My 2019 Year in Review: Finally paying myself back

What a year.

Looking back on the past 12 months, most of what stands out is personal stuff and business stuff is secondary. That’s surprising because my business still grew by a substantial amount, but the day-to-day struggle and grind of bootstrapping something from nothing has given way to something more like tending a garden or spinning a flywheel.

The foundation and systems I worked so hard to build beginning in 2016 are working and the payoff for all the stress of quitting a stable day job to jump into the entrepreneurial deep end has arrived.

Things are good in the business. I’m not saying I’m complacent and I’m definitely not resting on my laurels, as you’ll see in the Goals section below, but I’m in an entirely new phase of business and life.

Personally, things are fantastic, but there’s an alternate universe where 2019 was a horrible year full of pain and loss. Having had at least one year like that already, I can appreciate how special it is to have avoided virtually all of that potential pain and loss this year, finishing up the year with so much to be thankful for.

So while the business continued to move up and to the right, I was able to enjoy life itself more by appreciating all the great things I experienced and all the terrible things I didn’t experience.

Here’s a Table of Contents so you can jump to wherever you want…

2019 Goal review

Double revenue again

This was definitely a stretch goal and I missed it … sort of. Net revenue grew by about 54% this year, and that’s less than 100%. But it’s much easier to see progress if I break my revenue into two categories since I’m really running two distinct businesses that both happen to be built around salary negotiation.

Product revenue

I sell products like my book, Fearless Salary Negotiation, and other more narrowly-focused products like The Salary Negotiation Crash Course to help people negotiate job offers, get raises, navigate the interview process and that sort of thing.

Revenue for this part of the business was up by about 10% this year.

While I was hoping to double revenue in product sales, I’m still pretty happy to see any growth here because I stopped offering strategy sessions, which generated meaningful revenue in 2018.

This decision was driven by three challenges:

  1. Strategy sessions were somewhat time consuming and were more or less random. I couldn’t plan for them and they could be pretty disruptive to other work, including coaching engagements.
  2. Strategy sessions might occasionally cannibalize my coaching business. I don’t think this happened very often, but occasionally someone might decide to forego my full-service coaching offering in order to just book a strategy session. If they would’ve benefited from my full-service coaching offering, then we both lost—they got less and so did I.
  3. The pricing for strategy sessions cheapened the perceived value of my time and expertise. Although the sessions themselves were not cheap, when compared to my coaching offering, they looked cheaper and that’s not the best way to position a premium offering.

Last year, strategy sessions were about 20% of my product revenue. So that means I eliminated the offering that made up about 20% of my 2018 product revenue and still grew that part of the business by about 10%. I would like to see more growth here, but I’m still fine with it given my primary focus on coaching.

Services (coaching) revenue

Then there’s coaching, which generated most of the revenue and growth in my business. Last year, coaching was about 45% of my revenue. In 2019, my coaching revenue is up about 140% and it makes up almost 70% of my revenue.

This was driven by a greater focus on coaching, eliminating strategy sessions, changing my pricing structure, and by simply continuing to exist as my brand and reach grow.

Overall, I’m very happy with this growth and I expect coaching to continue growing into 2020 and I think I’ll see more substantial growth in product sales next year as well.

Sub-7:00-pace 5k

Miss. I was rehabbing a strained adductor for the first half of the year and didn’t get to 100% until September or so. I’ll have to push this one out to 2020.

Sub-60-second 400m

Miss. Same issue, but even worse because I would have to train specifically for short distance and even now I’m not back to full sprints. I’ll have to push this to 2020, although I’m still not sure if I’ll ever be able to get this done.

More trips

Technically, I took fewer trips this year. But I went to New York for the first time, so I actually chalk this up as a win.

2019 Year in Review – Business

This year was an unequivocal success.

Revenue was up more than 50% overall, and it grew in each of my two main categories—products and services.

I don’t actively track my time, but I’m sure I spent less time working this year than I ever have, so the return on my time is way up this year as well. That’s a sort of hidden side effect of the business I have been building and it’s a huge motivator for me to keep doing what I do and it was a big reason I quit my day job four years ago.

I had two issues with my day jobs:

  1. I thought the way we did work in corporate settings was really inefficient and I could do most of my jobs well in about 20 hours a week. The problem was that day jobs expected me to be “working” 40 hours a week. And that meant I spent about half my time doing my job and half my time performing the role of “person doing a job”.
  2. I was tired of making other people money. I felt that if I really dialed in my focus, picked a direction, and tried to build a business, then I could capture more of the value of my work, leading to higher overall pay.

The nice thing about both of these is that they are testable. If I was right, then I should be able to build a business to capture the value of my work without working excessive hours. So I decided it was time to put up or shut up and I quit my day job in 2015. I haven’t updated this chart since 2015, so I went in and added in my business income since then and here’s what it looks like:

Monthly earnings throughout my career

You can see that the first couple of years were very lean. But things started to take off in 2018, and they accelerated this year. I’m now generating far more value for my customers (millions of dollars over the past few years) than I ever did in my day jobs, I’m generating that value in fewer hours per week than I did at my day jobs, and I’m capturing more and more of that value for myself.

Two milestones to close out the year

The image above directly shows one milestone while indirectly showing another.

Income from my business now exceeds my day job income

It was slow going at first, and month-to-month income continues to be pretty volatile, but my overall income is significantly higher than it was at my day job.

Now I can definitively say that I can generate more value working for myself than I did at my day job and I can do it in less than 20 hours a week.

I’ve recovered all the savings I burned building the business

When I quit my day job in 2015, I had saved up a runway of about 18 months. The initial plan was to use that savings to bridge the gap while I built a business that supported me. Phase one was to publish Fearless Salary Negotiation. Phase two was to use income from Fearless Salary Negotiation to cover my expenses while I built TaskBook (a B2B SaaS app).

I quickly realized my plan wasn’t going to work. It was harder to generate meaningful product income than I thought, and building the Fearless Salary Negotiation business was going to be a full-time job. It wasn’t realistic to build two things that would require full-time effort, so I shut TaskBook down to focus on Fearless Salary Negotiation.

That was a good decision. But I was still burning through my savings pretty quickly and the business was growing slower than expected. Early in 2017 (about 18 months after quitting my day job), my runway had dwindled from 18 months to about three months and things were getting pretty dire. I began looking at day jobs and thinking hard about how to build my business into something that could sustain me and eventually make leaving my day job worth it.

That’s when I flipped the switch to focus on coaching as my primary business and things started moving up and to the right from there. My savings account pulled out of its nosedive beginning in May 2017. And in December of this year, it finally recovered to the high water mark that was set before I quit my day job.

The success of my business has come in several stages: When revenue actually started to turn up in early 2017, then when coaching started to really take off in volume and revenue, and now when I’ve totally replaced my day job with the business I created from scratch, built on a super-niche expertise that I developed over time.

I did not think this was possible even 18 months ago, but here we are.

The question now is how much value can I create and how much time will it take to generate that value?

Last year, I set a goal of doubling revenue in 2019. I missed that goal, but the point of the goal wasn’t so much to hit it as it was to force me to think about what my business would look like if I did hit that goal. It was a thought experiment codified as a goal.

At the time, I was thinking about doubling revenue in each part of the business, products and services (coaching). While it was unclear exactly how I would do that, I understood that doubling product revenue would probably be harder than doubling services revenue. I still don’t have a good answer for how to double product revenue, but I had some ideas on how to grow my coaching offering.

Products

Very quickly, I’ll talk about products. My revenue was up maybe 10% this year, and that’s fine. I didn’t create any new products and only made incremental changes with my sales funnels, so I couldn’t expect much change here.

I’m working on optimizing sales funnels, offering the right products at the right time, and generally trying to earn more revenue from the 100,000 or so visitors that come to FearlessSalaryNegotiation.com each month, but it’s slow going.

Salary negotiation coaching

January 2019 was my best month ever and that is still true. Almost 80% my revenue that month was coaching revenue. But I could sense a plateau lurking and I felt I needed to make a plan to push past that plateau before I got there.

The challenge was that I had worked very, very hard in January making it difficult to see how I could adjust one of the two most obvious levers to repeat or exceed January’s success.

The most obvious adjustments were to either work with more clients or raise my rates, but neither of those was really feasible. I didn’t think I could work with more clients and provide the level of service they deserved. That left raising rates, but that wasn’t really an option either because of some psychological hurdles I had begun to encounter.

My old fee structure

My fee structure at the time was both simple and complicated. Simple because I only charged a fixed fee up front to work with me. Complicated because that fixed fee was determined by “Total Offer Value” (TOV), a number I made up.

TOV was the total of base salary, sign-on bonus, and equity included in the offer. So an offer of $150,000 base salary, a $50,000 sign-on bonus, and $100,000 equity vesting over four years had a TOV of $300,000.

Here’s what the fee structure looked like:

Fee | Total Offer Value
$3k | < $300k
$6k | $300k–$600k
$9k | > $600k

I was able to work with clients in each tier, so it was “working”. But there were occasional objections about the structure like “Why should I pay you more for coaching when I did the work to get the good offer to begin with?”

