Canoeing from Loch Morar to Loch Arkaig

I recently came back from my second canoeing expedition in the highlands of Scotland. The first trip was fantastic but felt too short so we vowed to come back again but do it for longer.

Fast forward a few years and with a deep yearning to reconnect with the wilderness we (me & Wes) set off from Shropshire on the Thursday morning with our two 16′ Canadian canoes and all our kit in Wes’ camper.

Our plan involved getting to Loch Arkaig where we’d meet up with Giles to start the trip proper on the Sunday lunchtime so we had plenty of time for the trip up north and our first stop was to be a famous Tibetan Buddhist monastery. However as we neared we decided we couldn’t wait to get off-grid so we pressed on as far north as we could. Around 9pm we crossed the hauntingly desolate Rannoch Moor and took the next left into a random Glen (this tunred out to be Glen Etive). We pulled over and as it was a mild night just slept outdoors in bags (Wes was in the van with door wide open).

The next morning was a bit colder but not wet and we got our first fix of utter wilderness.

Oh boy.

We awoke to this

Camp night 1, not too shabby

Back into the van we went down through Glen Coe stopping briefly at Fort William for a couple of day’s food and then headed straight to Arkaig where we pulled up and within minutes had the boats off the van and were having a paddle.


Heading in to moody skies



24 hours after leaving Shropshire, the eastern end of Loch Arkaig

One of Wes’ mates turned out to be touring on his motorbike nearby so him and Wes hooned up along the lake for a while whilst I faffed getting some stuff ready. With that done we locked the van and got on the Loch. It was great to be on the water a day early. So we just padded up the Loch until around 8pm where we camped on a beach.


Night 2

Saturday saw us slowly paddle back to the van, pack up and head to Fort William where we bought loads of food before turning back and heading all the way to Loch Morar where we camped on its banks (after having a swift pint in Mallaig).

Now, the plan did have us starting at Arkaig, but we ditched that as the wind was westerly meaning we’d be doing 18kms on open water straight into the wind. No thanks.

So, plan changed, we’re now doing Morar to Arkaig with the wind behind us. The weather forecast suggested 4 days of sleet then it becoming more mild again.

Sunday was *cold*. I’d bivvied in my hammock under a tarp and it was sleety all night. Morning was just the same with it coming in squalls but, thankfully, some clear bits too. Wes headed to Fort William again to pick up Giles & leave his van there, leaving me to bag up all the food and get the boats ready.

Around 1pm we were ready to leave and quickly, thanks to the tailwind, we got to our crossing point by the islands.

This was to be my first solo open water crossing and I was a tad nervous with good reason. It’s around 1 mile wide and once out in the middle you’re facing strong wind & as it’s so open it’s like being on the sea, with waves wanting to come over the side and capsize you. Very daunting.


The calm before the storm (hope not!)


I had an absolute blast.

The North Westerly wind was such a help and as it pushed us along and over the Loch. Yes it got a bit choppy at times and the sleet was an arse but I’ve never felt so alive. When out in the middle it was totally awesome. Like, awe inspiring awesome, that one. Words really can’t describe how small one feels when sitting on 1000ft of water with 1/2  mile either side to the shore.


Wearing normal clothes and wellies and 1/2 a mile to shore, what could possibly go wrong? Photo © Giles Atkinson Photography

No wetsuit, wellies and 1/2 a mile to shore. What could possibly go wrong? © Giles Atkinson Photography

That done, we paddled until around 6pm and bivvied on a beach with a fire and some food.

Giles inspects our home for Sunday evening

Giles inspects our home for Sunday evening

Monday was our slacker day.

We paddled about 10 km to the end of Morar, it was a bit windy in places but nothing we couldn’t handle so we got to Oban bothy around 1pm. We had the place to ourselves and there was plenty firewood about so we got a fire on, as well as collecting & chopping more wood for the people after us.

Then we settled in for the afternoon with a few beers and soaked up the atmosphere of this amazing place.

Me heading up the bay to the end of the river for a short paddle. © Giles Atkinson Photography

Wes chilling © Giles Atkinson Photography

Wes chilling outside the bothy © Giles Atkinson Photography

Apparently I'm enjoying myself Me, half cut heading up the river. © Giles Atkinson Photography

I’m evidently quite enjoying myself. © Giles Atkinson Photography

Our private bay for the night

Our private bay for the night

iPhone 6 camera I <3 you

My favorite shot of an amazing place. Taken with my iPhone. Click for hi-res & see if you can find Giles.

Late to rise we took our time to pack up and then taking a bag each plus one boat we begin the portage over the pass into Arkaig.

Trial By Portage – Day 1

It’s about 3kms relatively steep uphill and then 5km downhill to Glen Pean bothy. According to the map there’s a river almost to the top and once over the peak within 1km is the source of the river Arkaig. We know its going to be hard work but there’s hope we can drag the boats in the river most of the way and only have to carry stuff now and again.

We have circa 100kgs of kit & boat, we’re a bit hungover (well I am anyway) and the weather is shit with lots of sleet coming in sideways.

It’ll be fine.

Mistake 1: we followed the river

Mistake 2: we didn’t scout ahead

Mistake 3: we took the lower resolution map

A river follows the shortest, that is to say, the steepest path. Had we the higher resolution map and done some scouting it would have been evident that we should have been carrying the kit almost immediately. So, instead of attempting to carry up across 3km of rocky and in places steep trail, we attempted to do the same thing on the steeper bit that also had water cascading through it.

