the lifestyle business: part 1

I am a fan of the concept of the “lifestyle business”. Years ago, I borrowed “The 4-Hour Work Week” from the library. It put into words what I’d been feeling for a while: life’s too short, and it would be bad to spend too much of it doing work that has no meaning, and is sometimes even unpleasant. Since then, I’ve tinkered with building a few of my own lifestyle businesses. But the bulk of my money was made in full-time employment, working for companies. I’ve come to wonder if the “lifestyle business” is a dream that only works for a lucky few.

Recently, I came across a blog post by Nat Eliason on his own (apparently successful) attempt at building a lifestyle business. He says he was inspired by the “The 4-Hour Work Week”. Hey, so was I! So I decided to study his post carefully. Here are my thoughts as I read it – not exactly a review, just my response.

He writes the post as a list of steps to build a lifestyle business. Great, he hooked me! I love recipes. I can follow a recipe. 🙂

“Step 0: Having useful skills”

Let me run a quick inventory: I know several different programming languages. I’m a full-stack web developer, although I don’t have all the latest and greatest mad skillz. I am fluent in English. I am good at sticking to goals, and persistent to the point of stupidity. Sometimes, though, persistence is not an asset. It can be very tough to know when to stick with something, and when to quit!

“If you don’t have some relevant, valuable skills, or the ability to teach yourself new things, you’re not going to have a good time. You’ll be more likely to waste years on something going nowhere…”

I can totally teach myself new things! Examples: I taught myself to program, and to use relational and noSQL databases. On the other hand, I’ve tried to learn a language (French) and haven’t had huge success with it. So yeah I can teach myself things, but there are limits.

The key skills he mentions are: “website creation [check], marketing [not sure], copywriting [not sure], and self-direction [check]”. Here’s the thing: successful marketing and copywriting are both somewhat ambiguous. I think I could do these things – I mean, here I am blogging! – but how would I know for sure? I can write a bunch of stuff, but is that really marketing and copywriting? Hm?

Then Nat says: “Now, don’t worry. If you read this section and got freaked out about ‘not being ready,’ you should still go for it”. OK. Let’s keep reading.

“Step 1: Finding the idea”

Read the article for details, but his advice is “solve your own problem” and “share your skills”. Oooookay…. I’ve heard this before. There seem to be two opinions on this. One is to scratch your own itch when coming up with the idea. The other is, do market research, find a pain point that people will pay you to solve, and proceed from there. So I’m a little skeptical that his Step 1 will pay off, in general. I mean, I’ve done a number of projects that never paid off, and I doubt I’m the only one with that problem.

For his business, he teamed up with a friend, and they chose “programming for marketers”. This was a little funny, because it’s difficult to imagine marketing pros being interested in programming (although he says it was a problem that he had when doing his own marketing, so I’ll just believe him). I think of marketers as people who pay programmers to do technical grunt work. So I’m super surprised at the idea that marketers want anything to do with programming. If they do, it makes me wonder just what other ideas I’m holding onto that are wrong.

“Step 2: Determining How to Validate the Idea”

Good, he didn’t just build it and expect people to pay. Validating the idea is standard operating procedure. He and his friend decided to validate by making an email course…

“Step 3: Making the Email Course”

But they didn’t really make it. They hung up a web shingle (aka landing page) and advertised the existence of the course.

This content is starting to sound more and more like the standard script that I’ve read in a number of places, one of them probably being “The 4-Hour Work Week”. Which I strongly recommend you check out from your local library, if you are interested in lifestyle businesses. I don’t begrudge Timothy Ferriss his income from the book, but if you’re looking at “lifestyle”, you can probably use the money that you save on other things that can’t be gotten free of charge.

There’s a bunch of stuff mentioned in Step 3 which sounds like advertising for other services. I don’t know if this is affiliate marketing, but it looks suspicious. Clearly you don’t need those to set up your landing page. It may be worth investigating, but personally I wouldn’t throw money at a landing page before I’ve validated my idea.

“Step 4: Promoting the Email Course”

They posted their course to Product Hunt, GrowthHackers, Hacker News, Reddit Marketing, and Inbound. And “we asked some of our friends to help us by upvoting our submission. Yeah, you’re not supposed to do that, but everyone else is…”. Oops. This is a problem. I’ve got no friends who will give my posts an upvote. And it’s kiiind of unethical?

