2019 Year in Review

December 31, 2019

I haven’t written an end of year review post before, this is my first attempt, so please be gentle.

I’m not writing this post because the end of the year is a time of reflection, to be grateful for the successes, look, to acknowledge failures and where one can do better, and use all of that to look ahead and plan for the future. You can do this anytime of the year. In fact, you should do a reflective thinking exercise or write a journal or post every month or quarter, to keep yourself aligned and focused.

However, I do happen to find myself writing it at the end of 2019, so it is in fact an end of year review. 

2019 has been FANTASTIC. Every quarter felt like a year, because every quarter was packed with happenings. 

  • built my first online business and earned my first $ in SaaS revenue
  • learnt how to rank #1 for an app in the largest eCommerce apps marketplace (Shopify)
  • quit working jobs permanently
  • did my first international travel outside of India
  • built beautiful and empowering relationships, friends and business friends
  • learnt how to code enough to build my own website
  • solidified by UI/UX design skills
  • did my first workation, building my business while enjoying the scenic views and beautiful air of Dharmshala

Phew! That’s a lot to unpack. I’ll get started then.

What made 2019 great

Built a business from 0 to $10k in MRR

2019 is the first time that my attempts at building a business has yielded any fruit. I’ve tried and failed multiple times before, but never before was I this desperate to figure out “what makes a business tick?”

We were both convinced that our future lies in building our own software products and businesses, so come what may we would figure it out, because all we had to do was “do whatever it takes.”

At the beginning of the year, we set ourselves a conservative goal of earning $1,500 in MRR from one of our ideas for software products. We used that as a lens to discover, vet, and bet on ideas we would build. 

We also learnt that building isn’t enough, because just like a local bar on an isolated street won’t attract buyers, the products we build wouldn’t become businesses unless we park it on the right street and put up a placard saying “we’re open for business”.

Back then, our understanding of what it would take to build a business was raw and barely fleshed out. Over the course of 2019, we verified that in our own business and in the businesses of peers who built alongside us.

1. Solve a problem that people really care about

We set out discovering problems that people need solved in their life, or otherwise their life gets too difficult without it. We understood that for a business to run, some tools are essential and some good to have, we focused on the essentials. 

We narrowed down our search by focusing on an industry that was proven to spend money on tools, and then we brainstormed ways that we could improve those tools in a way that meaningfully made the tool better. 

An example - if you are building an abandoned cart recovery SMS app for eCommerce businesses, build one that offers higher recovery rate, and by doing that, you would have improved an important tool for eCommerce businesses by a meaningful metric.

2. Get in front of people who need your solution

Solving a problem or building a product isn’t enough. There’s no use to being great if nobody knows about you. Given a good enough product or skillset, distribution or marketing is what determines its success.

Distribution can be achieved by going to where your customers congregate. That can be Google search results, forums and Facebook groups, cold emailing, and many other channels. 

To solve our distribution challenge, we narrowed down further to building for the Shopify platform. The Shopify App Store is actively used by eCommerce merchants on the platform to find tools that help extend the capabilities of their online store. Shopify had 800,000+ merchants at the time we made our decision, and so we deduced that there’s a large enough audience for us to build a business.

We didn’t just list on the App Store, we figured out how to thrive. We built the #1 WhatsApp plugin for Shopify merchants to talk to their customers. We did that by focusing on

A. building a great product that’s easy to use

B. providing 11/10 customer support

C. hustling for reviews from happy customers

All our efforts combined enabled us to grow to 300 reviews in just 8 months of publishing the app, with an average rating of 5.0 🌟

3. Hustle

Building a business is a long-term grind. It’s a wave function of ups and downs with the most unpredictable variations. But no matter what happens, you have to weather through the storm. Great things don’t get built in a day, but people grossly overestimate what they can achieve in a week but underestimate what they can achieve in a year.

Back in January and February, my business partner Sankalp and I had no idea what lay ahead. But we were fully committed to figuring things out. We said to ourselves, “if we spent 4 years in college studying engineering, the least we can do is give ourselves at least the same amount of time to figure out how to build a business.”

