Just like in my 2016 State of the Startup post, I put a time fuse on this post. This article was written one year ago. Simply put, it’s really hard to publish about these kind of personal things “in the moment” but I want to share them because I think it may benefit others. So leaving a one year gap satisfies this.
State of the Startup: July 2017
Greetings Universe. I’m here to deliver my second annual “State of the Startup” address where I share about the status of all my entrepreneurial efforts. I was feeling pretty down about things this week and not looking forward to writing this. Then I read last year’s “State of the Startup”… holy shit have things gotten better!
I can’t claim things are going amazing – I’m still not satisfied. But things are much better.
I’m organizing this project-by-project instead of chronologically, so please keep in minds that a lot of the timelines overlap on these different items per my somewhat unusual execution style.
Freelance Web Development
Last year I reported having a real bad summer where I was struggling to find new web development clients and pay my bills. Things have changed considerably. I have no idea why last summer was such a slump. I don’t think I changed much about my approach but business picked up considerably in the fall and has been steady ever since. My new problem: I’m fucking tired of building shit for people.
I’m simply tired of being on the computer so much. On top of web development work, most of my passion projects also involve using the computer. Whether it’s my educational platform Open Source High (or PUN), organizing stand-up comedy material, or blogging… it’s just too much.
Last summer was particularly rough because both my paid work and passion projects were both feeling like failures: I wasn’t making much money freelancing and it was also stressful my education startup wasn’t growing.
I’ll talk about the education work later, but the web development work did get better. My cash flow from freelancing is livable and I’ve got a little money in the bank. I’ve got about $5k in 0% interest credit card debt, $4k in my checking account, and $2k in cash buried in my parents basement. The one mysterious variable is how much of my money actually belongs to the government which I really won’t know for certain until next spring when I do my taxes.
Here’s a graph of my web development revenue for the last 18 months. This won’t be perfectly accurate… but it’s pretty close.
Of course this graph only shows revenue and doesn’t subtract out expenses or taxes. For example, I spend around $250/month subcontracting coding when it is beyond my ability, about $200/month purchasing plugins and themes, and $100/month on servers and hosting. From whatever is left, I usually anticipate about 30% going to the government.
This next graph really highlights how desperate I was last summer when I wrote that heavily-depressing State of the Startup post. I use Toggl to track all my time spent on work-related tasks, one of them being “Chasing Business” which means pursuing new clients. As you can see, I’m spending much less time chasing new business, and much more time actually doing projects.
Now let’s take a look at how much time I actually logged building websites for people:
Overall, it looks like things have been pretty steady every month for the last year in terms of how many hours I’m spending working for clients. So that’s all pretty good.
A sincere positive statement: It looks like I “made it” as far as being a freelance developer who is supporting himself while traveling the world goes.
I’m still unsatisfied though.
As many know, there’s much more to a person’s mental well-being than can be represented in graphs and charts, especially financial ones. I think I’m mostly frustrated my work in the education world isn’t making much progress.
I am comforted though in re-reading last year’s State of the Startup to remind myself how much progress was made. I’m feeling a lot more positive now than when I woke up.
Education: Introducing the Peer Unschooling Network
Alright – this is really what the State of the Startup is all about, right? How are things going in building out this alternative education platform and revolutionizing the world of education?
A lot has happened in the last year, though I’m not sure if that is evident from the outside.
For one, I’ve drastically shifted my focus away from the public school system and toward “unschooling.”
When I first got into alternative education, I was trying to find a way to get kids to learn together without school. The school system was the bottleneck that was standardizing education instead of personalizing it. Since not everyone could afford a personal teacher, peer-to-peer learning seemed like a way they could lean on each other for support as self-directed learners. The response I got was that this idea was too radical, and so I went more mainstream with Open Source High, the website where kids make videos teaching each other. While it was a cool project, it wasn’t going to change the world.
It turns out the world is already being changed through the unschooling movement. I don’t need to invent anything, the solution already exists! Unschoolers are legally homeschooled, but they don’t just replicate school at home. As it the motto of the Liberated Learners Network, they believe that “learning is natural and school is optional.” I couldn’t agree more!
