For many, growth is the undisputed holy grail of business. The ultimate goal. Grow or die. Eat or be eaten. You can google it, you’ll find many answers:
A lot of what’s written does make sense. Business and technology can be seen as products of an ongoing hyper evolution, an extension to Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution of biological life.
I find this a very interesting thought. If you want to learn more, look at how Kevin Kelly from Wired defined our technology as the 7th Kingdom of Life, the Technium – an interesting talk and point of view I definitely recommend watching:
This is an academic perspective. What does it mean for the individual business?
Should I Even Care?
For large companies, growth is a very important goal:
— Strategyzer (@strategyzer) August 13, 2018
But as a small business owner, I have the luxury and privilege to form my business in any way I want:
- I have no investors to report to
- No board that holds me accountable
- And, at the moment, no employees whose salaries, careers, and well being I take responsibility for
Of course, growth is important to me and to my business as well. I am in a happy position to report a continued increase of annual recurring revenue for jOOQ (some numbers published on Indie Hackers).
The median salary for software engineers in Switzerland is around USD 110,000 to USD 130,000 per year according to http://www.lohnrechner.ch (depending on how you define the software engineering profession, and where in Switzerland you’re located). The revenue of my company is much more than double that amount – roughly USD 300,000 per year as of 2017 – and again, as of mid 2018, there are no salaries to pay.
So, the company has been growing healthily, financially.
jOOQ’s Growth on Google Trends
The business of jOOQ does experience continued growth. However, Google trends shows an interesting picture
jOOQ has been around for 10 years now. It can be seen that it started very moderately when it was “just” an Open Source side project. Then, it picked up that sweet sweet exponential growth that venture capitalists and managers crave, just when I started the company in 2013, and then flattened out again from 2016 onwards.
Why is that?
- Is it because jOOQ has saturated its market?
- Is it because a one man show can only grow so much?
- Is it because there has been a new competitor?
- Is it because Google Trends has incomplete data and extrapolates?
The answer is easy. Let me show an annotated version of the above picture
All the parents among you readers will immediately recognise the toll young kids may have on your performance, which is not a secret.
But there is a “secret” that many companies (at least in Switzerland) do not seem to admit.
A part of the decreasing growth can definitely be attributed to parental fatigue. I forget things more often than before. I’m sometimes unable to concentrate on complex refactorings, postponing them for a few days. I take these deficiencies seriously and sleep in while the kids are at the day nursery, or I go to a café and read a book, instead of working – to stay healthy.
My typical working days currently have 6-7 hours. And I take 1/2 day off per week, to spend more time with the kids. That’s clearly not the most relaxing day of the week, by the way, if you know what I mean 😉
This cannot be stressed enough. We as a society do overwork ourselves. In Switzerland, working 60% or even 80% is still frowned upon. I’m sure many other places are similar. Why is that? Why can’t employers accept the fact that young parents will not be able to perform as well as people in their early 20s? And what is the price we are all paying for this? After all, when someone works 60%, they get paid 60%. The financial “damage” is covered by the employee, much less by the employer, so what appears to be the problem?
Of course, there are many similar situations where someone’s professional and personal lives cause friction. I’m privileged and lucky to not have experienced other situations yet, but they do exist. Check of the discussion following Stephanie Hurlburt’s recent tweet about mental illness:
This is true also for people who don't have those struggles. There are many reasons why someone doesn't want to work "those hours" and can still be productive. E.g. in my case, I have small kids and I can't work that much because of the sleep deprivation caused by said kids.
— Lukas Eder (@lukaseder) July 12, 2018
We can always work more
Staying healthy is a very important thing to keep in mind when working. This is true in general, but even more so when you run your own company. Being independent often also means having no one to tell you to stop. There is always more that can be done:
- I can do more sales, following up with leads
- I can do more marketing, writing more blog posts
- I can do more PR, visiting conferences
- I can do more networking, attending or even organising Java User Group meetups
- I can do more engineering, implementing new functionality
- I can create new products
- I can read more articles, learn more about SQL or the JVM
But time is limited for everyone. And there’s a price we pay for ignoring our limited time. It’s called burnout. We can delegate work, of course. But we can also simply choose to not do it at all, which removes the need for this additional administrative work called delegation.
Switzerland is not a very socially progressive country, e.g. in terms of gender equality. Have an embarassing piece of Swiss history for context.
Men get 1 day off for each child birth, by law. For scale: We also get 1 day off when we move houses. While many Swiss men still spend about 1 year in the military (much of the foregone salary is paid for by the state), our parental responsibility in early child care is not being taken seriously – especially when compared to most of Europe.
