Becoming a Full-Time Creator as a Software Engineer: Controversial Advice
I'm making a living by writing, full-time. My newsletter is the #1 paid technology newsletter on Substack. I'm what some describe as a full-time creator.
With remote work becoming more common in tech, I get more and more messages from people asking the same: how can they do what I do?
Despite being considered a successful creator, I don’t think that “creator” is a real thing - at least not a category anyone can or should aim for.
This post collects my thoughts on how to become a full-time creator. Or, as I prefer to think of it, run a one-person, bootstrapped, profitable startup.
When I left my job as an engineering manager at Uber in late 2020, I had nothing lined up on purpose, and decided to spend the coming 6 months writing a book, and then found a startup related to platform engineering, likely with VC funding.
Things turned out differently.
18 months later, I published several books, but am still writing The Software Engineer's Guidebook.
However, I never raised funds to build a startup. Instead, I doubled down on writing, starting my newsletter in September 2021. 4 months after starting this newsletter, it hit the #1 paid technology newsletter spot on Substack - here is the summary of what this meant.
My advice is controversial
The "creator economy" is booming, and there are many examples where people make a seemingly amazing living by having a huge number of subscribers. They make a living from their “fame”.
Excel Girl with a million followers, and making six figures is such a story. If you work in tech, a former Google and Facebook engineer going by the brand TechLead regularly boasts about being a millionaire. TechLead makes most of his living through sponsorships in his YouTube videos and through dubious activities like selling his own crypto coin, misleading his followers, and profiting millions of dollars.
Many people assume that a large following, and somehow "cashing in" on a following is what they should aim for.
I think these examples are poor ones. They are outliers both in how well they are known, but also they don't reflect how most people leaving employment make a living.
My advice is controversial because it goes against the traditional advice most creators share which is usually limited to building an audience or a following. I won't touch on this: even more, I'd caution making audience building your main end goal.
Instead of talking about succeeding as a creator, I'll instead talk about how to succeed as a small business.
Making a living, but NOT as an employee
Making a living as an employee at a tech company is straightforward: get the job, perform in line with expectations, get paid. Get promoted or switch jobs for more money, more challenge, or for both.
What happens when you quit employment?
Assuming you want to make a similar amount as an employee, you have a few options:
1. Become a freelancer or a contractor. Do almost the same work for similar companies. You get paid a higher rate but have to manage your own books and source your work. Contracts are often for fixed lengths, and you need to find your next contracts. Even if on longer contracts, you're laid off easier than if you're an employee.
2. Bootstrap your own business and employ yourself. Start a business offering services or selling goods. As a freelancer, you might sometimes do this for tax reasons, or if you get more business than you can handle and need to hire others. For selling goods, most of us in tech would sell digital goods like building a SaaS and selling seats for it, selling digital education goods like courses or books, and so on.
As the business brings in profits, you then either employ yourself, pay out dividends from business profits, or do both. You're truly your own boss now!
3. Raise funding and start your own business, employing yourself. If you want to earn comparably as much as you did working in tech, bootstrapping might take too long at times.
Some people will instead opt to raise funding such as venture funding to accelerate hiring and building their business. You are still in charge, but not nearly as much as if you bootstrap. Investors now have preferences in several cases, and they will hold you accountable for the money they put in.
One thing to keep in mind is raising venture funding usually requires you to have done upfront work and show traction, often done through bootstrapping.
4. Invest your savings and live off of gains. If you've worked in tech for a while, there's a good chance you have savings. You could use these savings to invest in stock markets, day trade with them, and - hopefully - make a profit. I know several people who started day trading full-time.
Buying real estate and renting it out is another approach. Investing some amount of your savings is a good idea, regardless of if you’re an employee or working for yourself.
Amazing enough, the above four categories cover most cases on how you can make a living when not an employee.
So why is "creator" not listed anywhere?
It's because being a creator is one of the above categories, depending on how you approach it.
Instead of "creator" think "one-person business"
Being a creator sounds like this wonderful opportunity to do whatever you want, people paying attention, then somehow making money off of this.
The concept of "I get to do what I want, how I want it" is exactly the same with any one-person, bootstrapped business. As long as you don't take external funding, you are fully in charge, and get to decide how you want to make money.
