In any normal year, I'd probably say this was the best in my life. I've had some incredible experiences and an abnormal amount of life events. It's hard to believe that in February I went to New York with my day job for a week where I watched the Brooklyn Nets play, had an event in the world trade centre and spent the rest of my time exploring the city.
Then in March I did a cruise around the Mediterranean, which was cut short due to 400 COVID cases being in Italy (funny to look back on that now). I also had the most successful year (just) for my side projects, moved back to my hometown and bought a flat here, then I found out I was going to be an uncle.
So strap in for my month-by-month review of 2020, along with some revenue numbers and key events. Note that each month I was sustained by my day job of ~£2.25k p/m.
Bright eyed and bushy tailed, we kicked off what was going to be an exceptional year. I'd written a great 2019 reflectionand had a ton of goals ready to 'smash' through.
This month had a lot of focus on my day job, as we hosted our year-ending event. This was the first time I'd been part of the team setting it up and it was an overwhelming success. We hired out a 400-seat Curzon Cinema in Soho and had a wonderful morning celebrating the best advertising in the world. It was quite a relief to pull-off an in-person event like that.
January was also the month I got really into motorbikes. One of my goals at the start of the year was to learn how to ride a motorbike (which you'll learn more about in March), but in January I started getting absolutely obsessed*. I strolled into my local bike dealer having never sat on a motorbike before and started peppering them with questions. I watched hundreds of hours of YouTube videos learning everything I could about what motorbikes were good, bad, how to ride etc etc.
One thing about me, if you don't already know, that if I get into something I get completely obsessed with it to the point it is worrying.
Some more highlights include
- Sold my car for profit to webuyanycar (is that some sort of record?)
- Finally upgraded to a 256gb iPhone
- Got a drone
- Shot a bunch of YouTube videos (with great intentions)
- Shot for a new client
- Bought a GoPro
This was my most impressive month because it was my second trip to New York in 6 months. After this we were actually considering moving me out there to help the team in the US - now that is just a distant memory.
I travelled to NYC to help our US team with promoting our Super Bowl Live Ad testing event. As you might now the biggest advertising event in the US is the Super Bowl, and at System1 we have a system that tests the 'effectiveness' of advertising based on emotion that spits out a score to show how effective that ad is. During the Super Bowl, we took each ad as it came in, put it into our testing system and live tweeted / blogged it all. It was a fantastic event with about 20 of us in a room, drinking beers and having a great time watching the Chiefs beat the 49ers.
I'd booked a week out in New York because we had another event (similar to the UK one in January), so had a good amount of time to explore the city a little more. I wandered around Soho for quite a bit, bought some more Allbirds and went to a hockey and basketball game at the Barlcays Centre in Brooklyn. Here's a funny story about that;
I booked the hockey game on the day of, as the ticket was only £10. I jumped on the subway to Brooklyn, headed into the centre and the security guard stopped me. Turned out I was carrying my little Victorinox multitool. When I say little, this thing is tiny and I only use it for grooming or opening bottles. Anyway, they said I couldn't come in with it and that I'd need to throw it away or I couldn't go into the game. I loved this little multi-tool so wasn't loosing it... so I went and hid it in a bush outside the stadium. 2 hours later after the game had finished, it was still there! Pure ecstasy.
I bloody enjoyed my time in New York and look back on it very fondly, I'm very much looking forward to getting back there when COVID calms down. On the way back I was almost on the quickest transatlantic flight of all time, thanks to a very strong tailwind from Storm Ciara. The quickest one landed just 20 minutes before me on the exact same route. The only reason we didn't beat the record is because on the landing we got about 5-10 meters off the runway and pulled up, so had to do a 20 minute circle around London to retry the landing - that was pretty scary.
Before going to New York, I'd actually bought my motorbike and had arranged to collect it from the dealership on the same day I arrived back in the UK. There were 2 main problems we faced on this day:
- There was a huge storm
- I did not have a bike license (so couldn't ride the bike)
So luckily for me I didn't have to ride the bike in the storm, but it meant someone had to! I roped in one of my sister's friends from Canterbury to ride it back and my mum gave him a lift to Lonon. My dad picked me up from the airport because I'd lent him my car for the week. It ended up being a real family affair at the dealership, with my mum, sister, sister's friend, dad and me all there to pick up this bike.