I had good reasons for doing this, so I was pretty comfortable responding to those objections. Basically, higher-value offers required more work because they would often be paired with multiple offers from other companies and each offer would require more rounds of negotiation with more sophisticated recruiters and comp teams. Higher-value offers would also generate a higher nominal ROI on average, which meant my expertise was more valuable for higher-TOV offers.

There was also occasionally some discomfort around the step-function pricing. If someone had an offer with a TOV of $299k, they would pay $3,000 to work with me. But if their offer had a TOV of $301k, they would pay $6,000 to work with me. This didn’t happen often, but it was awkward when it did happen and I would sometimes make one-off adjustments to alleviate that awkwardness.

Still, it was working! The bigger issue was that I could see that plateau coming. There were two main things that concerned me:

  1. As I approached an up-front fixed fee of $10,000, there was real psychological resistance to paying that much for coaching.
  2. That resistance meant I would struggle to raise my prices beyond the existing fee structure and it meant it was harder to actually find clients in that top tier (which is obviously where I wanted to be).

My business is a weird hybrid of B2C (Business to Consumer) and B2B (Business to Business). My customers are consumers, but they think like businesses.

A major factor in their decision to work with me is “What’s the ROI on this? If I pay Josh for coaching, how much am I going to get back in terms of improved compensation?” That’s how businesses often approach spending decisions.

But when it came to the actual amount of money I charged, they thought more like consumers. “Six thousand dollars is a lot of money. That’s multiple mortgage payments.”

I don’t think this was a real issue before I started approaching the five-figure price point. But even the most business-minded clients would eventually become consumers and say, “I can’t send $10,000 to someone for a service.”

So I couldn’t just “charge more” to generate more revenue and find clients who put a higher value on my work because there was a psychological barrier around that $10,000 price point.

I also had a little bit of a psychological barrier myself: I had coached multiple clients who improved their TOV by more than $1 million, and I had only charged them a few thousand dollars to do it. On one hand, I was making a good living with the current fee structure. On the other hand, selling someone a million-dollar compensation improvement for $6,000 seemed a little … silly. It didn’t feel quite right to charge so little for a relatively enormous result.

My new fee structure

So I totally changed my coaching fee structure in April.

A quick reminder: January 2019 was my best month ever by a wide margin, and almost 80% of that revenue was coaching revenue. So the old fee structure worked really well.

But January 2019 was unusual because I started the month with a glut of clients waiting in the wings due to a weird hiring pause at some of the big tech companies. The last few months of 2018 had been pretty slow because I didn’t actually book new clients—they were all waiting on offers that showed up in January 2019.

Also, I had to work long hours to keep up with all that client work. So I knew if I had another month like that, I would have to work really hard again.

So what to do?

The answer: Switch to a fee structure where the up-front fee is less prohibitive and where I earn more when my clients earn more.

So I did. My new fee structure would be as follows: $3,000 + 10%.

$3,000 up front to work with me (a service fee), plus 10% of the improvement we negotiated in the first year’s total compensation (the result fee).

Still pretty simple, and I earn more when my clients earn more. Remember that client who got a million-dollar compensation improvement? That would’ve netted me a $25,000 result fee because that million-dollar improvement was basically $250,000 a year for four years. Ten percent of $250,000 in Year 1 would’ve been $25,000.

The two issues I felt would lead to a plateau would be significantly mitigated with this model.

Yes, that “I don’t know about writing a five-figure check to Josh” issue still persists, but they wouldn’t write that check unless we negotiated an additional $100,000 in the first year’s total compensation—a much easier check to write since that meant they’d keep $90,000 after writing that check.

Also, the up-front fee fell all the way to $3,000, which meant I would face a lot less resistance at the beginning of the engagement. And if I wanted to raise my rate, I could bump that fee up without tripping over any consumer psychology tied to that magical four-to-five-figure threshold.

Smart people have suggested that I charge a result fee for a couple years, and I resisted because I didn’t want to build my coaching business entirely on contingency pricing. Sometimes my clients don’t see an improvement in their salary—that’s just the nature of negotiating with big tech companies—but it’s not clear that will the be result until it is the result.

I just couldn’t stomach a business model where I might have a very busy month that also generated no revenue.

But since I had proven the pricing model with an up-front, fixed-fee price, I was able to transfer that to my new pricing so that I could charge enough for my expertise to cover my time and ensure I would be able to keep operating even if I had a few clients whose offers didn’t improve.

This makes sense to me because part of the value I bring is in monetary ROI, but for some clients the primary reason they hire me is they just want to be absolutely certain that when they start their new job at a big tech company, their compensation is the maximum possible compensation. I can always provide that reassurance using my proven methodology.

So how’s it going?

I haven’t done detailed numbers for 2019 yet, but there are a few data points that I think clearly indicate this is the right direction.

First, even with limited data, I’m pretty sure my average per-client revenue is higher than it was before even though my current service fee was previously the very bottom of my fixed-fee pricing range. That’s because the result fees I’ve earned have been meaningful.

Second, the clients whose total fees have approached that magical five-figure mark are thrilled to pay it because that means they will earn around $70,000 more in their first year at their new job. The service-plus-result fee structure makes sure that the reason they’re paying me that five-figure number is because they earned so much more.

Third, the revenue is spread out a little bit, which smooths month-to-month bumps and often sets me up for a good month before the month even starts. For example, the result fees I plan to collect in January 2020 (from engagements that finished in December) will make January my third best month ever even if I don’t see another dime of revenue all month. More likely, this January will be my best month ever, possibly by a wide margin, surpassing last January (which was an outlier driven by weird hiring practices at big tech companies late in 2018).

If you’re still reading, I’m impressed! And now we go full circle.

Last year, I set a goal of doubling revenue in 2019, mostly as a thought experiment on “What would my business look like if I doubled revenue?”

While I managed to more than double coaching revenue, product revenue only grew a little bit, so I didn’t hit that high-level goal of doubling revenue in 2019.

But with this new coaching fee structure, and even if product revenue is flat this year, I think I can double 2018’s revenue in 2020 because of this new coaching fee structure.

Mistakes were made (by design)

Before I wrap up, I should tell you about a pretty big misstep I had this year.

As soon as I changed my fee structure to the service-plus-result fee structure, I got pretty busy. Too busy. I had a ton of applications and I was struggling to keep up with demand.

The nice thing about the service-plus-result fee structure is that adjusting to demand (low or high) is easier since I can move the service fee up or down pretty easily.

I decided to run an experiment to see what the price elasticity for salary negotiation coaching looked like: I raised the service fee from $3,000 to $4,000.

I expected demand to fall (price goes up, quantity demanded goes down), but I didn’t know how much. I figured that even if it dropped significantly, I’d be comfortable enough with that $4,000 service fee that it wouldn’t matter.

I was right—demand fell—but I had no idea how much it would fall. As soon as I raised my service fee to $4,000, I entered a 10-week coaching drought where I booked zero new clients. Zero.

This was during a busy season when I still got a lot of applications to work with me (and the application clearly stated the higher price), but none of my prospective clients were actually hiring me.

Oops.

I did the math later and I suspect I probably lost about $20,000 in revenue with this experiment. I never booked a client at the $4,000 service fee price point and I dropped back to $3,000 in the middle of the year.

I’m ok with this result and I understood it was a possibility before I ran the experiment.

To uncover hockey sticks, I have to be willing to take real risks and run real experiments. In the long run, this experiment will make me much more than the $20,000 I spent running it.

How do I know that? Because I realized that I had bumped into another consumer pricing barrier. People who would hire me at $4,000 had different expectations and required a different approach than those who would hire me at $3,000.

I had gotten lazy with my “pitch” and fell into just describing the features of my coaching service. I would tell people “First we’ll do this. Then we’ll do that. Then I’ll get this information from you. Then the recruiter will ask for this, and we’ll tell them that.” It was very tactical.

That wasn’t ever a good pitch, but it was sufficient up to a $3,000 service fee price point. At that price, the people considering my service didn’t need much persuading, so what I said to help them decide whether to hire me didn’t matter very much.

But at a $4,000 price point, the pitch mattered more and my features-focused pitch wasn’t cutting it. I realized that I needed to focus my pitch on the benefits of working with me, not on the features of my service. People don’t care specifically what we’ll do step-by-step; they care about the outcome we’ll achieve together and how they’ll feel about the negotiation process when they work with me.

I will raise my price again in the future, and I think I’ll be able to continue finding new clients. I’ll start with a smaller jump in price (I think a 33% jump was too much), and I’ll be able to describe the service in a way that’s more compelling to people who might work with me. That’s a win. An expensive win, but a win nonetheless.

This is what running a business looks like

I know most of the people who read this have day jobs and might be wondering what it’s like running a business versus having a day job.

This is what it’s like. I run experiments all the time, and I look for experiments that I’m pretty sure will fail, only to see how much they fail so I can learn from them and apply what I learn back to the business to make it stronger.

It’s the anti-fragile approach to entrepreneurship. It’s uncomfortable and I love it.

Stats

Nothing too interesting to report this year other than more steady growth in revenue.

Visits to FearlessSalaryNegotiatin.com: About 1.1M
Unique page views: About 1.7M
Total email subscribers at the end of the year: ~46,000 (up from about ~26,000 to begin the year after a small end-of-year pruning in 2018)
Product sales through the site: ~800
Coaching clients: ~30
Product revenue: Up 10%
Service (coaching) revenue: Up 140%
Total revenue: Up 54%

Conversion rates are more or less the same as last year.

