You probably won’t know who I am. I don’t have a vlog or much of a blog or even a podcast, but I do have hundreds of thousands of online customers and quite a lot of online content that I sell through digital channels. Here is a small part of my story.
Around 1998, I was running a company by the sea in a studio with enough room to race remote-controlled cars around. In a corner of the room was a computer connected to an expensive ADSL line, which cost $3k a month. Its job was to submit thousands of virgin.biz client websites to hundreds of search engines and search directories (this was before the day Google became the main search engine). All I had to do was press one key on the keyboard and I could have run the service from my bedroom at home, but 14 years ago it was unusual to work from home; in fact, my clients insisted I had premises from which to work, even though they never visited. I thought I had it made; I could skateboard along the seafront and sit and read books in cafes, occasionally coming back to see if the machine was still running.
I also had shares in a company that was about to sell and bring me in a cool $6 million. Life was great, but the timing was just perfectly bad. A couple of days before selling the company, the headlines in the newspapers ran Is the Internet bubble about to burst? The prospective buyers got uneasy and the deal fell through, so I waved goodbye to a life-changing opportunity.
“Easy come, easy go,” I thought to myself. I had been given 10% shares in the company because I had some software that was relevant to the company’s product portfolio. I hadn’t personally lost or created anything, but it was a weird experience and made me realize how being rich really hadn’t interested me.
On the upside, house prices had increased, and my girlfriend and I sold our small apartments on the coast and moved to our house on the Isle of Wight. It seemed like a good idea at the time being mortgage free. The house is tiny, but just big enough for me to work from and for Jude to make her pots in a room next to the kitchen.
What I wasn’t expecting when I moved here eight years ago was that my only real skill, Adobe Director Lingo programming, was to become redundant. I went from being head hunted, traveling back from work to my swanky London apartment in a chauffeur-driven Mercedes (a perk we all too often abused), having contacts with all the right people in the Internet world, to being — and feeling — isolated on an island. Even though I had skills in other areas such as film editing, Web programming, and music, I was purposefully keeping myself out of the loop with a view of downsizing and managing my time more effectively. I had to do something as money was running low, so I worked for a local company for a week posting its mail and then picking up litter at the Isle of Wight Festival. Okay, now it really was time to start focusing again; picking up litter was a real drag!
Even though I felt I had already put in the hard work: reading manuals, asking questions, and spending many hours learning and building my code base over many years, I decided I should learn to program properly. Even if I couldn’t find a new niche from which to earn a living, at least I would have a real skill that I could use in other people’s companies. So I bought loads of books on object-oriented programming, and learnt to use Objective C and C#. I bought a copy of Unity3D to make iPhone and Android games. My learning curve was slow and my early attempts at apps sold and made about $80 a month. I needed something else to keep me going, and selling books on eBay just wasn’t a viable option.
I took a long holiday to a friend’s house in a remote part of Scotland. To justify the trip, I took a microphone with me and planned to record some nature sounds. I stayed in a cottage on the Isle of Mull and spent a month standing on the edge of the sea recording the sound of waves crashing on the sand. The whole time I was doing this, I wondered if I was really getting out of touch with the reality of business. The longer I was living on a fairly remote island and becoming less interested in taking trips to London, I noticed that I was enjoying simple things such as cycling and walking. I wasn’t taking work very seriously. I forgot about my desire to have a huge amount of money and so, after coming to terms with only needing to earn a small amount each month, everything started to come together. My goal seemed more reachable so I carried on recording sounds and making album covers to sell on iTunes.
I spent some time putting together some recordings for relaxing meditation music, too, and these began to sell regularly. My Ocean Waves album was quite popular and sometimes I would get messages from listeners like this:
“When my husband came back from serving in Iraq, he didn’t sleep well. After I bought the Ocean Waves album, it reminds him of his childhood home and the beach. Thank you so much.”
It is comments like this that make it all worthwhile.
My friends who I worked with in London and Brighton in the UK have gone on to start and expand their Internet and design companies, and are mostly all doing really well. But for me, I’ve enjoyed my time at home, cycling and watching the seasons change, so I’m happy for them; but I’m really happy for myself. And I don’t have to wear a suit to work. But then, neither do they. Damn it.
