Self-employment anniversary

Exactly one year ago, I started working for myself. What’s for 1 year anniversaries? Paper. Or cotton if you’re in the UK. Uh, don’t send clocks. In Chinese, it sounds like a phrase that translates to “bury a parent”. Not good.

[NOTE: This article will be entrepreneurial in nature. You could skip reading it, but you won’t get to read about male escorts…]

Anyway, I’ve learnt loads of stuff since then. At the beginning of my self-employment, I was just doing what I’ve already been doing, but ramping it up. Write more and/or better articles on the blog. Attend events. Put myself out there.

There’s just one problem. I don’t have a positive incoming cashflow.

Here are a few ways to (oh man, I hope the search engines don’t pick this as the important phrase…) make money online. There, I’ve said it.

  • Advertising (Google Adsense, or do-it-yourself style)
  • Affiliate marketing (sell other people’s products and take a cut of the profit)
  • Consultation or services
  • Sell your own products

The last one is by far the most profitable and grants you the most control.

Advertising revenue sucks. Advertisers pay you for “eyeballs”. They pay for unique visitors, web page impressions (why do you think news sites make you click through so many pages?), and leads (sign up on their site for offers or newsletters). I have no illusions of attaining the size of mega websites. Yeah, you need millions of views and visitors. Even then, you might not get much revenue.

For this blog, I’ve found it difficult to find products I can recommend without coming off as sleazy. I write about a bunch of diverse topics. Surely I’d have a greater range of other people’s products I can sell, right? That depends on you, and also on my tastes. I’ve got to feel you will benefit from the product, and that I also found it beneficial. So far, I like books, and so I have Amazon links here and there about the books I’ve read and like. (Buy stuff through my Amazon affiliate link. It may not be much, but every bit helps.)

Consultation and services… hmm, I don’t know. For some reason, I’m not as “employable” as Leonardo da Vinci (ok, he’s a little out of my league for comparison). The current state of the world sees specialists as more important than generalists. Unless the generalist is so proficient in one (or two, possibly three) field that he’s considered an expert, a specialist, and so is hired on that. I will strive to improve my base skills and market myself so other people believe in the value I can provide. How I do that and maintain polymathy, I don’t know.

But I believe selling my own products gives me the best chance at making this work. You could say my topics are so broad, they form a niche in and of itself. And I finally found something I could create and be proud of. Meet Spreadsheet Open XML From Scratch, my programming guide to create Microsoft Excel spreadsheets using Open XML SDK. I played to my programming strength. *wink*

My programming guide came about 9 months after I quit my job. That means I’ve got zero income (that voice recording stint doesn’t quite count) and an effectively negative cashflow for a duration of time where a baby was created. I feel that I didn’t make good use of those 9 months. Not good for a bootstrapping entrepreneur. Or self-employed person. I never really know what to call myself when other people ask me what I do.

Now I’m not reeling in boatloads of money and sipping expensive Earl Grey tea or anything. I’ve got a little bit of money from the guide (thanks to the wonderful programmers who bought my guide!), so it’s a start.

Microcharges for my magazine

Sometime in May 2010, I launched my own online magazine. Seth Godin inspired it. As a start, I chose to charge for it.

Now pricing is an amorphous subject. People say you should charge this much or that much. You’re charging too high. You’re leaving money on the table. Lots of opinions.

Print magazines sell for about $10 or less per issue. I thought online magazines should be priced less than that. Not much of an upper bound, but better than nothing.

I started with charging US$ 1 for the June 2010 issue. I had exactly 1 buyer. It’s funny, because PayPal took 33 cents from that transaction. Microcharges work for iPhone/iPad apps because you don’t have to take out your wallet to buy. You just tap to buy, enter your password (if you enabled that function), and tap to install.

I don’t know what it’s called, but there’s a friction in purchasing anything that’s not free. If your customer is going to buy something from you, he has to overcome that friction. If he’s going to do that, your product (or service or whatever you’re selling) had better be worth the cost. You might as well charge higher for it.