2019 Year in Review – Personal

Before I really dive in here, let me say that everything is great. Even though most of my highlights were difficult, the year itself was fantastic and I had a great time. It’s just that the things that stand out were pretty tough.

Injuries

I had a couple of injuries that set me back this year, so I got really familiar with rehab protocols.

Adductor

For most of 2018, my right adductor was sore and slowly got more sore as the year wore on. At first, I only noticed it during a specific dynamic stretch when I did my weekly track workouts. Then I noticed it was tight at the beginning of most of my runs.

Then I ran a half marathon and my adductor did not like that. I think I actually tweaked it during the penultimate week before the half when I went pretty hard on some shorter runs. The half marathon just pushed it over the edge to the point that it hurt pretty much all the time and it didn’t seem to be getting any better.

At first, I tried just resting for a couple weeks and that didn’t work, so I saw a doctor and a PT who both confirmed it was an adductor strain that would require some rehab.

I decided to take this pretty seriously because adductor injuries are sort of notorious for taking a while to recover and for recurring if you don’t recover fully before pushing it again. A friend of mine has had recurring adductor injuries that lasted years, and even now LeBron James is dealing with an adductor injury that doesn’t seem to be healing. I’m obviously not LeBron, but he has the best trainers in the world and he still can’t fix his adductor, so I knew it was going to be a slog.

It turns out adductor rehab is pretty relentless. For 8–12 weeks, I would spend about an hour a day doing various exercises to strengthen my core and eventually repair the adductor. And of course I couldn’t run at all while this was going on. It was pretty awful, but I just took it one day at a time.

It eventually started to get better, then I did a return-to-running protocol, and eventually I was able to run normally again. Only now, at the end of 2019, do I think I’m back to 100%.

Looking back and talking this over with my PT friends, I’m pretty sure this was an overuse injury exacerbated by a training error (I was running on graded roads, especially leading up to the half marathon, and I think that eventually hurt my adductor).

Shoulders

If that wasn’t enough, I also screwed up my shoulders. This injury was actually at its worst in the middle of 2018, but I tried resting and other half measures that didn’t do much.

The initial diagnosis was that I had biceps tendonopathy in both shoulders, so we started by rehabbing that issue. Early in 2019, that was starting to abate and we were able to see (via palpating, which is a fancy word for poking to see what hurts, and MRI) that the real culprit was likely infraspinatus tendonopathy from overuse, maybe exacerbated by minor impingement.

And so we started another round of rehab that overlapped with my adductor rehab. In addition to the seven days a week of adductor rehab, I added three days a week of shoulder rehab.

I cannot emphasize enough how mind-numbingly boring this was. And what made it even worse was that I was doing the rehab instead of normal running and weight lifting. So I was slowly getting further and further out of shape while spending a lot more time at the gym than I normally did.

Eventually, the rehab worked and I was able to start regular weight lifting again. My shoulder is basically 100%, but it occasionally reminds me that I overdid it last year.

As I finish out 2019, I’m back to normal running and weight lifting activity and I feel great. I’m also focusing on nutrition to make sure I get the most out of my workouts, and I’m paying closer attention to potential overuse injuries so I can catch them before they sideline me next time.

Eye surgery

This is not something I’m comfortable talking about, but it’s a big part of my year and kind of a big deal for me, so I’m going to power through it even if the writing will probably be stilted.

I’ll eventually write a longer post on this, but it’s worth capturing a snapshot for posterity here as well.

This year, I had eye surgery. Not that kind of eye surgery—you’re probably thinking LASIK or PRK—but surgery on my eye muscles. The technical term—mostly for Google—is bilateral strabismus surgery, which means an ophthalmologist moved the attachment points of the medial rectus muscles of both eyes so that they aligned better.

For the first time since I was a kid, my eyes work together. If you know me, you probably noticed this right away when you met me: I had a lazy eye. (Technically, I had “wall eye” since I had full vision in both eyes; lazy eye implies loss of vision in the affected eye). Since I’m left-eye dominant, that meant my right eye would drift.

This is not a great way to make a first impression on people. Fortunately, most people were kind about it and pretended not to notice. Meanwhile, any time I had face-to-face interactions (and I’m including “looking at a camera” with that), anywhere from maybe half to 80% of my mental energy went into trying to mitigate the lazy eye and keep it aligned with my dominant eye.

If there was anything worse than someone noticing my lazy eye, it was having a close-up action shot of the lazy eye show up on someone’s Facebook or Instagram feed. Most of the time, I could control my lazy eye long enough to snap a photo. Video was a totally different beast and I avoided it as much as possible. This BBC interview was cool because it was on international TV, but it was also a mental marathon. For three minutes, all I thought was, “Keep your eye focused on the camera. Keep your eye focused on the camera. Keep your eye focused on the camera.” The answers I gave were all more or less reused from my previous interviews or articles I had written, and it had to be that way because if I lost concentration for even a second, the eye would’ve drifted.

The best analogy I can think of is to imagine that any time you talk to someone face-to-face, you also have to balance a kickball on your head. If the kickball falls, the other person looks at you a little weird and quietly wonders what’s wrong with you. Most of your brain power would be focused on the kickball, and the leftover brain power would be used for that conversation.

That describes pretty much every social interaction I have had for my entire life. I could sort of control it, but it took almost all of my mental energy and lots of little coping mechanisms I developed over time.

Now I’m unlearning all of those coping mechanisms since I don’t need them anymore. I’m less worried about making a bad first impression and I’m slowly becoming more comfortable with cameras.

And while I feel quite a bit different, other people perceive me much differently. It was remarkable how many people had never said anything about my lazy eye, then suddenly I would talk to them and they would say, “Wow! It’s like talking to a different person.”

It’s too bad I can’t redo all those bad first impressions, but at least I won’t make any more.

Travel

I only took a couple trips this year, but they were a ton of fun.

In Breck for the Breckpocalypse

I had another amazing ski trip in Breckenridge and skied my first black (without falling!) to finish up the trip. Although I had an amazing time, I limited my skiing because my adductor was still in pretty bad shape.

In hindsight, skiing at all was probably a bad idea since I was only about four weeks into 12 weeks of rehab when I went on this trip. I was fortunate not to reinjure myself and I’m glad I took it easy.

It was still really fun to get back to Breck, and I’m glad I finally conquered a very easy black. I’m hoping to make some big leaps forward on the next trip in February.

Me in my 80s Day onesie

My first trip to New York with a quick stop in Jersey

In June, a friend of mine was coaching in a professional flag football tournament so another friend and I went to New York to see the sights and root for some flag football.

We only got about two days in NYC, but we covered a lot of ground in that time. Not only did we see most of the popular sights, but we ate a lot of great food (and that’s really what I’m after when I travel).

It’s hard to pick standout moments, but Central Park is fantastic, and the 9/11 Memorial was really moving.

Central Park - NYC

Running

Thanks to my adductor injury, I don’t really have anything to report this year. I’ve been mostly doing medium-distance runs of three to five miles a few times a week, and my pacing has been pretty strong. I tried a couple of track workouts later in the year and they went well, so I’m looking forward to doing more track workouts in the new year.

Best possible outcome

I won’t go into detail because this stuff doesn’t have to do with me directly. But this year could’ve been very, very bad in terms of pain and loss for my family. Several family members had significant surgeries and health scares, and all of them emerged on the other side happier and healthier than they were before.

In the early 2010s, I went through a similar stretch where pretty much everything went as badly as it could have. I lost a close friend and several family members during that time, and it was really painful. I’m so thankful that 2019 was the opposite and that my family didn’t have to experience that sort of pain and loss again.

2020 Goals

I’ve been putting this write-up off for the past month or so because I don’t really have new big-time goals for this year. I’m basically still going after the same goals from last year.

Increase revenue by 50% again

Last year, I set a stretch goal of doubling my revenue, and I “only” got to 50%. If I do another 50% this year, I’ll have more than doubled revenue over a two-year span. That would be pretty fantastic.

If I can increase both product revenue and coaching revenue by 50% each, I think that would be a great, balanced way to hit this goal. I suspect the improvement will be more skewed toward coaching, but I am focused on growing product revenue this year, so I’ll just have to see if I can get traction there or not.

Sub-7:00 pace 5k

Since I basically lost this year to my adductor injury, I’m refocusing on this goal and I hope to hit it this year.

Sub-60-second 400m

And while I’m training for faster speeds at shorter distances, I might as well take another crack at this goal. I’m still not sure it’s even possible for me, but I got so close in 2018 that I feel like I need to give it another honest effort.

One of my track workouts before the holidays was a 400m repeat workout and I got all my reps in the mid-80s range. That is better than I thought I’d be after a year off, so there is some hope that I can get this done. We’ll see.

Travel more

I’m carrying this one over from last year. I did ok with 2019, but I’d like to get some more trips in, especially since I have a ton of reward points on a couple of credit cards and it’s a shame for them to go to waste.

Be more generous

Business is good and my personal life is simple. There’s room for me to be more generous in many ways, and I want to be more intentionally generous this year. There are lots of ways to do this, and I don’t have any one way in mind. But “be more generous” seems like a good high-level goal to think about as each day passes.