Not much flow and steep incline meant we all got wet pretty quickly dragging the boat and bags upstream.

Realising the error we ditched the boat and dragged the bags to the top of the pass. We left it all at the side of the trail and trudged back down to the bothy. We’d done a lot of carrying over around 10kms (to and fro). It was really cold, we were really tired and soaked right through. I could barely walk by the time we got back at the bothy around 7pm. Fire sorted, clothes hung, food, bed by 10.

False summit #1, looking back to Morar

False summit #1, looking back to Morar taken from the path we should have followed

If you have good eyes you might spot canoe #1 stuck in a gravity well

If you have good eyes you might be able to spot canoe #1 stuck in a gravity well, taken again from the path we should have been on

Trial By Portage – Day 2

The weather cleared :)

We were up at 6, ready to go by 8am. We’re not coming back to Oban again so we’re committed to taking the other 300kgs of kit and boat, plus what we left on the hill.

Words can’t really describe how special that early morning was. Spell binding? Whatever, it was really nice. We meditated on the pier. We were well fed and feeling as good as we could have hoped. We knew the way and it was a cloudy but mild day.

Portage like a boss. Boat’s on head, bags on back we nail it.

3pm: we’re at the top with everything.

5pm: one boat and some bags down over the pass & the last steep drop on to the plain before the river starts again

7pm: all down we’re pretty shot. Wes has carried both boats down from the top. dropping them down by rope at the the steepest part. Giles & I are on bags. It’s a very precarious and rocky trail with a you-will-definitely-break-bits-off-if-you-fall drop to one side. I don’t know how he did it and not break something. I don’t know how we all manged to not break anything. It was 5 trips top to bottom to get everything down.

10pm: one foor in front of the other, all reserves exhausted. Pitch dark. All kit and both boats at the second Lochan where the river widens. We make emergency shelter, get into dry clothes.

12pm sleep.

Fuck yeah

Fuck yeah

Something about the path and a boat on it

Something about the path and a boat on it



From the top, 4kms downhill, the first 1.5km very steep

Down. From the top towards Arkaig. 2kms (in a straight line) downhill to the larger Lochan, the first 0.5km very steep before leveling out


Turned out nice again, hasn't it

Turned out nice again, hasn’t it

Wes in The Photo That Had To Be Taken © Giles Atkinson Photography

Stunning shot of Wes on our Lochan. Giles Atkinson Photography nails it.

What day is it now?

Not sure but it’s just past daybreak.

Everything aches but we made it. We’re down and in one piece. How lucky we were that the weather was dry yesterday. The weather is clear, mild & still today. The Lochan is a perfect mirror.

We never have to carry two boats & ten bags over that pass ever again. Ever.

Alright! We’re at the bothy by 10am I think. It was mostly dragging the boats down the river and, bliss, a small bit of poling or paddling.

By unspoken agreement we take the rest of the day off.

We unpack then repack everything after we’ve dried it in the front the fire (there was of course no magic firewood fairy). We eat well, to bed early ready for an early start.

Glen Pean Bothy

Glen Pean Bothy

Looking back up the pass towards Loch Morar

Looking back up the pass towards Loch Morar

Today is Friday.

We have 5km of river and then 16km of Loch if we want to sleep in another bothy, else we’re bivvying. It’s a long way and unfortunately the wind is easterly and pretty strong, straight into our noses.

We’re in and out of the boats all morning. Dragging, poling, some very short portage over small a couple of drops until we hit Loch Arkaig around 1pm.

We’re all feeling pretty good and we make good time. The river was beautiful and spring was definitely in the air. The cuckoo, always there, more birds than I could possibly mention. An actual White Tailed Eagle – Wikipedia: “The white-tailed eagle is a very large bird” – circles above us. A couple of jet fighters screamed over on training flights.

We’ve made it, the hard work is over. Right?

Half way down the river

Half way down the river

Nearly there

Nearly there

Just coming up on Arkaig

Just coming up on Arkaig

The end of the river. Lunch

The end of the river. Lunch

So about that easterly wind.

5 hours straight paddling uphill into a strong wind. We stop every hour for tea & snack. We don’t talk much, the just focus on paddling. Putting one foot in front of the other as it were. The pain in your shoulders starts having layers. Certain spots become focal points, it’s an extreme form of meditation. Pain go away. Must. Paddle.

7:30pm or thereabouts we get to the bothy. There’s a stretch of river we have to drag the kit up and we chuck the gear into one room. We’re spent. There’s another room with a couple of fishermen in, there’s plenty of space. Relax.

Then their mates turn up. Make that 10-12 Glaswegian fishermen up for a bank holiday. Members of the “Ya Cunt Fishing Club”. Hard & edgy men, but generous and welcoming. We were plied with spirits and booze & it quite literally would have been rude not to partake (though I would have preferred) to curl up into a sleeping bag and slept.

They have brought tonnes of firewood, the fire is huge and warming. They think we’re mad for doing what we’ve done, but I don’t get fishing. At all. We all get the wilderness. It’s why we’re all here.

At some point we sleep.

Into wind

Near the start, before we fully hit the wind


rest stop

rest stop

A lull enough for me to take a photo. Wes has snagged some firewood

A lull enough for me to take a photo. Wes has snagged some firewood

You could not make this up

You could not make this up

A bothy

A bothy

Saturday morning.

Tired. I’d like a shower now please. I’ve been sleeping rough for 10 days. Plumbing & a bed would be nice. A burger. Yes I’d like a burger and to speak to my family who have no idea whether I’m OK or not.

