At last I did it. After three years of constant trial and error, I managed to gain my freedom!
Sounds strange to say, but 2020 was the best year of my life.
Started a side business. Grew it. Surpassed my salary. Saved up a lot of money. Quit my day job.
This is the sequel to 2.5 years of building products.
There, I talk in depth about moving abroad. Starting a full time job. Doubting myself. Crying. Finding CyberLeads. Launching it. Finding a distribution channel. Growing it.
Here, I'll talk about what comes after that. From finding something that's working and growing, all the way to financial independence.
It's not so much of a story, like "2.5 YOBP", and I apologize for that. It's mostly a collection of thoughts and ideas I'm exploring.
The whole journey took three years. And it was a rollercoaster. Both business wise and emotionally.
As I've discovered, building a business is much more than making money. It's a philosophy class.
The blog post ended up being so fucking huge, that I decided to create a table of contents for you.
• Introduction1. Bird's eye view 🦉
• Business lessons1. Attracting competition 🤺
• Personal lessons1. Business is counter intuitive 🤯
• Appendix:1. It's a philosophy class 👘
A quick recap of the year, especially the first part of it that is described in detail in 2.5 years of building products.
From afar, everything looks nice, smooth, linear and optimistic.
Q1: Found a good B2B product, CyberLeads
Q2: Found a good distribution channel, organic social reach
Q3: Doubled down, niched down and surpassed my salary
Q4: Incorporated, doubled my salary and quit my job.
But, as you'll see, reality was very different. It was very stressful. And it was a very hard and bumpy road.
In Feb '20, I launched CyberLeads out of the blue. I had no idea it would succeed. I had tried and failed 19 times in a row before that, for 2 years straight. So I was expecting yet another failure.
To my surprise.. the launch was a success. I got paying customers and validated my product. That was halfway through Q1.
For close to three months after that, I tried multiple distribution channels and failed misserably in all of them. It was depressing.
However, on the 21st of April, halfway through Q2, I discovered what would be my main distribution channel.
A tweet of mine unexpectedly blew up on Twitter.
And a few days later, a personal blog post of mine unexpectedly went viral on HackerNews.
After more than two years of constant struggle and failure, I had at last found a good product and a good distribution channel.
My product was CyberLeads. And my distribution channel was organic social reach.
I was off to the races.
Noticed a pattern above?
Exactly. I got lucky. I could pretend and act like I knew what I was doing, but it would be a lie.
Many things I thought would work, didn't. And many things I did without expecting anything in return, did.
We all want to feel smart. And we all want to feel like we deserve what we have.
But luck is a real factor in this chaotic and unpredictable world.
We've been taught in school to think of the world as a closed set, finite, deterministic environment that can be summarized on a piece of paper or a blackboard.
We've been taught that we can think about it reasonably and work "top-down", with elaborate strategies and plans.
Well, I admit I can't do that. I can't figure out how the world works.
I've decided to embrace it, and try to make the world's unpredictability work for me, instead of against me.
Try many times, try many things, put myself out there, expose myself to the world and hopefully increase my luck surface area.
It's easier to become 10x luckier by increasing your exposure, than it is to become 10x better at undestanding and predicting the world.
You may think that exposing yourself to the world comes with some downsides. It's true.
One of them is the extra attention. Even if it's in digital form.
It might sound great to blow up, but I was not ready for it. I got severe anxiety at first.
I wanted everything to stop.
The likes. The comments. The retweets. Even the emails notifying me that I got a new customer. I was overwhelmed and wanted to go back to normality.
Especially after being attacked personally on HackerNews for running a lead generation business.
A few days later though, everything had stopped.
I visited HackerNews again. They were attacking some large company on that day.
"Oh.. I see.."
Their attack towards was not personal. They don't know me. They don't care about me. And they have forgotten about me already.
You may be the hero of your own movie, but in everyone else's you are nothing but an extra. You appear and flash on their screen for a instant, and then you're gone forever.
No one cares about you. And that thought is liberating. It allows you to expose yourself and fail miserably without any fear.
A few of the business lessons I've learnt this year.
Another downside, you might say, of exposing yourself is attracting more competition.