Most creators are B2C (business to consumer), bootstrapped businesses. They typically make their revenue through selling:
- Own digital products and subscriptions. For example, this is how former Stripe engineer Julia Evans makes a living creating Wizard Zines which are visual programming explainers. In 2019 she already made more than $30,000 in a month.
- Small software products that can be built by one person. These include apps, games, SaaS software and many others. For example, software engineer Riley Tomasek started to build Standard Resume as a resume generator when he applied for tech companies. This was the tool that got him his job at Dropbox. A few years later, this side project grew to $5,000/month in revenue and Riley later quit his fulltime job, and is currently working on this product.
- Sponsorships and advertising. This is a typical model of how many creators with a large audience monetize the fact that many people pay attention to them.
- Affiliates - where they get a cut of all sales.
B2C creators are ones who often build in public. Doing so often attracts future buyers, and it helps build their brand. One of the first people who started building in public movement is Pieter Levels, founder of NomadList, RemoteOK, and other sites. He is currently at $2.9M/year revenue rate and openly shares how his business - and revenue - progress. Tony Dinh is also someone who shares his business journey and earnings path as he’s building SaaS tools, as he’s currently at around $70K/year revenue rate.
There are exceptions to the "bootstrapped business" concept, though very few. YouTube creator Marina Mogilko has taken a $1.7M VC investment in return for 5% of her creator earnings for 30 years. She'll likely use this money to invest in expanding her YouTube and other offerings by hiring more support: just like a business would. Her setup is closer to a one-person VC-funded business.
How do you prepare for running a one-person business?
Instead of asking "how can I one day be a full-time creator", anyone aspiring to do this should ask "what are things I can do today to prepare to run a one-person business?"
Turns out, there are plenty, even as you work full-time, as an employee of a tech company.
- Become more product-minded. Learn about how the business works and how it makes money. You'll need this skill to decide what products you'll ultimately offer.
- Sell something online. It could be anything: an ebook, a course, or sponsorship for your blog. You'll learn more about becoming an entrepreneur this way than by reading any number of books. At least I did.
- Understand what others do, and how they do it. Follow people who have successfully pivoted from working in tech to being full-time creators. Daniel Vassallo is well-known for leaving Amazon - and $1M over the next two years - and launching a series of small bets. Many people in the Small Bets community are following in Daniel’s footsteps. Julia Evans makes a living selling Zines, Josh W. Comeau and Kent C. Dodds make a living educating on technology and Justin Welsh is building a portfolio of one-person businesses with millions in revenue.
- There are more and more publications covering the reality of one-person businesses and the creator economy. The ones I read are The Information Creator Economy and Simon Owen's Media Newsletter. Read articles that outline the gritty reality of the creator middle class, not just success stories.
- Pay for niche resources. The Information's Creator Economy column will set you back by $20-40/month. You might decide it's not worth paying for it, after all. But here's a lesson to learn as you think about this: anything niche that only interests a small number of people needs to be paid, or else it won’t be a profitable business. Think about this lesson as you'll consider how to get people to pay for what you'll offer. Another reason you should sell something online.
- Become a "tech influencer". Although the "influencer" description can feel click-baity, I really liked the well-grounded advice Will Larson gives on what you can do to have more people pay attention to your thoughts and work. Will is the CTO of Calm and author of An Elegant Puzzle. Will's advice is that it's both hard work, and strong leverage to have the attention of many people who expect that you have interesting, valuable, or entertaining things to say.
Understand the models of making money
The biggest challenge most people quitting employment face is this: how do I make enough money, on my own? The good news is, that as someone working for yourself, you have lots of options to make money. However, not all are easy, and some might be out of the question, depending on the type of one-person business you start.
Here are common ways one-person businesses make money:
1. B2C: selling to consumers. A popular model, as it's easy to get started, and it's the approach you see popularized on Twitter the most. Here's what many businesses sell:
- Books. Especially easy to do these days with self-publishing tools like Amazon’s KDP platform. This is how my friend Alex Xu published the #1 Amazon computer science bestseller The System Design Interview Volume 2 after writing it full-time for over a year. Several software engineers self-published books they wrote on the side, while working fulltime jobs. Shawn Wang made $25,000 in his launch on The Coding Career Handbook, Randall Kanna made $30,000 in a few months on The Standout Developer, and Emma Bostian made $40,000 in pre-sales of Decoding the Technical Interview Process. I also self-published all of my books.