They got 2800 sign-ups almost immediately! At this point in the article, I’m still mystified as to why marketers are interested in the technical details of programming. Who are these people?

The team had set an arbitrary goal of 1K sign-ups. I think the arbitrariness of this goal is lame. Why not 500 or 5000? I didn’t think the advice in this step was practical or truly actionable. It made me think that this “recipe” had more fairy dust in it than I’d like to see.

“Step 5: Writing the Email Course”

So yeah, the idea was validated by virtue of the fact that they got far more than their arbitrarily picked target number of sign-ups.

Then voilĂ  they wrote the email course real fast and people loved it. They gave people bonus content for sharing on twitter or whatever (which seems sleazy, but whatever works, I guess).

“Step 6: Proving People Would Pay”

I just want to point out here that some people roll the “Proving People Would Pay” part into the “Validating the Idea” part by making a landing page that sells a product for a price. You won’t get as many sign-ups this way, but I would think your email list would consist of more committed subscribers.

Anyways, they threw together a paid product (a video course) and a paid service (a “mastermind group” which kind of screams scam), and made an offer to their email list: “The paid course pre-order was for $500, the mastermind group was for $50 a month. And… no one bought either”. Ha, that was not a surprise!

Then they sent a new email out to their list, offering the pre-order for half the original cost. And apparently they got 40 people to pay for that. Mysterious! The course content sounds like the kind of stuff you could do for yourself with a little searching around on the internet, although I admit that I haven’t looked at it yet. I’m very very curious to know why people are willing to pay $250 for something like this. I wonder if it’s because the people paying this money think of $250 as a trivial amount of money. Food for thought. On the other side of things, we’re talking about $250 for a video course. A video course seems like a lot of work, and I wonder just how much time and money it would cost to make one.

He admits that the the $500 offering price for the video course was arbitrary, and that he’d do it differently now. And in “Step 7” he says “Making the video lessons, between planning, recording, and editing, took 3-10x longer than we’d anticipated.” It took them a week to create two modules. He doesn’t say how many hours of video are in each module, but I’m guessing it’s less than 1 hour each. That is fine, because no one really wants to look at a video for an hour. But still. A week for about 2 hours of video, eh? From what he says, they wanted to produced 8 modules, so that means you’re looking at a total of 4 weeks of work… for $10K. However, you’re not making $10K*12/year. You’re making $10K once (with some long tail fall-off of subscribers), and you still have to pay for hosting on Teachable ($40/mo, at the moment, which is really much better than I expected!). And I don’t know what other services, Mailchimp and maybe some other stuff. I’m just ballparking the numbers as I go along… he does not give all the details, so I’m making some guesses.

“Step 8: Launching the Course”

Here, he talks about how they built the new landing page for their product. There’s a screenshot of the headline, which says “Become a Technical Marketer”. Huh. What the heck is a technical marketer, anyway?

They launched, and over the course of the next few days they made $48K or so in orders. I gotta say, this must have felt fantastic!

He claims they are still getting about $3K per month. However, there is no date on his blog post (part of the “evergreen content” craze, I guess). So I wonder just how long the $3K per month continued. And I repeat: who are these old school marketers who don’t understand how to do web-y things, and think that throwing $250 at a video course is worth the cost to help them learn it?

There are a couple of other steps in his process, but I feel like I can stop here. Go read the article, as it’s definitely worth a look.

There are two takeaways that I have from reading this article.

First, when choosing a lifestyle business, you need a target market that can shell out a few hundred dollars for your product without too many qualms. That could mean selling content that helps them generate more money, which I suspect is the case here. This is something that Nat never addresses. I mean, suppose he’d decided to teach moms to make sock puppets for their kids. I do not see that idea generating any kind of income, even if it did produce a nice email list filled with craft-y moms!

Second, it won’t be easy doing this kind of thing unless you really like your audience. Patio11 eventually got tired of promoting his product to teachers. Now I feel like I’m stuck back at Step 1, and I’ll have to keep searching for “The Idea”.

health insurance

If your employer pays for part of your health insurance premiums, you may be one of the lucky ones who can ignore the turbulence in the health insurance market.