Up until this time, my only experience competing was fighting in Muay Thai and kick boxing.
Sadly, that's the definition of a zero-sum game. One person wins. Another person loses. By design.
Often in humiliating fashion. You could get knocked out in front of your girlfriend or your mother, for example.
I was wired to avoid competition at all costs.
However, whether I liked it or not, I had entered a crowded market. I already had competitors while entering, and to make matters worse, people had started building super similar products to mine.
I ended up having severe anxiety again.
I felt like they were stealing food from my plate. I felt like they were blocking my way to financial freedom.
As time went on, however, I started realizing that competition has very little effect on your potential.
More on that later.
The internet is big enough. Just keep going.
Another thing I learned this year is that competition is not as simple as having a similar product.
It's a combination of four things.
The product. The target customer. The distribution channel. And the positioning.
Unless all four perfectly overlap, you aren't really competing.
And even if they all do overlap, what are the odds of your marketing efforts overlapping, so much, so consistently, that you start losing customers to a competitor?
And how many customers could you lose? Enough to lose your sleep? Enough to shut you down? Enough to slow you down substantially? I highly doubt it.
99 times of of 100, your customers aren't even aware of your competitors. Only you're stressing about them so badly.
You are most probably competing with their time, manual labor, boredom and an excel sheet. Not the people you think of as your competitors.
And even if you were to be outcompeted so badly, you can always escape competition by merely changing one of the above.
Unknowingly, somewhere in June, I escaped all competition and took CyberLeads to new heights.
I didn't outcompete anyone. And I didn't change my product either.
Initially, I just changed the tagline on my landing page, specifying that my product is for digital agencies.
I wanted to position myself differently. And I decided to niche down.
The reason was because my most successful customers were agencies and I wanted to focus on them and deliver more value.
Little did I know that I escaped all competition.
After niching down, I was able to develop unique, specific features that no one else had. Initially, however, I just changed the wording on the website.
And that's the point. You don't have to be crazy different at first. Just a tiny bit.
In my anecdotal experience, design and features are overrated.
Positioning is the easiest and biggest lever you can pull. And it can all start by tweaking the copy.
Worst case scenario, it doesn't work out and you revert.
Best case scenario, you escape competition, narrow your focus, and shine.
Once again, positioning myself was a matter of trial and error. I tried five different variations.
People started asking for my advice.
"What?! Me? I have no fucking idea what I'm doing."
Giving advice is super dangerous. It is highly contextual and our experience is anecdotal.
Looking back, everything can make sense. And luck can be confused with skill, and vice versa.
Luckily for me, I have my daily blog. I can send people there, or revisit it and remind myself of how lost I was.
I have caught myself giving advice as if I know what's up, but I try to avoid it.
The problem is that we love following step by step guides. We are always looking for recipes.
"Ok, so I'll do this, and then that will happen."
We hate to admit that the world is chaotic and the results may not be in our hands.
I've never found a step by step guide that has worked for me out of the box.
And I've never had a competitor copy me and have success. Every single one of them quit after a few weeks or months.
They built identical products. They tried the same distribution channels. They studied my revenue numbers. They read my blog. They even started speaking and writing in a similar way.
But every single one of them failed. Why? I don't know. Maybe the stars didn't align for them. Maybe it's not "the one". Who knows.
You can't follow recipes and expect the perfect results. Mastery and success are in the nuances.
I always used to think that having "product-market-fit" was everything. From there on, everything would be easy.
Now I disagree. It's missing the most crucial part of the equation. Distribution.
Want an idea with the notorious product market fit? Here are a few. Don't worry, I'll give them to you for free.
A competitor to Notion. Airtable. Webflow. Jira. Salesforce. Slack. The list goes on and on.
Basically every single company that is doing great, is making a lot of money and is not in a winner take all market.
The hard thing is not finding an idea with demand. The hard thing is not even building it. It's consistently finding new customers.
For that you need a solid distribution channel.
And the bad thing is that unless you already have a distribution channel up and running, you will have to build it from scratch. And that will take a looong time.
For example, it took me over two years to build up my Twitter account. And most other distribution channels take time also.
My competitors didn't give up due to lack of product market fit. They gave up because they didn't get enough traction.
