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Thinking about wild success

The more I explain this 5-year experiment to others, the more I understand it myself. =) I thought I’d spend some time thinking about what I wanted out of experiment and what wild success looks like, so that more people might be able to help me along the way.

I think the period of five years because it usually takes about that long before a business can be solidly established. Shorter, and I might mistake the fluctuations of figuring things out for long-term difficulties. Longer than that, and I might drift aimlessly without self-imposed goals or deadlines. Telling myself that I’ll take a close look at where I am and reevaluate my decisions in five years means that I can plan and budget for a fixed time period. Controlled uncertainty.

So where do I want to be on February 19, 2017, the 5th anniversary of starting my own business? What do I want to be able to say? What do I want to have done? Let me fast-forward to my future 34-year-old self and think about what that blog post might look like.

Here we are, five years after I started. I’ve learned a ton in the last five years. It turned out that making things happen isn’t anywhere nearly as scary as I thought it might be. I’m looking forward to bringing even more awesome ideas to life.

I’ve been so lucky to start with something that people immediately wanted and needed. Through consulting, I was able to help people take their businesses to the next level. I worked with amazing people who not only helped me take advantage of my skills and experiences, but also helped me develop new skills. We successfully transitioned all of my responsibilities, and they’ve turned that work into wild successes of their own.

Consulting allowed me to self-fund further experiments. I shared opportunities with other people, working with virtual assistants and other team members in order to get even more out of each day. In the course of training them to take over many of my processes, we built an operations manual that makes it even easier to bring new people on board. Many entrepreneurs’ growth is limited by their ability to trust and delegate, and by the network of people they have. Although I’ve also had my share of rough relationships, I’ve had the pleasure of building an amazing team with skills and passions that complement my own, and I reached out to an even wider network of people I can help and who can help me. Many of the people I’ve worked with have grown their own businesses into something they love doing.

Although I was tempted to continue consulting because it was familiar and comfortable, I eventually pushed myself to try other business models. I learned how to validate business ideas by talking to people and prototyping concepts, instead of simply building something and hoping people will come. It was also tempting to continue with the first new business as a job, but I pushed myself to grow out of it, bringing other people in so that they could make the most of those opportunities when I learned even more about creating businesses.

I learned so much along the way, and I’m glad I’ve been able to put them together in different books – at least one for every year of my experiment. I’ve shared what I learned about networking, productivity, delegation and automation, visual communication, entrepreneurship, business, and making things happen. Taking notes along the way really helped, and so did pushing myself to have interesting and novel experiences. I’m glad that so many people have found the books useful, and I’m sure my parents get a kick out of seeing me in print.

I’m now much more comfortable with reaching out to people and inviting them for lunch or coffee. I always learn lots of things in the conversations, and following up has become its own pleasure. I even host events so that I can bring people together.

In terms of paperwork, my attention to detail and comfort with numbers really paid off. The accountant helped me keep all of my books in order, and the CRA auditor found it easy to verify my records.

In my personal life, I continue to be the luckiest person in the world. W- is fantastic, and home life has somehow managed to keep getting better and better. We’ve got a solid financial foundation, and are excited about the possibilities.

What do the next five years hold for us? I’m not sure yet, but I’m sure it will be a good adventure.

My future 34-year-old self on Feb 19, 2017

We’ll see how it goes!

Planning how to learn about validating business ideas

I’ve been taking notes at business events and sharing them on my blog. People tell me that they really like the notes. They’re engaging, memorable, and easy to share. I want to see if I can start capturing and sharing paid events as well, eventually turning this into a visual communication business (sketchnotes! videos! workshops!) that could provide opportunities for other people to create value. Other people have built businesses around graphic recording and explainer videos, so why not?

What do I need to do in order to explore this? I need to find out:

  • Who my clients would be: I think I can add the most value to marketing agencies and event planners who handle lots of events and can package this into their service. I can also talk to conference organizers in order to validate business value and demonstrate demand.
  • If they’re willing to pay: Do they perceive enough value? What can I add to make it a clear win?
  • If they’re able to pay: What does the budgeting lifecycle look like? When and how should I pitch to make it easy for people to say yes?

So let’s start with a narrowly-defined niche. I want to focus only on business-related webinars, conferences, presentation series, and workshops, and only for companies whose messages I can stand behind. (No get-rich-quick schemes!) I might even scope that down further – drop workshops, because those are much more interactive.

Possible value proposition: Sketchnotes offer an engaging, visual way to follow up with leads and increase the reach of your content. They are easy to review and to share. (Hmm, can I start testing and quantifying these things?)