There are a lot of reasons why this is an important political topic, not just because it seems “unjust” for men who would love to spend more time with their youngest kids, but also because it is very unjust for women, who are at a disadvantage in the job market because of their almost guaranteed time off during late pregnancy and early child care. Women in Switzerland get 14 weeks off per child. The foregone salary is also paid by the state, just as with people doing military service. But their lack of time in the workforce is a price women have to pay for themselves, and alone. This gender difference in paid parental leave means that men at my age (25 – 40) are more employable than women, especially if they have no kids yet. They’re much less of a “sabbatical risk factor”, if you want to call it this way.
My point being…
I don’t want to be going too much into local politics or the topic of gender equality per se. I don’t have the answers. I don’t know how we as a society can change for the better. But a small change can inspire. Make a difference for a few people.
The point I’m trying to make here is that when you run your own company, you don’t have to argue anything at all about how you want to lead your professional life. You can make it whatever you want it to be. This is an incredible privilege!
I was able to help at home much more than the average Swiss employed man could. I took 2 months “off” for each kid, apart from handling urgent tasks like sales or commercial support, of course. I helped my wife wherever I could. This can be invaluable especially when there are complications at, or after birth. Heck, no one told me (or I wasn’t listening) how tough parenting was going to be! With 2 kids, it’s much more than an FTE’s worth of work.
How did I do it?
I did so, because I make the rules. I turned down clients for consultancy, I (almost completely) stopped travelling to conferences, except if the talk was paid or combined with my SQL training (which you should totally book, btw!). I stepped down from the board of the Java User Group Switzerland. I wrote less blog posts, and focused on the core of the business behind jOOQ: Maintenance, QA, and implementing needed functionality for paying customers.
Of course, this wasn’t an easy decision. I would like to see jOOQ grow like anyone else. And I will make jOOQ grow much more again in the future.
But not now. 2016 – 2018 belonged to the family and friends.
Work life balance
There was a simple choice to make. People often refer to this as “work life balance”
In fact, the term work life balance is misleading, because:
- Work is part of life. Many of us can never fully disassociate the two, and that’s fine. It’s a privilege to be able to say: “I love my work”. I for one most certainly do and my life would feel less complete without it.
- Life, as understood by many, comes in different flavours as well. For simplicity, I kept two categories: Friends and family, and health. There are more subcategories – e.g. spirituality – which I consider to be part of health. And of course, it’s healthy to spend time with friends and family.
The above “trinity” kinda shows a “pick 2 out of 3” situation. Of course, it isn’t so simple in real life, but there’s some truth behind the idea that you cannot maximise on all 3 pillars of life. We’re systematically neglecting this balance, often in favour of work.
Back to the topic of Growth
I started talking about the growth of a business. And I gave you my context. In this series of blog posts, my posts are not to be seen as advice. Everyone has different strengths, focuses, and priorities in life. I am showing mine. This does not mean that my priorities work for you, or that I’m even making the best choices for myself.
Growth is important for businesses. If you see a business as an organism that evolves and competes with other businesses / organisms – then yes: Growing or dying is a reality. Our business and technological world today is very different from the world 20 years ago. Or 50 years ago. Would IBM have ever anticipated being eclipsed (pun intended) by Microsoft? Who is going to be the next Java?
This business of mine is not growing as much as it could be. No business is, of course. In my case, there is no venture capital, there is no sales team. I do quite a bit of marketing (a.k.a. growth hacking, these days), and I keep doing what I do best and what I love doing: Create the best SQL API for Java, adding value to my customers’ businesses.
If a VC backed company with 50 employees on the product decides to compete with me, my lack of growth might mean the end of jOOQ. Or, they could purchase jOOQ to get a head start. In 10 years, there has not been a single such competitor, but this may change, of course.
So what? jOOQ is my product, it follows my rules, it incorporates my life choices – like every product and service offered by a small company like Data Geekery. This is what’s so great about being an entrepreneur. You can shape your future. Any way you want it to be. And still be successful in terms of your own standards.
In my life, at 37, with my lovely wife and my two gorgeous kids (who do have the nerve to not let me sleep in), I am extremely privileged to be able to focus on family while still making a very decent living right now. Growth can wait.
As promised in my initial article, there will be many other, related topics, including:
- How not to burn out — or, how to say no
Related to the previous topic: Learn to hear your inner voice, which is likely warning you of an impending burn out long before it happens. Everyone can only do this much. We all have our limits, and when we reach them, we need to step back. Burning out can be caused by many things, not even strictly work related.
- Alone or not? The first employee is the most difficult hire
In 2018, I will hire my first employee — after 5 years. So far, I fared very well alone. What are the pros and cons of staying alone?
- Always remember why you’re doing it
Is it money? The technical challenge? Working with customers? The fame? Regardless of what it is, never lose touch with your motivation for doing business. “I did it my way” (Maybe some day you’ll hear me sing this song at your local karaoke bar. No regrets)
So, stay tuned for more interesting insights into the business of jOOQ.