My Everyday Bag

By bag & stuff. Click to expand

My bag with its contents spilled out

I quite like those pictures of people’s bags and their contents that sometimes get tweeted about. It’s slightly voyeuristic, but also you get ideas for practical stuff to keep with you at all times.

So, in what is officially my second Filler PostTM for #30DWC  I thought I’d share details about my bag, albeit without an amazing photo and the intricate numbering that some provide.

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Not Good With Languages

It was touch and go whether I’d post anything today. I’ve spent most of the day in meetings or driving across the country and am now at a hotel, dog tired.

I also have a new thing to try to cram into my schedule and that’s some coding for a side project, the first time I’ll be cutting code for a few years.

I had planned to do an hour hacking before hitting the sack and for a spit second I thought to myself “It’s OK, coding is like writing, right?”.

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A Start

All the thoughts

All the thoughts

I’m slightly cheating here.

The first day of Marc’s 30 Day Writing Challenge started when I was sunning myself on a lounger in Morocco (a cheeky 4 day break during Easter) and there was no way that I was motivated to be writing, or indeed thinking, about anything other than when to get another beer.

Well, that’s not strictly true, as it was our last day I did allow myself to start thinking about work again and scribbled a few pages of notes down, stuff that had accumulated over the intervening Easter week, but nothing suitable for publishing.

Anyway, it’s Sunday the 3rd of April and I need to play catch-up, so let’s set some ground rules.

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I Believe

I’ve been rather introspective the last couple of years.

I’ve purposely kept my head down and have focused on my health, my family and my business; the most important stuff.

Whilst I have stuck my head up occasionally to pop the odd post on this blog, the majority of the time I’ve kept my thoughts to myself. This has mostly been due to lack of available bandwidth, but also due to the perennial favourite: impostor syndrome. That ‘monkey brain’ narrator who can be such a nasty piece of work when left to run wild.

Whilst the ‘rest’ I’ve had has been absolutely essential – I didn’t really have much choice – it has also provided me with a useful perspective and half-arsed thoughts have not been able to surface publicly (thankfully!). Instead they’ve simply been noted down privately, pondered and have then been left to mature.

As a result the more fleeting thoughts have been left by the wayside and eventually ignored, whilst the strongest have grown into something that I’ve not had for a while: an opinion.

I’m relieved to say that of late, monkey boy has been put back into his cage and I have been able to start looking outwards again. I’m not sure my point of view has changed massively over that time, but my new-found opinions have continued to evolve into something stronger and more fundamental; they are things that I know to be true.

That is to say: I believe.

I believe more than anything else that you owe it to those around you to take care of yourself, to do otherwise is selfish. Whether it be family, friends or clients, those people are relying on you being on top of your game and to be giving it the best that you can.

I believe that being as fit and as healthy as we can be, within the limits that our bodies or minds will allow – taking into account age, physical or mental disabilities or injuries – is absolutely fundamental to success (however you choose to define that term). This is our foundation, if it’s not in place then everything else connected to it is at risk.

I believe that for people who struggle with clutter, whether this be clutter of the mind or with the stuff around them, that strong routines and learnt habits are essential; this keeps things orderly and reduces ambient levels of stress. For me this is a strong morning routine where I map my day out and set my goals, though I also concede that productivity workflows are personal and one size does not fit all.

I believe that a notable percentage of my peers in the web industry do not have healthy lifestyles. Whether they are working too hard, sitting slumped in front of screens for 10+ hours a day, sleeping poorly, consuming unhealthy foods or all the above. It concerns me that these people are storing up problems for the future, problems that could be avoided with relatively minor lifestyle adjustments.

I believe that there are those in our industry at the moment who feel threatened. This is a natural human reaction to change and we should recognise and understand this. Our industry is maturing and fragmenting. Parts of it are becoming commoditised, others extremely specialised. Rather than seeing this as a threat I see it as a great opportunity to capitalise on our hard-won experience and to double-down on being the company or the person who does a very specific thing better than anyone else.

I believe that there is a perceived pressure to understand and master emerging technologies and that for some this pressure can be overwhelming. I choose to ignore this pressure and let others trail blaze whilst I focus on the things that I know I already do well.