We break camp and we part from the fishermen that are awake.

It’s about 3km to the end of the Loch but into the wind it feels like more. I solo the last km. It was knackering but it’s good practice for me. We stop for lunch then take the short river Arkaig to Loch Lochy where we can then hitch for Wes’ van.

River with flow is totally different to open water. Much harder and the rocks are fuckers, waiting to tip you over.

Which they did just near the end after a quick portage. All or gear was strapped in so didn’t float away. Wes, ever the professional, jumps into action, rescuing then emptying mine & Giles’ boat but bruised his hands badly during. With a slightly damaged boat we’re all a bit wet but thankful to paddle around the corner to Loch Lochy. Job done.

Giles, looking back up river Arkaig

Giles, looking back up river Arkaig

Wes pulling a wheelie

Wes pulling a wheelie

That'll do, thanks very much

That’ll do, thanks very much

Mallaig. There is plumbing here.

Mallaig. There is plumbing here.

Wes hitches a lift fpr a fisherman to go get his van a few miles away, we get the gear sorted. It’s not far and he’s back soon, so after putting on *clean and dry clothes* we quickly get the boats on the van and drive the 50 miles to Morar, collecting Giles’ car on the way. Mallaig is 2 miles down the road, we spend Saturday night here.

A B&B near the pub has 2 rooms,  Wes has the van. Beer, Food, Shower, Facetime call with family, Bed.

Sunday. We depart Mallaig early and also part ways with Giles. Wes’ hands are badly brusied but there’s movement and they are getting progressively better.

We saunter home. Stopping every hour or so for tea. We get back to Shropshire about 10pm.

Here endeth the slideshow. More geeky stuff below.

The Plan

Before leaving, our basic plan was to head back to the North West Highlands, Lochaber & The Knoydart. Starting at Loch Arkaig we’d *paddle the length of Arkaig (18km) take the boats up the river and stay in Glen Pean bothy. Then carrying all our gear – 3 boats and about 10 bags – over the pass and down to Loch Morar where there is also Oban bothy. After that it was to be half of Loch Morar – the UK’s deepest freshwater body – carry our gear (portage) again over to Loch Nevis which is a sea Loch. Waiting for the tide we’d then paddle into Loch Nevis and Sourlies bothy for a supper of Mussels we harvested off the rocks. Retracing our steps at high tide we’d go back down Loch Nevis and around the corner to Inverie and THE PUB which is the UK’s most remote mainland location (you can only get there by boat). The last day would be a scary crossing a small bit of the sea and then we’d be back in civilization, Malliag.

That was the plan, what we ended up doing was Morar to Arkaig as the wind was blowing the opposite direction.

We had six & a half days, Sunday lunchtime though to Saturday night with the Sunday reserved for travelling home.

The map of our original plan
*Psst: one doesn’t row a canoe, one paddles. 



We knew we’d be carrying everything we needed to survive for a week so between the three of us we had:

  • 2x 16′ Canadian canoes & 5 paddles
  • 1 set of wheels
  • life jacket each (these days called Personal Flotation Devices or PFDs apparently)
  • tarp & bivvy bag plus 4 season sleeping bag & rollmat each (no tents)
  • single change of clothing and extra socks
  • full set of waterproofs
  • wellies & walking boots
  • Crocs for camp wear
  • headtorch (essential) & spare torch
  • 2x compact gas stoves & a Trangia
  • Some shared cooking & washing up gear
  • A plate, fork bowl, cup & water bottle
  • A hatchet, pruning saw and a couple of bushcraft knives
  • 50m of floating rope
  • loads of Paracord
  • about 15 carabiners
  • Food. Mostly dried, pasta & the like, and lots of tortillas, pitta bread, cheese, bars, nuts. Enough for one hot meal a day (evening), sarnies for luch, bars for snacks and cereal/dried milk for breakfast
  • a small amount of booze enough for the first few days as well as some heavy tins for the first few meals which we’d drink & eat to reduce weight for the portage (though we of course we would carry all waste with us)
  • trowel and some loo roll
  • basic toiletries
  • 1 rucksack & day sack each
  • 1 waterproof barrel for the food
  • 4 more rucksacks for shared kit
  • umpteen dry bags to put the kit in before packing the bags
  • and some other bits

In my personal kit I took, among other things:

  • DD hammock
  • Solarmonkey Adventurer waterproof battery pack & charger. This was pretty good. It charged my phone about 3 times and Giles’ once. It got quite wet as I left it open in the boat to top up the internal battery’s charge (when I could remember) in the boat so it got regularly splashed
  • iPhone 6 with sim card removed – I didn’t want even the chance of an internet connection – for photos & an ’emergency’ Nokia 6310i (though it turned out there was no signal for the entire trip)
  • 2 hip flasks of single malt
  • Clothing
    • Sealskinz waterproof socks (which did work & kept by feet dry even after wellies flooded)
    • Sealskinz gloves, made from wetsuit material so allow water in but keep hands warm
    • Merino base layers x2
    • Many light fleeces, enough for 3 layers, plus 2 spare
    • Decent softshell outer
    • Down bodywarmer (also acts as pillow)
    • Gloves, hats, my Merino ‘Buff’ cycling scarf
    • 2x Craghopper ‘Stefan’ trousers. Absolutely the best trousers ever. Waterproof (actually waterproof), robust and breathable


2014 in review: podcasts, blogs, books & conferences

Truth be told I’m really glad to be seeing the back of 2014; let’s just say it has been a challenging year.

