2020 – My Year In Review

2020 certainly wasn’t an exciting year for me. A lot happened contrary to how it was planned. But I’m still grateful to be alive, to have friends and family around me, and to have food on the table. We have lost more than 1.8 million people to the pandemic so far and during these times if you still have your family with you thats really something to be grateful for.

Me and my family haven’t contracted the virus (yet) and I’m thankful for that.

I started the year by picking up pieces of me to restart a dropshipping business. Since dropshipping for me has been a plug and play business, it made the most sense to me to start from there. It is something I can start & stop abruptly. The business saw supply-side disruption as soon as I started it due to the surge of COVID-19 cases in China. This caused delays in shipments from China leaving unhappy users. As the operations in China started to normalize, the rest of the world started contracting the virus and hence shipping was disrupted pretty much everywhere in the world. Air-shipping became as slow as ocean-shipping while it continued to cost even more than before. Although the stores were profitable, I soon paused the campaigns due to inferior customer experience.

In February I was lucky to travel outside of Pakistan for a small vacation. I’m glad we were able to do that just in time right before the world went into the lockdown. I’m grateful for this.

When Pakistan saw it’s first COVID-19 wave and the country went into lockdown, we spent nearly 3 months at home. We stopped ordering food and started cooking at home 100% of the time. This resulted in some unsatisfied cravings which pushed us to start cooking and baking things we never usually did. We baked quite a few pizzas at home. Despite the adversity, we tried making the best of it.

I spent majority of the year making predictions and bets regarding where to invest the money. I quite suck at investing, but continue to do it despite losing money. I hope that I’ll learn something valuable before running out of funds to try things with.

In March, we saw liquidity crisis hitting all sorts of markets. US stock market crashed by over 40%, while Bitcoin crashed by up-to 70%. Soon the Fed took control, and injected 2 trillion dollars in the market, and another trillion before the year ended. The interest rates were also dropped to near 0%. This set the perfect stage for Bitcoin which I’ve been vocal about through-out the year, but even more so since the Fed decided to QE.

2020 has been the year of Bitcoin because until 2020, Bitcoin seemed like a solution looking for a problem to a large part of the world. In developed countries the state issued currencies are mostly viewed as stable, and inflation is usually lower single digit. But in Pakistan or Turkey or many other parts of the world, Bitcoin was at all time high (in Pak Rupee or Turkish Lira) long before it was at an all time high in the rest of the world. For countries where the state backed currencies are losing purchasing power quickly, and inflation is double digits or even triple digits, Bitcoin as a solution is a no-brainer. However, 2020 allowed the west to see through from this lens too. With growing supply of USD vs fixed supply of Bitcoin, it is becoming clear to a lot of people that they can no longer store their wealth in state backed currencies.

Despite being right about Bitcoin, I failed to capitalize as much as I would have liked to due to some unexpected circumstances which caused me to lose some part of my holdings. This makes me incredibly sad but I’m trying to stay positive because the future is bright. And while I know I’ll miss out big time on the kind of gains I expected, I feel given the amount of upside that’s still left for Bitcoin, every HODLer of $BTC will do just fine.

I and Saad also bought equity in a few Shopify apps in Q1. Since this was done right before the pandemic, and COVID-19 pushed the e-commerce adoption through the roof, we saw unparalleled growth and capital gains for our equity in the Shopify apps. I’m happy about this one.

I was also lucky to catch March’s dip for the stocks and happy to build some albeit small position.

I have also written quite a few extremely small checks for early stage companies in the seed round. I expect this to be extremely illiquid long-term investment, which will likely not result in substantial gains. Or even losses. I know this. But how do I learn if I don’t try. I also did this because stock market didn’t present me a long enough opportunity to build a substantial position. And as stock market quickly recovered and posted new highs, I thought to allocate some funds towards super early stage startups instead. You can be wrong majority of the times about early stage startups, but you usually do not have to worry about valuations being outrageous.