That’s not me, though. I live in the United States, and like it or not, I’m forced to participate in the whacky health insurance system that we have here. I’m self-employed. Last year, I was paying about $5000/year for health insurance premiums. I was on a high-deductible plan that I had bought directly from the insurance company. I’d started on it before the ACA came into effect, and never tried to move off it.

what does a crutch really cost?
how much?

And then, last year, I moved to a new state. I’d estimated that my living expenses would go down if I moved. I knew I’d enjoy an increase in opportunities for outdoor activities, which would make me happier. I had some trepidation about what my new health insurance premiums might be. However, I decided that it was not an option to continue to live in one state for the rest of my life simply due to uncertainty about health insurance. I pulled the trigger, and made the move.

In the ACA, a move to a new state is called a “qualifying event”, and it lets you use the health insurance exchange to buy a new plan. During the search process, I learned that my income was so small that I qualified for Medicaid, and that I wouldn’t have to pay any premiums at all! It was galling, since I don’t think of myself as someone who needs Medicaid. However, I’m also not someone to pay for something that I can get free of charge. So I went on Medicaid.

During the course of this year, I picked up some freelance work to help bolster my income (unfortunately, my business is not even “ramen profitable”, and I do freelancing to pay my bills). Apparently, I am not a shrewd enough business person, however. I did enough freelance work that my income disqualified me from Medicaid. This meant that I was tossed off Medicaid mid-year. Getting tossed off Medicaid is also a qualifying event, so I went searching on the exchange again. “Fortunately”, I’m still making such a minimal income that I qualify for tax credits that pay for almost all of my health insurance premiums. I put “fortunately” in quotes because I don’t think it’s fun to live on approximately $20K of income per year. I’d rather make plenty of money, and have to suffer with paying the premiums myself. But that’s just the way things are going for me right now.

So why am I writing about health insurance premiums? If you live in the USA, health insurance premiums can make or break your plans to bootstrap a business. You can do all kinds of things to reduce your cost of living. Get one or more housemates. Eat ramen. Buy your clothing from thrift shops. Participate in the “gig economy”. However, you have very few choices when it comes to health insurance. You can refuse to pay into the system, and run the risk that you might incur enough medical expenses to bankrupt you (or, possibly, to even wind up killing you). Or you can choose a plan with a high deductible. This is what I’ve always done, but even those plans have become quite pricey. As an example, I’ve now bought into a plan that covers me for the next year. The annual cost will be almost $8000, without taking into account tax credits. And that plan has a deductible of about $7000.

I don’t like the health insurance system in this country. I don’t like that health insurance is heavily linked with employment. I don’t like that my health insurance plan has to change when I move from one state to another. I don’t like that even though I’ve been covered by health insurance for most of my life, I may incur huge expenses if I’m unlucky enough to have an accident or become sick during a brief period when I’m uninsured (and I’ve never been uninsured intentionally – it was always a move or the recent Medicaid fiasco that caused me to become uninsured for a short period of time).

Single payer is the way to go. I’m tired of hearing about how larger companies have more bargaining power with health insurance companies, and that this is why small firms have such high premiums.  If a large corporation has bargaining power, then how much more bargaining power would the entire population of the US have? Oh yeah, and I’m also tired of having my health insurance options decided by people who are disconnected from the health insurance reality that faces less privileged members of our society.

If we can get everyone covered by a single group insurance plan, I’m betting that everyone’s rates would go down. I think the cost of healthcare in this country would go down as well. I don’t have proof, except to point to how much better it works in numerous other countries. The US population has been comfortable ignoring the fact that many less well-off, self-employed people have been screwed by the tight link that formed between health insurance and employment during WWII. As more people lose their full-time jobs and start working in the crappy gig economy, it’s clear that something has got to change. It is time to cut the cord between employment and health insurance!

how to become tidy

I admit it. My entire life, I have been a messy, disorganized person. It’s inherited; my parents weren’t tidy either.

One can argue about whether messiness is a problem. Aesthetically, it is not pleasing to the eye, but that’s not what concerns me. The problem is being unable to find items easily. Sometimes, when I need an item, I have to go searching through many boxes or piles of clutter to locate it. It’s stressful.

My defense has been to set aside a block of time and make a huge sweep of my environment. I do this periodically, organizing, tossing things, and cleaning up. This action is only triggered when my frustration level gets too high, or when someone comes to visit me and I feel compelled to make things look a little nicer for the sake of others. So it doesn’t happen often – maybe once a year.