I appear to have gotten through it mostly intact, though, and I am looking forward to 2015 to see how the changes I’ve been implementing both in my life and my business will play out.

One of things I did a lot of this year was look to my peers and see how they were doing things, particularly if they were self-employed. As a result I have consumed a lot of other people’s knowledge in the form of books, podcasts, blog posts and conferences. It has been really useful gaining this extra perspective and in hindsight this year has been a sort of professional coming of age – I’m in my early 40’s so maybe I’m a late developer; a lot of things have certainly clicked firmly into place.

Interestingly whilst I’ve consumed a fair bit of the content that has been produced by the bootstrapping community, instead of it making me focus in on building my own products I’ve turned instead to look at my existing consulting business and am now applying the things I’ve learned to that, particularly:

  • Value, value, value; what pain does your product/service remove?
  • Niche down on service offerings and remove as many touch points as possible when on-boarding new clients; in other words productise your services
  • Have a clear idea of the audience you’re marketing to and, again, niche down. If you don’t have a particular vertical market that you work within maybe you should choose one?
  • Remove yourself (mostly) from the day-to-day running of your business. Systemise and delegate but don’t abdicate.
  • Run the numbers. How does your website convert? Where do your leads come from? What are your businesses success benchmarks? If you don’t track it you’ll never know if you are improving, or worse, failing.

I’m still assimilating a lot of this information but as it’s the time of year for reflection I thought I would write a few words down about some of my favourite information sources this year, just in case they are useful to you too.


Up to the beginning of 2014 I’d rarely consumed podcasts as the thought of sitting still listening to someone else talk about stuff felt like a waste of time and there is zero chance of me getting any work done whilst one is playing. But, as I started travelling around a lot more, the podcast became a good dead-time filler and I was blown away by the quality of the content out there.

Product People by Justin Jackson

I can’t remember where I found this but it was the first podcast I listened to in 2014 and it set the bar pretty high. I started out with this interview of Amy Hoy which really made me sit up and think about how I market the services I provide, this quote of Amy’s pretty much nailed it for me:

The core problem with so many businesses is that they’re based on what the business owner wants.

Techies like me are thinking about what they do when they talk to their clients, or as a friend, a senior sales person said to me the other day: ‘Engineers are always marketing their capabilities not how they add value’ How many developer websites do you see with ‘Our services’ or ‘What we do’ as the hook? Lots of course, including mine (but not for much longer!).

Justin is an excellent interviewer and his output is always high quality; check out this podcast and also his blog.

Startups For The Rest Of Us by Rob Walling & Mike Taber

The range of subjects over the – at time of writing – 216 episodes is breathtaking. The episodes are short and punchy with there always being value to be gleaned.

Don’t be put off by the product/bootstrap focus if that’s not what you’re interested in. Anyone in business will get heaps of value listening to this show.

There are too many good episodes to mention so I suggest you just start here.

Unfinished Business by Andrew Clarke

I’ve got a lot of time for this show and Andy’s output generally. He makes podcasting seem easy with his relaxed style and the fact that he’s generally got a strongish opinion on the chosen subject matter is also refreshing.

It’s mostly design and front end developer focussed so I don’t listen to all episodes, but every time that I do I’m reminded that it’s important to have a holistic view of our industry rather than focussing in on just the bit that we might work in. Andy’s show should be top of your list if you’re a developer looking for some balance to your industry view.

Backendy by me

I was sufficiently motivated to record the pilot of Backendy after listening to a great episode of Unfinished Business featuring Laura Kalbag. I felt then (and still do) that there are a lot of front-end/design/designer focussed shows out there and as a developer one can at times feel a bit marginalised. All the good shows and conferences can certainly feel as if they are aimed more towards the front-end and as I’m also not interested in listening to developer only content either, where can I go?

Hence Backendy being born. The idea is to cover the business of our wider industry but from the point of view of a backend developer.

I really enjoyed doing the first 10 episodes – 11 actually, one with Lorna Mitchell never got uploaded (sorry Lorna!) – but then things changed and for a good chunk of the year I had to aggressively prioritise what I did with my time. Backendy lost.

With me feeling that I can justify the time investment again I’m very much looking forward to starting season 2 in 2015. I’ll be mixing the format up and widening focus slightly to include what interests me most: the business of software.


I’ve always read a lot of books. Sci-fi being the place to escape and rest my brain but when it comes to non-fiction, particularly personal or business development, whilst I always start off with the best intentions more often than not after purchase they sit there unread. Amazon’s ‘Deliver to Darren’s Kindle’ button has a lot to answer for!

I made a mini-resolution last year to actually read some non-fiction and the breakthrough has been audio books and also always having a Kindle with me.

These are the best books I’ve read/listened to over the past year that I actually finished.

Sane New World: Taming the Mind by Ruby Wax (yes that Ruby Wax)

Mindfulness is awesome; with it we can re-train our brains. It’s really easy to do, it – for me – helps massively with stress reduction and you can do it anywhere. What’s not to like?

Ruby’s book on the subject is brilliant, I listened to her read the audio version and there are numerous laugh out loud moments. She explains her disdain of any ‘hippy shit’ and delves into the science. It’s funny, touching and possibly life changing. If you’re depressed or stressed out I’d thoroughly recommend it.

The Nerdist Way: How to Reach the Next Level (In Real Life) by Chris Hardwick

It’s hard to explain this book. Entertaining, geek rally cry wrapped with a self-help theme.