Over the last couple of years, I’m trying to transition to make 100% of the income by investing. It hasn’t worked out so well because for everything I get right, there’s one I get wrong. And so I take 1 step forward and 1 step backwards. In the end I feel I’m quite right there where I started from. But may be slightly wiser. I hope this to change. I hope to do well with investing, and I hope to become a lot more wiser. And I hope not to pay a hefty fine to do that.

I prefer investing to spending, but if I have to spend I prefer spending on intangibles compared to toys. This usually means that we like to spend a big portion of our annual budget on travel which we couldn’t do big time this year. This resulted in some additional savings which I felt like spending in the last quarter on buying things for the house. I almost became a shopping addict in the last quarter and slowly regaining sanity.

2020 has been one step forward and one step backwards for me. 2020 felt like I couldn’t move. Both, physically due to COVID-19 and professionally due to setbacks.

But I’m thankful even if I felt I couldn’t move. It is a lot better than falling down, losing a loved one, an income source, a job etc. A lot of people have gone through that (and more). Years like this present an opportunity to reflect and be grateful for everything you have. Despite being a stagnant year, I have countless blessings that continue to grow. And I want to continue to be thankful for that.

Freud

The unconscious mind has aggressive needs.

Capitalism forces the aggressive unconscious mind to use that aggression in a productive manner. Although, we’ve learnt to deal with our aggression in a manner that’s not straight harmful, we’re still just giving in to the aggression.

On the contrary, we could try and completely suppress the aggressive unconsciousness. However, that would mean we’ve to direct the aggression inwards instead of outwards which could lead to anxiety.

Outward controlled aggression through capitalism could make you rich but it could also make you egoistic, selfish and unempathetic.

In order to be more empathetic you would have to suppress your desires, aggress inwardly, and feel the imbalance inside.

It’s easier to create imbalance in the world.

It’s harder to create that within yourself.

Abundance & Patience

Over the last few years, I transitioned into an investing career. I decided to invest in people that could deliver instead of doing everything myself. I had read tons of content on how the investing is the real way to build wealth. That time is limited and the real progress is made when you use your wealth to make wealth.

But it hasn’t worked out that well so far.

I also read and believed that abundance mindset is the way to go. Resources aren’t limited. Love isn’t limited. Kindness isn’t limited. Making money isn’t a zero sum game. Someone else’s success isn’t your failure. That you need to be happy for success of other people instead of showing resentment. That you need to share more of what you have.

I believed that if I helped more people, I’ll eventually find people worth investing in and so having an abundance mindset will eventually make my investing career a success.

This didn’t work out so well either.

The problems with failures in return of the acts of kindness is that you lose your faith more quickly and start doubting your actions faster.

You are led to believe by your own experiences that investing and abundance is a lie. That things do not work like that in the real world.

At this point you could scrap your learnings about investing and abundance based on your little experiences. Or you could continue to hold them close based on the experiences of many other people who you consider wiser than yourself.

To do the latter, you will need to be patient. Investing, however, has always been a game meant for the patient.

Day 240, Calling It Quits

I have written for 240 days now. In hindsight, I think I could have taken the weekends off instead of writing everyday. But I’ve always been indisciplined like that. Or disciplined, I’m not so sure. Indisciplined because I never have a balance in my life. And too disciplined to always focus on a singular goal.

I remember when I worked full-time, I couldn’t have gone through a single day without achieving something. Almost addicted to progress like a substance user. Over time, I thought I stopped doing that. I thought I stopped running after singular goals and giving everything to them. But I was wrong.

I started to write for therapeutic reasons. But by setting a streak, I fell into my old habits before I even began. I was still serving my old self that couldn’t have gone through a single day without progress. I was still doing it to feed my ego. Sure, I wanted to prove by example how progress is made. I felt that It’s great to help others and lead by example. But when you satisfy your ego along the way, you’ve already lost the plot. I honestly can’t say that along the way, I didn’t hope for readership, distribution and appreciation.

I read this wonderful piece on New York times. I read it again and again and many times over to fully absorb it. Despite being a small article, I found it be way more enlightening than many books I had read.

It’s about the two mountains some people climb. And what these mountains represent. The valley in between. And what the valley can do to you, or what you should do while in the valley.