I attended my first unschooling conference in the fall. It was amazing. I finally felt like I’d found my tribe. Of course I was an outsider… but I was welcomed in a way I did not expect. People were super nice to me and seemed genuinely interested in my efforts to help connect teens to learn from each other. Plus, the teens seemed to think it was a cool idea to build a digital community connecting them too. Everything went well all week and I even was asked to host their talent show!
The only downside was the final night when some father got drunk and started threatening me with violence, accusing me of having sex with two of the mothers, and suggested I was some kind of creepy pedophile. On a positive note, he kept calling me an “attractive, single young man”, which was quite flattering. While it’s funny to laugh about now, it was really pretty intense and caught me like a deer in headlights. This was obviously not a reaction I ever expected to get from people.
I also ran into a similar conflict while trying to attend a conference in North Carolina this year. Someone complained that an “adult man with no kids” was going to be in attendance (ME!). After traveling all the way to North Carolina, I was asked not to attend the event. I was pretty angry at this blatant discrimination. I always expected to find opposition from people who supported traditional schooling, I was really surprised to be experiencing this from people whose philosophies I agreed with and wanted to promote.
This kinda shit is really defeating to be honest. Having two different occasions where people are attacking me in some way for just being a guy with no kids. That’s fucked up. I seem to harbor some strong fears of judgment from other people.
Despite this determents, I kept pushing forward. Over the winter, I launched a simple chat/messaging system allowing unschoolers to connect, called the Peer Unschooling Network. Personally, I hate the name… but it at least says exactly what it is in the title and might be good for SEO if/when we have an app. The kids like to call the site “PUN.”
I got a bunch of users right away when some influential unschooling folks posted it on their facebooks and sent it out to their mailing lists. But not a lot of the users “stuck”. Of the 300 that are currently signed up, about 20 are regular users, and 5 are on the site every day. I wish these numbers were better. It’s indicative that I’m not quite offering them something they really want.
Because of this, rather than spending lots of time promoting the new site, I instead spent my time talking to lots of teens and asking them what they really do want: ‘What are your greatest challenges?’ ‘If you could wave a magic wand and change anything, what would it be?’ ‘What’s your favorite and least favorite part of being an unschooler?’ Those are pretty good questions to ask to get to know people’s needs.
A really key question I asked was: ‘How would you recommend this site to a friend?’ This question was really important because I learned the teens did not look at PUN as a “learning tool” at all – they looked at it as a social platform. They typically responded, “PUN is a great place to meet friends.” Nobody said, “PUN is a great place to learn.”
At first, I was alarmed by this, but the reality was this was a huge insight. They did not need help learning… that was not their problem. They had “solved” that problem through unschooling. Their needs were social. And as is the philosophy of the Agile Learning Centers: “Learning is always happening.”
So now it seems I’m trying to build some kind of “facebook for unschoolers”… so cliché. We prefer to call it a “digital city” for unschoolers. For the last 6 months, I’ve been trying to build a new site that really captures the elements of a city in a website. Progress has been incredibly slow – partly because I don’t know exactly what this thing is supposed to do or look like, and partly because I’ve been outsourcing some of the development. Hiring people in India does save some money, but they are often slow, and their code is messy. But it’s been helpful for this kind of side project that I don’t have much money to operated and doesn’t have firm/strict timelines.
One problem I’m encountering: I keep putting off launching the new site. I thought originally I would just add a forum to the chatrooms and relaunch in February. Then I decided to add a user profile and “FriendFinder” feature and to relaunch in March. Then I visited Asheville, NC and got inspired to add some more media-like features to the site.
I wanted the experience of using the site to be like visiting a real city run by teenagers: you’d hear them on the radio, you’d see their artwork everywhere, you might attend shows/performances they put on, you’d see them and talk with them at cafes, you’d play games at the park with them, and maybe buy products they’d made at a store they owned and operated. Those are all the elements I’m trying to capture in the new PUN site: user-submitted audio tracks, videos, and artwork… plus discussion forums and chat rooms… eventually games and a marketplace.
How will this be funded for sustainability? No fuckin idea. Maybe the marketplace could generate revenue through a ‘tax’. Maybe we’ll sell t-shirts. Who knows. I’ve pretty much given upon the idea that this will ever generate revenue, I’m just desperately obsessed with making something people really love and that genuinely makes a different in the way education is done.
