A ladder to what comes next

I’ve been thinking a lot about “what comes next.” After all, I genuinely don’t believe my job will exist the way it is ten years from now. So, I may as well prepare.

Some introspection

It seems to be relevant to ask myself “what do I want to be doing in ten years.” And, the fact of the matter is, I don’t know. I have some general ideas:

  • I’d like to be making meaningful decisions
  • I’d like a certain degree of social standing from my job
  • I’d like to be proud of the skills I have, and of the impact they’re having
  • I’d like to work with people in a collaborative (i.e. not customer-service provider) capacity

So, if I think I have time, I guess I should be using it to develop skills that I can sell in ten years. But, the only skill I’ve really worked on recently–in addition to teaching–has been coding and I’d really rather not code for other people. I just find coding too frustrating to do in the realization of someone else’s dream.

A plan of action

Where does that leave me? Well, it leaves me managing a business and a half–if you consider both my freelance teaching and my EFL worksheet generator businesses–while looking at how to move out and up to the next thing.

The move out and up is important, because I’d rather not make a lateral move. That’s where the word “ladder” in the title comes from.

So, I’m here with two businesses more or less under my control, and I need to figure out how to make the most of my experience now as I try to find something I can leverage to get out and up.

I could tread water in my teaching business as I do this, but I am beginning to believe that that would be wasting opportunities.

Learning skills

There are skills I can learn with both businesses, which may be valuable later. Here are a few that I’ve thought of:

  • Interpersonal skills
  • Marketing
  • Sales and customer acquisition
  • SEO
  • Content marketing
  • Content generation
  • UI and UX (user interface and user experience)
  • And, yes… coding

At the moment, I run three websites as part of my “I’m an English teacher with a great online tool for English teachers” web presence. I think the combination of that–plus the idea that I can teach for myself rather than just for language schools–gives me plenty of leeway to learn skills.

The trick will be learning them.

No master plan, for now

I don’t really know where I’m going for now. I know that I’m going to make it a goal to start selling lessons on my own as a teacher–partly for financial reasons, partly for the experience–and I’m going to work on my businesses as planned, but I’m going to also keep two things in mind:

  1. What skills am I developing and using? And am I enjoying them? After all, if I find that I enjoy the challenge of sales, maybe I should look at a job there.
  2. Can I do the German thing of certificate collection? Part of my recoils at this thought. But, if I need to (or really want to) learn something anyway, why not do it in a structured way and get a certificate? It would help with a later job hunt.

Lastly: the unspoken option

In all of this, there’s one thing that’s not being mentioned: there’s a better than even chance that I–or future me–having gathered all these skills, will be able to maintain myself on my earnings from a lifestyle business.

So, maybe that’s why there’s no master plan: I’m hoping that, in building my safety net, I’ll learn the skills I need to never make use of the net.

Meeting with others interested in startups

This story starts the way a lot of things in my life start:

A lack of motivation

I’ve been struggling to get back into my amateur entrepreneurship since the summer ended. I have a few excuses for why time hasn’t been sufficient, but I’ve been struggling to get my motivation up. It’s a lot like getting back into music practice: knowing how much I’ll have to do, just to get back into the material is a bit of a hurdle.

Still, because the IndieHackers podcast emphasizes learning from other founders, I’ve been looking to get into contact with others. In spite of a lot of imposter syndrome, I wanted to start talking to people about the worksheet generator. I wanted people who would get excited about the idea as a business, rather than putting up with my enthusiasm.

So I organized a meeting

At first, I checked Meetup.com to see if there were groups for founders. There were, but they all seemed defunct (or, in the middle of some kind of summer break). I was discouraged.

Then, I rationalized: I have nothing to lose.

In each group–they were free to set up–I started a conversation saying “I want to meet other founders–and people interested in founding–to have a beer.” Then, I put all of the people who seemed interested into a group chat and we started working out a time.

Meeting with others

The meeting was just what I said it would be: people talking over beers. Of the four of us, there was a software engineer who was a dad, a recovering engineer, a student, and me. It was fun to get together and start talking about business ideas.

I was the only one with code written, and it was encouraging to hear them say “this sounds like a great idea,” and to tag on with their own ideas.

It was interesting to hear that they were plugged into a lot of English-language startup things I was interested in. Even more, it was interesting to hear about German-language “celebrities” in the world of startups and marketing… though I still haven’t bought any of the books mentioned. (I think I should, but where will I find the time?)

Next steps

It was nice to feel like I had an idea, I thing I wanted to get done, and that it happened. I even got one of the people at the meetup to signup for my worksheet maker, report a bug to me (oops!) and then start using it to help his girlfriend learn English.

Perfect.

Will it get me back to work on the worksheet generator as a business? I hope so. It got me to fire up the code editor and fix the aforementioned bug. That’s nice.

Will I organize another meeting? I’m not going to rule it out. But not this month.

The burpee project begins!

I decided that September would start the burpee project. For a while, I was pretty consistent with fifty burpees a day — at least every other day — but told myself that I was just warming up.

At some point, however, it seems logical that the experiment had to begin. And, with September starting on a Sunday, that seemed like a happy coincidence. The burpee experiment starts in September.

Here it is:

  • 50 burpees per day
  • 6 days a week
  • (Or the equivalent)
  • 6 weeks

What’s an equivalent?

To give myself some flexibility, the basic goal is 300 burpees per week. I’ll count a week as successful if I do three days at 100 burpees each. Or even if I do 300 burpees in one day (not today, thank you!).

The idea here is that I am afraid I’ll miss a day and then lose motivation because I “screwed everything up.” So, this gives me the chance to fix my mistakes.

Starting data

I should have timed myself doing 50 burpees. I haven’t, but now that I’m writing, that seems like the kind of data that would be interesting to keep track of. I do know that I was 106.9 kg at the beginning of this week and that I’m both eating and drinking less than usual at the moment. It’s a little unfortunate, because it will be hard to know if the burpees or the reduced calorie intake has the most impact.

Nonetheless, I look forward to seeing the data at the end.

The burpee experiment

I have an infatuation with burpees. Along with pull-ups and rope climbing, they’re the exercise that has the most mystique. In fact, maybe I like them most because I can actually do at least a few burpees at a time. (I can do a single pull-up, I cannot climb a rope… the kids play on the one I hung in the tree outside.)

A month or so ago, I watched this video.

You can guess what happened.

Naturally I didn’t think I was up for kicking into fifty burpees a day right away. I’m getting older and I’m very afraid of hurting myself. But I did go right out and do a total of fifty burpees in who knows how many sets.

And I felt it the next day, just like I expected to.

So I took a day off. And I started writing down when I did the burpees.

It felt good to see the list grow and occasionally calculate how many I’d done in total.

Being on vacation, burpees were a great exercise to feel like I was getting something done without checking out from the family for an hour for a long run (with the consequence that I now have to break back into running).

My goal: Do fifty burpees six times a week for six weeks, starting in September. I’ve had goals like this before, but we’ll see.

Indie Hackers: An amateur entrepreneur tip

It’s been a while since I’ve said anything about the amateur entrepreneur project. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been doing much.

I’ll post more on books that I’ve read / am reading soon, but for now I wanted to say that an important part of how I’m learning about entrepreneurism and founding startups is through the stories in the IndieHackers podcast.

I like that a lot of the stories are from boostrapped businesses, and I like the line of questioning that the host uses.

So, until I have time to write more about my own adventures and frustrations (still more of the latter), it’s a good place to be inspired by successes.

Piano in Dresden

I’ve been more serious about playing piano lately. “Serious,” by the way, means that I’m doing it more often and I try to practice things that are hard for me… I’m in a big practice practicing phase at the moment.

So, I was pleasantly surprised to find that a local hotel bar has live piano music on Fridays and Saturdays. That got me looking, and there seem to be a few places in Dresden where I can go and hear live piano.

I’ve resolved to visit them all. Here are the ones I’ve found:

  • Hotel Elbflorenz: Where my wife and I went on a date and I was surprised to hear the piano. I’ll be going back soon.
  • The Maritim Hotel: There’s a “piano bar” that apparently always has live piano? I’ll call and confirm before I go.
  • The Innside in Dresden: Funnily enough, I learned about their live piano by finding it in an angry online review. Apparently, you can hear it the in the rooms directly under the piano…
  • Klavierhaus Dresden: Probably the only place I don’t plan to visit, they mostly sell pianos (and I have one) and organize what look to be the kind of piano concerts I’d feel compelled to dress up for…
  • Champagner Lounge Dresden: I’m least excited about this one, because it seems to be reaching for a clientele that seems to be comprised of people who would annoy me.

Have I missed any? Does anyone expect that I’ll be frustrated by the experience? This isn’t the sort of thing that I usually do, so I’m unsure myself if I’ll like it.

Every day is better than occasionally

This might seem like an obvious statement to make — especially regarding fitness — but I’ve learned that every day is better than three or four times per week.

I’m still not in a routine that ‘just fits’ or a routine that I can’t imagine not doing. I’d like to get there, but, for me, exercise is a thing that I consciously choose to do because I know what it can do for me afterward.

And I struggle with making it a routine.

Enter, the idea of every day. For a while now, I’ve been using a 4-week challenge app on my phone as my ‘strength training.’ In fact, I’m restarting the challenge for the second time (I’ve been through it at the first to levels of difficulty.)

My January activity

You don’t need to open a dictionary to know that ‘every day’ means something different from what I accomplished in January. But, in January exercising four times a week — my old stretch goal — was a bad week.

I think that counts for something.

Even more, I’ve been feeling the changes to my own body, which is a nice thing to be able to report.

I still have the beer belly (“gas tank for a sex machine!”) that I want to get rid of, and I’m not pushing the scale much. But, when I hold my increasingly heavy kids, I can feel my core is stronger. Back pain has become so rare that, when it does rear its ugly head, I almost always realize “hmm, yeah, I haven’t exercised this week like I should.” (And that means that there’s a sort of positive-reward cycle that encourages me to exercise.)

In fact, as I’m going through the challenge again for the third and last time, I’m starting to wonder where I’m going to find my next every-day workout routine. The app I’m using (here, in the Google Store) offers workouts tailored to individual muscle groups “shoulders and back” and “chest and arms” or whatever. So, that’s the logical starting point, but I’ve been enjoying the simplicity of knowing that I have to free up a bit of time, start the app, and just do what it says.

So, we’ll see what happens when I ‘graduate’ out of the challenge.

I do get a bit of motivation out of these stats… 1100 minutes (18 hours)

WordPress is a pain

I just spent well over twenty minutes trying to write a quick post on how I got my newest Django project to serve CSS.

In the end, it was more difficult to try to get WordPress to format the bits that were supposed to look like code than seemed worth it to me. For a short time, I tried settling to just have it display as preformatted.

In the end, the preformatted tags seemed to always gobble up the surrounding paragraphs, no matter how I tried to go back in and edit them.

Sure, the new WordPress editor is beautiful. But if it makes blogging more difficult, why bother?

The Lieutenants (Brotherhood of War series)

lieutenants.jpg
The Brotherhood of War Series (or, part of it)

I doubt there is an author about whom I feel more conflicted than I feel about W.E.B. Griffin. And, of his many series, I doubt there is one that I like more — or feel more frustrated by — than the Brotherhood of War series.

Officially, this is a review just of The Lieutenants, the first book in the series, but unofficially, I have read through this series at least a half dozen times. I love these books, and I’m occasionally frustrated by that fact.

What’s wrong with these books

Aside from the fact that just about every character in the books would be considered a knuckle-dragging neanderthal by modern standards, I can get really frustrated by the way W.E.B. Griffin’s millionaire characters (and there’s at least one in each series) play the “I have money and influence” cards to get past seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Sure, a character who has a private airplane can be all over the country and take part in a lot of the action. I get that, and I don’t resent it. In fact, I wish all rich people were like Craig Lowell of the series.

On the other hand, at least once per book, there’s some problem that only gets solved because of the money and influence that Craig Lowell weilds. When so many other characters are working at overcoming actual obstacles, to have a character who seems to be the deus ex machina of the series can seem cheap.

