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My First Year as a Solo Developer (mtlynch.io)
239 points by mtlynch 21 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 136 comments



Admittedly I haven't followed your blog, so you may mention this somewhere on there. You seem to fall into the common developer trap of building a bunch of stuff without gauging demand and then trying to monetize it afterwards.

Like, are there people out there clamoring for a one-stop location where they can check if food is keto? Is your site less friction than just Googling "Is dark chocolate keto?" then reading the little blurb answer Google generates? Can the bulk of your value proposition be copied easily by anyone with access to WordPress?

IMO you are going after areas that are too saturated/competitive. Those sorts of fields are great for marketers that know how to navigate, differentiate, and promote them, but they are not so good for developers that mostly specialize in building complicated things.

In your situation it's probably fine to keep doing what you're doing since you have stacks of BigCo savings/investments, so you can more-or-less take your time and eventually build traction with something. I'm not worried about you specifically, just other people taking your approach that don't have such long runway.

Not trying to be harsh, just trying to help.


An honest question. How do you gauge demand? Do you go to different forums and ask. Local mixers etc?


Basically yeah. You're on the right track. It will depend on your product. Here are three example methods I have personally used:

e.g. If you're starting a consultancy/dev shop, do you have people already trying to get you to do work for them or complaining to you about difficulties finding good freelancers? If so, there is clear demand for your specific services.

e.g. One of my most successful side projects was a web browser for the Roku that I developed after reading a bunch of people complaining there was no web browser in the Roku forums. The browser went on to get over 500k active installs (there are ~10mm active Roku devices).

e.g. Another popular way to do it that works great for local businesses (or SEO-based businesses like OP's Keto business) is to use the Google keyword research tool and see what sort of traffic your keywords get and how much people are paying for clicks on those keywords. If it costs a lot to buy search ads, the niche is likely too competitive.


The problem I have is assigning monetary value to it. Or how much is it worth to another person. For one of my ideas, I shared a prototype at local group events. A lot of people liked it, but again not sure the valuation.

I've learned the hardest part of a project. Is the one you've not been exposed too. While working on a startup idea. I'm hitting a lot of roadblocks on sales / marketing etc.

When I did consulting/freelancing, that was easier. I know how much a project is worth, the value provided etc.


Were you able to monetize the Roku browser?


Not really (just like $40 in donations from a donation button on the site). Releasing it for free captured basically the whole market, but I had no real way to capitalize on those users. That was my big learning lesson with that project.

In retrospect, I should have probably used it solely to get user data like Google does with Chrome and then done something useful with that data, but this was before I realized that (somewhat shady) business model.


You could try A/B testing the demand for 2 different products / websites with Facebook ads.

You'll need:

  - A small amount of money for the ad campaign itself (e.g. $50-$100)

  - A compelling image (buy a stock photo, or get a graphic designer to whip something up)

  - Some compelling copy (one liner for your pitch)

  - Some time spent tuning the ad targeting to focus on your target market (or your best guess of who those people are)
I know Facebook isn't exactly popular on HN right now, but I suggest them because their ad targeting is probably the most precise at the moment.


Thanks for reading!

>Admittedly I haven't followed your blog, so you may mention this somewhere on there. You seem to fall into the common developer trap of building a bunch of stuff without gauging demand and then trying to monetize it afterwards.

I've definitely been guilty of that. I wrote a blog post about how I did this without realizing it a few months ago:

https://mtlynch.io/shipping-too-late/

These are good questions! I'll try to answer each:

>Like, are there people out there clamoring for a one-stop location where they can check if food is keto?

Honestly, I think there are.

I initially got the idea while I was trying to find an audience for KetoHub, but I'd constantly see people post in keto Facebook groups, "Is X keto?" and they'd just get a lot of unsourced, contradictory information.

I have the problem myself if I forget whether a food is keto. Dark chocolate is an easy one but like "is thousand island dressing keto?" currently doesn't have a good result. The best you'll find are forum posts and people disagreeing with each other.

>Is your site less friction than just Googling "Is dark chocolate keto?" then reading the little blurb answer Google generates?

Google generates a little blurb, but it has to pull that information from somewhere. I'm hoping for Is It Keto to be the source that Google uses for most foods (it currently is if you Google "is propel keto" or "is pure via stevia keto").

Maybe some people are satisfied with the blurb, but about 1/3 of my traffic is currently SEO, so I feel like I can continue growing it.

>Can the bulk of your value proposition be copied easily by anyone with access to WordPress?

They could, but they'd have to spend a lot of time building up a corpus of food data. And they'd have to catch up to my (admittedly small) lead in search rankings. Unless you're talking about someone just plagiarizing all my content?

>IMO you are going after areas that are too saturated/competitive. Those sorts of fields are great for marketers that know how to navigate, differentiate, and promote them, but they are not so good for developers that mostly specialize in building complicated things.

I think that's true. I've been trying to think about smaller niches I could focus on. Like keto resources for other languages (seems to be fewer players) or keto + some other diet, like vegan keto, kosher keto, etc.

>Not trying to be harsh, just trying to help.

Not harsh at all. Thank you for the feedback!


> Google generates a little blurb, but it has to pull that information from somewhere. I'm hoping for Is It Keto to be the source that Google uses for most foods (it currently is if you Google "is propel keto" or "is pure via stevia keto").

This is a good point. I hadn't thought of it that way. Thanks for clarifying.


Yes, but I was just reading an article recently about how those blurbs don’t really translate into traffic for publishers. I wouldn’t count on that


It might depend on the kind of information. If it's something like "What's the capital of this country?" there's a one-word answer. With "Is propel fitness water keto?" There's a simple answer, but you might be interested in more details.

For Is It Keto, those blurbs bring in a lot of traffic. The one for Propel is the most popular page on the site by far.


How are you planning to make money from the keto app? What would people pay for?


Is It Keto just makes money from affiliate links. So if the food is keto, I display an affiliate link where they can buy it.

I've considered display ads, too, but I've been holding off on that because I think it cheapens the look of the site.


It’s important to point out that just because someone says they want something, it doesn’t mean they want to pay for it.


There was one enormous hidden expense that my profit and loss chart didn’t show: me.