We drove / rode back home in some of the worst weather I've ever seen. It was hard enough to drive, let alone ride a motorbike. But we got it back!
The fun in February doesn't end here though! With my love for bikes brewing nicely, the National Bike Show at the Excel in London came at the perfect time. This is a huge show for motorbike nerds where all the brands are showing off their new bikes and it's a perfect time to pick up some new gear. I bought myself 2 new fancy helmets and got some funny looks on the tube ride back home... I enjoyed the bike show so much that I went back 2 days later with my sister.
I did say I get obsessed with things.
One final big thing happened in February; I viewed my flat-to-be. I didn't really have much intention of moving back to Canterbury at this point, I was just getting an idea of what you could get in Canterbury for the price compared to London. Spoiler: it's a lot more.
Side note. Property viewings are a bit weird aren't they? You spend 5 minutes looking at something you're about to make the biggest decision of your life on? You might go back for a second 5 minutes, but still?
Some more highlights include:
- Got really into outdoor / sustainable brands: Patagonia, North Face, Klean Kanteen, Peak Design
- Flew premium economy for the first time
- Went to first speakeasy bar
- Ate lots of dollar pizza
- Tried Keto - was kinda good. Had the nicest burrito bowl ever
- Watched W1A which was hilarious
- Went to my housemate Jules' gig
March was by far the strangest month. COVID was making its way over to Europe, but only really Italy was seeing much of an outbreak. So, naturally, we decided to go to Italy to embark on a cruise around the med. It's not an understatement to say COVID literally followed us around Europe. When we arrived in Rome on 1st March, there were only about 400 confirmed cases in northern Italy. When we were due back in Rome on the 8th March, there were 4,000 cases in Italy. 2 weeks after we got off the cruise, the ship was docked.
Anyway, the cruise itself was an interesting experience. Now I'll start this by saying I never had the intention of going on a cruise in my life, it's just never something that appealed to me. But, on this occasion, my uncle was working on the ship and had been out there for 5 months. We* got reduced rates and thought fuck it, let's see what it's like?!
*"We" is my and my big sister Sam, who will feature later on in this review.
The cruise departed from a place called Civitavecchia, which I can only describe as the Dover of Italy. It took us an hour to get there from Rome and it was pissing down with rain. We arrived on the ship like drowned rats and I was very pleased to get in the shower. That is in the top 2 showers I've ever had in my life I reckon. Also, the ship was massssiveee. I can't explain the scale of this thing.
Day 2 we went to Palermo, which was pretty dull, but the weather was a huge improvement on the UK. It was 22 degrees when in the UK we'd hardly made it into double figures yet this year.
Day 3 we were meant to go to Malta but COVID wasn't the only thing following us, a huge storm was too! So we avoided Malta and had a day at sea. This was potentially the most boring day of my life. Literally stuck on this massive ship in the middle of the sea, rocking side to side, with no mobile or internet connection. Beer was too expensive to get shitfaced too.
Day 4 we arrived in Majorca and I've never been happier to see land. This was by far the best day of the trip, because we hired little mopeds and rode around the south of the island, with a quick stop in Magaluf.
The next day was Barcelona which is a very cool place. It has everything you need there, lovely beaches, hikes, stunning architecture, shopping, decent football club, nightlife.
The final day was Marseille, where we decided to cut our trip short as the COVID situation in Italy was getting bad as they approached 4k cases (funny to look back at that number 9 months later). We hopped on flights back and that rounded up our cruise.
Now for an honest review of cruises: overpriced and boring, but fun to see a bunch of new places.
You have to load money on a card to spend anything, beer is like £7 per bottle and once you've been around the ship a few times, you quickly run out of things to do. You're stuck with buying overpriced shit on this ship for hours on end, with people constantly trying to upsell you on their packages. Buffet was okay, but enough to make you want to pay for the 'optional extra' package for the additional restaurants on the ship, which were actually very nice. The upside of the cruise was getting to see all of these new places. It was awesome to go to Italy for the first time, Majorca was beautiful and Barcelona is very cool City.
That was only week 1 of March.