It’s a bit silly in places and Chris’ writing style might not resonate – I’d never heard of him but he’s a comedian who made me laugh anyway – also some of the self-help stuff won’t come as a surprise but I did really enjoy reading it and I feel sure there’s actionable advice for most of us to be had here.

The Profitable Side Project Handbook by Rachel Andrew

If you’re a designer or developer with the skills to ship products for your clients why not ship products for yourself? Could you do it instead of your freelance or consulting business?

This book is a well-paced read that lays it all out for you on a plate; all you need to do is add the ideas.

As Rachel puts it:

This isn’t a book about “doing a startup”. This is a business book about diversifying your income as a freelancer, agency owner or possibly even as an employee. It is a practical book based on my own experience and also research into other similar businesses. I cover the real nuts and bolts of doing this along with actions you can take as you bring your own products to launch.

If you’re thinking of shipping your own products then start here. This book will save you a bunch of your limited time and get you up to speed really quickly.

Stop Thinking Like a Freelancer: The Evolution of a $1M Web Designer by Liam Veitch

I got to read this book when it was launched on Amazon for free for a week to generate some initial buzz.

Once I’d got over the slightly grand title – $1m, over three years and oh that’s dollars so *gets calculator out* an average of £200k per year – I chomped through it cover to cover.

This book came at a really good time for me as I was about to scale my agency and it was confidence inspiring to see a lot of my own thinking validated. If you are a freelancer or consultant looking to step things up then this book is a really good sanity check that is packed full of valuable & actionable insights.

Blog Posts

Like anyone else I have a fair few decent articles flow past me every day. These are a few of the ones where some of the content stuck with me enough to remember it when collating this list.

Dumb Down and Scale UpSeth Godin

acknowledge your special sauce and hire people only when they help you do what you do best and uniquely. Don’t worry about replicating yourself, focus instead on leveraging yourself.

I like this: you can scale your team up but make sure you don’t abdicate all responsibility. Roger that.

Twitter Founder Reveals Secret Formula for Getting Rich Online by Ryan Tate (Wired)

Slightly dodgy title notwithstanding I liked how the value proposition of the internet got distilled into a single paragraph:

the internet is “a giant machine designed to give people what they want.” It’s not a utopia. It’s not magical. It’s simply an engine of convenience. Those who can tune that engine well — who solve basic human problems with greater speed and simplicity than those who came before — will profit immensely. Those who lose sight of basic human needs — who want to give people the next great idea — will have problems.

“We often think of the internet enables you to do new things,” Williams said. “But people just want to do the same things they’ve always done.”

With the money shot being:

“Here’s the formula if you want to build a billion-dollar internet company,” he said. “Take a human desire, preferably one that has been around for a really long time…Identify that desire and use modern technology to take out steps.”

Ways Men In Tech Are Unintentionally Sexist

This is a good list. I don’t think I suffer from all of these failings but number 1 jumped out: Using “guys” to mean “people”

As the author Kat – couldn’t find last name – states:

Many women don’t notice or mind this, but to some in our male-dominated field it can be a tiny, pointed reminder of the extra work they have to do just to fit in, be seen, be taken seriously.

Busted, sorry. Needless to say I’ll working hard to stop doing this in future.

Stuff by me

I managed to get a couple of posts published on blogs you may have even heard of:

What is Vagrant and Why Should I Care – 24 Ways

JSDI – The Pastry Box Project


I attended a few conferences this year here’s a list of my favourites (after Shropgeek Revolution of course, which you should all go to next year)

The Business of Web Design

Following on from his Shropgeek talk the previous year Joel Hughes put on this a single-day conference in Cardiff warmed up by what must have been a gruelling roadshow tour around the country speaking at local grass-root events.

It was a great day with accessible speakers and a fantastic crowd of attendees who, like me, are running their own show. I think I got as much out of the ‘corridor track’ as I did the main talks.

MicroConf Europe

Organised by Rob Walling and Mike Taber from Startups For The Rest Of Us, MicroConf was a 2 day conference in Prague for bootstrapped micro businesses.

The quality of the speakers was top drawer and we had to wheel the value out in barrow loads afterwards – as a taster here’s a write-up of Rachel Andrew’s talk – but trumping even that was the amazing group of attendees. I’ll admit that I was suffering from a bit of imposter syndrome before attending because I have not shipped anything resembling a product but it turns out a sizeable proportion of the people I spoke with were in a similar position. I had many great conversations and left feeling inspired to apply a lot of things I’ve been learning over the past year to my consulting business.

KBO, 2015

With a year of consolidation behind me I’m really looking forward to 2015 and getting my hands dirty on the internals of my business. Amongst other things I’ll be:

  • building a permanent base for my newly expanded team in Shrewsbury (though most people will still work remotely)
  • marketing my business for the First Time Ever and really relishing the challenge
  • recording season 2 of Backendy
  • launching one or two productised service offerings

I’ll be blogging as I go so if you’d like to be the first to receive updates then please feel free to join my new mailing list.

I hope you have a great 2015.


Make life a side project

Two blog posts in one week, unheard of.

That’s what you get when you cram two high-octane conferences into one week: MicroConf Europe in Prague Sunday to Tuesday and then The Web Is in Cardiff, Thursday and Friday.

I could write reams about my experiences of both extremely high quality, motivating, thought provoking and at some times very moving events – and indeed I will almost certainly expand upon some of these threads over the coming weeks –  but the thing I want to quickly focus in on today is something that Christopher Murphy said which really resonated with me, summed up here by Dan Davies:

Tweet by Dan Davies

“But hang on”, I hear you say, “life is THE project, right? Why would we push out to the sidelines?”

