So, having established a goal of $2000 per month, all Jak and I needed was a plan for getting from here to there.
We agreed on the first thing: that we need to focus on products rather than services. Running a freelance service business — as each of us have done before — is just another kind of treadmill. And even more to the point, I personally suck at the sort of relentless self-promotion that’s necessary to keep a steady flow of incoming work.
Jak leapt immediately from ‘products’ to ‘books’ … and that’s where we diverged. He wants to write — and possibly edit and/or publish — electronic and print-on-demand books. He thinks if he manages one title per year, he’ll have enough combined backlist income to make the quota in six years. And he could very well be right.
But I can’t follow that path with him, at least not right now. If I could, I would have gone back to work on our collaboration last month when the chaos of this past winter finally settled. But I’m too raw, it seems, from prior failures. A project of that length — a solid year or more in pursuit of a single goal — entails a great deal of risk, and having gambled big and lost a couple of times in recent years, I don’t seem to have the emotional resilience required.
As a chronic depressive, one of my primary coping strategies is: when one big thing is too much to handle, try a bunch of small things instead.
So, no books for me, not for a while. I do have two smaller writing projects, both nonfiction, which I am prodding along from time to time. But the key word there is ‘smaller’, and I don’t consider them very likely to contribute to the LI6 goal.
Instead, I’m going to try applying my design skills and (I hope) latent artistic talent to other print-on-demand products. (You know — t-shirts, cards — the kind of stuff sold by CafePress and Zazzle.) I have scores of ideas, and once I have familiarized myself with the various processes, I should be able to turn out something new every day or two.
Profit margins via these companies are low; I could never imagine making a living from this in our current circumstances. But they do have two all-important features: one, minimal overhead, so that I can throw a huge variety of things out there and see what sticks; and two, entirely remote production and fulfillment, because shipping from Mexico just isn’t going to work. (I checked.)
I’m hoping both that the variety of options will keep my fox brain satisfied, and that by spreading my emotional eggs amongst a few hundred baskets I can avoid getting dragged under by any single failure.
So Jak’s going to try his tack, and I’ll try mine, and we’ll hope for the best. If neither does the trick, well … hopefully six years is enough lead time that we can regroup and try something else altogether.
If you’re interested in seeing what I come up with, you can follow my new little shop blog. And if you have an opinion (good or bad) on anything, I’d love to hear it — it will help me decide what to do next!
Early 2011 has turned out to be a period of re-evaluation for me and Jak, for various areas of our lives. We’ve had some surprisingly out-of-the-box conversations, and made some pretty significant course-corrections.
During one of these recent conversations he asked me where I would want to live, if I could pick anywhere. I of course had absolutely no answer for that at all, since it hadn’t been a practical consideration for ten years, nor would it be for another six: shared custody of the kids took that off the table. Twelve years ago the answer was Seattle, but I realized I was no longer sure that was the case. I still love Seattle for the same reasons I always did, but three things are getting to me. Turns out, they’re kind of getting to Jak too.
One is the short days in winter — always a depressing lack of light, but now even worse since my sight is poor enough I no longer dare drive after dark. When dark comes at 4:30p, as it does in December and January, it puts quite a crimp in one’s mobility. (It was somewhat better in a walkable neighborhood with good transit, but that was something we gave up to buy this house.)
Two is the weather — at least for the seven-plus months out of the year when it’s always cold and overcast, and often drizzly as well. (Mind you, ‘cold’ to me is anything below 60F; I have a circulation problem (Raynaud’s phenomenon) which means that cold causes actual significant pain in my ears, fingers, and toes.)
Three is the cost of living. It didn’t bother me so much a few years ago when I thought we had a shot at bootstrapping ourselves into some decent savings, but the housing crash and the recession have flattened my hopes on that score. I’ve also recently had to accept that my startup isn’t going to actually make it off the ground, which leaves me looking at the prospect of full-time corporate employment again and indefinitely. In theory this is not so bad, but in practice I’ve found that corporations tend to be bad for both my health and my sanity, so this is quite a disappointment.
Jak doesn’t care for the corporate life either; his persistent dream is to write novels for a living. Not an easy prospect, when ‘living’ means $72K a year. In theory we could get by on two $35K half-time jobs, but Internet-related careers tend to come in 40-, 50-, and 60-hour versions, nothing less. So at least one of us is always on the treadmill full-time.
Anyway, back to the question of what to do with our theoretical post-child freedom. For several years we’ve talked about moving to Portland once the kids were both gone, mostly because Jak wanted to be closer to some of his family, and that was the nearest place that also met my requirements for city and culture. But it’s been looking less and less likely that any of his immediate family will be in Oregon by 2017. And Portland has the same three drawbacks as Seattle: almost identical in daylight and weather, and only slightly cheaper (the latter likely offset by fewer employment options).
So if we scrapped the Portland plan, what would we do?
As so often happens with us, Jak mentions something he’s been vaguely contemplating, and I go off and research the ever-living fuck out of it, and come back with concrete details. And, sometimes, a Plan.
So: more towards the equator (for longer days in winter), both warmer and sunnier (but not oppressively hot), with a lower cost of living. Jak’s lived in and loved the climates of both Hawaii and San Diego, but neither one improves our cost-of-living situation. In fact, there really isn’t anyplace in the United States that has both a low cost of living and a good climate … never mind things like a socially liberal culture, good restaurants, or anything else that’s important to us.
So, not the States. I’ll cut to the chase here. I briefly researched Europe, long enough to confirm that low cost-of-living and better-than-Seattle climate do not coincide. And then I canvassed Latin America. I pulled library books and read expat forums online, and after a few days of immersion, I reported back. “Okay, I have an answer to your question now. Where would I live in six years, if I could choose anywhere? Well, let me tell you about this place in Mexico …”
I’ll talk (or possibly gush) more about the specific place later. The upshot is that Jak bought into the idea, provisionally but with considerable enthusiasm. We will of course visit the area and check it out first-hand; we’re planning a reconnaissance trip in 2012.
