Note to reader: this was written in July of 2018 and was supposed to be published in July of 2019… I never published it due to my discomfort with certain parts of the article.
State of the Startup: July 2018
This is the third installment of my annual “State of the Startup” articles. As happened last year, I felt a bit down when I went to begin writing this article, but reading my status from the previous year… I’m feeling a bit better.
I’m going to try and be briefer this time as these articles drag on quite a bit. Once again, I’ll organize this project-by-project instead of chronologically, otherwise I will lose you entirely.
Web Development and Digital Marketing
This year saw two big changes in my freelancing work. The first was that I began paying other people to do a lot more work. The second is that I shifted toward doing more marketing, rather than just design/development. Both have their ups and downs.
With subcontracting, it was mainly a combination of financial incentives and boredom that motivated me. I was getting bored doing some of the same work over and over again, so I decided that I could hire people to do that. I’d paid others to do development work before, but typically I would do this with work that was too hard for me. Now, I started hiring people to do work that was too easy for me. This increased my capacity to get things down and did result in a marked increase in my revenues. The financials can be really misleading though, because even though it shows me making a bit more money, I am also spending a lot more money now in paying people to do the work. I am more than happy to pay others for their work – the more money I’m spending paying people to do work, the more money I must be making at the same time.
Along the way I’ve had different people carry out specific tasks. I’ve got someone who helps with some design work, a couple people for designs/logos, someone who does some coding, someone who helps with social media, and some writers. None of these people are full-time, I have them do some work on an as-needed basis. My job somewhat shifts to becoming a project manager instead of doing all the work. That being said, this only works on larger projects that have longer time frames. When things come up that need to be completed within a couple days or a week, I still end up doing the work because it gets it done faster without any communication issues.
There is one downside, which is another “illusion.” It would seem, that by having other people do more work, this would free up my time to focus on more of my passion projects like the Peer Unschooling Network, doing stand-up comedy, What the FisX, mental health activism, etc. This is partly true, however, what happens is now a lot more of my “mental bandwidth” gets occupied thinking about all the moving parts on these projects. So while, on paper, it may appear that I’ve got more free time, I find myself spending a lot more time thinking about this work (and I can’t bill people for the time I spend thinking in the car, in the shower, on a hike, etc).
The other shift for this year was toward doing more marketing work. I found that while I was spending a lot of time ‘chasing clients’ to build websites for, people were coming to me asking for help more marketing their sites. This meant there was a much bigger need for this skillset. It seemed like an obvious choice to dive into this world because I could have a handful of clients and work more regularly with them rather than having to always find new clients.
The downside is that I don’t find marketing to be as interesting. I do find it valuable, however, because all of my passion projects have a marketing need, so I am developing a lot of those skills doing work for clients that can then translate into my own work.
There is a bit of evil in marketing, which I’m fully aware of – of trying to get people to buy shit they don’t need. I somewhat resolve this moral dilemma in my head by thinking like an engineer that is trying to build a bridge to connect people with problems to those who have developed solutions. I can relate a lot to the idea of an inventor who has poured his soul into building a product and now wants to find a way to get that product into the hands of the people it will help. From that perspective, marketing is a really valuable tool.
I’m not sure what direction things will take over the next year. I don’t have any major changes I’m planning on making. Things in this zone are pretty comfortable, I’m not necessarily looking to grow this business because I only have so much ‘mental bandwidth’ for this. If anything, I’d probably like to cut down some of the time I spend on these projects and begin monetizing some of my other work.
For those curious of the graphs… to compare to last year… here is the same graph showing my revenues but I’ve also added a graph below showing how much I’ve paid to subcontractors. As far as cash goes, I’ve got about $13,000 in the bank, $3,000 in 0% interest credit cards, and $1,000 in cash buried in my parents basement. As usual, there’s a good chance that most of this money actually belongs to the government for taxes, I’ll find out in the Spring next year how much I actually owe.
Last year I also showed two graphs showing how much time I was spending chasing new business vs how much time I was spending actually working on projects myself. I will show these on the same graph below so you can see how things compare. You can see I barely spend any time now chasing new clients, and the time I spent working on projects myself has also declined moderately.
This year I completely stopped doing programming tutoring work. I was never doing a lot, maybe a couple hundred dollars a month worth, but just stopped being worth the money. I wasn’t getting paid much per hour for it and it would require me to set aside things and work specifically with someone over webcam for an hour or two at a time. Just wasn’t worth the effort and coordination.
So while I’ve been doing less web development/design work, what have I been spending all my time on…?
Peer Unschooling Network
The new PUN website finally launched at the end of last summer. I was really disappointed in the response. I thought I really nailed down to what people wanted in the form of a digital city. It took so much time making all of these pieces work and I definitely got frustrated it wasn’t loved by all.