- Courses and webinars. Platforms like Podia, Gumroad, Teachable and others make selling courses and digital goods easy. For example, this is how former Amazon software engineer Curtis Einsmann created the course Master the Code Review, earning $18K in two months.
- Tools. Designer Traf made $101K in 6 days by selling an icon set for iPhone. Fellow creator Louie Bacaj suggests for engineers to start with this category. He says: “I really believe it's easier than ever to build some small software tools and make some money. Afterward, you can even sell them on Microacquire. This is how I am building ThreadX, a small app to get feedback on Twitter threads before publishing them.”
- Subscriptions. Charge recurring fees to access newsletters or SaaS services for consumers. This is how I am writing The Pragmatic Engineer Newsletter which has thousands of paying subscribers. It’s the model former software engineer Dru Riley started his newsletter Trends.vc which made close to $300K/year a year later.
- Your time. Offer your time to be booked for mentoring, coaching or advice in exchange for payment.
- Your sawdust. If you’re someone with years, or decades of experience working in tech, you can likely just sell your sawdust: things that are already in your head, like your past experience. This is what former Director of Engineering Louie Bacaj did when recording a course on Timeless career advice for software engineers. Louie took a few days in total to record this course, building on a decade of experience. The person who coined this term is Daniel Vassallo who, after working for years at AWS, wrote a book in two weeks about The good parts of AWS. This book made more than $40K in just a few weeks.
2. B2B: selling to businesses. While you’ll hear lots about B2C strategies, and revenue numbers shared, you will come across far less transparency when it comes to B2B. Selling to businesses means selling to fewer customers, but charging each customer much more. In fact, when selling to businesses, you might be able to charge each customer a different rate!
Selling to businesses is harder to get started, and more difficult to get traction. Once you do so, it is usually less effort to keep it up, and a B2B approach can be more profitable than many B2C strategies. Here are a few B2B approaches:
- Ads. When you have enough visitors on a website or social media, you might be able to monetize with generic ads. I made $2,300 in a year through small ad placement on this blog - an ad slot I have removed at the beginning of 2022.
- Producing content. Businesses are open to paying freelancers to produce articles and videos for them, and they tend to pay more for technical content. This can range from a few hundred to thousands of dollars per piece. See the site Who Pays Technical Writers for resources.
- Sponsorships. A more profitable version of advertising is sponsoring websites, videos, newsletters, and podcasts. The creator customizes these and chooses ones that are more relevant for people consuming these. Revenue from sponsors is usually much higher than placing generic ads. Sponsorships might start at a few hundred dollars, and could go all the way to millions of dollars. Here's how Pieter Levels sold $600,000 worth of sponsorship for one of his sites.
- Sponsored articles or videos. When you have a large enough targeted audience, businesses might be open to "super sponsorships", when a whole piece is about this. This is the business model for the Not Boring newsletter which covers companies as part of sponsored deep-dives, which can cost $20-50K a piece.
- Online courses. Kent C Dodds created the course Epic React and has sold more than 10,000 licenses, generating revenue in the millions. I'm listing this course under B2B as it's an example where although it's sold as B2C, the biggest customers are likely companies buying these as training for their staff.
- Workshops. Offering live group workshops for teams. This is what Pat Kua does with Tech Lead academy.
- Cohort-based courses. This category is one that has taken off only in the past few years. One of the oldest and most successful cohort-based courses is Write of Passage, running twice a year. Although the price of $4,000 to attend is high, this is a good example of a premium offering that deliberately prices itself for people who have far more than $4,000 to gain by becoming influential writers. I’ve talked with people who have taken the course and have nothing but praise for both the content, and the network of people they met: many of them current or future influencers through writing. People who took this course include fellow creator Loue Bacaj, who shared how this course changed his mindset on the creator economy and contributed to him eventually leaving Big Tech.
- Developer tools. Tailwind CSS. In the five months after releasing Tailwind UI, this tool brought in $2M for creator Adam Wathan. Since then the formerly one-person business has expanded to a small business.