My 2018 Year In Review: Finally making a good living

It’s been three years since I quit my day job to build the Fearless Salary Negotiation business. It’s finally paying off.

I didn’t think this year would go so well for my business, especially considering that I was almost out of runway only 18 months ago. But my 2018 income is very close to what it was when I quit my day job in 2015, and now I have the freedom, flexibility, and personal satisfaction that comes with making a living from something I built from scratch.

The decision to double down on salary negotiation coaching in 2017 continues to pay dividends as I work with more clients and raise my rates to capture more of the value I create with my work.

That’s the business side of things.

Personally, things are great. I’m fortunate to have a very close group of friends. I’ve gotten better at running, and I’m pretty good at making omelettes. Of course there are things I would like to work on for 2019, but 2018 was amazing!

Here’s a Table of Contents so you can jump to wherever you want…

2018 Goal Review

So how did I do this year? Let’s take a look at my 2018 Goals.

Make a good living

The goal was I want to make $10,000 per month in net revenue in 2018. More specifically, I would like to do that by selling $5k in products and booking $5k in coaching per month for the year.

I missed this goal, but not by very much. And each $5k sub-goal is pretty close to what I actually did.

The difference between hitting and missing this goal comes down to a consulting retainer that ended in September after about a year. If that kept going, I would’ve made it.

I also could’ve made it if October wasn’t so horrible revenue-wise.

To be honest, this is bonkers to me. I didn’t actually think I might hit this goal—I just wanted to make sure I set an ambitious-but-achievable goal to maximize my earning potential in 2018.

I did hit a secondary goal, which was to double revenue year-over-year from 2017 to 2018. I did that from 2016 to 2017, and it seems like “do twice what I did last year” is a reasonable goal that can be achieved through good planning, execution, and moderate growth.

More traffic

The goal was I would like to build my organic search traffic to 100,000 unique visitors a month.

This one is interesting. I did hit this goal, but then traffic fell off and settled in around 80,000 visitors a month.

2018 Organic Traffic

The good news is that with more traffic came more revenue, so there was a direct benefit to this goal.

Improve at Sales

Here’s that goal: My goal is that 2% of email subscribers become paying customers within the first 30 days.

This was a huge miss. HUGE miss.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is I did build one funnel—the one that gets the most traffic—that pretty consistently converts 1% of subscribers to customers for a $47 product.

So there’s a lot to build on there.

Help other businesses get more search traffic and email opt-ins

Ehhh, I did some of this but not very much. I worked with a few clients to tweak their SEO, and I worked with some clients on their content strategy. But I just didn’t feel motivated to push this part of the business.

I think there are still things to focus on in my core business and I didn’t want to get too distracted.

Running goals

  • 10k – Sub-8:00 pace Hit it with a week to go in 2017
  • 5k – Sub-7:00 pace (currently 7:14)
  • Mile – Sub-6:00 pace (currently 6:08) Ran a 5:54 mile in August
  • 400m – Sub-60s pace (currently ~64s~ 62.75s)

I’ll write about this later, but I also ran a PR for 15k and finished my first Half Marathon.

A detailed 2018 Year In Review – Business

At the beginning of this year, I felt like the trajectory was in the right direction, but I still had some concerns. I started the year in a bit of a cash crunch as I was still digging out from the financial hole I dug to get through 2017.

To free up cash for 2017 taxes, I had parked some expenses on a 0% credit card. It looked like I would be able to pay it off before the interest rate jumped in August, but it would be close. I also decided all 2018 taxes would be taken off the top and held in a dedicated account so I wouldn’t have to scramble to pay taxes this year.

Saving ahead for 2018 taxes plus paying down that 0% card meant 2018 could be sort of a financial grind. I knew that was likely when I made those decisions in 2017, and now it was time to pay the piper.

January was mediocre, but then things took off: February was my best month ever, and March, April, and May were all consecutively better.

By June, I was out of the woods and starting to replenish my savings. It was almost exactly one year from “Uh oh, I might have to get a day job.” to “This seems to be working and I have some room to breathe again.”

With the exception of a horrible October, the second half of the year was great (but not quite as strong as Q2). I may be doing enough business that I’m able to spot some seasonality, but I’ll have to wait and see.

For now, things are good with the business and I finally feel like I can relax a little and enjoy what I’ve worked to build over the past few years.

Salary negotiation coaching

In June of 2017, I repositioned myself as a salary negotiation coach for experienced software developers. Before that, I was basically positioned as an author who also did some coaching.

That shift in focus is what saved my business.

I kept pulling on that thread in 2018 and it continues to pay off in a few ways.

First, I’ve gotten more and more reps negotiating job offers with big tech firms, so I know their playbooks. This has made me more confident and gives me the tools to pitch my coaching offering more effectively.

Second, I’ve been able to raise my prices so I earn more for my work by reaching a more experienced market where my work has more value. Basically, I’ve enabled more and more experienced software developers and senior managers to find me when they have job offers, and their job offers are usually very substantial, which means their improvements are often substantial.

The combination of those two things is what has really enabled my coaching business to take off.

I also really like what I do. It’s fun to help people who’ve worked so hard to build a valuable skill set actually capture more of the value of the skill set they’ve built.

Product sales

Selling digital products is at once a boon to my business and an enigma. Traffic and sales were up this year, but I continue to suspect that I’m selling far less than I should given my traffic levels, and the quality and value of my products.

This has to be a focus for me in 2019. With over a million visitors to my site in 2018, I should be selling a lot of products.

Email list growth

I hit some pretty big milestones this year. I was this close to hitting 35,000 email subscribers before I pruned almost 10,000 subscribers. Since I started building my list in January 2015, I’ve had more than 60,000 people join my list. About 20,000 of those unsubscribed over time, and I pruned another 12,000 or so.

The churn is normal. The pruning is sort of controversial among my peers. But the bottom line is I had a ton of people on my list who were not opening or interacting with any of my emails, and I don’t think it’s good for anyone if I keep emailing those folks.

So I’ll end 2018 just shy of 30,000 active email subscribers. That’s crazy to me. I had 600 subscribers after my first full year doing this. Now I get more than that in a typical business week.

Now I just need to get better at aligning my product offerings to my email subscribers’ needs.

Consulting retainer

I also had a fun opportunity to consult with a very successful business. It was an unusual arrangement without any real parameters: Just come hang out, observe what we’re doing, and make suggestions to help us improve.

It worked really well for a while and it was a ton of fun, but the business itself eventually became so active that I found myself lost in the shuffle. I would love to do more of this sort of thing, and it’s good to have this experience so I can help define the desired outcomes—for myself and for the business—of this sort of engagement better in the future.

Essential Salary Negotiation Email Pack

Last year, I made a small product called The 15-Minute Counter Offer. I was trying to learn more about how I could help folks finding FearlessSalaryNegotiation.com when they needed help negotiating a job offer.

What I found was that most of those people were in a real hurry—they had just a few hours from the time they found myself site until they had negotiated their offer.

So I built The Essential Salary Negotiation Email Pack to help with their specific needs in a very short timeframe. That product, plus The Salary Negotiation Crash Course—a more in-depth-but-still-streamlined, end-to-end job offer negotiation course, offered as an upsell to the email pack—made almost $12,000 in 2018 and I didn’t start selling it until April.

This is by far my most successful new product and I hope to create a similarly successful offering for folks who aren’t sure how to ask for a raise in 2019.

Overall stats

Here are some high-level stats for 2018 (all as of December 26):

Traffic

There were 1.023 million New Users on FearlessSalaryNegotiation.com, and 90% of those were from organic search traffic.

My email list

Here’s an updated list of end-of-year email subscribers:

December 2015: ~700
December 2016: ~2,500
December 2017: ~11,500
December 2018: ~28,500

In 2018, I had 24,300 new email subscribers, but since I pruned about 12,000 recently, active email subscribers is “only” 28,500.

Here’s a graph of my email list growth in 2018:

2018 Email List Growth

No hockey stick this year—just consistent growth.

Conversion rates

They’re basically the same as they were last year—about .4% of email subscribers purchase something from me in the first 30 days. The consistency is a little deceptive as I did significantly increase conversions for one funnel, and I also significantly increased opt-ins for all other funnels.

Last year, I said, “If I hit [5% opt-ins and 2% conversions] by the end of 2018, I should be able to hit my revenue goals.”

On one hand, it’s really frustrating to see such a huge miss. On the other hand, I almost hit my revenue goals anyway, so if I actually find a way to get those sorts of conversion rates I’ll be doing very well.

A detailed 2018 Year In Review – Personal

Two things stand out when I think back on this year: traveling and running.

Travel

2012 was the beginning of a years-long plan to build a business and stop working for other people. That’s vague, but it’s about as specific a plan as I had in mind.

I started by getting a good-paying day job to leverage my prior career experience and newly-acquired MBA. I used that income to start paying down debt as aggressively as I could, and I began slowly acquiring the basic skills I would need to (eventually) build a successful business.

For the next few years, I was either paying down debt or saving up a runway while basically working seven days a week on my day job and side projects.

