2017 was an interesting year for me. One of the biggest differences between 2017 and my previous years of freelancing is that for about five months of the year I did very little development work and instead did corporate training as my main source of income. I had decided to get into training because I’ve never enjoyed sitting in front of a screen all day and training seemed like a good opportunity to try a different kind of work. Unfortunately, I had a hard time making training work out business-wise. I’ll recount my year in chunks.
January and February
In September 2016 started working with a long-term development client. The people involved with the project were good but the codebase was ghastly. Around December 2016 I told my client that I would only be available through the end of February 2017 because I wanted to stop doing development work and start doing training work. The reasons why I was motivated to start doing training work mainly revolve around the fact that in my experience software projects are generally high-stress affairs where everything is always “behind” and nobody’s happy. I heard a podcast episode about how training work is different and thought it sounded like a good fit for my personality.
In February I did my first corporate training gig. It was a 5-day Ruby on Rails class that took place in Vancouver, Washington. Due to a number of factors the class was a total disaster. I think the biggest factor was my own inexperience. These kinds of classes tend to receive numerical evaluations at the end. This one got something like a 3.3/5. It may not be obvious but 3.3/5 is very bad by corporate training standards.
I had also been working on Angular on Rails at this point, a business I started in the spring of 2016. In January and February Angular on Rails made $371 and $449, respectively. You can see the full income report here.
March, April and May
About a week or two after I taught the Vancouver class I was sent to Sofia, Bulgaria by the same training company that had sent me to Vancouver. This time it was a 3-day Angular 2 class. I had spent the time between the Vancouver class and the Sofia class frantically preparing for the Sofia class because I didn’t feel like I could afford to get another bad evaluation. I barely slept at all during the 3-day period when I taught the class. Fortunately, all my hard work paid off and I got (IIRC) a 4.5/5 eval for the Sofia class. I celebrated this success by getting drunk at a bar with a bunch of European strangers.
I returned from Bulgaria on March 11th. I don’t recall having done much work in the month of March. My wife and I went on a vacation to Savannah, Georgia later in March. In mid-April I went to MicroConf. I believe this was the first year that MicroConf was split into two parts, “Starter” and “Growth”. I understand Growth is for people who are already full-time on their business and Starter is for people who haven’t yet gotten to that point. I went to Starter because at that time Angular on Rails was only making a few hundred bucks a month (and, as of December 2017, still is). Starter was okay but it lacked the magic I experienced at MicroConf 2016. For 2018 I bought a ticket to Growth.
I think I spent the rest of April working on Angular on Rails and preparing for a class I was due to teach mid-May.
In early May I taught a one-day corporate class in Phoenix. It went great but I learned that one-day classes aren’t really worth it. From May 15-19 I taught a 5-day class in Detroit. This class was one of the funnest ones I had done so far, and everything went great as far as I could tell. Teaching this class really helped cement how different teaching is from programming. Teaching this class was way more fulfilling than any software project I had ever worked on. At the same time this class had been pretty draining. I remember thinking on Friday afternoon, “I don’t want to do this again for a LOOONG time!” Unfortunately I had to get on a plane the next morning to fly to Amsterdam to teach another class.
While I was in Amsterdam I had a conversation with a new (US-based) development client. My memory is that this whole time I had been looking for another development client, but out of the several strong-looking prospects I had had, nothing had came through. It was actually really surprising. I had been getting nervous because I wasn’t earning anything between classes, and I was only teaching an average of maybe two classes per month. I think my income was less than half of what it normally would have been had I just been doing hourly coding work. Luckily, things worked out with this new prospect. I got back from Amsterdam on May 25th and started working with my new client the following Monday.
Angular on Rails was still going this whole time. In March, April and May it made $352, $735 and $480, respectively. I had thought I was on the upswing in April when I made $735. I thought my pricing changes and some other things I did were what had made my revenue go up. But apparently it was just luck. Revenue has never reached that level since. It was around this time that I did an interview on Indie Hackers.
Around April or May I decided to make one of the dumbest financial decisions I’ve ever made and buy an almost-new car. I bought a 2015 Subaru Outback. I don’t even know why I bought it because I don’t even like it that much. Whoops.
June and July
For the five weeks spanning June 12th to July 14th I taught a coding bootcamp in Detroit. This was a pretty stressful time. I was away from my family. I was continuing to run out of money. I was fairly consumed by teaching the class but I was also trying to work for my new development client nights and weekends to get some income coming in again. But as far as I can tell, the class went great. This is a class that happens every year and I was invited to teach it again in 2018.