You may wonder why I don’t bother keeping things looking nice for me. My viewpoint is that life’s too short to spend time shuffling my stuff around. I try to strike a balance. I spend as little time cleaning and organizing as possible, while keeping my space tolerable to me. In this regard, I think my standards are much lower than the general population.

I’m fed up with this process, though. Like many modern-day technology workers, I’ve moved my household many times in my life, on average about every 5 years or so. Every time I move, it’s clear that I’ve accumulated more stuff, and have more boxes of things to deal with. When I settle into my new abode, it’s gotten to the point that I don’t even bother unpacking most of my stuff. It’s a waste of energy and space carrying this stuff around with me, and it’s a maintenance chore to have to search through boxes when looking for something that I need. It’s the physical equivalent of spaghetti code, and it has all the associated problems of spaghetti code, only in meatspace.

Since my old method of dealing with the problem is a major fail, I’ve been looking for a better way. I picked up the book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing“, by Marie Kondo. This is not going to be a rave review of her system, since I haven’t even started it yet. In fact, I’m still reading the book. I have a minor critique: The book itself could use some decluttering… it’s too verbose for its topic. As an aside, I picked up her book from the library. Whenever possible, I’ll get books on loan from the library – it helps to ward off clutter, and it’s a cost-cutting measure.

The system that’s presented is to go through groups of items one at a time, and to get rid of things that do not “spark joy”. Kondo says it’s easiest to start with clothing. You should take every stitch of clothing that you have and drop it into a pile. Then, you pick up each item one piece at a time, hold it in your hands, and decide whether it sparks joy in you. This a basic principle of her system: only keep items that spark joy.

That’s a problem, because I think that most of the items that I own do not spark joy in me. If I get rid of them, I won’t have much left. I guess a lot of my stuff falls into two categories: 1) things that don’t “spark joy”, but that I should not throw away, and 2) things that I really like (“spark joy?”), but that I don’t use so much.

Category one includes things like old tax forms and dish detergent. If you pick up a bottle of dish detergent, does it spark joy? Well no. But you use it every day and you probably don’t want your household to be devoid of dish detergent. Old tax forms do not spark joy, but you really want to hang onto them in case of an audit.

Kondo does admit that things like tax forms need to be kept. She believes that there are very few items in your home like this, and she may be right, but so far I have some doubts.

I am getting ready to start on Phase I of her tidying plan: sorting through my clothing and deciding what to keep, and what to give away. I’m pretty sure that I’ll find very few items that “spark joy”. As a general rule, I dislike shopping, and I tend to buy clothing for practical reasons: is it functional? Does it fit? (It is hard to find clothing that fits well!) What about my old office clothing, or the couple of suits that I keep aside for interviews? I actively dislike the clothing that I used to wear at the office, and I’m also not keen on my interview suits. But I may need them again, some day. Should I toss them because they don’t spark joy, and then later on, potentially have to shell out hundreds of dollars for replacements? I think Kondo would say “yes, get rid of it!”. Kondo never really addresses the cost of doing things her way; in her world, money is no object. At least, it is never mentioned as a consideration. It makes me think that her method is aimed at a certain class of people – people who can afford to pay a consultant to help them tidy up their spaces.

It could also be that I’m misinterpreting what she means by “sparking joy”. The things that spark joy for me are activities and experiences: for example, a blue-sky day spent skiing after fresh snowfall. The pants that I use around the house on a daily basis do not spark joy. But if I toss them, I’ll have to go find a new pair. And I find it hard to imagine I’ll find a pair that sparks joy. Pants just don’t do that for me.

I know in advance that I’ll have to amend her method. I’ll be keeping things that I need to keep – things that I use now, or that I know I’ll use in the future – even if they don’t spark joy. I’ll also keep things that I might eventually need that would be expensive to replace (interview suits). I’m still hopeful that her method will work for me. It’s absolutely true that I’ve kept far too many things in my life, things that I have little or no use for. I have boxes of old “tech” books that I’ve hardly ever looked at, and that are largely out-of-date. I’ve also got too many old articles of clothing that I don’t like, and that I can afford to give away. So I have some hopes for the system. I’ll write another blog post about how the system works as I go through it.