vsupalov

Getting Back Into Building an Independent Solo Business (2017)

September 6, 2017

The choice to be transparent and honest about business and life is one which I greatly admire. In the past, I have always learned something new and found inspiration from reading “year in review”-style articles and honest reflections by people in the bootstrapping field. I don’t think that I would be in the position I am in today, nor have the same level of understanding how companies work and why people do the things they do, if not for those. In the coming years, I intend to take part in the sharing-part of the transparency movement.

I am starting to build an independent solo-business, focused around me as a person and the technical stuff I do for a living. I will share struggles, pains, plans, tactics, learnings, regular reflections on progress and actual numbers. The only constraints, will be spare time and making sure the best-interests of my business partners are kept.

The rough roadmap I have in mind, is to go from freelancing in the short-term to consulting in the mid-term, and to build a product-focused business in the long run. The journey will be transparent and I welcome you to follow along. Drop your email in the box below and we’ll stay in touch.

In this post, I want to share details about my current context, background, and thoughts which will influence the choices of possible ways forward.

Who’s Talking

As you can see on the main page, I’m Vladislav. I studied computer science with a focus on computer vision and machine learning. Since graduating with a M.Sc. in computer science in 2013, I have had an interesting time. Among others I

* Stumbled into web dev freelancing, being completely clueless about biz
* Discovered a weird passion for automation and server stuff
* Worked in a DevOps position at a 100-person startup
* Started building a solo consulting business around data engineering
* Switched to co-founding a tech startup in Berlin

In that order.

I learned a lot at every single step of that journey. The latest step was especially fascinating and valuable. My past year-and-some, was a deep-dive into the world of startups, funding and the lifestyle of VC-track businesses. I joined my two co-founders Sebastian and Felix on an endeavor to connect AI, machine learning, computer vision and social media marketing - together we started iterating on ‘Pivii’. We had a good run, having secured pre-seed funding through an EXIST scholarship at the beginning which was paying our salaries, getting accepted into the Axel Springer Plug and Play Accelerator in Berlin shortly after.

It was a great, and at times very intense experience. An opportunity and time to be grateful for, with lots of lessons learned and useful skills acquired. I got on board after the other two, as a second technical co-founder - focusing on our company-data handling, platform and infrastructure. As time went on, I got to wear a lot of hats and take on tasks which turned out more challenging, rewarding and enjoyable than I could have suspected when starting out. Most notably:

  • Hiring the right people to grow the team.
  • Actually having to wear a user- and product-hat while contributing to the product.
  • Working on internal processes and the way we worked to keep the team going (+ going in the right direction).
  • Diving into traction and digital marketing with a budget to spend.

All of them fascinating areas, which I may not have discovered or gotten a chance to work in for a long time otherwise.

Being part of a founding team was a very challenging, interesting and sometimes terrifying experience. Despite working for young companies as an employee, freelancer and consultant previously - the hands-on experience was something completely different from the not-my-company experience. The “feeling of being on a rollercoaster” is real and accurate. None of my previous professional experiences, compared to the tangible scarcity of time, and the sheer amount of stuff which needs to be taken care of when starting a company on the VC track. I can’t imagine a similar timespan where I’d had the opportunity to learn as much. I’d also be very hesitant to choose this path a second time, as it’s not in sync with what I want from life at the moment, but more on that later.

Let’s jump to the end of the experience. After putting in all our best effort, neither profitability nor sufficient traction to secure the next funding round were in sight. We decided to call it a day, wrap everything up and part ways. My personal runway however was in good shape, which left me in the position of being able to pick the next occupation at my own pace. I had time to look around explore the possibilities of a number of jobs and other options.

What Is Success?

Success means different things to different people. I really like this question, when talking to potential clients. “What would constitute success for you on that project?” - good answers are never focused on technical solutions or “HOWs”. They always describe a world where the company stops losing money on an issue, can make more, grow or where the working day of the person is a bit less painful.

So, what does success mean for me, when regarding work as a project which is meant to provide an outcome? It’s definitely not a end in itself, as my interests are far from singular. Having a great business to have a great business seems like the kind of answer which gets you in trouble. Kinda like building a data warehouse to have a data warehouse, or switching to microservices because then you have microservices, although the outcome can be good sometimes.

In my opinion, building a business or career is a pointless endeavor if you don’t want it for it’s own sake, or have a clear idea in mind of how it will make your life better.

Priorities, AKA My Definition of Success

My definition of success, is not coupled to maximizing financial gain. Not without other, more important conditions in the mix.

