance of happening in touristy places than more remote ones (I believe its because of the concentration of people).

Travel at its best facilitates these types of experiences, and as TrekDek comes closer and closer to launch, I invite you all to e-mail me your travel stories as well as what you think the catalyst for these experiences were at .



The monkey and I share a meaningful experience

My pre-conceived (and accurate) image of Ton Sai beach

State of flow in a Portland coffee shop

Erica and I drove down from Victoria to Portland with her dad two days ago and we found ourselves sitting at a quintessential Portland pizza place called Lovely’s Fifty-Fifty. It was Portland in that it was low key, but the food was a bit full of itself. For example, Salami was called Saluni. Still delicious though.

Joining us was Erica’s twin sister Chloe, and her boyfriend Kevin. Kevin is a potential Trekdek co-founder that I’ve been bouncing ideas off. We only recently began talking about his role in Trekdek during my last few weeks in Egypt. It was difficult to stay in touch in the midst of an internet outage in Egypt and my beach hopping in Thailand, but we finally got the chance to sit down and chat in person

There were 5 people at the table. For my purpose, it might as well been just Kevin and I. We immediately begin to talk about the potential for Trekdek and how it could become the next billion dollar business (I never said we were realistic). Though it was bad table manners, I pretty much ended up ignoring everybody else. I only ended up saying a few words to them, “Could you pass the saluni?”

The next day I met with the founder of Supportland a Portland based startup that is replacing the punch card with a common swipe card that could be used at multiple businesses. It is pretty cool stuff. Why was I meeting with him? Well, Kevin is also working at Supportland and Michael was initially worried about a conflict of interest. However, that was about 5% of the conversation. The other 95% was talking about start-ups, Trekdek, Supportland, investment strategies, travel, and how work sucks. It was pretty awesome. Again, I didn’t notice anyone else hanging out at Albina Street Cafe.

The most trusted source on the Internet, Wikipedia, defines flow as
“completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task.”

I achieved this state of flow twice within 48 hours of arriving in Portland. I rarely achieved that state of flow while teaching or working in a government office. The state of flow is the exact opposite of the mind-numbing work performed a la Office Space. Richard Florida, an economist who wrote The Rise of the Creative Class, believes the new economy is divided between the creative class (engineers, artists, entrepreneurs, musicians, small business owners, etc) and the non-creative class (service and factory workers, office admin people, etc). The creative class tends to be happier, live in nice places, and generally earn more money. The non-creative class are engaged in lower paying menial work. It is this transition to the creative economy that is exacerbating the huge income inequality that is currently prevailing in the US. Florida believes the solution is to turn these non-creative class jobs into creative ones.

I fully believe this to be true and many companies, at least in theory, are trying to empower their employees and letting them exercise their creative faculties to the benefit of the company and the employees. The employees create additional value for the company, and in general, the employees are happier for it and in theory, are better compensated. Even Subway has acknowledged this idea by calling their employees “Sandwich Artists.” Whether or not Subway employees are actually encouraged to employ their creative faculties is another story, but at least they are on the right track.

Sometimes I wonder if its possible to trace back all happiness to the state of flow. Maybe eating dinner with family encourages a state of flow. Maybe religion is a means of channeling spiritual flow. Maybe political rallies, concerts, and football games foster a collective flow. It is Avatar’s “aiwa” and Buddhism’s Nirvana. It is Einstein’s eureka and and Thoureau’s Walden. It is perhaps the Portland coffee shop.


Civil society and tear gas (observations from the Cairo protests)

While living in San Diego, I had many discussions with my roommate Casey about the role of government and the role of the community in various domains. Liberals tend to believe that government should play a large role in society while conservatives like to push these types of program to the lowest levels (local government, private charities, etc).

This past week I’ve witnessed what happens to a society when the government is perceived to be inadequate and actively working against the people it purports to work for. I’m pleased to say that the Egyptian people will continue to survive and thrive in the presence of a corrupt government, or even without a government at all.

