why I didn’t upgrade

I’m a software developer. I just upgraded my “dev” environment from Ubuntu 14 to Ubuntu 16, both LTS.

Ubuntu 14 was supported till April of 2019. I delayed upgrading until the last possible minute.

I have a lot of services installed and configured for several different side projects that I work on. After I upgraded, almost all of them were broken. I just spent about an hour fixing a few, and I anticipate that it will take a few more hours, maybe even a day, to get everything working again.

I’m lucky that I have the time to do this (although, I really don’t!). Many people who work on side projects only have an hour or two to work on them every week. Which would you rather do: spend an hour this week making progress on adding features and functionality to your side project? Or spend that time fixing newly broken services?

Being a developer, I am loathe to sit in my chair twiddling with config files. Usually, I’m very happy using Linux. But there are times when I long for a system that doesn’t break after every upgrade. This is one of them. And this experience is the reason that I always postpone upgrading for as long as possible – I just know that it’s likely everything will suddenly stop working when I do!

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”.

how do you increase your runway? really – i’m asking!

In my last post, I mentioned that I’m running a business that’s not “ramen profitable”. That might not be true; it depends on how you define “ramen profitable”. If it means “you can afford to buy enough ramen to live on”, then, in fact, I am ramen profitable! That’s actually pretty cool. But if it means “you can afford to pay for your basic necessities”, then no, I’m not ramen profitable. And that kind of makes me sad. I can afford to pay my groceries on the income from my project. I can’t afford to pay for my health insurance, or my rent, or the gas that I put into my car. Any extra expenses come out of my savings.

more runway is better

In the startup world, your “runway” is the amount of time you have to run your company before it runs out of money. I worked as a software developer for many years before I decided to start my own business. During that time, I saved up a few years of living expenses. So my runway is pretty long. But it’s not indefinite. That means it’s imperative that I find a way to make more money from my current project, or that I figure out some new way to make money. If neither of those options works out, then it’s back to full-time employment for me. That would be more than just a little bit disagreeable, so you could say I’m highly motivated.

In case you are wondering, I’m already aware that you can improve your runway by trimming expenses. I’m pretty good at that, and I’ve done basically all I can do (or am willing to do) in that area.

I wouldn’t exactly call myself a “startup founder”, since I’m not trying to start a company that employs anyone other than me. I’m probably more aligned with people who run “lifestyle” businesses. The truth is, I wouldn’t work at all if I didn’t have to. It always surprises me when people claim that they would work even if they didn’t need to. There are so many other things to do in life, and so much of “work” is completely unproductive nonsense.

These are my ideal situations, in order of preference:

  • Do what I want and not work at all
  • Work on something that’s at least marginally fun, but not full-time, so I have plenty of time for other things
  • Work on something full time, but with flex hours; so, for example, I can go have fun during the week when other people are at work

I’m not even going to put FT work in that list. If I have to go back to the dreaded FT, it will be far from ideal. If it comes down to that, then I guess it will be a win if I can find FT work with flex hours. Not easy, even as a software dev.

So, my current and most urgent problem is that I need to increase my runway. People will tell you to “just take some contract work” in situations like this. This advice leaves me scratching my head. Based on past experience, I am pretty sure that I’m a good software developer and that I am quite capable of doing contract work. However, my experience has been that contract work is hard to come by, unless perhaps you are willing to take temporary full-time gigs. This is something I’d rather not do, because it would mean stopping all progress on my project. And even then, most of the available contract gigs are temp-to-perm. If you take one, you may have to lie, and say that you are potentially interested in going full-time at the end of the contract.

I have this vague feeling that there are tons of software devs out there, chugging along, doing contract work part-time to fund their labor-of-love projects. Is it true? If so, how do you get there??

ultimatums do not work for me

I’d been working on one side project – a website – for several years. I made progress on it, but it never really succeeded. What was I looking for? Modest traffic… almost any traffic at all would do!

I had given a link to the website to a few friends, and I could see that they had accessed it (their feedback was good – they all told me that they liked it). Other than that, though, the site was like a virtual cul-de-sac.

So I gave myself an ultimatum: I will add one last webpage to the site, publish the whole thing as an ebook, make it available on Amazon, and then I’ll quit working on it for good.

What actually happened, after I made my ultimatum? I found myself distracted by numerous other side projects, chores, and fun things to do. It has been 3 years since I gave myself that ultimatum! And I never finished that last challenge.

This behavior seems to be repeating itself. I recently gave myself another, similar ultimatum, about another side project, and it has killed my desire to work on the project at all.

If my intent was to force myself to stop working on an unprofitable or fruitless project, then I’ve succeeded. However, that was not my intent! When I think about, I never really wanted to stop working on my project at all. It was a labor of love, and I enjoyed the work that I did on it. I just wanted it to “succeed” – get more viewers – and I was frustrated about that not happening. The truth is, however, I had never tried anything to get more traffic at all, other than sharing my webpage with a few friends. I had sabotaged myself.

Upon introspecting, I feel that I was afraid of reaching a dead end. If I tried harder to drive traffic to my website, and even that didn’t work, I’d be stuck for real – I would literally have no clue how to proceed. As it was, I could always feel like there was something I hadn’t yet tried… something else I could do to get more traffic… later. Whenever I had the time to get back to it.

I don’t have lots of time these days, but I think putting in a few hours each week to add more content to my old website, and work on driving traffic, is not too much to ask. In the end, even if it never gets much traffic, I will still have enjoyed the process of content creation.

I can’t see the point in giving myself ultimatums, anymore. They are counterproductive!