I understand that I’ve changed a few lives with the site already – some kids have expressed that this has helped them make friends and saved them from really sad times in their life. But I want something bigger, of course. Something “grandiose” – to make self-directed learning and unschooling accessible to anyone.
I’m hoping to launch this new version of the site in the next month… but I guess I’ve planned on that a bunch of times before. This time it feels real because I’m attending the California Homeschool Conference in a couple weeks and then helping out at Not Back to School Camp in August. The new version of the site really needs to be ready before those events.
I don’t think I have much more to say about the education stuff… I’ve been feeling really down that more hasn’t been happening with it. I also got rejected from that massive grant I mentioned applying for last year. I feel like my advisors are disappointed I haven’t been making faster moves. Maybe I’m making that up in my head… but I feel like my tech. advisor can’t understand why I haven’t launched this new site yet and my business advisor can’t understand why I’m not spending time getting more users and growing this thing. Plus my parents have that “why are you wasting your time with this stuff” kind of attitude toward this work.
Maybe I’m dealing with some depression… maybe these things just naturally take time to progress… maybe I’ve been lazy… maybe I’m not being bold enough… maybe I’m distracting myself with traveling… I don’t know the answers.
I should also mention that I got asked last month to start co-producing the webshow Youth on Subjects of the World. I really like the idea of having a 24/7 online radio station of teens who don’t go to school – allowing those who are in school to peak into this outside world and have it be more “real” to them.
I have traveled a lot since last year and felt like this deserved a section in this post since it’s made a big impact on my work. I spent a few weeks in January down in Mexico and then went to Peru for a few weeks. Since then, I’ve been driving around the US – I went down the east coast, crossed across the country, and then up the west coast. I’m typing this blog post in Eugene, OR. I think so far the best city I’ve seen so far was Asheville, NC.
I’d like to share some lessons learned about cost-effectively traveling as a freelancer.
Firstly, almost everywhere I travel to, I somehow incorporate my business into it. This helps me figure out where I want to go and also helps with taxes because then traveling is more of a business expense.
In my international travels, I went to Mexico and met up with some unschoolers and traveled to Peru with a group of teens from a democratic school. I also built a website for a wonderful couple (Connective World Energy) I made friends with down in Mexico.
Domestically, when I drove down the east coast, I visited a Sudbury school and Liberated Learner center in NJ. I met with a potential collaborator in NYC. I visited my nephew in SC and a friend who I’d like to collaborate on a hip-hop song of some kind in SC. Then I went to NC for a conference and to visit a friend. Then down to FL to spend a weekend with some unschoolers and attend a conference. Then back up to SC for my nephew’s graduation and to see family. Then I started traveling westward across the US to make it to San Diego for my legal trial with the LED company. I had some meetings down there, then headed northward to LA to see a web designer, to SF to meet a client and some potential collaborators, then up to Oregon to meet with an author whose book I’d like to turn into an audio book and met with a mental health activism group I want to collaborate with.
It’s very easy to view this from a perspective that I was perpetually travelling for work. After all, people always ask “Are you traveling for business or personal”? Yet I specifically choose to work with people I like, choose to travel to cities I enjoy or am curious about, pick places that will have some comedy open mics to perform at, and make sure to enjoy myself. So this idea of business/personal being so black and white is an unrealistic illusion.
As far as accommodations, I stay with friends sometimes, sometimes in hostels, sometimes Airbnbs, sometimes at campgrounds, and if it’s a longer stay (+3 weeks), I’ll usually sublet a room off Craigslist. My ideal scenario is to stay in each place for 3-4 weeks. Gas isn’t super expensive for me because I get 32 mpg in my Honda Fit. I do my best to eat food from grocery stores instead of restaurants, though I do eat somewhat expensive organic type food. But even on a tricky diet like mine (vegan/gluten-free as much as possible), it’s still manageable.
Healthy LED Lighting
A semi-big victory: I won my lawsuit against my former LED company. That was a shitbag of stress. It’s mostly a moral victory since the company is in financial trouble and it looks unlikely that I’ll ever actually get paid out from the lawsuit. But it was good to have some level of closure on the whole ordeal. Honestly, it’s all a pretty sad story, really.