In 2015, debt free and comfortable with my runway, I quit my day job to focus full-time on building a business. For a little over two years, I worked really, really hard seven days a week. I think that sort of work was necessary to build the basic infrastructure of my business, but it was also very taxing.

In 2017, I decided the seven-days-a-week schedule needed to end, so I sort of re-entered normal society and focused on community. Either the foundation I had built would facilitate a real business or it wouldn’t—it was time to find out.

So I stopped working so much, but I still wasn’t earning enough to take non-business trips or anything like that. I had to pass on a number of super fun trips to avoid burning too much of my savings.

That changed in 2018 as my business actually started to take off.

Ski trip

I went skiing for the first time since high school and I loved it. My friends go on a ski trip every year, and I was always a little jealous I couldn’t make it. But I also remembered absolutely hating skiing, so it didn’t sting too badly to miss that part.

I figured I would give it a shot this year, mostly so I could say, “See! I went skiing and it’s still awful!” But it turns out I really liked it, and that getting ski lessons is actually very useful. Who knew?

I had a blast and I can’t wait to get back out there in 2019.

Our group at Vail

Boston

I also went to Boston with a couple college buddies in June. It was amazing. I hadn’t taken a trip like that in a very long time, and it was everything I hoped for.

Classic Allen face

I have a lot of “Allen makes this face at a sporting event” photos

Running stuff

At the end of 2017, I asked “Am I a runner now?” In hindsight, that question was pretty naive. The answer is vey clearly no.

Runners run a lot more than I do. But I am a hobbyist and I made progress on my hobby this year.

My first 15k

In January, I ran my first 15k and it did not go well. Turns out that running a 15k with the flu just isn’t a great idea. But I finished and my time wasn’t terrible (for a guy with the flu).

My first 15k

Sub-6:00 mile

One of my original running goals was to run a sub-6:00 mile. It took me a few tries and about 18 months, but I smashed that goal with a 5:54 in August.

My six-minute mile time with 400m splits

This may have been my most satisfying PR yet because it as almost exclusively mental. I had to try and fail a few times to understand exactly how to run a fast mile, but once I understood it I was able to knock it out.

15k PR on a training run

I was prepping for a Half Marathon and I ran an 8:00-flat pace 15k. This wasn’t even on my list of goals, but it felt pretty good. When I started running at the beginning of 2017, I set a goal of running this pace for 10k. So it’s cool to run that time for a longer distance.

15k training run - 8:00 pace

My first Half Marathon

I was planning to run a Half Marathon earlier in the year, but the aforementioned flu ruined my training and I bailed. Plus, the Half I was going to run would be during the winter and the weather was going to be awful.

A wise friend told me, “Do you really want your first Half Marathon to be a miserable experience? Why not just wait for a better one?” So I did.

I ended up running a Half in sunny, 60º weather and it was a pretty good experience. The one hitch was that the course was only 12.1 miles, so I literally had to go the extra mile to finish.

At least we got cupcakes at the end.

My first Half Marathon (with cupcakes!)

I ended up with a pretty good pace of 8:24. I was very happy with my race strategy as I felt I did the best I could, and I’m certain I could go quite a bit faster with better training.

That said, I doubt I’ll run too many more Halfs. I’m glad I did it, but it really took a toll for like two weeks after the race.

2019 Goals

I’m going to keep things pretty simple this year.

Double revenue again

I have no idea if this is possible or how I will do it, but I don’t think it’s a crazy goal.

Can I double product revenue? I think I can, although I don’t quite know how. I have the traffic and products to do it. There are also a lot of sub-goals that I won’t write about here, but which I think will help with this high-level goal.

Can I double coaching revenue? Yes, by more consistently booking clients and continuing to raise my rates.

This year, I earned pretty much what I earned in my last year of full-time employment. That feels amazing. But I didn’t quit my day job to make the same money I made before. I quit my day job to earn multiples of what I was earning before (among other things). So I want to continue pursuing that as long as it doesn’t require me to return to being a hermit.

Sub-7:00-pace 5k

I’ve been chasing this one for a while, and I probably should’ve tried to knock this out when I ran the sub-6:00 mile earlier this year. Unfortunately, I was battling some injuries and decided to slow down before I really hurt myself. I would like to check this one off the list.

Sub-60-second 400m

I’m honestly not sure if I can do this or not. For one thing, I’ve got nagging injuries that basically prevent me from sprinting. But if I can get healthy, I think I’ve learned enough about proper running that I can do this.

This wasn’t one of my original running goals (I wasn’t sure I’d ever break 70s), but I think it’s still an achievable stretch goal. Or maybe it’s not. I dunno.

More trips

I travel to relax, and I’d like to do that more this year.

I’d like to take another trip with the Boston crew this summer. That trip was a lot of fun and I think the three of us are pretty much an ideal traveling group.

A trip to Europe would also be great—I miss Italy—but I don’t have anything specific in mind yet.

My 2017 Year In Review: Making a living

In May of 2017, my business was in real danger. I had finished 2016 on a high note, finally breaking even for a few months in a row. But revenue began to slow in January, and my savings account was shrinking. I cautiously began looking for day job opportunities or something to bring in a little revenue while I figured out how to bring my business back from the brink.

One night, I mentioned this to a friend, and we talked strategy for several hours. Long story short, I needed to shift my focus to coaching as quickly as possible.

The next day, I flipped some switches on FearlessSalaryNegotiation.com, updated my onboarding emails to emphasize coaching, and formally narrowed my positioning to “Salary negotiation coach who helps software developers get more high-quality job offers and negotiate higher salaries.”

June was my best month ever and I was cautiously optimistic that I had finally found a formulate that worked. July was strong and so was August. September was even better than June, and I knew I was on to something. Closing out 2017, the streak continues: Every month since May of 2017 has been better than any month through May of 2017.

I’m finally making a living and it’s an enormous relief.

Here’s a Table of Contents so you can jump ahead if you want:

2017 Goal Review

Let’s start out with a look back at my 2017 goals.

Make fewer new products, more new sales

I did pretty well on this one. The new products I made were all versions or subsets of previous products. And all of them were designed to test my own theories about how I could best help people in their current situation.

Focus on helping developers

I did really well on this for coaching, and totally failed for products.

My business has two primary revenue streams: coaching and products. My coaching is positioned specifically for Software Developers (the headline is “Software Developers: …”), and that’s where most of my revenue comes from. I haven’t niched down products because I don’t quite know how to do it given the volume of traffic my site gets from organic search (mostly Google).

Fearless Salary Negotiation was initially written for W-2 employees who want to get paid what they’re worth. So the articles on FearlessSalaryNegotiation.com are deep dives into my strategies and tactics, which are mostly job-agnostic. That makes it tough to niche down my product focus because so many people who could be helped would think, “That’s not for me.”

I’m working on this now.

More traffic

My goal was 100,000 visits from organic search per month, and I missed this goal by quite a bit. I’m currently a little over 50,000 organic visitors per month.

It would have been a stretch to make this happen, but I think I could’ve done it if I moved it up my priority list. The reason I didn’t do that is I realized “more traffic” is meaningless if that traffic doesn’t turn into customers. So I switched my focus from “more traffic” to “more email subscribers from existing traffic” and now to “more customers from email subscribers”.

I’ll loop back on traffic some time in 2018 as a natural part of optimizing different areas of my business.

Make a decent living

Check! I’ll write more about this later on.

Finally finish my audiobook

Fail. I tried to make a push early in the year and even tried to hire someone to help me finish editing it. But that person stopped replying to emails and I lost steam editing it and just sort of let it languish. I’m not even sure how much revenue this would drive, so it’s basically a bucket list item to “Publish an audiobook” at this point. That’s not a strong motivator for me, so I’m not sure when this will get done.

2018 Goals

If 2017 was the year I made a living, I want 2018 to be the year I make a good living from what I’ve built.

Before I quit my day job, I was making a good living. I had a good job on a good team at a good company, and it was a nice life. But I wanted to know if I could build something on my own, and specifically I wondered if I could capture more of the value of my own abilities by doing my own thing.

I don’t talk about this much, but the investment I’ve made in building this business is pretty substantial, especially in terms of opportunity cost. I understood that going in, and it was a risk I wanted to take because the potential upside of learning how to build a profitable business with my skillset could be substantial.

I say all that to emphasize that I did not quit my day job to “do ok” or even “make a living”—I was already doing that. I quit my day job for a shot at making a much better living than I could as a W-2 employee capturing only a small fraction of the value I created. I’m over-explaining this because I realize this next goal may sound greedy, and shooting for even bigger goals beyond that might sound outright ridiculous. But I did not make this move—quitting my day job and starting a business from scratch—to break even. This business is an investment where I want a multiple on my return.

Make a good living

Talking about revenue is a little out of character for me. But once I get past “pay all my monthly business and personal bills with a little left over”, describing the next level of growth without using actual numbers is challenging.

So here’s a quantified goal: I want to make $10,000 per month in net revenue in 2018. More specifically, I would like to do that by selling $5k in products and booking $5k in coaching per month for the year.

This is a stretch goal because averaging those numbers for the year will be very challenging given that I’m starting below that average. But I like shooting for the average because it will incentivize me to keep pushing even if I hit those numbers for a month or two. “Yes, I hit the $10k goal two months in a row, but I need to do better if I’m going to average $10k over the entire year.”

