Life as an Entrepreneur

I spend 3 weeks a year waiting for websites to load

by Alex Duncan  |  July 23, 2011 – 12:28 pm

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For the past 6 months I have been losing 2-3 hours per week in productivity and this time it’s not due to my hideous, world beating, ability to procrastinate. It’s due to the chronic state of the internet in China.

Coming to Dalian last month I naively hoped that things would be better here up North. I had heard that Shanghai’s internet connectivity was the worst in China. I dreamt about the prospect of web pages that loaded in seconds and emails that send first time you click. My hopes turned out to be entirely mistaken. The internet here in Dalian is at very best on a par with that in Shanghai.

Firstly, this is deliberate, it simply cannot be a bandwidth or hardware issue. That problem is just too easy not to fix, undersea fibres are not prohibitively expensive or difficult to lay down and network hardware is cheaper and faster than ever before. It simply has to be a concerted effort to further disconnect China’s version of the internet from the rest of the world.

Any chinese net censors listening in on skype calls rather than finding out any juicy info must just get so so bored of listening to people saying “hello?!”, “are you there”, “I can hear you, can you hear me” endlessly.

Expats in China talk of a day when there will be two internets, well my friends as far as I’m concerned that day is already here. Everything that exists on the western internet has an equally capable and infinitely more filterable Chinese alternative. Any new ideas get copied in mere weeks if not hours.

I’ve wondered for a while at what point does the slow speed of the internet have a noticeable negative economic effect.

Here is my perspective on the situation. It already is having a huge effect and it shows no sign of getting any better.

I recently did some work for a large multi-national company based in Shanghai. Being an US headquartered company many of the tools and resources we were required to use were US based. On a good day we would lose a minimum of 30 mins due to connectivity issues, on average I would estimate 45mins was lost. If we total 30mins up, that’s 2.5hrs a week, ~10hrs a month, 120hrs a year or the equivalent of 3 full working weeks. Just to re-iterate how crazy that is we are at the very least wasting 3 full working weeks per year due to the chronic state of the internet here in China.

What must the effect be on a macro scale? It must add up to millions of hours and the equivalent of thousands of employees time completely wasted. China is an export economy, trade depends upon their ability to communicate with and sell things to the rest of the world, how is this not having a noticeable impact? Surely there are deals that don’t get done because websites don’t load, emails can’t be sent and skype calls repeatedly fail.

Before people email me with fancy solutions involving VPNs and connections via satellites and god knows what else believe me I’ve tried them all and none of them are sufficiently reliable to overcome this issue.

“When will I leave China?” I hear you asking.

Ever since the internet started to degrade there has been idle chit chat about whether or not it would force them to leave the country.

If you asked me a year ago it would have been almost inconceivable to me that a lack of internet connectivity would cause me to quit, but as I write this I see it as only a matter of time. Whether it is one year or two, there will be some point in the future when I, as someone whose work, nay entire existence, revolves around the internet will simply have to pack my bags and leave for somewhere where my stress levels are lower and I can breathe a little easier.

Update: New research from Harvard shows that the Chinese intranet is already here.

Why can’t more people do everything?

by Alex Duncan  |  July 12, 2011 – 10:19 am

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Creating successful websites roughly splits into 4 skill areas:

  • Marketing – Blogging/PPC/SEO/PR
  • UI/UX/Design – Wireframing/Fireworks
  • Frontend – HTML/CSS
  • Backend – Java/Ruby/PHP/ASP/Nginx

I’m constantly surprised and a little disappointed by the number of people I meet who are only really capable in one of these four areas and whose knowledge of the other areas is at best vague. I just don’t understand why or how these people think that is good enough. I’m not talking about people who lack ambition, I’m talking in many cases about people actively trying to start new online projects. In fact when I say they’re only capable in one of these areas, some are completely incapable in all 4 areas.

This doesn’t really seem to make much sense.

