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Saturday, July 2, 2022

Around The World With A Backpack And A Laptop – A Year Of A Tech Startup Entrepreneur

Editor’s Note: This is a Guest Post by Antti Virolainen, CTO of Sharetribe.

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How can you spend a year traveling in some of the most beautiful places on earth, and at the same time, work full time on your startup and push it to the international markets?

This is a story of a year in my life as an entrepreneur, working full time as a CTO of my early stage tech startup Sharetribe (earlier known as Kassi). It’s probably not your average story though. The year included backpacking through South America, crossing the Atlantic Ocean by ship, hiking and riding on the Andes, surfing on three continents, learning a new language for sales presentations, climbing volcanoes in Indonesia, participating in a startup incubator program in Chile, living in an entrepreneurial community in the tropical paradise of Bali, and much more.

What’s more, it wasn’t only fun and games. While enjoying the adventure to the fullest, we managed to double our userbase, recruit new ambassadors around the world, and build an awesome product that is ready for global challenges. Today our product, the Sharetribe community marketplace, is used by 650+ local communities around the world, in all six continents.

I will now tell you how I was able to pull this off, how it was actually vital for our early-stage startup, and I’ll also hopefully inspire you to think about the possibilities of location-independent entrepreneurship.

Across the Atlantic

My travel plans got the initial kick from spotting the synergy between two separate opportunities. The first one was the Start-Up Chile program. The government of Chile has made a bold decision to steer the country from its mining and commodity based industry towards being “the Silicon Valley of Latin America”. Their method is a massive program that invites foreign entrepreneurs to come to start their companies in Chile and thus help grow the local entrepreneur ecosystem. For some companies, the $40k equity-free funding they offer to selected startups is the sole incentive for the temporary move to the far south, but for my adventure-loving mind, the money seemed more like a bonus.

Another opportunity offered me a great way to get to Chile with style. Aalto on Waves was a student-organized trip that took 100 people from the university community across the Atlantic Ocean by ship to explore Brazil, to connect with local universities, and to learn about the culture. This suited us well because universities have been one of our main target groups ever since Sharetribe was born at the Aalto University campus. AoW needed people to present their projects at the universities of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, so it was a no-brainer for me to volunteer.

Similarly, the Start-Up Chile program required its participants to arrange different kinds of events and activities to help build the local ecosystem and the entrepreneurial mindset. One accepted format for this was to visit universities to talk about entrepreneurship and present your own project. This was another win-win situation where fulfilling the needs of the program organizers actually helped us to get to speak to potential users and clients.

Traveling Latin America

After the ship brought me from Portugal to Brazil, I had a month to get myself across the continent to be in Santiago in time for the next round of Start-Up Chile. Many Aalto on Waves participants continued to explore the continent, so I had an opportunity to travel with awesome people.

The road from Sao Paulo and Iguassu to Titicaca and Machu Picchu was filled with both intensive coding sessions in night buses and hostel lobbies as well as unforgettable travel experiences with the group. At first it felt kind of funny that the others were on vacation and I was actually at work. But as I got past the Fear Of Missing Out, I realized I can just take it easy. On a normal holiday, one can feel stressed when trying to optimize the few sacred days off to get as much as possible seen and done. But when your work travels with you, you can safely skip an interesting event or opportunity here and there without anxiety – because you know there will be a lot more of them to come.

The arrival to Santiago started a completely new period in my year. In the following six months, I participated in a bunch of incubator events, met dozens of aspiring entrepreneurs around the world, learned enough Spanish to use it in sales meetings, got Sharetribe translated with the help of local part-time employees, and travelled around the country marketing it to local organizations. Somewhere in between, I managed to find some time to visit Texas and attend SXSW.

During my time in Chile, we took a major step forward by launching the Sharetribe platform that anyone around the world can use to create their own peer-to-peer marketplace. Before my trip, we had stayed inside the Finnish borders, selling our solution directly to local organizations. But when I left, it was clear that we needed a model that would work globally. In a way, my trip pushed us to break down the barriers of entry sooner than we might otherwise have. It gave us courage to do what is always difficult for Finnish (or any) startups: go international.

Now we have more than 650 marketplaces around the world, in places like Universidad Católica in Santiago, and the service has been translated to eight languages, mostly by volunteers. None of this would have happened had I stayed in Finland.

Vietnam – wings happen

Near the end of my time in Chile, I got an interesting invitation. An innovation partnership program between Finland and Vietnam organized a seminar where they needed speakers from startups that are based on university research. They covered my flights from Santiago to Hanoi, which became the third step on this world tour, nine months after I had left home.

Starting a company and traveling the world have a lot in common. You make plans and set goals. Many times you get at least close to the target, but it’s impossible to predict all the challenges and new opportunities before the departure. The key is to always be ready to change direction. In both travel and business, you should plan since it helps you to keep focus, but don’t make too detailed plans. Otherwise they might become a burden that prevents you from seizing new opportunities.

