2019 Year in Review: Growth versus Goals

The end of the year is usually a time for reflection, gratitude, and planning. With our inboxes quiet and our schedules free of meetings, we can afford to take a moment and think about what we achieved and what’s next. It’s my second year writing an annual review, and I want to make it more structured this time, looking at key areas such as health, business, travel, learning, and community. And because it’s important to both acknowledge what went well and what could have gone better, I’ll make sure to highlight areas where I want to improve.

If you want to do your own year in review, here’s a template you can use, covering the main areas of personal growth and offering pointers to structure your thoughts. Here is a summary of my own year in review:

  • Learned how to code
  • Sold my first business
  • Created a newsletter with now 6.8K subscribers
  • Went back to the gym and lost 5kgs
  • Studied for my Masters’ in neuroscience
  • Got certified as a Mental Health First Aider
  • Read 15 books
  • Joined some great communities
  • Made new amazing friends

If you want to learn more, buckle up and scroll down.

A year under the sign of learning

While 2017 felt like a year of running around—almost like a rat race—and 2018 was a year of exploration—trying to figure out what life I wanted for myself—2019 has been a year of acquiring the tools I think I need to live the life I want. A life of understanding how the mind works and helping people be productive without sacrificing their mental health.

One of my proudest achievements is to have completed an online coding course (The Complete Web Development Bootcamp) covering HTML, CSS, Javascript, Node, MongoDB, and more. While I published a few fun projects such as the Elephant API and a tutorial on how to recreate the GitHub contribution graph with Node.js and Google Sheets, I still haven’t published a proper web app. The course I took has recently been updated with React, so my next step will be to go through this new module and publish a first complete web app, which will be based on the principles of mindful productivity I so strongly advocate for.

I have also kept on studying for my Masters’ in Applied Neuroscience at King’s College. The intersection of biology and psychology is fascinating, and there are many applications to my work, life, and the way I interact with people. It’s been challenging at times, especially with the more hardcore scientific bits, as I feel more comfortable with psychology. But writing about what I learn on Ness Labs has undeniably helped consolidate what I study at university. I have one more year to go through before I graduate. 2020 is going to be my research year, and I’m still to choose a topic. Right now, I’m thinking of going with burnout and its biological effects.

In 2019, I took every opportunity to learn more and cultivate my curiosity. I took another course to learn how to create illustrations with Adobe Illustrator, and I read 15 books. The one thing I want to improve next year is to read more fiction. I only read 2 fiction books this year—and not even new ones as they were both books I wanted to re-read: His Dark Materials and Seveneves. Ideally, I’d like to alternate, with one fiction book for each non-fiction one I read.

Finally, I got certified as a Mental Health First Aider. It was an amazing evidence-based training which has been designed in partnership with the NHS and is accredited by the Royal Society for Public Health. I started applying these principles in my coaching practice and it’s been great to be able to support people better and direct them to the right mental health resources when needed.

Culture and community

As Saint Augustine famously said: “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” While I’m aware of the impact on our planet and try to travel by train and shared transportation as much as I can, I do want to see more of the world and experience other cultures. It’s something I’m really torn about, a feeling not too dissimilar to many challenges we face as humans—the tension between our current desires and the needs of future generations.

This year I travelled to Spain, Argentina, Taiwan, Sweden, Italy, and the United States. I also spent much more time in France, thanks to friends’ birthdays, and explored several French regions I had never been to before. Next year, I’ll be spending a few months in South-East Asia to explore, spend time with my sister who lives in South Korea, and meet with friends. I’ll also go back to Argentina and Brazil for a friend’s wedding, and Mexico for Founder Summit.

But we don’t need to travel to connect with new people. Local and online communities are extremely powerful. This year, I’m grateful for several communities in particular. First, Women Make, which as always is a haven of safety and creativity on the Internet. Indie Hackers, where I’ve been sharing my progress with fellow bootstrapped entrepreneurs. Founders of the Future, where I’m part of the Fellowship, is a great group of like-minded entrepreneurs. The I.I., the home of wonderfully weird people who know how to ask good questions. And the Backed VC family, where I’m a scout since earlier this year, which is full of smart, driven, creative people.

Having one foot in the indie maker world and one foot in the VC world has been interesting. Venture capital can be a powerful enabler for businesses creating new models or new technology which by definition can’t be profitable from day one—for instance, Income Share Agreements, self-driving cars, cancer research. But, as an advocate for the zebra movement, I’d like to see more startup founders realise VC money is not a guarantee of success, and can actually be detrimental for both the company and the ecosystem. There are alternative business models, and we should stop celebrating companies who simply raised money without proving anything except the strength of their personal network and their pitching abilities.

If there’s a community you’d like to see exist, just create it. This is what I did with Newsletter Geeks, which has now more than 160 members on Telegram. It’s an extremely active community of writers who share tips to grow their audience, write better, and engage with their readers. There’s not a day that goes by without me learning something new there. (it’s currently invite only so DM me on Twitter if you’d like to join)

But what I’m most excited about 2019 when it comes to community is all the amazing friends and connections I made through Twitter. People such as Anna Gát, Khe Hy, Visakan Veerasamy, Harry Dry, Jonny Miller, and Paul Millerd. I even had the privilege to do a 1:1 call with a writer and thinker I greatly admire, the insightful James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, who shared his thoughts on online education and productivity.

