Making a Maker is a series of articles depicting the lives of makers from the Makerlog community. From their childhood to their latest launch, we put you in the shoes of ambitious individuals battling fate to help others by making tech products.

This first installment features Danielle Johnson and James Ivings, founders of Squarecat.

Thirst for Freedom

They have had enough. Sunk in the apartment’s couch, a glass of gin in the hand, James and Danielle concluded they never had a taste for routine. The two software developers envisioned new horizons, it was time for a change. Change scares most: if you can comfortably remain in the same position giving you the cottage and the cover for the rest of your life, why would you want to change? Danielle and James did not just love food and beer, they were jovial bon vivants: life was to be consumed in its entirety, settling was not an option yet. Both studied Computer Sciences, and both shared a love for freedom: they had to go on an adventure.

James grew up in a traditional British environment. Conservative, one could say. As a young boy, most of his waking hours were spent at the famed King Edward VI Grammar School, founded in the 13th century. The school uniforms, the feeling of just being another brick in the wall, the discipline, the gloomy weather, the same readings of Shakespeare repeated generations after generations, the empty words repeated over and over by the prestigious institution… The ambient cognitive rigidity was feeding James’ desire for rebellion. Upon high school graduation, he decided to join the University of the West of England to study software engineering. Programming attracts all sorts of misfits. James was brilliant, but his introvert nature wouldn’t allow him to express himself easily. There was no such problem with computers, he could rewrite reality with a few lines of code. Rebellion through creation was the essence of coding.

Danielle was no less of a fighter. She started programming at 18 after a childhood spent in London, the heart of the United Kingdom. She wasn’t hooked right away, which is only natural in a country where only 3% of women opt for a career in technology as a first choice. With 77% of the people working in STEM being male and just 5% of leadership positions being occupied by members of the fair sex[8], the odds were against her. Her ex-boyfriend would tell her how programming wasn’t for her: “You’re not good enough at solving problems”, he would say. She proved him wrong a few years later: it was only after dropping out of a Law and Criminology degree she would register at the University of South Wales. Surrounded by the right people, she developed a love for coding and graduated with first-class honors.

The two met while working in the same government agency in 2012. Danielle was an intern, while James had a year of prior experience as a web developer. After Danielle went back to college to complete her Bachelor degree, they remained close friends. When she was offered a full-time position a year later, she accepted. With the distance not being an issue anymore, they officially became a couple.

However, the mental barriers were everywhere. In between the 9/5, the bureaucracy, and the politics, there wasn’t much room left for self-expression. The prospect of waiting 20 to 30 years for a pension wasn’t particularly exciting. James began reevaluating his life: “What if there was something more out there?“. That’s when he stumbled upon Mister Money Mustache, a blog about the Financial Independence, Retire Early (FIRE) movement. The philosophy described in the website is straightforward: learn to live below your means, pay off your debts, save all you can in index funds, and retire once your passive income covers your living expenses.

It’s exhausting to grow up in a society where everyone is expected to follow the same path. Teachers, family, parents… they all expect you to fulfill some sort of role: get a degree, get a high-paying comfortable position, get a nice house, settle down until you retire… Then, maybe, if you have some strength left, you can travel a bit of the Earth and do what you enjoy, until your definite departure to the voids of the afterlife. Most people live a deferred life, but the Mister Money Mustache blog was bringing concrete evidence an alternative lifestyle was possible with a bit of financial wisdom, one where you don’t have to wait till your 60’s to do what you love. To James, it was an eye-opener. All he had to do was to come up with his own conclusions, not just follow what everyone else was doing.

Shortly after, he found Tim Ferris’ interview of Mister Money Mustache, leading him to discover the book which inspired many generations of location-independent workers: The 4-Hour Workweek. The idea of working remotely while traveling the world - free from the short-sightedness of the crowd and the conditions chaining us to one location - was appealing. Not having to work for someone else in an office for the rest of your life was even more attractive. Independence, at last. The seed was planted in the mind of the two Brits.

A year into the relationship, the couple moved in together in a studio in Bristol. New jobs, new life. Yet, the thirst for freedom was only growing bigger. After several years working as full-stack developers, they decided to leave their comfortable positions to travel the world. It was November 2016, the start of an exciting adventure.

Losing Yourself

Choosing digital nomadism is hard to explain to your social circles. It’s never easy to explain such a drastic change to your family. Even more so to parents who followed what’s perceived as common wisdom throughout their whole life: get good grades, secure a high-paying job, have a good marriage, raise perfect kids, and don’t stand out too much… It gets frustrating to explain your reasons over and over, only for them to fall on deaf ears. “They didn’t understand why we left our comfortable situations to live on a minimum wage,” says Danielle.

