Going independent (2016 year in review)
Back in 2006 my wife and I made a deal…
We were 26 years old. We had two young kids at home. And we’d just closed our retail business.
I almost had a breakdown that year.
So we made a decision: we wouldn’t start another business until our kids were all in school.
It took a while (we had two more kids), but that time finally came this past January.
I’d waited ten years for this. It was time to make the jump to being a solopreneur, full-time.
I had two big goals for 2016:
- To replace most of my consulting income with product revenue. My initial goal was $120,000 for the year.
- To start a new project called MegaMaker, which I kicked off with the 2016 Maker Challenge.
Here’s how I did.
I know some folks that quit their job and start building a business from scratch.
That works for some people, but personally, I’m glad I built up momentum over eight years:
- In 2008 I started this blog.
- In 2012 I started the Product People podcast with Kyle Fox.
- In 2013 I released my first (tiny) product online.
- In 2014 I started the Product People Club.
- In 2015 I released Marketing for Developers.
My side-hustle had many benefits:
First, by focusing on “product people” for years, I’d been able to build a network, a reputation, and an audience.
By the end of 2015, I had 9,085 emails subscribers and 7,852 Twitter followers.
I’d also slowly built-up side-project revenue:
This gave me a foundation to launch my indie business in 2016.
Focusing on content
Chances are, you know me from my writing, my podcast, or (recently) my video work.
Here’s an overall look at revenue and traffic for this year:
This site (justinjackson.ca) 258,151 had page views in 2016, up from 158,954 in 2015. My top posts from this past year were:
- Webmaster (93,434)
- The freedom ladder (3,205)
- You want more than product/market fit (2,816)
Like Jason Fried, I’ve found publishing select pieces on Medium is great for reaching new people. In total, I had 159,379 page views on Medium. Here are my top posts:
- Focus on your own shit (48,166)
- I wasted 4 years of my life doing this (19,834)
- We own you (18,312)
My main product site is devmarketing.xyz. Its traffic was also up considerably: 46,370 page views, up from 28,131 in 2015.
Growing my audience
Most of my customers are people who started following my work online. Gradually, they get more committed, and join my mailing list, or follow me on Twitter. And eventually, they might buy something from me.
Ultimately, most of my customers come from my mailing list. This year subscribers were up 33%, from 9,085 to 12,115.
I had an even bigger increase on Twitter: up 38%, from 7,672 followers to 10,653 this year. Even though some say Twitter’s star is falling, it’s still my favorite social platform. Most of my blog posts start as tweets. (My two most popular tweets were this SMS satire and this progress tweet that turned into a Medium post)
As mentioned, my goal for my first-year solo was to do $10,000 in revenue a month. Here’s what happened:
So far, I’ve grossed $1xx,xxx, an average of $xx,xxx per month.
My biggest month was in June when I did a partnership with a deal website. October had the second highest sales, which is when I re-launched Marketing for Developers.
Here’s where that revenue came from:
- Marketing for Developers – 55%
- Product People Club – 20%
- Jolt – 9%
So… 2016 goal achieved!
Achieving this goal was the result of gradual progress each year, over the last five years. There’s no hockey stick, or “single lucky event.” Just me putting in the work. *
The 2016 maker challenge
After a decade of waiting to go independent, I had a lot of pent up creative energy.
My idea was to launch my new podcast with a challenge: I’d made 100 things in one year. I made my list public and started tracking the things I made (big and small).
Part of this was amazing: I was challenging myself personally, taking risks, and trying things I’d wanted to do for a long time.
What didn’t go well?
The 2016 maker challenge
In many ways, “100 things Justin could make in 2016” was like a mid-life crisis. I finally had the freedom to try new things! I went crazy like a kid in a candy store.
My friend Michael Buckbee warned me about this early on:
His encouragement was for me to stay focused on the topic of product marketing.
It turns out, from a business perspective, he was right.
I spent six months exploring my creativity, and doing crazy projects like the MegaMaker Burrito.
But I didn’t make any significant new revenue until I wrote Jolt, re-released Marketing for Developers, and doubled down on Product People Club.
I still believe that “the more stuff you make, the better stuff you’ll make.” However, Buckbee’s assessment was correct: from a business perspective, I should have been more focused.
In the beginning, MegaMaker was concentrated on “artists, creatives, makers, artisans, who want to make more stuff.”
