How I Launched My Software Career out of a Cold Crowded House in New Zealand
Five years ago, I was stuck in a bit of a rut. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I hadn’t really entered the working world, spending most of my twenties living in ski resort towns and snowboarding year round. I was 28 and making just enough to get by.
It was a choice I made, frankly a totally badass choice that has fundamentally shaped me as a human being.
Because during those years, I got to do totally crazy stuff like this:
So when I arrived in the town of Wanaka, NZ in the summer, I did what every other ski bum does. I started desperately searching for a place to live. That’s just how it works down there. Everyone from around the world magically shows up in May and June, hoping to ski and snowboard the whole summer.
Most ski bums who arrive in Wanaka either leave once they run out of money or leave because they can’t find a decent place to live for the winter season. Phone calls back home are a nightly thing. There are nonstop sob stories from twenty-somethings who don’t have a dime to their name.
The town had a way of chewing people up and spitting them out.
That year, I was a little late to the scene. I ended up finding a place, but I had to hold my nose. It was an old abandoned gym someone had turned into a makeshift youth hostel. The place could accommodate some 22 people, and the rent was super cheap.
I think I paid $350 NZD a month for a shared cubicle/room with walls that didn’t even go up to the ceiling. Everyone slept in one of those compartments. We could hear each other making mouth noises every night.
In addition to the shared living space, we had a single shared living room, a shared kitchen, a shared bathroom, and a shared shower. 22 people cooked, ate, and bathed in those facilities each day. We did this all winter long.
There was a refrigerator too! At least, it was the sort of thing you might call a refrigerator. It never worked. If you brought milk home, you might as well have shared it with everyone else because it would have gone bad the next day anyway.
And the flies. Even though it was winter, there were so many flies. I became obsessed with cleaning the kitchen because I thought I might be able to keep the swarm at bay.
In spite of my zeal, the kitchen sanitation project faced its own challenges. We couldn’t run the water in the sink while someone else was showering.
And believe me, someone was always showering.
We’re talking about an old rundown gym with 22 dirty skiers living in it. Every fifteen minutes, someone would wander into the shower and the faucet would go limp. I’d just get started with the gargantuan task of cleaning that kitchen, and then I’d run out of water to clean it with.
All of this took place in the freezing cold. There was no central heat, just a wood-burning stove that most of the residents were too lazy to fire up. If you wanted to get a little heat going, you had to go out back, chop some wood, and build a fire just like you would out camping.
If it was 3 A.M. and you were freezing, you could just forget about it. There was only one viable option; lots of blankets.
Who would want to build an app in this place?
A few months before I arrived in New Zealand for the winter, I had come up with a semi-unique idea for an iPhone app. I didn’t think it was the start of a career or anything big like that. At most, I thought it might make a few thousand dollars.
Snow Dice is an app that generates a random trick for snowboarders to try. It gives you a trick to try on jumps, rails, or halfpipe.
It really seemed to hit a chord with some of them. They loved it! I was hearing stories about their snowboarding sessions and all the fun they were having my silly little prototype.
But it wasn’t gaining much traction. I was getting a trickle of downloads at 99 cents apiece. It was clear that if the app was going to take off, something would need to change.
So I reached out to a number of people in the snowboarding industry, hoping to promote my product. I eventually found someone who could connect me with the pros, and we set up a meeting. I showed him the prototype, and he was impressed.
We decided to get to work over the course of the next month, moving the app from hybrid to native and improving the graphics and animations. It was a huge push to make the app more interactive and visually appealing.
I had to learn an entirely new programming language (objective C) and development environment (Xcode) in one week. The stress was mounting.
Dealing with an uncomfortable work environment
Despite how I may have felt about it, I had to get to work in that cold, rundown old gym. I didn’t have a choice. We had planned to release a first version of the app just one week after the graphics came through. If I missed the deadline, my app wasn’t going to get promoted in any of the snowboarding magazines.
I spent the next month wrapped up in an electric blanket, freezing my fingers off as I wrote the source code for Snow Dice. I must have spent 12 hours a day at the keyboard, breaking only to cook food or make a cup of coffee.
The whole time, I heard all sorts of distracting noises through the paper thin walls. There were nightly parties, random drunk people streaming in at all hours, and the occasional bickering couple.
Somehow, I managed to tune it all out.
I didn’t have some magical system. There were no pomodoros, no productivity apps, no motivational posters featuring suit-clad individuals standing in front of a sunset with their arms outstretched.
All I had was the possibility that the thing I was building might be used by thousands, maybe millions of people. I had a chance to become rich and maybe even famous. For all those years, I wanted to work with the pros, and there I was. They were using my app for fun.
Down at that gym, I was dirt poor. I was freezing cold. Every day was a new challenge. But I knew that if I could just get the product out by our deadline, I would own a significant portion of a revenue generating machine.
I’ll never forget a house guest we had at the time. She saw me toiling away on my laptop in the kitchen, building this product. I told her I was sorry I wasn’t being more social, but her response always stuck with me.
“No worries,” she said. “You have a purpose.”
Up until then, I didn’t realize that I did.
Motivation can’t be forced. It can’t be bought.
The rest is history. I hit that deadline. We released that app. We even expanded the concept to three more sports. One of the apps got over 500 downloads on the first day alone, shooting to the top of the sports category for nearly a week. It was an unqualified success.
In the process, I learned something about motivation.
I’m not so sure I would have stuck it out if I wasn’t working on my own idea. I don’t think I would have tuned out the cold if there wasn’t a chance my work would get featured on ESPN (it did). I think I might have given up if my app idea hadn’t already received such glowing reviews from my friends.
Some moments are ripe for the taking. They have a way of producing their own kind of focus, a superhuman ability that can overcome almost any circumstance. When you find your moment, you don’t question it. You let it consume you, and you run as far as you can with it.
Stop working on things that don’t excite or entertain you
I also think we can invert that lesson. Have you ever felt easily distracted while working on something, perhaps a little sleepy? Have you worked on a project that just seemed to drag on forever and ever? Was it painful to keep going?
Well, it might be a sign that the thing you’re working on just isn’t that important or interesting. It might mean you need to revise your idea or throw it out completely. It could mean you haven’t found your moment yet.
It’s a rule that certainly applies to my own writing and apps. I have done a little experiment over the years, and it’s almost always true that if I feel sleepy while writing an article, it won’t be popular.
But if I’m really excited, if I’m having fun, if I’m laughing at my own jokes (which I would never publicly admit to doing), the article usually becomes a hit. Why? Because I already have an audience of one. I have found a way to entertain myself.
We often get so swept up in building a business or trying to get a job that we forget to have fun. Ironically, the fun is what will bring the business in the door. If you enjoy what you are doing, chances are someone else will too.
Being too serious can make you less productive . If I had taken the whole thing too seriously, I would have put too much pressure on myself. Instead, I chose to make light of my circumstances and have a good time building a product that I enjoy.
Life in the Old Gym certainly wasn’t the worst thing that could have happened to me. It was difficult, but lots of fun too. I managed to overcome all of those distractions because I was working on a genuinely interesting and fun idea with lots of potential. I kept myself entertained through all of the chaos.
If you want superhuman focus, don’t focus on being more focused. Focus on finding a project that’s worthy of it.