I encourage you to read the original piece. Although every sentence resonated with me, here are some of my favorite excerpts.

The first mountain is about acquisition, the second mountain is about contribution. The first mountain is about building up the ego and defining the self, the second is about shedding the ego

And the following just hit me like nothing has hit me in a really long time.

Freedom is not an ocean you want to swim in; it is a river you want to cross so that you can plant yourself on the other side.

I know that I’m in the valley right now. In between the mountains. Or the ocean that I’ve been swimming in for a long while.

Life could only be meaningful with a second mountain. Or by crossing the river and being on the other side.

On the first mountain we shoot for happiness, but on the second mountain we are rewarded with joy. What’s the difference? Happiness involves a victory for the self.

Thank you for reading. I will be writing again, but not on a regular basis.

Getting A Massive Payout For the Simple Skills [Part 2]

I wrote this a few weeks ago. This is another post on a similar theme. I recently spoke with two sellers on fiverr that are doing really large volume per month ($10K+) and so I thought to write a bit more on this.

One of the sellers sells graphic design services. Most people think that the graphic design industry especially on fiverr is a $5-$10 space and this discourages them to take this as an opportunity worth exploring. The person I spoke with, however, specializes in box designs and so he has a much higher order value than someone making birthday cards for example.

There are many reasons why he has a higher order value but it could simply be because his customers are businesses and not people. His customers are likely in the e-commerce space which is why they are hiring box design services on the internet. E-commerce is going through forced adoption and insane growth right now so his business could be blowing because of that too.

The takeaway here is that the problem is not being a graphic designer on fiverr. The problem is what you decide to do with your simple skills. If you’ve decided to do what everyone else does with photoshop, sure your chances are bleak. You’re likely in a high competition low average order value business. But it really is your choice what you make out of your skills or what service do you offer in the graphic design space. Or how rich your average customer is. Or how big a problem you’ve decided to solve with your graphics. It’s really you who choose.

The other person I spoke with is in the video editing space. Because of COVID-19, the over-all video-editing work is down. Lesser ads are being made. Lesser people are doing events. And so the post-production work is on the decline for him. But the gaming industry is booming through the COVID-19. There are more and more people playing and streaming games as well as more viewers than ever who are watching these live streams. Gamers are making a killing right now, and so this video editor is offering gaming highlights editing service. Not only he found customers in these circumstances, he found customers that are paying top dollar right now and so his average order value is much higher than his previous gig.

It’s really not about the skills you have. It’s about what you do with them.

Social Media Is A Lie, Here’s The Truth.

The social media is often used to put out your best self. Since you get to pick and choose what the people see from your life, you only put out the best things that you’ve done or the best things that have happened to you. In addition, you also get a chance to enhance those already best experiences of your life using filters, music and what not. In short, you lie on the social media to look better than your peers.

I tried not to write this post for a long while. I’ve been thinking about it for quite sometime. It is natural for me to put here the best things I’ve done so far and my opinions on things I’m knowledgeable about. It makes me look accomplished and intelligent. Here’s the other side though.

I spent most of the past 10-15 years trying to build a business from scratch. Like many other tech entrepreneurs in Pakistan who work at the eastern time, I have also been a 100% night owl since 2008. For 12 years, I have only slept after 6 in the morning. I was able to build a company that I always wanted. I was able to save and invest like I wanted. And I bought myself financial freedom that I wanted. So I could stop one day and be free. Free to do whatever I like. I could just read books, or travel, or do anything I wanted.

It is only when I got free, I realized, I fucked up. I realized that I’ve gotten obese in the process. That my spine doesn’t work the same way as before. That I may have to live with the constant sciatic pain for a long while, if not most of my life. That I can no longer sleep at night even if I wanted. That my personal grooming went down the gutters for spending most of this time working from home. That I can’t wake up for anything that has to be done early in the morning or noon so I don’t sleep at all instead.

On the papers I felt successful just as the world described successful. In real life, I didn’t feel successful at all. Having free time and not the right health to enjoy it is very unsuccessful.