I believe there is still a role for me to fill in the healthy lighting space. I’m not sure exactly what/where/how, but it feels obvious that I’m a perfect fit to do something here. From the technical side of things, I’ve got a biomedical engineering degree, I’ve launched two startups related to light and biology…. and from a more personal stance, I spend a lot of time involved in mental health and alternative education to help people who are trapped indoors – where the lighting is very unhealthy. I’m not certain how it will work out, but I have faith something will come of it.
I did a little experimenting selling healthy, tunable desk lamps online, but had little luck. The margins were thin, the products were nothing I was proud of, and very few people are actually searching for healthy lighting. Without being able to capture organic search traffic, I’d be stuck doing paid advertisements and it just wasn’t penciling in financially. So I put this on hold, but I haven’t given up. I think the time just isn’t right yet.
Maybe I’ll circle back to this after things are really “final” with the lawsuit. Maybe by that time the technology will have improved and the products will be something I can sell more confidently.
When the lighting ecommerce site didn’t work out, I started playing around with another drop shipping site. I thought this would be a way to move myself away from building sites for other people, and instead be running my own sites.
As the lighting products weren’t financially viable, I decided to experiment in the sex toy industry. Yay, toys!
It was mostly a rational decision, I wanted to find a product that people would be likely to buy online, but not purchase on Amazon. Sex toys seemed reasonable because a lot of people wouldn’t want that showing up in their purchase history. So while it may seem like the site sells sex toys, I realize it’s actually selling security and privacy.
I’m torn on whether this is a “moral” thing to sell. It seems like a mildly inappropriate market to get into for a guy who’s also involved in education. At the same time, the site is advocating for safe sex and building intimacy between couples. These are things I believe in and support.
The real concern: “But what will people think if the site actually became successful?” I ask myself. This idea of being concerned what other people think has consistently made me think of shutting the experiment down. At the same time, I realized the customers on this site are purchasing these toys online instead of in a live store because they are also concerned with what other people think! They don’t want to purchase in-person because of stigma. Fucking stigma! So that aligns a bit with my interests in mental health and gives me some inspiration to continue poking around with this project and see if it’s actually viable.
I also can’t resist the fact that it would be fucking hilarious to be able to say that the self-directed education revolution was funded by selling dildos. Certainly have a very long road to travel before that kind of claim can be made… but the comedian in me can’t resist the humor in this.
To be clear, the site is not generating any revenue yet, just a new project I’ve dipped into on the side. It’s been a good experience learning about drop shipping in general, picking up new SEO skills, learning about Facebook ads, and also Adwords knowledge. These are useful skills that I can then translate to offer as a service for my web design clients or for my unschooling website.
Some really positive advancements came in the last year in my comedy, though the winter was really rough. I felt like I wasn’t getting laughs and it felt a bit painful to be performing and failing. I’d constantly think: maybe I’m not actually funny… maybe I just got lucky in the past… maybe people figured out I’m a “fraud” or a “hack” of a comic. I couldn’t help but wonder if somehow the fact I haven’t been smoking pot was somehow effecting quality the material. I’ve been off the stuff for 2.5 years now and all the jokes I perform now were written sober.
I’ve also been much more torn on the content in terms of how “offensive” it should be. Am I performing for myself? Should I be performing in a way that focuses on pretending that I am an audience member? That’s normally my process… is to amuse myself. But if my real goal to get a message out to the world regarding mental health and education, then should I modify my performance to reach as many people as possible? How do I stay true to myself and my form? There’s always this part of me that is really performing for my 10 year old self – that’s how old I was when I first started listening to standup. Will I ever create an album that has the effect that Chris Rock’s ‘Roll with the New’ had on me as a kid? Or George Carlin as a teen?
This last weekend, I was scheduled to do my first hour set at the Oregon Country Fair. This forced me to put together a 60 minute show that I could be proud of. It was really intense putting the material together and prepping for the show, but I did it.