Well, the statement needs to be taken in context and that context was a discussion about geek mental help week – something I’ve already written about – and the pressure that a lot of us find ourselves under to not only be good at our jobs, to earn the money, but to also keep up with the fast pace of technology change, to know which one of the 17 javascript frameworks to study (this week!), to keep our blogs up to date, to have a podcast, to do public speaking and a multitude of other pressures that we might find ourselves under especially – as Rachel Andrew so neatly and perfectly summed it up – if we lose sight of the fact that the output of our peers, their status updates, their instagram photos are just their highlight reels, not their hum drum day-to-day.

Luckily for me those external pressures, certainly the comparing oneself to peers, isn’t something I particularly suffer with (ok, I probably do it a bit, but I can quickly discard those thoughts). The pressures I suffer from are slightly different. They are self-inflicted, it’s my inner critic who is my task master. He drives me hard to ‘achieve’, to be constantly looking forwards to see where I’ll be and more often than not he doesn’t allow to stop, to have a look around and enjoy where I am right now.

So for me, to keep Mr rarely-cuts-me-some-slack Critic in his box I particularly like the idea of treating life as one of my projects. A very important one for sure but one which we can forget, something that can get pushed to the bottom of the list as a discretionary item unless we’re careful to keep on top of it.

With life as a project it can be scheduled, it can be given the high priority that it deserves but we can still fit it in around other competing pressures. That works for me.

A bit of a mess

Whilst I have a relatively good, sometimes even working system of storing all of my ideas, projects & thoughts loosely based on GTD I do really value mind-mapping as a tool to quickly download thoughts and get them out of my head.

Given I had so much floating around my head from an amazing week of insights I did a quick dump this morning as a really simple way to get that perspective again. For each of these high level tasks I can now assign the time I want to spend per day/week/month and compare that to the time I actually have available given the constraints of work, family commitments, of going to bed early, etc, and see if they are achievable. If they are not I can park them or tweak the timings. The important thing is to be sure to do the important things to me in an achievable and sustainable way.

Yes, it’s mind bogglingly obvious but thinking about life as a dependency for success – however you might define that; I know that success is a very personal thing and it does not necessarily equate to achievement – is a really nice way of looking at things and I’m really thankful for the simple reminder this week.

For me at least, having life stuff as a project means it has a much greater chance of getting done.


Update: Mike Ellis has posted a response to this article on his blog which I’m sure matches some other people’s thinking on this subject. I stand by what I said, though. If I don’t organise everything then things slip which results in me getting stressed out and that’s no good for anyone.

The woods are my monastery

TL;DR I’d much rather be in the woods than sitting in front a of a screen all day. I’ve realised this now and will start doing more of it again. Feel free to join me.

I’m writing this post from my hotel room in Cardiff where I’m attending conference.

I should be heading out to dinner but I feel compelled to put this virtual pen to paper before my thoughts slip back into the relative mess of my mind.

And it is mind that I want to briefly touch upon, inspired both by the varied and moving posts written for Geek Mental Help Week and most recently by a talk on stage at the aformentioned conference between Cole Henley and Andrew Clarke.

Over the past 18 months I have been having various health issues, mainly physical of nature but more recently affecting my mind too. The upshot is that stress has not only left me feeling pretty shitty but it also has been physically manifesting, causing me all sorts of other problems; weeks off work bed-ridden problems.

The irony is that the majority of that stress has been self induced: working far too hard and a lack of exercise being major factors which is weirdly really positive, because I can easily (hopefully) fix those and I am working towards doing this.

However, another factor that I’m struggling with is a cognitive dissonance that I have been experiencing due to the fact that as much as I do like working with my clients and however much intellectual stimulation I get from running my business, I’d much rather be sitting in the woods making furniture.

Now that might sound a bit strange but bear with me.

A few years back my family and I had a bit of a weird – it *definitely* was weird at times – and also wonderful journey sampling various lifestyle options travelling around the country from rented house to rented house. During the way I became a qualified forester and picked up a lot of woodworking skills as well as a smattering of farming and agricultural knowledge too.

After a while we got fed up with moving and decided that we had to settle down; we wanted to own our own place again and to (literally) put down roots, planting our own garden and stop dragging our poor kids from school to school. Faced with the reality that I can’t make any money doing the things that I really want to be doing (forestry particularly is also a young person’s game) I decided to go all-in again on my business and we now are where we are today.

Getting back to that conversation between Cole & Andrew. Cole was describing a recent (awesome) birthday present from his wife where he got sent to a monastery for 3 days and ended up amongst other things spending a lot of time whittling spoons under a tree.

Now I’m not a spiritual person but the only time I have ever felt any sort of ‘otherness’ is when I’m at one with nature whether that’s canoeing on Lochs in Scotland or more locally in a woodland taking its fruits and making things with them, spoons, chairs, shonky benches, whatever. The simple fact of being in nature, of communing if you will, felt good for the soul (if an atheist like me is allowed a soul).

So, cutting to the chase (I’m hungry and I’m missing the party), I need to do more of that again. Particularly the making and woody things. I know it’ll be good for me and will likely break me out of this funk.

I’d also like to extend an offer to any of my geek friends: Join me. Whether that’s in person – seriously let’s geek out in the woods, I’ll organise it – or just in spirit, do something that makes your heart sing. You may not be able to do it for a living but maybe it’ll help you too?


