“A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and gets to bed at night, and in between he does what he wants to do.” ― Bob Dylan
I am a lifestyle programmer. I run a one-man software product business with the aim of providing myself with an interesting, rewarding, flexible and well paid job. I have no investors and no plans to take on employees, let alone become the next Google or Facebook. I don’t have my own jet and my face is unlikely to appear on the cover of Newsweek any time soon. I am ok with that.
“Lifestyle business” is often used as something of an insult by venture capitalists. They are looking for the “next big thing” that is going to return 10x or 100x their investment. They don’t care if the majority of their investments flame out spectacularly and messily, as long as a few make it really big. By investing in lots of high-risk start-ups they are able to reduce their overall risk to a comfortable level. The risk profile is completely different for the founders they invest in. As VC Paul Graham admits:
“There is probably at most one company in each [YCombinator] batch that will have a significant effect on our returns, and the rest are just a cost of doing business.”
Ouch. The odds of being the ‘next big thing’ are even slimmer (of the order of 0.07%). As a VC-backed start-up the chances are that you will work 80+ hours a week for peanuts for several years and end up with little more than experience at the end of it.
But high-risk, high-return ventures are sexy. They sell magazines and advertising space. Who can resist the heroic story of odd-couple Woz and Jobs creating the most valuable company in the world from their garage? So that is what the media gives us, and plenty of it. Quietly ignoring the thousands of other smart and driven people who swung for the fences and failed. Or perhaps succeeded, only to be pushed out by investors.
If you aren’t going to be satisfied with anything less than being a multi-millionaire living in a hollowed out volcano, then an all-or-nothing, VC-backed start-up crap shoot is probably your only option. And there are markets where you have very little chance of success without venture capital. But really, how much money do you need? Is money going to make you happy? How many meals can you eat in a day? How many cars can you drive? It doesn’t sound that great to me when you read accounts of what it is like to be rich. Plenty of studies have shown that happiness is only weakly correlated with wealth once you can afford the necessities of life (food, shelter, clothing). Hedonistic adaption ensures that no amount of luxury can keep us happy for long. Anyway, if you are reading this in English on a computer, you probably are already rich by global standards.
Creating a small software business that provides a good living for just yourself, or perhaps a few people, isn’t very newsworthy. But it is a lot more achievable. The barriers to entry have fallen. You no longer need thousands of dollars of hardware and software to start a software business. Just an idea, good development skills and plenty of time and willpower. Many lifestyle businesses start off with the founder creating the product over evenings and weekends, while doing a full-time job. I cut my expenses and lived off savings until my business started generating enough income for me to live on (about 6 months). I only spent a couple of thousand pounds of my own money before the business became profitable. There is really no need to max out your credit cards or take any big financial risks.
So how much money do lifestyle businesses make? Of course, it varies a lot. Many fail completely, often due to a lack of marketing. But I know quite a few other lifestyle programmers who have made it a successful full-time career. I believe many of them do very nicely financially. Personally, I have averaged a significantly higher income from selling my own software than I ever did from working for other people, and I made a good wage working as a senior software engineer. Here is a comparison of my income from my last full-time salaried employment vs what I have paid out in salary and dividends from my business over the last 7 years.
Bear in mind that the above would look even more favourable if it took into account business assets, the value of the business itself and the tax advantages of running a business vs earning a salary.
Sure, I could hire employees and leverage their efforts to potentially make more money. Creating jobs for other people is a worthy thing to do. Companies like FogCreek and 37Signals have been very successful without taking outside investment. But I value my lifestyle more than I value the benefits of having a bigger business and I struggle to think of what I would do with lots more money. I might end up having to talk to financial advisers (the horror). I would also end up managing other people, while they did all the stuff I like doing. I am much better at product development, marketing and support than I am being a manager.
