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Taking the leap

One and a half years ago, I had this thought:

I can develop products, I have some ideas and the money I get from my freelance activity would be enough to work on my own projects in parallel. What is stopping me from building my own minimum viable products, release them into the market and see how it goes?

Well, time was stopping me. Additionally to the company I was working with, I was just starting to work with a new client in parallel. Since I could not do much out of my scarce free time, I started saving some money instead.

In January 2015 I bought some hardware and created my home server. I knew I needed a place to put my code and organize ideas. Some platform with a version control system and free private repositories would be great. A solution on premises would be even better. I got to know Gitlab in one of my clients and I found it to be exactly what I was looking for. I created a virtual machine and installed it. It didn’t take long until my first few modest lines of code appeared there.

Gitlab - merges identified by the issue number
Gitlab – merges identified by the issue number

Then, I started evaluating the risks of being dedicated to my projects, taking into consideration what I can do when I’m out there on my own and what can happen if nothing works out. Here is an overview:

The bright side:

  • I can deepen and widen my skills by learning and using/doing what I didn’t have time or opportunity to explore before. This applies to:
    • Software development;
    • System administration;
    • Project management;
    • Decision making based on my financial constraints and on potential users’ feedback;
  • I am able to look at problems from new perspectives, since my responsibility increases;
  • I can manage my time better to do other activities without burning myself out;
  • If it doesn’t work out, I have learned. And with that, maybe I will be able to try again later, differently, hopefully better;
  • If money runs out, I am still a freelancer and can do some work in parallel. Should not be hard to find something when I usually receive around three job offers per week from recruiters I never spoke to (sorry recruiters, I might have left many of your messages unanswered).

The dark side:

  • I may eventually run out of money;
  • Each mistake I make, will be on me;
  • If it doesn’t work out, it will be, at least, frustrating and disappointing;
  • If it works out too well, I might not have the financial capacity to scale;
  • In some projects, it might be required to save sensitive user data. It is said that German data protection laws are among the strictest in the world [1][2]. I find it a very good thing, but it can be a trap for me if I don’t take the right measures;
  • If I need to work in parallel, companies might step back knowing I’m working on my own projects;
  • I might burn out to make things work faster or might be too slow to avoid burn out: I don’t have the money to employ and delegate.

Anger, fear, aggression! The dark side of the Force are they … a Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense. Never for attack. — Yoda

I wanted to take the leap. The remaining question was when to start for real. I was working with two different companies which have shown interest in keeping me and the time that was left could barely be used for focusing on any extra project. I managed to reduce some working hours for some time. Eventually, the opportunity to close both projects came. In July, I was on my own.

Strategy

I had a simple approach to the projects. My aim was to build different projects, release them to the market and analyse the adherence from users. If any of them gains attention from many users, I develop it further, create subscription based accounts with extra functionalities and start a company with that. All with my own money – no upfront investment from loans, VCs or Angel investors. I want to keep my focus on the clients, not on the debts or investors’ influences.

But, before I could deep dive into the project development, I had a pending duty. I moved to Germany some years ago. I came with the ERASMUS program to accomplish the 3rd and 4th semesters of my Master’s degree and stayed in Hamburg after I concluded it. I didn’t speak German at all and I could use the English language at the university all the time. I had an A1 German as a Foreign Language course at the university, but it was far from enough to say a proper sentence, let alone having a talk. I started working as a freelancer at about the same time I started working on my Master’s thesis. When I finished the studies, I dedicated more than full time to my freelance activity. My lack of time and motivation made me postpone the improvement of my German language skills.

But now that I need to present my product in Germany to people and understand the processes involved to maybe start a business, the lack of German skills might be a deal breaker. Learning it had to be my first step. With that in mind, I enrolled in a language course and achieved the B1 level in the end of July. Still far from enough, but it was a start.

The first project

The idea came from a need as a freelancer. When you have a business or you simply work as a freelancer, you declare the VAT from your business expenses to the finance authorities to get the tax return. This requires some level of organization of bills to keep track of it. At the end of the year, you need to review all the expenses, categorize them and make sure everything is correctly calculated.

Additionally to business expenses, I wanted to track my personal expenses. As I am financially constrained by option, it’s good to have an overview of how the money is flowing.

I started performing this process using a spreadsheet, but could only register expenses when I was at the computer and it becomes impractical after some time. The usage of a mobile phone would be much more practical as one would be able to use it right after anything is bought.