- SaaS offerings. There are a host of SaaS services to be sold to businesses that can be built as a one or two-person business. Plausible analytics - the analytics tool I use on this blog - has grown to $500K/year in revenue with this approach.
- Selling a whole business. Many software engineers manage to create SaaS offerings and tools which gain some traction, but not enough to generate a full-time revenue. Instead of keeping it on a lifeline, you can sell these businesses on Microacqquire. Here’s a story on how a software engineer sold their profitable SaaS for well above $35K.
What are things people and businesses pay for? This is a question you need to understand if you want to make a living as a solo business. Neither people, nor businesses like to part with their money. Here are a few categories that they do spend it on, though:
- To make more money. The most obvious approach. If, by paying you $100, a person or business can make $1,000 directly, or indirectly, you'll find your offering easier to sell.
- For professional education. If you can teach people things that make them professionally more valuable - and thus allow either them to make more money, or their business to operate more efficiently - they will pay for this. My newsletter is in this category.
- For entertainment. A common reason - however, as you'll compete with the likes of Netflix or Spotify, it's rare to pull this off as a one-person business.
- For edutainment. Although entertainment is a hard category to crack for a one-person business, edutainment - a mix of education but done in an entertaining way - is much easier. Courses and videos which explain concepts in fun ways and which tell stories are excellent ways to get people to pay.
- To sell to your audience. If you are someone who has a large number of followers, companies will be interested in paying you so they can advertise tho this group, and - ultimately - make money from them.
- Because they like you. Yes, this is also a thing. The more people know and care for you, the more likely there are several who would pay just so they know they support your journey. Admittedly, it’s not the most stable business model to plan for.
Social media not used as a channel to make a living off
Many of the traditional "creators" try to make a living purely off social media. They're the YouTubers who post videos several times a week, running sponsored videos. The Instagrammers with millions of followers doing the same. Many of these people ineviatebly either burn out, or lose their income stream as The Algorithm starts showing their content less.
A much better model for the "sustainable creator" is creating on the side of the one-person business. Basically, focus most of your energy running your business which makes money, and create some related content to this business.
This is my approach, for example for my YouTube channel, my Twitter and my LinkedIn. I post videos or content when I have time. I try to keep it useful, and often take things from my main work - my newsletter - and share it on these channels.
I'm not the only person who is following this approach. A commenter on Hacker News shared their observation with me that photographers with as much as 500K YouTube subscribers are doing the same:
"Recently, I've started getting into Youtube again, but following a couple of different hobbies much more closely; woodworking/making, and photography. What you describe is echoed by a few of them, namely, they do not really attempt to make a sole living purely off of Youtube. Instead, Youtube is kind of a marketing channel for them with auxiliary advertising revenue.
Basically, they sound a lot like you, in that they're all running a small business, typically as opposed to pure client work. But I don't think any of them see Youtube as a basis of their revenue; it's more of just another marketing channel.
Examples include Sean Tucker, photography and Lincoln St Woodworks.
I suspect the best generalization is the "1000 true fans" approach, where they're just trying to use different media to just contact those true fans. And build a business around that interaction, and just monetize everything else they can.
While many aspiring creators are dreaming of audiences of millions of followers, I suggest looking at these more grounded examples. Build a business that generates revenue, and use creator tools and social media as a tool to help market this business, and not as a means to an end.
Experiment with multiple revenue streams
The nice thing about building your own business is you can experiment, have several streams of income, and over time decide which ones you focus more on.
If you’re just starting out, try to get started with a revenue stream earlier, rather than later. Making your first dollar that doesn’t come from a paycheck changes your understanding of money, business, value, and how they are connected.
Of the above models, I’ve made use of ads, affiliates, sponsorships, B2C book sales, and B2C and B2B subscription or education-related sales. Note that I have since retired ads and affiliates. Here's how much I made on ads, and how much on affiliates.
People who create content that has a wide reach often start with ads, sponsorships, and affiliates as their income streams. Those starting off with a more specific niche tend to start off with subscriptions, sponsorships, courses, or books as streams.
In most cases, you won’t know what works better until you try. Books are an interesting area, as they don’t sound terribly profitable, and they are the most work to produce. However, because they take so much work to do, there’s less competition among excellent tech books for a given topic, than there is for videos, articles, or even courses.