My living expenses were rapidly eating away at my personal savings. Between my $3.3k/month Manhattan apartment, private health insurance, food, and utilities, it cost $6-7k per month just to sustain myself.

I wouldn't really consider this hidden expense. It's just expense. I think this is one of the most dangerous lies startups tell themselves.


Thanks for reading!

>I wouldn't really consider this hidden expense. It's just expense.

Maybe I should have worded it differently. I meant "hidden" in the sense that the chart I showed didn't reflect it because that only showed my business expenses.

I definitely did take into account my living expenses when I decided to quit my job.


>Maybe I should have worded it differently. I meant "hidden" in the sense that the chart I showed didn't reflect it because that only showed my business expenses.

Salaries are a business expense. If you hired a second programmer would you not expect to pay them? So why wouldn't you expect to pay yourself?


They are, but all my other expenses are objective and quantifiable. I could make up a salary for myself, but it would kind of be pulled out of thin air.

I've thought a lot about what the dollar value is of my time and I haven't come up with any way of reaching a number that I find practical. It can't be my earnings, because that's negative. It's not 0 because I do value my time. It's not my opportunity cost from not doing consulting work because that would just tell me that I should outsource everything. I could just make up a number like $50/hr, but I don't know that it would help me make decisions that I couldn't other make.


I think you should figure out what salary you want to make and charge yourself that. It might be that you are happy with $2k/month as long as you get to do your own projects. It might be that you want $80/hr (~13k/month); maybe you want $20k/month. If you have a number that you are aiming for, you will have a better idea of whether you are succeeding. For instance, if you want $10k/month, and after N months/years you find you are getting $2k/month, you would then have solid information that you are not achieving your goals with the given strategy. In which case maybe you get a job, maybe you do contracting/consulting, maybe you switch to project with better prospects, etc. Or maybe you find that your trend will achieve your goal in M years, so you know to stay on track even though things aren't looking that good right now.


Your salary doesn't have to be unquantified. Your own salary is an implicit cost that needs to be accounted for if you are viewing your efforts as an investment.

As an example, PayScale says average software developer salary is $67k in Springfield, MA. I would recommend you put this down as an expense and a liability or equity in the business within the context of the "accounting equation"; see https://www.investopedia.com/terms/a/accounting-equation.asp

The key here is to make explicit your opportunity cost. You can then put that in context of how much you are willing to invest in this business. For example, if you wanted to give yourself a seed investment of $300,000, this could mean $50,000 cash and 3.5 years of labour.

If you counted that as a liability you could say the business has to pay you back once it reaches profitability. Or if you view it as equity you would build that cost into when you sell your business. This would also allow you to better calculate ROI.

If you account for your time this way, you can cleanly separate business and personal expenses. In terms of the "4 hour workweek" way of thinking, it also means you know when you can stop implicitly throwing money at your business and hire someone to fill the "dev" role and have the business run itself.

If you will indulge my 2c, I would also recommend you cut any projects that are not performing to your expectations. When you have multiple projects you are acting as portfolio manager. This means that you are modelling your business like a much larger corporation with different business units, which require far greater management overhead.

From reading your post, I believe the role you envision for yourself right now is that of product owner/manager. If that's the case you should limit the scope and complexity of all other responsibilities so you can do that role well.


I'm coming back to this late, but I think you've missed the point.

>I could make up a salary for myself, but it would kind of be pulled out of thin air.

The exact value of your salary doesn't matter, it matters that you've factored something in so you can keep a roof over your head and feed yourself. By not factoring in your salary, you're painting yourself a rosey-er picture of your financial state than it actually is. By your current measure, your venture could be "in the black" yet you'd still be struggling to make ends meet. You need to see the picture as clear as possible.

>all my other expenses are objective and quantifiable

If you expect this of every expense, then you'll be in for a shock. Many business costs are not objective in the sense that you can rationally determine why exactly it costs X. Heck, pricing software is mainly an exercise in "what's it worth to you", rather than what it costs to actually develop it. If you need absolutely need a service and only one consultant can offer it, then chances are you'll have to pay what they ask, even if there's no objective rationale behind the costs other then that's what they charge.

My point is that the business side requires a different mindset and perspective than the technology side. You've got to improve your business skills in the same way you'd improve your tech skills. It's not easy, but at a certain point your success will depend far more on your business acumen than it will your technological prowess.


Are you incorporated? I think you're required to pay yourself if you are, even if minimum wage. That would put it back on your balance sheet, and make the IRS happy.

(If its a sole proprietorship, I'm not sure shat the rules are)


That's completely untrue. In fact, it's the opposite -- the IRS objects if you pay yourself more than a reasonable salary.


Why would they? If you pay yourself through income, they will get the most taxes through income tax.


If you're the sole owner of a corporation and also an employee, you can move money from the corporation to your own pocket by either paying yourself a salary or paying a dividend out of corporate profits.

At least prior to the recent corporate tax rate cut, the tax you'd pay on the salary would typically be less than the sum of corporate income tax and tax on the dividend, so people would pay themselves unreasonably large salaries to save on taxes, and the IRS would object to this.

Here's an article that goes into more detail:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/anthonynitti/2016/05/13/reasona...


Correct. You should always include your salary as a business expense. Being your own boss, you can set that salary based on your personal expenses.


We'll there's your problem. If it were me, I'd look to cut expenses before doing something like this, but they're already as low as $1500. If I cut further I could be ramen profitable on his blog income.

Edit: don't mind me...


The author already did so: So in August, I bought a modest two-bedroom home in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Population: 17,500. If you're worried about money, just buy a house. My living expenses here are ~$2k per month, which is close enough to the rate of return on my personal investments that I’m kind of at equilibrium.


Missed that part, my bad!


This sentence threw me off too. I would have expected the author to have budgeted these living expenses prior to doing this... maybe "hidden" is just a bad word choice.


Well though there are difficulties, I do think my be moving to a place like India, or Malaysia etc, may be an economical viable option. The difference in living costs can be phenomenal: Reasonable appartments in many big Indian cities can be had for less than 300$ per month.


You don't have to move out of the US. I see 2 bedroom apartments in smaller US cities (but still decent sized cities, 60k+ pop, within a couple of hours from major metros, has all the same franchised restaurants/shops every other city in the US has) for ~$350/month. Like, lots of them.

