1 Year Travelling in Southeast Asia After Building My First Tech Startup (Part 2)

After boarding the first of three planes headed to Kuala Lumpur and slowly seeing Porto’s coast line getting behind, it hit me: the asian adventure was really happening! Months of wishful thinking, travel arrangements, Google browsing, anxiety and day dreaming it were about to come to an end.

Many people asked me over the years why I left Portugal and my (apparently) great life. This is why: I was feeling stuck, suffocated, like the decades might fly by and I’d never get to see outside of Portugal. Even though my passport let me travel, unlike so many others in the world, I was not making use of that privilege. Finally I had this opportunity and it would kill me if I didn’t take it. I didn’t knew back then (and still don’t) where my life is going but I knew for sure I wasn’t going to sit tight a few meters away from my birthplace waiting for something to happen.

My first day

I still remember every second of my first day in Malaysia. Landed in Kuala Lumpur International shortly after lunch time from a rough trip of more than 24h without any sleep.

Waiting for me was a lovely lady at the immigration desk that took upon herself making my day as unpleasant as it could possible be. After some very long 30 minutes of explaining what my purpose in Malaysia was without having a return ticket back to Europe (people don’t take spontaneous traveling very lightly on that part of the globe), I finally got through with a 90 days VISA stamped on my passport.

After picking what was left from my old life at the baggage claim I took for the first time the KLIA Express train, straight to the hearth of an 8 million people metropole…

GlassesOnline Malaysia homepage

… straight to my new office!

The company was an eyewear online business called Glasses Online, selling glasses, sunglasses and contact lenses all over the Asia-Pacific region. After meeting everyone and having a lovely coffee at Feeka Coffee Roasters I started talking to my new colleagues and started putting the picture together.

Besides being my first job as a startup CTO without any backup from a huge incubator like Rocket Internet the challenge was huge:

  • Launch a new e-commerce platform: waiting for me were 3 different legacy codebases, based on a Magento software running on reserve with more than 100k SKUs in it’s central database. Like if this wasn’t bad enough, the deploys were made by good old overwriting of production FTP files followed by a cache rebuild. Ah, almost forgot, we were also flying in the dark without proper server monitoring (for non-tech readers, imagine yourself flying over the shore of Normandy on the D-day without radar or parachute).
  • Increase availability: During the first weeks not a single day would pass without more than one downtime. DDoS attacks, offline product catalog, bugs stopping the checkout process… You name it! Was our everyday brunch in sunny Malaysia.
  • Re-build the engineering team: my team was formed by one remote software engineer working out of South Africa (6 hours earlier) and a web developer onsite to handle an e-commerce platform serving 6 markets — Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Philippines, Australia, New Zealand — and at the same time working on the launch of the 7th: Taiwan.
  • Implement online payments: after 2 years of operations the company was only accepting bank transfers and the most common mean for payment in Asia: cash in hand. It was time for us to start accepting credit cards, and guess who’s job that was?

Our first office in the heart of Bukit Bintang

All the technical problems apart, there was one thing harder to fix than any other: culture. A general sense of conformism in the actual state of the platform and an intrinsic disbelief that nothing would ever change clouded everyone’s mind.

Like in every early stage startup, office space was also a small luxury! On the left you can see the proof that you can fit in one room no more no less than Marketing, SEO, Engineering, Social Media and even the CEO.

The next 6 months passed in a big blur between going down the elevator to the 3rd floor (yes, on top of everything we were living the true startup experience with the apartment 15 floors above the office!) head first into a jungle of refactoring code while keeping the business alive and trying to come back to order some dinner before 10pm.

There was for sure a lot of work left to be done and a lot more that could have been done better, but I was lucky enough to share those months with a fantastic team that stuck together no matter how rough the day ended up being. Due to countless weekends, overnight shifts (the first and only time in my career sleeping in the couch at the office) and even some database recovery done from a beach in a Lankawi dream resort, to CristinaTawfekBrunoJoãoCalinEgoKevin and Ali a big big thank you.

