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Launching: The Non-Smoking Romania Story

It started over a year ago. I wrote  about it in February 2014, after buying the domain and getting people on board to do the coding. In my mind I was thinking, 'a couple of months of easy coding and we're live, no problem.' But it's rarely ever like that when you start anything -especially with software.

The designs were done sometime later that month. But only the first version. It was easy to get lost in the details and to over-design. My initial search-driven vision was replaced by a geo-location based, map-driven design on the advice of somebody who knows a thing or two about User Experience (UX) design. I liked it and we went with it. A friend helped with a logo and social media designs, another took on the coding responsibilities, and little things stated to happen.

Except that they didn't, really. 

Sometime towards the end of April or May, the cause had lost its momentum. There was a lot to do at work and I didn't have my 'eye on the prize' any longer. Getting together after work was complicated and, to make matters worse, I don't code. Looking at it now, it's really easy to rationalize why we didn't get on it with. Truth is, we were avoiding the work. The thought of slogging through the mud, once you're over the euphoria of a new project, is extremely unappealing. Summer was on its way, birds were chirping up a choir, patios were getting set up on the streets and Non-Smoking Romania was a non-issue. 

But some cool things were happening. Two new, exclusively non-smoking restaurants opened in Cluj. Both share the same philosophy; fresh, local food, a bistro atmosphere, friendly service, and clean air. Thanks to the continuing success of Off The Wall and Mint Bistro, it's now very tempting to also correlate the non-smoking concept with an improvement in  customer service -not only in the dining experience. (By the way, this reminds me that I badly need to update my Cluj Guide to Dining Out). I do believe that good deeds breed good karma so I hope that they get new customers because of Non-Smoking Romania.

We enjoyed the summer and pretended it was still summer throughout the Fall. We also decided to scrap the user-authentication concept and work on a much leaner MVP -but still did nothing concrete. 

Then, as Autumn was drawing to an end and the threat of spending weekends in smoke-filled locales drew nearer, Mihai and I, decided to give it another go. We built up a database, worked on UI, spent hours deciding on colours, icons, and element locations. There was a lot of mud. But every indicator told us we were heading in the right direction. So we kept at it.
A few weeks ago, we came across We weren't going to make any 'First!' claims anymore, but given the growing anti smoking-in-public-places sentiment, it was bound to happen. This product needed to happen. And anyway, we had an expat-centric product in English, aimed at the foreigners who come here and prefer it when their food isn't smoked at their table in a sort of Balkan teppaniaki. We now link to each other's pages, as any good social movements should do.

So we trudged onward through the CSS challenges, image searches, database management issues, design concepts, bug fixing, and late nights. Then, on a cold January night/morning the MVP was done and we pushed the launch button on Non-Smoking

When I was younger, my mother brought home a book from school called Something From Nothing. It's a Jewish folktale about a boy whose tailor grandfather gifts him a blanket and then transforms it into various things as the items wear down over time. The blanket becomes a jacket, then a vest, and eventually a handkerchief, and then there's nothing left. "How can I make something from nothing?" the grandfather asks the boy at the end. It's a beautiful story, and ironically, it illustrates precisely why software is so incredible. As commonplace as it is these days, few people in the world can see software as the ever-present reminder that we can in fact, build something from nothing. 

What's more impressive is that Non-Smoking Romania is just one example of the way in which people can use software to empower social action and fight government inefficiency. It's a matter of envisioning the community -or the country - you want to live in, and then rolling up your sleeves to fix the problem. In many cases software won't suffice, but in fewer cases than one might think, which is why it's still an underrated tool of social action. 

Society-building aside. This was a great lesson in software development. It makes me think of all the times I've heard -or said (mea culpa) - "it's a small, little website/tool/feature". No it isn't. It's (almost) never small, it's always work, and it's always going to take longer than expected. Of course, we could have done it in a couple of weeks of dedicated work, but only in hindsight. The reality is that Non-Smoking Romania was finally born because the only antidote to sitting around and wishing it into existence was to plow ahead and put in the time. 

So what's next? Lots of improvements to be sure. The initial vision was a lot more complex than what we have now, but that's irrelevant to the Big Picture. All of us,  -not only Non-Smoking Romania, but all those friends of ours (hoping somebody gets the reference someday) - have to start making waves to convince lawmakers that a ban on indoor smoking in all public places can only have a beneficial effect on the country. But, if we don't do the work, I'm sure we won't go very far. Let me know if you want to sign up, there is a lot of work to be done.


  1. Congrats again on getting it off the ground Matt.

    My personal passion is tackling world hunger somehow ... I hate the idea that in the 21st Century so many people are still dying of hunger. That's an insane injustice, in a world where others have so much that they're throwing away more food than they eat.

    One day I want to be able to do something about that too.

    1. I'm with you Leon, it's a disgrace in so many ways. This book is on my reading list this year:

  2. Hello Matt, I am Sony a Cambodian but born and raised in France and i am currently Erasmus student in the awesome Cluj-Napoca since 1 month. Someone from my university shares one of you article from "", so this is how i end to your blog. It's funny because when i arrived in this town and i enter in a café, i was not feeling good becuz of the smell of the cigarette and then everytime i went to a café, i was hoping that there is also a non-smoking area. So now i will use your website to find a place with a non-smoking area. Moreover I'm studying a master degree in software engineering so i am really interested in helping you if possible. It will be also a great experience for me. I leave my email so you can contact me if you are also interested.

    1. Thanks for the message, Sony, I emailed you.


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