2020 was not that bad

Dec 28, 2020  ·  17 min read

It feels weird to say this considering that, well, this has been 2020 – but I think this may have been my best year so far.

It’s also a bit of a cliché: every new year often feels better than the previous ones. It may be the recency effect, my own confirmation bias or just a pure desire for things to improve after all these past months’ events.

I’m deeply sorry for everyone that lost a loved one or otherwise suffered personally this year. I’ve been lucky enough not to be affected by the pandemic in any meaningful way, and, all things considered, 2020 has been net positive for me — so I wanted to sit down for a while to explore why.

It all started in Valencia. I like to spend every New Year’s Eve in a different city, often in a different country. Damn, was I unaware of what was going to happen.

I remember coming back from that trip and writing down my quarterly and monthly planning for 2020, as I always do in the first weeks of the year. Reading these now makes me laugh and cry at the same time. But let’s start with the beginning.

⛄ Q1: Focus

By the start of the year I was heavily involved in Saturdays.AI, an AI bootcamp program I collaborate with, where we were learning and exploring projects at the intersection of Artificial Intelligence and Brain-Computer Interfacing. It was just a side project, but it was so interesting and I was learning so much cool stuff that it got my full attention for a good few weeks, even months. We met every Saturday (yes, physically, for the whole day, in the same room, how crazy is that) – and that was a lot of fun. All of this had to stop abruptly when Corona arrived, and the absence of this was maybe what I noticed the most when the whole quarantine started.

Javi Rameerez wearing a Brain-Computer Interfacing (BCI) headset provided by Bitbrain at Saturdays.AI Madrid @ Loom Princesa

On a personal level, I think I was rather lost when 2020 kicked off. My business wasn’t doing good enough, and I was not where I had pictured me to be at that point in my life. Most notably, still living in Spain. I’ve always imagined my adult life living abroad, and being still here has always given me a very decent amount of anxiety. I’ve been attempting to start a life in a different country for at least the past 5 years, but it never really happened. I’ve always had to get back to my hometown Madrid, one way or another.

In 2019 I finally managed to finish off what probably was the last thing that was “contractually” tying me up to this country: defending my theses (as it turns out, graduating from uni while building companies full time it not that easy of a task). I had already passed all my exams years ago, but I still had to close that chapter properly – and well, so I did. And I thought: “OK, with this thing out of the way, there’s no excuse for me now – either I get to SF before 2020 or I need to think about plan B”.

I think I’ve always been attracted to San Francisco (well, everyone in tech is, in one way or another, right?) – so moving there has always been an aspiration of mine. My company has always been my top priority, so the idea was to get there *because* of my business, not as a worker. And so, I applied and got (appropriately so) rejected from YC – and that was that. This event made me realize I might actually want to stay independent for a bit longer, and not necessarily go the venture capital way, not at least right away. I enjoy being fully in control of what I do and setting my own pace. Under those constraints, I didn’t really see many ways of financing a life in SF by myself. My business’ revenue was definitely not going to be able to support my living expenses in a city like SF.

So when 2020 started I knew I had to get to plan B. And so, I started getting my resume ready, brushing up on my competitive programming kind of skills and applying for jobs. I decided that it might be a good idea to sacrifice focus on my business in return for getting where I wanted to get first, and then re-think my next steps from there. I was already interviewing for a couple of companies when, you guessed it, the whole world closed down due to the worst pandemic humanity has seen in the last century.

The lockdown came, and to be honest, it did me way more good than bad. I’ve talked about this with some people and I feel like this is a pretty contrarian position, but honestly it was probably one of the best things that could have happened to me this year.

People often refer to the lockdown as a period of extreme anxiety – almost depression. To me, it gave plenty of time to reflect and plan the road ahead – and laser focus to execute on it.

It was time for plan C. There were way too many distracting things going on in my life, and way too many events happening in real life. These were things that were taking the focus off what I wanted to be my main priority: my business. So the new plan was to leave everything aside and focus solely on growing the business – as an indie maker. No external financing, only traction and revenue allowed.

Everything went online when the lockdown started, so I could easily mute and ignore everything that wasn’t critical. One upside of everything being online is that time is so easy to track and monitor, and you become so much more aware of your own time management. One often does not think about how much time is wasted by stuff that only adds marginal value, and being able to just click “Decline” on call invites for events one didn’t want to attend anyways felt so much empowering and relieving. Lesson learned and ready to apply IRL.

