The Artisan Files / updated: April 19, 2015

The Artisan Files: Jon Behr

Jon Behr

This week meet Jon Behr, CEO of AccountsPortal, Laravel London organizer, and developer.

Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I was born and raised in sunny South Africa. I went to university there as well, and ended up with a masters degree in Corporate Finance – I am one of the few people that really enjoyed their studies, and I absolutely loved working in that field as well. My wife and I got married in South Africa, and we moved over to London UK in 2002 and we now also have two beautiful girls. I love playing sports (although I don’t get as much time as I used to) – football, cycling, martial arts and I play some computer games in my spare time as well.

Your product is AccountsPortal, can you tell us about it?

This is actually a really weird story. Given that my education and experience was all in the corporate finance field, you’re probably wondering how I got involved in web dev. During my corporate finance years, I always had a strong affinity for IT, and I became slightly obsessed with Excel and Access. From there it was a deep (and somewhat dirty) dive in VBA, which was probably my first experience of “code”. A few years later I started up a corporate finance consulting company and was looking around for some online accounting software. I didn’t find anything that I really liked, so I thought that I would try my hand at this web development business.

I mean, how hard could it be, right? So, I mocked up something in Access and hired an offshore development company to build it for me. Yes, you can stop laughing now! What a complete an absolute disaster – 6 months later I eventually pulled the plug and started from fresh. I found a really great US based developer and we built the first awesome prototype together. Actually, it was pretty shit. So I got a friend of mine involved in the business who came from a SAP background, and he had great insight into accounting systems. We started from scratch (again!) and this time we actually got it right and started growing our subscription numbers. Except there was one big problem – we had decided to build our front end in Adobe Flex (which compiles down to Flash) and a year later the Apple iPad came out which didn’t support flash. OK, one more rebuild! We decided to go with CodeIgniter – by this time I was a passable developer and the rebuild took about 6 months.

Since then things have been much smoother, but those first 2-3 years were absolute hell. If I am being absolutely honest, I had no right trying to get this business off the ground when I started out – I had almost zero coding experience and I didn’t even know what SaaS meant. I was completely out of my depth. However, it has been an amazing learning experience, and I am a firm believer of always pushing yourself outside of your own comfort zone.

How did you get involved in the Laravel community?

At the time we did our re-write in CodeIgniter, Laravel version 1 had just come out. We considered using it, but it was not mature enough at the time. I think that there were about 15 people on the IRC channel when I first joined. But I kept a close eye on it, we became much more involved during Version 3 and 4. I started getting enquiries from companies looking for help, and so I decided to start up a small Laravel consulting company called Mettle on the side. That has now become an important part of our business and has grown in leaps and bounds over the last year. (We’re hiring!). We’ve also launched a few other Laravel-based SaaS products over the past year. Our most recent product is www.understand.io, which I am really excited about.

Funny story – I actually knew Taylor before he even started on Laravel. We were using PHPActiveRecord at the time and I bumped in Taylor there – go have a look at http://www.phpactiverecord.org/users/217. I also noticed him on the CodeIgniter forums around the same time.

You also started a London Laravel meetup. Can you tell us more about it?

I had been thinking about doing this for a while. I met a lot of great people at Laracon EU last year (2013) and decided that it would be great if we could stay in touch. So I started up the meetup, and its just grown organically. I think that we are the largest Laravel meetup now with over 200 members and almost 50 people attending each meetup. I like to try to get new people doing a presentation each time to keep things fresh and to give people an opportunity to experience what its like talking in front of a few dozen people.

Having the CEO role do you have time to actually do any coding?

Yes, I’m still involved in coding, although its become less and less all the time. I’m juggling so many things at one time that I just don’t have as much time as I used to. I still like to keep a close eye on developments in the coding sphere.

What is your typical day like?

I wake up around 07.00am. I drop our oldest kid off at school, and I’m usually in the office before 09.00am. At work we’ll have a quick catch up on what everyone is doing and a recap at the end of the day too. I head home at around 18.30 to spend time with the kids and have dinner. After the kids are asleep we’ll watch some TV or play some computer games. I’m usually in bed around midnight. Weekends are definitely family time – taking the dog for a walk, movies, going out to eat or taking a trip in the countryside.

Can you share some information about your local environment?

Jon's Desktop
Jon’s Desktop

I run Ubuntu 14.04 with dual 24″ monitors. I code almost exclusively in PHPStorm, although sometimes I will use vim for quick edits. We use Slack for group chat, Google Hangouts for voice chat and screensharing and Trello and Jira for project management. Then I have Adminer for DB stuff, Postman for curl or API testing and the command line for pretty much everything else. I like keeping things as simple as possible.

Some of the other apps that I use are Dropbox, Lastpass, KeepassX and Crashplan.

The only app that I really miss from my old windows machine is Photoshop. I’ve really tried to like gimp, but the layout and window management drives me crazy.

Finally, do you have any quick advice for people that want to go from coder to business owner?

There are a few things that you should be aware of:

  • Make sure that you have some capital or another source of income – in all likelihood things will take much longer to get going than you think, especially if it’s a SaaS play (aka the long, slow, SaaS ramp of death).
  • Be prepared for lots of ups and downs – there were many times that I wanted to throw the towel in and just quit.
  • Try to pair up with someone else in the same situation as you – being on your own is extremely hard and isolating.
  • Make sure to have all your legal bases covered.
  • Most importantly – have fun! If you aren’t enjoying what you are doing, then change. Life is too short.

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