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Lessons Learned: Successes and Failures of 2013

• Matthew Lehner

Career wise, 2013 has been the best year of my life; both financially and with my own personal fulfillment from work commitments. Just as importantly, I’ve been learning what motivates me and am transitioning my business to focus on these factors, rather than just focusing on the financials. Here’s a quick list of accomplishments:

  • Increased my take home income by slightly more than 60%
  • Won the biggest contract I’ve worked on yet
  • Wrote 1/2 of a book about Ember.js (to be completed this year)
  • Visited Portland twice, San Francisco, Philadelphia and spent two weeks at a remote cabin on a lake with no electricity or phone reception
  • Moved across the Pacific Ocean to Hong Kong from Victoria, BC
  • Built my blog from nothing to 34,000 views
  • Got 117 subscribers on my mailing list

What did I do right?

These are three huge lessons I’ve started putting into practise that are helping sleep better and allowing me to move confidently into the new year.

Systematize Everything

Over the past year I’ve systematized and automated as much of my business as possible. I’m just one guy and though I hires sub-contractors at times, it’s basically just me. My bookkeeping and time tracking needs aren’t that complex, but automating it allows me to have instant focus on the health of my business. Having this kind of real time statistics about the health of my business allows me to make better decisions and plan for the future, rather than reactively working whenever the work comes in. I don’t have to be in survival mode, constantly wondering if I’ll be able to pay next month’s rent or if I can pay my sub-contractors. This is a huge relief.

Write more. Seriously.

In May I was at a conference where Nathan Barry gave this talk. The lesson I took home is that at a certain skill level in my field, the difference between me and another guy will basically be what people know about me. I can tip the scales massively in my favour just by having an established audience in my areas of interest and expertise. At this point, I haven’t made a single dollar from writing, but I have noticed a huge improvement in my ability to convey my thoughts in writing. Also, I think at least 50% of the people who have visited my site (maybe naively) got the information they were looking for. At 17,000 people helped, that’s not bad.

As a secondary point, writing more has also given my communication skills a huge boost. Since I’m almost certainly going to be working with people for the rest of my life, I’m glad to be developing this skill. The result is that I’m more enjoyable to work with on the positive side of things, and when things are heading in the wrong direction I can steer them back in the right direction in a more positive and constructive way.

Charge More.

This is universally good advice. It’s something that I tell anyone who is struggling as a freelancer. I’ve found that there are two parts to this - the first is just simply to charge more. Based on my experience, most of the time the difference between what I’ve charged and a 50% increase is just saying the number that’s 50% higher. The second part is to focus on communicating the value that you’re providing (see the previous point about getting better at communicating) and your clients will love the work you do for them. When ever I’ve worked hard and done good work but not talked to the client explicitly how what I’ve done will benefit them, it’s gone poorly. Spending the extra time to tell them how my work is going to affect them positively has never been a bad decision, in fact, it helped to save a project that went over budget by illustrating how the extra costs to them actually provided positive value over the long run.

What went wrong?

Part of what’s made this year such a success for me is the fact that I’ve been able to have a clear vision about what hasn’t gone right. In the past, things wouldn’t meet my expectations, but I couldn’t explain clearly why they hadn’t. This year, I can tell you exactly what went wrong, and why. That being said, there are only two things that I would say are actual failures.

Didn’t deliver on my Ember.js book

I’m writing a book about Ember.js. I’ve been building JavaScript web apps for a few years, and by far, Ember is the best one I’ve worked with. That being said, getting accustomed to “the Ember.js way” is definitely not so easy, but it’s worth it for the productivity and code quality gains that just come with it inherently. I digress.

I didn’t finish the book. It’s about halfway done and I feel like I let myself down with this. Instead of making time for book writing, I was distracted and unfocused. I spent a lot of time doing other cool stuff, but that stuff doesn’t contribute to me building and launching my first product.

Didn’t email my list

If you’re on my list, sorry! I love you guys, but also, the idea of sending a message to you scares me. Part of the reason that I haven’t emailed is that I haven’t felt like I’ve had anything good enough to say, but I do. You’re interested in learning about Ember.js and I’m interested in teaching you how. Anyway, you can expect something coming very soon, but for now, I don’t have anything. In a week or two you’ll get my first email about the book and then we can start going from there. If you’re not on my list - sign up at www.learnemberjs.net

What I’ve learned

This is the most valuable part of this post for me. Looking back retrospectively, I’ve identified that the major things standing in the way of meeting my goals are basically strengths gone awry. If there’s one thing that I can take from 2013, it’s the idea of focus. Without it, I’m lost. Every new idea or opportunity that comes my way feels like the first chance to go to Disneyland as a kid. 2013 was a lack of focus, I was like a puppy with new opportunities to chew on everywhere. 2014 has the same opportunities, but I know which ones I’m going to sink my teeth into. During 2013 I read books and articles, attended workshops, went to conferences, and thought a lot how I wanted a product based income. I failed to make even a single dollar, because I didn’t put enough effort into one thing instead, I divided my efforts out into a lot of things. That’s my lesson. If you want success, define what that means to you and then work backwards setting goals that will bring you there.

Lack of Focus (I Need an Iron Focus and Determination)

Last January I decided that I wanted to develop a product for an additional source of income. I came up with the idea for a book on Cordova (PhoneGap), but in the end, it wasn’t a tool that I wanted to spend a lot of time with and really dive into. Instead, I’ve spent a fair amount of time writing a book about building web applications with Ember.js, and I have to say, it’s good (but I’m a bit biased..)

Why didn’t it ship? Basically, I didn’t ship this book because of a lack of focus. Instead of focusing on the things I know would move the needle, I’ve wasted time on all kinds of yak shaving around optimization and stuff that is totally unnecessary. Instead of writing or focusing on learning and practising, I’ve spent time consuming information around the periphery. Yes, there’s a time for learning, but more often, it’s a time for action. To change this inaction, this year I’m focusing on three month planning period for macro level goals, which are laid out by defining SMART goals for each week. Those are Specific, Measurable, Action-Oriented, Realistic and Time Bound.

I thrive on variety and love to have a number of things on the go, but this works against me when I don’t have a stringent focus on accomplishing the things I want over the long term. My career is a long game play and I’m in it to win. I believe this will be the number one thing that will help to get me set up for success this year.

For example, You can expect a followup to this post in early April where I’ll write about my 2 products and how this new focus has gone.