If you're willing to live in a mobile home, rent can be as little as $250 a month, it looks like.


That is a very key point. Everyone focuses on digital nomads and living in Thailand. For the cost of the plane ticket there you could probably pay several months’ rent in Kansas.

Is that ideal? Maybe, maybe not. Will it make a blog post that gets you on HN? Of course not.

Still, if you need to be near a US time zone it’s a fantastic alternative to South America that doesn’t involve visas, dealing with a foreign language, etc.


Rent aside, the other big factors would be health insurance, car related costs, and food.

Going to a large city overseas, you won’t even need a car. Food will be a lot cheaper, and going to the doctor will be affordable.


> Your job at Google used to impress people. Now, when people ask about your work, you awkwardly tell them, “Um, it’s a website where you type a food, and it tells you whether it’s keto…” Shouldn’t you do something that sounds more impressive?

This is a very real doubt that I think about constantly.


> This is a very real doubt that I think about constantly.

I have a two-step solution for you. 1. Develop interests outside of work that are more appealing than working. 2. Move to a non-tech town and watch people's eyes glaze over as you attempt to impress them with your Google job; realize it doesn't matter.


A piece of valuable advice I recieved - ignore what others think of you.

Instead, focus on becoming strong in what you believe, and why. Firmly held beliefs that are easily changed is a benchmark of innovation.

I don't care what anyone thinks except my customers. No one with an opinion of my job title that I do or don't impress pays my bills. I pay my bills.

Embracing freedom in insignificance of a less than glamourized idea can free a person to explore more than they could ever have.

The secret is once we can lower our ego, or insecurity to let ourselves work hard to solve small problems, they naturally lead to conversations about larger problems.

Talent has to work hard, not make it look easy. Having talent doesn't mean it should be or look easy. Hard work and learning Discipline is never optional for anyone.

A simple idea often needs a lot of hard work that no one understands until they try it themselves.


> A simple idea often needs a lot of hard work that no one understands until they try it themselves.

This is so true. I become more and more impressed by people who can release _anything_ half decent by themselves. There is so much involved in all the little details, and each of those takes time to develop. Even just trying to provide a nice generic UX experience takes thought and effort. e.g. does pressing enter take the default action, how do I utilize screen real estate to not be cluttered but convey information adequately to new users, how to design multi-user logins for accounts, etc. Lots of skillsets to either have or develop. There are all good ways of doing them, but takes some foresight and insight about how your future users are going to use the product and to look beyond your own assumptions and knowledge of how the system works.

But it is so liberating and you can learn so much more by doing it than by living the unexamined life.


You have to care what others think... family, friends, spouse, kids, boss, dog etc... etc... to not would not be human.


He still gets street cred by saying he quit a 6 or 7 figure job to pursue his dreams.


Yeah this is like saying you are a Sanford PHD dropout.

Im most situations it tells the same story (you are smart and qualified) as if you were to stay and finish the PhD.


Hell, I've had conversations with people that were impressed that I even got approached and flown out to have an interview at Google. Being an ex-Googler should certainly impress people still.


It comes down to whether your ambition is to do something you like/interests you or something that you're doing solely to impress people that ask about what you do for a living.


I think your sentence works better without "solely".

The reality is that we make choices to simultaneously maximize a variety of internal and external incentives. Personal interests are one, so is money, and social prestige is one too.

Left-brained tech nerd folks tend to look down on the last one because it isn't "rational" or something, but prestige is an important part of life. One, for most people, it makes them feel good. Ultimately, that's a major goal of life. Two, prestige can directly translate to social capital, which can materially affect you. If you make a stronger impression on someone because you "work at Google" and that leads to them remembering you better and thinking of you later when an opportunity comes up, that actually matters.

There's nothing wrong with having the social side of your identity be part of the goals of your life. The risk is when you over-focus on it to the expense of everything else, because then you lose agency. We don't control which things are considered prestigious, so if we aim too much for prestige then we're basically letting the crowd make our decisions for us.


Yeah...if I recall correctly Jeff Bezos quit a pretty good job to launch Amazon. Look at him now...:-)


When you are a small brand noone is impressed whatever you do. That's why "brands" work.


The title of your post is "My First Year as a Solo Developer" but then you mention "I work with an excellent developer who handles all the coding and web design so that I can just write.". Did I misread that and it only applies to the blog or to all development?

I'm not super familiar with 4HWW, but the best advice I've seen on striking it out on your own is to do everything yourself until it becomes painfully obvious you need help, then start outsourcing the stuff that can be automated. Not to outsource everything from day one and be a project manager. (but perhaps I misread).

That said, the best education for business is to try it and see what doesn't work! Best of luck! I think the comment here about gauging demand is important. Have you talked to lots of people on Keto diets? Are their biggest pain points not knowing what is keto or not (it might be #30 on a list of 31 things)? Do they have trouble searching for resources on this? etc.


Especially with a blog site. That's a solved problem, more or less, with tons of free or dirt cheap options out there. Why outsource that?

It's already a Jekyll powered site and has a Jekyll theme on it, so I really don't get why he needed to spend $4000 to pay somebody else to put that together for him.


Answered a similar question about that above:

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19057745

tl; dr - The site is more complex than it might seem, and I highly value having someone that can give me the look and functionality I want without having to spend a lot of time managing them or doing it myself.


That's fair. I can understand that if those were your requirements that it would take a decent amount of extra time to put in place, and you can find it valuable to pay someone else to do it.

Personally I probably would have tried to get my blog in place before quitting my day job and worked on it in the evenings, although I definitely understand how hard it can be to find the time and energy sometimes (I've let mine sit dormant for a couple of years now, I need to redo it) and how it might not get done if you had to do it yourself.

Best of luck to you in your venture. I'm still hoping I can get to that point eventually, with a slightly different path.

By the way, thanks for sharing the source code. I've been curious about Jekyll but haven't really invested the time into seeing how it's set up. It's nice to see an example of what it would be like in action.


One thing to keep in mind is that I've had the blog for about three years; I didn't add all the bells and whistles right out of the gate. The validation checks and build features have grown over time as I've discovered errors or pain points from doing things manually (e.g. breaking the site on mobile, breaking links without realizing it).