If you are a web entrepreneur and you cannot do all of the above to a reasonable level you are working with one arm tied behind your back. You are constantly reliant upon other people to work for you and you have little or no way at all of judging how good their work is. Your ability to communicate your ideas and bring them to fruition is severely limited. Sure if you have lots of money to splash around you can pay people to do it for you, but you still have no way of knowing if these mysterious technical things they are doing that you don’t understand are serving your ultimate business aims. If you’re one of these incapable people sitting here reading this post and shaking your head in disagreement, I promise you this is true, because unlike you, I know what you don’t know and please believe me when I tell you it’s important stuff.

I can completely understand why investors are unwilling to back founders who aren’t capable in these areas, it leaves them almost entirely reliant upon hiring smart people and burning the investors money at a faster rate. I’ve seen what happens in the gap between ideas guys and technical guys five dozen times and it’s never pretty.

Perhaps this post is a bit of an ego trip because I do possess this varied skill set. I’m definitely no superstar in any one area, but I’m pretty strong in each. I can take part in high level strategic discussions, wireframe solutions, design mock-ups, code the CSS & HTML, write the backend in PHP/Node.js, set up the linux server and then I’ve got a pretty good idea how to market the thing when it’s finished. Did I attend some special school, no. I’ve never had a days training, I studied Zoology at University and taught myself how to do everything using the wonderful free resource known as the internet.

Sure one guy on his own is ultimately not going to be able to do great things without help, but in the early stages of building a new company when ideas are embryonic and resources are scarce it can mean the difference between success and failure. Later on when things go better, sure I’ll hire people and I’ll be able to talk directly to them in a common language and guide and shape their work far more powerfully, because I can do what I’m paying them to do almost as well as they can.

So if you’re out there trying to find people to work for free/imaginary equity to help you build your latest and greatest idea. Give me a break, go start teaching yourself, there is no better way to learn something than having to do it and if this idea doesn’t succeed you’ll be in a far stronger position to start the next one.

FYI: My approach to creating websites is inspired by the world changing 37Signals, you can read more about their philosophy on their blog Signal vs. Noise.

This post by Tim Harford on why there will never be another Leonardo Da Vinci provides some great context for this problem.

Da Vinci was able to achieve so much, so broadly, because so little was known

I believe that the breath of knowledge is still manageable and that it is possible to be a Renaissance man/woman of the online sphere.

Maybe I’m not as strong as I thought I was

by Alex Duncan  |  July 10, 2011 – 8:59 am

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After 10 days in 大连 (Dalian) eating almost only Chinese food this morning I snapped. At 7am I got on my bike determined to find something a little more homely. I’ve always liked to think I’m the sort of person who if it came to it could live in a forest quite happily surviving on nuts an berries a bit like Ray Meers and Bear Grylls do. After this mornings Starbucks quest I’m starting to question this conceited notion. I would have been mightily embarrassed if you’d seen the sudden energy that sprang into my tired legs the second I glimpsed that friendly round green logo. I dare say if I had no choice I would be ok, but seeing as Dalian does have some vague trappings of Western culture I’m going to take full advantage.

P.s. Dear Starbucks, if you are reading this please build a new café in the Dalian Ascendas High Tech park. It’s a real “up and coming” location and a darn sight more convenient for me to get to. Love as always, Alex

Inspirational People

by Alex Duncan  |  July 9, 2011 – 2:46 pm

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On Friday we had the first ‘founders stories’ session and heard the two co-founders from another team tell their very personal stories of how the came to be doing what they’re doing. I’m obviously not at liberty to share other people’s stories, suffice to say it was a fascinating session and gave me deeper respect for the two people in question.

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The guy in this picture is Levy. He’s from Hangzhou and although only 27 runs a couple of schools providing extra tuition and coaching to high school students to try and help them get into university. I find Levy particularly intriguing, unlike so many ‘entrepreneurs’ you meet he doesn’t talk about money or even that much about his company. Instead he speaks about a problem he sees, an underlying fundamental shortcoming of the education system in China. There is a wonderful frustrated energy about the way he talks. You get the feeling he’s not doing this for himself, he’s doing it because he has to, because it needs doing and he’s full of ideas to make it happen.