More traffic (continued)

I would like to build my organic search traffic to 100,000 unique visitors a month. I’m currently at 50,000, so I need to double my monthly traffic to hit this goal. In nominal terms, adding 50,000 visitors a month seems like a stretch, but in relative terms, “Double my traffic in 2018” seems relatively easy compared to the growth I’ve seen over the past two years.

There’s also a risk here because almost all my traffic eggs are in the organic search basket. I will also spend some time working to add new traffic sources in 2018, but I’m not sure how I’ll do that just yet.

Improve at Sales

Selling products and services is the goal that I had in mind when I set about building the infrastructure of my business. The entire point of my book, website, outreach, and other business activities is to reach more paying customers.

My goal is that 2% of email subscribers become paying customers within the first 30 days.

This is probably my most important goal for 2018. If I hit it, a lot of other goals will be easier.

Help other businesses get more search traffic and email opt-ins

This one is less quantitative, but is something I’ve really enjoyed in 2017. Part of building a business is learning new skills, and I’ve gotten pretty good at getting organic search traffic and turning some of that traffic into email subscribers.

I can help other businesses do that. I like doing it. And it’s extremely valuable, especially for businesses with established, profitable sales funnels in place. For them, more traffic and opt-ins means more revenue.

Running goals

I set these goals after I began running earlier this year, and I’ve only gotten one of them so far.

  • 10k – Sub-8:00 pace Hit it with a week to go!
  • 5k – Sub-7:00 pace (currently 7:14)
  • Mile – Sub-6:00 pace (currently 6:08)
  • 400m – Sub-60s pace (currently 64s)

I’m confident I’ll get the 5k and mile times eventually. I’m not sure I can do a 60s 400m, but I’m so close I have to keep trying.

These posts are normally business-focused, and this one will mostly be business-y. But this year was a lot about personal growth and experience, so I’ll talk about that too.

A detailed 2017 Year In Review – Business

This year, I focused on building on the foundation I laid in 2016. Last year’s one-sentence summary was “Build infrastructure to turn the book into a business.” This year’s one-sentence summary is “Make a living.”

The real key to 2017 was focus. Early in a new business, I think it’s extremely important to try lots of things to see what works and what doesn’t. As much as we want to believe we can engineer a perfect business, that’s just not how it works.

But once things start moving—people are aware of your product or service, you have some sales, you’ve seen a few things work for you—focusing becomes extremely important. In 2017, I focused on building my traffic, building my brand, and building my business. I avoided distractions and that was key to my survival.

Ultimately, shifting my focus from “build a robust sales funnel for my products” to “leverage my skillset and knowledge in the most valuable way possible (coaching)” was the one thing that saved my business and unlocked real growth for the first time since I started.

Products and Services

Ultimately, my business is all about offering the right products and services to the right people at the right time.

In 2017, my coaching revenue more than doubled; my product revenue more than quadrupled. When I step back and look at my business, those are both extremely encouraging signs, especially considering I feel there’s a lot of untapped potential within the infrastructure I’ve built.

Coaching

In June, I turned my focus to booking coaching clients and it paid off in a big way. I’ve worked with clients negotiating with the Big Five (Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft) and many other big names. My portfolio speaks for itself, and I’m learning how specific in-demand firms negotiate their job offers. This knowledge is extremely valuable and I am starting to capture the value of the knowledge base I’m building.

I have also begun working with a new niche: graduating physicians. I initially started doing research to write a book for them, but I think the best way to start is to offer coaching. The common wisdom is “doctors’ contracts aren’t negotiable”, but that’s simply not true. Not only are they negotiable, but the value of negotiation is tremendous—even more than software developers in some cases.

The 15-Minute Counter Offer

I’m pretty sure I only created one new product in 2017: The 15-Minute Counter Offer. It was a companion product for the free email templates I give away on my site. I was curious if people would pay a little bit for more help writing their counter offer email, and it turns out they would.

This is slightly different than products I’ve created in the past. Those products were explicitly designed to make money. This product was designed as an experiment to learn more about how I can best help my audience. It’s subtle, but this shift belies a move from “try to make some money” to “optimize my business”.

The Salary Negotiation Crash Course

The Salary Negotiation Crash Course is a focused version of Fearless Salary Negotiation that is designed to help folks who already have a job offer become effective salary negotiators in less than 90 minutes. This is a good product, and it’s also an experiment as I learn more about the best way to offer valuable help to people who are looking for salary negotiation advice.

Stats!

It’s useful to track stats over time, so I’m going to look back at most of the stats I tracked last year and add a few new ones.

Traffic

This was a huge focus for me in 2016. I kept working on it in 2017, but not as intensely as last year. The reason is that I realized I had enough traffic that I should be able to do something productive with it if I would just optimize some things.

Before we look at 2017’s traffic, let’s look back at 2016:

2016 weekly organic traffic on FearlessSalaryNegotiation.com

Not bad! Now let’s look at 2016–2017 for perspective:

2016–2017 organic traffic

First, you can see that things are still improving pretty quickly. Second, you can see that I took it easy mid-year because I was focusing on other business priorities.

As an aside, I’m finding that building a business as a solo founder is really just focusing on one thing at a time until it’s time to focus on something else.

In my case, I got to a level of traffic where I thought, “It’s worth my time to focus on turning traffic into email subscribers. If I can make a meaningful improvement to my opt-in rate, I can grow my email list really quickly.”

So I turned to optimizing my site to turn all that traffic into more email subscribers. This was a wise move.

My email list

Subscriber growth really picked up this year as I got more traffic and increased the opt-in rate for my site. Here are the subscriber counts at the end of the last three years:

  • December 2015: ~700
  • December 2016: ~2,500
  • December 2017: ~11,500

Here’s a graph of my subscriber growth for 2017:

2017 email list subscriber growth

You can see the hockey stick in September. That was the result of finally making a change I had been thinking about for months: I moved my free email templates behind an email opt-in form. That one-hour change quadrupled my site-wide opt-in rate.

I’m getting about 2,000 new subscribers a month now.

I want to pause on that number for a minute to put it into perspective.

The entire year of 2015, I got 700 email subscribers. SEVEN HUNDRED. I typically get that many new subscribers every 10 days now. I remember the first month where I had at least one new subscriber a day (October 2015), and that was a huge milestone for me. Now my slow days are around 30.

Conversion rate

This is a new stat, which logically follows the email list stats. By conversion rate, I mean, “How many of my email subscribers become paying customers in the first 30 days?” For me, the answer is embarrassingly low: Around .7%.

And it’s actually not even that good because that number is propped up by a couple experiments I did with extremely low-priced products. It’s probably more like .4%.

My 2018 goal is to improve conversion rate to 2% within the first 30 days.

Overall funnel

If you haven’t already noticed, I just described my “funnel”:

Traffic -> Email opt-ins -> Conversions
50,000/mo -> 2,000/mo (4% or so) -> .4%

Here’s where I would like my funnel to be by the end of 2018:

Traffic -> Email opt-ins -> Conversions
100,000/mo -> 5,000/mo (5% or so) -> 2%

If I hit those stats by the end of 2018, I should be able to hit my revenue goals.

Leveling up my credibility and profile

This year was huge in terms of publicity. I published several articles on Glassdoor.com and was interviewed live on international TV for the BBC News. The tick-tock of my BBC interview is pretty interesting as it was less than two hours from start to finish.

My work was published or syndicated on Business Insider, Fast Company, The Motley Fool, CNBC, MSN, Yahoo! Finance, AOL, The Telegraph, Forbes, Quartz, The Muse, Monster.com and lots of other sites.

You can see a running list on the FearlessSalaryNegotiation.com media page.

These opportunities have significantly raised my profile and given me a credibility boost that is paying off for my business.

A detailed 2017 Year In Review – Personal

This may sound crazy, but it’s true: Starting in 2009, I basically worked 7 days a week until the end of 2016. I got into that routine because I was working full time while also studying for my MBA. I would work at my day job during the week, then use weekends to do whatever needed to be done for my MBA.

That lasted until I finished my MBA in 2011. As soon as I finished my MBA, I quite my day job for 8 months. Ironically, I worked more during that 8 months because I was playing a lot of poker, writing my first book, and learning how to build web apps. It was a busy year and I worked some very, very long days and weeks in 2011.

I went back to work full-time in 2012, but I was building ShareAppeal (my first web app) and finishing Heads-Up Tournament Poker while I worked full time. We published Heads-Up Tournament Poker in 2013, but then I started working on TaskBook, which was a nights and weekends project.

I switched jobs in 2014 while I was still working on TaskBook, and then I started writing Fearless Salary Negotiation in December 2014 while still developing TaskBook (my second web app).

I quit my day job (again) in September 2015 to focus on publishing Fearless Salary Negotiation, and then began building that business in 2016 after the book was published. Throughout 2016, I was doing the hard work of building underlying infrastructure to run the business, and that work is pretty much a “volume of effort in correlates directly with results out” situation, so I worked long days all year.

2017 had to be different

But moving into 2017, something had to give. I had chosen to invest my time to learn how to build businesses and eventually become independent. But what was the point of being independent if I spent literally all of my time working? Yes, hustle is necessary to get something up and running, but eventually the hustle has to give way to something better than a 9 to 5.

