Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Odds and bobs (my father's saying)

I have started a new writing project.  Not getting paid for it (yet) but very worthwhile.  What a perfect career for me - live in exotic places and write.  Always thought I should have become a travel writer or - more perfect - a travel food writer.

I am planning to return to Alberta in about a week.  I'm not staying until the end of May.  Mike has become very busy back home and can't get away until around May 17 and not sure even then.  So, I figure that with things sprouting up in my garden back home, I have enjoyed Maz long enough this year.  I haven't secured anything for next winter yet, but may have found a small house in a gated community to the north of Maz on the bus route.  More room, more privacy, and I can have my dogs there.

Mike is preparing a new investor presentation on OneFileEverywhere as part of a workshop he is participating in.  At the end of the workshop, he will be put in front of real investors after being well-prepared by the teachers and peers at the workshop.  Should be soon.  We really need to raise some funds for it - our accountant has sternly told us that we cannot continue to pay Andy out of our own pockets and we cannot go into any more debt.  Accountants - gotta love 'em.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Second Wind

Sometime in 2006, Mike found Andy.  Someone who knew him told Mike he knew of this young, brilliant Java programmer who lived and breathed coding, even to the point of rigging a camper up with satellite and high tech equipment to be able to code "on the road".  He liked to head into the deep backwoods of British Columbia in his camper for weeks at a time.

Mike met him and told him what he wanted to build with Qtility.  Andy got it right away and told him he had already been working on a big platform himself, as a hobby, that would tie in and save a ton of time if he built Qtility on top of it.  Andy is someone who is not motivated by money or profit.  With his skills he could have been working at any number of big software companies for a high salary.  What he wanted more was the freedom to work where and when he wanted and to continue to build on his own stuff.  They agreed that we would give Andy a monthly salary, and he could do exactly those things.  We would also give him stock options.

And so, they went to work.  They would meet once a week or so at a pub, and over beer and food they talked code.  For three years.  We found a couple of small investors who contributed some money, but mostly, Andy's salary came out of Mike's consulting revenue.  After the first year, our accountant told us he could help us to apply for a federal Research and Development grant that would cover a lot of Andy's salary if it was approved.  It was, so every spring for the last 3 years we have received a nice boost to the coffers to reimburse us for paying Andy.

Mike continued to talk it up wherever he could, and gave a few investor presentations.  As before, few people understood it.  Mike worked and worked on the presentation to make it simpler.  He produced market studies and comparables, industry reports proving the size of the market he was addressing.  As before, he received positive feedback, but no takers.  After the tech bubble, angel investors were leery of software.  Bigger Venture Capital firms told Mike he was "too early" for them.  Still, they encouraged him to continue on.  Eventually, the software was to a point of being useful in Mike's consulting and he used it as a tool himself in a couple of large projects for oil companies who were migrating and integrating systems.  This was great also in that it gave Andy and Mike an opportunity to find bugs and improve it.  He didn't charge for it, he just used it to be able to do extraordinary work and gain a great reputation in his field.  He saved time and money for his clients.

In 2009, he had another brilliant idea.  Can't say if he was on the john this time, but I expect he was.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Okotoks, Alberta

We actually moved to a small town south of Calgary which has become a booming bedroom community.  I arrived and immediately did my "Jane of all trades" thing.  First, I house and horse-sat at a ranch for a few weeks.  I mucked out stalls, drove an old truck around dropping off bales of hay to various horses in fields.  I harnessed and turned out two of his prize horses to a corral daily and put them to bed at night.  I didn't ride them though.  I know how to ride both english and western style but it had been a long time and it was too risky - if I got hurt, I was all alone out there on the ranch.  But, I got a little bored, so I signed on as grill cook at a tiny cowboy cafe nearby.  Breakfast and lunch.  Mostly eggs, hashbrowns, bacon, toast and then hamburgers and fries for lunch.  It was a local regular crowd and they usually all came at once so it was hectic for short periods of time.