Hearing Levy talk reminds me of one of my heros, Jamie Oliver. Although he probably wouldn’t call himself that Jamie is the same type of entrepreneur, in his 3 series, School Dinners and Food Revolution I & II he first takes on School Dinners in the UK, before heading across the pond and trying to do a similar thing in the US. Anybody who watches Jamie’s shows cannot fail to be inspired by his persistence and dedication as road block after road block is thrown in his face. Jamie too, like Levy is thoroughly pissed off and he’s pissed off that other people aren’t more pissed off too.

If I was an investor I think above all people I would put my money on people like Levy, people who are pissed off about the way things are and will walk through fire to make a difference. They’re not in it for a year, 5 years or even 10 years, they’re here to stay until the job is done, they don’t care how or who, it just has to happen. I think to survive and be successful as an entrepreneur you need this kind of dedication, you need the problem you’re trying to fix to be at the core of your being. It doesn’t have to be a huge problem, but I think it helps if it is, because if it’s a crippling, lives at risk problem you’re trying to solve it’s easier to get pissed off. When people are pissed off they might not think quite so clearly, but they take more risks and do crazy, out of the box things just to make sh*t happen.

Anyway, I’m greatly looking forward to other founders stories sessions, good to be surrounded by inspiring people.

Survey Time

by Alex Duncan  |  July 8, 2011 – 1:55 pm

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My mentors are always telling me about the danger of assumptions. So to try and get some real user insights I’ve spent the past couple of days assembling this survey.

It wasn’t nearly as easy as I thought it would be and sitting down with multiple people watching as they filled out the survey was a very beneficial exercise. One of the hardest parts of writing the survey was deciding the objectives and then creating questions which would achieve these objectives. There was a dark period mid way through where I got quite distracted and confused as I tried to ask questions about more general trends, but I managed to pull it back in the end and I’ve already received 80 very insightful responses. The survey is still open for a couple of days, so please send it to all the fashionable girls you know.

I used Survs.com to create and send this survey and I unreservedly recommend it to anyone who is thinking about sending a survey, much less bloated than SurveyMonkey.

I Bought a Bike

by Alex Duncan  |  July 4, 2011 – 8:20 am

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After only 3 days in 大连 (Dalian) the withdrawal symptoms from not riding my bike were simply too great and I had to go and buy myself a bike. Early on Sunday morning I took a tram into the centre of town, typed “bike shop” into Google maps on my phone and made a beeline for the nearest store. It just happened to be 天地行 (TīanDìXíng) owned by a 张毅 (ZhāngYì) who in his day had been a member of the Chinese cycling team. Since I’m only in Dalian for 3 months I didn’t want to spend too much money, but there wasn’t anything very low end in the store, prices started around the 1500元 mark. Fumbling my way through with my Chinese I explained my predicament to 张毅, he seemed very understanding and did me a deal on a low end mountain bike on top of which he even agreed to buy it back from me in 3 months time at half what I paid for it.

In my 4 years in Shanghai I’ve had 4 bikes stolen in various different situations. On top of that I’ve even caught thieves in the act of stealing my bike on two more occasions, one time even chasing the thief around in circles across a busy intersection finally landing him a couple of blows to the head. As you can imagine this has made me hypersensitive to bike theft to the point at which my bike lock cost half as much as my last bike and probably weighs almost the same too. I asked 张毅 which lock he recommends and I was shocked when he said even if I didn’t have a lock nobody would steal my bike. To be on the safe side I bought the only model he kept in stock a little wiry thing that would doubtless take a Shanghai thief literally seconds to break open.

I hadn’t remembered noticing it on the tram journey into town, but it was only once I left the store that I realised just how hilly Dalian is. I was too used to Shanghai’s flatness no wonder I found riding around Shanghai so convenient, there isn’t a hill for tens of miles. The biggest change in elevation my bike ever experiences it taking the lift up to my flat on the 3rd floor. On the 9km trip from the centre of town to my flat I encountered no less than 4 small hills, riding in Dalian is going to be a much greater test of my fitness. Never again will I brag about the huge distances I cover every week in Shanghai after riding for a few months in Dalian it doubtless won’t be worth mentioning.