Instead of offering graphic facilitation, which tends to require a larger canvas for greater interactivity, I’ll offer digital sketchnotes on my tablet PC. The advantages: quick setup, no distractions away from the speaker, no materials cost or logistics (blank walls, etc.), quick turnaround – images are available the day after the event. If people want the visual impact of a 3’ or 4’ sketchnote mural, I can refer them to graphic recorders or facilitators who work in Toronto or elsewhere.

How can I go about exploring this idea?

  • I can talk to people I know at digital marketing agencies who organize webinars and nurturing campaigns. I can describe my idea, ask them if it’s something that would help them add value to their clients’ campaigns, and offer to sketchnote a few webinars in exchange for statistics and feedback.
  • I can sketchnote the events that interest me a lot, and build connections through that. Who knows, maybe a business will be interested in sponsoring me independent of or in addition to sponsoring the event.
  • I can contact event organizers and see if they would be interested in having me sketchnote their event in exchange for admission. As I get used to negotiating, learn how to demonstrate value, and build relationships with event organizers well in advance of conferences, I might transition to being paid for this.
  • As I learn from conversations, I can set up part of my website to focus on those services.
  • I can build a collection of visual communication-related articles – partly for professional growth, and partly to share with others.
  • Why am I sharing all of this? Aren’t I worried that someone’s going to steal this business idea?

If you put in the work of testing this idea and it works out well for you, fantastic! I think the world is big enough – and even if it turns out not to be, then you’ve done the hard work of validating the idea and making this happen, and I don’t need to. I can move on to the next business idea that I want to build. =)

Besides, by sharing, I’m probably going to run into way more people who are awesome and who can help me learn how to make things happen than people who want to just scoop the idea. See? I have perfectly selfish reasons for thinking out loud.

Celebrating my fiscal year end; planning how to improve

When I incorporated my business last February 19, I chose September 30 as my fiscal year end. I’d read a number of forum posts that recommended avoiding December 31 as the fiscal year end because accountants are swamped with personal and sole-proprietor tax returns. Picking September 30 meant that I’d have no problems finding an accountant for return preparation, and they might even have time to sit down and chat with me about tax planning.

I’m a bit of a personal finance geek, so I was glad to dig into the numbers for my own business. When I started the business, I talked to several accountants in the city. I think most expected me to turn up at year-end with a shoebox of crumpled receipts. Since I couldn’t stand the thought of waiting that long to find out what was going on with business, I purchased Quickbooks, scanned copies of all of my business receipts, typed in transactions, and hired a virtual bookkeeper/accountant who could answer my questions as I got things going. I liked working with her, so now I’ve asked her to take on more of the bookkeeping and to help me prepare the tax return. I think it’s made a huge difference in terms of my potential stress level around the fiscal year end. =)

We’ve been working on closing the files. My accountant was surprised at how low my expenses were. She’s been sending me questions like: Where are the rest of your bank fees? I only see $1.80. You should have entries for every month. What about TTC transit passes? I told her that since I was using RBC’s eBusiness bank account, I really did only have $1.80 in bank fees (deposited paper cheques), and that I’d been biking to work, so no transit passes either. (Except for the one in March, which I’ll probably claim as a personal tax credit.) She said that she thought she was frugal.

When I made the decision to leave the comfort of a large company for my own adventure, I expected to spend a few years building sweat equity – investing time into learning the things I need to learn while drawing on my savings. Clients talked me into consulting immediately. It’s been a thrill to be able to help both really big and really small organizations using a combination of different skills: from technical work such as Rails, Javascript, HTML, and CSS to soft skills such as enterprise social software adoption, and even newly-developed skills in illustration and animation.

I’ve far exceeded my initial financial projections, but I know it’s because I’ve been staying close to what’s familiar. My experience at IBM prepared me for consulting, and advice from mentors and friends helped me transition into independent practice; but there are other lessons I’m looking forward to learning as well. It just means that my 5-year-experiment is probably going to be a 7- or 10-year experiment!

So, the things I need to keep somewhere on my radar: taxes due by November 30, HST by December 31. I’ve set aside money to cover those expenses, so it’s all good. Actually, I haven’t taken any money out of the corporation yet, since I figured it was simplest to get things off the ground first and then introduce payroll or dividends in the following fiscal year. One step at a time!

In the meantime, I’m making myself spend more (and spend more wisely), learning how to substitute money for time through connection, tools/automation, training,  and delegation.