Alberta is cattle, horse and oil country.  Kind of like Texas north.  Wide open spaces, big sky. The only province in Canada that has a history of limited government, low taxes and entrepreneurs.  My kind of place.

From the cowboy cafe, I moved on to sous-chef for another, more upscale but still small restaurant.  The owner had previously worked as head chef in a fancy Calgary restaurant and had started his own.  Very creative guy.  I learned a lot.  Then, I went to work as a cashier in a liquor store for a while, and then a receptionist/assistant bookkeeper at an accounting firm.  I had a bad experience at that job and left after 3 months, suddenly and without notice.  The owner was a psychotic, verbally abusive woman.

Mike finally moved up after finding a senior consultant position at a Calgary firm that did Documentum consulting for mainly the oil companies who are big users of Documentum and other document management systems. He worked as an employee there for three years and then, in 2006, went out on his own starting his own consulting business.  We had settled in to Okotoks and bought a house.  My sons lived in the same town and were in high school there. One of Mike's sons came to live with us from Nova Scotia.  I finally found a good job at a Calgary driving school and was kicking ass as the inside sales rep, making great commission cheques.  Ahhhh, normalcy.

A false start

In the year before I left NC to go to Calgary, we worked hard to flesh out Qtility and got some initial traction with it.  Mike joined the CED (Council for Economic Development) in NC which supports entrepreneurs in the Research Triangle.  He participated in a course there which takes an idea through to business plan and then presentations in front of investors.  We took on a couple of partners who were to contribute their time and expertise.  Everyone chipped in a little money (or were supposed to).  We had brainstorming meetings and sent out executive summaries to a few contacts to get feedback.  It was going well for a while and then it all kind of fell apart.  Two of the partners had stalled putting in a little cash.  One rule of thumb for a venture is that unless you have "skin in the game", you aren't likely to take it seriously and be committed.  It wasn't a lot of money - under a $1000.  But they were not forthcoming and eventually refused and quit.  Then, the one partner who HAD put in some money quit and wanted his money back!  Fine, Mike and I said, we'll do this on our own.  We paid him back, tried to carry on.  Mike made several presentations to potential investors but without success, although the feedback we were getting was positive.  Frankly, Qtility was ahead of its time as an idea, and very few people understood what it was supposed to do.  "Renting" software, or as it is now known, "Software-as-a-service", was a very new idea in 2002.  Now, it is everywhere and is also known as "Cloud Computing".

So, things stalled in North Carolina.  I told Mike I would go to Calgary and register a new Canadian company to transfer everything up there to carry on.  All we had at that point was a great, fleshed-out idea and business plan.  What coding we had was virtually useless, since the only programmer on the team had quit.  But we still believed passionately that Qtility was worth pursuing.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

What was I doing?

I know it all sounds exciting but those years were hard on me.  I hated not living near my boys, but for financial reasons we felt we HAD to get out of Nova Scotia - one of the most economically depressed provinces in Canada (still is), at least temporarily.

One of the benefits of the Bahrain contract was 2 round-trip tickets every 6 months.  The first six months there, I didn't work. We lived in an apartment in a highrise where many other expats lived.  Mike worked long hours.  I could go about the city alone no problem - it wasn't like Saudi Arabia.  But there really wasn't much to do except wander the souk (street market) or the big indoor upscale malls.  Our building had 2 swimming pools which was nice.  We made a few friends in the building and socialized.  Being outdoors was difficult to take for very long.  It was usually well into the 100's with 100% humidity.  You had to go from air-conditioner to air-conditioner.

At Christmas, I flew home and stayed for a month visiting the boys.  I decided that when I went back, I would have to get a job there, or go crazy.  I wasn't really allowed to work there legally but the rules are lax when it comes to english-speaking western women who are in high demand for secretarial work.  I quickly found an executive secretarial job which kept me busy enough for the next six months, but I was very glad to leave after that.  However, now we had a new problem.  We couldn't yet go back to live in Canada unless we paid income tax on the money we earned in Bahrain.  You have to stay out of the country for 2 years.

