The Code and Bootstrapping Podcast


(a super power)


[00:00:00] Frugality is a superpower. When I left my tech job in San Francisco, I'd saved about twelve thousand U.S. dollars outside of long term retirement accounts that aren't easy to get at. And if I'd stayed in San Francisco, that 12K would have lasted me about three months. And you can be sure that the last half of that time would have been very stressful as I saw my savings just disappearing while living in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Probably would have spent the last month and a half finding another job.

[00:00:35] So what I did instead was I went to Thailand. I went to Chiang Mai. I had read online about digital nomads and I was curious what the whole thing was. After three months there, I went to Saigon or Ho Chi Mihn City in Vietnam spent about four months there and just really did the whole "digital nomad in Southeast Asia" thing. And that meant my rent went down to about $250 a month, which as you may or may not know, is less than 1/10 of what the going rent was in San Francisco at that time. (It's an even smaller ratio now.) And having a couple years worth of runway instead of just a few months leads to a totally different psychology instead of being worried about running into a wall. I had time to explore and to meet other people working on building their own businesses outside of the whole V.C. funded San Francisco's Silicon Valley scene, which I was familiar with previously, and kind of had a chance to discover the things I didn't know that I didn't know.

[00:01:45] The digital nomad community there is this entire other kind of entrepreneur that was online, not like I had been previously with brick and mortar businesses, but they were non-technical people making money on the internet. Most of them running WordPress sites or Shopify sites or doing Amazon FBA and some of them doing very well... even by Bay Area standards. I met some digital nomads who are actually generating more revenue than startups in the Bay Area that had gone through YC and then gotten more funding twice. So that was those kind of an eye opening experience as well. And I would say of the people that I met in Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City) or even in other more expensive places in Asia. During my digital nomad time, of those people who were running businesses, probably 90% simply could not have started them if they weren't living someplace cheaper where they had time to experiment and learn what they were doing or not even just what they were doing but also learn what the market wanted out of a given niche. So that was definitely eye opening.

[00:02:57] And when it came time for me to start Alchemist Camp, I realized that there was no upside whatsoever to being in the Bay Area or New York or even a mid-tier city like Austin, Texas or Boulder, Colorado or someplace like that because it's not the kind of project where it makes much sense to raise funding and even if it were I don't exactly have the kind of background that most investors are looking for. And so there's just no big advantage to being in a tech hub except, I suppose, to be around others working on similar things.

[00:03:35] But as I said previously, due to living costs, most the people doing those kinds of things don't live in those cities. I know there are a few Indiehackers meet-ups in the Bay Area. I think a lot of that is just due to the fact that the people running Indiehackers are in the Bay Area but most of the people that attend, I bet, are either already wealthy or are working a full time job because the rents there are just crushing. So staying in a relatively low cost of living area, though not the bottom of the barrel cheap like Chiang Mai or Saigon, I took about eight months to get Alchemist Camp to where it was covering my rent the first five months I earned nothing at all. I was just putting up tutorials for free on YouTube to see if people were interested and also to see how difficult it would be to build up an audience. I made a very simple site that organized them.

[00:04:38] It didn't look at all like Alchemist Camp looks now. It was like really, really just a bare bones site that I made with the markdown to HTML converter. And then as traffic started to grow, I used a free tool to make a survey asking two questions: one, what topics would you like me to cover and, two, what features would you like to see on the website to help you learn. And at the same time I shared a link where people could sign up for my email list and be notified if and when I created premium material.

[00:05:14] And that was about it. I had between 15 and 20 people sign up for that and that was enough to convince me it was worth it to make some premium members only videos and set up everything with Stripe so that people could pay me monthly to access them. And a good portion of those who'd been waiting on the email list signed up right away. Since then, it's been slow steady growth. Now, the thing that I'm teaching is Elixir, which is probably the 50th most popular programming language. So, it's a small market. It's it's not growing fast at all.

[00:05:49] I'm significantly past covering my monthly rent, but I wouldn't be at that point if I were living in San Francisco and I'd be pretty much on the border of it if I were living in Austin Texas. So, in a lot of ways just being really frugal is the main reason I've been able to build something up to the point where I can live off of it. Now obviously it's not just about rent. Medical expenses, children, things like that will also raise your cost of living although again, it's going to be really different depending on what city and country you're living in.