For example, I want to connect with other entrepreneurs and help them make things happen. I can wait for the Brownian motion of bumping into each other at tech events to gradually help me build that network. Or I can speed it up through lunches and coffees and follow-ups, especially if I take things beyond a perfunctory e-mail conversation and invest real time and energy (maybe even other people’s time and energy!) into helping people.

I want to try new tools to see which ones will support my workflow well. Sometimes that means paying for tools that turn out to be less than what I want, but the things I’ll gain from the tools that work out will more than pay for those.

I want to learn more about drawing, sales, business, and other skills that can help me make even more of a difference. I don’t want to just sign up for courses or coaching. I want to have a clear, action-oriented plan for implementing what I’m learning.

I want to learn how to delegate and to share the opportunities that come my way. That means that I’m going to slowly transition my processes over to other people, even if I think I can do it better or it doesn’t take me that much time to do it. I can always take those tasks back if I need to trim my budget, but if I can document my processes and learn how to take advantage of other people’s talents, I think I’ll be able to grow a lot more. Many entrepreneurs struggle with going beyond what they can do with their own time or talents. Knowing how to share the load – and better yet, building a network of people I can trust – is more than worth the investment. Besides, if I get better and better at delegation, and if I use that time productively, I can grow the business even more.

What can the 2012-2013 fiscal year for my business look like? I have four more months of consulting planned at three days a week (although I’m taking December off, so technically, that’s just three months of consulting). I have a professional speaking engagement in November. I’ve got the beginning of a possible business idea around sketchnotes, and I want to practise validating it. For that, I’m going to want to set up more lunches and start more e-mail conversations. And I’m going to follow up on that budget, seeing if I can invest money in growing.

Both business idea validation and investing in people/tools/processes involve risk. At the end of the next fiscal year, there’s a chance that my balance sheet will be slimmer – but also a good chance that I’ll have learned a lot along the way, and possibly at a rate cheaper than an MBA. Besides, who knows? I might turn those experiments into earnings too!

So that’s where I am and where I want to go. Thank you for being part of the adventure!

Planning for retirement when you don’t know where you’ll be

I have several friends who’ve also moved to Canada from other places. One of them asked me how she could figure out how much money she’d need in retirement if she doesn’t know where she’s going to live and what the costs will be. Even at 29, I’ve spent some time planning for retirement, and here’s how I approach planning for retirement when I don’t know what’ll happen.

The most important thing to realize is that there isn’t just One Number. There are different possibilities depending on how much you save. I remember reading a personal finance book that suggested coming up with three numbers: how much you need for a bare-bones retirement, what you need for a comfortable retirement, and what you need for an awesome retirement. If you take the same idea and extend it to possibilities in different places, you can get a sense of what you might need.

It’s also good to know that those numbers will change. You’ll make different decisions. You might need more, you might need less. If you’re automatically saving 10%, maybe 20%, maybe even more, then you’ll most likely be in decent shape.

Still, numbers can be good for motivation! So, how do you get those numbers? I like starting with current dollars instead of inflation-adjusted numbers. It’s easy to find articles suggesting what you need to retire in different places. For example, this 2010 article says $800-1200/month is comfortable for expats, which probably means that number’s way over the top. =) I can probably get away with something like the amount I earned while teaching there, with something extra put aside for medical issues.

In Canada, I can estimate the minimum I need by looking at my expenses and finding out what else I might need to spend for, like medicines. I’m not counting on Old Age Security, the Canada Pension Plan, or other government programs – they’ll be a nice bonus if I get them, but I shouldn’t rely on them. That gives me a number for a basic retirement, and then I can come up with other numbers for more comfortable retirements.

When you look at retirement planning as a range of numbers instead of a single number that you have to make, it becomes easier to cheer yourself on. Then you have all these numbers, and you can estimate how much you need in today’s dollars when accounting for inflation and growth. You can see what possibilities are probably already available, and how far you are to your next threshold. You can think of it as getting to different levels in a game, or unlocking different achievements. As you save and invest, you open up more possibilities – and it’s great to know that your backup plan is well-covered.

Me, I’m inching towards my “very basic Canadian expenses covered” goal, knowing that I can likely retire to the Philippines if I want to. It’s pretty cool knowing this at 29, and it motivates me to save up more so that I could have a totally awesome retirement either in the Philippines or in Canada!

I’m not a financial advisor and this isn’t financial advice. I’d love to hear what you think, though!

