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Four years since I quit my job to work for myself : Where am I?

29th Aug, 2021

Last month, I completed four years since I quit my job to work for myself. So, it’s a nice time to reflect upon my experiences so far and get a perspective on where exactly I am.

Financials, first!

Financial numbers can never describe a journey. But they are a decent indicator of the state of affairs. With that, let’s look at the monetary side of my entrepreneurship journey:

The last one year has been the first time I made more money than what I used to earn as an employee. It is also the year I made more money than any other year in my professional career.

I earned my first non-salary income around 18 months into my entrepreneurship journey. This was a meagre ₹ 20,000 ($ 250) for a month’s work. It clearly wasn’t adequate to sustain my expenses. But, the experience of earning something on my own helped shape my entrepreneurship mindset. I have been gradually able to grow my earnings ever-since. More on that in the following sections.

How did I start?

Frankly speaking, I wasn’t aiming to be a founder or a CEO of a unicorn-startup. Certain personal reasons required me to leave my job and move back to my hometown - a place that doesn’t have much of a tech eco-system. This resulted in me not having opportunities to do the kind of tech work I had so far enjoyed. This was the pre-Covid non-remote friendly world!

So, I decided to apply the Jeff Bezos’s regret minimization framework to my career. Rather than giving up on what I enjoyed doing, I decided to work for myself. My primary goal was to get to do the kind of tech work I wanted to while being able to take care of my personal constraints.

I decided to achieve my goal by building a website speed tracking SaaS offering. I had been a software performance guy working at a SaaS product company for years. So, this seemed like a familiar territory.

Only later did I realize that a few things in what I assumed to be familiar territory were completely unknown to me. But, before that realization hit me, there was this sweet period of building something from scratch.

My honeymoon period

I spent the first six months building the product MVP based on the vision I had. Writing code, getting the features ready, getting the design & architecture righ and deploying things. I was getting to do what I enjoyed - uninterrupted. Startup life seemed fun!

But, once I had my minimal-feature product (MVP) ready, I had to start pitching it to my potential customers. I had been interacting with eCome site owners and digital marketers till then for gathering feedback. But, I hadn’t yet tried to market or sell my product. Infact, I hadn’t yet thought through how I would market or sell my product.

It is only when I tried to sell my product, I realized that the journey ahead would be an uphill task. I also learnt that what I had thought as startup life so far was just my honeymoon period. And, it was over!

Sell, or perish

Being a regular salaried tech employee all my life, I had never sold anything before. I realized I wasn’t a natural at it. Infact, I found discussing commercials uncomfortable and unpleasant. As a result, I tried to avoid sales for as long as I could. Instead, I spent time trying to learn marketing and sales from books, blogs, podcasts. But, none of that helped.

A couple of months later, I realized that I either sell or perish. And, the best way to learn to sell was by actually selling. Every failed sales opportunity was a lesson. As long as I would not repeat my mistakes, I would progress.

Getting out of the building

During the next six months, I tried to meet (in-person) as many of my potential customers as possible. I leveraged email, linkedIn, twitter, mutual-connections and travelled to various cities within India to meet them. The goal was to convince them to try my product (for free for a limited time) and evaluate the value they could derive from it. A dozen or so B2C website owners agreed to try out my product.

I was convinced that once the site owners see the value in the data-insights from my product, they’d be happy to pay. And, my potential customers did get the data-insights from the trials. But, the real problem was that they did not have the expertise or resources to fix the problems the data-insights uncovered.

Almost every trial revealed this outcome. As a result, my potential customers were not OK to pay for my product. But, a few of them were happy to pay if I could actually fix the site-speed issues my product trial had uncovered.

But, this meant I had to stop working on my SaaS offering and move away from my original plan.

Service offering

By this time, I was 18 months into my entrepeneurship gig. While I still had some runway savings left, I was eager to start making money. And, all the in-person meetings with many e-Com marketers, site-owners and CTOs brought me invaluable insights into their site-speed challenges. I was now itching to solve these real-world problems.

So, I decided to pause working on my SaaS offering and started offering speed improvement service. And, till date, it is this service offering that sustains my livelyhood.

The pricing conundrum

My first client was a site-owner who agreed to pay me ₹ 20,000 (USD 250) to improve their site speed. While I worked super-hard to bring value to my customer, my code changes never made it to the production. The money I charged was peanuts. As a result, no one in their organization cared about what I was upto.

This taught me the necessity of raising the price. Not just to make a real living out of it. But, also for my customers to value my work. And for a bunch of other reasons I discovered in the years ahead.

Growing my service offering

Over the last couple of years, I have been able to grow my earnings by solving more complex tech problems, at larger scales, at more mature organizations. I have gone beyond solving the surface speed issues to help re-architect frontends, migrate frameworks, help make tech stack choices, resolve scalability issues and so on.

This has helped me raise the price and keep my customers happy. This has also helped me serve my itch to always be solving interesting real-world tech problems.

I understand that a different way to grow my service offering is to hire tech folks and build a service organization. But, a better understanding of my own self has prevented me from doing so. I’m the kind of person who simply enjoys solving tech problems day in and day out. Managing people issues, billing concerns, customer relationships, etc isn’t just me.

As a result, I continue to grow in depth rather than in breadth.

But, services? No SaaS?

Over the last couple of years, I have been trying to build and sell one or the other SaaS product. While I haven’t succeeded yet - I continue to pursue the elusive product-market-fit. The income and the flexibility of my service offering allows me to keep making these attempts. As a result, there’s always one or the other experiment that I’m upto.

I continue to strive to build a SaaS product offering that can financially sustain me.

The experiments

An interesting side-effect of the entrepreneurship gig has been the independence to do all sorts of trial and error. Only a few trials succeed and most fail. But, the insights that come out of trying things are invaluable.

  • Do reddit ads work for my business?
  • Do no-work Fridays make me more productive?
  • Does retainer pricing work better for a certain kind of customers?

There’s always one or the other such experiment in-progress. In fact, as an entrepreneur, continuously tinkering with things is indispensable for growth. The tinkering also extends to the tech solutions I offer to my clients.

I value this opportunity to tinker and learn. I often fear, that moving back to the certainty of a regular full-time employment would take away this opportunity.

My metric of success

The entrepreneurship journey has helped me have a clearer understanding of how I would like to live my life. It has helped me prioritize my preferences, likes & dislikes. This understanding has become my internal guide in taking decisions. It has helped me refuse the offers and opportunities that appear lucerative otherwise. Opportunities such as funding for my idea, co-founding something with someone or a lucerative job offer.

With this, my metric of success has evolved over the last four years. Instead of valuing just the financial outcomes, I now prefer choices that offer financial sustainability in harmony with my likings. And this, I beleive, has been the biggest gain since I quit my job to work for myself.

You can follow me on my twitter. I mostly tweet about my web development, site speed and entrepreneurship experiences.
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