>The title of your post is "My First Year as a Solo Developer" but then you mention "I work with an excellent developer who handles all the coding and web design so that I can just write.". Did I misread that and it only applies to the blog or to all development?

I hire freelance developers for some tasks, but I still consider myself a solo developer because I have no partners in my company and everyone who does freelance work for me does it either on a short-term basis or for only a few hours per month.

>I'm not super familiar with 4HWW, but the best advice I've seen on striking it out on your own is to do everything yourself until it becomes painfully obvious you need help, then start outsourcing the stuff that can be automated. Not to outsource everything from day one and be a project manager. (but perhaps I misread).

Yeah, that's kind of where I'm at now. My memory of 4HWW was the he was very eager to outsource anything he didn't have to do personally, but it's been awhile since I've read it. I've found it more useful to do the task myself for a while until I feel like it's sucking up a lot of my time and I can write easy instructions for someone else to follow.

>I think the comment here about gauging demand is important. Have you talked to lots of people on Keto diets? Are their biggest pain points not knowing what is keto or not (it might be #30 on a list of 31 things)? Do they have trouble searching for resources on this?

I got the idea from when I was promoting KetoHub in facebook groups, people would frequently ask whether X food is keto. And it is hard to just Google it because you'll get contradictory information, and a lot of it is just arguments on forum posts.

I don't think it's the biggest pain point, but I think there are already lots of people competing to solve the top N pain points, so I don't want to try to enter that battle. What appeals to me about Is It Keto is that nobody else has a dedicated site for what it's doing, so I hope to be the standard thing people reference when they want to know if a food fits into the keto diet.


You're not a developer: you're a product manager who outsources software development tasks to hired muscle.


Thanks for clarifying!


Completely agreed - I am on a similar path as the author and have been sticking with the above. Outsource only when the pain becomes real. I also believe that having done some of the work before hand helps you manage the other person better. Learning a lot of the stuff initially isn't a bad idea if you can afford it time-wise and cost-wise.

My biggest hurdle is not having a co-founder so far (I quit my job 4 months ago). I've tried looking in my friend circle. There are so many operational aspects that can easily split while I do the hard engineering.


but then you don't learn as much in terms of development... its fine if you just want to run a business but at the end of the day if you aren't spending a lot of time in the weeds of things then you aren't going to gain that domain expertise. of course, you can take this too far and then end up doing too much nonsense devops instead of actually developing new software, but still - outsource too much and you don't really learn as much.


Really liked this post. As someone who is considering this path, this was the most down-to-earth, realistic(but without coming off as pessimistic) article I have read anywhere. Also really like the goals for 2019:

- 500$ per month in revenue

- 12 blog posts

Somehow these feel like very easy achievements, but insurmountable at the same time.

I wish you much success Michael!

PS: I hope to write my first blog post somewhat soon-ish too :)


Thanks for reading!


I'm sorry, but how is your website worth $4000? It's a static Jekyll website. This website is 3 to 10 man hours of work. Are you seriously paying people $500/hr to `gem install jekyll` and pick a theme for you?

Honest question, because I'm either missing something here, or you're throwing money out the window and in which case: message me about developing something for you.


Haha, I wish it were only 3 to 10 hours of work to create the site.

The site is open source if you want to see what it's doing:

https://github.com/mtlynch/mtlynch.io

And here is all the work that Andrew, the blog's developer, did:

https://github.com/mtlynch/mtlynch.io/pulls?q=is%3Apr+author...

The repo does a lot more than a vanilla Jekyll install would provide. There are automated build checks to make sure the pages render with proper HTML, no dead links, that the correct headers are in place for social sharing.

Vanilla Jekyll doesn't handle image resizing very well, so Andrew did a lot of work to add in the right plugin to handle it and to go back through all of my old posts to update the images.

It was also important to me to have Github gist-style file includes, but I didn't want to split my content between my blog and external gists, so Andrew added support for file embeddings within my pages.

There's also just routine work in keeping packages up to date. Every few months, there will be a neat feature I want in either my theme or Jekyll itself, so we have to upgrade, but often that generates work to check that the upgrade didn't break anything.

You might still look at that and say it's not that much work, but there's complexity in keeping all of it working together. It's worth it to me to have the look and functionality I want on my blog without having to interrupt my writing to do it myself.

I'm sure I could find someone who will work for cheaper, but Andrew is great because he's rigorous and an excellent communicator. I've worked with other Jekyll developers and they've all burned so much of my time not understanding what I want, explaining things poorly, or expecting me to catch the errors in their work. When I make feature requests to Andrew, he gets what I'm asking right away, lays out the options with the benefits and drawbacks of each, and does the work correctly the first time.


Wow! Two (opinionated) thoughts here:

1) Why bother with all this technical excellence if you do not know even if your site will still exist an year from now? Poor analogy: you are building a Ferrari to deliver food.

2) You could adapt this tech to create another version of https://carrd.co, targeting another niche. That seems a more promising product that would benefit more from your tendency for technical excellence.


> Sidenote: My friends with children tell me that kids won’t complicate this at all.

Mmm...I'm not entirely convinced. I suppose it depends on whether or not you already have kids before you go this route. e.g. if you've got a couple of kids going to school in NY you have to time it properly. And you'd have to think about whether or not the place you're moving to would suit them. Oh and there's the small matter of getting "buy-in" from your wife/partner/girlfriend :)


I think he's being sarcastic. The one thing that all parents (myself included) tell non parents is that children change everything.


Yeah I was pretty sure it was meant in a humorous way. Kids will change everything, which scares my wife and me quite a bit. (We don't have children yet). :)


"My living expenses here are ~$2k per month, which is close enough to the rate of return on my personal investments that I’m kind of at equilibrium."

Closes window.


Envelope math is telling me that's about 30k/year before taxes. That would be a 6% annual return on half a million dollars.

Not exactly a recipe for the masses.


Why? He's been in the industry for 12 years working for big companies. A single person working at MS or Google can save $50k a year.


He's living the dream! Working on stuff he enjoys, living off his investment returns.


