When I left my job almost 3 years ago, I had a bunch of things lined up to do. I had a list of goals, I had Minafi to continue working on, and a whole new state to explore (Utah).
What I didn’t realize at the time was how much I longed to use the skillset I’d developed during my career. The difference was I wanted more control of what I spent my time working on. As a software developer turned product manager who also loves to create content, I tended to eschew mastery in favor of being a jack of trades. I very much prefer being able to take a single idea to completion than to require coordinating multiple people to get there.
A therapist might bring this back to being an only child and doing things on my own. It’s likely why I tend to play character classes in video games that allow me to go solo.
A Life Change
I’ve noticed a trend in FIRE community of people doing exactly this. They leave their job to “retire” at a point where they may not ever need to work again. They then devote themselves – sometimes working even more than at their jobs – to a new project.
Many people say this isn’t “retirement”. I’d say it is:
Retirement is the withdrawal from one’s position or occupation or from one’s active working life.
It’s more about the first definition than the second. It’s a transition from working for someone else and using those skills to using them however you want in a way where failure doesn’t matter.
Whether you call this “retirement” or “fully funded lifestyle change”, the result is the same. It’s an author who needs to sell a book to pay rent and compared to an author who’s financially independent and doesn’t need the book to sell. Which would you rather be?
This is the dream scenario for professionals across every industry. Builders who long to build their own dream home rather than someone else’s. Teachers who want to channel more of their energy into their own relationships and family. Marketers who want to build their own brand. Designers who want to explore their own artistic style. The list does on and on.
Are Side Projects Encouraged?
While it’s completely possible to work full time and also do these things, you quickly run into a hard limit: 24 hours in a day. For Minafi I started waking up at 6am and writing for an hour every morning before work.
Not all jobs encourage side projects. In fact, some even aggressively discourage them. One startup I worked at claimed they would own any projects you worked on during your nights and weekends. It was a threat that wouldn’t hold up in court, but was enough to drive away many talented software engineers who wanted to grow their skills outside of working hours.
The reason many of these professionals feel resistance in their careers isn’t that they have awful jobs, or that their coworkers are unpleasant. It’s because they have the skills to do awesome things, but they’re limited by quarterly goals, driving revenue for the business and completing KPIs. They struggle to find work that’s challenging.
That’s the position I found myself in too. I loved (and still love) tons of my coworkers. I hang out with many current and former coworkers frequently – especially now that we’re all vaccinated.
But the lack of creative control over what I spent my skills on always got to me. When I was tasked with a project I loved at work, I’d throw myself into it to an unhealthy amount. I still remember many courses at Code School that I worked 80 hour weeks on in order for it to feel just right. Rails 4: Zombie Outlaws was one of those:
When you work on projects that are that enjoyable – personally or professionally – time flies by. If you’re fortunate in your career you’ll be able to work on a lot of them. They can be used to increase your skillset, challenge your mind and give you a sense of accomplishment for a job completed.
I’ve grown the most where during these times.
For many of those who have built up skills in their lives and careers, they’re constantly on the lookout for projects like that. Projects where they forget time altogether and can go into a state of flow.
I call this goal Startup FIRE.
Startup FIRE doesn’t mean creating a business or a startup. Or is it based on having a specific amount of money like Fat FIRE and Lean FIRE. It means using your skillset in the same way you would if you were at a startup that doesn’t need to make money. Here’s my definition of Startup FIRE:
Using the skills you learned during your life in a way where you have full creative control and the required outcome is no longer generating revenue.
My definition of Startup FIRE
With a traditional startup the outcome is always money. Unless you’re creating a B Corp of a non-profit, eventually you’ll need to make some money to pay people.
With Startup FIRE, the goal is typically to do something alone or in a small group with others.
As an example, Minafi itself is a Startup FIRE project. It started when I was less than half way to my FIRE number. After I left my job I had more time to experiment. I spent the first 6 months building it out in ways I always wanted to but never had the time for. I experimented with ideas I’d always wanted to create at past companies. For example, the entire blog platform you see here where I can inject interactive graphics in. If I’m talking about compound interest I can just drop in a component like this:
A good data visualization is worth 1,000 words (or more). Another fun project was the Minafi Investor Bootcamp which uses video and interactive elements to help explain complex financial topics. Most of the interactive elements I’ve created are used in this pay-whatever-you-want bootcamp.
For the last 2 and half years, Minafi has been my primary creative outlet. It’s always been a fun way to challenge myself from a technical level, a creative level and a content level. The marketing side has been one of the hardest, but I’ve seen consistent growth up to around ~1,000 unique users a day lately.
In February of this year I launched an Investment Apps & Brokerages directory that I think is one of the best ones out there. I created an automated way to compare two funds, for example FSKAX vs VTSAX, which has been picked up by Google thanks to some SEO magic. I even did a more personal project and moved over some photos from another blog to Minafi, starting with my Japan trip.
I’ve been on the hunt for things to do on Minafi that excite me beyond just writing. I’d even started talking with another blogger about creating a new visualization tool, but I ended up stumbling into another project.
A New Startup
That new project? Hardcover.
I’ve been a Goodreads user since 2009. If you’re not familiar with Goodreads, it’s the de facto website on the internet for getting details about a book, reading reviews, keeping track of what you’ve read and want to read, and seeing what your friends are reading.
For some it’s a wikipedia for books. For others it’s a social network for readers.
I’ve always loved Goodreads, but I’ve been disappointed by their lack of updates since they were acquired by Amazon back in 2013. Updates came to crawl and most of the changes lately are just to keep the site running. As the #183 largest US site on the internet (according to Alexa.com), it’s a behemoth that gets over 100 million page views a month.
For years I’ve considered trying to build my own competitor to Goodreads. That’s no small task! A serious attempt at a competitor would involve many months of work. It would take at least a year by myself – or maybe less with some help – just to get to a launch.
When I started working on Hardcover back in May, I thought I’d take a break from Minafi and test the waters of working on another large-scale project. Either it would build enough momentum to take off on it’s own, or it would fizzle away and I’d switch to something else.
So now that 4 months have passed, how are things looking?
- We have a small team of 7 people working on it (me + 3 other part-time developers, a marketer, a designer and a UX researcher).
- An email list of 200 people waiting for launch.
- A book database of 300k books, and another 25 million that can be accessed.
- A working app with authentication, a Goodreads importer, basic book tracking and more.
- A bunch of design prototypes exploring next steps.
- A unique selling proposition that differentiates Hardcover from all other book tracking sites out there.
Not a bad start! One of the biggest changes for me personally has been the switch from thinking about finances all day to thinking about books, reading and the new technology stack used on Hardcover. I haven’t opened my expenses tracker in months and have rarely checked my net worth during that time too. It’s been a welcomed break.
It’ll take the rest of the year working on Hardcover to make it to launch. I’m excited to have a new project to throw myself into that’s interesting, challenging my skills and something I’d personally want to use.
What does that mean for Minafi? Now that my summer break is over, I’m going to resume writing here once a month. That feels like the right cadence for the amount of time I think about finances now a days. By thinking about finances less, I’ve had far fewer ideas. I’d rather write one good post than a few sub-par articles.
The idea of Startup FIRE is one of the reasons why I believe creatives thrive so much in financial independence. It’s all about finding exciting projects that fill your days. Whether that’s using your existing skills or building new ones, one thing is assured: what you spend your time on will change over time.