The Not So Secret Plan

Photo by Julia Filirovska
It sounded an excellent plan, no doubt, and very neatly and simply arranged; the only difficulty was, that she had not the smallest idea how to set about it...

- Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland


I've said that my plan is to start on a journey from full-time employee to full-time independent developer living off of (mostly) passive income. Fair questions to ask would be how I plan to get there; if I'm confident that I can do it; and what skills you, my reader, might need to be able to replicate my (anticipated) success?

The answers to these questions are, respectively, by building software, yes, and the ability to create something that the world values. I'm going to address all three of these, but I'll tell you upfront, the most important answer of the three is the last one. Only in a few circumstances can one survive long or well solely on the largess of others. Even in those situations, you mostly have to sacrifice your freedom, time, or integrity to stay there.

First, solve an interesting problem

To thrive on your own terms in this world, you must create enough value for someone that they will share with you their time, resources, or money in a free exchange.

As a result, ALL profit-seeking enterprises must first and foremost solve an interesting problem for the world. Even better if that problem is some combination of one that you face yourself, is one you can build, or is one for which your solution is not recognized as solvable by others. Paul Graham says this well and goes much deeper in his essay, How to Get Startup Ideas. A key takeaway is that working on a problem that only you have isn't enough. No, the problem must be one that OTHER people have and have with a sufficient urgency that they are willing to pay to have it solved for them. The depth of their pain is your opportunity. Shallow problems are shallow opportunities.

One point to mention here is that Paul Graham is most often talking about the kind of startups that Silicon Valley likes. The kind that seeks a high-growth path fueled by VC funding. I'm not building that kind of business. In fact, that is the kind of business I'm specifically trying to avoid. I'm looking for steady, sustainable, organic growth that allows me to retain control of my life and my time. I don't have the hubris to call Paul Graham wrong, but there is plenty of evidence that the 'startup path' is not the only path. Being a solo founder is a perfectly sound approach to building a viable company and lifetime income. See herehere, or here, for some examples. Outside of the internet, we mostly just call these small business and there are millions of them that provide their owners with stable incomes.

This discussion begs the question of what valuable thing(s) will I be building? I've said I'll be building software previously and here again in this post, but 'building software' is an exceptionally broad category for a startup. That discussion is long enough that I'll spend time on that a little farther along on the journey. For our purpose here, the important things to know are:

  • yes, I see a lot of problem spaces that are interesting to me and that others will pay money to solve,
  • that creating software is an area I've spent a career building an understanding of how to do, and 
  • that those interesting problem spaces represent unique ideas almost by the definition of the niches that I seek to explore.

So the plan checks all the boxes on Mr. Graham's list.

Second, get paid to do it.

The million-dollar question (literally) is, can one person solve an important enough problem that makes enough money to live on? And even if someone can, will I be able to do that? Again, I'm going to tell you the answers up front. Yes, and I'm confident yes.

In response to the first question, there are definitely people making enough to live on as solo developers solving interesting problems. Hackernews has regular posts that address this and where people share that they're making a good living doing solo projects. Indiehackers is a whole community of people showing how this can be done.

A second validation comes from, of all places, Stack Overflow. Every year Stack Overflow does a developer survey that poses questions to developers on interesting topics. The topics range from most loved technology to salary, and to work and cultural issues. In addition, many of the questions are repeated annually allowing for longitudinal analysis as well as point-in-time checks. The most recent survey is from this year (2022) and can be found here.

The surveys show that over the past 5 years, about 10% of respondents listed themselves as both 'professional developers' and 'Independent Contractor, Freelancer, or Self-employed.' This is the demographic our fellow travelers are in. Not only has this number stayed remarkably consistent over the last five years, hovering at around 10%, but in 2022, that number jumped upwards to 16.6%. And lest any reader assume that these are unemployed developers not wanting to admit their situation, there is a separate category for unemployed and looking for work. This is a second validation that the solo approach can work.

Finally, outside of Reddit and Hackernews, there are still other case studies of solo founders that are doing very well indeed. There is even a book about it.

So there are definitely people out there who are making enough thrive as a solo or small team developer. What makes me confident that I can do it too?

Let's go back to that Stack Overflow survey. In nearly every educational or experience-related category I fall into the high end of the listed range. Mostly not by just a little either. I have a master's degree as do 23% of other professional developers. I've been writing software professionally for over 20 years, which represents deeper experience than engineering managers and senior executives have. I have broad experience in software development, having served and been paid professionally to perform most of the roles Stack Overflow lists as options. On the business side, I've been part of starting a small company and worked for over 20 years in a small software business. Startup culture is an area I know well.

Since I know that it CAN be done, and I know that I've got as much or more relevant experience as others who ARE being successful at working independently on my own terms, then the only questions left are WHEN and HOW?

Third, make a plan

We can answer the WHEN question easily... Now.

HOW is more complicated and will be adapted as we go, but I promised I would share my super-secret plan. Here it is:

  • Create an interesting software product and learn a bit in the process,
  • Use that learning to build another, better software product,
  • Use that learning to build an even better software product,
  • While doing the above, create content that shares my progress with an interested and growing audience that desires to follow and learn from my progress, and
  • Create income from the generous patronage of all those that benefit from my software and content.

So that's it. 

This is HOW. WHEN is now.

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