Why make the goals for 2019 so small? This makes things asymmetric the wrong way.

The risk associated with doing this is too high considering a 6k per revenue goal annually. When the cost is your savings and, more importantly, your time.

You don’t need to change the world or anything but why not make the goal 100k?

This will help you focus on things that can make 100k.


The poster who replied below sums up my feelings about it.

The appeal for me is that with a small project, I get a tight feedback loop. If my goal is to make $100k in a year, I have to take some pretty huge swings, so maybe I have a higher chance of making a large sum, but I also have a greater chance of making $0.

Is It Keto is fun to work on now because I have some levers and knobs, so I can see how adjusting them affects my income. I made $1.20 in December and it's looking like around $25 for January. That's lower than what I hoped but I'm getting that feedback quickly, so I'm learning a lot about what's working and what's not. If it were something where I'd have to sell $500/mo packages to each client, I feel like I'd have many months of $0 where I can't tell if I'm close to making money or if I'm totally off track .


Cos you first actually just need to make some amount of money. Any amount of money. Small is a good target. There is no guarantee you can even hit that. So you make the easiest possible Target to hit and then you ramp it up as you go.


Just out of curiosity, what did you do for your healthcare and everything after leaving Google?

Great article by the way, I really resonated with the line: "Your job at Google used to impress people. Now, when people ask about your work, you awkwardly tell them, “Um, it’s a website where you type a food, and it tells you whether it’s keto…” Shouldn’t you do something that sounds more impressive?"

I've had this thought (about my own projects) all too often


He did mention in the middle of the article, he's buying private insurance:

"My living expenses were rapidly eating away at my personal savings. Between my $3.3k/month Manhattan apartment, private health insurance, food, and utilities, it cost $6-7k per month just to sustain myself."

If my experience (in California) is anything close, it costs somewhere around $500/mo for a single person his age. (If you have a spouse it gets up to around $1000/mo, and with kid(s) it goes up to about $1500/mo) This was 2013-2016 numbers, and was also with Covered California, not sure if that makes it any cheaper.


I can confirm, I am living in NYC (and am mid-30s). I'm paying for the "bronze plan" of one of the cheapest insurance companies, and it is $470/mo this year.


Yep, it was $500/mo in NYC. In MA it's only $250. Well, "only." Still a big expense, obviously.


five HUNDRED dollars?? Per month?! I’m definitely amazed.


Did you expect it to be higher or lower? A lot of salaried people have never read their paystub carefully and seen that their employer pays 80-90% of their health insurance premiums for them.

Further, a lot of people don't realize that employers get a discount on providing health insurance because they have a pool of people over which to distribute a bunch of uncertainty. When you buy individual insurance, the "pool" is you (and maybe any of your dependents), and the insurance companies charge you "full" price.


My understanding is the "pool" is not you, but the general population who also bought the plan, which is probably a less healthier group of people than say your normal technology startup or enterprise company. Also, the state is probably doing worse on negotiating with the insurance companies for rates than compared to big fortune 500 companies.


Thanks for reading!

In NYC, I used Oscar for health insurance, which was $500/mo. In MA, plans are much cheaper, so I only pay $250/mo here.


Earlier this year I found this guy called Andrey online. He had left his job in Ukraine and moved to Bali with the goal of generating $1k/mrr. Check him out[0]. Fairly inspiring. Maybe you can cut costs further and see different parts of the world if you are keen.

[0]https://www.andreyazimov.com


I’m a bit confused about the graph? Your monthly loss seems to have been reduced to almost nothing, but then in the projects section most projects appear to be operating at a loss, and after that it still leaves 2k living expenses unaccounted for.

Am I missing something?


The graph only reflects my business income and expenses and doesn't include my living costs, which I'm paying by drawing down from savings.

I thought about how to show a unified view of my finances, but I couldn't think of any way to do it sensibly because it would included a huge one-time expense of buying a house, then a bunch of other one-time expenses from moving, renovating, etc.


It seems like what he described - he hired more freelancers/contractors at the start of these projects resulting in a ton of expenditures, but as they matured they costs mostly are server-based.


Congratulations. I think the best gain from this aside from the learning experience itself is the fact that you cut down your expenses and learned that life is still good without spending a ton of money. I did this in my late 20s and did go back to work un-solo but, i kept the expenses low and managed to save a lot more. I am still happier with less now and I only spend when it is necessary. Good luck to you!


Thanks for reading!

Yeah, I've never considered myself a huge spender. I'm still happy with my decision to pay for an expensive apartment close to my office when I was an employee because my income was high and not having to commute saved me so much time and stress every day.

But early last year, one of my readers sent me links to Mr. Money Mustache and his ideas about low-spending / FIRE definitely influenced my thinking.


> I'm still happy with my decision to pay for an expensive apartment close to my office when I was an employee because my income was high and not having to commute saved me so much time and stress every day.

I worked for big tech companies for 10.5 years and, because I started having kids early in my career, I had a single family home and a long commute. I did the sad math and figured that I probably spent over 6000 hours over that decade just commuting.

It is said that to become an expert at something you should spend about 10k hours working on it. If I didn't make a change I was going to reach 10k hours of commuting, so last year I got a remote job and it's been pretty transformative.


Can you give any tips on how you find people to outsource to? Where do you look? Do you interview them? Do you give them a trial period of some sort? Do you do fixed costs or hourly rates? How do you agree on prices per task? What do you do if you're not happy with the quality or they're late?

Thanks for the article by the way. It takes a lot of bravery to be this transparent about your earnings and expenses.


Not the author but I have been on a similar journey after leaving my job at Google 4 months ago. I have successfully used Reddit /forhire and Upwork to find decent people to work with and help code up parts of my new project (https://stockquanta.com).

The most important thing I look for is their past work - its complexity and usability both. Without that, it's a massive bet. Don't trust their words. And also you talk to them about your project and see if they ask the right questions + get the nuances.

Assuming this works out, then you ideally do fixed price, not hourly. Latter can become scammy. For the fixed price, you will divide it into milestones so that the first set of costs isn't too much but also gives some kind of re-assurance to the dev that you're serious and can give money. If the execution is bad, you can bail out sooner. I have seen developers lie about their past work too. One Fintech developer claimed he was the main developer for wealthfront.com and betterment.com lol and had them as part of this portfolio. I soon found out it was an amazingly bold lie which I guess many folks do fall for.

