Growth Is Not the Only Goal
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:
The Difference Between Amazon & Nestlé with @AlexOsterwalder & @sgblank. https://t.co/zfctD8Qtvy pic.twitter.com/PDks68o0F3
— 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.
I can totally relate. The difference is, that I’m an employee.
For my parents and sister (in Germany) it is sometimes hard to understand my wife’s aan my struggles in Switzerland – there’s the issue of child care, if your wife still really wants to earn her own money…
I will not rant, but as you said: it’s all taking it’s toll.
Keep it up and good luck with your own employee, I think it is a good decision, but you’ll probably need someone as flexible as you.
Sorry to hear you’re struggling. But keep doing it, be an example for the Swiss. We’ll learn a few decades later than everyone else – from you!
Yes, that employee will need to be as flexible as me. The job description will make that very clear. I’m not afraid I won’t find that person. After all, working remote is totally an option, which opens up a huge job market.
thanks for sharing your experiences and thoughts. Good luck finding your first employee.
Thanks. It will be quite a challenge to find the perfect person 🙂
thanks for sharing the internals of your life and business. That helps a lot for people planing or doing the same steps in their careers.
After ten years of “mediocre growth” in my company, I managed it to go from one to five employees, badly hit a personal limit and I am now forced to scale down again. Now I am trying to understand what I need to do differently the next time. I’d like to share one aspect of that.
My thinking was I need to hire young and talented developers so I can train and teach them and we can build great stuff together. That could work, but in my case it lead to various problems. With every new employee the amount of non-technical, non-creative, no fun at all work became more. It’s called management. Still if you go with the agile mindset and have a self organizing team, as the business owner, you still have to organize who is organizing some duties like office cleaning and define and discuss (!) what “clean” might mean at all.
My advice for the first employee:
Don’t hire somebody so you can do together more of the work you love.
Hire somebody that will free you from doing the work you don’t love!
Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. As you can imagine – I’m equally intrigued as terrified thinking of the next steps of scaling the business by hiring someone. My current plans involve a company size of about 5 people (similar to yours at the time) who will be needed eventually, for all the products around jOOQ that I have in mind. Luckily right now, office cleaning is a non issue as I’m in a coworking space that takes care of these things… But I definitely see what you mean. Being solo has great advantages like never needing to discuss anything non-essential at all.
The first hire will definitely implement tons of work I don’t love, including more community support, automation, more CI/CD, tons of minor features / bug fixes, a documentation overhaul, and that stuff. One reason why I need this first hire is because I do not have enough time to do marketing more thoroughly right now (see the growth on Google Trends). I want to spend more time on that, I’ve really started to like marketing over the past years.
The next hire(s) who will help build new products will be a different story. I cannot build them myself, especially when UI is involved. I will get involved in architecture and design, of course, but after 5 years, I really start feeling that my long term professional future is not in development, but in product management and marketing.
So, I think I will intuitively follow your advice, which is great confirmation of what I had in mind 🙂
What is your company doing / did your company do before you hit that limit?
the “office cleaning” was a placeholder for any kind of infrastructure or additional resources. For somebody to take over a task, you need to establish policies how to do it. Interestingly, I was tempted to add “CI server setup” as an additional example.
Finding “the guy” that is doing the automation, documentation overhaul and bug fixing, that you want to delegate, may or may not work. Will the work be the quality you expect? Will that be a job with a long term perspective? Will you send that person to the Jenkins conference to be on the latest level of knowledge? Will that person get perfectly happy, with the job of fixing the bugs?
My projects need a CI server, documentation and bug fixes as well. Better I don’t start writing on how not to work collaboratively on documentation or make somebody else fix your bugs and even love it…. Splitting and delegating portions of work can lead to very different results and every topic may need a different approach and try&error to come to a good result and an agreement how to tackle it in the first place. If you are lucky and you find somebody that is doing everything perfectly with minimum overhead ask your self: Why that person should do it for your company? How to secure the service for the next 5 years? Will you set clear goals what that person needs to achieve and will be (mentally) able fire if not? What alternatives you will have after, maybe three months, if the result is not sufficient?
If you want your documentation improved, I recommend not to hire somebody who is also good at writing and CI server setup that you will tell what kind of improvements you have in mind. Hire a professional documentation writer for a short time, that tells you what needs to be improved and executes it.
My advice is to hire a totally non-technical person first. It will be more easy (today…) to find somebody with organizational skills, maybe on a 10h per week basis that can immediately be a support for you, then finding a technical person that needs a lot upfront training with the details of your product, plus, much thought in the benefits that you will give so that she decides to work for you.
Your first hire, the non-technical person, can find, hire and coordinate the guy that improves your documentation or the guy that sets up your CI server or …. Besides, if you want to grow your company, good customer communication is as important as fixing the actual bugs.
We are doing eCommerce / event ticketing since the year 2000 with Linux, PostgreSQL and Java. Since in this business there is a lot of traffic and peaks (Robbie Williams presales starting….) the stuff we do got quite efficient over the years. The things we learned and the libraries we built might be useful elsewhere, so I’d like to open source it. Since everything else depends on the cache, I started with that one (cache2k).
Thanks for taking the time.
Yes, trial and error will be the only way to go forward. There’s no way the perfect employee can be designed, anticipated, and found. And of course project management will need to happen, including those “policies how to do it”. I mean, no miracles will happen without good leadership, right? 🙂 How to do it specifically is another story, but it seems obvious that the tasks and goals need to be well defined.