The day after getting back I had booked a week long intensive Motorbike course so that I could pass my test. Day 1 was a CBT, which is a one-day course that I learned you literally can't fail. I say that because I took it with a 16 yr old called Alfie (same name as my cat which was odd), who was actually pretty good. But I also took it with this 18 yr old fella, his name escapes me, but what doesn't escape me was his complete inability to ride a motorcycle. Honestly, this kid was a danger to the road.
Don't believe me? He literally crashed the bike while on the road portion of the day and still passed.
The rest of the week we were put on the bigger bikes and did a bunch of riding in circles and around cones on the 'pad'. We then rode around Kent for the next few days with our coach Andy on the headset generally being hilarious. I'll never forget we were at traffic lights on a national speed limit road and he said to me "James, just remember there is no limit on acceleration", as I floored it on the lights turning green. The other fella with me on the course had been riding for a few years so he was a good rider.
The test day was bloody nerve racking, but I failed! There is 2 sections to it. The first section is on the pad riding around cones and in circles, passed that easily. The next is out on the road, and I distinctly remember how I failed as I overshot a corner, going slightly too wide.
Didn't have a chance to rebook the test as we went into lockdown! So, 9 months later, I still have no bike licence.
Some other highlights include:
- My first time riding motorbike
- Started running every day
- We went into lockdown
You'll be relieved to know the next few months are much more uneventful, so these sections will be shorter - as was my hair in April. Given we were now in lockdown, my barnet was truly awful. So we decided to make it even worse by getting a buzz cut.
Actually, it wasn't too bad. Mum hadn't given me a buzz cut since I was about 10, so she very much enjoyed it. I kept it up for a few weeks because getting a proper cut was not going to be possible until lockdown was over.
I'd also not been home to London since I came back from the cruise. I'd been back in Whitstable for about 4 weeks and was very much enjoying it. However, I was still paying rent in London so figured I'd go back to see out lockdown.
That lasted 3 days.
Thing is with my house situation in London I was living with 3 musicians. It pretty much worked out for the past few years that they'd be in during the day and out in the evenings, and I'd be at work during the day and back during the evenings. This meant we often didn't see each other for a few days, meaning was had a lot of our own space. When we were all in the house at once it just ended up feeling cramped and noisy.
So I begged my mum for me to come back to live with her for the remainder of lockdown. She agreed and I haven't stayed in London since.
Since I now couldn't go to Nero to get my daily coffee fix, I was on a mission to figure out how I could make coffee that I enjoyed as much as that from Nero. After watching a plethora of James Hoffman videos, I tried a few methods. First starting out with a mokka pot (which I just couldn't get on with), then tried a French Press, but settled on an AeroPress - which I still use today (fun fact; I have since gifted an AeroPress to both my dad and sister).
I now press an espresso like coffee that I get on order from local coffee roaster, Garage Coffee, then I froth the milk using a French press.
April was also the month I started hosting Weekend Club sessions for Charlie. Weekend Club is a community of indie hackers that was originally in-person, but moved remote in March when we went into lockdown. It's been a consistent every Saturday for me and I truly do love it - more on Weekend Club later.
Other highlights include
- Got into cooking, thank you Kenji
- Made churros and wraps
- Recorded podcast with Patrick Campbell
We were now about 6 weeks into lockdown and we were all remote working. I was finding it all okay, but had a lot of extra time from not commuting, so I took up a new hobby. Leatherworking.
Many of you may have heard of the story of Whitstable Craft Co (previously Fiberoll), where I set up a dropshipping store to try and learn ecommerce. Quickly realised that dropshipping is a horrible model so put the store on the backburner. I then tried to manufacture my own leather wallet after loving buying them from these little independent shops on my trips to Spain. I'd met up with a leather worker in the UK and had started to create some prototypes, but since COVID we couldn't progress.
So instead I bought a DIY leather craft kit from Charles Laurie London and made my first ever wallet. It was a pain in the arse, but 8 hours later I had a completed wallet. From then I purchased some of my own leather tools, some scraps off Amazon and started to make a ton more wallets. We'll revisit this later in the year.