My next “solution” was to build an app. This is something lots of the teens were asking for and I mainly avoided it because it was outside of my technical scope. Hell, all of this website was outside of my technical scope, it’s an entire social network! To now learn how to build an app… while still not being sure if this is what people wanted… was a risky undertaking.
It wasn’t necessarily that hard. The code used for the chat part of the website is open source, and it can easily be adapted to make an app. However, most people’s “first app” is something simple… not a full-fledged chat application that will be used by hundreds of users. So I opted to subcontract this to someone more experienced. The code for our chat app is open source, so it’s not necessarily a huge project for them, but definitely outside my expertise.
We launched a beta and it was not a success. There were bugs, the developer wanted a lot more money to fix them, and I saw us going down a slippery slope. To make matters worse, Apple rejected the app entirely from their store. I basically spent some money for two apps (Apple and Android) and ended up with one completely unavailable app and one imperfect one. I felt really stuck.
The decision I made to alleviate the “stuckness”, was to open source the whole site so that the youth could carry on the work. I felt like maybe I was doing too much on this project by myself… I’m out there push and pushing and building and building and doing all this… do people really want it? Am I really solving a problem? Why am I doing all the work, if the point is youth empowerment? So I decided to step back and give up some control to allow others to play a role. I made a set of tutorial videos teaching how the website was made, posted those, along with the code, and invited all interested parties to join in the work.
To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure if this was me “quitting” or “failing” or if it was really a solid move toward empowering others and growing the platform. It’s hard to say – maybe its both.
It was painful to read a user’s recent remark in the chat saying: “@flimjannery, what are we going to do: PUN is dying”. That definitely sucked. And he has a point, the user base has dropped significantly. One could look at it and say I didn’t give it enough attention and put enough into it. I could also look at it and say maybe it wasn’t really solving a serious problem if people didn’t need it enough. I’m not really certain but I feel defeated.
What I am certain of, however, is that the whole point of my efforts from the beginning was to help the kids stuck in the school system. I spent a couple years working on Open Source High thinking that would help them learn from one another and not need school – that project was not being direct enough at solving a real problem. I then built PUN thinking if we had a digital community for young unschoolers, that would be a good place for kids in school to learn about unschooling and speak directly with kids who are learning use that a self-directed approach. But I’m realizing that plan only works if the existing unschoolers want to be in a community. So I believe the next thing is to intentionally shift my efforts directly toward the original goal: help the kids stuck in school.
To this effort, I started writing a book, tentatively titled “School Sucks so Start Your Own” which details an idea for how young people can create their own self-directed learning centers using freely available resources (like libraries!). I finished the first draft of the book and a teen I’ve worked with has just completed a first round of edits. I’m super busy so I haven’t gotten to review this yet, but it will get done.
I also started running workshops in public libraries for teens, also titled “School Sucks so Start Your Own.” Very few attended the workshops, but those who did attend really liked it. I also taught this workshop at MIT Splash and MIT Spark, where the kids loved it. The video of one of these talks is available HERE.
While students at MIT Splash/Spark love the workshop and it was well-attended, I realized that very few kids will come to a workshop at their local library specifically about education. Especially in their hometowns where they may be shy and not wanting to openly admit their peer group that they’re unhappy in school… this is a tough ask. So instead, I’m going to be starting doing comedy shows for teens at public libraries where I’ll share small bits of information in a comedy format that would allow them to find the details on their own. I think that will be much more appealing… and it’ll be a hell of a lot of fun. At least this gets toward my real original focus of directing my efforts specifically toward helping youth in school.
As I’ve learned more about mental health activism over the last year, I’d really like to see my efforts in the education space shift more towards activism. Maybe that’s what PUN will turn into ultimately: an activist organization. It will be fun to see how this evolves over another year.
This brings me to the latest in my comedy world. I was actually a little disappointed when I read my last year’s report where I said my intent was to perform a bunch of hour-long shows over the last year. In fact, I did zero hour long shows. I did do a 45-minute set in Mexico which was cool… but I didn’t actually get my hour show out there.
No need to be disappointed, because in 5 days, I start my Summer of Freedom Comedy Tour where I’ll be doing an hour show every week for the next two months. In fact, I’ve got 3 of these shows booked for next week alone. So that will make up for lost time.
