My 2020 Annual Review: A Rollercoaster Ride

Written on 31 December 2020

An expression I used a lot this year was "it feels like a rollercoaster". Ups followed by downs, downs followed by ups. I don't think it's useful to dwell on the bad experiences but I want to quickly mention them for my future self: COVID-19 (circuit breaker, social restrictions, masks, no travels), work challenges (managerial issues, my manager for about 5 years leaving abruptly, a lack of company direction), and an existential crisis (I question what I should do in life almost annually).

Even though I'll remember 2020 as the year where many bad things happened, many good things also happened. And this is what this post is about.

Making my first dollar on the internet

It was April 9. I was making dinner when I received an email from Stripe.

"Congratulations! You've just received your first payment through Stripe. Your first payout for this payment of $50.00 USD (minus any fees) will land in your bank account on 4/16/20."

About three weeks before, I set up a new publication, Yeti Distro. Inspired by Ben Thompson of Stratechery, I wanted to write about tech companies' product and marketing strategies. But the driving motivation came more from a goal I made for the year: to make a dollar from my side project. I was working on a fitness planner app but I got stuck and this publication idea actually made money. In addition, the first customer got an annual subscription. I dropped the fitness app project and work feverishly on Yeti Distro.

(I do regret giving up on the fitness app project. I'll share more below.)

Yeti Distro had two components: a $5/month subscription for weekly notes about the things I'm working on and thinking about and free weekly analyses of interesting product and marketing strategies of tech companies. The free analyses were meant to help attract more readers, which hopefully some would grab a subscription. I wrote about Shopify, Mailchimp, Strava, HEY, Substack, Stripe, ConvertKit, Drift, Wix, HubSpot, Canva, Fast, and Airtable. For subscribers, I shared a packaging experiment that doubled trial starts, how I get close to our customers, being more strategic about product launches, rewriting our onboarding emails, and more.

After about six months, I wrote more than 50 articles. Almost 200 people subscribed to my free analyses, and more than 30 got a paying subscription. I eventually decided to stop the project (and refund people accordingly) because I was spending 10+ hours each week writing the articles and wanted to use that time to explore other interests.

Thanks to tech companies like Stripe, Substack, and Ghost, it has become much easier to make (some) money on the internet and through more ways. Content creators who could only make money through ads and sponsorships can now sell a subscription to their exclusive content or a membership to a private group. While not many people can reach Stratechery-level, it is very possible to make a few hundred dollars per month through publishing (even I could do it). It's not a huge amount of money but making money through content has become a lot easier over the past few years, and I believe it will get even easier. The internet has made focusing on niches more possible and profitable. If I could only distribute my articles to people physically around me, I'm not sure if any would pay for them because only a tiny percentage of people (maybe less than 1%) would be interested in the topic I wrote about. But I could reach thousands of people online, mostly through Twitter. And a tiny percentage of a huge number is sizable in absolute terms. 1% of just 3,000 is 30. And I had 30 paying subscribers.

Starting a business

Sometime during the circuit breaker in Singapore, I got bored at home and wanted to try something new. At Buffer, we have long talked about dogfooding, as in using our own product as our customers would. But I'd first need to be like one of our customers. So I thought, why not start an e-commerce store? This thought eventually led to the founding of Open Atlas.

I wanted to sell something that I would use myself because I didn't want to ask people to buy something I wouldn't buy myself and in the worst-case scenario where nobody buys my product, I can use them myself. I started journaling every night this year and realized notebooks fit my criteria. It turned out to be an unintentionally good decision. Notebooks are much simpler than clothes, which have different sizes, so I could order fewer pieces for a start. Also, A5 notebooks have a regular shape, which made shipping easier.

But I also made several mistakes along the way. For example, I contacted only one supplier, which turned out to be a trading firm rather than a factory. So I likely paid more than a factory would charge me. The percentage of defects was high, almost 30%, and I have a suspicion the trading firm was laxer about defects to maintain its margins. I also didn't negotiate. Overall, I probably paid more than I should have for the number of sellable notebooks I got. But I wonder if I had scrutinized everything from the start, would I have started the business in the first place? It's not a good reason to be less thorough. But I did find it easier to keep working on it once I got the store going.

