Build Smaller, Help More

Before I left San Francisco, I saw some graffiti in the Mission which said ‘There are no local tech workers.’ As a web developer, I resonated with that; I often feel disconnected from my community, as I build things for a global audience. I’m also a digital nomad. I haven’t lived anywhere longer than a year for the past decade. It’s hard to feel connected when I don’t have a home to go back to.

Last week, while traveling in Bali, I realized being disconnected is a conscious choice, and I can change it. I didn’t realize this in the middle of a massage, or from a wise old man, or from acting out Eat Pray Love. The epiphany occurred in my ride to the airport, with my taxi driver, Nyoman.

Does it scale?

Before I go deeper, I’d like to give you some more background. My friends and I have a problem: we like thinking of ideas for projects. We build up entire business plans over lunch that would require all of us to quit our jobs and spend a year or more working on them if we were honest about making them work. We’re constantly evaluating the annual revenue for local businesses based on the amount of customers we can count in a few minutes. We think of a dozen different ideas that could lead to viable streams of income, and discard the majority of them for not being long term.

There’s a few questions we ask ourselves: What’s the market value? How much could you offload onto a virtual assistant? What are the competitors?

Does it scale?

These questions make a lot of sense, if you’re in the San Francisco tech scene. As I’ve been finding out, their relevance is less clear elsewhere.

There are no local tech workers

I recently left San Francisco for the greener rice pastures of South East Asia. I’d never been before, and my work allows me to be wherever I want as long as there is an internet connection. Technically my client is in Massachusetts, but I was living in California before I realized I didn’t need to pay that much rent. So I moved.

I’m not alone in being able to do this. The internet is distributed, and web developers generally work on projects which are location independent. This separates us from our communities; from the people we buy groceries from, from our youth groups, in some cases, like mine, from our friends, who live all over the world because they go where the jobs are. My community isn’t grounded anywhere, except maybe in a Slack channel.

After a few weeks in Bali, my first destination, I started wondering if the recent rise in digital nomads and remote workers (and, to some extent, expats) is actually a symptom of an unhealthy society. Here I was, with tech money, coming and staying for a month at a hotel for almost nothing, eating out every meal. I learned a few words in Bahasa, but my only real interaction was people in the service industry — with the people at the laundromat, the cafe, and the co-working space. With my taxi drivers.

Nyoman Ardika

I was thinking about these themes one morning especially. I was heading to the airport for a weekend trip to Hong Kong to see an old friend and business partner of mine. The hotel arranged a taxi for me, and I sat in the front and started talking to the driver. That’s not uncommon here; it’s more normal to sit and chat to your driver than to sit in the back in silence. This is how I met Nyoman. After asking for basic phrases in the local language and just chatting, I asked him how long he had been driving, and he told me a bit about his life.

Nyoman is Balinese, and had been driving a taxi for around twenty years. Sixteen of those he had been an employee, getting paid less because he didn’t have his own car — generally, drivers get around 15–25% of the money they earn, while the rest goes to the company who provide their cars. Nyoman had saved up for years to buy his van, but he only owned half of it, and still had four years left on his payment plan. He worked every day.

“I must be hard,” he said. His son was in college learning to be an artist (craftsmen make good money in Bali), and his daughter would probably go to college soon. His wife and he played instruments and danced some nights with their friends, which he enjoyed. But driving past marshes, I mentioned that I heard there used to be good crab fishing there before the sewage plant was put in. I asked if he ever fished. “I don’t have the time. I must work every day. Even when I do not have a ride, I must wait.”

I asked him if he had a website. “No. I have a phone, and my son can use the internet, but I don’t have a website. I don’t know how to use it.” I asked if he had an email. “Yes, Yahoo.” I asked if he thought about using any apps, like Trip Advisor, or offering repeat rides or so on. He became silent for a bit.

“I think about how to make more money and change my business all day. I don’t know how. I don’t know what to do.”

I stared at the ocean to our left for a few seconds.

“I could make you a website.”

Build More Small Things

So I did: I don’t know if a website will help him out. Building websites is what I do — it’s an easy way for me to help without having to spend weeks of my time doing research on how to game the taxi industry. And what I do know is that since making it, I have been able to share it with twenty or thirty friends of mine in Bali, and he has gotten more rides because of it. I know that he will probably get one or two rides more from it, and that, if it is linked enough, he may actually rise in the rankings on Google and may be able to build a bigger business.

The thing is, the website I made took the equivalent of an afternoon. There’s no tangible benefit for me in making it. It is for one guy,. It won’t scale. I’m not even unique: a friend of mine made one for his taxi driver, a year before I did. Another American I know who has lived here for twenty years suggested that I build out a platform for taxi drivers to all build their own websites. But I’m not interested in a service like that — I think that the problems I’m working on are more economically viable for me in the long run, and more interesting from a developmental perspective.

But for Nyoman, it may have gathered him an extra month’s pay. He works every day, but only gets around 18 rides a month. He showed me his ledger. He doesn’t earn much. A few extra rides may make a huge difference.

Not every project needs to be built into a business plan. Not every product needs to be scalable. Not every product needs to be built for everyone anywhere in the world.

And if I can make one man’s life a little easier by using one throwaway afternoon of mine, shouldn’t I do that?

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Originally posted on my blog: