Maximize Life, Not Earnings

May 27, 2010

How much do you spend each month?  And how much of what you buy is completely optional?  Unfortunately, it’s natural for people to take the job that offers the highest salary.  What people too often don’t factor in when choosing a job is how their quality of life will differ between the different salaries and roles presented to them, as well as where they want to end up long-term.

Don’t live paycheck to paycheck seeking as high a salary as possible.  Instead, focus on doing what you love and attaining your long-term goal.  After college, I had a variety of options.  I knew I wanted to work for a company like Microsoft, but did not get replies when I submitted my resume.  Instead of taking a job in consulting or at a random company I wasn’t interested in, I found a job at a startup that would give me the experience I wanted to gain.  The catch was the measly salary, but only 8 months later I was offered a job at Microsoft.  My salary tripled between when I arrived in New York City and when I left.  I was making too little when I arrived, but it showed me just how little I can live on.  My quality of life improved with my salary, but it did not triple.

Since leaving Microsoft, I have lived extremely well on 50% of my previous salary.  It means I don’t go out to eat quite as much, and overall I need to watch my spending more.  But at the same time I’m happier because I wake up each day and do what I love.  When I do go out to eat, I appreciate it so much more.

Parkinson’s Law says that ‘work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion’.  A variation of this law is that spending expands so as to fill the available budget.  Think about it: the more money you make, the more you spend each month.  When I lived in New York, every significant raise went towards moving to a slightly nicer apartment.  People wait for their raise, and then eat up the additional cash immediately with changes to their lifestyle.

The lesson here is that when you realize you don’t need your high salary, there are many more options in life.  I was recently talking to a friend at Microsoft who wanted a change but didn’t know if he was ready to go cold turkey and start his own business.  He felt trapped.  He considered new jobs, but figured they would not change how he felt, so he stayed put.  It turns out there are many more options than he realized, including:

  1. Request a 20-hour week at Microsoft, or find a ‘job share’ (not sure if other companies have these).
  2. Find a consulting position at Microsoft or elsewhere 20 hours a week – you will probably make more than 50% of your salary.
  3. Find a job you are excited about and forget about salary – try it for a year.
  4. Work for 12 more months, but cut your expenses 50% anyways.  After 12 months, you’ll have saved enough to live for a whole year.  Plenty of time to figure out what you really want to be doing.

Another lesson is to watch your spending.  Obviously it’s easier to increase your spending than to reduce it.  Less bills and payments mean more freedom.

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Focus: You Can’t Multi-Passion

May 25, 2010

Today I entered an office building for the first time in months.  As I approached the building, I saw the standard group of smokers gathered near the entryway.  They stood shivering in their business casual collared shirts and slacks.  While talking and puffing, they all stared in one direction as if dreaming they had a reason to venture further from their desks.  In the lobby was a Starbucks; a middle-aged man leaned against the single pane of glass like an aging fish in a pet store that didn’t stand a chance of escape.  I shared an elevator with two cheerful and energetic employees returning from an early lunch.  One complained about a 5PM meeting.  The other mentioned a possible promotion.  In my jeans and a short-sleeve polo shirt, I felt like a visitor from another world.

It’s natural over time to take a good thing for granted.  This simple walk into a building and elevator ride was a slap in the face.  “There’s no way in hell I can go back,” I thought.

Recently, I started taking my freedom for granted, and I lost focus.  This week I have been returning my full attention to LazyMeter after 6 weeks focused primarily on consulting.  While I have absolutely enjoyed working 20 hours a week as a consultant, it was more distracting than I expected.  I have a newfound appreciation for consultants.  Twenty hours a week is not as simple as it sounds.  The problem is it’s almost impossible to set aside specific working hours, as customers may request things at any time of the day.  20 hours a week of billable hours is also very different than 40 hours at an office complete with meetings, breaks and distractions.  While it has been a very rewarding experience, I now understand why consultants charge such high rates.  It’s a lot of work to manage customers and exceed their expectations, and simple projects can easily drag on.  The idea of consulting was to expand the amount of time available to develop LazyMeter.  But in reality, we made about 1 month of living expenses while falling at least a month behind in development.  We also made valuable connections, built our portfolios, and contributed to a promising new business – but was that the best use of our time?

Startup lesson: don’t lose focus. There are so many events, conferences, and opportunities like consulting out there.  But ultimately, a startup is about having a product.  Until you have a working product, development should be 99% of your focus.  As soon as I realized this, I cut down on blogging and networking.  And since this change, we have made huge progress on our product.  If you do take on another project such as a consulting, be sure to be very specific about what time you will spend on each project.

Some people are very effective at managing multiple large projects.  I’m not.  I only work on projects that I feel passionate about.  It turns out it’s very difficult to be passionate about two things at once.  Based on my commitment to consulting, I let my passion shift to another project at the expense of my own.  It’s the same reason I couldn’t develop LazyMeter while still at Microsoft.  This week I spoke to a friend at Microsoft who was also starting a business when I left.  He said “I’ve learned that it is impossible to work on your own company while working full time. All it did was make me do a shitty job on both.”  I asked him why he couldn’t do both, and he responded that Microsoft is too demanding.  This may be partially true, but I wonder if the difference between people that can work on the side and those that can’t is how they are driven by passion.  Those who work for passion will always struggle to focus on multiple projects because they’ll always feel like one or the other is being cheated of its true potential.

Fortunately, the consulting work is slowing down and we have a very satisfied client.  As I’ve turned my attention back to LazyMeter, my passion has returned in full force.  And thanks to a visit to an office building today, I won’t be taking my freedom for granted again.  It’s easy to feel free when you are your own boss.  But until LazyMeter is released, I’m not free at all – the clock is ticking.


My New Office: An Alternative to Coworking

May 4, 2010

As a follow-up to my last post about the benefits of launching a Startup in Seattle, I’d like to show you just why I love Seattle so much.  Below is a photo of my new workspace.  I moved over the weekend into a 2-bedroom house that costs only $1,350 a month.  The home features beautiful views of Lake Washington and the cascade mountains (not very visible today).  I’d like to see a bootstrapped founder living this well in San Francisco.

Aaron's New Office

My workspace with view of Lake Washington.

For me, office environment is very important.  I do better work with light and a view.   I was thinking about renting a shared office space to separate work from home, but I was disappointed with what was available for under $300/month.  Most situations offered an awkwardly placed desk either right next to or facing someone else.  While a separate office is definitely ideal, the options available did not offer a better working environment at all.

Here’s an alternative to coworking: move.  What if you apply the $300+/month to your home?  You can probably improve both your living space and work environment.  In my case, I am actually paying less for my new home.  I stumbled upon this by accident – I moved because my landlord put my house on the market.

Any entrepreneur should seriously consider moving as an alternative to coworking since it can improve the quality of both their living and work environments.