Whatsapp became unbearable during the lockdown. Group chats started thriving as everything went online, becoming my #1 source of noise. This was the typical situation I had every time I opened the app. I started to stop using the app, up to the point of almost uninstalling it altogether later in the year.

Whichever the case, the thing is I spent a lot of my time alone with my laptop. And I had a bunch of stuff to get done, so I got to it. The whole idea I repeated myself over and over again like a mantra was: “look, there’s absolutely nothing I can do to change anything of what’s happening right now so let’s just use these months in the most productive way possible to try and come out of quarantine way stronger than when it started“. I didn’t bake any bread, I didn’t play any games, I didn’t take any Zoom call that wasn’t critical. Instead:

  • I learned to code in Swift in just 5 days, and programmed a much needed new version of Hustl in the few weeks that followed.
  • I finished a production-ready version of Edit, which I ended up launching a couple of months later (getting #1 Product of the Day in Product Hunt).
  • I finished an (almost) production-ready version of Momoise, which I haven’t yet launched publicly.
  • I finished a custom business management system I created to manage my biz “at scale”. It includes payment processing (via Stripe, I’m not crazy enough to implement my own payment processing solution), issuing and validating product licenses, notifying me of important events through a Telegram bot, sending transactional customer emails and monitoring all my products, among other useful things. I also migrated all previous customer data into the new system and started operating all my business through it. Explaining why and how would take me an entire post, but this reduced my customer support tickets by 60-80% easily, and increased my net revenue by at least 5%. It also allowed me to automate several marketing and analytics tasks I may write about in the future.
  • I created my own base WordPress template I now use in all my products, which unifies my websites, allows me to reuse a lot of my custom code, allows me to easily create blogs for my products, reduces maintenance and ultimately makes me more efficient when making new websites and landing pages.

Overall it was a pretty productive period, focusing on improving existing systems rather than creating brand new stuff – which set the tone for the rest of 2020.

🌷 Q2: Community

Fast forward to the end of the lockdown. I got a text from my friends at Tot-em, it went something like this:

“hey, now that the lockdown is over we’re thinking about renting a house in the woods and go there to cowork / retreat for a week with other entrepreneur friends, are you in?”.

Hell yeah I’m in. Easily one of the best decisions I’ve made this year.

This ended up being one of the best experiences of 2020.

At the beginning there were only 5 of us (that’s how I met Pepe from Minimalism, which ended up being the best roomie during those few days) and we were later joined by 3 more people. Being so few allowed us to really get to know each other, go for long hikes together and share experiences.

Something really cool that happened is that we spontaneously started sharing knowledge in our expertise areas, like this improvised Notion workshop we did one night over dinner (I don’t think I’m exaggerating by saying it was life changing – thanks Javi!)

I also met there Edu and Dani from Fuell. Both of them are some of my best discoveries of 2020, plus I turned out to have a bunch of things in common with the latter. One evening we shared a long walk together, where we had a conversation so deep, insightful and stimulating I still think about it every now and then.

This was an amazing experience for everyone, so we decided to repeat it weeks later, only bigger and better.

(Side note in regards to health: this was right after the 3-month home lockdown, so every one of us had been in strict quarantine for months by that point. In any case, those who had been minimally exposed to people took a Covid test before coming. Every test obviously came back negative and no one became infected whatsoever as a result of this event)

I honestly don’t have words to even start describing how awesome this hacker house was. In just a few days I got to know and share experiences some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. There’s just so many people to mention, but you guys know who you are – you rock.

Nightly meetups to discuss the day and share takeaways, yet more improvised workshops and some of the most deep, interesting and stimulating conversations I’ve had this year.

It was also around this time that I started working out of Urban Campus, and you don’t know how much you need a good co-working space until you get one.

Community is everything – that’s also why I loved it when I started having weekly status and goal setting calls with some friends from WIP. It gave me clarity, support and a routine to stick to.

Me and the bois setting goals for the week. Thanks for all the support, laughs and good vibes @pretzelhands, @andreyazimov, @levelsio, @ronaldlangeveld, @m1guelpf, @lenilsonjr_ and the rest of the fam

Sharing my plans and worries with other remote indie makers was just what I needed at the time. As a solo founder, it’s easy to get drawn into a creative chaos kind of life, where you just try to make new stuff constantly but forget about the big picture and fail to set clear goals and track your progress towards them – and this was definitely my case at the time.