I feel obligatory to write this truth. So if you decide to be “successful”, you don’t give up everything else in the process and feel unsuccessful in the end.

Spying On Shopify Based E-Commerce Stores

I don’t know about you, but spying and reverse engineering are the top two most popular things that we’ve done for years in our company.

In fact, without spying the space, we couldn’t have done much of what we’ve done so far. Two brains are better than one right? A hundred thousand brains are even better. So by all means, always spy in the space you’re trying to create a dent in.

One of the things that we’ve constantly done in the e-commerce space is watching and tracking all the stores hosted on Shopify. Since all the Shopify stores are hosted by Shopify themselves, they actually exist in a very small IP-range. Reverse look-up of the IP range will actually output all the stores hosted on Shopify ever.

If you’re smart and want value out of this data, you could always track their rankings, watch out for sudden movement in stats, identify new entrants that are growing fast i-e trending stores etc. If you’re smarter, you could then dive down even deeper on the stores of your interest and then do the same thing with the products of the stores. You know where this is going, and what all the possibilities are.

It’s really all out there on the internet. Isn’t it?

WooCommerce Vs Shopify

I recommend everyone to commence their e-commerce journey with Shopify. But many e-commerce veterans are seen siding with WooCommerce instead. From the data available, it seems that WooCommerce is more widely used than Shopify. I wanted to compare the two based on my experience.

You will likely find much more detailed reports on this comparison, however, many of those are written by web hosting companies which are biased towards WooCommerce as Shopify comes pre-hosted while WooCommerce is self-hosted and requires a hosting plan. I recommend that you read those reports since they are very detailed, but for the ones written by the hosting providers or by the affiliates of the hosting providers, please take what they say with a grain of salt.

Let’s explore.

Cost

Let’s begin with the cost. Shopify’s basic plan starts from $29/month but you will also need to pay 2% of the order value as transaction fee to Shopify. By upgrading Shopify plan, you can reduce this to 1% and 0.5% depending on the plan you choose. You also need to pay a monthly subscription for most Shopify apps.

WooCommerce in comparison is free and has many free apps available as well. But since you need to host it yourself, there will be a hosting cost of roughly $10/month. You will also require SSL certificate which you can get for $50-$100/year or for free using Clouldflare or a similar service. WooCommerce ‘seems’ to be cheaper in most cases but Shopify is also only expensive when you’re doing large volumes. For someone who’s just starting out, Shopify is going to be very affordable as well.

In addition, since WooCommerce is self-hosted and self-managed, there could be outages, security issues, hacks etc which may cause you monetary losses. In order to avoid these issues, you may require a technical resource. So after assuming these costs or losses, I don’t think WooCommerce is truly cheaper than Shopify. It may or may not be depending on who is using it.

Ease of Use

Ask anyone you like, including the ones who are using WooCommerce as their goto solution, and you’ll likely hear that Shopify is easier to use. It truly is. You don’t need to know anything about domains, hosting, SSL, security, integration, customization etc. Everything comes pre-configured and you can start a store in a jiffy, literally.

I recommend everyone to begin their journey with Shopify for this very reason. You’re likely working on your products, developing and frequently iterating them. If you’re a dropshipper, you’re likely constantly hunting new and trending products for your store. You’re likely figuring out a marketing plan. You or your team need to have A game when it comes to Facebook ads. If you can do Google, Snap, TikTok and emails, you could literally add at least as much revenue as you do from Facebook. All of this needs your attention. When your attention deserves all of this, you shouldn’t be wasting anytime looking into non-issues such as whether the hosting can take enough traffic, or whether part of my traffic is getting stolen from malware etc.

The ease of use is huge.

In addition, you don’t need to know much about how to optimize your conversions. Or how to have a perfect sales funnel. Free Shopify themes are VERY nicely done and have high conversion rates. They are perfect for inexperienced sellers looking to start a store on a budget.

Features & Customization

WooCommerce is light years ahead of Shopify as far as features and customization is concerned. It is why I think many advanced store owners eventually need a WooCommerce store. The amount of customization that you can do with a self-hosted platform is unthinkable.