I believe that some new technologies & tool-sets can seem overly complicated or over engineered. This is not a new phenomenon and it occurs across all walks of life and in every generation. People are experimenting and trying new things out, that’s what we do and why the human race is so successful (arguably too successful!). In our industry this creativity will breed a new set of tools and ways of working that probably will be better than before, better in ways that we may not be able to imagine yet. I do, however, also feel safe in the knowledge that the poorly conceived ideas will soon be gone again, that there is a meritocracy and the good stuff will prevail.

I believe that positive redirection, rather than negativity and criticism is a much more powerful way to effect change. Gently nudging whilst making encouraging noises, rather than shouting and brandishing a big stick.

I believe that talking negatively about a situation and not proposing a solution is just complaining; in these situations it is sensible to keep your thoughts to yourself.

I believe that there are a lot of people out there treading a positive path. They are ‘winning’ and we can be learning from them. We open-source lots of our tools and technologies, but what about lifestyle management? How can we all have more success in life?

I believe that we can make more effort in sharing what works for us and that just as we share how we work, we could be open-sourcing our lifestyle frameworks too.

I believe that as we help others to succeed, we also help ourselves.

Dear Conference Organisers, Please Hire Me

TL;DR this is an open letter to people organising conferences in 2016 who are looking to fill slots on webbish subjects, tending towards software development, that would be both palatable and valuable to a commercially focused audience. If you’d like to discuss further then please email, or call my office on 0845 680 9676.

Also, to my peers in the wider web community: if you think that I could have interesting things to say at the sort of conferences that you attend, then I’d really appreciate a shout-out to your conference organisers. I know it’s a bit awkward me asking like this, but I figured that if you don’t ask you don’t receive. Thanks 🙂

Dear Conference Organisers,

Your attendees are looking for ways to improve their lives, their careers or their businesses. They want value from every talk of yours that they sit through.

You want someone who is professional, pleasant to work with, who turns up and who provides value to your audience.

Whilst not a complete novice at public speaking, I am committed to doing a lot more of it during 2016 and I would relish the chance to pass along some of my knowledge at your conference.

I understand that you’ll be taking a risk with me. I don’t have a large speaking track record and I’m not a big draw; people have not heard of me.

Rest assured that I will deliver.

I am confident, reliable, motivated to succeed and, most importantly, I have lots of valuable experience to draw upon.

My talks follow, please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you’d like to reserve me for one of your slots.

Web  Specific

Help! I Just Inherited This Web App. Where Do I Start?
20-40 minutes

Aimed either at the owner/manager of an existing web application or a web team who have just landed a large maintenance project.

It covers commercial as well as technical subjects, but at a high level suitable for the technical and non-technical alike. Rammed full of actionable advice from the get-go with a downloadable check-list provided at the end so you don’t have to make any notes. An excellent primer on the things to consider when taking ownership of a legacy project.

Why You Should Upgrade PHP on Your Server (and Your Hosting Too Whilst You’re at it)
20 minutes

In short: because speed, security, portability and it’s your reputation at stake.

There are still lots of servers running PHP 5.3 and even PHP 5.2 which stopped receiving security fixes one and nearly five years ago respectively. Upgrading will mean not only double-digit performance improvements, but will remove significant risk and be making the application more portable.

If you’re an agency or freelancer then it’s arguable that as the professionals you have a duty of care to your clients to educate them on the risks. That them spending pennies on old shared hosting is likely going to come and bite them one day. This talk will give you some tools to go back to your client and get the budget for that much-needed upgrade. If you’re the client, you’ll get to put together a list of questions ready to put to your existing development team to give you the peace of mind that you’re up-to-date.

Web Application Disaster Recovery and Contingency Planning
20-30 minutes

Yawn. Servers, right?

Yes, it’s not an exciting subject but neither is going to the dentist and you still do that every 6 months.

If you are responsible for a commercial web application whether you’re the owner or you’re looking after one for your client, then you need to consider what would happen if one or more components of the system are taken offline permanently. How quickly could you get it back on-line? Who do you call? What’s their number?

In this talk we’ll cover the things you should be considering for a disaster recovery plan and get you started on your way to implementing one.