We spent another month in Halifax, visiting our boys while Mike searched for jobs in the US.  That resulted in our going to California, a far more attractive destination.  Yet, after a few months there, not working, missing my boys, I went home to Halifax again, on my own.  Not a break-up, mind you, just something I felt I had to do.  I rented a room in a house, found a job for a few months, and spent time with the boys.  In the middle of winter.  Then, missing Mike, I went back.

I have always been able to turn my hand to pretty much anything.  Jane of all trades.  For a few years, after the birth of my youngest, I had my own office services business in the small town where we were living.  I loved that.  I took courses, went to business networking events.  When I went back to California, I was again not legally allowed to work.  But I did anyway.  I found a nice little soup and sandwich cafe run by an immigrant who happily paid me in cash to work in the kitchen, prepping food and baking bread.  I loved that too.  I was great at baking bread.

I enjoyed the rest of our stay in California.  I was able to have the boys fly down for a vacation and we all drove down the coast to Disneyland.  Mike and I did a lot of hiking in the foothills and driving through wine country.  San Francisco was 40 minutes away on the freeway and we went there frequently to spend a day walking around that beautiful city.  During that time, my boys moved from Nova Scotia to Alberta with their father, who had been laid off and had found a new job in Calgary, so now they were really close to California.  At least we were all on the same coast!  Then, Mike was laid off.  He tried to find work in his field in Canada at that time, but no go.  We moved to North Carolina - the OTHER coast.

Now I was really restless again.  It was beautiful in NC and we loved the beaches and the rolling green countryside.  Again, I had the boys fly down for vacation and we spent a week at the beach.  Again, I found work for cash.  This time, I did house-cleaning and dog-sitting for a wealthy woman who owned a printing business.  She also put me to work in that business from time to time doing "pick and pull" work, basically boring hand labour putting together completed print jobs for packaging.  I volunteered at the animal shelter, and, of course, came home one day with a 3 month old lab mixed breed (Annie).  After about a year, I decided I needed to go and live in Calgary near my boys again.  And off I went, asking Mike to please find a job in Calgary and follow me when he could.  It took about 8 months, but he eventually did.  He's a GOOD man.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

More History

Mike maintains that he gets his best ideas while in contemplation on the john - some people read.

It was because of a particular problem he, as Documentum Administrator, was running into at work.  The company was trying to "mesh" two distinctly different types of systems of document management into one.  This kind of thing goes on all the time in big companies with mergers and acquisitions, or just simply because of upgrades or changes in systems.  Each system has stored huge amounts of documents and other information. Trying to get them to mix together so the two become one can be like mixing oil and water (or some marriages). The usual approach is to create a one-off computer program "bridge" that can cost millions and is never used again.  Its expensive, complicated and time-consuming.

Bingo! Business problem.  Mike asked himself, what if there was a company that offered, as a service, a bridge that can be used over and over, for many different types of systems, for basically a "rental fee". (These are my words, as I interpret the idea).  As the stored documents "cross the bridge", they are automatically sorted and configured to fit into the system on the other side.  Hence, the "Q" in Qtility: as in, to queue things up.

Ok, so simple explanation, difficult to make a reality.  LOTS of programming. LOTS of money.  Mike's not a programmer, but he does know Documentum inside out. He knows how to "design" and spec a software program.  He knows document management systems very, very well.  He knows people in the industry. We are both well-versed in, and have a mind-set for, business in general.

We write the first of many versions of a business plan.

Friday, 16 April 2010


So, how did we start down this road to success (or ruin)?  Neither of us were raised to be entrepreneurs or business owners.  My biggest ambition at the age of 8 or 9 was to become a stewardess and travel the world.  Mike had more of a e-streak than I - he cut grass and trapped rabbits as a kid. (He lived in rural Nova Scotia).  Our families come from peasant stock from England and Scotland, although there was a history of school-teachers on his mother's side, and somewhere in mine there is ship's captain.