Run your one-person business like a proper business
If you think of yourself as a one-person business, how many people work here? One person, right?
Highly profitable one-person businesses work with several people so the person in the middle - you! - can leverage their time the best possible way. This means investing in people and tools to spend your time more efficient.
Buy tools that make you more productive. In my case this means paying for Grammarly, Canva or my note-taking tool (Craft). I buy equipment like noise-cancelling headphones which helps me focus when writing, bought an ergonomic desk for home and also rent an office where I usually get things done more efficient.
Hire specialists for things that are not your core competencies. My core competencies are networking with people, researching interesting topics on software engineering, and writing about these. Things I can do, but I'm not very good at include copyediting my writing, editing videos, and filing my tax records. So I hired contractors who help me with these tasks.
I believe that working with contractors is a partnership and invest in these relationships accordingly. The best contractors usually have too many clients and inevitably dump clients who don't treat them with respect, or who are not profitable ones. I aim to not be this client who gets dumped. Treating contractors as your equals and helping them where you can go a long way.
Decide if you want to grow beyond a one-person business. Former MD Ali Abdaal started off as a one-person business. Today, he employs close to 20 people running Part-Time YouTube Academy, publishing courses and podcasts. In 2021, his business made $4.8M in revenue.
Ali is one of the extremely transparent creators, which might be surprising to see. For example, he recorded an in-depth guide on starting a YouTube channel and growing it to a professional business.
However, looking through the lens of a successful business, Ali's strategy makes perfect sense. He runs a B2C business where most of his revenue comes from three sources:
- People buying his chort-based course for YouTube creators
- People buying his courses on Skillshare
As a B2C business, being transparent on his numbers serves as a marketing channel, attracting people who aspire for similar success as Ali. These videos are both a sales funnel for his courses, and also an opportunity to run sponsored ads thanks to the large viewership.
What is worth noting about Ali is he decided early on that he will run a profitable, but not one-person business, and hired staff accordingly. Not all creators are one-person businesses. In fact, the most successful creators have large teams working with them in the background: except most of them are not as transparent about this as Ali is.
Prepare to take a risk
You can do all the research you want, but if you'll never make a leap, you'll never know if you could make it as a one-person business. A few things that help are these:
- Build up a nest egg. Save up as you work in tech, so you have a financial cushin to do something risky later on.
- Build side projects to learn more about yourself. I have always done this, building dozens of side projects over the years.
- Consider small bets on the side. Former Amazon engineer Daniel Vasallo is the pioneer of the small bets strategy for which he offers a course. Several engineers I know took this course and started to do their own small bets approach.
- Build up unfair advantages. As a one-person business, you'll have to somehow stand out among the crowd of businesses offering similar things - advice, education, entertainment and so on. While you are working full-time, can you start to build out things that will become your unfair advantage? Former Gatsby engineer Josh Comeau had published on his blog well before launching his CSS course which made $500K over the launch. I wrote this blog for 6 years before launching my newsletter off the back of the success of the blog.
Think of alternatives to one-person businesses. Don't box yourself into the idea that you need to start a one-person business. Keep the door open for other, even better, opportunities that might come your way.
There is no one beaten path
The biggest surprise I had after leaving the corporate world is how little of a beaten path there is in succeeding as a one-person business.
While working at Uber, my career options were clear. Get promoted as an individual contributor all the way to the Principal Engineer levels, or switch to the manager path and make it to Director, VP Engineering, or CTO one day.
As a one-person business, such career paths don't exist.
It's down to you to define what success looks like for you. And not only is it ok to think outside the box: the most successful creators consistently do this.
Copying what works for others is a strategy, but I found more success by experimenting with new ideas, and doubling down on them when I feel they are doing well.
When you work for yourself, there are no rules, which is both scary, and a huge opportunity. After years of working for corporate, this means you need to let go of old habits and embrace new ones.
If you make the leap, know that everything changes. As a result, you will, as well.
Thanks to Loue Bacaj for reviewing this post and offering feedback. Louie quit his Director of Engineering job in Big Tech to start his creator journey which he regularly tweets about. I thoroughly enjoyed his Timeless Career Advice course which is unfiltered advice for software engineers and engineering managers.
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