Financial Freedom & Spreadsheets

I have met few people who are financially literate and do not use spreadsheets frequently both in their personal and professional lives. I love spreadsheets and use them to track my day to day expenses, taxes, donations and just about everything.

Just as you can’t run a business without tracking revenue, costs and making projections, I feel it’s reckless not to do the same in your personal life. Because in the end the fundamentals of money are the same. If the expense is higher than the revenue, whether its business or your personal life, the result will be the same.

I recommend everyone to create spreadsheets for their household expenses. This will help you project what your annual spending is going to be like. Once you have your annual expense projection, you can set your income goals accordingly. You can plan savings, project wealth generation and eventually plan retirement. It all starts with a spreadsheet.

My monthly expense sheet layout is very basic and does the job for me.

Financial freedom is often misunderstood as people equate it to really high salaries. Most middle class people who start working by 25 can retire by the latest at 40. I’m not kidding. It is the only truth I know, and without any generalization. For now, how about you simply track and ensure that you’re earning more and spending less and once you’ve done that, you can head over to MMM to learn how the rest works.

My Sweetest Failure Made Me $17,239.85

Everyone says it’s great to fail. They say if you don’t fail enough times, you stand no chance at succeeding. I agree with that. But this post isn’t about that. It’s about one particular failure. A blog that I abandoned. Yet, it netted me $17,239.85. Which by the way is not an arbitrary figure. I exported it from my bank statement to know exactly how sweet was my failure.

Sometime in 2010, I started a technology blog. I was supposed to write about jailbreaking iPhone, rooting Android and all the other crazy things that you can do with your phones. Except that I don’t do crazy things with my phones and I had no interest in writing in this area. I started it because I heard the CPMs (Revenue per 1000 ad impressions) in tech are great (and they were). I also started it because many of my friends and colleagues were doing great with their tech blogs. The blog was inspired by Taimur Asad‘s RedmondPie and Zawad Iftikhar‘s SegmentNext. Since it wasn’t something I was passionate about, despite a good start, I just didn’t have the patience to run it for the long haul.

Stats for RewriteTech since inception till date of publication

Personally I gave this blog about two weeks. Later I hired some writers and let them contribute content with no oversight by me but eventually stopped that too since I couldn’t see any growth. Over the past 9 years, I have passively generated $17,239.85 (average $160/mo) after costs from the leftover traffic that Google kept sending in small numbers. Like someone said, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. This post is about that. About taking a shot. Almost missing it. And still walking away with a pile of cash. Could it happen, if I didn’t take this shot? Will it happen, if you don’t take a shot?

Seizing the Opportunity

Opportunities are everywhere. Literally everywhere. You come across them hundreds of times everyday but you often ignore them, or you misread them, or you just can’t see them hidden in plain sight. Some people have the ability to see them very often. This in my opinion is the single biggest differentiator between entrepreneurs and those who are not. Let me give you an example.

In 2012, we considered expanding our marketing business beyond the scope of just promoting our own products. We looked into client servicing (hated it and never did it again). But we learnt a great deal from it. Since one of my businesses at that time was a Pakistani music blog, naturally the first customer for our marketing agency was a band.

They were going to pay us X amount of money for growing their Facebook page, adding organic and authentic views to their youtube videos, and overall assistance with their new song launch. After we had concluded the agreement, they mentioned to us that they are also going to spend Y amount of budget on a radio channel in Pakistan who would play the song a certain number of times in the next month. On hearing this, my co-founder, Saad Bassi, saw an opportunity and seized it. We took all of the budget that they were going to spend on radio, hired a full time resource whose job was to call many hours everyday to all the radio stations in Pakistan. In the end, their song played more frequently than it would have had happened with paid advertising. Not just that, it played on more number of channels increasing their unique reach. They incurred lesser cost and our company made a profit after paying for the resource.

It is one of the many examples of how the world presents you opportunities and how you can seize them.

Distributed Companies

I love distributed companies. It hasn’t been a tough challenge for me running one thus far since I’ve never had more than 10 employees at any point in the lifetime of my business. Although we’ve worked with over 200 collaborators and partners concurrently but we were able to manage that just fine.

One of the companies that has proven how far a distributed company can go is Automattic. They are the team behind WordPress, WooCommerce, Jetpack, Simplenote, Longreads, VaultPress, Akismet, Gravatar, Crowdsignal, Cloudup, Tumblr, and more. They have more than a thousand employees. It’s a remarkable company to say the least.

I’d list below the top 3 reasons why I love and believe in distributed companies.

Better Talent Pool

You are not restricted by country while trying to find talent for your company. Most companies are restricted by cities. You’re often missing out on better talent pool, sometimes even paying a higher wage to lesser talented workforce since a better alternate lives in Vietnam or Ukraine. Not only would they cost less, the quality of work will be way superior.

Lower Costs

On top of money saved in wages, there are much bigger costs that you can avoid. You wouldn’t need to rent office space, spend on furnishing, security and many other associated costs of maintaining a workspace. Although, setting up a workplace can be cheaper in Pakistan compared to many other parts of the world, it can still cause a significant damage to the company’s finances. For example, we have saved over $120,000 USD ($1000 x 12 x 10) over the period of 10 years only in rentals by running a distributed company.

No Ties

Both the founders and the employees have the freedom to move around, be anywhere in the world at any point in time with no ties to any geolocation. This has a huge impact on a work-life balance as well as happiness index of the team.

Please let me know in the comments if you think traditional companies are still a better choice than distributed companies.

Squeezing The Juice

I’m incredibly proud of the fact that I’ve never raised any amount of money and was able to build a sustainable, highly profitable large scale business that was self funded. As mentioned earlier, I started my online business with free domain and hosting. Although I regret not upgrading to a paid plan sooner, I’m still very proud that I’ve injected ZERO Dollars in to the business from outside funding till this date.