But I distinctly remember reading a book at about 19 called something like "Make a million dollars investing in Real Estate", and becoming enthralled.  It opened doors in my mind.  I realized that the 20 unit apartment building I was living in (having just moved out on my own after college) in Toronto was actually a gold mine. And it was - if I or someone I knew had bought it back then (zero money down as the book said) in 1978 (its still there), well, I can't begin to tell you what it's worth today.  I contemplated talking to my parents about the idea back then, but only for about a minute.  They would have thought I had completely lost my mind.  Mike has had similar experiences.

Mike and I didn't meet until he was 40 and I was 37, in 1996.  Both of us had ended our first marriages a year previous and were living on our own.  I found him on the net if you must know.  Early days for internet dating but I was always a maverick.  I don't know if I believe in destiny or soul-mates (I gag when someone else uses those words), but that's what it felt like.  We were never apart again after the third date.  I had the bigger place so he moved in with me.  It turned out that we HAD met before.  Five or six years previous, I had taken a computer course on this new thing called Microsoft Windows and he had been the instructor.  There is also some possibility we had met another time, a long time ago, when I was 16 and he was 18, but that's another story and too "woo woo" for my rational mind to believe so I'll keep that to myself.

Six years later, in 2002, we found ourselves living in North Carolina after a whirlwind of moves for financial and career reasons.  From Halifax, Nova Scotia (where we were both living at the time) we went to Bahrain in the Middle East for a year, Livermore, California for two and a half years, and then across the US to Raleigh, North Carolina.  Mike's career in software (after teaching college level computer technology for several years)  had started with taking a contract in Bahrain as Training Manager for a company selling and installing California-based software called Documentum.  From there, he went to work directly for Documentum as Sr. Curriculum Designer in Pleasanton, California.  It was our introduction to the heady world of silicon valley, internet startups, the Nasdaq, high-flying stock options, and - the stock market tech bubble.

By late 2001, the bubble had burst and Mike was laid off.  It took several months, but he finally landed a job at an international electronics company in North Carolina as Documentum Administrator.  It was there that the proverbial light-bulb went on in his head one day, while sitting on the john.

Next post: What was I doing all this time?

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

A philosophical ramble

A friend of mine back in Canada (and she reads my blog so she knows who she is - hope she doesn't mind if I quote her) messaged me the other day and said " If I wasn't so tired, I'd run away from home!".  Of course, I offered my spare bedroom as a place to run to.  It reinforced my sense of well-being I have being here.

I love my apartment in Sabalo Country.  Its quiet most of the time except for a variety of birds calling everywhere.  Its comfortable, airy and bright.  And dare I say it - I like being here by myself.  Okay, okay, of course I love Mike and miss him etc. Its just that I think a woman needs a place she can be alone sometimes.  Especially a woman of a certain age, who has done the child-rearing, the cooking, the cleaning, the chauffeuring, the nursing, the worrying - a woman who has paid her dues.  And I don't mean alone for an hour, a day, a week.  I mean for at least a month.  No-one else to think about but herself.  I know a lot of you fellow women totally agree, but have you ever done it?  It is soul-restoring.  Don't let anyone tell you it's selfish, like being selfish is a bad thing.  Of course it's "self-ish".  If you aren't self-ish once in a while, you will become "self-less" - no self.

I'm very lucky and I know it.  Mike is an accommodating man.  He loves me like I was a goddess (which I'm not, trust me).  He likes my independent spirit.  He is perfectly okay with taking care of himself for periods of time.  A lot of men are not.  I grew up in a home where my father did nothing domestic.  It was a traditional home and if he had EVER tried to cook something, my mother would have freaked at having him in her kitchen.  He did the outside stuff.  He never even paid a bill.  Then, when my mom was about 72, she got Alzheimers.  It was gradual at first, but soon she could not do ANYTHING domestic without my dad's help and eventually, he had to do it all.  He now lives alone and takes care of himself.  It was a tough transition.