In my experience, they are ALWAYS late. I don't have a good way so far to control for that effectively.

Even after this, you will get bad apples. Some money will be wasted initially. The trick is to keep the good ones with you as time goes on (become friends with them if possible), and move away from the rest.


Thanks for the tips!

> Assuming this works out, then you ideally do fixed price, not hourly. Latter can become scammy

Can you elaborate? I'm assuming you mean if they work slower they earn more money? I prefer fixed price as well when working with clients; it has big advantages for both sides.

> For the fixed price, you will divide it into milestones so that the first set of costs isn't too much but also gives some kind of re-assurance to the dev that you're serious and can give money.

What do you do for payment if they don't reach the milestone or you're not happy with the quality?

> One Fintech developer claimed he was the main developer for wealthfront.com and betterment.com lol and had them as part of this portfolio. I soon found out it was an amazingly bold lie which I guess many folks do fall for.

How did you find this out?

> In my experience, they are ALWAYS late. I don't have a good way so far to control for that effectively.

I find the same with clients. You have to be very cautious agreeing to any deadline where you're dependent on other people and factors you cannot control, especially if you've never worked with someone before.


- The costs become uncapped and always end up more, with no accountability. After a certain while, sunk cost factor kicks in and it's too late to back out when you realize this developer is slow or not so great. Good confident developers will be able to estimate costs for projects upfront.

- You either lose the payment or ask for refund. I have done both. That's the risk. You can perhaps lower the risk by giving a much smaller initial milestone or negotiating first payment after some work.

- With crazy claims, the suspicion is already high. I talked to him for a few mins and it was clear there was no sophistication present and the guy was trying to attract clients with little to no experience.

Are you already working on a project or planning to?


Thanks for reading!

I do almost all of my hiring from Upwork, although most of my freelance costs in 2018 were to hire a former colleague who went freelance.

I've written posts about how I hired the blog's illustrator[0] and editor[1].

My screening process varies depending on the job I'm hiring for. The #1 thing I'm looking for is communication. I look hard at the quality of writing on their profile bio and cover letter. I've been hiring freelancers for several years (before I quit) and the most common reason it doesn't work out is that the freelancer is a bad communicator and we burn excessive time on miscommunication.

When I find someone who has promise, I generally just hire them for a small job (capped at 5-10 hours) without a lot of interviewing. I have this theory (not rigorously tested) that putting developers through a lot of screening is counterproductive because the people who are good have lots of options and don't want to jump through lots of unpaid hoops for you.

I don't have a defined trial period, but I just incrementally start giving them more responsibility and increase their hours cap.

I do fixed costs if it's a job that has a very distinct deliverable (e.g. convert this AngularJS site to Angular7). But if it's just that I want someone to do some of the dev work on a project, I'll just pay hourly.

Price is determined at the start. On Upwork, the freelancers bid on the job and that's the price you go with. If I work with someone for a long time, I increase their rate periodically.

If I'm not happy with the work, I pay for the time they put in, but I end the contract.

I only refuse to pay if they either fail to deliver or deliver something that's unusable. That's very rare, though. It's only happened to me once out of 50ish hires on Upwork.[2]

[0]: https://mtlynch.io/how-to-hire-a-cartoonist/

[1]: https://mtlynch.io/editor/

[2]: https://mtlynch.io/upwork-scammer/


I also quit my job at Google New York 4 months ago to pursue my own entrepreneurial path [0]. This post is a bit scary for me. I admire author's transparency, but if I am being honest, I don't want to be at the same place after 1 year.

I'll probably write down my own summary of all the learnings from my mistakes so far (there are SO many), but the biggest one was the same that the author seems to be making: trying to do too many things at once. I also think freelancing away everything for a strong developer is a mistake because of the roundtrips involved.

Making a business out of anything requires an insane amount of effort beyond engineering and I have finally managed to now try to do just one thing for the foreseeable future, and spend at least 30-40% of my time on outreach, validation and business aspects.

[0] https://stockquanta.com


Thanks for reading.

Don't fear ending up like me. It's fun! Just buy a house next door to me in Western Mass, and we'll go on some hikes together.

Kidding, but really I suspect we just have different goals. I'd like to build a business that makes enough to support me and a family comfortably on <= 40 hours of work per week. From StockQuanta, it seems like your goal is to build something that can grow very large, and limiting your work hours isn't as critical to you.


I didn't mean your situation but was mostly referring to the profit/loss chart :-) I am sure you're having a grand adventure, and I hope to have the same. And I didn't realize you are constraining your work hours, which is a nice goal. I am trying to front-load the pain haha.

Are you formerly from Google NY too?


Yep, Google NY. The building in the cover art on the article is 111 8th Ave (with some creative liberties).


Author here. Happy to answer any questions about this post.


Very interesting. I took the same path a while ago. My biggest mistake was not validating business properly. Coding before checking if it was commercially viable. I think you can do this business/validation part better.


Thanks for reading!

Yeah, I think my biggest mistake on Zestful was that I spent too long on the product before validating that anyone would buy it.

I think for some products, it's unavoidable to build a little first but I've definitely learned how important it is to get to validation ASAP.


How would you go about validating a product at such an early stage though? For example, what could have told you that no one had an interest in an API like Zestful?

EDIT: There is actually an extremely similar service that does have a business use case: https://dialogflow.com/ (from your past employer)

Does exactly the same thing, take a short input of words and identify overall intent as well as entities (in your case ingredient, amount, format, etc...)

On top of that, it has a great UI, export functions, integrates with other services, has an API, etc...


>How would you go about validating a product at such an early stage though? For example, what could have told you that no one had an interest in an API like Zestful?

I wrote a blog post last year[0] about what I think I should have done differently to validate it sooner but the tl;dr was that I think I could have pitched it to potential customers before I built anything. I imagine a lot of them could have told me off the bat that they wouldn't be interested. But even if I didn't do that, I spent way too long making a demo site even though the API marketplace I was using had its own (I just didn't like theirs).

