Riding the Indie Business Rollercoaster

My 2020 year in review

This is the fourth installment of my “year in review” series. For a recap, here’s 2019, 2018 and 2017.

2020 was my fourth year of building my own internet businesses. Like everyone else, my 2020 did not go according to plan. And yet, things worked out in the end.

It was a year of big swings: starting with a taste of celebrity—followed by the collapse of my biggest business—and closing with record-breaking success. Eventually I ended up almost exactly where I planned, only the route was totally unexpected.

Here’s a recap of my 2020 in nine pictures.

January: officially an Indie Hacker!

In January, I met and recorded a podcast with Courtland Allen, founder of Indie Hackers and a hero of mine. When the podcast aired, I had a tiny taste of celebrity, hearing from people throughout the Twitter-verse who were inspired by my story. It was the most fun moment of my Indie Hacking career.

Meeting Courtland Allen

Me and Courtland Allen in his Cape Town Airbnb. January, 2020.

Courtland also convinced me to double down on my wedding place card app—called Place Card Me—leading to my first ever subscription revenue online.

The year was looking good!

March: the pandemic shakes things up

Fast forward to mid-March, and the world decided to take Covid-19 very seriously, very fast.

Place Card Me—my primary side-business—saw its revenue plummet to $0 almost overnight. Not seeing a way to pivot, I decided to pause work on the project indefinitely—now 9 months and counting—and shift my focus to Pegasus, my Django boilerplate for SaaS apps. Sorry, Courtland!

Place Card Me Revenue Feb-March

Place Card Me’s revenue, late Feb - April 1. It has sinced picked up a bit, but remains well off 2019’s numbers.

Meanwhile, South Africa—where I live—introduced one of the strictest lockdowns in the world, including banning alcohol sales and disallowing outdoor exercise. I had to resort to running in circles around my flat.

Lockdown Run

My lockdown running route. Hundreds of circles around my small flat. March, 2020.

The lockdown also took away our childcare, so my wife and I split the work day in half. My productive hours ended at noon, most of my time went to my day job, and my side-businesses languished.

May: my first record-breaking month of the year

In May we got childcare back and for the first time in months I had time for proactive work.

I started by experimenting with some pricing changes leading to Pegasus earning over $4,000—more than any of my products had ever earned in a single month. I had to re-do the axes on my side-project dashboard—where I track my product revenue and effort—to accommodate the new high.

Pegasus Breaking the Chart

Pegasus income breaks the chart on my side project dashboard. May, 2020.

July-August: distractions and failure

July and August saw my biggest divergence of the year.

Thinking it would be a good opportunity to exercise Pegasus, I decided to build and launch a new product to provide code review analytics for Github repositories.

Unfortunately, before I finished MVP I realized the project was too ambitious for the amount of time I was willing to devote to it. So, following a lackluster launch, and seeing a long road ahead, I decided to stop working on it indefinitely.

RepoStory

RepoStory: my failed experiment building code review analytics product, launched to no one in August.

I still think the project has potential, but for now it’s lying idle.

September: hello world!

September marked the arrival of our new son Victor into the world. I learned that being a parent is easier the second time around—except for the other kid.

Hello Victor

Our new son Victor, born September 7, 2020.

Meanwhile, on paternity leave I stumbled upon a diagram labeled as Ikigai—that I later learned was not Ikigai—that made me question about my chosen career.

Specifically, I felt like I was doing well with everything except possibly “what the world needs”.

Not Ikigai

This diagram, often attributed as the Japanese concept of Ikigai, was actually created by Andrés Zuzunaga.

So, I devoted a chunk of the last three months of the year to trying to explore the topic of a “meaningful” life and career more seriously.

But, turns out this is hard!

I’ll let you know if I figure it out.

November: another record-breaking month

Back on the business-side of things, at the end of November, I ran an impulse Black Friday sale, leading to another record-breaking month for Pegasus and me—outstripping my previous monthly high by almost $3,000.

Black Friday

The massive spike from the Pegasus Black Friday sale. November, 2020.

A couple weeks later, my write-up on the sale made the front page of Hacker News, resulting in about 10,000 visitors to my website and leading to another few Pegasus sales.

After the whole saga, I was suddenly within reach of my 2020 profit target of $42k that I’d all-but abandoned post-Covid.

December: R&R

Finally, rounding out the year amidst another Covid surge and lockdown in South Africa with the family and some time off.

Family Holidays

While alcohol sales are again closed in South Africa, at least the national parks are open. December, 2020.

Profits

When all was said and done, total profits on the year from personal projects came in just over $43,000—or about $1k higher than my goal set in January. Given how hard the pandemic hit Place Card Me, I’m quite proud to have still hit that target.

Here’s the last four years of product income—broken out by product.

Profits by year

Annual profits by product. Now available on my side-project dashboard.

Place Card Me ended up down about 42% on the year, but Pegasus more than made up for it, growing from $4,000 to almost $30,000 in a single year—or about double what I had forecasted at the start of the year.

More on this later.

Time spend

I logged just under 2,000 hours this year. This works out almost exactly to a standard 40-hour-a-week, 52-week work-year, which makes it easier to think about the time distribution.

2020 time

In terms of a calendar year breakdown, about four months went to my day job at Dimagi, three months went to Pegasus, six weeks went to email and writing, another five weeks went to exercise(!), and then the rest fell into smaller buckets.

I’m happy with this breakdown, though I would prefer if the amount of “day job” time was a bit less and the amount of “exploration” time was a bit more. Something to think about for 2021.

Speaking of which…

The year ahead

If 2020 was the year of Pegasus then 2021 will be the year of…well…also Pegasus.

Yep, for the third year running, I’m planning for Pegasus to be my main hustle.

Why?

Because it still feels like Pegasus is in its first act.

A year into Place Card Me the product felt basically complete. I could add features, improve marketing, etc. but there weren’t any easy ways to grow it without fundamentally changing the product in some way. Place Card Me made place cards well. Where do you go from there?

Pegasus on the other hand, seems to have limitless possibility. The core product itself can continue getting better, with lots of features to add and improvements to make—some of which are already in flight. Plus, it’s fun as hell.

But even Pegasus itself is just the beginning.

Could Pegasus have a plug-in marketplace where other developers can earn money extending it? Could Pegasus have a jobs board to connect Django developers to my customers who need help on their projects? Could Pegasus offer Django courses or books? Or a hosted way to deploy your Django apps to the cloud?

Much like Chris Oliver has done for Ruby on Rails, there appear to be an infinite amount of Pegasus-adjacent opportunities to create new products, offerings, and build out the Pegasus ecosystem—all of which are aligned with each other.

So yeah. Already my most profitable product by a lot and still in act one. Hopefully exciting times ahead!

2021 Targets

The other big decision I’ve made about 2021 is that it’s time to flip the narrative of what I’ve been doing.

For the last four years I’ve thought of myself as a professional developer/freelancer who also played around on the internet trying to make money from side-hustles.

But barring an unexpected turn of events—I expect 2021 to be the first year I make the majority of my income from my own businesses. A change I hope just might hold for the rest of my life.

In other words, the side hustles have become the main hustle. I’m no longer a side-project entrepreneur. I’m a mother-fucking real entrepreneur.

So, here are my targets for 2021:

  1. Earn $65k Profit from personal projects.
  2. Spend the majority of my time working for myself.

Time to own this thing! I’m looking forward to it.


If you made it all the way here, thanks so much for reading. To see how this all works out, you can follow me on Twitter or subscribe for email updates below.

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