I am never 100% confident in my material, but I’ve been finding something interesting with comedy. It’s like this really weird blend… where I feel like I am trying to be incredibly honest on stage while also lying quite a bit. It’s a weird paradox, maybe that’s why some people compare it to poetry. I know most people look at it that while they’re performing they are in ‘character’ of some sort… while I remember Bill Hicks saying he specifically tries to be 100% himself on stage. My show is this weird blend where it’s a platform that I bring out all these honest opinions and viewpoints and topics… but I do it in a way which involves a lot of misdirection, exaggeration, lies, etc…. while at the same time I feel like there’s 100% truth in all the stories and jokes. I suppose it’s an “emotional truth”. I can’t quite pinpoint it and don’t fully understand it myself, I just hope audiences dig it.
That being said, I don’t have a lot of “growth” to report on comedy in the last year, but I expect a lot of good things to come in the next few months as I shift my focus toward this.
What the FisX
I’m excited to report there is some progress on this! I started collaborating with a teen from a democratic school in Maine to bring this project to life. We’ve filmed two more sketches and have a script for the “final” filming session of our pilot episode which will take place in September.
I really owe it to Payce for coming up with a clever idea for how to “glue” all these sketches together. He solved the big problem I could never figure out: what the overlying structure of the show should be. He had this idea of building a character and story into the show that would really be cool. Once we get this pilot finished, I’m intending to try to find a way to raise some money to build a whole season of episodes.
It’s interesting, because I first went to Comedy Central back around 2014 about this show when I had these few sketches and they weren’t interested in a physics sketch comedy show. Since then, Big Bang Theory is now a huge success as is Rick and Morty. So maybe the time has come for a physics sketch comedy show…. Maybe… just maybe….
I also spend a little time this year working on some new Gravi-Tee designs. They should be available by the end of the year!
I mentioned winning my lawsuit last summer. A year has passed and I still haven’t actually been paid a dollar from that. There’s still some hope, but it is really fascinating to learn how long things take. Here I am in July 2018 still not being paid money that was owed to me in May of 2013. Kind of crazy. But I think I have taken some inspiration from dealing with the legal system and learning a little about how it works. This has been insightful in my learnings about how the mental health system works as well, which I’ll talk about in a moment.
In last year’s State of the Startup, I mentioned having experimented with selling healthy, tunable desk lamps online. I am planning on revisiting this project this year. I haven’t quite found the time to build out the website, but I have found the products I want to sell and built relationships with the suppliers. So the product is finally good enough… that’s a real positive move. I hope to have more to report on this next year.
Drop Shipping Dildos
The drop shipping site I mentioned last year has actually come to life a bit. It was a long road of learning about ecommerce and marketing, but the site actually makes a little bit of money. I don’t spend a ton of time on it, and I really do think if I devote more resources to it, it could be quite successful. I just don’t have a ton of time for it with so many other things going on.
If nothing else, my work on this website makes for an entertaining story and brings in a tiny bit of money. (I guess I never mentioned it’s a sex toy shop for pegging products did I?)
I could now make the claim that PUN is funded entirely by dildo-sales. This is a bit of a marketing slight-of-hand because it’s not like the revenue is in any way directly related… and PUN would still exist even without the dildos…. But I can honestly say that the site does make enough money to cover the costs of PUN.
For those interested…. I will show some numbers for this project. Here’s a graph showing the revenue from the site and the cost of the products, its netting $200-500/month the last few months.
As for how much time goes into such a project, here’s another graph. You can tell there was a huge learning curve early on where I was making zero dollars for a while. One could argue this was a complete waste of time because the ROI was so weak, but the things that I learned working on this site were skills that translate directly into the work I do for my clients which increases my intellectual capital. It’s just icing on the cake that the site started getting traction and makes a little money. Admittedly, my interest in this project has waned… if I were to re-invest a bunch of my time into this site now as I did in the very beginning, I could take it to another level, but it’s not a priority at all.
Youth on Subjects of the World
After talking about dildos, this is a perfect time to mention my work with the Youth on Subjects of the World podcast. This has been a really fun project. It is a bi-weekly live webshow and podcast featuring young people discussing all the happenings of the world. We had tons of different teens on the show last year talking about all kinds of topics. They got a little burnt out at the end of the year and became a little bored, so we tried a different format in 2018 which was tough to maintain so we hardly recorded any episodes since about February of 2018.
I’m really excited, however, about a new format we’re going to work with starting next week where we bring on weekly ‘featured guests.’ I’m excited about this new direction we’re going in and hope to see the show catch some traction. It feels like this is a small flavor of the activism I’ve been seeking in alternative education – looking for ways to demonstrate that youth are intelligent, capable people whose opinions should be respected and valued.
Mental Health Activism
It was so cool to read a remark I made in last year’s state of the Startup where I mentioned wanting to get more involved in mental health activism, because that is one big highlight of the last year.
