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A review of 2018

Three years ago I was laid off. It wasn't too much of a surprise when it happened - the company I was working for had been dying for months and only a few of us were left. I got paid a healthy severance package and went on to focus full time on finishing a master's degree I was struggling to finish at the time.

Fast forward to 2018, I had finished the master's degree and had been preparing to start traveling and to switch to a digital nomad lifestyle. I had sold or given away many of my belongings, no longer had a place of my own and had done a couple of trips within Europe by the end of 2017.

Not straightforward

2018 was the year that I hoped to get some kind of online business going. Being so vague about the goal didn't help, but that was the best formulation I could come up with.

Phase 1: becoming a digital nomad

I wanted to start traveling in February, but I discovered several things I needed to take care of before I left. I was a bit frustrated - I wanted to get in contact with digital nomads as soon as possible. Speed things up by surrounding myself with people that were already living the life I wanted to live.

So I logged into Meetup.com and started the year by networking with digital nomads in my home town. Now it seems like an obvious thing to do but at the time it felt like a brilliant idea. I'm so clever 😎.

That quickly brought a business opportunity my way: an experienced digital marketer needed some help and offered me a part-time remote apprenticeship. Boom! πŸ’₯

Well, it didn't pan out. We had some trust issues and terminated our relationship after the first two weeks of working together. On the plus side, this pushed me to start setting up my company, which I was later able to use to invoice clients on a couple of freelancing gigs.

Three months had already passed. I was closing open loops and getting ready to start traveling, but I was still no closer to making money.

Phase 2: becoming a WordPress freelance developer

Around April, a second business opportunity arose from that networking I'd done. It was a WordPress freelancing gig. It had been a long time since I'd been a fan of WordPress, but I figured it was worth a try.

I got in the mindset of being a WordPress freelance developer and did a bit of business development. I subscribed to WordPress podcasts - both technology and business oriented - and really got into it.

After a while, though, I started to resent the work a bit. I found good-natured clients with whom it was easy to get along. But I also found clients that were trying to take advantage of me.

I sucked at budgeting my projects and ended up making very little money per hour of work. It also didn't seem like it was going to get better soon. I was still a junior developer and I didn't feel I could justify higher rates. WordPress development just didn't seem like a niche that I would enjoy.

The situation wasn't sustainable and I couldn't support myself even if I worked 60 or 80 hours per week. Definitely not the kind of freedom lifestyle that I was envisioning.

Phase 3: focusing on my own products

It was already August. I had only been making a ridiculously low amount of money with the freelancing and none of it was passive.

Motivated by this and encouraged by a friend I made in Bali, I decided to quit the WordPress freelancing and concentrate on building my own products.

I still didn't feel like I had a strong preference for a certain niche, product or business model, so another friend suggested I try something that required low investment that I could finish quickly: publishing a Kindle book.

I didn't expect to start making a living off of this book, but I also wasn't expecting it to sell zero copies πŸ™ˆ. I got a little discouraged, but for a month or two doubled down and spent a decent amount of time doing research on indie-publishing and Kindle marketing.

The more research I did, the more discouraged I became. Kindle might have been an easy business opportunity some years ago, but it had become more difficult to pull off as more people had gotten into it. Duh.

It's obviously still possible to create a business around e-book publishing, but I'm not sure it's reasonable to expect to start making a couple hundred dollars of monthly recurring revenue without a decent investment of time or money.

I still haven't given up on the idea, since it's a niche I like - I also know friends that make a living from Kindle books - but I've set it aside for now.

Phase 4: going back to software development

As I worked on that Kindle book I noticed I gravitated to fiddling around with different e-book authoring software. I geeked out on Scrivener, Pandoc and Asciidoctor. I learnt more about EPUB3 and KF8 and developed my own build scripts. I spent a lot of time in Emacs and the command-line.

This made me reconnect with my love for computer programming. Aside from the WordPress freelancing, I had shied away from coding because I felt that I needed to get into marketing and selling. That's probably still true to some degree but if I enjoy programming so much, why not center my career around it.

By now we were into October. I had travelled to Bangkok and Bali and was now spending some months in Vietnam. I met a guy that offered me to build a website for his Airbnb-based business in exchange for a commission for every booking made through the website.

The whole idea and deal seemed a bit uncertain, but I took it as an opportunity to get better at web technologies. If everything went well, it could also become a source of monthly recurring revenue.

Well, as it turns out, this business idea hasn't panned out either, at least in terms of income. On the plus side, it has given me a bit more clarity around what I enjoy doing. I now do think I have a good candidate to keep building a career on.

Phase 5: getting a remote job

So now we're in 2019. I did succeed at becoming a digital nomad but I didn't manage to make it sustainable. I wasn't sure if I'd enjoy this lifestyle. After many months of this I can say I do, and I'd like to keep traveling for a while.

But I currently have no business projects that seem likely to produce an income before my savings run out, so I've switched my strategy to getting a remote job.

I've realized that even though I currently have the freedom to do whatever I want - at least to some degree, since the awareness that money will run out never leaves my mind - I enjoy spending hours and hours writing software and creating things. I might as well get paid to do it!

I still want to experience having my own product/business going, but I'm now not so sure if becoming the entrepreneur myself is necessarily the best option. I think it should be possible to find a great team to be a part of, specially now that more and more companies are warming up to the idea of having a remote workforce.

Closing thoughts

Looking back I feel a bit sad and frustrated that, after twelve months, I didn't manage to create a single revenue stream that works for me. This fact is specially painful when you follow makers on Twitter that are constantly broadcasting how awesome they are and how much they ship.

I'm not saying they aren't awesome or that they should stop broadcasting. I do think that most of the people in the maker community are just wanting to share the joy of making stuff and making a living from it. They want to showcase that it's possible. But from where I'm standing, shipping sounds easy but is actually difficult.

And even when you manage to ship, nobody cares. So then you need to learn how to make stuff that people care about, or learn how to manipulate people into caring about the stuff that you make.

Do it because it's fun

So, if making things that make you money is difficult and the odds of success are slim, why even try?

Well, do it because it brings you joy and fulfillment. Otherwise there's a decent chance you'll end up frustrated and bitter.

If you don't find enjoyment in this path, don't take it. Make peace with that fact and move on to something else. That might change in the future, but right now your time is best spent doing something else.