So as 2016 wound down, I made a conscious decision to stop working so much and start enjoying the freedom I had earned by going independent. What did that look like in 2017?

I began working less and started leaving my laptop in my office at the end of the day. I had more energy because I was working less, so I got off my couch. I went from sporadically attending church to consistently attending. I joined a community group. I started spending more time with my friends just for the sake of spending time with them. I made new friends. I joined a running club and found a new hobby.

Am I a runner now?

My diet is typically pretty awful around the holidays. There’s like six weeks of non-stop snacks and big meals, and then I almost always get a truckload of candy for Christmas. I take on the truckload of candy as a personal challenge, so I eat even more candy than normal for the month of January.

And, uh… well the point is I typically gain a few pounds between like Halloween and February 1. This year, someone said, “Hey, we have a running club that meets once a week to do track workouts. You should come!”

Normally, I would’ve said, “I don’t run.” But the Florida winter was unusually mild and I had a few pounds to shed, so why not?

I’ve never been a runner. The longest I had ever run before this was six miles and that was an awful experience that took me over an hour. I had also run a few miles here and there in college, but it never became a real thing.

There were four to eight of us of us at most of the track workouts. I did not have fun at first—those workouts were extremely difficult for me. I had never done a track workout before, and it took some time to adjust.

But by April, I ran my first 10k race at a 9:00 pace and I actually kind of liked running.

Now I consistently train three days a week, mixing up track workouts (sprints) and medium-distance runs (3–5 miles). A few days ago, I finally achieved the first goal I set this year—I ran a sub-50:00 10k. It felt really good. (Emotionally, I mean. Physically, it was pretty awful.)

I’m also lifting weights three days a week. I’m in the best shape of my life and I can eat a lot more junk with all this running.

Time with people

I’m naturally pretty “introverted”. (Those air quotes are to acknowledge that this term may or may not have any real meaning.) I like to sit on my couch and watch TV or read. It’s pretty draining for me to hang out in groups.

Before this year, I had been working so much that sitting on my couch was my go-to down-time activity. While it was comfortable, it wasn’t healthy, and I decided to change that. Spending less time at work meant I had more energy for hanging out, and hang out I did.

I made a ton of new friends this year and sort of re-entered the social world. I went to Charleston to run a 10k race in April. Spoke at MicroConf later that month. Had a pretty good #SummerOfFun to take advantage of the Gainesville Summer Lull. Split my 4th of July time between a boat and the beach and barely survived a crazy storm. Carved a pumpkin and dressed up like Charlie from Wonder Woman for Halloween. Went to some Gator football, basketball, and volleyball games. Had lots of great dinners with friends. And finished the year off by watching a dozen Christmas movies with friends.

I also spent a lot more time with my family this year, and it was fantastic. No big trips or anything, just small opportunities to have a meal or catch a movie every now and then.

It was a good year.

My 2016 Year In Review: From zero to profitable

University of Florida College of Engineering Interview Preparation Workshop

In September 2015, I quit my job (again) to publish Fearless Salary Negotiation and start bootstrapping a business. So the one-sentence summary for 2015 would’ve been: Write and publish my book.

My one-sentence summary for 2016 is: Build infrastructure to turn the book into a business.

As usual, this is a long post, so here’s a table of contents in case there’s something you want to jump to:

Here we go!

How did I do in 2016?

For 2016, I thought I would just publish the book, build some products to augment the book (video courses), ramp up to enough revenue to cover all my bills and then return my focus to TaskBook. I hoped to do that early in 2016.

If you’ve built a business, you know how silly this plan was, especially considering I was more or less starting from scratch. Yes, I had published a book. But that was it. I had something like 700 people on my mailing list when I launched the book, and somehow I thought I was heading to enough monthly revenue to pay all my bills from digital products early in 2016? Who was going to buy all these products?

On average, I made about half of what I would’ve needed to pay all my bills in 2016. That’s the bad news. The good news is that I finished the year on a five-month stretch of basically paying all my personal and business expenses. So it took me almost a year, but I am paying my bills, and my business is profitable.

Of course, the ultimate goal is to make multiples of my previous day-job salary. But that’s going to take a while, so I need smaller goals in between. The first one was “Pay all my bills”. The next one is “Make a decent living”.

What I now realize is that 2016 was another foundational year. If 2015 was “Write and publish my book.”, then 2016 was: Build infrastructure to turn the book into a business.

Looking ahead to 2017

For 2017 I have a more strategic focus, supported by tactics, to build on the infrastructure I created in 2016.

It feels like this is the difference between working in the business and working on the business. I’m not exactly sure what that means, but I think that’s what’s going on. I’m moving out one level from working in the business—building products, building a web site—to working on it by growing it.

Fewer new products, more new sales

I’ve built a lot of great things in 2016, and now it’s time to grow my business and revenue. Building new products is extremely challenging and time consuming. But now that those things are built, I can reallocate that time to growing my business.

So I don’t plan to create many products in 2017, and will turn my focus to finding my niche and finding the right customers to benefit from the products I have built. I’m sure I’ll build something new, but I’m planning to resist the urge to make make make.

Focus on helping software developers

I think “the right customers” for my business are software developers. I like working with devs and they are generally positioned to gain a lot from my expertise. In many ways 2016 was just a series of experiments with different markets, and every time I worked with devs, or made something specifically for devs, the response was tremendous. For example, this article on How software developers can get a raise without changing jobs has been viewed over 30,000 times so far.

It’s pretty obvious that this is where I should focus, so that’s what I’ll do in 2017.

More traffic (continued)

By the end of 2017, I would like to have 100,000 visits from organic search per month. That’s about 15 times what I’m getting right now. There was a time when this goal would’ve seemed totally unattainable, but I know what I need to do, and I just need to execute.

The problem with this goal is that much of this is out of my control. An algorithm change or something else could wipe me out. The good news is that if I do the right things to drive this number, lots of other numbers will improve. As I’ll talk about in my detailed recap below, organic traffic has been a lagging indicator that I’m doing the right things, and I’m really interested in this stat as a proxy for other things going well. If those things go well and this stat tanks, then so be it.

What’s interesting is I have no idea if this is a stretch goal, or low-hanging fruit. One one hand, 100,000 organic visits per month seems like a huge number. On the other hand, I’ve consistently tripled organic traffic every 60 days for a year. I don’t think that’s sustainable, but I also didn’t think it was sustainable a few months ago and here I am.

If I keep up that pace (again, it sure seems like this is totally unsustainable), I’ll hit 100,000 organic monthly visits in July or August 2017—plenty of time to spare.

Make a decent living

I’m basically breaking even right now—my savings account is no longer shrinking, but it’s also not growing. And I’m living very lean to make that happen. “Make a decent living” would mean replacing about half of my previous day job income, starting to re-grow my savings account, and opening up my personal budget a little bit.

I’m not really swinging for the fences here, but that’s because I’ve learned that this is likely to be a slow, steady grind forward. Hopefully I blow this goal out of the water, but I’m not counting on it. Maybe “Make good money” will be a goal for 2018.

Finally finish my audiobook

I managed to re-record about 70% of my audiobook after learning some tough lessons earlier this year, but then I ran out of steam. I would like to get this project finished, and I’m hoping to get back to it early in 2017. We’ll see.

A detailed 2016 Year In Review

Here’s a look back at what I built in 2016.

Products and services

Most of these things are new things I built in 2016. Plus there’s a TaskBook update for those who are curious.

Video courses

I started the year by building video courses to accompany Fearless Salary Negotiation. I know a lot of people learn visually and need action items and next steps, and I wanted to give them a way to learn and apply my strategies and tactics.

This was the hardest part of 2016 by far. Not only did I have to create all the content (about 400 slides, each one scripted word-for-word), but I had to learn how to record and edit audio, video and screencasts. Meanwhile, my monthly revenue was close to zero and I had to spend about $2,000 on my car.

It took me about 10 weeks of non-stop work, but I got everything done and I’m very happy with the result. The result is over three hours of quality screencasts that augment the book and visually illustrate key concepts so they’re easier to understand and use.

FearlessSalaryNegotiation.com

I started out here on JoshDoody.com. Once I picked a title for my book, I registered FearlessSalaryNegotiation.com and published a few sales pages, but I still kept writing and pointing everything to JoshDoody.com.

In March this year, I realized that Fearless Salary Negotiation was its own brand and that I needed to start treating it that way. So I redesigned the site, moved to a new platform, and started publishing new content there. At the time, FearlessSalaryNegotiation.com had about 10 pages total. Now it has over 150 pages, and I’ve built every single one.

About 60 of those pages are the online version of the book. The rest are a mix of articles, landing pages, and sales pages.

Coaching

I’ve been coaching people since I started writing my book because I needed to know exactly what was happening in interviews, salary negotiations, and raise and promotion discussions. At first I didn’t charge anything and I worked with friends and family, then friends of friends. I did that for over a year.

Then I got a call from a friend who said, “I have a big job opportunity and I don’t want to mess up this negotiation. What’s your consulting rate?” I…didn’t have a rate, but I knew she was a freelancer, so I said, “Whatever your rate is.” She charged $75 an hour, so that’s what I charged. Then another friend reached out and since my first client didn’t flinch, I charged $120 an hour. Again, no hesitation, so I knew I needed to raise my rate again.

