As the New Year draws closer I like to reflect. Around this time I publish a few thoughts on what I made, what worked and what didn’t. These annual reviews allow me to take inventory on the past year and plan for the next one.
This year is special, because 2019 marks 5 years I’ve been doing these annual reviews. I published my first one in 2014. That year is especially interesting, because it foreshadows me leaving my job in advertising to start a fantasy sports company (then called SidePrize).
Writing these reviews takes an enormous amount of time, but having a window into the past is invaluable. The ability to look back at 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 or 2018 and see how my choices have have worked out provides prospective. I have both worked hard and been very fortunate.
But what about this year? How did I do on my goals in 2019?
I put in a significant amount of time into Product Dork and it has paid off. The site’s revenue and users have grown every month. The design projects I’ve worked on at SalesLoft this year have been the most enjoyable and challenging ones I’ve ever worked on. Also, I took some pretty rad pictures this year—India, Bahamas, Miami, North Georgia and Atlanta of course.
I didn’t accomplish everything I had hoped. There are only a handful of new blog posts here. I did not start publishing interviews again (although I did add a few old ones). My flight deals project, Aerodero, is still useful to me and the few people that use it. However, it hasn’t made enough of an impact for me to justify improvements.
All things considered I’m pleased with how things went this year.
Table of contents
This review is broken up into a few different parts. Feel free to read the whole think or skip around to the parts you’re interested in.
Talking about my projects is always my favorite part of these reviews. They are what I tinker with in my free time and allow me a productive way to explore. While I am exceptionally happy at my current job (SalesLoft is hiring!), I do hope one some of these projects turn into business of their own one day.
The site was initially a blog and a little more than a year ago I was considering whether I should shut the project down. It didn’t find much interest as a blog. Part of that was my fault. I wasn’t motivated to keep writing. However, it has exceeded all expectations. I’m glad I decided to take another approach. Currently the site has over 100 members and receives 50,000 pageviews each month.
I joined Amazon’s affiliate program this summer hoping that I would be able to cover the cost of hosting the site. Basically, when people buy a product after reading a post on Product Dork I get a small percentage of that sale.
Product Dork was profitable instantly. I was able to cover my hosting costs on the first day. I suspected there was a decent amount of buyer intent, but did not realize how much potential was there. It’s something I probably should have done earlier.
Now that the site is making money, I’m more comfortable investing more money and time. A few things that are top-of-mind for 2020:
- More comparative reviews
- Paid contributors
- Onboarding improvements
- Brand design
If you’re interested in the details here, you can read the Product Dork 2019 Annual Review. Where I discuss those topics in more details. Essentially, I’m planning to take the revenue Product Dork generates and put it back into the site.
Aerodero is a tool I built to help track cheap flights out of Atlanta. It’s a tool that has worked well for my personal use. I’m unsure how many people actually use it though. Earlier in the year I attempted adding flights out of other cities, but I found that the number of deals (and duplicate deals) were overwhelming. Nobody wants 30 emails a day. Perhaps, the way to handle those would be a single daily email that aggregates all those deals.
I’m questioning whether I should keep Aerodero going. I think a better alert system is needed. Aerodero takes in several RSS feeds and looks for city names or airport codes. If it were smarter, it would scan for dates and prices. Then it would allow users to filter and set alerts for when the narrowly-scoped criteria is met. Unfortunately, building something like that is beyond my skillset. Even then, there’s not an obvious path to monetization.
On the other hand competitor flight deal tools are very good. Google Flights allows you to do almost that. Except it isn’t dependent on third-parties for information. Then there are curated services like Scott’s Cheap flights, which people seem satisfied with.
What should I do?
One thing that’s occurred to me is that I could roll these flight deals into another project that has been rolling around in my head…
In the past I’ve joked about replacing this site with Discourse (I won’t). But there is a lot of flexibility in how Discourse can be structured and allows room to experiment. Instead of Building a million different projects, I’m going to build one to test them. I’m calling the project CIVITON.
This will probably look something like reddit. With a collection of broad categories and interests that users can follow. If you’re interested, add your email to this form and I’ll send an invite when the site is ready.
Right now there are a handful categories I’m considering—mostly related to my interests.
- Product Design
- Personal Finance
- Travel/Flight Deals (Aerodero)
I’m still trying to figure out how broad or narrow the starting categories should be. If you have any thoughts, let me know!
For a long time I had a projects section on this site. I took it down several years ago, mostly because my older projects were a little embarrassing. However, I’m older, wiser and don’t really care anymore. I recently saw Josh Pigford’s spreadsheet with every project he’s built. It’s fantastic and I’m inspired by it. Because of that I think I’m going to add a projects page back.