[00:06:27] Aside from all those cost of living expenses, there are a lot of other ways that I did Alchemist Camp frugally. I did not start off with Blue Yeti or some $100+ microphone. In fact, I went with the Audio Technica AT9933 USB mic a little shotgun mic that's way better than, say, the built-in speakers for my laptop were but much, much, much cheaper than those microphone setups. And for most things, I don't think it had a negative impact. I mean it probably had a 1 percent negative impact or something like that but people were not coming to my tutorials for high production values. They were coming there to learn something about the programming language they were learning. Now there is a point where maybe if I had used my laptop microphone it would have been so bad... actually, I think I did start off with a laptop microphone. I think and one laptop microphone for a while and then my earbuds for my phone actually had a better mic than my laptop did.

[00:07:35] And then after maybe a month into the project when I was like, OK I'm really doing this. Then I bought a really, really, really cheap microphone that was way better than all of those things but still not in the same range is what most podcasters would use. Hosting is another area where a lot of people, especially on Indiehackers, I don't know why but there are like these just architecture astronauts that go out and sign up for like 15 different services. They put everything on a AWS and they're like well I need to have these 15 features in place or I can't even launch my job board or something really simple like that. So I just went with Digital Ocean. It was five dollars a month. I'm still paying five dollars a month and I'm running six different sites off of it. I am using AWS for their email service. I think it hasn't yet cost me one cent total. It's it's it's really possible do a lot of this stuff without spending a lot.

[00:08:32] And I think it depending on what your background is, you may not realize that like you may think you must spend one hundred dollars a month or more on any serious project (said with air quotes), but you really don't. I think my total costs for Alchemist Camp, counting the email service, counting backups, counting the domain name, like everything, is about seven dollars per month. So it's not always the best way to go but it is sufficient and the site is earning more than seven dollars a month and, should there ever be a problem, I could easily double or quadruple what I'm spending on the server without having to worry about that from a business perspective.

[00:09:27] Similarly, this podcast is also being done in a very frugal way. I'm not even sure what is going to happen with this podcast. I said it's an experiment but I'm recording all of these with audacity which is open source software completely free. I'm hosting it on Pinecast for free. It hasn't cost me anything to set up on iTunes or Google Play and even from a time perspective, this is almost free because they're short they're not highly edited and I don't have anyone else I'm collaborating with. So there's no scheduling overhead. Now that may not be the way. That's probably not the way to build up a huge podcast. If that's your goal but it works nicely for an experiment and at the beginning you often want to experiment so much better than the way some of my acquaintances have gone where they've saved like fifty thousand dollars and then quit their jobs to go for it and then been done in like nine months. In fact, one of my old roommates spent thousands of dollars on training and join like some entrepreneurial group that had a multi-thousand dollar cost and then it didn't work out that well then he had to get another job.

[00:10:48] And worse than all of these things of course, is if you borrow or raise like 150,000 and then lose it all and have nothing to show for it. Being really, really frugal at the beginning is great. It'll let you experiment more freely, those experiments will lead to more learning and over time one of them will get to where it's covering your basics. At that point, you're time rich everything kind of flips and you can start spending more time to work on what you're working on and where do more experiments, like this podcast is. Then, over time, you have a virtuous cycle that just builds and builds and at some point you don't have to be quite as frugal. Although, I would argue at any given stage you want to be frugal for that stage. So, if you've got a startup with five employees, you probably don't need to worry about saving 10 dollars a month on hosting but you might want to consider very carefully whether or not you really need to hire a sixth employee or there's a way you could be more efficient with the time, money and help that you already have.

[00:11:55] And scaling this whole idea back the other way, let's say you can't be frugal because you have three children and you're taking care of an elderly grandmother and you just have a minimum monthly income you must have. Well, you can still be relatively frugal by finding something that doesn't take too much time or money maybe spend a small percentage of what was your discretionary income and only five or 10 hours a week so that you can keep your full time job and the income that you need. Obviously that's doing it on hard mode, but even in that case I would say frugality is a superpower for bootstrappers.

Show notes

In this episode, Mark talks about the single largest reason Alchemist Camp has worked—frugality.

Leaving the San Francisco / Silicon Valley area to be a digital nomad and drastically cut rent, using open source and very inexpensive equipment and spending under $10/month total for a revenue-generating site... it was about as lean an operation as it gets. Thank you, Digital Ocean!

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