There’s an experiment where students were given these options:

  • Buy a $10 voucher for $1
  • Buy a $20 voucher for $7

In the 1st case, you gain $9. In the 2nd case, you gain $13. Most of the students chose the 2nd option. There’s friction in paying. This sunk cost of the friction is the same whether it’s $1 or $7.

The interesting thing happened when the experimenters reduced the cost and benefit by exactly $1.

  • Get a $9 voucher for free
  • Buy a $19 voucher for $6

The gain is still the same, $9 and $13 for the 1st and 2nd cases respectively. But the students overwhelming chose the 1st option. Why? Because it’s free. There’s no friction cost.

I decided to give my magazine away for free.

I caved halfway through…

To say I’ve stuck to my goals to support myself through my online business 100% through the past year will be lying. I’ve had my faith shaken a few times. I’ve even considered going back to a job. In fact, I applied for several jobs. Let me tell you something that Seth Godin once said:

A resume is an excuse to reject you

Human resource staff and hiring companies have a strict list of criteria you need to fulfil before they even think of giving you an interview. I’ve applied to branding companies (they handle your social media, marketing and so on). No reply. Expected, since I’ve got no marketing experience (at least to them). I’ve applied for software developer positions (just so you know I’m not reaching out of my league). Also no reply. I’ve even tried for an administration staff position, and I’m willing to do a part-time option. No reply.

You have to match the criteria exactly (or within a very small margin of deviation) or you don’t get the job. You can’t be under-qualified. You can’t be over-qualified. You must have the correct degree (even though I’m completely capable of programming, but they need a computer science graduate). You need to have so many years of experience (but not too much that you become over-qualified). You need to know this programming language, or done some field-related project, or whatever.

I gave up. As much as I needed enough money to survive, I hated writing resumes. Every sentence I wrote on a resume is another excuse for them to reject me. I have more effect if I wrote a sentence here on the blog. Or write a sentence in an information product (such as my guide).

I seriously considered becoming a male escort

Around the considering-regular-job phase, I was getting a little frantic. I was trying to come up with ideas of how to sustain myself. Look, I’m not trying to become a millionaire and buy yachts and cars. I’m just trying to feed myself, and be able to raise a family, ok?

One of those harebrained ideas was to become a male escort. Before you choke on laughter, let me tell you what I was thinking of. There was this episode of a television show Ally McBeal, where she hired a male escort. I can’t remember the reason, but I think it was to spite a doctor, or make a doctor like her better or something.


The man she hired was to be her “boyfriend” or “close male friend that’s bordering on intimate relations or something”. The man, based on Ally’s input on the doctor (I’ll go with “doctor” for now), decided that being the artistic type would incite the doctor the most.

There would be no sex. The man (I’m using this word because I don’t want search engines to raise this article when searching for “male escorts”. Wait… dang it!!!) was capable of engaging in intelligent conversations, was widely knowledgeable in many areas (because his clients need him for various backgrounds), and of course, was good looking.

That’s the kind of male escort (dang it!) I’m referring to. Now, I’ve got no delusions that I’m the greatest gift to women. But I’ve got people who told me that I’ve got better than average good looks. A friend even said I look like Paul Wesley from the Vampire Diaries. I think he meant when I had my hair dyed brown (I like Caucasians and I had grey hair, give me a break, ok?). But seriously, Paul Wesley?

Paul versus Vincent

So I’m relatively good looking, I’m tall (1.78 metres, or 5 foot 10), and fairly leanly muscular. This might work. I bounced the idea off my friends, and they said “Go for it!”. With just a little too much enthusiasm, I might add. “But you’ve got to be prepared to have sex. I will respect you very much if you accept an 80-year-old client.” They also added just a tiny little implication that my “clients” won’t all be female.


My friends obviously had the wrong idea of what I was thinking about.

I discarded the male escort idea after thinking about it for exactly 3 days.

“It’s complicated”

Delicious ribs
[image by Nathan Marx]

You know what’s on my mind a lot since that fateful day? Food.

I don’t care what you’ve learnt from respectable business people. I don’t care what you’ve read from popular entrepreneur blogs. I don’t care what you’ve heard from podcasts about start-ups.