If you can make enough money to pay the bills, being a lifestyle programmer is a great life. I can’t get fired. I make money while I sleep. I choose where to live. I don’t have to worry about making payroll for anyone other than myself. My commute is about 10 meters (to the end of the garden). I get to see my son every day before he goes to school and when he comes back home. I go to no meetings. I have no real deadlines. No-one can tell me where to put my curly braces or force me to push out crappy software just to meet some arbitrary ship date. When I’m not feeling very productive I go for a run or do some chores. I can’t remember the last time I set an alarm clock or wore a tie.
My little business isn’t going to fundamentally change the world in the way that a big company like Google or Facebook has. But it has bought me a lot of happiness and fulfilment and, judging by the emails I get, improved the life of a lot of my customers as well. And some of those really famous events you hear about in the news (which I don’t have permission to name-drop) plan their seating using PerfectTablePlan.
Of course, it isn’t all milk and money. The first year was very hard work for uncertain rewards. I recently happened across this post I made on a forum back in August 2005, a few months after I went full-time:
“I work a 60-70 hour week and pay myself £100 at the end of it (that’s less than $200). I could make 3x more working for minimum wage flipping burgers. But hopefully it won’t be like this forever…”
I still work hard. I’m not lying under a palm tree while someone else “offshore” does all the work. And I don’t get to spend all day programming. If you want to have any real chance of succeeding you need to spend plenty of time on marketing. Thankfully I have found I actually enjoy the challenge of marketing. But, because I don’t have employees, I have to do some of some of the crappy jobs that I wouldn’t choose to do otherwise, including: writing documentation, chasing invoices, tweaking the website and doing admin. And I answer customer support emails 364 days a year. I take my laptop on holiday, but it really isn’t that bad. Customer support is frustrating at times. But it is very rewarding to know that lots of people are using my software. Overall, it’s a great lifestyle. I don’t miss having a 9-5 job. I wouldn’t even swap my job for running a bigger, ‘more successful’ company.
Ahhh so this is what it is called that I do. I often have trouble explaining my work, how I am able to take the daughter to school, pick her up, have breakfast lunch and dinner with the wife and kids.
My experience were almost the exact same as yours (except I upped sticks from the UK and moved to the tropics to do it).
Which tropical country did you moved to? How long time ago and how do you like it? I moved to Cyprus 5 years ago – and too tell the truth – living in paradise island which has 300 days of sunshine a year is not all that great as I imagined. But paying less taxes of course is a huge advantage.
I am overcome with envy. I’m currently on the cusp of leaving 9-5 in an attempt to achieve a similar “lifestyle”. Hopefully I don’t fall flat on my face in the process.
Thumbs up !
Best advise seen in years !!!
Wow, there are other people like me? I’ve been doing this for ten years full time. We should all get together or something. Maybe help each other out. I’ll be making a move to a different type of programming or going back into the work force because my software is pirated so much these days.
Microconf is a good place to meet people with a similar outlook.
What’s your software?
I’m in the same boat as you. Even though I would definitely agree on benefits listed – there is also a down side. It probably varies from person to person, but I personally struggle to work from home alone (currently for about 7 years). It feels sometimes that I am detached from world and humanity. Not to mention, just lonely and boring. Before I used to work in big IT outsourcing company with >300 software developers, and it was really cool environment to work with so many similar-minded geeks.
I’ve tried to work in cafes, office-renting, office-sharing, desk-renting spaces at some point – but it’s just not the same.
Another big disadvantage of working from home is complete mixture of your personal and work life, you cannot split it up anymore.
I would really love to hear if you have similar experience and how you fight it?
I don’t really find it to be a problem. I am quite happy working on my own and I keep very busy. I am married with a child. If I was living on my own, it probably would get lonely.
I am active in several online communities, including:
I try to go to relevant conferences, such as http://www.microconf.com, now and then.
Perhaps you should try to attend some meet-ups near you ( http://www.meetup.com/ ). If there aren’t any, perhaps you should move somewhere there is? After all, the beauty of our business is that we can work nearly anywhere.
I hope that helps.