Get it off your to do list and sleep easier at night.

Health & Lifestyle

Lifestyle choices for the successful geek
20-40 minutes

My journey from unhealthy, unhappy and stress induced burnout to being fit, healthy & motivated and now in training for the London marathon. All within 12 months and coming with the fringe benefit of losing 3 stone along the way.

No woo. No faddy diets. Just lots of simple, actionable advice based on things that have worked for me getting my diet, exercise regimen, workflows, business set-up, morning routines and even sleep patterns all optimised.

Live smarter and take care of yourself or, as you get older, bits of you are likely to start breaking!

If you feel that one of these subjects might be of interest to your audience, or if you’d like to discuss me tweaking the talk proposals then please don’t hesitate to email, or call my office on 0845 680 9676.

Also, if you like to find out a bit more about me then please start at my about page.

Yours sincerely,

Darren Beale
25th November 2015

The Try Before You (Properly) Buy Standing Desk


Standing only office set-up

Standing desks have been fashionable for a while.

When I say a while I mean that they are such old news that it’s now become fashionable to migrate away from them instead.

Well, I was still in the “what’s all this fuss about” camp until last week when driving past Ikea Birmingham, on the spur of the moment popped in and bought myself one.

You might be thinking that these things cost £450 from Ikea, a price that’s hardly try before you buy, right?

Well, you see, there’s a hack that my colleague Ashley put me on to where you get a cheap Ikea table and shelf, then bolt them together for a fraction of the price. This allows you to see if you like the standing thing or not without having to spend lots of cash.

Here’s the shopping list:

Total price £22

At home on my desk

At home on my desk

It took about 10 mins to put together and I just shoved it on my desk.

Job done.

I should note that I’ve not yet bolted the brackets to the table and I’m using cable ties instead. This allows for easy height adjustment.

Also, I went with the beech colour as it was a couple of quid cheaper.

At the price I actually bought two, one for home and one for in the office.

So far I’m using the home one more. I only use it in the morning before breakfast and maybe a bit after dinner or when on my bike (if the weather is too poor for a run). I have one monitor on the table and another down lower, angled so it’s still usable standing. If I get tired I can pull the (wireless) keyboard & mouse off the shelf and use it seated instead, though I have to tilt the upper monitor downwards a bit which isn’t ideal.

Handy fringe benefit. Turn the monitor and I now have a screen for winter bike set-up

Handy fringe benefit at home. Turn the monitor around and I now have a screen for my winter bike set-up.

It’s all a bit hacky but is definitely fit for purpose as a trial.

At work I have a separate desk I’m trying it out on. I’m using it less – I type this sitting – but am trying to get an hour or so in per day. I still feel a bit weird standing and my already very poor typing speed has reduced but I wonder whether I need to adjust the shelf height.

What’s really nice is being able to stretch & wiggle around a lot more when standing, good if the legs are particularly stiff. I also have a terrible posture when sitting so the hope is that I get to prefer standing with all the arguable health benefits that this brings.

So there you have it: a standing desk for £22 that if you don’t get on with, you can always re-use the components elsewhere within your home.

Setting Your Goals in Context

I’ve been thinking a lot about goals this week.

Being the middle of the year it’s a great time to be reviewing the few I did set  (I was quite easy on myself for the first half of this year) and looking forward to what I want to achieve in the second half of the year and beyond.

As I’ve been converting more general aspirations into firm goals (seeing which ones float to the top and then setting a deadline on these few) I’ve also been mindful of that popular adage:

Don’t compare your behind the scenes with other people’s highlight reel

The thing with goals I’ve realised is that even if you follow the usual goal setting rules such as making them S.M.A.R.T. and actually bothering to write them down, you also need to set them based on what ‘season’ of life you are in.

Just because other people might be seemingly pedal to the metal with their job in order that they can achieve that promotion, or lots of your Facebook friends are – say – at the gym every ten minutes and even if these are things that you *really* want to do too, there’s no point beating yourself up that you can’t set these things as your must-achieve goals if they don’t actually fit with your life right now.