Thinking about what wild success at 29 looks like

One of the brainstorming exercises I picked up from our workshops at IBM was the idea of a “wild success story” – imagining a great future and backtracking from there to the present. It’s useful in personal life, too. For example, this is what I blogged in 2009:

I wake up at 5:00 AM to opera, light, colors, cats, kisses, or whatever gives me a great start to my day. I exercise a little to get my blood flowing, and I have a healthy breakfast of steel-cut oats or fresh fruit. Then I gear up for a morning of creative work, settling into a comfy chair or setting up on the kitchen table for a four-hour session of brainstorming, writing code, and preparing articles and presentations. I snack on fruit and nuts along the way. I have a light lunch or head out to lunch with friends. Then I tackle more routine tasks: responding to mail, following up, editing and formatting documents, testing code, taking care of chores, reviewing delegated work, and other things. I make dinner and enjoy it with people I love, and spend the rest of the evening reading or enjoying people’s company. After tidying up and taking care of other things, I go to bed, happy with the work I did that day.

I’m close to that, but I’m not quite there yet. My Fridays are shaping up that way, though, and we’ll see how things go in September.

On a larger scale, what would a wildly successful 29th year look like? Looking back on the eve of my 30th birthday in 2013, I’d like to be able to say:

  • I have even more wonderful relationships with family and friends.
  • I regularly stay in touch, and have good notes on what people are interested in and are up to.
  • I survived my first business tax return, yay! I’m now investing in building skills while giving back to the community, eventually turning that into income from mobile apps, illustration/animation, and other ways to create value.
  • I’ve got lots of sketchnotes of meetups, books, and product reviews. I’ve organized them into a blog and an e-book. My sketchnotes have colour and depth and interesting layouts. =) I help people find out about useful stuff and good get-togethers.
  • I’ve updated my Stories from my Twenties e-book with what I’ve learned from my 29th year, and I’ve shared the updates with the people who bought the book and sent me their receipts.
  • I’ve gone through Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata, and I understand it. =) I’m also picking up Cantonese.
  • I’ve been having fun gardening. We’re growing more greens and have actually gotten into the habit of eating them. (I know!)
  • My finances are on track for my 5-year experiment; this might even be extended at least a few more years.
  • I’m ready to rock my thirties!

Thinking about the next mini-experiment

The consulting engagement I’m working on is great. It takes advantage of a hard-to-find combination of different skills and experiences, and I’m having lots of fun. I’m glad I can help make a difference.

What do I want to do when it wraps up in around three months? I’m leaning towards experimenting with concentrating on some projects, which means not committing to any large, regular chunks of outside work. The Quantified Self conference in September will give me lots of reasons to work on Quantified Awesome. I’ll probably harvest enough ideas from it to be busy for quite a while afterwards.

I keep thinking about writing a book, too. If I clear the space for it, dedicate the time to it, then I’ll have some clear answers. Either I’ll emerge with a book (the first book is often the hardest, they say; after that, you know you can write), or I’ll know that I’m not yet in the right space for writing a book, and maybe I’ll have an idea of what I need to work on before I am.

I haven’t had such a large chunk of time to myself in a while, structured and directed mostly by me. The closest I can think of was the time after I returned from my technical internship in Japan and before I left for my master’s degree in Canada. Fortunately, I blogged back then too, so I can try to remember what I did and what it felt like.

March 2005: Spoke at a conference, worked on open source, practised poi April: Worked on open source, spent lots of time with family May: Worked on open source, wrote flash fiction, wrote about hipster PDAs (index cards) June: Took driving lessons, worked on open source, wrote flash fiction, moved to Canada

Right! Open source, that was what I was focusing on – that, and spending time with family, and exploring productivity tips. I’ve been working on far less open source than I thought I would be, but that’s because I’ve been focusing on non-programming things like writing and drawing. It was fun working on open source. I was maintaining Planner Mode (another organizer for Emacs) at the time, and I had a lot of fun working with the community. Time to re-subscribe to mailing lists and see if I can stay sharp by helping out.

That should be a good balance, eh? Writing and drawing to exercise creativity and share what I know, Quantified Awesome and open source software so that I can make better tools. Should be fun. For the business side of things, I might explore e-books and icon design as a way to use the writing and drawing skills I’ll be developing. Quantified Awesome and open source software might be more of a stretch for business, but let’s see where that takes me.

By that point, I’ll have been consulting for six months. I’ll probably give this self-directed learning and working a try for six months as well, and we’ll see how other factors influence our scheduling.

Looking forward to it!