As for layout or theme changes—I’m still unsure about Gutenberg, the new WordPress editor. It seems to work fine with this theme, so I’ll probably avoid any significant updates for now. I’d rather put that energy into my other projects.
In 2014 I started a journal to track my auras and migraine headaches. Written observations from this journal helped me discover that I was experiencing a Scintillating Scotoma. Since then I’ve expanded it to include all illnesses and ailments I’ve experienced. When it’s time for my yearly physical I share the information in this journal with my doctor—it’s a great way to make sure I’m not forgetting anything.
In the past I kept this information on an obscure WordPress site and even a Tumblr blog (that’s a story for another time). This year I moved it over to Airtable, which is a kind of visual database. It allows me to get more granular, add tags and search and filter easily. I think it’s a better way to organize this information.
At one point I had considered building an application around this concept—I discussed it on Hacker News about a year ago. There hurdles are unrealistically large though. For now my plan is to publish the template under Airtable Universe. That way anyone who’s interested can easily track their health.
Ant Design UI Kit (English Translation)
When it comes to enterprise product design, I think there are only a handful of UI libraries that are really good. One of them is Ant Design. It contains various typeahead inputs, several date pickers and just about anything else you’d need.
Ant Design has an excellent Sketch Library, but it doesn’t translate to English well. I’ve made it a personal task to rebuild this library, but with English components as the default.
I’m about a quarter of the way done, there’s still a long way to go though.
Time flies. It’s hard to believe that I’ve been at SalesLoft for almost 3 years. That’s the longest I’ve worked—well—anywhere. When I joined there were about 100 people. Now we have close to 500 people located all over the world.
Most of 2019 I split my time between two teams—UI components and workflow. The UI components team has been pulled into a lot of feature work in the last few months. Hopefully, we’ll be able to return our focus back on components soon.
I am incredibly excited about the features the workflow team is planning. A big focus is on making workflows more flexible. I think customers are going to love it. If we do a good job, our customers are more successful—that’s one of the great things about working on a product like SalesLoft.
This year it felt like our design process improved significantly. I credit the growth and involvement of our UX research team. Having someone help coordinate, plan and distill thoughts from customer interviews allows designers to hear from more people. And that helps the us validate that we’re planning the right solutions.
Last thought about SalesLoft—the largest design challenges have been around scale. SalesLoft needs to be effective for customers that have 10 seats, 100 seats and 1,000 seats. The problem is each of those businesses have very different needs—content visibility, object visibility, permissions, groups. It adds an extra layer to think about when building new features. We’ve done a good job thus far, but it is something to we’ll keep running into.
All-in-all, it has been a blast. I am incredibly fortunate to be apart of SalesLoft.
As usual, I like to make a few book recommendations. Below are a few recommendations with short descriptions.
The covers below aren’t real. I either recreated them or decided to design new ones—it’s mostly the reason this review is late this year. However, I think the covers are a nice touch. Do you have a favorite?
Economics in One Lesson
Economics in One Lesson is short, dense and accurate. It’s currently at the top of my economics books list and is certainly an all-time favorite.
The book is broken up into 3 sections: The Lesson, The Lesson Applied and The Lesson After 30 Years—the 1978 addendum. The Lesson is fairly simple:
The whole of economics can be reduced to a single lesson, and that lesson can be reduced to a single sentence. The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.
The lesson applied provides examples of wide variety of economic cliches and shows how they hurt specific individuals within the economy—spread-the-work schemes, the fetish of full employment, who tariffs protect, damage rent control causes and minimum wage laws.
The 1978 addendum to Economics in One lesson was written about 30 years after the book was published. That addendum is about 40 years old. I find it incredibly striking how relevant the book is after more than 70 years in print.
We Are Legion (We Are Bob)
We Are Legion (We Are Bob) is a comical sci-fi book that explores how replicants, not artificial intelligence comes to dominate the universe. I don’t often read fiction, but it after having it recommended by several friends, I decided to pick it up. I did not want the book to end.
I’m not sure how much to talk about the book without giving the plot line away. I’ll just say that if you enjoyed The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, this is certainly a book you’ll want to pick up.
If you like sci-fi, but have been hesitant to get into fiction. We Are Legion might be worth a shot. Also, of all the covers I designed, I think this one is my favorite.
The Five Dysfunctions of a Team
For my tenure at SalesLoft people have asked “What makes SalesLoft special?” I’d always tell them it’s that the people. That answer is fine. Most people accept it, but it doesn’t address what makes SalesLoft great. When I read Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team it clicked—it’s the conflict.
My teams have a lot of arguments, but nobody takes those arguments personally. We all want what’s best for the product, company and customer. We just disagree about the best way to do that. Nobody takes a disagreement personally.