I was thinking up ideas for a new project in 2007 and I thought it would be fun to put together a sound effect album for Halloween; that year, the album went to about number 14 in the US chart! It didn’t make me rich, but it helped pay for a few things that needed fixing around the house. My distributor decided to run a marketing campaign that encouraged thousands of musicians to copy what I had done. Good for them, but not so good for me. But I had learnt already that business is like that. Sometimes it works in your favour and sometimes it doesn’t. Life goes on!
This year I hope the album sales will help pay for Jude’s pottery kiln and I will continue with my programming skills. I’m at the stage now where I can build a solid puzzle game and I’m in the process of doing just that. Even if it only sells 10 copies a month, it’s all a process of building a portfolio of different types of digital media. And if you fancy balancing your life between low outgoing costs and fluctuating income, then I’d highly recommend giving it a go. As long as I’ve got enough change for a trip to the cafe, I’m happy.
A long time ago, I used to busk near the beach with my guitar to pay for beer and food, selling books from a van and I remember the freedom it gave me; as long I watched the pennies, life looked after itself. Paying bills doesn’t always have to be stressful. Words associated with work: hard-working, long hours, and stress. Words associated with play: playing and fun. I like to think that I’m playing at making money. It just seems easier that way.
If I could share any tips with you, I would say always try to get involved with projects that interest you. Sometimes, projects can last a lot longer than you initially expect, so having a real interest in the work is a big help.
Get honest opinions from a wide variety of sources about your idea, especially if you are thinking of laying down some of your own money. It is easy to see only the positive side to ideas and completely ignore the negatives. Ask friends and family to be honest about what you plan to do. Unless, of course, you think they’ve not seen the big picture!
One of the obstacles that crops up from time to time is when you create a product for the Internet and it’s copied quickly; but this can also be a bonus. I once found a company that had copied my product name and idea, but I also found a new product idea when I looked at its website. I helped the company and it certainly helped me. Rather than wasting time trying to stop people from copying your great ideas, spend more time thinking up great new ones.
Chris says this time and time again: Don’t champion one platform; use them all! This is really important. It took me about a year before someone suggested I make apps for the Android phone. I was so involved in learning to program on Apple devices that I hadn’t even thought about other markets. I should have weighed up all of the app platforms before even thinking about making my first app.
Not all good ideas come from typing words into a computer. I have different paper notepads of different sizes and different types of pens and pencils; sometimes I’ll go out and leave my laptop behind and spend an afternoon drawing boxes, doodling, scribbling, and writing ideas. I’ll then walk along by the sea and an idea will appear from nowhere. I also recommend finding podcasts (Frank Cotolo Chronicles is a good one). Occasionally, listening to others talking about different topics opens up new ideas. I also like listening to Alan Watts and his Zen lectures. Sometimes, not focusing on a project’s build cycle helps the subconscious come up with ideas. I find Chris Pirillo’s channels help me look at useful products that I wouldn’t otherwise see.
Don’t be put off by small returns. I was told by Peter Small (who created the multimedia CD called How God Makes God) about understanding patterns that emerge in probability theory. From this, I adapted the idea for my own needs by having more than one project going at a time — at best, have over 10 good ones and prepare for some new ones in the near future. At least one of these projects should theoretically be something of a success, and each month a new project might bring in an extra $100 or $5,000. You’ll never know unless you build it! Even when products sell well below what you expect, all the sums of all the parts add up and might even be enough to live on. This isn’t a guarantee, but it works for me.
Always be prepared for change. I think I showed in my story that I wasn’t. So delegate your time between doing the work, researching the market, replying to emails, and getting the money into the bank. Also, make sure that the platforms and revenue outlets aren’t going to disappear without you knowing about it in advance.
Ian Clay has been lucky enough to work from home since 1998 by creating games, computer code, and sound effects to sell online. He’s currently got his Halloween Party Scary Sounds album available through iTunes for a scant $3.99; it’s currently number 44 in the holiday chart. Check it out and, if you like it, maybe you can help it rank higher?