And so, we hustled. The results are clear: we surpassed all expectations and hit $10,000 in MRR at the time of writing this blog post, with 1 day left for the year to end. 

We did it!

Developed meaningful relationships

It wasn’t until 2 days ago when I met my old friend Anway, someone who has guided me spiritually and challenged my mind tremendously over the years, that I realised how grateful and lucky I am to have powerful relationships in my life.

Mausumi: My partner through ups and downs, through thick and thin, Mausumi and I have had each other’s back for 5 years and I recognise and appreciate how far it’s gotten me, and how her mental support has helped me sailed through tough times.

Sankalp: A year ago, I didn’t know whether Sankalp and I would get this far. The reality is that we did. I don’t think I could have built this business with anyone else but him. His hustle to learn what’s needed to make things happen (he picked up frontend in a week to build our first WhatsApp MVP), the attitude to learn what he doesn’t know and improve upon himself, and to have each other’s back whenever our business would experience major turbulence. Sankalp and I have nurtured and fed off each other’s intrinsic qualities this year and it’s brought us further than I could have imagined.

Priyanka: My sister moved to Bangalore and started her first job. It didn’t translate to us magically meeting each other way more often than we did before. What happened instead was I got a chance to observe her as she goes through her own journey, learns from her mistakes, gets better at things and grows as a person. I realise that I learnt a bit of parenting, by knowing when to support and push, and knowing when to step back and let someone who might be suffering to have their space, by trusting that they would be able to figure things out and navigate through the beautiful mess we call life.

My parents: Over the years, I’ve had disagreements with my parents over not pursuing MBA, leaving a high-paying job, taking the “risky approach” so to speak. I know it came from the right place, a place of concern and a place of wanting your kids to be happy and successful and have a great life. Thanks to them, my life is already happier, more successful than majority of the world. That is a privilege I was born into and was able to enjoy thanks to their hard work. I hope I was able to help them understand that I have this privilege, and therefore I have the safety net to take risks, to step off the beaten path, to turn down that high-paying job, and instead pursue this adventure I call life.

Circle of friends: The people I hung out with or talked to regularly reduced significantly in 2019. A big part of that was leaving my job and not going to a building full of 100 people. But as a result, I also ended up spending time only with people I truly wanted to. 

I developed an unexpected and great friendship with Sandesh, who is a rational thinker and an excellent sounding board for ideas and thoughts. Bonus for the amazing discussions over whiskey at Bob’s bar

I am fortunate to have been introduced to Shashank who helped me understand the Shopify ecosystem and what it would take to succeed, without ever expecting anything in return. All I can do to repay his kindness is by giving to others. 

Abhinav played a pivotal role in helping me overcome scarcity and instead embrace abundance mindset.

I had the most amazing conversations with Rohan about human psychology and behaviour, leading to multiple breakthroughs in understanding and predicting people better. 

If Alok is a knight, his shining armour is his ability to solve programming challenges and help us build our product.

I became friends with someone I knew from 20 years ago when we were both kids. It was unexpected and I thoroughly enjoyed spending time talking to her and learning about her world (she’s a JNU student, which makes her an outlier in my circle of friends).

I am inspired by the hustle of Prashant, who runs Altcampus. This guy moved to Dharamshala, started a physical school, and is training people to become software engineers and get a job in 6 months. To say that Prashant is creating meaningful impact in the lives of people is an understatement. This guy rocks!

There are a lot more people I met through the year, and for all the conversations, laughs, serious discussions and learnings, I am truly grateful.

Learnt how to code Frontend

I wrote actual lines of code that exist online for the first time. The first version of this website & blog was built using React, HTML, CSS, JS, Gatsby, and Netlify and I am very proud of having done it.

My journey was greatly aided by excellent resources like Scrimba and Freecodecamp. Thanks to them, anybody with a laptop and an internet connection can learn to code at the cost of $0 (the only real cost is your time).

Today, I am grateful to be able to look at the Frontend code of my product, the WhatsApp plugin, and understand (mostly) what’s happening.

