For some years I had an insurance policy. It would protect a part of my income if I found myself unable to work. As a client services business, with a business model that involved swapping time for money, this seemed sensible. If I physically couldn’t do any work, I wouldn’t be making any money. The terms of this policy, however, meant that if I was making money due to revenue not tied to me physically working, I wouldn’t be able to claim.
At the beginning of 2013, my company finally made the transition away from client services to products. Our product, the CMS Perch, had started out as a side project and over four years had grown to the point where it could now be all we did as a company. With my income no longer linked to my ability to write code all day, it would be hard to make an insurance claim, so I cancelled the policy. Our product had essentially replaced the need for that policy. Little did I know what perfect timing I had in making that decision.
We headed into the new year full of plans, mostly regarding shipping lots of new features and related add-ons for the product. I also had personal plans. I’m a keen runner and I was training for my first marathon, with a coveted ballot place in the London Marathon. I had my training plan all mapped out.
All of our plans for the year were turned on their head when I went out for a run one snowy day near the end of January, fell on ice and shattered my elbow. I was rushed into six hours of surgery that day and didn’t get back home until five days later. I am fortunate to still have any use of my right hand. Almost a year later, after a further two surgeries, I still have limited use of my dominant arm.
Had we still been a client services business, this would have been a disaster. Most of our client work involved me being able to write code, and quickly. Writing words one-handed is annoying; writing code is near impossible. Even now with my fancy split keyboard and using Sticky Keys on my Mac, I’m slow and can only work for short periods. To our product business however, the effect of my injury has been negligible. Our product effectively insured us against my inability to work in the way I had done for the previous 12 years.
Diversity is strength
I’m not the only business owner who has discovered the power of products during difficult times this year. Fellow bootstrapper Garrett Dimon—founder of Sifter—had an unbelievably tough year following a routine ankle surgery that led to complications. As he wrote in early December,
Brennan Dunn, whose products include Planscope and the e-book Double your Freelancing Rate, noted in his end of year review post that in March his wife was hospitalized for a month, and they have two children under the age of five.
For all three of us, our products gave us security, an insurance policy against life suddenly taking a turn we couldn’t have anticipated.
Strategies that work
In some ways my injury has forced me out of the code and made me think more strategically about the business. As two developers, writing more code is our first response to anything. Spending time thinking about marketing, exploring new ways to help our users, or working on the infrastructure around the product can be just as, if not more, valuable. I’ve had to accept that I can’t do everything, and be more careful about what I say yes to so that I can focus my time on what’s most important.
I’m not yet 40. Being a runner, I’m not struggling with the effects of declining fitness like many people my age, and fortunate genetics mean I am robustly healthy. Until this year, I believed that my health getting in the way of the crazy schedules and deadlines I like to set myself was something that was a long way off in the future. I was fortunate that, in discovering I am not as unbreakable as I thought, the side project that became our business enabled me to carry on.
As Harry Roberts noted earlier in the year, in the web industry we do a lot of things for free. We give away a lot of stuff, and that’s good. However, creating side projects that do bring in some revenue is not something that you should shy away from. Your side project might just allow you to ride out a storm and continue doing the work that you love.