>There is actually an extremely similar service that does have a business use case: https://dialogflow.com/ (from your past employer)

I've never tried DialogFlow for recipe ingredients, but I'd be very surprised if it could match Zestful in accuracy. I'm using NLP too, but recipe ingredients are so niche and specialized.

But their business is general-purpose NLP. I couldn't achieve that and I definitely wouldn't be able to compete with Google on that battlefield.

[0]: https://mtlynch.io/shipping-too-late/


How many items are listed on Is it Keto?

I'm not seeing results for my first two searches Pickles, and Mayonnaise.

Also its not imminently clear after doing a search that the search bar will let you do another "Is it Keto" search because of the change in style.

Did you do a "Is X Keto" keyword search in Adwords to come up with your initial list of foods?


Thanks for reading, and for the good questions!

>How many items are listed on Is it Keto?

It's currently at 131 foods.

At the beginning, I deliberately made browsing hard to obscure the fact that the database was so small. Now that it's a bit bigger, I'm considering making it possible to browse by category.

>I'm not seeing results for my first two searches Pickles, and Mayonnaise.

Yeah, those are in the queue. My writer actually wrote a draft of Mayonnaise but I still need to edit it. Mayonnaise is the #21 most 404'ed page and pickles is #45. But it's a long tail. "Beans" is the #1 most 404'ed and it's only 1.7% of 404s.

>Also its not imminently clear after doing a search that the search bar will let you do another "Is it Keto" search because of the change in style.

Good point. I'll tweak the UI to make it more obvious that the user can keep searching.

>Did you do a "Is X Keto" keyword search in Adwords to come up with your initial list of foods?

I do it a few different ways. At the beginning, I would just look in Facebook groups and wait until someone asked "is X keto?" then I'd quickly write the article and link it. Then I started looking at which pages got the most 404s and I'd write those.

Now that the Twitter account is more popular, I have more control over what people read (as opposed to only reacting to what users search for) because I can drive people to a page by sharing it on Twitter. And if a product is keto and I @-mention the manufacturer, sometimes they'll RT it and give it more exposure, so I look for manufactured foods that are keto friendly. Because for something like "lettuce," it's hard to make money because they have to click the link, then click something else that's keto-friendly and that they can buy on Amazon.

For SEO, I also do look at Google Trends and look for "X keto" keywords where there isn't already a good result. A query like "is xylitol keto" is hard to win at in SEO because a lot of big keto blogs already have dedicated articles to it. But I think Is It Keto gets top spot for "Is Propel Keto?" because none of the bigger sites ever bothered to write an article about such a specific product.


Hey sorry this is a few days later, but I've been thinking about your site a lot.

I think eventually you probably want to automatically build pages, just by scanning carb counts from a nutritional databases....

But as long as you are doing these high effort manual posts, an amazing feature I would love to see is a "suggested replacement item" for things that aren't Keto.

So if someone searches "Is Kombucha Keto", your page could say "No probably not Keto, but consider this probiotic drink from Kevita which is very similar but without as many carbs."


Thanks for taking the time to crush this response. I'll post your site in my Keto groups whenever I can.


Interesting and honest read. Freedom is costly. Mistakes are costly. It's the price of learning.


Thanks for reading!


First off, I just wanna thank you for being so candid and sharing your experiences so far. I wish you'd blog more, but I understand this eats into time you'd prefer to spend on your projects :)

Apart from your rent and private health insurance what else about the cost of living in Manhattan (apart from rent, food) pushed your expenses to 7K a month. I'm assuming you moved to a lower cost of area without modifying your lifestyle too much, so it's crazy that you'd get such a dramatic decrease in cost just by moving.


Thanks for reading!

I wish I would blog more, too! I write so slowly that I have way more ideas than I have time to write.

>Apart from your rent and private health insurance what else about the cost of living in Manhattan (apart from rent, food) pushed your expenses to 7K a month. I'm assuming you moved to a lower cost of area without modifying your lifestyle too much, so it's crazy that you'd get such a dramatic decrease in cost just by moving.

Good question! One thing to keep in mind was that I don't have especially expensive tastes, but I also didn't adjust my lifestyle at all when I quit until I moved, so I could have lowered it from $6-7k if I put more effort in.

One big expense in New York is just the cost of socializing. In other areas, I feel like people socialize more at each other's houses. In New York, because housing is so expensive, it's hard to have a group of friends over, so people tend to meet at restaurants, which are expensive. And nobody has a car, but everyone lives spread out, so you spend a lot on Uber.

But if you're living in Manhattan, everyone around you is living this relatively high income / high spend lifestyle, so you don't really notice spending so much. And I'm not even talking like bottle service, five-star restaurant dining. Just like get brunch together, go do some activity that costs $30-50/person, have dinner, that could be like $100-200 in a single day.

Part of what keeps my costs down in Western Mass is that a) costs are just way lower and b) people around me don't have such a high income so normal activities that people choose are relatively cheap.


Congrats for your courage!

On a slightly personal note, how was your social life been for the past year?

If you want to have a family do you see yourself staying in this city?


What conferences did you have in mind to speak at? Are there any videos out there of you speaking to groups?


Last year I gave a talk called "How to Do Code Reviews Like a Human" at NERD Summit[0] and PyGotham[1]. Here's a video of the PyGotham talk:

https://youtu.be/0t4_MfHgb_A

I'm scheduled to speak at NERD again in March to talk about incrementally applying mature programming practices (unit tests, CI) to a codebase that's missing them. It's based on a series of blog posts I wrote last year called "Resurrecting a Dead Library." [2]

I'd also like to speak at Python or DevOps conferences about why I think good developers fall into traps that cause them to write bad tests.[3]

0: http://2018.nerdsummit.org/

1: https://2018.pygotham.org/

2: https://mtlynch.io/resurrecting-1/

3: https://mtlynch.io/good-developers-bad-tests/


The real secret with low effort outsourcing is to give them a week and if you aren't impressed moved on, or hire 3 at the same time and do the same thing. There are people that are very suited for low input remote work and tons that aren't.


I'm sympathetic to his goal because I have similar aspirations to have more freedom.

What I might miss in his situation is working as part of a team with others: business people, SW devs, design


Thanks for reading!

That's definitely the thing that I miss most.