And then another issue…. Some of my expenses are shared with my girlfriend. We could adopt a procedure where she would register half of the bill on her expenses and I would register the other half on my own. This was not very convenient.

That’s how the idea was born. Meet Wallat, the tool you need to keep an eye on where your money flows.

Get it on Google Play

(Currently available in Germany, Austria and Switzerland)

The competition

I check every now and then for apps on Google Play Store. I find many applications for household budget tracking and all of them have at least 100,000 downloads (some reaching the 5,000,000). Don’t get me wrong, they look amazing, full of functionality and with charts showing the categorized expenses in a pie chart and a history chart showing the progress along the time. Unfortunately, they miss the core functionalities I look for.

Also, most of the applications in the market are meant to be used offline. You add the transactions, do all the operations and in the end you can opt to save the database in a 3rd party file storage service (such as Dropbox or Google Drive). There are three concerns with this approach:

  • You need an account on those services to keep data “in the cloud”;
  • Your financial data is stored in companies with physical ties to US;
  • Files are meant to be  used by one device at the time. When two people access the same file, it’s very probable that a conflict will exist – and it may happen if you have a shared household.

What makes the difference

This is where Wallat wants to make a difference:

  • Allow more than one device per user or group of users;
  • Offline usage and automatic synchronization when the internet connection is available again;
  • Communication with the server using a secure connection (SSL);
  • Data storage in Germany;
  • Creation of groups where people share expenses *;
  • Help users to remain with their plan, by defining financial goals **;
  • VAT calculation, monthly and yearly overview for small businesses and freelancers *;
  • Automatically read from pictures of bills ***.

* – The functionality exists in the backend and web application, just needs a user interface in the Android application
** – To be developed
*** – Still figuring out the best way to do

There are other ideas being evaluated and you are welcome to share yours. There is a web browser interface which kind of works – since the Android app development took over, the web interface remained untouched and is now outdated and not ready to public yet. What it means is that you will be also able to use Wallat on your computer or other devices with a browser in the future.

Is this project convincing? When I generally present my idea to people, the reactions are mostly positive. I came across people already using the existent apps from the market, but willing to try mine as soon as it is available.

Data privacy policy and terms and conditions

Germany is strict on data protection. This is good and I want to do it right. This is a new topic for me and I didn’t really know where to start. There are generators of data privacy policy on the internet for general cases. I thought it could be enough for the first release, if I could try to adapt it to my case. But, when I was at an entrepreneurship seminar, it was mentioned that there are people getting funds just to sue companies which have flaws in their documents. I can’t take that risk, so I ended up contacting a lawyer to produce those documents. This fell heavily on my financial plan, as I wasn’t considering this cost. But might be an insurance that you should consider taking.

Overall experience

There are no conclusions to make yet. It is an on-going process and I’m still learning a lot with it. I’ve made mistakes, lost time and money with them. With a next project, I will do some things differently.

The hardest part is to work alone. Since I have not enough funds and don’t want to get upfront money, I am not able to delegate. I am also not sure how this project will turn out.

Building a software product isn’t just a technical challenge. Like in any business, you have to know your market, see what the competition is doing. You have to be aware of legal pitfalls and what does it take to reduce your risks. When you want to start a company, you have to understand the differences between the existent legal forms in the country and chose the one that fits the best to your case. If you are not fluent in the language of the country, multiply the level of difficulty by 10 🙂

And then, when you reach your release date and are ready to publish your applications into an app store based in US, you face a new challenge/headache: the US export laws. If you don’t use encryption in the application (if you access an API with HTTPS, you are using encryption), then you should be ok. Otherwise, you have to “ask permission” for it. If you are interested to know the procedure, somebody already wrote about it.

More technical details about this project will come in another article.

Nevertheless, I’m happy so far about my decisions. It gave me room to breath, learn and expand my skills. I attended meetups about startups and entrepreneurship, software development and cloud services to keep myself updated, network and present the project to people I meet.

I could also take time to travel to Azores and Australia. I may also write about it later.

The next steps

At the moment, I’m working on marketing, planning what will come in the next releases and looking around for some parallel paid projects to help me financially while I keep the Wallat project alive.

That said,

This is not goodbye, it’s never goodbye… it’s see you later — Jake Roper

 

Get it on Google Play


 

References

[1] C. W. Noorda, E-discovery and data privacy. Kluwer Law International, 2011, p. 109.
[2] S. L. Skalak, T. W. Golden, M. M. Clayton, and J. S. Pill, A guide to forensic accounting investigation. John Wiley, 2028, p. 161.

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