They moved on to their next thing.
I always thought that businesses run like clocks. They have bullet proof systems, that run perfectly and predictably.
Now I realize that in the early stages, all you need is traction.
My business doesn't have bulletproof or predictable systems. I feel like everything is barely holding on with duck tape, and that one day the whole thing will fall apart.
Funnily enough though, things have been improving consistently.
Maybe this is what running a company feels like all the way through.
You just find one thing that works well and keep doing it. Again and again. Until you find the next thing that works.
If it works, it's smart. Even if it's not as scientific, predictable or sophisticated as you would like.
Humans take 30 years to mature, but we expect our businesses to mature in their 6 first months.
Things are as complicated as we want them to be.
I see many people tracking growth percentages at decimal level. Tracking conversion rates. Bounce rates. Designing elaborate funnels.
And I've also been part of design meetings where grown adults discuss for hours what the color of a specific button should be.
I used to overcomplicate things as well. I was spinning my wheels and wasn't really getting anywhere.
One day, however, I read a Jason Cohen blog post. He talks about running a $100M/yr company focusing mainly on one metric.
Or as he likes to call it, his one "north star".
Wait, so people are running $100M/year businesses focusing on one metric, and I'm here focusing on five?!
I started tracking the one metric that matters. Revenue.
And the one metric that has the biggest impact on revenue. Traffic.
All the rest, as long as things are going fine, fuck them. Just enjoy the process.
The same way perfection does not exist in nature or life, it doesn't exist in business either.
This is perhaps the biggest lesson of the year.
Instead of trying to bend the universe to your will, just go with the flow.
A few examples:
- I always wanted to build a unique and sexy product that would be my passion. This year I decided that it's easier to just build something I know people find useful already, make money and then pursue my hobbies without the need to milk them and make money out of them.
- I always wanted to have an impact and make the world a better place through my work. This year I decided that's it's easier to do something simple, make money and give 10% of my income to charities.
Even now my business is far from perfect.
- Social is my main acquisition channel, which is unstable.
- I’m in a market with very high churn.
- My revenue is wild and fluctuates.
- My growth is not as smooth as I would like it to be.
- People compete with me all the time.
- I make myself vulnerable by sharing all my numbers and strategies.
In a perfect world, I would like to have predictable, scalable systems that work while I sleep.
Be in market with super low churn and customer lock in. Have SEO for customer acquisition. Have smooth, predictable, stable growth. Have MRR as my main metric.
But we don’t live in a perfect world.
I have to adjust, and look at things the way they are.
Focus on the things you can control.
A few of the personal lessons I learnt this year.
To summarize my business lessons, it blew my mind how counter intuitive running an internet business, and life in general, can be.
I could go on forever, but here are a few things that come to mind.
- When ideating, don't keep your idea secret. Not only won't people steal it, but their feedback will help you improve it.
- When building, don't be a perfectionist. Not only it won't matter to your user, but you are probably making your product worse.
- When growing, share revenue numbers. You may get copied, but you will grow faster and inspire others. And, by the way, the internet is usually big enough for another player.
- When talking to customers, don't pretend to be a company. Being a one man team is a super power. You can connect to others easily. Especially to fellow founders.
- When scaling, stick to one distribution channel. You may be missing out on other channels, but it's better to be great at one than average everywhere.
- When analyzing, stick to one metric. It's better to turn the screw that will make your business fly rather than turn all the screws a little bit.
- When growing, niche down to a specific segment of the market. Yes, it might be a smaller piece of the pie, but there you will be the best.
- When competing, ignore everyone and focus only on yourself. Focusing on things you cannot control is the definition of insanity.
- When executing, don't be afraid to fail and look stupid. Remember that no one cares about you, anyway.
It's hard for us monkeys to grasp the ideas of a "positive sum game", the vast scale of the internet or that people don't give a fuck about us. But we should try our best.
This is where I started to calm down. When I started realizing all the above. Up until this point I was going crazy.
An awesome book I read this year also helped.
It's called "Enchiridion of Epictetus" and it's an ancient, 2000 year old greek text on the principles of Stoicism.
The main thesis of the book is that all things in life fall in one of two categories. And it's not what you'd expect: good things and bad things. It's things you can control and things you can't.