Everyone, male or female, must be able to take care of themselves.  You never know when you will be forced to anyway.

I don't know what got me off on this ramble.  It's my blog and I'll write what I want to. I feel so much younger and alive in Mazatlan.  Relaxed, stress-free, rested.  I am free.  I wish for this for every woman.

Monday, 12 April 2010

A ride in a '60 T-Bird

Yesterday was the expat yakfest at Las Flores Hotel on the deck by the ocean.  A good turnout given the end of the winter season.  A few people there have been reading my blog, which is great.  I noticed that the waiter kept refilling our popcorn and salty nuts - they don't do that usually.  I think someone told them it makes us drink more!

There was a new face (to me) there who was driving a white '60's T-Bird that he was having restored in Mazatlan - he had brought the parts down with him since those are hard to find here, but the labour is dirt cheap. After things wrapped up at Las Flores, he invited 3 of us to ride in the car down the malecon to another popular sea-side place called PV's (Puerto Viejo).  Since I was going with my good friends Dan and Gail in the car, I went along.  What can I say?  It was fun.  Lots of waves and nods of approval from people as we drove by - like we were celebrities!  At PV's I sat back and did my "quietly observe" thing while sipping a Pacifico beer.  There were a few interesting characters that I've never met at our table so I find it much more fun to watch than participate.  Mr. T-Bird impulsively stopped the girl selling roses when she walked by and bought 3 roses.  The first one he gave to Dan who accepted it with a confused/horrified look on his face.  I could just hear him thinking "WTF?"  Then T-Bird gave one to Gail and me (the only women at the table) and explained - the last time he bought a rose for some other guys wife, the guy got a little upset, so he decided he would buy one for the guy too.  We laughed, and Dan said, "Whew!  You had me worried there.  But I won't be riding in your T-Bird with you again!"

When the glorious sunset was over, I stepped out to the sidewalk and caught the Sabalo/Centro bus home, smiling.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Riskiness in the waves

Well, I decided to treat myself to breakfast on the beach today - its Sunday!  I doled out all of $4 for fruit plate, 2 eggs, toast, bacon, shredded potato and refried beans - oh and coffee.  I sat at a little table right on the sand under an umbrella and watched the waves and other beach-goers.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

So - What is life like in Mazatlan?

I don't seem to have a "typical" day here.  That's something I love about it - I decide minute to minute what I'm going to do next.  But nearly every day includes most of these things:

I wake and rise when I feel like it.  I'm not an early riser but its usually before 9.  I know I should be more ambitious and get up to trot down to the beach for walk at dawn, but I don't seem to be able to.

I check my email and messages.  I try to drink a glass of water with the juice of 2 fresh limes before having coffee. I open my patio door and let in the sound of a multitude of birds and the sultry morning air.  I skype Mike if he is online while drinking coffee.  I respond to emails and messages. I work a little online. I think about breakfast.  Maybe I'll scramble a couple of eggs with chopped cactus leaf.  Maybe I'll just stir some vanilla protein powder into my coffee.

At some point in the day, I put on my bathing suit and beach cover-up, pack my beach bag with requisite items such as sunscreen, hat, sunglasses, money, book or Kindle, towel, and walk to the beach.  Its a pleasant walk through a nice neighbourhood, a mix of expats and locals.  I walk past a very nice RV park which is now 2/3's empty - the snowbird RVers have begun the migration home.  There are lots of lovely flowers, bougainvillia bushes, cactus, ficus trees shaped like animals or just in a box shape.  As I near the corner where the local 7-11 type shop is (called Oxxo), I note that the homeless guy is back on his spot on the sidewalk where he sits and puts out a hand as you go by.  There is his blackened tin can on top of a few old coals where he heats up water or food.  He doesn't seem unhappy, really.  Sometimes, he is across the street lying in the shade of a ficus tree.  I give him a few pesos once in a while but not every day.  Sometimes, he isn't there for weeks - maybe he gets rounded up and sent on his way.