Glasses Online KL early days family photo

Falling Skies

2014 was a very dark year for aviation. 1 month before boarding the first long flight of my life, MH370 disappeared from the radars along with 239 passengers, one hour after leaving the airport I was headed to.

Unfortunately that was just the first one from a series of 5 airplane crashes during my year abroad, either in Asia or somehow related with Malaysia Airlines:

  • March 8th, 2014: Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared from the radars 1 hour after take off from Kuala Lumpur. 12 crew members along with 227 passengers died.
  • July 17th, 2014: Malaysia Airlines MH17 was shot down from the sky by a surface-to-air missile, while flying over eastern Ukraine, on his way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. All 283 passengers and 15 crew members were killed.
  • July 23rd, 2014: TransAsia Airways Flight GE222 crashed in Taiwan after a heavy thunderstorm. 44 passengers died, 11 seriously injured.
  • December 28th, 2014: AirAsia QZ8501 was on a scheduled international flight between Surabaya, Indonesia and Singapore. Shortly before contact was lost, the crew requested an altitude change and a deviation from their planned route in order to avoid weather. There were no survivors from amongst the 155 passengers and seven crew members.
  • February 4th, 2015: TransAsia Airways GE235 was on a scheduled domestic flight between Taipei and Kinmen Island, Taiwan. The airplane crashed into a river shortly after takeoff from Songshan Airport in Taipei. Four of the five crew members, including both pilots, and 39 of 53 passengers died.

Below you can see some prints of how the media looked like every other month:

Surviving Culture Shock in Asia

Malaysia is a different beast that you love and hate and the same time. Never before I felt so much contradicting feelings about being in one place. On one hand you have all the problems and chaos of an overcrowded, under-managed and overheated asian metropole, on the other you experience a freedom like no other in the world. I wouldn’t dare to try to describe Kuala Lumpur in a blog post but I’ll do my best to give you an overview on my experience living there.

While in KL, you can do whatever your mind comes up with and I mean literally anything. I need to come up with one example just for you dear reader to have a good taste on what I really mean. No other country in the world would allow you to jump from one of it’s capital major symbols to a roof top skyscraper pool. In my Malaysia? “No problem, boss!” Sit back, relax and see for yourself:

Base jump from the KL Tower to a bar outside pool

If you are not into anything as (stupid and) radical as this, you can also have a lot of fun in the countless bars and nightclubs, benefit from KL central location and travel to any country in Asia for relatively cheap prices, enjoy a huge diversity of asian and international food or even end your day with a massage and / or a dive in your private pool (yes, every apartment building has one).

On the other hand, you can also see the worse human life can do to itself: extreme poverty for the majority of the population, homeless people dying in the streets (specially around the main train station with countless refugees arriving everyday in search for a better life), frenetic construction with a constant noise and pollution 24/7, extreme heat that makes it impossible to walk the streets, countless traffic jams where even a 1km ride can take more than one hour, human traffic and sex slaves on every corner, including the most respected and well frequented hotels and nightclubs in the city… and the list goes on.

Apart from the heat, something I truly loved were the tropical thunderstorms during the monsoons. Never before I experienced nature in its full indisputable power like in this day.

Downtown Kuala Lumpur — The worse thunderstorm I saw in my life from the balcony of my apartment

Almost forgot to mention that right in front of our building there was the most crowded and touristic area of central Kuala Lumpur: Bukit Bintang. With close to 20 bars in a 500m street playing loud music all at the same time, rarely anyone could get some sleep before 4am.

Needless to stay, not everything is bad, there was also a lot of fun! Working in Southeast Asia has its perks!

Some serious code being done by the pool

Ending a work day in a green water beach when the opportunity presents it self…

Trying some of the local delicacies in the back of a Buddhist temple used as a parking lot

Ending the days with this somehow peaceful view over a couple of margaritas before dinner

A short break before Christmas

By now it was October and about time to get back home and try to make sense of all the feelings, thoughts and emotional rollercoaster pumping into my veins.

I had by then a bit of a Stockholm Syndrome with a desperate need to get away from all of that and at the same time the feeling that I had to go back in the first chance I had.

That was exactly what I did, so don’t miss the 3rd and last article of this series!

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