Focusing only on the things you can control, while letting go of the things you cannot control, is the key to a happy life. Focusing on what you cannot control is the definition of insanity.
So simple. So powerful.
Another thing that helped me manage my stress was exercise. Hard, physical exercise.
More on that later.
Consistency is everything.
Similar to how we should try to focus on the things we can control, we should try to focus on the inputs and trust the process.
I cannot make someone subscribe. I cannot make a competitor quit. But I can work on myself and my business.
I've noticed that when I do that, things always turn around. Whether it's straight away or with a small delay. Whether it's the way I expected or in some other unexpected way.
You put in the work, and then you get rewarded. It's happened too many times now to ignore.
A little notebook where I keep track of my habits has helped me with this.
It's a yearly calendar. Every day I write in green the things I did or did not do.
- Woke up early
- Wrote daily blog
- Worked on X
- Read book
- Etc, etc
Not too many. Just things you want to do every day.
If I do one of them, I'll write it in green. Else, in red.
Funnily enough, your monkey brain will try to make the pages green.
Not my idea, it's from Atomic Habits - a book that changed my life.
Everytime something happened and I experienced a lot of stress, I wanted everything to stop and go back to normality. However, as soon as I got back to normality, I got bored and wanted stress again.
And when it would happen again, it felt like nothing.
First time I "blew up", I couldn't sleep for two days. A few months later, I replicated the same thing three times in a row and it felt like nothing.
First time I appeared on a podcast, I was terrified. Now, it's easy.
And so on and so forth. Same with fighting. Same with everything.
This is to show that we can become much more than we think. Maybe the scariest things in the world are not so scary after all.
Wow, that was Instagram worthy, right? Maybe I should be a poet after all. Or a motivational speaker, I don’t know.
Regardless of your status, situation, or what happens in your life, I believe you'll always have some kind of stress.
We might be apex predators at the moment thanks to our intellect. But biologically speaking, we are also prey. And prey survives by being sensitive to it's environment and being stressed.
So, in part, our bodies are designed to feel stressed.
Even if you were crowned prince tomorrow, you'd be stressed. Maybe even more than now.
Now, this is my theory: I feel like there is a fixed amount of stress we have to feel in our lives. Regardless of our environment.
Luckily for us, our bodies interpret all types of stress the same way. Whether you are looking for food in the savanna, running to catch a bus in the city, or going for a long run in the park. The chemicals released in your body are the same.
What that means, is that you can fill up those "daily slots of stress" with hard physical exercise. Anyway, that's what I do and it makes the rest of the world seem easy.
Also, I feel like doing hard things translates into other areas of your life. When I see a triathlete running a successful business, it makes sense to me.
How can that grit and perseverance not translate into other parts of your life?
Disclaimer: I'm not a biologist.
One last thing on stress.
It's normal that the unpredictability of life make us feel worried about the future.
So many things can go wrong. Right?
But the interesting thing is that being worried and being excited are very similar feelings. So, why not be excited?
Actually, you can trick yourself to feel excited instead of worried.
This was my biggest life hack when I used to compete. Just before walking out to a fight, I used to tell myself.
"I cannot wait to get in there! I'm so excited! Oh my god, I'm so happy! Let's get going! Come on already!"
Of course it was a lie. I was scared of being KO'd.
But it works if you really say it like you mean it.
So, maybe. Just maybe.. Instead of worrying all our lives, we can be excited all your lives?
This past summer, a friend of mine asked me where I think the ceiling is for CyberLeads. I paused for a second and the answer rolled off my tongue, effortlessly.
"There is no ceiling for CyberLeads. I am the ceiling. No one else. Nothing else."
The market is big. It supports many multi million dollar businesses. For someone like me, a million dollars would be the sky.
This puts me in a very special place. I am the ceiling of my company, so in order to grow it, I have to grow myself.
I see no reason for it to stop growing, as long as I keep moving forward and improving.
Improve my ability to market it. Position it. Scale it. Design it. Improve it. Simplify it. Explain it. And continue making noise and putting myself out there.
Nothing else really matters. All the things I used to stress about, didn't matter.