I genuinely like the technical stuff which I do. Automation and building interesting systems which do useful stuff is UTTERLY FASCINATING to me, for some weird reason. I also enjoy the ways good businesses operate, doing marketing & selling, hiring, getting traction and helping people. And oh gosh, it’s just so rewarding to combine multiple skills and interests. Especially if you can shift the focus over time when it makes sense. Here’s an assortment of things which I learned to appreciate, and wouldn’t want to do without:

  • Having personal independence and flexibility.
  • Having the work be technical in an interesting way (not limited to coding).
  • Have a feedback loop, where you see other people being better off due to the stuff you do.
  • Working close to the cashflow of a business (work is easier to sell, success is more tangible, can be measured and communicated easier).
  • Have the work connect with a topic I personally care about and think is worthwhile - creating value and not just value for businesses (helping people I like do better).
  • Being able to structure days in a flexible fashion.
  • Work at a time of day which feels right (either early mornings or evenings, this changes).
  • Being able to go for an occasional walk during the day, cook a good meal or work out when it feels right.
  • Avoiding regular, long commutes.
  • Being as location-independent as possible.
  • Having financial stability and downtime - weekends and vacation among others (those are not that easy to implement when working on an own business unfortunately)

It’s hard to hit 100% of those. Even when going for a lower percentage, finding a job given those constraints is kinda hard. That said, creating a job from scratch is unrealistic as well. Temporary tradeoffs are alright.

Being self-employed is not strictly necessary for what I want to achieve. It’s just one of the paths which naturally aligns with my goals, not the only possible choice. Running a solo business has limitations in the short-term, such as not having the budget of a large company for hiring, not being in a position to build a team and similar.

Back to my constraints. I could do without spome of them for a while. What is a must-have however, and there from the start, is freedom to work on, and completely own side projects (writing, coding or biz). This is a point I feel strongly about. Anything else is fucking ridiculous, one-sided and completely unacceptable without an appropriate upside. Not a good kind of business relationship.

So, having most of those is what would mean success for me. If I run a business, make a heap of cash but can’t take a day off is failure.

Options

I’d like to stay in tech and deal with the details of making businesses successful. I would like to couple it with one of the following topics in the mid-term. There’s a few topics for which I have an affinity, and could imagine dedicating lots of time towards:

  • Data plumbing with a sprinkle of business focus (still cool).
  • Traction + startup marketing + data handling (like above, but more business-outcome focused).
  • DevOps, deploying web apps, automation and dev processes for startups
  • VR
  • Blockchain technology
  • The combination of mental health + mobile apps
  • Somewhere in the Venn diagram of generative-art, music and deep-learning

Not listed are things which I enjoy by themselves - such as the craft of raw programming, at it’s technical purest. But I’d not like to linger there. Some of those are interesting but do not seem like being able to provide a clear road towards my current goals - thus will need to remain hobbies or secondary interests. Some have a more obvious, immediate way towards profitability.

My process here was, to try and find a sync between interests, skills, the “outlook to tick off enough priorities” and perceived business-viability.

Despite the work and progress I have built up previously on data stuff, the idea of having it as main focus does not resonate as much. I prefer to switch away from it for a while, and take some time to reorient and see how and if my newly found interests can be combined with already existing skills. Prior work will probably be made use of in one way or another.

VR is cool, and Blockchain stuff as well, but I don’t have enough work to build on in those areas, nor is the vision anywhere near concrete enough to have a plan - that’s fixable by exploring the topics, which would take too long for now.

The last two points would be better served with a PhD format of free exploration and curiosity - I don’t think I’m in a position to make those work as a business focus.

Traction is really cool, but I don’t have enough success to build on, nor a strong enough interest in the field or conviction to put in the months of work/hustle to get going.

Automation, DevOps and deploying web applications however still is friggin fascinating. It’s not too far away from my previous occupations and I can see myself being able to provide solid value. I also like the task, dealing with people in the field (small tech teams and startups), and have the credibility to do so, having founding experience, and having built/maintained more than a few production systems in the past. The only downside is, that the business value of DevOps is always a bit hidden. I can work with that

The Path Forward

So, with the above I have a rough field of interest, and something like a first draft of who I’m going to help with what. That needs so much more work to be of any practical use for potential clients or to help me with marketing. The very next article will be about taking the next few steps towards making the first draft into something usable and useful (niching, creating a service offering, doing market research and starting outreach).

As you can see, I have already adjusted my messaging on the page, and have put my previous articles on the topic on it, as well as created new ones. So this article is lagging behind a bit. I’ve really decided to commit to this course of action on the 26th of August, after being back from vacation, and started working on it with full focus, so everything’s relatively fresh and the dissonance is not big. I am really not quite starting from zero. However, my network and previous experiences are still comparable to a person who has been working in tech for a while and was being active.

For this business, I’m aiming for consulting in the mid-term and product business long-term. Freelance or remote work would be possible while getting started to get money flowing and extend the runway, but the conditions need to be right.

That’s it for now! I want you to join me on this journey and follow along. Just drop me your email at the bottom of this article and we’ll stay in touch :) If you have any feedback or questions, just send me a mail or ping me on Twitter.

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I write about Kubernetes, Docker, automation- and deployment topics, but would also like to keep you up to date about news around the business-side of things.

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