A single parent of younger kids is going to find it impossible to get out for a run before breakfast even if most of Twitter appears to be doing just that. Someone just snaring an entry level graduate position at a local design agency is unlikely to do well publishing a book on expert workflow in the next few years. Indeed, myself with 3 school age kids won’t be ticking off many bucket-list exotic travelling adventures for a while due to the obvious barriers to doing so.

So, for goals that might otherwise be generally achievable they also have to fit into your life and there’s no point using other people’s lives as a benchmark for your goals if those people are in a different place to you.

That is to say your own goals are not inferior because of you have to work within constraints such as – say – poor health, loads of kids, lack of cash (or all of the above!).

If you take a look around I’ll bet that there are still plenty of things you can be working towards at whatever pace you feel comfortable with.

Whatever you choose, good luck with them.

Putting Some Fire in Your Belly

When I got back from my expedition to Scotland in April I was floating around for a few weeks before my feet properly touched the ground. I was so chill, ever so mellow, nothing could phase me or sour my mood of contentment and connectedness with myself and my world.

It’s a phrase that possibly does get over-used but that trip was definitely life changing for me. Lots of things lined up at the same time, thoughts I’d already been having, and I came home with a really strong, almost physical resolve to focus on enjoying each day of my life. Not sacrificing most of it in order to work towards some future ideal.

In other words I now knew with certainty that I needed to be enjoying the ride a lot more.

Fast forward a few months and whilst that drive to enjoy the now was – and is – still strong within me, I had started to realise that there was something else that was missing. I had a rough idea of what it was but as is so often the way, my mind had not yet deigned to to fit all the pieces together for me.

So, still with this low level feeling that I was looking for something I headed off to West Wales to spend a few days at the Five Simple Steps Summer Camp.

As it turned out it was a very pleasant gathering of mostly web, or other creative industry folk – all ‘makers’ in some way – and we spent a few days whiling away the time. There were hands-on workshops: letterpress printing, whittling wood, making bread as well as a few ad-hoc talks and ample opportunities to go exploring in the beautiful woodlands or along the river (which a few of us even went swimming in one morning). Couple this with wholesome, freshly made food, great beer and a group of engaging people it was a pretty special few days at a lovely venue.

It was obvious that a lot of my peers at the event has also gotten a lot out of it and there was talk of people getting themselves a cheap printing press off ebay, of them never buying bread from a shop again and I’m sure there will be a spike in the sales of small axes over the coming weeks!

I too felt inspired but in a slightly different way. The experience filled the gap for me. I now knew what my brain was very ineffectually trying to tell me: I had been lacking purpose. 

I now know that my purpose, for now at least, is to focus my efforts on finding a past-time that not only engages the maker in me but that I can over time also turn into an industry, that is to say I can make some money doing it and – most importantly – do some good with it along the way. I had always thought this was green woodworking or woodland management, running courses or something similar, but that’s my special tonic, something I want to keep as a hobby and not sully with industry; I don’t want it to become a job.

Something one of my permaculture teachers, Chris Dixon, said to us at one of the lectures on my PDC a few years back has been bouncing around my head since I came home:

We all need a couple of income streams and at least three hobbies that can become income streams

Yes. This.

I’m trying to ensure that I provide at least one take-away from each post that I write, something actionable. But for this one I can only leave you with a question.

Do you have a purpose? Once you (and if applicable your family) are fed and watered, once you’re intellectually stimulated and you’ve had some fun, what is driving you?

If you’re not sure and you might like that question answered then I can highly recommend that you you try to disconnect from your normal day to day and do something completely different occasionally.

Disconnect to reconnect. Feed your creativity. Try to find that spark to – as was the starting premise of the summer camp – put a fire in your belly. Don’t worry if the thought of camping or being in the woods fills you with dread. You don’t have to do that. But I think that doing something completely different now and again will definitely help you answer this question and if nothing else it’ll help you find some peace.

I already have a career & business that stimulates me and it won’t be going anywhere soon. However, I know that at some point it will have a sell-by-date. Either I’ll be too old or things will have moved on and I won’t enjoy it any more. When I get to that point I want other things that I can turn my hand to and to keep me engaged (and fed!).

All I need to do now is to find out what those things might be 🙂


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.