I think this is a must-read for everyone, because at some point everyone is going to have to be part of a team.
In Factfulness Hans Rosling asks questions about the world and seeks out data to find the answer. His Factfulness Quiz asks general questions about population, environment and education. Surprisingly professors, politicians and other educated people score worse than random. Their preconceived beliefs cloud their understanding.
In Factfulness, Rolsing attempts to provide instincts to help people find the facts. This includes scrutinizing articles articles if they are attempting to provoke fear or putting forth large numbers (often they are small or irrelevant within context). I also found his commentary on the 4 income groups as a useful lens to view at the rest of the world.
How good is this book? So good that Bill Gates gave away millions copies. If Bill Gates think you should read it, you probably should consider.
Why We Sleep
Why We Sleep was a book I picked up after several recommendations from friends and co-workers. It makes a case for why we should prioritize sleep health and prompted me to change some of my habits to get a little more sleep.
My main takeaway is that sleep is incredibly important. Poor sleep makes us dumber, sicker and less happy. There’s a correlation between lack of sleep and cancer, Alzheimer’s and traffic accidents. All of those are things I’d like to avoid.
Unfortunately, since the books publishing, much of the cited evidence has been disputed. Take the book with a grain of salt.
How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big
How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big is a book by the controversial cartoonist behind Dilbert, Scott Adams. I reviewed it earlier this year.
There is one exceptionally valuable concept in this book, Systems over Goals. It’s very close to a concept called Personal Systems that has been rolling around in my head for a while. Essentially, systems are the only way you can get to ambitious goals because brilliance and hard work don’t scale on their own. Conserve your energy and focus on building systems to reach your goals.
In general, this would have been a great book for me as a college kid, now it’s validation more than anything else.
The Snowball is the biography of legendary investor Warren Buffett. The book is longer and has more fluff than I’d prefer, but it is his most prominent biography. It paints a picture of an obsessive, eccentric investor that was ahead of his time. The obvious question is how did he become so rich?
More than anything there are two concepts: float and compound interest. Float is the lag between payment to the business and the time it needs to issue services. This can be seen in his insurance businesses where clients pay for insurance today and services could be years away. The other idea, compound interest, is the idea that not only do you get returns on the money you invest, but also earn money on those returns. Its exponential growth, not linear.
The book was published in 2008 and touches on some of the issues with AIG and elsewhere in the banking industry. The recession had only just started. I would have loved for this book to have been released in 2010 or 2011. I’m curious to know what challenges Warren Buffett and Birkshire Hathaway had following the housing crisis.
Anyways, If you’re interested in what type of character Buffett is, the book is excellent. If you’re just hoping for some investing tips, the paragraph above will do.
Last year I’d say the majority of my writing time was spent writing reviews for Product Dork. I did publish four posts to solomon.io, though. That is about what I did in 2018.
Here are the things I wrote.
Better Markdown in Visual Studio Code
Better Markdown in VS Code was my favorite (and the most popular post) on my blog this year. I love the simplicity of writing in Markdown and getting a new computer at work gave me the nudge to explore some new options.
In the end, I decided to make some tweaks to improve the writing experience in VS Code. The post details how to make the same changes I did. It’s been so great that I’ve switched from IA Writer to VS Code on my personal computer. Actually, most of this post was written in VS Code!
In August I gave a presentation to the design team about my favorite high-leverage Sketch shortcuts. The post covers a few of my favorite shortcuts as well as some custom ones for alignment. There’s also some tips for improving your workflow with Sketch Runner—especially if you’re working within a large Sketch library.
How to Organize Your Sketch Color Palette
Another Sketch tips post. This one is about organizing your Sketch color palette. Basically, you can use transparent colors to push colors to the next line. As long as you have less than 8 or less shades of each color, you can use this method to keep your palette organized.
Aerodero: A Tool to Track Cheap Flights
This was the announcement post for Aerodero, a tool I built to track cheap flights. As mentioned elsewhere, the tool works, but I haven’t made much progress with it. I’m pondering what my next steps are for the project.
Plans for 2020
The past few years my goals have been more broad—more aspirational. This year I have two narrow, concrete goals.
Triple Product Dork’s monthly revenue. I’ve got a good idea of what works and what doesn’t. It’s just a matter of researching products and publishing reviews. Barring changes outside my control, I’m confident this can be done.
Launch CIVITON, gain 200 users. This one is going to be more difficult. Building communities is a very difficult task—especially if they have a broad number of topics. It will be months before most content ranks. If you’re a fan of reddit or Hacker News or like online communities, join the wait list. I’ll send you an invite when it launches!
That’s it! I’d love to hear what you find interesting. Leave me a comment.
Here’s to 2020!