This was also around the time I started considering pumping the brakes on the training work and going back to coding. Most of the training gigs I was doing were through training companies. Actually, most of my gigs were through just one single training company. The rates a person can get through a training company are not nearly as good as what you can get for direct gigs. The 5-day classes were lucrative enough to make the travel worth it but the 1-day, 2-day and 3-day classes pretty much weren’t. The travel was also hard on my family. I remember one Sunday when I told my four year-old son it was time for me to leave and spend another week in Detroit, he started bawling. Not just crying but bawling. That really tugged at the heartstrings. Experiences like that helped me realize that if I were going to do training for a career, I’d have to figure out a way to make my income from just one or two classes a month so I could make up for my absence during the time I was home. Unfortunately, when I looked at the numbers from the training I did in 2017, the math didn’t really work out. I think it was in late July when I decided to go back to contracting full-time.
Then, on Monday, July 17, the first business day after my five-week bootcamp ended, I got a call from my new development client saying he had decided to shut down his business. I thought I was going to have a somewhat steady income but now that was gone. My financial prospects at this point were comically dismal.
Luckily, I had lined up one last training gig. This was a two-day class in Palo Alto. I actually got on the plane the day after my main development client went out of business. I decided that I’d take advantage of the fact that I was in Silicon Valley and try to line up some in-person meetings with prospects. I shook the trees and was in fact able to line up two in-person meetings. One of the two prospects said they’d like to work together and we started working together pretty much immediately. I’m still working with them today. It’s full-time contracting which means it’s basically a job. I’m fine with that, though. After the rollercoaster that was February to July 2017 I was ready to just be a pair of hands and earn a steady paycheck for a while.
Sometime in June, I believe, I decided to stop working on Angular on Rails and start something new. Part of the reason was that Angular on Rails only made $185 in June and that was really a kick in the balls. Revenue was going down despite my efforts to make it go up. I also was never a huge fan of Angular. My interest in it was kind of mercenary.
After I back-burnered Angular on Rails I spent a few months trying out different product business ideas and flailing wildly. I was frustrated that after eight years of trying to build a successful product business I was basically back to square one and I didn’t know how to move forward. It was a painful time.
In November I started a new venture called Six Figure Coding. The idea is to teach job search skills to developers. Within nine days of creating Six Figure Coding I made $152 in revenue. Presently I’m working on an ebook which I plan to launch on February 6th, 2018.
August to December
Business-wise, not a lot of noteworthy things happened from August to December. Except for a few hundred bucks of product revenue, all my income has come from my main development client. I expect that it will be this way for quite a while, although I do expect product income to grow over time.
Reflections on the year
I learned a lot in 2017 about what works and what doesn’t work and why. I’m glad I tried training even though it ultimately didn’t work out the way I had hoped. If I hadn’t tried it I would have always wondered if I had left some huge opportunity untapped. Now I know what training is like.
By the way, I did learn how to theoretically make training sufficiently lucrative. I’ve noticed that the trainers who get the direct gigs (as opposed to gigs through a training company) tend to be people who have written published books or who have built a really strong online presence. So if I wanted to write a published book, I understand that I could expect to attract clients who want me to do training for them. I actually started to go down this path. I talked with Prag Prog about writing an Angular book and they were interested. Unfortunately, I decided that I really just didn’t have it in me to write an Angular book. I frankly think most of this single-page application stuff is a little on the bonkers side and I would have a hard time writing a whole book about something I believe to be crazy and unnecessary. Plus, if I’m going to spend a whole bunch of time putting effort into some extra thing, I think I’d rather put that effort into building a product business since my ultimate goal is not to be a trainer, it’s to be a product entrepreneur.
2017 was my second-best year ever for product revenue and best year ever for service revenue. In 2016 I made about $4,800 from Angular on Rails. In 2017 it was about $4,300. This might sound crazy but my goal is to earn $100K in product income in 2018. I honestly think this goal is realistic given everything I’ve learned about entrepreneurship over the last eight years or so.
I’m going to ask myself a couple questions that I’m borrowing from my friend Kai Davis (thanks, Kai) as well as a couple questions of my own.