If you’re not on Twitter yet, you should be. It’s one of the—if not the—best thinking communities out there.

Growing an indie business

Another of my proudest accomplishments in 2019 has been to get back to the equivalent of a full-time job income through Ness Labs.

  • Sponsorships — $7,858
  • Corporate consulting — $64,976
  • Individual coaching — $2,277
  • Other (ebooks, t-shirt sales) — $1,921

This total of about $77K doesn’t include the sale of Maker Mag, which I can’t disclose the amount of. This was my very first time selling a business. While Maker Mag was profitable, it didn’t feel aligned with my focus on mindful productivity and my neuroscience studies, and I decided to sell it to a great new owner who will take it to the next level. Going through the process felt bittersweet but necessary in order to focus on my core business.

I’m proud I built a community of 70+ writers who shared their stories and interviewed other indie makers, with a focus on building sustainable businesses. At the time of the sale, Maker Mag had 1K newsletter subscribers, 2K followers on Twitter, 200+ articles, 50 newsletters and 9 podcasts episodes with the likes of Sahil Lavingia, Kate Kendall, Lynne Tye, Tyler Tringas, Josh Pigford, Ben Tossell, and Paul Jarvis. I’m excited for the new owner to keep on growing this platform.

As you can see, I failed at generating most of my revenue from indie products in 2019. The vast majority of my income is from consulting. While I will keep on consulting in 2020, I would like to significantly increase my revenue from indie products such as ebooks, online course, and my very first web app.

And I want to keep on writing. Back in July, I decided to give myself a challenge: write one article every weekday and publish it on Ness Labs. It wasn’t always easy to stick to it, but this is the best habit I have built this year. Waking up every morning and taking the time to think, learn, and share has had a positive impact both on my business and my mental health. Since starting from scratch this summer, the Ness Labs audience has grown tremendously:

  • 6.8K subscribers to the newsletter
  • Average open rate of 55%
  • 144K unique visitors since the end of July
  • 111 articles in about 6 months (I now only write three times a week)

I can trace back most of the opportunities I’ve had in the second half of the year to writing consistently. Most of my consulting contracts, invitations to interesting events, and cool conversations with new people—some of whom became friends—were because someone, somewhere, stumbled upon one of my articles.

This year, I got to speak at events from 10 to 400 people. Product Hunt meetup, Everywoman conference, DevelopHer mentoring event, Backed VC workshop, Deep Learning Summit, etc. I also got invited as a guest on many podcasts which were a great way to reach new audiences.

I already have a few podcasts and speaking engagements booked in the new year, and all of these were inbound. Writing online is truly a superpower, and I would encourage anyone who hangs out on the Internet to give it a try.

Health and personal life

I have mixed feelings about this one. While I did get back to a good gym routine and started eating better—losing 5 of the 10kgs I gained when I quit smoking in 2018—I still struggle with many aspects of my mental and physical health. Too much of my social life revolves around drinking, whether I’m in London, Paris, or travelling. And I still experience time anxiety, which often leads to trouble falling asleep.

It may sound like small things, but next year I want to drink more water, walk more, and meet more of my friends for tea rather than a pint—or two, or three. I want to go to bed earlier and wake up earlier. And I want to spend less time on my phone, especially before bedtime. I’ve noticed that reading a book is one of the most efficient ways for me to fall asleep quickly.

Another great antidote to anxiety is people—the kind you care about and who cares about you. Spending time with friends may feel like a distraction, when it’s actually often a performance and creativity booster. When my partner moved to the UK this summer, I thought it’d turn my routine upside down. It’s been disruptive in some ways, but having a shoulder to lean on has also been an invaluable asset. We’re moving in together in a couple of months, and I’m excited to soon have a home we can call ours.

What didn’t go well

There are a few things I wanted to achieve and didn’t get around to doing. It’s important to acknowledge these gaps too.

First, my plan after learning how to code was to launch a web app. Partly because I got busy with other projects, and partly because I didn’t push myself to get over some technical hurdles, I never published anything substantial I coded myself this year—just some fun projects. This is going to be one of my goals next year.

Second, I wanted to create my first online course. I vastly underestimated the amount of work. On paper, it felt like a piece of cake. In reality, it’s a jigsaw of moving pieces with a steep learning curve. And producing the course is just the first step. Marketing a course is 80% of the work. This is also going to be a goal for early next year.

Finally, I overcommitted and didn’t deliver on a few promises. Friends asked me to review their content or courses, people wanted to catch up and pick my brain over their ideas, others invited me to events. As much as I’m a big fan of learning how to say no, I still say yes way too often. And I end up disappointing people. I want to work on this next year and fix clear boundaries so I’m more honest with myself and others.

Goals for next year

I wrote a whole section with my goals for next year, but decided not to include it. While I’m a big proponent of working in public, I actually work better when keeping my goals to myself. Because it often leads to premature praise from other people, announcing your goals in advance gives you the psychological satisfaction of accomplishing a goal without having to do the work. I’d rather share my progress and receive praise for the actual work.

If you read between the lines, you’ll probably have a good idea of what I want to work on anyway. I’m super proud of what I accomplished in 2019, but there’s a lot more I want to do in 2020. And I’m acutely aware that sometimes personal growth comes at the expense of achieving some specific goals. This is completely fine. It’s all about the process. Happy New Year!

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