The show was a fucking disaster. The person who booked me was misleading about what kind of material I could perform and at the last minute my stage time was adjusted to 30 minutes instead of 60. The real tragedy was when a staff member interrupted my set and started yelling at me to stop because I was being inappropriate. I ended up just riffing on the awkwardness of the situation for the entire set instead of doing any of my material, so it was a hefty shitshow.
Later that night, however, I got to perform for members MindFreedom International, a mental health activism organization in Eugene, OR that I am very interested in collaborating with. As I’ve mentioned, the whole reason I got into stand-up comedy was to give a voice to the mental health community. They seemed to like my stuff, so it was a roller coaster day that ended well.
In the next year, I hope to take this 60 minute act and get a chance to really perform the full show. Many times. And polish it from being an ‘ok’ 60 minutes into a ‘good’ 60 minutes. Maybe even ‘great.’
One perpetual thought that keeps creeping in is worrying about my “image”. This has always been a super-annoying part of my life. I think I just grew up in a place where people cared so much about appearances and perceptions that it was really bothersome. Part of the joy of being a freelance web developer is that none of my clients could care less about what I say in my stand-up comedy act or write in my blog. But now that I’m becoming more active in the alternative education community, some people are starting to notice. And now I’m suddenly becoming a little more nervous about what people think of me. I don’t like that… my comedy is really well-intentioned but I’ve been told it can come across as discriminatory even though the goal is actually to have the opposite effect. This is really frustrating and something I hope to overcome more in the next year…. “just be yourself!!!!”
I’m not sure if this qualifies as landing in the “State of the Startup” but I’ve started doing more actual work in mental health. I helped MindFreedom to put together a grant to do activism training. I also wrote a draft of “my story” for the Mad in America blog and have been filming a weekly “vlog” tracking my progress as I go off my psychiatric medications. I haven’t released any of this content, but I imagine when the blog post you are reading is released in a year, I will probably have released those videos and my story.
As for my own mental health, it’s been alright, but physically I’ve been in a lot of body pain. My shoulder has had this serious injury that I can only attribute to stress and possibly sitting poorly while on a computer. My back has pains from using the laptop too much. This lifestyle isn’t the greatest thing in the world – hemorrhoids too! Damn… too much info? Stress is taking a toll, I’m not really sure how to overcome that. I do my best to try and do purposely relaxing things, but I don’t know that it’s getting the job done. Wrists are a little carpal tunneled too. Meh – this should probably be a different blog post.
What the FisX
I realized I didn’t get much into What the FisX in last year’s State of the Startup. I created a series of physics comedy sketches a while back… I’d really like to turn this into a “real” show. The trouble is, when I first made those videos, I wanted it to be “acceptable” to be shown in a school classroom. Now, I think that was a bullshit move, and I shoulda made something more in-line with my real self. So it’s kind of a daunting task to think I would start over and do this all over again, but that might just have to happen! I’ll need to free up a lot of my time for that to occur though.
I find myself more and more wanting to be more of an activist in mental health and self-directed learning rather than an entrepreneur. I suppose I already am one, but maybe I’m not being as deliberate in this effort. There’s a desire to “fight” and make change. It feels like an inevitability… as they say “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then the fight you, then you win.” But what exactly am I fighting about? What am I so angry for?
I had some really rough experiences in the mental health system and encountered terrible lies, coercion, and force. I also feel the school system really did a number on programming my mind and is doing an incredible disservice to the majority of youth. There’s a lot of lies, coercion, and force in education as well. I guess those are pretty reasonable things to fight!
It’s nice to write this year’s State of the Start Up because it feels much more positive than last year, though I still feel empty inside. Goddamned… what a depressing closing to this. I guess it’s a message to entrepreneurs… find things that truly fulfill you… looking to the future for that “I’ll be happy one day when I….” is a bad habit to get into. I feel like in my case, I am aware that the future won’t bring that… but I’m also not content with my present. I’m always still hustling trying to get “more”. I could probably live a nice simple life if I stayed in one place, did the freelance web development, and stopped trying to do all this extra shit. Life would be simple, right? But obviously I’m not going for simple here…. I’m trying to do something meaningful. For what??? Maybe I’d be better off sitting under a tree meditating instead of chasing all this stuff. The end.