What went well this year in my personal life? In 2017 I honestly didn’t have much of a personal life. I spent too much time working. But there are a few things that did go well. I took my wife on a vacation to Savannah, Georgia (with no kids!) which is a place she had wanted to visit for a long time. We took a family vacation to Asheville, North Carolina which was really fun. I got my wife a dog. I got to visit two new countries, Bulgaria and the Netherlands. I met some cool and interesting people in the course of teaching classes. I recorded a couple new songs that I’m pretty happy with, although they’re not finished yet.
What went well this year in my professional life? Like I mentioned above, it was my overall highest-income year ever and my second-best year for product revenue. I learned a lot about what works and doesn’t work in freelancing/consulting. I appeared on two podcasts. I started a new product business which only took nine days to earn over $100 in revenue.
What didn’t go well this year in my personal life? I didn’t spend nearly as much time with family and friends as I would have liked. My personal life was almost nonexistent. I also would like to have spent more time on hobbies, especially playing music and reading.
What didn’t go well this year in my professional life? 2017 was too much of a financial rollercoaster. I started the year with a lot of money, then gradually ran out of money as my spending exceeded my income. I spent about five months focused on training (March to July) and seven months doing contracting (January, February and August-December). Gluing myself to the desk all day every day has always been a struggle for me, and so the months I’ve spent contracting have been really unenjoyable. So something that didn’t go well is that I spent a lot of time doing things I didn’t want to do.
My top goal for 2018 is to escape contracting and go full-time on my new product business, Six Figure Coding. This has in fact been a career goal of mine since around 2008. I finally feel like it’s realistic. I’ve learned a lot about entrepreneurship in the last ten years and I think I learned more in 2016-2017 than any previous period. I truly believe that if I apply everything I’ve learned to Six Figure Coding, it will be successful.
Financially, my goal is to earn $100K from Six Figure Coding in 2018. I can imagine it going something like this: $1,000 in revenue for Q1, $9,000 in Q2, $25,000 in Q3, $65,000 in Q4. I can quit contracting when Six Figure Coding reaches a steady ~$10K/month. My dream is to be able to quit contracting in July 2018. My goal is to quit contracting sometime by December 31st, 2018.
I don’t intend to pursue any new training work in 2018. I will be teaching just two classes, one in May and one in June-July, because those two classes still make business sense for me. The rest of the time I plan to just do regular old contracting. 2017 was a year of stumbling and flailing and experimenting. I intend 2018 to be a year of executing on what I know works.
These are my two professional goals for 2018:
I honestly think that’s it for professional goals. If I can hit those two, I don’t give a fuck about anything else (professionally, that is).
Quitting consulting is also as much a personal goal as it is a professional one. Quitting consulting will ostensibly allow me to finally have a social life again as well as pursue various hobbies that I’ve neglected for years.
I do also have some vague personal goals which I need to think about more. Right now my plans for the year look something like this:
January, February, March: contracting
April: Vacation (April 1-8?), contracting
May: MicroConf (April 29-May 2), contracting, training (May 21-25)
June and July: contracting, training (June 11-July 6), contracting
Lastly, something else I like to do from time to time is compare where I am now to where I was at this time in previous years.
In December 2016 I was working on a miserable, excruciating contract project. That sucked a bunch although at this point I knew I was going to make the leap to training soon, so I was optimistic. I’m feeling better about life in December 2017 than I was in December 2016 though. Product-wise, Angular on Rails’ revenue had started to peter out in December 2016.
In December 2015 I was working at a miserable full-time job with no end in sight. I actually quit that job in early 2016 with no other work lined up just because I hated it so much. At this time I don’t believe I had any product business going at all. I had recently shut down Snip after five years of effort. This was a pretty dark time professionally.
In December 2014 I was working for Andela and about to go to Nigeria. Andela was only part-time and I had way less work than I needed to make a “normal” income.
In December 2013 I had recently been fired from a job which ended at the end of September 2013. I had tried and failed to get my first substantial freelancing client. I was running out of money but also unwilling to go back to a job. This was one of the worst times ever in my professional history.
People often compare where they are now to where they could potentially be if all their dreams came true. This is often a demoralizing exercise because you’ll never be where you could potentially be. It’s often much more gratifying to compare where you are now with where you were at this time in previous years. As I look back at 2013-2016, I realize that I’ve come an incredible distance since when I started freelancing. I’m looking forward to seeing how December 2018 compares with December 2017.