After I generated a few hundred dollars on free domain and hosting plan, I was able to buy a domain and a shared hosting plan with that money. I was able to sustain my business on shared hosting for about a year but eventually had to move to a Virtual Private Server to provide consistent uptime and faster load times.

Moving to a VPS was very tricky for me. My website had a large amount of Pakistani audience which generated very little revenue and required a larger server so I didn’t have a lot of budget for my VPS without hurting my positive cashflow. In the end, I had to make a decision that I wasn’t very happy with but couldn’t avoid. I had to rent an unmanaged VPS. For those who don’t know what that means, I was given a machine somewhere in US with no Operating System on it. I had to set up the server from scratch remotely and I had absolutely zero knowledge on how to do it. Since I was tight on budget I had to learn how to do it on Google.

In the end, I was finally able to set the server myself after 4 days of work. This opened new opportunities for me as I had finally learnt a new skill which I offered as a service to everyone I knew who paid twice the money for a managed hosting plan. I moved them to unmanaged hosting, managed it for them and charged them a one time fee of $50 instead of $50 a month that they were already paying. This not only helped me save recurring costs in on my own business but also provided me with a few hundred dollars quick capital that I could inject in my actual business.

When you’re bootstrapping, you’ve to find innovative methods, often outside of the main product or service your business is selling, to generate cash flow so the business can continue to get funded.

Proof of Concept

Having figured out the monetization aspect of digital publishing very early in my life, I should have done well soon after I discovered it but that didn’t happen. For the next many years since 2004, all I did was make pocket change every few months. In hindsight, I think here’s what happened.

It wasn’t until 2009 that I realized the true potential of the internet and what the internet economy was going to be like in the future. You see, until that time I hadn’t met or known or heard of anyone in Pakistan who had made a full-time career (or even pocket change) by running his business exclusively on the internet. It was January of 2009 when I finally read a report about a couple of teenagers in Pakistan making north of $5000 a month by writing blogs. After reverse engineering those blogs, I had finally learnt that it is possible to scale my business beyond $20 per quarter. All I needed was a proof of concept.

My other big mistake was not moving early on to a paid domain and hosting plan after I had received my first check. It was only after I studied their blogs, I realized the importance of having a proper Top Level Domain in order to run a full time internet business, without which my websites were as good as they are on the dark web where you could only access a website by knowing the exact URL. All these years, I had completely missed out on understanding that without having my websites ranking in search engines which wasn’t possible without a TLD, I was never going to be able to drive enough audience to consider this a career. Without having a proper TLD, I was never going to have serious ad networks like Adsense approve me.

Six days after the proof of concept, I bought my first .com domain.

The Gold Rush

By 2004, I was running three websites. My personal homepage, a Pakistani music blog and a web forum. All on the free domains with .TK extension provided by the government of Tokelau an island in the south pacific with a population of 1500 people. The goal of the government of Tokelau was to create awareness about their country in the world in order to raise money to fund education, medical & development of the 1500 residents of the island.

Around the same time, I learnt about the commercial aspect of the internet. While I wasn’t eligible to sign up on the mainstream programs like Adsense for not having a .com domain extension, I quickly found an alternative program called MarketBanker, later rebranded as AdBrite. After serving ads for 10 months, MarketBanker sent me the first pay-check. My mother found it lying around in the lawn outside our house. It took 8 weeks to arrive, 6 weeks to cash and 20% of the money was lost to bank fees and commissions.

Although the check was only for $22.08 and it took 10 months in order to make this money, I was very excited as I realized this was going to be much bigger than just a pastime hobby.

An Accidental Marketer

When I look back today, it is nothing short of a miracle that I ended up becoming an internet marketer. The way these events unfolded almost feels like it was written in the stone. It was 2002, I had only just become a teen and was browsing on a dial up internet in Islamabad, Pakistan.

It was a privilege to have internet in Pakistan back then. In fact I think it was a privilege to have a computer at all. I don’t think we could afford it either. Not easily at least. It’s just that my father was really passionate about technology. So much that he decided to spend a big chunk of his savings to buy a computer.

I was trying to download a piece of software that would tell me in real-time the download and upload speed of my internet. As soon as I clicked on the hyperlink, I got a message notifying me that the site had run out of bandwidth. A message by Brinkster, a web hosting company. Except that I didn’t know what the bandwidth meant or what the web hosting means or what the heck was Brinkster. It certainly was not the name of the software I was trying to download.

On the page I saw a sign up button. I thought may be I need to sign up here in order to get the software. A few minutes later, I had signed up for brinkster’s web hosting service giving me a whopping 30 MBs of free hosting space but I still didn’t have my software, and I still had no clue what I signed up for.

Feeling confused, I called my father and made him look into whatever I was doing. After researching on it for a couple of hours, he explained to me what a web hosting means, what I signed up for and what can I do with it now. In the next couple of days, I built my first home page and hosted it on Brinkster. It is how I took my first step towards what I was going to be doing for the next decade and a half.

Reboot

This is my second time starting a personal blog. I started the first one a few years ago and wrote only a few posts in the entirety of its existence. Last year when I looked back at my posts, I disagreed with many of my own opinions and so I decided to delete the blog. Today, I think that was a mistake. I think it is incredibly important for everyone to put their views out in the public.

As Fred Wilson on his blog says

I would encourage everyone to share your views, opinions, and predictions publicly. It is a practice that produces great value for me and I think would produce similar value for others.

Going forward I plan to write something here everyday not just hoping to share something useful with anyone who reads this blog but also to create value for myself through feedback and comments.