Focusing on the Fun

When I started my data visualization business, I had some pretty ambitious plans. I would get a bunch of work, too much work, and quickly start hiring people. I would also focus a portion of my—and my employees’—time on data viz related products. I had an idea of what a “successful” business would look like, based on the successful businesses I’ve seen my friends build. It took over a year to figure out that path was not for me.

I re-evaluated what I enjoyed about running my business and what I didn’t enjoy. It turns out following that typical path to “success” would involve focusing most of my attention toward the parts I didn’t like. What would my business look like if I instead focused as much as possible on the aspects I enjoyed? I wouldn’t have employees, I wouldn’t work excessive hours, I wouldn’t take on every project that comes my way, and I wouldn’t accept projects on unreasonable timelines.

Sure, I would make more money if money was my top priority. If my top priorities are quality of life, travel, and working on interesting challenges, I have to be selective about which clients and project I take on. Focusing on the fun comes at a cost, but I think it’s worth it.

If you can make a profit doing as much work as you want and enjoy what you do, isn’t that a successful business?

Is Entrepreneurship the Right Answer, Right Now?

For perspective, I should note that most of my friends and acquaintances, or most of the people I associate with, are entrepreneurs. The kind of people I find most interesting are self-actuating creators. People who would rather follow their own hearts than work all day to accomplish someone else’s dreams. People who would give up stability and security in return for freedom and flexibility.

That said, it’s common for people who think in these terms to believe entrepreneurship is inherently better than employment. They believe self-employment is the right answer.

They congratulate those who cross the threshold from full-time employment into the world of self-employment. Making such a transition is seen as a rite of passage. A frightening, stressful, and challenging struggle almost every entrepreneur has had to face.

Less celebrated are those who make a transition in the opposite direction—unless it’s by means of acqui-hire, in which case the celebration is about the payday rather than the paycheck. In most cases, it seems people subconsciously mourn those who demote themselves into full-time employment. They throw in the towel on their business and work for someone else’s. It’s seen as a failure of sorts, and it’s often quite evident the excitement someone has to get an awesome job is overshadowed by shame.

Ultimately, the people transitioning from self-employment to full-time employment have made a calculated decision. They aren’t going from the Right Way™ to the Wrong Way™. They’re going from what was the Right Way For Them™ to what is the Right Way For Them Right Now™.

As I say in every situation where there is a choice to be made, there are pros and cons to everything.

When it comes to work and life, the pros and cons vary not only by the individual but also by the moment. When it comes to entrepreneurship versus full-time employment, one or the other might always be the right answer for certain people. However, for most people, it seems the right answer can change.

What do you care most about right now? Is it the flexibility to travel, work from anywhere, and make your own hours? Maybe self-employment will make you happier. Do are care about medical benefits for you and your family, or do you need stability to provide for them? Maybe full-time employment will make life easier for you and your loved ones.

How much stress do you have in your life? How much stress can you handle? How much stress do you want? Self-employment can suck. It can be draining. It can take over your life. The market can make what’s already difficult even harder. Your clients/customers may or may not pay. Sometimes, entrepreneurship can take its toll, and you realize that you need a break, you need some sanity and order in your life.

There’s nothing wrong with that.

Everyone should be constantly evaluating what makes them happy and be prepared to change paths when they realize what is right for them at the moment is something else. The grass is often greener on the other side of the fence, because people compare the cons of their side of the fence with the pros of the other side. Don’t get caught up in that. Also, don’t get caught up in what other people think is the right answer, because as I said, it varies by person and by time.

For me, it’s a constant struggle. The cons of entrepreneurship weigh heavy on me, because I just like making things. For now, and for the foreseeable future, self-employment is the best way for me to get what I want out of life while working on whatever I want to work on.

The Curse of Capability

I had an interesting realization recently when discussing funding options for a web site I built. For some background, I’ve worked on it occasionally on weekends (and a few multi-week sprints) throughout the last 4 years. It has slowly grown up to be a pretty robust lump of technology. For it to have a chance at taking off, it will need serious attention from a bunch of different angles: design, user experience, back-end optimization, sysadmin/devops, content acquisition, moderation, and marketing.

There are always valid arguments in favor of and in opposition to raising capital. After a couple of years of having no intention to seek funding for this project, I started to lean in favor of it. Part of it is manpower and not spreading myself too thin. Another part is skill set—my skills are too broad.

I’m pretty good at a few things (interactive development; “making stuff move with code”), but much less so at a bunch of other things. I can do various things under the “big D Design” umbrella (from product to user experience to graphic design), but that doesn’t mean I should. My design work is definitely inferior to those who specialize in it. I can do database administration and query optimization, but that doesn’t mean I should. My low-level systems prowess is definitely inferior to those who specialize in it. Basically, I have the ability to build a fully functional and fairly usable proof of concept, but not an all around amazing product. I can bring an idea to life, but beyond that, it’s best to let specialists take it from there.

Throughout most of my career, I’ve always worked alongside complementary specialists, allowing me to focus my attention to my own specialty. My best work has always been the work I’ve done with good teams. My best solo work, while sometimes being technologically innovative, is nowhere near as well-rounded or impressive.