It's not just the social interaction but the feeling of growing together. I like working on a team because we're all learning from each other.

It's just not the same with freelancers. When everyone's a full-time employee, there's a permanence to that, and it encourages everyone to invest in each other and invest in the team. With most freelancers, they could quit at any time, so there's less incentive to take time to teach them. And the power dynamics are weirder so it's much harder for freelancers to tell me I'm doing something stupid, whereas peers or people senior to me felt much more comfortable doing that when I was an employee.


> What I might miss in his situation is working as part of a team with others: business people, SW devs, design

Technically he does have a team of freelancers...


True, but hiring freelancers isn't usually the same as being part of the same team working towards shared goals.

Ideally I'd find people I enjoy working with and who have complementary skills.


How did you survive if you didn’t make any money last year?


Thanks for reading!

I had a healthy stockpile of savings from working 10 years at various software jobs that paid well. I was at Google for the last 4 years, did consulting before that, and worked at Microsoft before that.


I'd like to do this (or at least take a sabbatical) like this in a decade - unfortunately saving as much as you seems difficult to impossible at my current trajectory.

Did you ever write up how you managed your prior savings?


I haven't written about it, but my strategy was very simple I just put all of my money into the Vanguard 500. For about 18 months before I quit, I started moving my money into less volatile savings like treasury bond funds.


> How did you survive if you didn’t make any money last year?

The author made a reference to the "The 4 hour work" week. If I remember correctly one of the points there was about being able to operate from a low cost center. e.g. I imagine modest savings accumulated in the US would support you if you relocate to say "Thailand" and work from there for 6 months.


M Lynch also says that 2k expenses/month is more or less covered by interests in assets, which means he probably has around 600.000-ish in stocks (at a 4% safe withdrawal rate)


That's after he bought the house too. A zillow search shows that a 2-bed house in South Hadley, MA is around $150-200k. If bought in cash, his total savings was probably 750-800k.

It may be a good reminder for readers of this to realize that if they want to do something similar to the author, having roughly that order of magnitude of savings is a good start -- and even then, having the expenses of living in a big city (Manhattan, SF) is still unsustainable.


What specific tactics did you use for Project Managing yourself? How did that differ from PMing in a work environment?


I did a few different things. For a few of my projects, I wrote a spec defining what "complete" would look like. [0, 1, 2]

For the last few months, I've been following a plan that's more loose. I write monthly retrospectives on Indie Hackers [3, 4] and define what I want to accomplish next month, but I don't write a formal plan.

Google was very light on PMs, especially the teams I was on. Microsoft used them more extensively, but even then, their main value was in coordinating with other teams and synthesizing information about end-users. As a solo developer, I don't need those things as much.

0: https://mtlynch.io/files/outsourcing-mvp/ketohub-v1-design-d...

1: https://mtlynch.io/shipping-too-late/#the-mvp-that-wasnt

2: https://blog.spaceduck.io/sia-load-test-preview/#full-test-p...

3: https://www.indiehackers.com/forum/isitketo-month-4-my-first...

4: https://www.indiehackers.com/forum/isitketo-returning-to-a-s...


I'd like to know that too.

For me, I just use the free version of Trello to keep track of development. I'm used to scrum so I start every day with a 1 man 'meeting' where I look over what ive done and what needs to be done. That's been working for me so far but I have only one project going. This would be a good ask HN post.


> The things you’re best at are code reviews, unit tests, and refining processes for a team of developers. Aren’t you wasting your best skills working by yourself?

This is very important question. Unfortunately, Michael Lynch does not have an answer to that question yet.


Enjoyed the article, thanks for sharing and your transparency


Thanks for reading!


I had to work full time and go to school at night to get my education. I used to begrudge people who had it "easy", but anymore I feel like the grit and self-confidence I got from struggling and succeeding has paid dividends down the road.

I still think I would be better off coming from a rich family. Grit is nice but you can't call grit and have them cover your rent.

Another thing I got good at was managing a budget and learning to make do with less. I don't know his upbringing or where he comes from, but there is $$ coming from somewhere. I guess you could save up a lot of money working at Google? But he previously established he spends $6k/mo on personal expenses. Doesn't seem like a "retire early" person. This is exactly why I don't compare myself to the Zuckerbergs and Musks of the world: How am I supposed to compete with this?

I feel for this person. I'm sorry he had to learn some of these lessons the hard way, but this just screams "wantrepreneur"

> Outsourcing

I may be missing something but this just seems loony-tunes to me. What is the business he is trying to create? How is outsourcing all of your tasks "lean" at all?

> Strategy / Products

Other people have pointed out: Find a product people are demanding and build it. Launch it as soon as possible. Iterate on it and delight your users. Don't make it an easy idea that someone can just copy.

A keto diet search engine doesn't even pass the smell test to me. My fitness app ( edit: The fitness app I use, not own ) Lifesum can do that. I'm sure all of the others can as well. Why would you create a product in a crowded market with huge established competitors?

> Travis CI: -$1,419

To me, that is a lot of money.

You can run a Jenkins server for $10/mo on Digital Ocean and get 90% of the same features. It's not hard if you just need something pragmatic.

Heck, you can even automatically spin the instance down during off-hours and pay even less than that.

> Coveralls

You can just generate HTML documents for this, you don't need to pay them to do it.

> Ther personal expenses

I cannot imagine spending 6k/mo on personal expenses. WOW! I thought Portland, Oregon was expensive!

> Buying a house

Also, why BUY a house? Now you have an asset you have to get rid of at some point. You now have loan payments to pay that will never go away unless you manage to sell the house.

Buying a house is often NOT an investment, especially in a tiny little town. The most expensive house is the one you can't sell.

I mean, I guess maybe the house was VERY CHEAP.


What affiliate link program are you a part of? That's a notable amount just from your blog.


Most of the money is from Amazon. Then I think I got like $60 from Newegg (via CJ) because 1-2 of my posts mention computer components where the prices are better on Newegg.


So was this all product work or consulting + product work?


yay another "i quit google" post


Glad you enjoyed it! I plan to write one every year.


Best wishes to you. I think it's awesome to strike out and do your own thing. I don't think I am gutsy enough to do it.




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