One interesting aspect of this experience is how easy it was to set up the e-commerce business once I have a product. Even though setting up a business in Singapore is quite easy, all the administrative work still took some time. On the other hand, I set up my Shopify store in less than a day and most of the day was spent taking photos of my product. Furthermore, Shopify automatically tracks my inventory and came with a set of basic emails (e.g. order confirmation, delivery status, etc.), which saved me a lot of work to get the store up. I have not broken even but thanks to the internet and technology, my "rent" is only $29 USD every month (i.e. my Shopify subscription). On top of that, services like Ninja Van have made delivery within Singapore much cheaper and better. I can pack my orders with its Ninja Packs and drop them off at several locations, and they will be delivered in the next 1-2 days. The low cost of running an e-commerce store and the proliferation of technology-enabled solutions have made starting and running such a business, even as a one-person team, much more feasible.

Partnering on a business

Late last year, a friend saw an opportunity with having an office for ad-hoc events, such as training classes, company offsites, and team meetings. He had experimented with the idea and saw good demand. Very kindly, he got me and another friend involved in what became Port Venues. It is my first foray into a non-tech project, which is exciting. After we found a suitable location and signed the lease in February, well, COVID-19 happened. Before we could even renovate the place, Singapore started the circuit breaker. By the time the renovation could start, it was August. Demand had fallen drastically, especially with the social restrictions.

We thought about pulling the plug but decided to give it a few more months. As the marketing person among the three of us, I started thinking about how we could bring in some clients. The two channels I believe would work for us is word-of-month and search. First, we needed to make it easy for people to check out the place. I took professional-looking photos of the office with my DSLR camera and set up a website with Squarespace. Second, we needed traffic to our site and needed it quickly. Organic traffic through content marketing or SEO isn't feasible because it would take too long. I had run Google ads for Buffer before, so I jumped in to set up some search ads, which have brought in some leads. I also tried cold outreach to training providers but that has been less effective. Because I reached out to them, they knew we are in need of customers and would negotiate for a low price, usually below what we can afford.

While we are still making losses, the demand seemed to have picked up a little. With the start of Phrase 3 in Singapore, I hope the demand will continue to grow. If you are looking for a venue for up to 20 people with safe distancing, let me know. Or if you know someone who is, I'll appreciate it if you would direct them to me or our website. Thanks.

Learning to be a software engineer

As mentioned earlier, I dropped my fitness planner app project sometime in March to work on Yeti Distro. I wish I hadn't because my coding knowledge got worse whenever I stop practising regularly. This is a pattern that had repeated over the years. I started learning HTML and CSS about seven years ago. I had also tried learning Ruby on Rails, PHP, JavaScript, and React. Each time I stopped after a while. This year I kept having a nagging thought: what if I kept practising since seven years ago?

I have always had an interest in technology and the web. And this year's experiences have reinforced that further. The internet enabled me to sell subscriptions to my content on Yeti Distro, to find suppliers online and set up Open Atlas's e-commerce store, and to advertise Port Venues's office. I had lacked the grit to work through hard coding challenges and am hoping to change that. While I might be late to the internet game, I think I can catch up. I started coding again in the last few weeks, revising JavaScript and picking up React and Next.js. I'm working on a tiny app (which I'm writing this on!) I hope to share it in the next few weeks when it's a bit more functional.

I'm also interested in learning the evolution of computing and computer science. I remember The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal by M. Mitchell Waldrop is quite a good read on some of these, so I have planned to re-read it. I have also read a little on Claude Shannon and his information theory. But I know I'm barely scratching the surface. If there's anything you think I should check out, please let me know.

A rollercoaster ride

I can hardly describe 2020 as a good year but many good things did happen around the world. We have a working mRNA vaccine; OpenAI released GPT-3, which has more than 10 times more machine learning parameters than the previous-largest language model; Deepmind's AlphaFold arguably solved the protein folding problem; China brought back fragments from the moon; SpaceX landed Falcon 9's first-stage booster for the 70th time.

Similarly, I have experienced more bad times this year than any other years I can remember but I also had more good experiences than most years. Perhaps we need the downs to appreciate the ups. A rollercoaster that only goes up wouldn't be fun, would it?

(You can find my past annual reviews here: 2017, 2018, 2019.)