Possibly worse than the role that money plays in the series, I genuinely resent how much of the plot is recapitulated in each subsequent book. By the time you’re three or four books into the series, it can feel like all you’re doing is re-reading things you just read. (I tend to binge these series.) If W.E.B. Griffen had decided to do without all of that, he’d have so many more pages in which things could actually happen. And I’d like that.

Why I keep coming back to these books

These books are like old friends to me. When I’m sick, or down, or just at loose ends, I like to return to them. Because even the playboy millionaire is the kind of person you like to return to. W.E.B. Griffin writes series the way record companies cast boybands: there’s the beautiful one, the unlikely warrior, the legit war hero, the starchy by-the-book one, the honorable German WWII veteran who was part of a plot against Hitler.

No matter how formulaic it sounds written down (and, considering it’s just about the exact same cast, but with different names, as you’ll find in his Honor Bound series, it’s clearly formulaic), Griffin does such a good job of writing the characters that it’s a genuine joy to spend time with them, to watch them overcome obstacles. (And to mourne when more than one of them is surprisingly killed.)

Even more than that, these books are much more about the brotherhood than about the war.

When my wife sees I’ve got the books back out again, I think she imagines me reading about soldiers jumping out of firing positions and overwhelming the enemy. There is remarkably little of that in the book. (In fact, what little combat there is — from post-WWII Greece to Korea and Vietnam — is almost incidental to the story.)

Instead, there is a group of officers struggling against ‘the system,’ whether it’s because someone who is too chickenshit (too literal with rules and regulations) wants them out, or whether it’s because they’re the inspired ones who can see the way things are going and they want to influence the development of the Army (and, in this series, of Army aviation, in particular).

As a middle child and life-long outsider, I can relate to the ones who feel themselves to be ‘outside’ the traditional system (here, the ‘ring knockers’ of West Point, also called the WPPA for West Point Protective Association). And, because this is fiction, the characters who you learn to like have a better than average chance of success.

That, more than anything else, is what keeps me coming back.

What I could have done differently

The situation now

It’s not that long ago that I started making a plan to introduce my classroom vocab manager and worksheet generator to the world of teaching. And, I’m starting to see success. Both of the websites that I established are starting to show traffic every day.

What’s more, I can see that people are clicking through to Dynamic-EFL.com. That’s exactly what I wanted.

But very few of those people are signing up for a free trial. And, so far, none of the ones who have clicked through have made a worksheet with it.

It makes me think.

I have two thoughts on the whole thing.

Maybe I need to explain it better

I worry that I don’t sufficiently explain what the software does. Or, perhaps, that I over-explain it. After all, I already totally get what the software does and why it’s amazing.

Perhaps more images and fewer big blocks of text? Perhaps a better video walkthrough?

There’s a lot I could do to make it better, but, it’s a whole extra challenge.

Maybe it’s a numbers game

I’ve probably had about a hundred strangers look at the site since I started really trying. That’s not a lot of people. Ideally, it will be more and more with time, as the whole strategy of sharing static resources to attract teachers pays out.

But, maybe I just need to accept that I need to get x number of eyeballs on the site for each person that’s going to sign up. And maybe I have to accept that it’s going to be y number of people who are willing to sign up for each person who invests the time to really understand what it does.

Most likely, it’s both

I mean, I probably could make it more clear what people do. (And maybe break the explanation out across several pages, so that Google Analytics will be more of a help seeing what people are interested in)

And it’s probably the case that great explanations and onboarding can only reduce the values of x and y from (from the numbers game section), not turn every visitor into a conversion.

The plan for the near future

Believe it or not, my plan is to not do much. Sure, I might re-work the landing page(s). But, I think I’m at a point where I need to trust that some people are going to like the service. I’ve recommended it to colleagues (who promise to have a look when they have time) and I’m spreading the word on LinkedIn.

Now that I’m getting excited about the Fantasy Pilgrimage idea, I’d like to start directing my creative coding energy in that direction. So, until I have a handful of users who are willing to provide feedback so that I’m not longer just guessing at things, I don’t plan to mess around with the code of the worksheet generator very much. (Though I may make it possible to create and distribute ‘coupon codes’ that extend the free trial, in order to create a sense of urgency for the people who use the site.)

Until then, I think it’s time to let the site try to prove its own worth.