P.s. I feel very awkward pressing submit on this especially when my laughably named problems pale into insignificance when compared to some of my braver peers who have really bared their souls this week. I know that I am a very lucky man. I’m the right gender and I have the right skin tone. I live in the part of society which industrialised first so we got to nick most of the world’s resources which in turn made us all so much more relatively wealthy when compared to others. I have a loving (and suffering) wife, three great kids, I earn a good salary in an industry that is very sharing (and evidently caring) and one in which I can pick up sticks and do anywhere in the world.

Are you prepared for the long haul?

I had an epiphany this week.

In fact it’s been a month or two of epiphanies but this one was particularly important.

Embarassingly it’s one of those ‘No Shit Sherlock’ realisations, the ones we all have now and again and then wonder why it wasn’t obvious from the beginning.

That epiphany was:

Bootstrapping a product or service isn’t going to mean I can quit my day job any time soon.

Obvious, right?

Or is it?

The next day I saw this tweet from Patrick McKenzie which validated my thinking and implies I’m not the only person who is (was) wearing rose tinted spectacles:

Untitled picture


Now, in my defence I wasn’t ever thinking that I’d release something on day one and on day two I’d be rolling in cash (honest!) but I had allowed myself to become distracted enough to think that releasing some products would mean I would be able to rapidly change focus from consulting to product – the holy grail.

In hindsight that thinking was foolish and downright dangerous.

My consultancy feeds me and my family, it feeds my team and their families, it also keeps my clients in business. In terms of bootstrapping my consultancy is also going to feed any products that I launch. It will provide money in lots of different shapes and forms that I don’t have access to in any other way.

My consultancy is here to stay and its success is fundamental to the future success of any side projects that I launch.

I think my subconscious already knew this as before this realisation came to me I had already:

  • Started working with Stew our new project manger who is doing a great job taking lots of projects off my plate
  • Advertised for a senior developer (or two) to take the load off
  • Decided to – for the first time ever – do some actual marketing (it’s only taken me 12 years to get to this point)
  • Began an aggressive campaign to systemise everything that we do

I’ve realised that I need to love consulting again just like I did when I started out all those years ago. This time, though, I’m going to be focussed a lot less on the tech – quality control notwithstanding – and a lot more on commercial stability and sustainability.

Are you in a similar boat to me?   How are you juggling consulting and shipping products?



Follow me on twitter: I’m @bealers

p.s. If you’re a kick ass PHP developer, UK or near GMT timezone, I’m currently hiring for a full-time home based role. There’s more information here, get in touch via

p.p.s. Mike Ellis & I have just released a sneak peak of our first productised consulting service, we’d love your feedback: WP Desk the service that takes away the stress and hassle of managing WordPress websites.



Be scared, but be careful

Recently Justin Jackson wrote a great post entitled Do things that scare you which really resonated with me.

It uses a metaphor of someone dropping off the wall of a half-pipe on a skateboard:

It’s scary as hell, because the next step is to commit: you have to force yourself to put weight on your front leg and push down hard. You kind of “scoop” into the ramp.

Your brain does not want to do this. The instinct is to keep your weight on your back leg. But if you do that you’ll never drop in. If you “half commit” and start to drop in, but then lean back, you’ll wipe out.

Of course the point he’s making is that if you don’t ever push yourself to go outside of your comfort envelope then you’ll arguably just stay where you are, which may not be what you’re after.

It got me thinking about some of the key moments of my business career and the (literal) sleepless nights I had before deciding to do things: like hire my first full-time staff member, take on my first commercial lease or even fire my first client. These were all indeed quite scary but at the time the ‘only’ people being affected were me and my family.

Nowadays, though, when I’m thinking about growing my business these decisions (which are still scary) now have more stakeholders to consider, particularly my team that still needs to be paid and our clients who rely on us to help keep their businesses running.

Just jumping in and hoping it’ll be alright isn’t good enough any more, that leap of faith needs to be more of a leap of I-ran-the-numbers-here’s-the-plan-and-I-still-have-a-fallback-option-so-I’m-going-for-it.

Take a small but concrete example. I am struggling to keep my business tiny; a core of 5 people. The aim has alway been to keep things small as it reduces stress. But here’s the thing: lately it has been more stressful trying to juggle projects between us at our current size so I’ve finally decided to allow things to grow; to take on 1 or 2 new developers to ease the pain.

Except for my commercial credit card which gets paid off in full each month or the odd computer lease I’ve never borrowed money through the business, everything has been funded through cash flow. But this week I went to the bank and they agreed to give me the equivalent of 2x my monthly wage bill as a commercial overdraft.

I still get to grow, I’m still taking the risk that more work will flow and that the stress won’t rise (too much) but I have that little safety net. If (when, right?) a client doesn’t pay a chunky invoice on time I can still pay that wage bill.

So, definitely take those risks but remember that it’s also OK to have strategies in place to soften your fall (like knee pads and a helmet).

B2C, are you sure?

Found at as long as I’ve been paying the rent by selling my skills in the web industry I’ve thought that I had a product in me.

Back in the late 90’s I was a wannabe .com ‘founder’ working on terrible ideas initially with no clue about business or technology. As I came to grips with the latter and got a proper job I was still working on things in my evenings and weekends; I even went along to some of the original First Tuesday events in London to try and get seed funding. In hindsight it was a mad time.

The inevitable crash came almost as a relief. It certainly allowed me to drop the side projects and to focus on getting good at my trade. As a bonus I discovered this thing called life so I had some fun, got married, became a father, started a business; all that good stuff.