We must try to live. Rather than spending more time discussing with their family, Danielle and James decided their acts would speak for themselves. It’s frustrating at first. You enter an exciting part of your life, but few people can relate to those feelings. You’re leaving to live on a minimum wage during the first months - if not years - after all. There is no one to share your doubts or your victories with. When you come back home, there isn’t enough time to tell all the stories you went through. Fortunately, the two had each other, and they grew to accept the doubts surrounding their choice. They went over it. It might just be a phase, or it won’t: James and Danielle just wanted to pursue what they felt was great. Eventually, their joy and excitement would speak louder than words.

Bangkok and Bristol only have one thing in common: they both start with the letter “B”. Everything else is different: the otherworldly smell of the street food, the refreshing sweetness of the beer, the tropical weather, the people dancing in Khao San road… Bangkok was the right place to embark on an adventure, and off they went, leaving only their resignation letters.

Have you ever felt the same? Growing up in one place, wondering what’s out there? Every day feels the same and you ask yourself: is there more to it? That’s how you start envisioning to quit your job. It’s a human impulse to want to see what’s on the other side of the fence. To escape the boredom of a routine imposed by others. It’s not that the two Brits didn’t like their jobs, or their colleagues, or their country - it was about experiencing more aspects of life by keeping an open mind. They didn’t know any other way to live: a beer in one hand, another hand typing on a laptop, a plate of pad thaï on the table, and their conversations.

The initial plan was to keep on traveling for a year before going back to a full-time position. A break favorable to introspection, to figure out what they wanted to do. Money is another obstacle to overcome while living on the road, but they weren’t thinking about it, at first. After a few months, they decided to give freelancing a try. Squarecat was born.

Going Nomad

Digital nomadism is a curious movement. Remote work is all the craze these days, and travel is a powerful social signal. Everybody wants to be a digital nomad, but few manage to go past the Instagram clichés to make it sustainable. Danielle and James knew it, getting funds on the road was not going to be easy. Visiting is nice, but it’s tiring. Free from any schedule or office, the couple was able to work on their own terms: experimenting with freelancing, without pressuring themselves into making a living, was a great opportunity to learn something new while doing something meaningful.

That’s how the idea of Squarecat came to be: a digital agency allowing the two developers to take on freelance work. They already had their first client, whom they randomly met in Chiang Mai, and the job perfectly matched their skill set. Their square-shaped plush mascot, Colin the cat, would be an ideal brand. The square is a symbol of structure, community, integrity, and being practical. The four sides of the square would represent the four cardinal directions, reflecting their nomad way of life.

One problem remained: how to incorporate Squarecat? After researching the subject, it became apparent to James they needed to incorporate outside of the UK: “it’s nice to have a conversation with a company that actually understands what we are doing […] I tried to do my personal taxes in the UK, they didn’t know how to help me, that was annoying”. The Estonian e-residency program fitted their needs perfectly: a structure enabling digital entrepreneurs to start and manage an EU-based company online. Estonia has been the digital leader of Europe ever since the launch of its now-famous e-citizenship, allowing anyone to become a digital resident of the country, even if you’ve never physically visited the country. The benefits for a remote business were many, the synergy was great. Squarecat would be European.

The nomad couple was ready to take over the world. The plan was simple: they would take on software development gigs to fund themselves while traveling. This way, they could keep on traveling while contributing to meaningful projects to make progress on the road to financial independence.

Combined, they had several years experience as full-stack developers working for Startup companies in the UK. Danielle loves sharing, whether it’s one of her many spreadsheets or a blog post she wrote. She is the extrovert of the group. James is more introverted and prefers to get work done behind the scenes. Now partners in the same company, they could double the amount of work delivered while taking advantage of their own strengths.

The initial doubts quickly faded, the couple realized they were able to find enough work to sustain themselves. Living on the road is cheaper than one might think. According to Danielle’s tracking spreadsheet, the living expenses were lower than they were back in Bristol: in South-East Asia, a burn rate of €1500 per month was enough for the two of them to live comfortably.

When it was time to come back to the U.K. after a year off traveling, they decided to keep on touring the world while taking on remote gigs. No one is born a digital nomad, you are made one.

Getting into Indie Making

Danielle and James didn’t identify themselves as digital nomads. They were, obviously, but the couple never felt like fitting in traditional digital nomad settings. Destinations like Chiang Mai or Bali had their perks, but in micro-doses only.

They didn’t like going to coworking spaces, because it felt too much like commuting to an office, which deeply impacted Danielle’s creativity. Productivity was more about owning their schedule, rather than working from a trendy hackerspace. The ambient noise of a coffee shop or the peacefulness of their Airbnb were more suited to their personality: “we prefer a constant change of environment - it helps us stay productive”.

They were not running away from responsibilities either, quite the contrary: their workload had never been higher. The lifestyle they made for themselves was sustainable: they managed to make a living from their skills, not selling courses or e-books on how to quit their jobs to travel the world.