If you’re a bootstrapping entrepreneur, if you’re starting a business with practically nothing, the thing you worry about the most is where your next meal is coming from. Or positive cash flow. I’m still of two minds which one of them is more important.

“So, what do you do?”

I was hanging out with a couple of my friends. One of them said 2 other friends of his wanted to join us. All of us met up, briefly introduced ourselves and went to have dinner.

After we sat down and gave our dinner orders, one of the newly met friends asked what our jobs were. An uncomfortable feeling was already creeping up my neck.

Let me give you some dating advice. Do not ask your date what his or her job is. At least not on the first date. What if he sells niche collectible cards on Ebay? What if she’s a professional pole dancer? What if he’s an undertaker? What if she’s an artist of yarn? What are you going to talk about after you know the answer?

If you expect a standard answer, that the other person works at such-and-such a company, doing such-and-such activities in the position of such-and-such, then don’t ask. Many people work at jobs that they hate. It might not tell you a lot about their interests and character. It’s the “the sex and cash” theory. What people do to feed themselves may be different from what they do for enjoyment. If you’re dating, find out more about the enjoyment part first.

So anyway, I was the last to talk about what I do for a living. “Uh, it’s complicated.” I replied. One of my friends explained, “He’s an entrepreneur.” That word hung in the air, laughing at my puny attempts to live up to the definition. That word palpably changed the density of the air around us, making sound harder to pass through that solidifying wall of nothingness. That word made me question, just for a second, the decision I made in March.

And then time started moving again. Our new friends had no follow up conversation. As expected.

Luckily, there was food in front of us. I started to grab a stalk of leafy vegetable with my chopsticks…

“Wah, on leave again?

There is this McDonald’s near my house that I frequent. “McDonald’s?!?” I hear you say. “Fast food? Blasphemy!”

Hey, when I was holding on to a job, I bought a McChicken and an apple pie for dinner almost every weekday. I ate that, then exercise, and then take a protein shake. I’m not obese by any stretch of the word. Then again, I don’t know anything about my arteries…

Anyway, I frequent that fast food restaurant so often that the staff know me (the ones that stayed long enough anyway). One of them, a friendly middle-aged woman, likes to make small talk with me (possibly because I’m of the rare type of customer who can make small talk and joke with service staff). So after I started working for myself, I’ve started visiting that McDonald’s during *drum roll* office hours.

“Wah, today you on leave ah?” she asked in her Singlish slang.

I took one full second before nodding my head as the most expedient method of explaining why I’m at McDonald’s during office hours. Many weeks after that, during which I’ve used that expedient answer many times, I decided I needed to tell her the truth. If nothing else, at least that the “on leave” thing is false.

So I stepped into the restaurant one afternoon, feeling the cool air hit me after walking in the blistering sun for the better part of 15 minutes. Behind the counter, her face lit up with a smile. “Wah, Vincent-boy!” Yes, we’re on first name basis… I stepped up to the counter, and was preparing to give my order, when she interrupted me.

“Wah, on leave again?” she asked.

This was it.

“Actually, uh, I’m working from home.” I replied.
“Aahh… so what you want today? We have this special promotion…”

Ok, technically it’s not exactly false. I am working from home. I just didn’t tell her I’m not working at a job any more. It’s complicated, you know. I don’t think she’s ready to hear me explain. I don’t think I’m ready to explain to her.

I just need to feed myself

And preferably able to pay the bills. I don’t need to make it big. I just need to be ramen profitable.

Ramen profitable means a startup makes just enough to pay the founders’ living expenses.
– Paul Graham

That’s what I said. To be able to eat. I mean, there’s a food name in the term “ramen profitable”.

It’s legally a company, but you feel like you’re lying when you call it one.

Sometimes, I feel the same way if I call myself an entrepreneur…

Startups usually have to do something weird at first.

Tell me about it…

Ok, I do need to make it big. I just don’t need to make it big immediately (or soon, or now, or yet). World changing efforts need to be big, because the world is big. Big in idea. Big in inspiration. Big in imagination. Big in motivation. Big in hope. Big in that something awesome will come out of it, and a lot of people will benefit from it.

Did you know that the highest degree a Freemason can obtain is 33? By the way, it’s my birthday today.