This past Friday I went downtown with a group of friends to witness the protests. Friday was perhaps the most violent day of the protests. Police liberally used tear gas and rubber bullets on Egyptian citizens in a failed attempt to demoralize them. Here are some of the impressive acts I observed firsthand.

1. Egyptians giving damp cloths to each other

These damp cloths were used to relieve some of the symptoms of tear gas. There was no such feeling of “every man for himself.” Resources were liberally shared. Erica was even offered a cloth wetted with vinegar (apparently it does help).

2. Egyptian citizens preventing violent acts and vandalism

On Friday, I saw one protester attempting to set a Tourism police vestibule on fire. Immediately, several other protesters stopped and reprimanded him.

On my street in Heliopolis, various groups of people who have armed themselves with sticks and knives have taken it upon themselves to protect their neighborhoods from looters (some of whom were caught and identified as internal security members).

3. Egyptians risking their own safety for others

I saw several incidences in which Egyptian citizens would grab an activated tear gas canister and either throw it out or douse it in a bucket of water. Trust me, being exposed to tear gas is not fun.

These are all things I’ve witnessed first hand. There also reports of Egyptians in Tahrir Square actually picking up their own trash and lining up. Anyone who has lived in Egypt would find this remarkable.

Though I’ve definitely made critiques about Egyptian society, I’ve always admired their willingness to help each other. This quality has magnified itself 100 times over the past week. They have taken responsibility for each other in a time of crisis and instability and have demonstrated their ability to grow civil society. Go Egypt.


PS: Pictures to follow soon.


The importance of acquaintances and friends while traveling (and Tamer’s Birthday)

One of the things I enjoyed most about my time in NROTC and my short stint in the Navy is the plethora of strong and weak relationships you develop with your peers. The military has always emphasized camaraderie as one of its selling points and I have to say it is an effective one.

There’s something about traveling or living abroad that cultivates the same type of bonding conducive environment that the military does. Like the military, sometimes living abroad can be stressful. Like the military, you find yourself socializing with people that you probably would not have back home. Maybe its just the displacement of living abroad that causes one to grasp and embrace those people who have anything in common with you. For example, in Lexington, I would not just befriend anyone who lives in Lexington. But when I leave the town, even to somewhere relatively close by, say Washington, DC, I might gladly talk to someone because he has a friend in Lexington. I believe this effect is exponentially magnified the further the physical distance from wherever you consider your home.

When I arrived in Cairo, I was immediately initiated into a network of friends and acquaintances through Sarah (who I went to GW with) who introduced me to a mixed group of Egyptians and American expats living here. Having a pre-established group of friends is immensely beneficial. You go out together, you complain about traffic together, and you’ll find yourselves at Tamer’s birthday party together. At Tamer’s birthday party, I found myself talking to an Egyptian girl who is best friends with the fiancee of one of the guys I was at BUD/s with. This single point led to further conversation and now we’re officially friends on Facebook. It turns out that my social network will sometimes come full circle.

That same weekend, I went to go see The Hanging Church which is a Coptic church in Cairo that is not actually sitting on the ground (hence the hanging). The church has Coptic volunteers stationed there to give a free tour of the church. One girl offered to give us a tour, but the conversation soon turned to Malcom Gladwell’s book “Blink,” which she was reading and I had already read and enjoyed a few months ago. Gladwell focuses on the concept of “thin-slicing” which refers to the ability to make an accurate snap judgement of people and situations. I enjoyed the tour and the book club-esque discussion. Within 20 minutes I “thin-sliced” Marian and determined that I would like to continue hanging out with her. I unconsciously made this snap judgement. I have no idea whether or not a Malcom Gladwell book would have been a strong enough commonality to establish a relationship with her if I were back in Lexington. Maybe its strong enough in any place but Lexington.

As I am not a strong enough writer to have a though provoking concluding paragraph, I have decided to just post a few pictures from the week instead. Enjoy.

Coptic Grave

The Hanging Church

Tamer on a boat on the Nile

Koshari...delicious. Warning: will make you a master of binge eating.