☀️ Q3: Learning & structure

If I had to describe 2020 work-wise, it’d be something like “the year I stopped programming that much to become a full-time marketer/CEO”.

I still code, of course, this is a software biz after all, but I started using most of my time on building a company rather than building products. When starting out one might easily mix up the two, but as it turns out, these are two completely different and mostly unrelated goals.

Something that definitely was an inflection point for me was that my girlfriend started helping me out with the nitty-gritty of the day-to-day of running my business. I’ve always thought we would never get along working together in a million years. But as it turns out, we complement each other rather nicely. I’m a total disaster, I’m chaos. She’s extremely organized, she’s order. Just giving her access to my biz’s email account was such a relief. I’m so chaotic I’ve legit missed good opportunities because I missed the deadline to answer an email, or just ignored it altogether. She’s so OCD about notifications she enforces a zero-inbox policy quite heavily, so things have to be dealt with almost immediately. I have no room to make excuses and I’ve learned not to avoid tasks I don’t feel like doing, like answering email. I’m a creative person so I naturally tend to avoid the kind of tasks that are mundane and repetitive, but I’ve come to learn to really appreciate the value in them. It’s just basic housekeeping – but housekeeping is important because otherwise you risk having no house to keep at all.

She also started helping me out with marketing. She works in the industry, but it’s not like she had a considerable larger amount of knowledge than me – we were both equally unknowingly ignorant of the reality of indie / guerrilla marketing. The thing is I never sat down to think about a proper marketing strategy and write a real marketing plan. Nothing too serious, though –this is an indie biz after all– it was just sketches on a whiteboard, but I never got myself to do it properly. Doing so brought a lot of clarity, structure and well-defined short-term goals into my life.

She works full-time in a real job, so weekdays are not that available for her. It was during a weekend with an spontaneous idea that came up when I really started noticing real changes and progress. One Saturday, we held a “marketing meeting” where I had to deliver results: we’d review last week’s goals and we’d compare them to the current numbers. Seems trivial, but I just lacked the discipline and accountability to do that on my own. We’ve been holding such “marketing Saturdays” ever since, and results are impressive. I always complain about things not coming along as fast as I want to, but if you look at the numbers alone, it’s absolutely clear doing this moved the needle for the better. More on this at the end of the post.

One of many marketing Saturdays

We learned a lot about marketing. A lot. It’s incredibly amazing how different things are from what you learn in business school to what you actually see work in real practice. Business schools are so fundamentally broken they should be illegal. Even people working in the industry (most people working in the industry, I would say) don’t have the slightest idea what marketing is and how it works. I’ve seen very, very few people in marketing really put their money where their mouths are. I’m planning on writing a future post on key learnings and takeaways from this journey but man, is this difficult.

September came, and I finally launched Hustl 2 in Product Hunt. It got a good deal of good feedback and attention. Hustl got featured in Cult of Mac, and the well-known youtuber DailyTekk also featured it in his channel.

I also got an unexpected email from Setapp, an alternative app store that curates only the best Mac apps in the market. They heard about Hustl and we had a call to discuss a distribution deal we ended up closing and making effective a couple of months later.

Other than that, I kept on executing my plan, mainly focused on marketing.

I tried a thousand things.

Most failed. Some worked. Maybe even still early to call most of them. But happy with the results so far – and even more with how much I’m learning.

September was also the month I finished a personal year-long journey of getting in shape.

In Summer 2019 I was skinny-fat. I weighted 72kg, lived a very unhealthy lifestyle (poor eating habits, lots of fast food, lots of fat, no exercise at all) and I looked bad, like if I needed to lose a lot of weight. So I did.

At my lowest, I weighted only 59Kg (130lbs), which was borderline underweight for a guy my height (~178cm, 5’10”).

I’ve always been skinny, and I wanted to change that. So I started going to the gym regularly, building a habit of working out. Last year I didn’t even know how to use a barbell, and I clearly remember how weak I felt the first day I went into the gym and started lifting some weights.

The results: I gained 15+Kg (~33lbs) of –mostly– muscle over the course of 2020.

Weight progression over the course of Sep 2019 – Sep 2020. I first lost ~13Kg of fat, then gained ~15Kg of muscle (that plateau you see is the result of the quarantine – gyms were completely closed due to the lockdown)

That includes some inevitable fat, of course, but I started a cutting phase immediately afterwards to burn fat while keeping the muscle.