The critical part of the plan is the economics. Everything I’ve read suggests that the two of us could currently live quite well there — ‘well’ meaning not extravagantly, but in a lovely 2- or 3-bedroom house — for around $1500 US per month. That’s inclusive of all ‘normal’ expenses: rent, utilities, groceries, restaurants, entertainment, transportation, basic healthcare, even maid and gardener service. So I figure even with six years of inflation, $2000 per month would give us enough to handle emergencies and a couple of major trips per year. (That’s $2000 gross, not net; taxes become nearly negligible in this situation.)
Now, the catch is: that’s $2000 per month of location-independent income. We wouldn’t be able to get paying jobs in Mexico. But even so … $24K a year sounds a lot more doable than $72K. I can conceive of working an online business up to $1K or $2K per month gross.
So. Six years of lead time. $2000 per month regular, location-independent income between the two of us to make it work.
That’s what I’ve been calling ‘the LI6 Project’, for Location-Independent in Six. It sounds all superspy, I know, but hey.
In mid-August Jak and I drove down to visit family in Eugene. It’s a long drive — usually six hours or more, if you travel like we do, with a kiddo in the car and frequent eat-drink-and-pee stops — with stupid levels of traffic through Portland and for the entire 70 miles between North Seattle and Olympia.
Jak prefers to drive, and since it’s hard on my bad knee I’m happy to let him. The price of this, however, is that he wants me to stay awake and talk to him the entire time so he doesn’t fall asleep.
You can cover a lot of ground in six hours of nonstop conversation. We were constrained by the presence of the 10-year-old in the back seat, so the really juicy subjects were off the table, but … well, one of the best parts of this relationship is how after nine years, we still have plenty to say to each other.
Anyway, somewhere in the middle of the drive home, we’re riffing on random stuff vaguely related to my interest in personal finance, and Jak goes into idea mode. ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if …?’ (Idea Rat chitters happily.)
My response, as usual — this was before my new perspective on Idea Rat — went like this: ‘No, that wouldn’t work, because …’ (Down comes the MamaCat Paw of Doom.)
And then I thought a few seconds, and added, ‘However … what might work is …’ This happens a lot when we’re talking about the novel(s), where he suggests something and I’m all ‘no no no … but maybe [variation].’ He sometimes sends my brain off in directions I wouldn’t go on my own, but (I think?) the adjusted idea is more solid than what he would get without me.
I’m not being coy with the ellipses, by the way; I genuinely don’t remember what the discarded ideas were, or my objections to them. Like I said, it’s my strategy for coping with too many ideas, to keep nothing in long-term memory that doesn’t pass the Practicality Test.
But that last idea … stuck. I kept thinking about it, hours at a time, for the next several days. I did some research. I went over the same questions again and again, trying to figure out what I was missing.
Because you see, this was a Big Idea. It was a completely-change-your-life kind of idea. And it was passing my filters. All of them.
That has never, ever happened before. I’m almost forty, and I’ve never looked at anything half so ambitious and thought it was not only marginally possible but in fact, reasonably likely to succeed. I’ve done a few Big Things before — like starting the small press with Jak, that was big, but it was based on naive optimism and idealistic enthusiasm, not a practical assessment of success.
See, I had a secondary motive for explaining about my rigorous idea filters: so that when I tell you I believe I’ve had a Really Good Idea, you get some sense of what that means.
I turned this thing around for several days — and if that seems like a short time, consider that I mean I was thinking about it intensely for at least fifteen hours a day — and I came to this conclusion: I could prove this concept with very little upfront financial risk, if I could find a developer to work on it with me. I have about two-thirds of the necessary skillsets, but without a good programmer to handle the backend and database side, the whole thing was a nonstarter.
I tossed off a tweet in passing. To my surprise, someone responded. Two days later, after a four-hour session pitching my idea in intricate detail, I had my starting programmer.
I am being deliberately coy about the nature of the Good Idea for now, because although I want to jump up and down and gush about it to the whole world, that would not be a smart business move at this juncture. We’re building a piece of software. The prototype is starting to come together, at least in the most basic sense; there are roughly a bajillion features in the ‘future’ category. I’m preparing for small group alpha testing in November. (Would like about two or three more people for that, by the way; read this if you’re interested.)
Alongside the ongoing intensive UX design, I am sucking up everything I can about how to create and run a successful startup, specifically the web-app-as-service variety. I’m reading between six and ten books a week. My bookmarks list has exploded. I’m looking up every friend and acquaintance who might know something that can help me and picking their brains.
Two months later, I’ve survived a couple of crises-of-confidence and come out stronger on the other side. I am if anything more excited and convinced that this is doable and we’re on the right track.
It’s all going really well except for the part where it’s going really slowly. Unfortunately (for me — it’s a good thing for him) my dev partner already has a full-time-and-then-some day job, and what with one thing and another can only manage 6-8 hours a week on this. We’d hoped for more, but you know … life. I’m starting to look for a second developer to help out, because indications are that we do not have the luxury of indefinite time-to-market.
But every so often I think about what this would mean in a couple of years if I’m right and we pull this off, and I just boggle. A real company, with employees and offices and profits and attention on a national scale. (Or, in the win-the-lottery scenario, no company but a very large bank account. I’d take that option too.)
For the first time ever, I can see the brass ring. And I’m reaching for it with more determination than I ever imagined I possessed.
Which given how intense I can be? Is saying rather a lot.