May was also the time I decided to officially switch Striqo (my freelance business) to solely podcasting, and productise it. I'd been attracted to the idea of a productised service, something that is repeatable and scaleable like freelancing isn't. It was the most fun I'd had with my business in a long time. I spent a weekend building the new landing page, shooting the video and making some ads. I even got my first customer through the first set of Twitter ads - and they are still a client today.
Other highlights include
- Had my first KFC since lockdown in March
- Drove into a derelict London to pick up stuff from office which was surreal
- Hired my little sister to help with client work
- Won my biggest client
Late on in May I won my biggest client for freelancing, as it was around the time I was really worried about keeping my day job. It was someone I'd worked with before making videos for them, but we'd agreed I'd come on board to help them with their marketing strategy. I continued with this client for 3 months and although it was work I didn't really want to be doing, I was very grateful to have a cushion when things were so uncertain.
This time last year I was in Cannes, sipping rose and having a jolly good time. This June I was sipping my AeroPress coffee from my new Ember Mug. This mug keeps your hot drink hot so it doesn't go cold, a truly incredible invention. I was bored of reheating my coffee in the microwave. It's absurdly expensive and completely unnecessary, but I'd highly recommend it.
Having not really shot any videos extensively for the past 6 months, I got assigned an interesting project for my day job; which was to make a mini documentary. Luckily for me, the guy who wanted to make the documentary pretty much knew exactly what he wanted - I just had to show up and film. I drove to a place called Bray near Maidenhead and we shot a bunch of scenes in some pretty cool locations. You can see the full video here:
I started really getting into the leather crafting in June and decided to completely switch Whitstable Craft Co to sell the wallets I was making. Thinking back on it, I shouldn't have tried selling them just a few months into learning how to craft. I did carry one of the wallets I made early on for about 6 months and really liked it, mind you. We'll talk more about Whitstable Craft Co in November, when I really started to have a go at it again.
At this point I'd decided I really liked being back in Kent and I wasn't going to go back to London after this. I wrote a whole article about it. So, remember the flat viewing I did in February? We put an offer in and it was accepted!
Other highlights include
- Had our first McDonalds in months
- Weather started getting really nice in Whitstable
July is my birthday month! Turned 23 on the 16th and we celebrated with a couple of Corona's on the beach.
Lockdown officially ended on the 4th July too, so it was nice to be able to go out and have a nice meal at our favourite local mexican. I could finally fix my hair after the horrendous self-cutting I'd been doing for the past few months, so that was a real relief.
I also had a really fun time in July rediscovering all the things I'd missed about being back home. I rejoined my 5-a-side team and my local tennis club. Joined my local gym again that also opened in summer, and it was bloody good to get back training again.
So good that I even hired a personal trainer for that month. This was a great decision because I'd been really struggling with my training and staying in shape for years, especially since I'd been in London. My personal trainer was fantastic with motivating me and keeping me accountable, having some of the hardest but rewarding training sessions I'd ever had.
It was around this time I also started blogging. I wanted to build up a habit of writing regularly, both to get some of the thoughts out of my head and to become a better writer. There are so many benefits to being a good copywriter; not only is it good for selling things, but also for communicating your points when navigating certain situations (such as lawyers that take the biscuit when processing a house move, like seriously, why does it take 4 months?). I digress.
Blogging has been fantastic for me. It's been encouraging to have some people read my musings and I'm enjoying trying to get a written post out every week or so. I think I'm getting better as a writer but certainly more practice is required until I'm happy.
Other highlights include
- Discovered a little bit of trading
- Bought Sonos
- Recorded pod with marketing big shot Mark Ritson
- Hired a van and officially moved out of London
The majority of the year my side projects had been going slowly, but they've really started to kick off for the last few months of the year. In August I had the idea for Indie Bites, my short-form podcast where I speak to indie hackers about their profitable businesses in 15 mins or less.
Earlier in the year I was producing my podcast called Marketing Mashup, but I just ended up getting frustrated with the amount of time it was taking me to produce each episode, and it was no longer enjoyable. I didn't feel that much as part of the marketing community as I did part of the indie hacker one. So, I put those 2 things together, and started a short podcast talking to indie hackers!
Not much else happened in August as far as I can remember, apart from many IKEA trips preparing for my move at the end of September.