• People duplicated my website word for word.
• People tried my distribution channels and strategies.
• People read my blog and started talking like me to promote their similar product.
• Other competitors ran ads against my name.
• Other competitors were inspired, put a twist to it, and tried to be better than me.
• I was skinned alive on HackerNews and called every name under the sun for running a lead generation company.
• One list was leaked and uploaded on the internet for free.
All these seemed like end game to me a year ago.
Now I understand that I'm the only ceiling for my company.
It's hard, but it forces me to grow. And I like that.
There is a story my parents told me when I was a kid. I will never forget it.
It was about a hunter and a deer.
A hunter is walking through a forrest, and notices a big, beautiful, strong deer. It starts chasing it down.
The deer notices the hunter and is running as fast as it can. Dodges all the trees. Jumps over all the obstacles. Changes direction really fast. Actually, it's doing a great job at escaping from the hunter.
But at one point, his big antlers get stuck in a bush.
He cannot escape. And the hunter comes closer.
As the hunter is getting ready to shoot, the deer realizes the irony of the situation.
All it's life, it was embarassed of it's skinny legs. But they were what helped him escape from all the enemies and hunters.
And all it's life, he was very proud of his big antlers. But it's antlers got him trapped in the bush.
The hunter shoots the deer. And the deer drops dead.
The moral of the story is that we very often don't appreciate the things that are going well in our lives. And we often fall in love with things that could lead us to ruin.
The grass is always greener on the other side, and we always want what we don't have.
For example, I don't like that my main distribution channel is social. I would like it to be SEO. Something stable and sophisticated.
Or, I don't like the fact that my business is a mere newsletter. I would like it to be something more respectable, like a full blown platform.
But I'm sure that if I was standing on the other side, I would want exactly what I have now.
And this applies to everything. Not just business.
That's not to say that I won't change anything. I will. But I have to embrace my strengths.
Up until this year, I thought that the default growth curve of most things is linear.
I used to read about people blooming late and about compound growth, but used to think it's a rare phenomenon.
And frankly, I thought it was wishful thinking. I felt sorry about myself reading and watching about it.
"Sure.. I've failed 19 times trying to build a successful business, and you're telling me to trust the process?
Pff.. You just got lucky, mate. And maybe I'm just plain stupid."
Luckily, the same thing kind of thing happened to me as well.
Two years in, things started taking off. And that's why I'm writing these blog posts.
To spread the word even more. Most people that post success stories are ommiting their ugly pasts.
I'm starting to believe that everything in life compounds. Relationships. Business. Skills. Investments. Complexity. Love.
From now on, I'm only going to be investing my time and efforts into things that interest me and compound.
Everything worthwhile takes time. It takes decades to reach any kind of mastery, in anything. Because true wisdom is hidden in the nuances.
Like in fighting. Yes, the fundamentals are everything. A jab, a cross and a left hook can take you a long way. Even to a world championship.
But the nuances are what really take you there. Knowing when to throw each attack. The timing. The faints. The setup. The mentality.
Books are great. But nuances cannot be explained in books or blog posts. You have to learn by failing almost every little, greasy step of the way.
It will take us at least decades to reach mastery. Our progress won't be linear either. Some key breakthrough moments will come when we least expect them.
All we can do is trust the process. But if we pick the right things, the wait will be worth it.
What entrepreneurship taught me, and what's next.
Running a business is so much more than just making money.
You are tested daily. You have to grow personally. You have to have skin in the game and expose yourself to the world.
Be critiqued. Have competitors. Feel stressed. Endure the ups and downs. Accept that everything could come down crumbling. Accept that the results are not in your hand.
Your ethics, morals, patience and ego also have to be in check.
Sure. It's harder than just working for someone else.
But it makes you grow and feel alive.
In December 2020, I quit my job to go full time on CyberLeads.
I wrote about it in great detail in "Why I quit my job".
Now I'm in the process of designing my lifestyle, from the bottom up.
It's tricky, because I want to keep things simple, and I also don't want to fall in the trap of working on my business all day.
The whole reason I started this journey was to gain my freedom.
Now that I have it, let's see if I'll be able to handle it. Or if I'll crush under the pressure of having zero constraints.