We at Sharetribe are big fans of the lean canvas. It forces you to put your business plan on a single page, as simply and concisely as possible. Similarly in travel, you should pack light and let the detailed route be formed on the go. You just need to get past the most difficult step: starting. As my favorite Giant Robot Dinosaur puts it: JUMP OUT WINDOW, TRUST WINGS HAPPEN BEFORE GROUND.

Bali – coding in a hammock

ArcticStartup is to blame for the final leg of my trip. While in Chile, my co-founder pointed me to this article, which introduced a program called Project Getaway. It gathers adventurous entrepreneurs every year to live and work together in a tropical environment for one month. The 2012 Project Getaway was held in Bali, a tropical paradise easily reachable from Vietnam.

I had two weeks to spend between Vietnam and Bali, so a convenient two-week layover in Singapore on the way offered an opportunity to explore the booming startup community there. Startup Stay helped me to quickly connect with locals, which resulted in a few interesting meetings and invitations to dim sum dinners and to join a gathering of young founders’ club. Startup Stay appeared to be a useful service also in Bali even though I wasn’t even looking for accommodation there, but as I added Bali in my travel plans, I got a spontaneous invitation to meet with a group of entrepreneurs living in Ubud. I’ll be sure to use this tool also on my future trips, as meeting the locals is usually one of the best aspects of traveling and meeting the entrepreneurs can make it beneficial for the business, too.

Project Getaway was kind of an ultimate experience of what location-independent entrepreneurship can really be. It gathered 20 entrepreneurs to live in a luxurious villa in southern Bali for one month. During that time, all of us concentrated on working on our projects most of the time, but every week there were events where people shared their expertise, experiences and tips related to various types of online businesses we were building. We learned practical tips for Google Analytics and Adwords, had by-the-pool talks about payment gateways, and celebrated The International Day for Failure by sharing our stories of the lessons we’d learned the hard way.

It was fascinating to hear the stories how the other participants had found their own combination for balancing an online business and enjoying life by traveling. In that group, my past year actually looked relatively normal. I believe that the number of people pursuing the lifestyle of a location-independent entrepreneur will be growing, as the threshold is nowadays much lower than one might think.

The villa was a proper distance away from the biggest tourist attraction (or distraction) areas, and focusing fully on work was actually surprisingly easy when surrounded by like-minded people, each really enthusiastic about his or her project. Of course we took time for having fun together, too. One participant was building an online surf equipment store, and he gave the group some lessons on tackling the local waves. I also managed to do the long-awaited Open Water Diver course. At the same time, I was responsible for a massive data migration when Sharetribe switched hosting provider. That meant some long, intensive days spent with my laptop – lying in a hammock or on the beach.

Thoughts on working remotely

We initially thought that having our team spread around the world could make communication challenging, but everything went surprisingly smoothly. Our Flowdock chatroom served as our virtual office where everything was reported and issues were solved in real time. Google Hangouts with virtual hats helped us to keep everyone on the same page – though sometimes scheduling them was a challenge. When my co-founder Juho was in Japan to give a TED talk about the Sharing Economy, and at the same time I was in Santiago and our third co-founder Niklas in Finland, there was only a short time slot each day when our whole team would be awake at the same time.

We did also notice that long-term strategic planning was clearly more difficult when we couldn’t get everyone to brainstorm in front of the same whiteboard. There are some online solutions for this, but none of those can match the experience of being together in the same room. When I finally got back to Finland in November, it felt great to just hang out together and have long discussions with no clear purpose, just throwing out ideas. Still, our conclusion about online collaboration was that most types of work can be done pretty well over the internet.

Does it make you happy?

My year as a traveling entrepreneur taught me a lot. Probably the most important lesson came from proving to myself that this kind of lifestyle is possible. I had the dream already a few years back, but only after the departure I really started noticing how many opportunities there are and how important it can be for your motivation that you feel being in control of your life and choices.

Motivation is much more important for productivity than lightning-fast internet connection or a 27” screen. For me, it wasn’t a problem to keep coding on the bus crossing the Peruvian mountains or to skip some of the party evenings in Bali, because I knew I was totally free to choose. And the love of that freedom makes me motivated to make our company a success: it will give me that freedom also in the future.

We all need to work hard to be successful, but working hard is fun when you find the optimal way to do it. And the toughness of the work shouldn’t come primarily from the hours you put in. More important is to focus on the right thing. Being on the road can actually help you in that, because you know that if you want to have time for a snorkeling trip in the afternoon, you’ll have to be really effective with your time before that.

There isn’t a single right way to do things at a startup. What I believe is that you should work in a way that makes you happy. That way you’ll also be the most productive.

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