So, I hit a roadblock. If I were talking to investors with an idea, a plan, some slides, and no ability to pull it off myself, an investors answer would simply be, “Yes,” or, “No.” However, because I technically can build everything from front to back, the answer becomes, “No,” or, “Come back after you launch it and start getting some traction.” If an investor has the option to see the product in action and gauge real-world interest, why not wait and see?

Well, I need to get back to my client work now…

Full-Time Travel: The Gear

photo by @kende

I’ve been traveling full-time for about 9 months now. I imagine many people I’ve hung out with along the way didn’t even know anything was different, because I’m living similarly to how I’ve lived for the last 4 years. However, instead of being grounded in Phoenix 1-2 weeks a month, I’ve replaced that time with “Other.”

While running my business and trying to do exciting and challenging work, I’ve also been couch surfing, short-term renting, and occasionally hotel-living. I probably should have written about all of this along the way, as there are many related topics to cover about the lifestyle.

A popular question for travelers is “what do you pack?” Different types of travel require different packing lists. For most, sites like my friend Alex’s are all you need.

But I do things differently. With full-time work-as-you-go travel, there’s a different set of needs. I essentially need to carry my entire home office with me at all times. Anything I need to run my business needs to be with me, or else I might as well not have it. This prevents me from being able to do anything crazy like going around the world with no bags, or trimming down to just 15 things. For me, it’s not about having as few things as possible; it’s about having everything I need, but only what I need, in as little space and weight as possible.

My home office turns out to be 2 bags, which allows me to travel without checking bags.

Bag 1: Home
21″ rolling luggage; fits in the overhead compartment

  • About a week’s worth of clothing: 9 t-shirts, 3 jeans, and plenty of underwear and socks
  • Toiletries: 75-100ml toothpaste, toothbrush, mustache wax, deodorant, electric shaver, fingernail trimmers, etc.
  • Fitness: Running shoes and gym shorts
  • Misc: Light but warm jacket, laundry bag, swimwear

Bag 2: Office
17″ laptop/messenger bag; fits under the seat in front of me

  • Laptop: 15″ MacBook Pro with SSD
  • Electric: International power adapter, power strip, phone/USB charger, laptop charger
  • Productivity despite babies and (not in!) blenders: Noise-cancellation headphones
  • USB External HDD, for large file storage, virtual machines, etc.
  • Photo/Video: Sony NEX-3 18-55mm with microphone accessory
  • Misc: Pocket umbrella, microfiber cloth, checkbook, receipt folder, envelopes, stamps, mini gorilla/tripod, sunglasses

On my person
Always in my pockets

  • Carrier-unlocked GSM phone (Nexus S)
  • Wallet, money clip, bottle-opener combo: Cash, coins, and cards
  • Passport
  • Notebook & pen

What else do you need?

One Year

Just over a year ago, the day before my birthday, I submitted the paperwork for my first business. As I made the transition into self-employment, many people who had known me for years were surprised. They said, “I thought you were already a freelancer!” Nope. I got to live the life by working from home for a company based in the Bay Area.

I don’t talk about my work very much, which leaves people to guess or assume based on what I do or say. Even now, while I should be promoting my business, I find it too self-promotional and pretentious to talk about my work.

There’s a fine line, I think, between sharing and bragging. Between informing and self-promoting. I haven’t always avoided that line as much as I do today.

To the time machine!

“Let me show you how awesome I am.”

Around 5 or 6 years ago, I gave a demo at Refresh Phoenix Demo Night of a site I built for Nike (as part of a very talented team, of course). I was about 20 years old at the time. Even though I kept my age under wraps—hoping to avoid the young hotshot stigma—it was pretty obvious I was young. I couldn’t help but wonder, was I demoing or bragging? Perhaps it was in the eyes of the beholder…

“Do you know who I am?”

It was around that time when I realized that having clients like Mazda, Nike, Ford (SVT), Boeing, Twix, (etc. etc. etc. blah blah blah brag brag brag) didn’t mean much. What it did mean was that I wouldn’t have trouble getting a job if I needed or wanted one. It also meant that people who knew of my work were likely to respect my capabilities, which is an immeasurable feeling for someone who invests so much time and energy into his work. However, in the bigger picture, there’s value in having name recognition within a broader community. I realized I could use my portfolio as back pocket credibility and independently get my name out within the technology community. I became the guinea pig of a series of online social experiments, starting with making random crap techies would find neat and plastering my name all over it. Well, the experiments were an unimaginable success and I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for those experiments. However, there were unintended negative consequences, including an outward-facing persona James Archer coined as “THE Brian Shaler.”

“So…. what do you do?” – People who have met me since, even after knowing me for 1-2 years

Some things have changed a bit since the early days in my career, and perhaps I’ve overcompensated.

I’m a data visualizationist. My forte has always been making stuff move with code, but I currently focus on data visualization and the many ways you can bring data to life. I’m not going to tell you I’m good at what I do, but I’m happy to show you my work and let you decide for yourself.