Results were impressive. Last year I was unable to lift even the weight of a feather in most exercises, and after finishing the program I was already deadlifting 100+Kg (220lbs), something I was not expecting in my wildest dreams. I know it’s still beginner’s numbers, but my body has changed drastically and I feel so much more healthier.

I’m so glad I started lifting. It’s become a part of my lifestyle. I wouldn’t have missed even one day at the gym this year if it wasn’t for what happened right when Q4 started.

🍂 Q4: Setbacks and comebacks

October started off in a very unpleasant way: with a test that came back positive for Covid-19.

This was my actual test. Results were clear: I was pregnant and it was going to be a wonderful Covid.

I got the virus, but fortunately I only had very very mild symptoms. Well, I had some fever and I completely lost my sense of smell and taste, but in general I was already fine a few days after catching it. I’m so glad it got me at the healthiest and strongest I’ve ever been in my life.

I was okay, but I nonetheless had to do quarantine and self-isolate, obviously. Covid had me locked in my room for a good two weeks, and I didn’t resume normal life for another two more weeks, so I practically missed the whole month of October altogether.

When I finally got out and was ready to resume normal life, my main and only work tool, my MacBook, broke completely.

But engineers gonna engineer, so I started researching and found out this video from Louis Rossmann that explained exactly what was likely happening to my computer and how to fix it. I also documented the whole story in Twitter, from the moment it broke until I managed to resolder the faulty component and fix my laptop.

After fixing an issue that taught me more about electronics than an entire degree in electrical engineering, I started resuming normal life (going back to gym, recovering lost muscle mass due to quarantine, etc.)

Then November came, and I had a trip planned with the gf. It’s not like there’s many places one can travel to in Covid times, so it was either continental Spain or a neighboring country (we didn’t want to take planes). I had a couple of friends near Lisbon at the time, and we love the city, so Portugal it was.

That’s how I finally met Marc and Pieter in person after years of being internet friends.

I’ll never stop saying how great it is meeting internet friends in real life. Like when I met Wojtek and Shaun in 2018 or when I met Lenilson in 2019. You’ve been talking with these people for months, even years, sometimes on a daily basis, and you think you get to know these people… but then it’s amplified to a whole new level when you’re in person. There are just so much more meaningful interactions. It’s like you go from demo to full version. I might just be a fan of the IRL thing, but I’ve always had so much fun with these meetups. Can’t wait for Corona to go away so these can happen more often.

When I arrived back in Madrid, I launched a side project I literally did in the car on my way to Lisbon. The story behind it is cool, give it a read:

So that was November.

In the past few weeks, I’ve been working on getting Hustl into the Mac App Store, which turned out to be one of the most difficult tasks I’ve had to do recently. But it was worth it: now the app is in the MAS and you can go check it out here.

And with that, I’m afraid there’s not much time for more – the year is coming to an end.

Conclusion and key takeaways

I’ve never been this healthy in my life. I’ve never felt this strong.

My business has never been in a better shape. I still haven’t done that much in regards to marketing, but in 2020 I’ve 3x my revenue compared to last year, and I’m really happy with the growth of some of the key metrics I’m tracking. My business is slowly starting to look like a real business, and I’m excited to take it to the next level in 2021.

There’s been so much personal growth this year. I’m starting to find my very limits, and I’m learning to push through them. Each new thing I try that fails teaches me something invaluable – like thinking I knew about marketing when in fact I was just clueless. This year taught me a big lesson on humility, and I’m grateful for that.

Some of my key takeaways from this weird 2020 are:

  • Orderliness and constancy are just as important as chaos and creativity
  • Focus on constant output rather than unpredictable spikes
  • Learn to ask for help
  • Results are not immediate. Things are always slower than I’d like them to be, and I need to accept that.

As for plans for 2021, things are starting to clear up, but I’m afraid we live in a moment in time where the entropy of the system is maximum. With the vaccine coming and the borders potentially reopening in the following months, I’m starting to hear friends talking about going to Southeast Asia next year, and the idea of traveling there and starting living truly remotely is really tempting – so if the circumstances allow I might as well do the “nomad” thing. Really hope 2021 will be the year I finally get to live abroad.

P.S.: h/t to Lenilson, whose 2018 recap post unknowingly inspired me to write this one, with a very similar tweet-based format!

P.S.: Follow me on Twitter to stay in the loop. I'm writing a book called Bold Hackers on making successful digital products as an indie hacker. Read other stories I've written. Subscribe below to get an alert when I publish a new post:

No spam ever, unsubscribe with one single click.