Used Twitter to connect with like-minded people

I started tweeting in 2019 with the intent of sharing value to others who might align with my way of thought. I became active on Twitter to meet other like-minded individuals, and I’m happy to acknowledge that this goal really worked out.

A large part of Twitter working out for me was switching to an abundance mindset, and believing that I have a lot to give, and that by giving I won’t exhaust what I can give to others, but that the giving well is infinite and will never dry out. A big shout out to Abhinav for helping me achieve this mindset.

As of writing this post, I have met dozens of people through Twitter this year, posted dozens of tweet threads (my favourite way of expression), grown to 1017 followers, and have received a total of 427,000 impressions on my tweets since I began posting in March.

Travelled outside India for the first time

For the first time in my life, I travelled outside of India. 

Thailand was a great starting point, I especially enjoyed my time at Koh Phangan and Phi Phi islands, as these places really allowed me to experience the local culture and food. During the same trip, I went scuba diving for the first time and went deep enough to nearly stand on the seabed.

Thanks to this trip, I am now eager to explore what the world has to offer in terms of scenic beauties, local food and culture, people and their lives. 

I’ve seen 0.001% of the world. I owe it to the world to at least experience 1% of its vastness.

Working remotely and doing my first Workation

Sankalp and I were intentional about building our business remotely from day 0. Independence - location, time, opportunity - is a core value for both of us, and hence we made deliberate efforts towards making this happen.

We built our communication pipeline over WhatsApp, doing video calls and writing docs on Notion; we focused on meeting less, from once a week to the current once a month.

Remote work is lonely, building a business is lonely. One of the big changes I made was to stop working at home all the time and instead work out of a coffee shop. Third Wave in CMH road became my workplace, and I made it a point to visit 2-3 times a week and do deep work while sipping delicious black coffee. Thanks to Third Wave, I met a bunch of cool people (s/t to Guru for the great conversations on nutrition and health) from diverse backgrounds and even became good friends with one.

We tested location independence by travelling to Dharamshala and working out of the terrace of an under construction building overlooking the mountain and valley. Thanks to Jio 4G internet, work was seamless all throughout. Hiking a good 30 minutes for breakfast every morning felt great. I look forward to workations in countries across the world in 2020.

Handling depression better

In 2018, I acknowledged to myself that I didn’t handle well my periods of low mood and depression. One key realisation was to speak up early, and have a trusted circle of 1 or 2 people who I could talk to about it and therefore break the cycle. 

Usually in a depressive bout, I lose all motivation, stop exercising, eat a lot of junk, binge shows or movies all day and all night long. 

In 2019, for the first time ever, I was able to break the cycle and instead of going down hard and demolishing my progress, and then having to subsequently rebuild everything from the ground up, I managed to intervene and catch myself from falling. I attribute that to having a trusted circle and having setup better mental routines to help me through tough times.

What could have been better in 2019

Exercise

Physical fitness is very core to me, and yet I faltered throughout the year with periods of great fitness followed by periods of very little physical activity. As a result, my body underwent gaining and losing fat and consequently gaining and losing 4-5 KGs every 3 or 4 months. This really threw me off as the same t-shirt that fit perfectly from a few months would now have my belly protruding out of it. 

While I don’t have anything against dad bods or bellies sticking out, but when it happens to me, I see my self-confidence going down and I find myself being very conscious as I walk or notice people look towards me (even if they might not actually be looking at me). And I don’t feel great about it. I will change this in 2020 and beyond.

Meditation

I strongly believe that meditation helps me be mindful of my actions and of each day as time passes. Meditation also helps me remain calm and centered, and allows my conscious mind to be more in control. 

Unfortunately, me practicing meditation followed a similar pattern to exercising, where I kept up the habit during certain periods, and then disconnected completely otherwise. I’ve noticed how my conscious mind slowly loses control if I don’t meditate for months on end. And I don’t like being that way. I will change this in 2020 and beyond.

Consistency

The above two points highlight a strong lack of consistency in my efforts towards maintaining physical and mental fitness. This trait presented itself elsewhere too, hampering the speed at which I learnt to code and other places. Funnily enough, in business I showed an impossible (to me) level of consistency which might suggest that I used up all my energy to stay consistent in the business domain of my life.