Now, the podcast is focused on “software developers, designers, and entrepreneurs who want to earn an independent income online.” This is a more natural fit for me, and my audience.
What I’d like to do better in 2017
Getting real: revenue – expenses = income
Brian Casel does a good job of explaining how a solopreneur needs to think about salary:
Getting your product business to a point where it can pay your salary is extremely difficult. I’m not talking about your “dream” salary. I’m talking about your baseline number that you need to cover your bills each month. When I was in my twenties, and single, that number was somewhere around $4,000/month. Now I’m in my thirties, married with a growing family, that number is closer to $10,000/month.
With a family of 6, I need around $10,000 in monthly salary just to cover our bills.
The $1xx,xxx I earned in 2016 represents “gross revenue” for my business. But that wasn’t my take-home pay. First, I had to pay business expenses.
What’s left over is profit. That’s what I can pay myself for living expenses, or keep in the business.
Overall in 2017, I’d like to increase the amount of profit the business makes.
Increase revenue to $200,000
One way to increase profit? Make more revenue. How am I going to do that?
First, I’m going to try to grow revenue for these existing products:
These were my top performers in 2016.
To grow revenue in 2017, I’m going to be trying a few new projects:
- Tiny Marketing Wins
- Book / course called “The Freedom Ladder” (I’m speaking at MicroConf on this topic)
- Re-brand and re-focus Remote Workers Club?
I’m going to commit to one new project at a time. My current focus is Tiny Marketing Wins.
Decrease business expenses
I posted my business expenses in the Product People forums, and people couldn’t believe how much I was spending in different categories. I’m almost embarrassed to tell you. Here’s a sample:
- Software and subscriptions: $5,000
- Web hosting and cloud storage: $2,300
- Coworking office: $3,000
- Coffee (meetings, working from coffee shops): $2,500
As a one-man shop, I know I’m paying too much for things like wireless, software subscriptions, and hosting. I’ll be looking to reduce those bills this year.
I’ve already cut back on coffee. 😉
Make a better newsletter
I really like interacting on Twitter. It feels like some of my best stuff (thoughts, writing, questions) gets posted there.
But I’ve lost my mojo with my newsletter, and my mailing lists in general.
I’m not giving people an optimal experience. My plan is to focus my main newsletter on the same audience as my podcast:
Software developers, designers, and entrepreneurs who want to earn an independent income online.
Overall, I want my newsletter to conform to Steph Crowder‘s standard:
“It makes me go do something to make my life better.”
I’m also thinking about trying some pretty radical ideas for 2017:
- What would happen if I only sent my newsletter to people who have bought something from me in the past?
- What if new subscribers got 3 of my best newsletters for free, and then had to commit financially to continue?
- Maybe, instead of weekly, I should only send a newsletter when I have a specific anecdote or tactic to share.
For the B2B, startup, marketing crowd, I’ll be focusing my efforts on a separate newsletter (likely under the Tiny Marketing Wins brand).
A content funnel
By the end of this year, I’d started experimenting more with my YouTube channel, and I discovered a new flow that worked well.
- Test out new material “live” (like a comedian in a small club)
- Refine that material into my newsletter
- Refine that material into a MegaMaker podcast or edited video
- Further refine that into a blog post
- Cross-post that blog post to Medium
I’d like to keep playing with this and improving it in 2017.
I alluded to this earlier, but I’m reducing the number of ongoing projects I have.
Here are the product-lines I focused on in 2016:
And here’s my current plan for 2017 (with a few revenue forecasts):
The projects in green are the new potentials, and the only one I’ve committed to doing for sure is Tiny Marketing Wins.
I’ll also be sunsetting a lot of my side-projects.
I am speaking at MicroConf in Las Vegas this year. I’d like to do more speaking (I spoke at the AppSumo conference last year and had a blast).
I’d like to do more skiing and exploring outside with my kids, and go on more dates with my wife!
Also, I haven’t given up on public lists. 😉 Here’s the new one for 2017.
Here’s why I’m giving this context: I’m seeing a lot of folks quitting their jobs and expecting to make $100k+ their first year as a solopreneur. 2016 was the first year I relied entirely on product income. Last year I was consulting full-time. The years before that I was an employee.
Bootstrapping is a long journey in a single direction. Give it time!
You also can’t pay too much attention to other people’s results (some of my peers did way more revenue than me this year, others did less).
Success has many factors. Your results will vary. Stay focused on your customers, their struggles, and your response to those needs.
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