More recently I’ve been working again on side projects with a few getting quite far before once again being ditched, this time because I realised that the business model sucked. The most recent – and hopefully final – example of this is Notebud a simple mobile capture tool for OneNote users; a tool which I’d pay money for right now if it existed, hence starting to build it.

It’s nearly finished, a few more weekends on it and I could probably ship something but quite late in the day I realised that I didn’t want to be working on a B2C product so I downed tools. Why did I waste* all that effort?

Well, if you spend any time around the bootstrapping community, sucking up information in podcasts, blogposts and from hearing people speak at conferences you’ll be familiar with the three commandments relating to the market you’re selling to (usually referred to as audience)

  1. Like hanging out with your audience (in my case: geeks in business) as you’ll be spending a lot of time in their company
  2. Make sure your audience is willing to spend money (e.g. frugal down-shifters might be less willing to buy your next eBook)
  3. Don’t second guess what they want. Instead talk to your audience, listen to their pains then choose the biggest one and try to remove it for them

It’s point 2 that made me ditch Notebud.

Ignoring the glaring fact that the frustrated mobile OneNote users market is not likely to be large, the big realisation was that they are unlikely to want to pay much for any solutions. Unfortunately for us budding bootstrappers, retail consumers have been conditioned that anything more than a couple of quid/bucks is expensive.

Extortionate. Really?

Extortionate. Really?

Case in point, the new iPad app for OmniFocus was just released. I already use OmniFocus myself and was happy to buy the desktop app – even though at least 2 people told me it was ‘expensive’ and suggested cheaper alternatives – and also to spend a further tenner on the iPhone app.

However, I balked at the £21 price tag for the iPad app and didn’t buy it; too expensive (though to be fair I don’t actually use the iPad in my productivity work flow).

If me, a developer who has a pretty good idea how much work went into that app, thinks it is expensive then what are the people on the street thinking? Well the first review I’ve attached as a screenshot neatly illustrates my point; it’s ‘extortionate’ apparently.

So, if you are thinking about bootstrapping and you’ve not yet defined your ‘audience’ then I’d strongly recommend considering people in business rather than price-conscious consumers. Sell to people where there is a cost vs. benefit analysis for most purchases. People with corporate credit cards who if you’re removing a definite pain for them will happily get it out and pay you a reasonable fee for your product or service.

Of course the potential volumes for B2C transactions are very attractive but at such a low unit cost you need to sell a lot of 99p apps to start paying that rent, especially when you factor in the inevitable support overhead that will also come with your product.

B2C can work, but I’ll be focussing my efforts elsewhere.

* Actually, it was a useful way to learning how to build a mobile app, so I’ve gained some new skills, but I’ve still lost time and money

Serious Bash exploit & fix

There’s a bash exploit doing the rounds that is drop-everything serious.

The short version is that it is:

related to how environment variables are processed: trailing code in function definitions was executed, independent of the variable name

So, a correctly formed command can be used to execute arbitrary code on an affected system; anything running bash.

The problem is that Bash is probably called by your webserver or scripting language of choice, as this post on Redhat puts it:

CGI scripts are likely affected by this issue: when a CGI script is run by the web server, it uses environment variables to pass data to the script. These environment variables can be controlled by the attacker. If the CGI script calls Bash, the script could execute arbitrary code as the httpd user. mod_php, mod_perl, and mod_python do not use environment variables and we believe they are not affected.

Test this

bealers@server:~$ env x='() { :;}; echo vulnerable' bash -c "test"

Get this output?



Fix this (on Debian/Ubuntu a patch is out)

apt-get update && apt-get install --only-upgrade bash

Test this

bealers@server:~$ env x='() { :;}; echo vulnerable' bash -c "test"

Get this output?

bash: warning: x: ignoring function definition attempt
bash: error importing function definition for `x'



This is a moving target, as you can see here, new patches keep coming out. So keep checking to see if there are other proof of concepts or keep checking for new patches by re-running the update & install.

For older versions of debian you may need to do more work, for example on some squeeze servers I had to change my apt-sources to squeeze-lts:

deb squeeze-lts main contrib non-free
deb-src squeeze-lts main contrib non-free

Finally a few useful background threads on HN:

OneNote on OSX, first impressions

Recently I moved to Apple’s OSX as my primary operating system. It has gone very smoothly with me taking a Macbook Air on holiday (with no work or email loaded onto it!) so I could get used to it and when back I had a few transition days where I did productive work with both old & new machine side by side.

One thing I was extremely nervous about was what the brand new OSX OneNote would be like, just how limited would its feature set be compared to the amazing Windows desktop version?

In turns out that the OSX team have got it just about right for a first (well, second as there was a small update recently) release and the version is useable, even for a hardcore OneNoter like me. Below I’ll quickly list out some points and highlight some hopeful areas for urgent improvement.

Continue reading

WordPress Naked, approaching 16,000 downloads

One evening in 2007 I got frustrated by once again having to strip out all of the styling from one of the then default WordPress themes (remember Kubrick?) prior to building a client’s site, so I created a simple boiler-plate theme called Worpdress Naked and uploaded it to this blog.

Amazingly since then approaching 16,000 people appear to have downloaded it (and that’s only counting since I moved it to Google code 2 years later). Given it got quite a bit of traction and linking in the early days  I wonder what the total count might have been.

I even got one donation, a whopping $10.

As it’s woefully out of date I hope not too many more people do download it, heck I’m not even sure what version of WP it was targeting. I think 2.0 was live then, Widgets had recently become a thing (before then widgets were accessed by installing a plugin) and WordPress was just starting to get a lot more mainstream. How times change.