Fortunately, I went to BaconBiz Conf during this $120/hr engagement, and I talked to my pals Josh Kaufman and Jim Gay. I was pretty proud of myself for getting up to $120 an hour and planning to “Charge more!”, but they had other ideas:

“Why are you charging hourly?”

After a 30-minute conversation, I was planning to charge $1,500 for a fixed-fee engagement with a money-back guarantee. I would promise to increase my clients’ base salary by at least $10,000, so this would be a slam dunk ROI calculation.

Looking back, I’m not sure I actually believed I could find clients who would pay me $1,500 to coach them. (This was classic Imposter Syndrome at work.) Sure, I had made people tens of thousands of dollars. Sure, I knew what I was doing and my previous clients (paid and pro bono) had loved working with me. But would strangers really pay me $1,500 to help them bump their salary by $10,000?

You bet they would! But they didn’t much care about the $10,000 promise and I think it actually worked against me early on. $10,000 is a lot of money to some people, but it’s not much money to other people. For those other people, a $10,000 promise just wasn’t compelling (if you’re making $150,000 a year and I promise to help you get to $160,000…that’s not an exceptional jump for you). So I dropped the $10k promise and stuck with the money-back guarantee.

Since then, I’ve worked with folks negotiating at Google, Amazon, Tesla, Samsung, Verizon, and other companies you’ve heard of. And I’ve raised my rate to $2,000 with a plan to raise it again soon.

I was obviously nervous about offering a money-back guarantee, so I mitigate this risk by holding the money aside until my client tells me they’re satisfied. But so far, none of my clients have asked for a refund. (I’m sure this will happen eventually—it’s just a part of doing business. But it’s nice to have a perfect record in 2016.)

My coaching offering has been a huge boon to my business this year. About one-third of my revenue was from coaching.

The Interview Cheat Sheet

Initially, I made The Interview Cheat Sheet for my coaching clients. I found that I always gave them the same homework before their job interviews, so I figured I would make a nice cheat sheet for them. I hadn’t launched any tiny products, so this was a good chance to try that.

It only made a few hundred dollars, but that was just gravy since I made it for my coaching clients anyway. And now I include it with all my eBook and video course bundles as well.

Get Your Next Raise

Any time someone buys Fearless Salary Negotiation, I ask them “Are you negotiating an offer for a new job or looking to increase your salary at your current job?” The responses are pretty evenly split.

Then I ask some followup questions to see where they might be stuck. I found that I had a really good offering for people who were stuck on interviewing and negotiating and wanted more help from me, but I didn’t have much to offer for those who were hoping for a raise.

So I built Get Your Next Raise. It’s a pretty unique self-paced and guided course that walks students through step-by-step process to ask for a raise while I get them feedback along the way. I launched it at the end of November and I plan to promote it heavily in 2017.

This is also the first product I have built by working backwards from the specific need I saw to a solution (the course) to a free offering that offers value and helps potential students determine if the course is right for them.

Shutting down TaskBook

I’ve decided to focus 100% of my time and energy on growing my business around Fearless Salary Negotiation, which means I’m sunsetting TaskBook in 2017. This is tough because I still have people reaching out who say, “Why can’t I sign up for TaskBook?”, and I know it would help them. But I simply don’t have the resources to grow two businesses.

There’s an alternate timeline where my first big project is Fearless Salary Negotiation, and it fizzles out because I don’t know how to sell or market. Then I take what I learned and build TaskBook, which takes off like a rocket. But instead, I started with a SaaS (pro tip: Don’t do this!), didn’t know how to find customers, and got distracted by a shiny new thing, which is growing into a business.

Stats!

I mentioned this was a foundational year, and I think that will show through in this section. Here are my high-level stats from 2016.

My email list

A big metric for businesses like mine is “How many subscribers do you have on your list?”

  • December 2015: ~700
  • December 2016: ~2,500

That’s a decent growth rate considering I haven’t done any meaningful paid acquisition (Facebook ads, etc.). One thing I need to work on is learning more about what folks need when they join my list or download a free guide from me. And I need to provide more value and build a better connection with everyone on my list.

In September, switched to a new Email Service Provider (ESP) called Drip. ConvertKit was great for getting from zero to almost 2,000 subscribers. But as I tried to do more with my list, engage more effectively, learn about people, I kept bumping into limitations. Drip seemed like the best way to get to the next level, so I switched. To ConvertKit’s credit, many of the things that I left for are starting to show up in their product, so it seems I was just a few months ahead of them.

Traffic

After BaconBiz Conf, I spent an extra day in Philly. I decided to walk to a little coffee shop and found myself crashing a post-conference work session attended by many of the conference’s speakers (many of whom are already my friends). Not one to let a good opportunity go to waste, I coaxed a little advice from the group (this was not difficult), and the main message was:

You’re doing the right things, you just need to do more of them and get more traffic.

At the time, I really didn’t know what that meant, but I started doing things I thought would help. I was already doing a podcast tour, inspired by Kai Davis among others, and had begun looking for opportunities to write guest blog posts. (See a summary of my podcast appearances and guest posts here.)

I also began writing and promoting more content at FearlessSalaryNegotiation.com so I would have more content to point people to when they asked questions, and so Google would have a greater surface area of things to find and suggest for search queries.

My focus has been on Organic traffic (when people Google things and click through to find the answer) because I think that’s a lagging indicator of all other types of traffic. If I get lots of traction with my content, podcasts, guest posts, social media, etc., that will eventually translate into Organic traffic.

Here’s my 2016 weekly organic traffic:

2016 weekly organic traffic on FearlessSalaryNegotiation.com

As you can see, it’s growing pretty steadily and quickly. I have basically tripled traffic every 60 days this year, so I went from almost zero traffic in January to almost 2,000 visits a week now.

Book sales

I’ve sold almost 1,200 copies of Fearless Salary Negotiation so far. Most of those sales were on Amazon, which is why I launched on Amazon. One cool thing is that I have steadily raised my price and sales continue to improve. So I’m making more sales and getting more revenue per sale. This has been a nice surprise.

One concern I had about launching and selling on Amazon was “You don’t know who your customers are!” (this is a common thing I hear in the self-publishing community). This is partially true—I technically don’t know who buys my book because Amazon doesn’t tell me.

But! 10–15% of Amazon buyers subscribe to my email list because I point back to my site, where I offer free worksheets and email templates to accompany the book. Some of those folks have eventually become coaching clients, so I see the Amazon version of my book as a sort of combo product/marketing tool/calling card.

Coaching

I worked with about a dozen different clients this year. Not bad considering I didn’t launch my coaching offering until mid-year. I’ve intentionally grown this part of the business slowly because I want to make sure my clients get great value for the price, and because I wanted to iterate on the offering as I got to know more clients.

I’ve found that the folks who benefit the most from working with me are experienced software developers moving to larger companies like Amazon, Google, and Tesla, so that’s who I’ve been working with lately.

Talks

University of Florida College of Engineering

I had a chance to do about 10 talks this year, and they were a lot of fun. As I write this, I realize that all but one of those talks were to engineers or software developers—another sign that focusing my efforts on helping software developers is a good idea.

This talk on salary negotiation for software developers for Orlando Devs and The Iron Yard, Orlando was my first of the year and it has almost 7,000 views on YouTube. I also gave several talks at a local code school called Gainesville Dev Academy, where they buy a copy of my paperback for every student.

The really fun thing is that talks are easy for me to do—I’m extremely comfortable with public speaking. And they give me a chance to meet developers and see what they’re struggling with.

Podcasts, webinars, quotes, and guest posts

Here’s a one-page summary of my podcast appearances, webinars, quotes, and guest posts.

I was on more than 20 podcasts this year. Most of them were software developer podcasts (yes yes, another checkmark for “focus on helping software developers”), and the response was fantastic.

I think the highlight for me was talking with my pal Patrick McKenzie on his Kalzumeus podcast. Patrick’s detailed blog post Salary Negotiation: Make More Money, Be More Valued was an early inspiration for me to learn more about salary negotiation, try it for myself, and eventually write Fearless Salary Negotiation.

I also participated in three or four webinars, which was great practice. I’m extremely comfortable in the podcast format (probably more comfortable than public speaking), but not as comfortable with webinars where I sometimes need to be on camera, and where the audience is live but invisible.

I did four guest posts and was quoted in a Forbes.com article, so that’s pretty nifty.

Revenue

I’ve decided not to share my revenue numbers publicly because there are some drawbacks and I can’t think of any real benefits.

That said, I’m basically paying all of my personal and business expenses each month. That’s a big deal for me because it means I’m not spending my savings anymore. Hopefully in 2017 I can replenish the savings I burned through earlier this year.

Wrapping up 2016

It was a good year. It started slow and stressful, but things turned around mid-year and most of the important graphs are moving up and to the right.

I am learning a lot about building and running a business—this experience is invaluable. I’ve spent the past several years getting to know some very smart people, and their guidance has helped me keep focused on the right things and ignore the things that don’t matter.

I’m really looking forward to seeing how this business grows in 2017.