In January I came up with a weird idea, to go and visit total strangers in return for ‘food and board’ in order to do useful work for them. (see: Will Work For Food And Lodging for how and why this started).
They say no battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy, and in a slight variation on the theme, in this case the battle plan did not survive first contact with the audience. One of my major mistakes was to completely underestimate how much response there would be. I figured ‘a couple’ of responses, probably not enough to fill the first year but maybe once the project got under way there would be more takers. How wrong can you be? Well over a hundred responses and counting, they’re still trickling in! And from places too that were definitely not even close to within the radius originally mentioned (1000 km around Amsterdam) (Including Indonesia, Turkey, a few in Africa, Australia, Latin America and the United States).
The second place where the plan went wrong right from the start is that I was going to take my car along. That didn’t happen, the reason for that is that there were rather a large number of responses from the UK and several of those were the first to reply. First come, first serve but after doing some research about shipping the bus to the UK I figured the easiest way to do this trip was to take a plane and then rent a car there. That shaved two days off the duration of the trip which I could use to visit one more company.
Finally, the duration of the visits. The original idea was to end up visiting 11 companies over the course of 2014 for 14 days each, but after processing just the UK part of the applications I knew that the only way that would work is if I disappointed almost everybody by selecting only a very small part of the people that applied within the parameters set. And that just didn’t feel right.
So in concert with the people visited I ended up staying a maximum of 2 days at each location. It was quite a murderous schedule, with lots of driving on the wrong side of the road (and at night, in places where you probably shouldn’t be driving at all, in the rain, on hills, in tight curves, in an unfamiliar car, with the steering-wheel definitely placed on the wrong side of the car). In the end it worked out extremely well, I managed not to kill myself by turning into a roundabout the wrong way around, and after a day or so my right hand stopped ramming into the door to shift gears every time I forgot on which side the gear shift lever was located. Incredible how much stuff we do from habit.
One by one I visited the places that I had made appointments at, and met with a series of wonderful people doing all kinds of interesting stuff (and their pets!, the UK is full of really nice dogs).
What got discussed is of course between the parties that I went to visit and myself, I’m not going to go into details here, I don’t have any secrets worth keeping but they definitely might, suffice to say that I’m pretty sure that it was educational for me and I hope that it was useful to them, any further disclosure will have to be at their discretion, not mine. All in all this is one of the most interesting things I’ve done in the last couple of years and I’m really looking forward to doing the next round of visits.
I made a ton of pictures, only very few of them were used for this article, if you just want to browse the images you can do so via the image archive.
Below is a little bit about everybody that I ended up visiting in the order in which they were visited. A few parties disqualified themselves (not in the list below) because they either weren’t taking the project serious or because they tried to get me to do what I usually do for a living for free (and that’s not in the spirit of these visits). The companies listed run the gamut from tiny to huge but they all had one thing in common, wonderful people!
Conversion Rate Experts
With their offices in a castle in Staffordshire but with global reach through a network of remote working experts in 10 countries, Conversion Rate Experts is quite an interesting undertaking founded by Karl Blanks and Ben Jesson. They help companies to optimise from visitor to customer and they are doing an excellent job of that. Their customer range from mid-size to gigantic and they have an excellent series of articles on their company blog.
Who: Conversion Rate Experts, Karl Blanks, Ben Jesson
Where: Staffordshire, UK
What: Optimisation of the sales funnel
Looking for: More consultants to help deal with their growth (see: jobs )
On the web: Conversion Rate Experts
Contact: Contact page
Astral Dynamics is a band of enterprising souls around Liam Kurmos, located in an old chapel in Wales. Wales seems to be a super interesting region, especially for water power based renewables, it is raining pretty much all the time there! Liam has started converting the Chapel to something that is a cross between living quarters, office space and a hacker/maker space. Super nice guys, we went for a walk nearby (and nearly got ourselves killed by being blown off a derelict staircase to the top of an old slate mine right next to a 1000’ drop).
Who: Astral Dynamics, Liam Kurmos, Dan Prince, Dyfan Searell and Noah Hall
Where: Deiniolen, Wales
What: Hacker / Maker / Office space for communal use
Looking for: More hands, some funds
on the web: AstralDynamics
One of the first people to respond to the call for locations to visit was Ryan O’Neill, an old school hacker from the mid-west of the UK, near the Welsh border. Ryan wanted to discuss a project to block TV advertising. I arrived in Ludlow on Sunday evening, spent the night in a pub/inn right next door to a church and presented myself in the morning. This trip seems to be mostly made up of classical buildings and super nice dogs, the O’Neill residence is no exception to that rule, meet meg and the ducks:
We worked throughout the day and the next on the project and I think we made good headway getting an MVP and a follow up product spec’d out to the point where it could be implemented.
Ryan is a blogger and would like to have a co-founder on this project that has technical and/or business skills to give the project more legs, and once the MVP is done funding will be sought to assist with the roll-out.
Who: Ryan O’Neill
Where: Ludlow (West Midlands)
What: TV Ad Blocker, software development
Looking for: Co-founder
On the web: Ryan O’Neill
The Cats Whiskers
Two for the price of one! Christina O’Neill (Ryan’s wife) has a business called ‘The Cats Whiskers’, she makes custom gift boxes. They come in all shapes and sizes, from one just large enough to hold a few baby teeth to one the size of a trunk (and possibly beyond).
Who: The Cats Whiskers, Christina O’Neill
What: gift boxes
On the Web: The Cats Whiskers
Looking for: people that want to give something unique to a child
HoxtonVentures is not your run-of-the-mill venture capital company. Extremely hands-on, investing in early stage ventures with a good track record they occupy a nice middle-ground between start-up incubators and later stage venture capital. They reside right in London (arguably the financial capital of Europe). Their mandate allows investment all over Europe, including Russia and other places where most venture capital companies would be too timid to tread.
Who: HoxtonVentures, Rob Kniaz
What: Start-up / early stage capital
Looking for: start-ups all over Europe, people interested in positions for their portfolio companies
On the Web: (HoxtonVentures)[http://www.hoxtonventures.com/]
Granttree is the company owned by Paulina Sygulska and her husband Daniel Tenner. Granttree’s business model is to give away money, this arguably is one of the easiest sales pitches ever. They have an office in the heart of London’s tech district in Shoreditch, where they work with a whole team of talented young people on the problem of applying for government grants for various programs.
Who: GrantTree, Paulina Zygulska, Daniel Tenner
What: grant applications, tax credits
Looking for: Ever More Customers
on the web: GrantTree
I loved doing this, a warm thank you to everybody that decided to take a chance on me and invited me into their homes/castles,chapels and other dwellings, it’s been a long time since I had this much fun being on the road. About 1,000 km got covered according to the odometer of the car, the whole trip took 12 days from start to finish. The single biggest cost factor was the car, gas, the next the plane ticket and a few overnight stays in hotels (most of which were covered by my hosts), all in all I’m out about 1300 Euros but it feels like this was money extremely well spent and I would do it again in a heartbeat. To be continued, in Germany for the second round somewhere in the coming weeks. I’ll send out a separate call for applications as soon as the dates are nailed down.