I have google’s MyTracks app installed on my phone so I’ll try to find time to record and post a few routes.

Update: bike is not doing too well so far, 8 days in and the front mud guard has fallen off, a pedal has broken and the cranks are loose. Triace is not a brand I recommend.

How did I end up here? Part 1

by Alex Duncan  |  July 2, 2011 – 11:01 am

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I sometimes experience a sense of disbelief when I take a step back and look at my life.

What the heck am I doing? Living in China, trying to build a company in the fashion industry…

How did it come to this? At what point did any of this seem like a good idea

If I try to trace it back, and I’m not trying to blame you here Mum, but I kind of feel like you’re very much the progenitor of this mild insanity I seem to have developed. When I was a little boy you always encouraged me to be adventurous told me I could be anything I wanted to be and I’m afraid to say I took you at your word. You sent me to drama exams which gave me empathy through teaching me how to pretend what it was like to be someone else be it Romeo, Bottom or MacBeth’s witches.

When I left school at 18 Mother encouraged me to take a gap year and head to Australia, that really opened up my eyes to how relatively easy it was to travel and see the world. The things I got up to in Australia (both naughty and nice) boosted further my confidence and as much as I learned a lot about Australia I also learned a huge amount about where I was from.

While a lot of people had just finished school by the time they arrived at university, by comparison I had already been out and seen and lived in a bit of the real world. I voraciously threw myself into all that university had to offer, theatre, rowing and student politics consumed far more of my time than studying Zoology did. I took what I had been told about “doing anything you want to do” and started to put it into practice with mixed results. During my time at university trips to South Africa, Egypt and New England gave furthered my fascination for travel.

All of this only begins to explain how I ended up here in China of all places. There is something more, why start a company? Those who have done it will tell you it’s the type of endeavour that only serious nut cases embark upon. All this can wait for part 2…

A New Phase : Expect More Blog Posts

by Alex Duncan  |  June 30, 2011 – 8:27 pm

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I’ve just arrived in Dalian (大连) in the north of China to take part in a program that will give me a huge boost towards realising my dreams. The opening presentation was a mix of teasers of exciting things to come and gentle warnings about what is expected of me. One warning in particular struck a painful chord. Write one blog post per day!

I struggle to think of anything in my life before that I’ve intended to do and then actually stuck to so this will be a real test of my mettle. Can I actually say I’m going to do something and see it through. Anyone who has even the most cursory flick through my blog archives will find it a sporadic catalog of broken promises…well no more readers!

I will publish 1 blog post per day.

I’m almost 27 years old, I’ve been in Shanghai for almost 4 years it’s time I got a grip and started seeing things through. Please dear blog reader(s) hold me to account if I fail you!

Addicted to My Tracks

by Alex Duncan  |  June 20, 2011 – 10:57 am

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Just last week I downloaded Google’s My Tracks app for android and I’ve been addicted ever since. Every time I get on my bike to go anywhere in Shanghai I open the app, click record and it tracks my every move giving me great data on my speed, elevation and ride time. My average commute to “work” is 11mins, just yesterday I managed to shave about 30 seconds off that due to some luck traffic lights.

I’ve always been an enthusiastic Shanghai cyclist, many friends introduce me as being “Alex who cycles every where in any weather” or something to that effect. I frequently take quite circuitous routes around the city trying to find ever more efficient routes from A to B, avoid traffic lights and snarl ups. My Tracks lets me evaluate exactly which routes are quickest and just how circuitous they are!

Being a Google 20% project it’s not quite perfect, often the elevation is completely off showing me climbing/falling hundreds of feet in a city that’s almost entirely flat. None the less it’s a very useful and fun app. I recommend anyone who rides, walks or runs to give it a go.

If you’re interested in trying My Tracks you can download it from the Android Market.

Why I Switched from GoDaddy to Rackspace Cloud Servers

by Alex Duncan  |  October 10, 2010 – 10:16 am

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Anyone who runs an e-commerce website knows speed is king and downtime is simply unbearable. This week I helped a client make the final switch from the simply awful GoDaddy to the wonderful Rackspace Cloud in the process improving speed AND saving both time and money.

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