Oh, and my big sister announced she was pregnant!
Other highlights include
- Started watching The Last Kingdom
So September I really started to kick into gear with my side projects, and it's been a pretty successful close out to the year since then. I was finally inspired again to be making things, especially since all the positive feedback I've had on the podcast.
I bought the indiebites.co domain on the 2nd September, recorded the first episode with my good friend Charlie Ward on the 3rd and published it on the 7th. I then went absolutely bonkers in September recording and publishing episodes; I tried to commit to 2 per week and managed to keep that up until the last week in September when I moved into my new flat.
It all went a little crazy when I reached out to one of my inspirations, Courtland Allen from Indie Hackers, who agreed to join me on the podcast. I felt I'd completed podcasting- I didn't know where to go from this point! Well, as it so happened Courtland was looking to launch an experimental Indie Hackers podcast network and asked if I wanted to be a part of it. Since then I've been having mentoring from Courtland on the podcast and even had one of my episodes featured in the main Indie Hackers podcast feed which has been a massive boost to my show.
Not only did I get this awesome boost to the podcast, but I secured a sponsor from episode 2 of the show. Charlie from Weekend Club has been a huge support to me for every single one of my projects and agreed to sponsor the podcast even though I only had 10-20 listeners per episode. At over 2,000 listeners per month now, it's paid off for us both!
This was a massive bump to my morale and I'm super thankful to Charlie to all the support he's given me over the past 12 months. This extends to the wider Weekend Club community who have just been awesome (also use code Indie Bites at checkout for 50% off...).
Other highlights include
- Met up with a fella who shot this Canterbury video
- Flew my drone in blackheath
- Final trip to London
- Moved into my new flat!
This actually happened on the last day of September, but I feel Indie Bites stole the September limelight, but I moved into my new flat! It was a huge day after months of back and forths with the solicitor, but I was finally into a space of my own. It was one of the most exciting days of my life; hiring the van, packing all my stuff up, picking up the keys, walking in for the first time and starting to unpack everything.
My dad got the train down from London and it was a team effort moving all the stuff in the end. My little sister helped out with some of the heavy lifting, big sister with some of the more technical bits and mum was a legend being head of logistics.
October was also a very sad month as we lost our cat, Jasper, unexpectedly.
I’ve never lost anyone close to me before, so it was a completely new set of emotions I had to contend with. I’d not really understood how people could get so upset after losing a pet, but now I do. He passed away on the evening of the 12th October. I went over to my Mum's for some mac and cheese and he didn’t seem himself, we took him to the vets and it wasn’t good news. We had to put him down that evening.
The Tuesday was really tough. I took the day off work and spent it with my mum (we were both really close to the cat). It got better throughout the week but I am so lucky to have so many supportive people around me that understood how I was feeling.
There was a silver lining in all of this as I'd had our other cat, Alfie, move in the flat with me earlier in October. It's made life so much easier without Jasper being around and having a little buddy with me for company (as I live alone).
Other highlights include:
- Cooked my first roast
- Got new branding for Whitstable Craft Co
- Bought my new tennis racket
- Secured biggest client deal I've had
- Updated my profile picture (long overdue)
November was the hardest month I've had in a while, as the UK went into lockdown 2.0. Gyms shut again, I couldn't play football or Tennis. I was stuck in the flat, which although lovely, I really struggled with.
I also started getting horrendous headaches (which I still get) which I thought was down to looking at screens for too long(which I now don't think is the case) so I got glasses.
But because I thought it was to do with looking at screens for too many hours a day, I limited my screen time to the bear minimum I could. That meant I had to find something else to fill the time!
You'll remember at the start of lockdown 1.0 I started learning leather craft and it’s been pushed to one side since my other work has ramped up. I dusted off the tools and started creating some small leather wallets. And oh my word, I forgot how much I enjoyed making these.
There is something about creating something from a bunch of raw materials with your hands. Something that is beautiful and practical. Something to be proud of once you’ve made it. The whole process is fun; from the cutting, to the gluing, to the hand-stitching to the finishing.
If you’re interested in buying one, for you or a present for someone, I’m selling them here. There is a code for 20% off for blog readers - use ‘IREADTHEBLOG’.