Business-wise I can work anywhere. And my salary would be way bigger than any average salary anywhere in the world. Freedom and flexibility of one-man-band software business is really amazing.
Unfortunately, I have an Ukrainian passport. Which means my visa-free travel is very limited: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visa_requirements_for_Ukrainian_citizens not to mention we’re not in EU, therefore I cannot just move to any other EU country. At the moment I live in Cyprus on retirement visa (got it at the age of 27, lol), without permission to take any employment on the island, which is ok for me, as I work from home, but my wife is going crazy about not being able to work.
Most immigration laws of most developed countries are employee-oriented – which is not convenient if you want to come with your own job :)
Few have investment immigration options, for example in UK if you invest 1 mln GBP into government bonds they would let you stay – but 1 mln pounds is a massive amount of money.
Moving to Thailand or other “paradise” places – is not an option. They’re great places to visit for a holiday, but horrible to live permanently (at least in my personal experience)
I am doing this the same thing as you with one exception — I have an employee (working part time from his home) that is doing customers support. Thanks to this I can get a couple of days away without a laptop, or a week off with just a smartphone to reply to urgent emails. It has taken a while to train him, but now I consider it as one of the best decisions made.
Correction. Removed “WPEngine” from the list of non-funded companies. Thanks to @expertdan for the correction.
Fantastic and inspirational article. One can only assume it gets rather lonely though, and I also find that it can be good for the creativity to bounce ideas of other people (as long as you have the final say!).
if interested – translated in russian:
Andy : Glad to hear that your sales are exponantially growing, How many hours do you work per week in average ?
I think it is linear, rather than expoential. But I am still very happy with that.
I’ve been working pretty hard recently, mostly on my new course and a new product. But I don’t track hours.
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Hope you still pick up this question even though it’s about a month removed from the original post. I just wanted to ask the general and somewhat loaded question of how you manage to be a successful dad and father, as well as micropreneur.
I’m 32, married with two wonderful kids ages 6 and 3, and I dream of achieving what you have; a moderately successful small business venture that I can support myself on. My fear is that I could end up “penalizing” my kids for my own ambition – waking up in 5, 10 years and regretting how much of their childhood I missed trying to advance my own career. I wouldn’t be the first who did so, but I am bound and determined to not end up there. I don’t want to presume, but it seems you managed to find that balance, of a happy home life AND career.
I guess my question would be: how did you manage to be successful in both phases of your life, personal and career? And the corollary to that, what advice could you give someone like me, starting out but worrying if it’s possible to find that balance myself?
Thanks very much for reading this and possibly responding… its guys like you who make guys like me think our dreams are possible!
I work pretty hard, but the flexibility of my hours and the fact that I don’t commute means that I still see a more of my family than most working men do. So, yes, I think I have managed to get quite a good work:life balance – or, at least, one that I am happy with.
It helps if you can get the business off the ground before children arrive (as I did). But obviously that isn’t going to help you.
Also I have kept my ambitions in check. I haven’t take on employees or investment or tried to become the next Microsoft.
Can’t you find a few hours a week to work on an idea and see if it gets any interest? You shouldn’t need to risk vast amounts of time and money to validate your idea.
Thank you so very much for the response, an especially quick one at that! I appreciate your perspective – it’s reassuring to actually talk to someone who’s pulled it off, telling me it’s possible. I do wish I’d gotten here before my son was born – alas, here I am.
I think I can find that time to get a validate-able idea; my worry comes at the point you have some real customers to support, the increasing workload beyond just coding, and not quite enough revenue to go full time. How were you able to manage that? Did you find that to be a real wall to climb, to make the jump, or maybe just a speed bump?
I went full time, living off savings, before v1.0 was released. So I didn’t really have to deal with that transition. But I was very motivated, as I had no other income.
Also, I am lucky to live in the UK, where we have decent free health care.
some pople don’t give up the day job until the ‘side’ job is earning more money than the day job. But that must be quite gruelling.
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