“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.