I was listening to this podcast of a founder of a large D2C brand, and he said he hates the fact that you’ve to manually put in Zip Code, City, State and other information on your Shopify store. This became the reason for him to switch to WooCommerce since he wanted to just take in Zip code, and auto fill City and State info which wasn’t possible with Shopify. When your brand requires conversion optimization on that level, your hands are tied on Shopify.

Hence, it makes total sense for the advanced users to go with WooCommerce.

Conclusion

As a general rule, I think that new and small e-commerce businesses should start with Shopify while large business doing larger volumes should use WooCommerce so they can avoid transaction fee, hire a technical resource if needed, and get unlimited flexibility and customization.

At Socialoholic, we’ve been doing 7-figure e-commerce for a while, but still have found ourselves using Shopify. For 8 figure and beyond, I think one should definitely be using WooCommerce.

Variable Sale Pricing & Facebook Ads

One of the readers of the blog was discussing his Facebook ad strategy and mentioned that he has to increase the sale price of the product due to expensive shipping.

This quickly reminded me of my personal experience with variable pricing and Facebook ads and I thought to write a bit about that.

When you start advertising a product on Facebook on a specified price point e.g $19 and have a ton of qualified events stored in your pixel and ad account, a change of pricing can be sometimes disastrous. When you record hundreds of add to carts, check-outs, and purchases at a $19 price point, you’ve trained the Facebook ad algorithm to bring you buyers who are comfortable to spend money in that range. Facebook looks into the historical purchase patterns of the buyers and their average cart value in order to serve your ads to the right audience.

An increase of pricing mid-way in the campaign with a lot of recorded data will have more negative impact as you’re not just going to have lower conversion rate due to the hike in price, but also because your ads will not be served to the right audience further reducing your conversion rate. Due to this reason, personally, I like to start my ads with the final sale price and not something lower.

Will A Robot Replace You?

It was father’s day yesterday. I sat down with my father and spoke for a few hours on various subjects. We briefly discussed a topic that reminded me of something I learnt way back in college. It’s a concept from physics. I was actually quite awful at physics so I apologize in advance if my interpretation is incorrect. But here it goes anyway.

In physics, “work” happens when a force is applied to an object such that it moves from A to B. If you exert the force, but the object doesn’t move, the work done is zero.

In regular life, we don’t think of work the same way. But I think we should. If our actions aren’t bringing about a change or a result, I’d like to think that the work done is zero. It doesn’t matter how hard you try, or how many hours you put in, because as long as you couldn’t move the needle, the work comes down to zero.

I feel that in normal life work should be measured as Force x Displacement and we should move away from our current definition of work as only force. In addition, we should make our best effort in order to have maximum displacement for the force we put in. If employee A works longer hours than employee B, but delivers the same value in the end, it may seem that A worked more, but in my opinion, they worked just as much as they pushed the object just as much. Here’s an interesting case-study.

Savannah Sanchez, a Facebook marketer, did an interesting video that I don’t completely agree with, but I find it interesting to share here today. Her thesis is that Facebook’s AI has gotten so advanced, that a human marketer working over 10 hours a week on an ad account was able to deliver just about the same ROAS that another ad account delivered which wasn’t touched at all during same period and was only optimized by Facebook’s algorithm. If you want to watch the video at the exact time, you can do so here. Or you could watch the full video below

The reason why I shared this here is because when a robot can deliver the same value, your working hours i-e force is worthless. It’s the displacement that counts, and if a robot can do that better than you, you’ll be replaced. Although, I don’t think that time has come yet but I know it isn’t far.

I’ve used Facebook as a marketing tool for about 10 years now, and to think that there’s no more human tweaking possible on Facebook any longer is an alien concept to me. 10 years ago, you could do a thousand tweaks and the system would play along. Now, it’s increasingly harder but I feel expert marketers i-e a small percentage of all marketers could still do better than the system. In a few more years though, I wouldn’t be surprised if that number shrinks to a mere fraction.