I was able to get involved in a lot of great efforts. For one, I helped organize a protest of the American Psychiatric Association in New York City this past May. Then I ran a virtual counter-conference where I livestreamed interviews with psychiatric survivors and alternative health practitioners. And I’m heavily involved right now in creating a documentary about the psychiatric survivor movement. I’ve also been helping to do the technical work on running webinars and architecting a new computer system for the organization. This work feels really meaningful and like people are actually wanting my help in it.
However, it’s not without its downsides. I got heavily criticized on Facebook for the speech I gave at the APA protest and have had to deal with some people saying some pretty harsh things about me on the internet. My ego is fairly fragile, so this has been tough. That being said, it feels like I’m really heading in a good direction with this work. It feels natural, meaningful, and rewarding.
I have lots of more ideas that I’d like to try out in the future as I learn more about this world of activism. I think that’s a big piece of it… I am learning so much about how this works and also trying to incorporate my own skills and ideas and techniques into making change… yet I think I still have some fears about expressing myself and putting myself out there. I’m growing though, and am really excited to see where this goes. I think I’m also super excited to see how the things I learn in mental health activism can help my efforts in the education space too.
I’m working on this large documentary / video series project for MindFreedom International about involuntary psychiatric treatment, alternatives, and activism – and it is really overwhelming me. I have no idea how I’m going to do this. I’ve got scripts written for the narrated parts… that’s fine… but I have about 24 hours of footage from interviews I’ve done with people and it all needs to be cut/edited/etc. to all fit into about a 90 minute video series. I have not done this kind of videography before… so it’s a big stretch for me. But it’s one I’m really eager to play a big role in.
I’m also thinking of applying for the Executive Director position at MindFreedom International. I am pretty torn though on whether I’d be more effective as a lone wolf-type or as a leader of an organization. I don’t quite know the answer to this, but I think it would be good for me to try it out for size. I think I’ve had some bad experiences in the past with being a part of organizations and so I’ve got some bias that’s holding me back. But MindFreedom is a different kind of organization, they may be the exact people I would fit in perfectly with.
So that’s it for the year. Lots of different things going on… I think my entrepreneurial efforts are hardly something to be called a “Startup” anymore… but I’ll keep the title “State of the Startup.” Maybe this is somewhat re-defining how a startup works or how one can be an entrepreneur. The idea of focusing on one project intensely with the goal of selling it off and losing control one day just isn’t more style. I want ownership and control over my work and I also want to work on multiple things and go at my own pace.
Speaking of which, I’m starting to learn my “style” of working on things. It’s impossible to simultaneously work on all these different projects. What I find works for me, is to focus in on a specific project for a couple months, then shift, shift again, circle back to the old projects, etc. I make a little progress on everything, progress is slow, but I don’t get bored or burnt out, and it’s a lot of fun.
I think I get really hard on myself for not making more progress with projects when I’m somewhat simultaneously poking at all of them. So by shifting my focus every couple months, it’s a good way to go. I got this idea from the Renaissance Souls book which I highly recommend to anyone with multiple interests they want to pursue.
I think I’m also getting tired of identifying so much with my work.
I actually feel that way about traveling too. Last year I had a whole section on here about traveling… now it’s just kinda become a part of life. I did visit Mexico, Costa Rica, and Ireland this year. Plus driving all around the US. I can’t really picture myself just staying in one place, though Asheville, NC is pretty freaking sweet.
Same goes with all this work. I don’t find myself chasing money, or fame, or sex, or drugs, or all those thing to fill the void…. Yet I am still chasing “something”. Probably accomplishment. And I think that’s got me taking on this “identity” of the entrepreneur or creator or whatever it is, trying to make something meaningful of my life. I’d rather just be content and happy and not always striving for more or putting happiness in the future. I think this is all reasonable, I just need to be more deliberate about it.
I’d say that my goal for the next year is to care less about the outcomes and long term scope and vision and try to simply enjoy the process. I realize that happiness shouldn’t be in the future… I’m already doing all the things I love. Yes, “success” would mean that I’d reach and help more people, but I don’t think the activities would change. Maybe my stand-up performance will have bigger audiences, or our protests will have more attendees, or my websites will have more users, etc. but I feel like I’m already doing everything I want to do.
I actually considered not even writing a State of the Startup this year. To “throw away” this identity. Maybe next year I’ll take that leap. Maybe next year I’ll say this is “done.” I think what motivates me to write this is two-fold… it’s partly a way to organize my own thoughts and partly a way to pass on some knowledge and wisdom to others. I don’t know how many people will actually read this to the end… it’s likely to be very few people. But I think that those who do actually read it to the end will get a lot out of it, I think this is pretty raw and real. So if you’ve come this far, thanks for making it be worth my time.