I cross the busy street dodging buses and pulmonia taxies, cars, motorcycles.  Through the walkway beside a beachside apartmentment building/hotel and onto the beach.  I decide whether to park myself on the beach for a swim in the ocean (is it too rough today?) or walk down the beach to one of the hotel beachside pools.  Either way, I will likely buy a fresh, cold coconut from the local vendor at some point.  He cuts a hole in the top and puts a straw in.  It is cold and delicious.  When I'm done drinking the water, he takes it back, hacks its open and scoops out the meat into a bowl, adds fresh lime and chili powder, and hands it back to me with a toothpick for spearing and eating the pieces of mouth-watering coconut meat.

After a couple of hours at the beach, I walk back home and check email and messages.  I shower, make lunch, do a little laundry, wash a few dishes, work a little online.  Is today a social event day?  I go to two or three per week.  Two of them are happy hour get-togethers with other expats at local watering holes from 4-6. (The other is a ladies lunch on Wed.) We drink local beer, michiladas (beer with lime juice), wine (more expensive than anything else), margueritas.  Everyone has their regular.  Some drink agua mineral with lime (mineral water).  We shoot the breeze and marvel at how lucky we all are to be sitting there by the ocean, waiting for yet another gorgeous sunset.  Sometimes a smaller group of us will go on from there to have dinner at one of our favourite and cheap eateries.  Fresh fish, shrimp, tacos, guacamole, chicken in mango sauce, the choices are endless and delicious.  On some occasions, we carry on from there to another local watering hole for tequila and kareoke - semi-outdoors, by the ocean, by the busy road with buses, cars and taxis passing by, and pelicans flying in formation overhead and skimming along the tops of cresting waves with the gorgeous sunset in the background.  Another grand day in Mazatlan.  I hop a local bus home.

Why Cliffjumpers - my first post

I re-read a couple of old blogs today from 2003-2005. I want to start a new blog. The old ones are still out there but are anonymous. Sometimes the ups and downs of this roller-coaster we are on get to me. I read back to 2003 and realize how much we have struggled and for how long. It all goes back much farther too. To 1996 actually. Why do we do it? Can't help ourselves really. There is always just enough good happening to keep us going.

Like right now. I am writing this as I sit at a hand-made mexican wood desk in an apartment condo in Mazatlan. Outside the patio door, birds are singing, church bells are ringing and the sun is hot at high noon. We rented this place for the winter. It has always been a dream of mine to do this - live for several months in a tropical place. Not just vacation, but to experience living there for an extended period of time. This year, we jumped off a cliff and did it.

We came to Mazatlan for a vacation last winter. I loved it so much that I came back again by myself a couple of months later (I tend to do those sorts of things - Mike understands). I spent 2 more weeks here getting dental work done (very cheap) (another supposedly risky thing to do - but in reality it's not) and meeting some of the local expats from Canada and the US. I found out how little it can cost to live here for the winter and decided that if at all possible we should try doing just that next winter. That's this winter. Last summer, I looked for rentals online and found this great little place with 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, ground floor, 3 blocks from the beach, buses, shops and restaurants. It was great price and I booked it from Oct. to May, not really knowing for sure if we would be able to make the rent on it each month, but trusting that we would. And we have.

It's now April. I have been back and forth from home to here 3 times over the winter - Mike too. I chose Mazatlan specifically because there are cheap direct flights from Calgary to here, 4 hours. And it is the same time zone. I have great internet and can work online and communicate with Mike by Skype. My boys, Tim and Simon, have been down to visit, and a friend staying with me for 10 days to get much needed dental work done here for far less than she was being asked to pay back home. Mike will be here again in a couple of weeks and maybe the boys again too. All in all, it has worked out beautifully and I am thrilled to have jumped off this particular cliff! More about Mazatlan in the next post.