I posted a similar excerpt on the blog in November and got my first sale outside of my mum and dad! My good friend Joe Masilotti bought one in the states, go I got to work making it and sent it out to him. I will say this completely inspired me to put more effort into the leather wallet business, as I have so much fun making them. So over the past few weeks I've started spending a little more time figuring out ecommerce, I even hired my mum to help me sell a few. Since then I've made a little money every month from the wallets and it would be really nice if it could build some momentum in 2021.
At the end of October I secured by biggest client deal ever, but it was likely going to be the most work I'd ever done. I agreed to do 3 YouTube videos a week for podcast platform Riverside.fm, for $300 a video, forgetting how much I usually charge for content like this - upwards of $1,000. So although because of the volume of videos meant the deal was going to be lucrative for my personal finances, I just didn't have the bandwidth to produce the videos in the time I had.
This ended up putting me in a really difficult place throughout November. Because not only did I have the headaches, but I had these videos looming over me which I was struggling to do. Pair that with lockdown meaning I could barely leave the flat, I ended up being completely burnt out.
I failed completely, in more ways than one. It led to a domino effect of failures which I talk about in this article.
After a shitty month I went on a little bit of a spending spree on Black Friday, purchasing a new M1 MacBook Air (which was actually meant to help me with producing the Riverside videos), but it's absolutely incredible.
Some other highlights
- Upgraded my blog to ghost
- Drew Jasper for new Whitstable Craft Co logo
Well, bloody hell, we've made it to December. This is the longest article I've ever written and if you've made it this far (hi mum) I am very impressed. Send me a DM and I'll buy you a coffee.
After the stressful month in November, I decided to part ways with Riverside. I was working 100 hour weeks and absolutely hating it. It was having too much of a negative impact for the money to be worth it for me. The guys at Riverside have been super understanding, paid me for the work, and we've left it open for us to continue in future if the circumstances suit.
A huge boost to my morale was coming out of lockdown 2.0. I could get a haircut, go to the gym and play tennis again. All of which lifted my mood immensely.
I got back on making Indie Bites episodes again, had time to make wallets and write on my blog finally. I felt free again, which tied in nicely to my conversation with Rob Hope about choosing freedom over money.
We were just getting into the swing of things until Saturday, when Boris announced Christmas is cancelled (for us in tier 4), which is a real bummer. Yes, it sucks that we're going into a lockdown again, but I saw this Instagram post from Steven Bartlett which I really liked:
Other things that happened
- Got my first christmas tree
- Started selling even more wallets
- Sold my first on etsy
- Soft launched Indie Bites membership
- Discovered art paper to take pictures
- Christmas got cancelled
So that's my bumper month-by-month review of 2020. COVID certainly threw a spanner in the works but I'm grateful to be healthy, with a job and a roof over my head. The year started exciting with New York and the motorbikes, and ended on a high with Indie Bites gaining some traction, along with some other cool side projects going into 2021.
Goals for 2021
Now, these aren't super thought out yet (that's my job for next week), but here's my goals for next year:
- Grow Indie Bites to $3,000 a month, through sponsors and memberships
- Publish 52 episodes
- Have other side projects making a collective $1,000 per month
- Leave full-time job
This year wouldn't be possible without some amazing people in my life. Here's who have had a huge influence on me this year:
- Mum - always supporting me through everything I do
- Dad - haven't been able to see much this year but is who I call when I need advice
- Chloe - grateful for all the help my little sister gives me, a living legend
- Charlie - endless support for all my projects, paid me for hosting Weekend Club and first sponsor of Indie Bites
- David - giving me amazing feedback and advice when I need it (even if it can be harsh)
- Joe - has been hugely helpful giving me advice and supporting my projects
- Jon - my boss at work giving me the opportunity to go to New York & generally being compassionate (especially when I lost my cat)
- Courtland - agreed to join the Indie Bites podcast and continued mentorship on making the show better
There are other people I'd like to thank personally, but you know who you are. Also a shoutout to the wider Weekend Club community for providing a lot of support and guidance over the past year - you guys rock.
I'll be taking a full break for the first time since March over Christmas, so I'll see everyone in the New Year!