I mentioned a variety of tasks of different urgencies / priorities. You then focused on the documentation because of your apparent understanding of how I meant that, but I was more thinking of technical aspects of the documentation. E.g. there’s maintenance of the file format, versions, etc. Parts of it being generated from the API, etc. This isn’t strictly about the English in it. So it definitely fits the other tasks.
Why they should do it for the next 5 years? There are many opportunities that I can offer in the long run. The difficult thing is finding someone who will expose the right motivation why they really want to do it already during the interview.
As far as being (mentally) able to fire, I’m not worried. I’ve been involved with HR decisions in the past. If they don’t fit, they don’t fit, no hard feelings. Especially with the first hire. I’m not under pressure. If I don’t find the right candidate (at first, probably due to not searching for them in the right way), I won’t hire any bad compromise.
in your answers I see a lot similarities in the ways I approached things 10 years ago, or, how I thought they need to be approached. You make me reflect on my decisions, which is quite enlightening and also quite painful.
Why didn’t I change things earlier and pivot? Because the business was running and there were long term commitments. Challenges keep coming and were keeping me busy. I did not have the energy and bravery to make a hard turn.
To hire an employee is a long term commitment. That is totally okay. But what is the goal? How long will it take you that the business is running for half a year without your involvement? If you think that will never happen, that means you are committed personally to your employees, because they depend on you. What is your personal goal? What is the goal for the company?
I am a dreamer: I’d like to have personal freedom like everybody else, but on the other hand I’d like to have a company that, by its nature, has to do long term contracts and fulfill long term obligations. Oops, maybe this is getting to abstract and philosophical at this point. I’d probably pick up on this thought somewhere else….
If your goal is to have a company with employees. Do it! If you want to hire engineers, hire at least three of them and stop working on jOOQ by yourself. Lead and guide your employees and run the business. Have a clear goal when you want to reach to have 5, and 10 employees and ….. In short: Become an entrepreneur.
Is this your personal goal? If not, there is an alternative: Hire an entrepreneur!
You seem to be assuming a few things again – why would you? Is this a projection of your past experience onto me? I don’t think we’re the same from what I read in your continued comments.
I’m fully aware of the long term commitment in hiring employees, and I do not plan to stop my involvement. What made you even think so? I’m definitely not going to hire an entrepreneur.
yes you are totally right! Reading your blog and comments make me think of my own experiences and reflect on them. It’s hard to share experience. Nobody is the same. Every situation is different.
You said “growth can wait”. But hiring an employee means growing. And it means growing in a “traditional” and “obvious” way. I thought the same ten years ago. So yes, I am projecting my experiences on you.
Sorry if I overstepped things and tried to give an actual advise to tease you a bit. I know you are committed and I am sure if things go the wrong way you will make the right decisions to keep your personal freedom. I see a lot of small companies in the IT business with 5 or 10 employees. Those companies do well. However, sometimes I see that those companies only work because the owner is doing the hard stuff, if needed, at the weekend.
Conversations like this help me also to become more clear about my own decisions and strategy in live. Thanks again for the great blog post which made me think more about that!
Oh, I see now. The confusion is simple: This blog post was a retrospective covering the past 3 years when my kids were born. Now that I finally get some sleep again, I will up my growth game over the next few 5 years. Hope that clarifies my intent? 🙂
Hi Lukas, I am curious to know what kind of employee do you have hired and why, if I’m not too indiscreet. A fact totum employee, from marketing to dev, or not? Very experienced on a specific/some skill or with many skills? does he/she work locally or remotely? is he/she younger or older than you? It is not easy find a developer with your same product vision and after all coding is only 20% of your time. More easy, I assume, is find a person good at customer relationship and community and social management (~60% of your time) so you can concentrate more on dev / conferences / courses. Am I right? Feel free to respond me with “It’s my business”. Cheers
Excellent questions – I have planned a blog post about hiring and about the specific employee I’ve ended up choosing, so more details will follow. But of course, I’m very happy to reply to your specific questions already now:
I’ve ended up looking for a developer, not someone in marketing. I will improve my own marketing skills in the future and invest more time in this area, and also hire either a contractor for marketing, or just a consultancy firm. I want to build new products in the near future, so I definitely need another dev. Also, I want to be able to offload some of the daily business, which is another reason to have a dev. Imagine, while I have been on vacation during the past 5 years, I always had my laptop with me. So, there are a few reasons for this choice.
But the main tasks in the job will not be maintenance, it will be about developing new features and new products.
I was looking for someone who could both replace me quite immediately as far as jOOQ maintenance and the development of new features is concerned. And that person needed sufficient interest / skills in order to build the new products. So a rather senior person. I found a more than senior person 🙂
That doesn’t mean I will be replaced – I will definitely continue to develop jOOQ, but being able to replace me was a serious plus for any candidate.
Remotely, although he is Swiss, so we’ll meet at least once per week in person. I didn’t specifically look for Swiss people, though. Anyone in CET time zone, preferably from the Schengen area could have been fine.
About the same
I’m very happy to say that I’ve found someone who could replace me right away in all ways, but I’m positive he’ll prefer coding, which is why I have those new products on the roadmap. Believe it or not, I want to do less coding in the long run. Courses are not a priority at all. They’re just easy money which I would be dumb not to make. Conferences are marketing and networking, but I haven’t found that channel to be as effective as I would have hoped, especially given the effort I had invested. Yes, it’s important for the personal brand. No, it’s not important at all for the business. I’ve met completely unknown (to the masses) people who got very rich with niche enterprise software.