Over the last several weeks, an idea has crystallized in my mind—something I’ve known for a while, but just never put words to. Usually I keep these kind of things to myself but since it’s not something I can do by myself, this is an attempt to plant some seeds, solicit feedback, and hold myself accountable.
I have long known that I am not the stereotypical lone genius programmer (no matter how much I might delude myself into wishing that were the case). That’s not news. At best I see myself as a tenacious problem solver, a skill which up till now I’ve been able to employ gainfully in the art of coding. However, I am starting to wonder if being good with computers has become a crutch that’s preventing me from taking some bigger risks.
The fact is that I have these other hard-to-quantify, non-technical skills that I enjoy exercising. I know how to talk to both engineers and non-engineers (and translate between them). I actually enjoy meetings. I find that I frequently ask (what I think are) dumb, obvious questions (that no one else is asking, to my surprise), and watch them unlock a discussion. I like making order out of chaos, simplicity out of complexity. I love documenting standards and processes and systems in a way that makes it easier for the next person to absorb what I puzzled over. I like email and wikis and IRC. I really enjoy working with people. I get bored and distracted when I’m all by myself. I hate working from home. Collaboration tends to bring out the best in me—I’m amazed at what I’m able to accomplish when I’m working with others. I find it essential to know that someone depends on something I’m doing.
So here’s my idea, my realization: I want to start a company. But I can’t do it alone. No, more important than that: I don’t want to do it alone. My dream is to gather a small group of like-minded people with complementary skillsets and start a company together. I’m not looking for a big payday or expecting to change the world. I just want to work on something that makes me happy every day. I want to have control over quality. I want to have more freedom and flexibility over the types of things I work on. Heck, it could be something online or off. The “what” is almost immaterial, as long as I go home happy and look forward to working every day.
…and now that Kiva has relocated to 5th and Howard, I am one of them:
Tonight Kiva was welcomed to the 5th Street neighborhood by The Hub, a sort of coworking space on steroids. After work we walked over to be welcomed (and wined), and I discovered none other than Wendy MacNaughton’s sketches from Meanwhile, 6th and Mission on display in the gallery space. Unlike the linear display of her sketches on The Rumpus, here she had arranged them in two dimensions, to form a sort of visual map.
Officially I’ve joined their “core services” group, which is responsible for the financial and database code that underlies kiva.org. I’ll be getting my hands dirty in the financials to start, but I’m also looking forward to helping tame their ever-growing database.
While Stephanie went down to Koh Phangan for a 10 day yoga retreat, I stayed behind in Chiang Mai to volunteer at Elephant Nature Park for a week. The park, founded in the early 1990s by Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, is a sanctuary for domestic Asian elephants that have been rescued from logging and trekking operations, street begging, and performing. Many of the elephants have serious physical and mental handicaps, due to mistreatment, malnourishment, and/or the hardship of the labor they endured.
I learned about the park when while traveling in the Philippines, thanks to Cebu Pacific’s in-flight magazine, Smile. Their January issue had a feature on 12 must-do adventures for 2011. One of them was written by bloggers Kyle and Bessie of On Our Own Path (who I later discovered also knew Jodi, my Chiang Mai connection). I read reviews elsewhere about the park, and found people’s reactions to be overwhelmingly positive. It was uncanny. Usually someone comes away from a tourist activity with a “meh”, but almost everyone counted the visit as a highlight of their trip to Thailand—if not their lives. My curiosity was piqued.
I expected to be one of maybe 3-5 volunteers. The online application is surprisingly thorough (educational and employment history, essays on why you want to volunteer, general interests, etc.) and it actually costs money: 12,000 baht/week (~$400 USD)—a little steep for your average Southeast Asia backpacker (though to be fair, they house and feed you, and much of the money goes to the elephants). As it turns out, there were more than 30 volunteers starting with me, many staying for two weeks.
The program was very well organized. From their office in Chiang Mai we were bused to the park an hour away, which included a viewing of a well-produced documentary about the plight of elephants in Thailand on the way. The first day was similar to what one might encounter on a day tour (which Stephanie squeezed in before she left for her yoga retreat), predominantly centered around feeding and bathing the elephants. Then we continued with various volunteer orientations, including a welcoming ceremony by the local village’s spiritual leader.