Squarecat’s motto is “We write software to help people because it’s rewarding and we love doing it”, which soon translated into James and Danielle’s first indie product: ReleasePage, a tool for organizations to communicate new software releases with their users. Financial Independence is a long-term game, building tech products on their free time allowed them to keep on experimenting exciting ideas while learning new skills and possibly making an extra source of revenue. ReleasePage didn’t take off. A first try often results in failure, but that’s how you grow.

Constantly on the road, being isolated was another on-going issue of digital nomadism. Human beings are deeply social, we all need tribes to belong to. The two came to find their own: Makerlog and Women Make, two communities reflecting their ideals. Makerlog is a task log that helps digital workers stay productive, but it’s also a global network of indie makers providing feedback and support. Women Make focuses on providing an online space for women to chat with other women entrepreneurs and help one another. Joining those two fellowships marked the start of their indie maker journey. More importantly, the couple had found a group of friends they could rely on.

You might wonder: but how do you combine work and travel? It’s all about staying true to yourself and developing discipline. James is more of a morning person, while Danielle is a night owl. To avoid travel fatigue, the couple are adepts of slow travel: they take their time to live as they would back in the UK - buying groceries, cooking dinner, watching TV, and drinking cheap wine - without rushing from one city to another, to the point of living in a van for three months! After two and a half years in 21 countries, they know what works for them.

The couple spent the majority of their nomad life in South-East Asia (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Indonesia), but they also travelled around Oceania (Australia, New Zealand), South America (Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Honduras, Colombia), and of course, Europe (Berlin, Budapest). Danielle explains:

“The amazing food, cheap beer, the weather… that’s what we love about Asia: the incredible living conditions we can afford with our purchasing power. We miss Europe though. Every time we come back, we stock up on cheese and hummus. We drink plenty of coffee while visiting our friends and family. We both just hate the cold in general”.

Do you know the movie Into the Wild? The traveling hero comes to this conclusion: happiness is only real when it’s shared. Traveling as a couple comes with its hardships, but overall, it’s a transcending experience. Nomading shed new light on their relationship. They discovered how to respect their needs and boundaries: “We take care of our basic needs first thing in the morning to avoid conflicts. No arguing on an empty stomach or before the first cup of coffee”. James is more introverted than Danielle and needs alone time: “When we’re working, we’re not mentally spending time together”. James has his alone time during the morning when he wakes up earlier than Danielle. He is naturally more of a morning person while she is more of a night owl.

“We both are lucky to have the same interests. When a problem arises, we just talk about it.”

They got themselves new hobbies, such as scuba-diving. They created new memories. They built a business. How many couples managed to pull this off? James and Danielle are proving it’s possible to align your personal aspirations with your business’ needs: “We don’t feel like we need a vision for our work, we just do what feels right.” Danielle recently shed some light on the Open Startup Movement in an article published on Hacker Noon: “We are honest. Maybe too honest sometimes. But we only want to build things to help people, whatever it might be.” Most of their ideas originate from solving a problem they have every day. The couple has released five products so far: ReleasePage, MakerAds, UptimeBar, TwitterSearchFixer, and the one who established them as respected makers, Leave Me Alone.

“My mom still asks me once a month if we’re still enjoying it and when we are going to settle down, as if it’s a phase”, playfully tells James, “it’s difficult for them to understand we have a job, not just browsing Facebook all day”.

James is now 30. Danielle is 29. They are making products for people they can relate to. Living from their craft on their own terms, it was the subversive answer they came up with. You do you, what are you waiting for?

Resources

  1. Coderstory interview: https://coderstory.io/interviews/taking-digital-passion-around-the-world
  2. Squarecat: https://squarecat.io/
  3. Squarecat Dev: https://blog.squarecat.io/
  4. Squarecat Travel: https://travel.squarecat.io/
  5. Danielle Johnson on Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/danielle-johnson-2052607a/?originalSubdomain=uk
  6. James Ivings on Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jamesivings/
  7. King Edward VI Grammar School: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_Edward_VI_School,_Stratford-upon-Avon
  8. Gender Inequality in the UK: https://www.pwc.co.uk/women-in-technology/women-in-tech-report.pdf
  9. What Does it Mean to Be an Open Startup? https://hackernoon.com/what-does-it-mean-to-be-an-open-startup-f4446984189
  10. ReleasePage: https://releasepage.co/
  11. MakersAds: http://makerads.xyz/
  12. UptimeBar: https://uptimebar.app/
  13. TwitterSearchFixer: https://twittersearchfixer.squarecat.io
  14. UserMetrics: https://usermetrics.xyz
  15. Leave Me Alone: https://leavemealone.app/
  16. Women Make: https://womenmake.com
  17. Makerlog: https://getmakerlog.com
  18. Mister Money Mustache: https://www.mrmoneymustache.com/
  19. What is e-Residency: https://e-resident.gov.ee/
  20. Danielle on Twitter: https://twitter.com/dinkydani21
  21. James on Twitter: https://twitter.com/JamesIvings