A few things I’ve learned about outsourcing to India

As some of you may know, last fall I began the process of
building trekdek. Now, since I have no web development/programming
skills, the process of building trekdek started with a visit to , a site where you can outsource all manners of projects
you can’t or don’t want to do. Here are some of the steps I took
and some lessons learned.

1. Post the details of your project on elance.

This was a fun and interesting step for me. I posted the
job with some vague details about what I wanted. I think I titled
it “Travel themed social-networking site.” I had many developers
place bids on the job. I eliminated the ones who immediately asked
for a list of features and gave me a quick price quote. It seemed
as if they were in for quick cash and wanted to meet the minimum
requirements only. It is at this stage of your project that you
will meet the “Sales guy/guy who types the best English at the
company.” This guy will not be your primary point of contact after
you award the project to his company. However, he is useful for the
purpose of clarifying the actual features of your project. My sales
guy Samit even gave me some ideas for more features on the site and
a mockup. Cool.

2. Negotiations

Once you find the sales guy you
enjoy talking to most, you can start negotiating price and
deadlines for the project. The former is easiest to negotiate. I
had no idea how much something like this would cost, but after
receiving multiple bids from several companies, you kind of get a
feel for what the cost should be. Don’t make the first offer. Samit
started with an offer of $5500 for the whole project. We eventually
got it down to $3800. The other aspect of the negotiations includes
the type and number of features you want and the various deadline
milestones that should be reached. Your sales guy should send you a
relatively detailed project proposal outlining the features and
dates they will be done by. Don’t be so concerned with the dates,
the project will inevitably take longer than planned. However, you
should make a point to include as many features as possible for the
given price. In the end you will eliminate features, but this way,
you won’t be negotiating a higher price to add features you
could’ve included in the first place.

3. Introductions to the money guy and the lead developer

So this is where things become a little
more frustrating. Your nice english speaking salesman will fade
into the background and you will be introduced to the guy who makes
sure you pay, and the guy who will be building your site. The money
guy, in my case Rajdeep, will pop up sporadically throughout the
development process “to ensure you are satisfactory” and “please
release next milestone payment at convenience by today.” Make sure
that you are being updated on the progress of the website and they
are taking your feedback and incorporating it into the site. If
they aren’t, withhold payments until they do. This is really the
only leverage you have over the the money guy.

Your introduction to
the developer will be necessarily a little frustrating. All that
time you spent hashing out the details with the salesman will have
to be repeated with the developer. The developer’s English skills
(Rajdip don’t be offended) will be a little worse. As a programmer,
he will be more concerned with the nitty gritty details and
technical features that you want rather than the amazing,
revolutionary concept you have. It helps to have a clear
step-by-step outline of how your website’s users will interact with
the website. Throughout your talks with the developer you will also
be able to figure out which features would be best left out. For
Trekdek, I recently decided to eliminate a separate blog section
that was unrelated to any challenges. This lets the developers
focus on the most important features of the website which is
challenge creation and accomplishment.

4. Keeping tabs on the project

Your project will inevitably be delayed. Trekdek was
supposed to be launched in November. It is now supposed to be
launched by the end of January. I’m thinking this won’t be launched
until March. The most important thing is to ensure progress is
being made. I made the mistake of not being strict enough about
getting weekly updates and setting agendas for the weekly Skype
date. As a result, I’m confronted with a list of updates on Friday
mornings and an unfocused discussion of what needs to be changed.
You should get updates on Mondays so that you can be prepared to
discuss them the following Friday. I plan on doing a better job of
this for the duration of the project.

The benefits of outsourcing to India is primarily the cost savings. Hiring an American developer would have cost 3-4 times as much. Had I decided to do the website
myself ,I would have spent many years learning how to program
poorly and it never would’ve gotten off the ground. For a
relatively simple website (basic e-commerce shop or blog),
outsourcing may be the best option. For more complex websites, one
must carefully consider the costs and benefits of outsourcing. When is finally launched, I’ll let you be the judge of
whether outsourcing is worth it.



PS: Christmas and New
Year’s blog post soon to come.