Either way, I want to be conscious about the things I want and do, and if I’ve committed to them, I want to be consistently putting in the effort, the inputs. I will change this in 2020 and beyond.

Writing

In 2019, I created my personal website and blog and published a write-up in June about my experience building a Shopify app. That single post helped me gain a lot of exposure and get introduced to new people. I honestly wish I had continued writing and capturing my experiences and realisations while building my business.

I believe writing while it’s happening is much better than looking back and writing several months later, as the latter tends to lead to romanticising what really went down. Memories are foggy and the brain makes up what it doesn’t remember. And so, a lot of my writing might actually be documenting, which I think is an excellent way to go about it. I will change this in 2020 and beyond.

Looking forward to 2020

Writing

The purpose of writing this year in review post is to kickstart a year where I hope to be writing regularly. I’ve set a goal to write 1 post per month, which I feel is a low enough commitment, but also big enough that there will be meaningful progress by the end of 2020. 12 packed posts is better than 0 posts by the end of 2020.

It’s not enough to just write down a goal, more effort should be placed towards making it happen. To do that, I’m reserving the last 3 days of every month towards writing. My #1 and only priority on those 3 days would be to write.

To further get ahead and solve problems that might hinder my writing progress, I wrote down a list of 30 (and growing) topics that I can pick up whenever I sit to write. The focus should be on writing, everything else comes second.


Multiple Businesses

Building one business from 0 to $10k in MRR is great, but can I do that again? In 2020, I want to repeat my success by building (or buying) multiple businesses. The idea is to continue exercising my business building muscle, while also trying to discover an idea that I can commit my next 5 years towards. After all, that’s the only way I’ll be able to build a business that grows to $100k in MRR and eventually $1mn in MRR.

Sankalp and I would be building apps for Shopify eCommerce as well as outside any app platform. We would build apps ourselves, get others to build from us, or acquire existing apps. We’re open to everything and we will find the best way to achieve our shared goal.

Online Marketing

In 2019, I learnt how to achieve distribution from a product by leveraging an app marketplace. The Shopify App Store has been a delight to work with, but I am now ready for a bigger challenge.

In 2020, I want to use content writing + SEO to build a new business from 0 to 10,000 visitors per month. 

This steps from the belief that while winning distribution inside an app marketplace is great, owning your distribution is even better. And my definition of owning distribution is by capturing Google Search traffic into a blog and/or email list.

To achieve this goal, at least one of the businesses I will be building in 2020 would be completely reliant on search traffic for acquiring customers.

Fullstack Coding

I want to learn how to build complete products from scratch, as well as be able to contribute to those products across the stack. Fullstack coding is a part of my core pillar of skills and autonomy. 

It’s not just that I want to learn to code to be able to build businesses. I want to build personal projects, as well as have the ability to create and express an idea completely. Conceptualising an idea, designing a solution, and then making the solution real - coding completes the loop.

Travel & Work Remotely

2019 introduced me to what lies beyond my immediate vicinity - I met people, got exposed to food and culture, and thoroughly enjoyed every moment of my short 10-day trip to Thailand. It made me intensely aware of how much the world has to offer, and how little I’ve explored and seen as of yet.

I will change that in 2020 by travelling to multiple countries and staying for long enough to experience the local culture / food / people, all while working on my businesses. My bucket list includes - Vietnam, Canada, Japan, Indonesia, and a few countries in Europe.

Relationships

At the end of January 2020, I will be leaving Bangalore for good. It’s been 4 years since I moved to this city, and it’s been a blast. Bangalore changed my life, mostly because of the people I met and got to work with, but also because I thoroughly enjoyed the weather here.

However, I decided it’s time to move to Hyderabad, the #1 reason being my beautiful partner Mausumi who is studying in Hyderabad to become a doctor, and also because my parents live in Hyderabad and I want to spend more time with them.

And... that’s a wrap!

I’m going to enjoy the rest of the day sipping delicious black coffee. Want to read more? Check out my co-founder Sankalp's 2019 year in review post.

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