2020 Thus Far

Geoff Chan

Geoff Chan ·

· 8 min read

Warning: This is long and unedited. You'll probably get bored and won't finish it. Here's a short version if you're just interested in the highlights.

Freelance to Agency

In many ways, I consider 2020 our first real year in business, even though Stack Five was started in 2018. It was originally a corp that I created for my solo consulting business. I mainly worked full-time for one client - adidas. Jordan, my business partner, also contracted for adidas. We considered each other business partners, but we kept things separate with our consulting work. 2020 was supposed to be a landmark year for us. Jordan and I had talked for years about running our own business. So we planned extensively to finally make the jump from consulting. 2020 was going to be the year that we started building Stack Five as a product agency. Of course, 2020 had plans of its own.

The 2020 Tornado

We both lost adidas as a client at the beginning of the year. This is probably the closest thing to losing a job that I've experienced. Also... not the greatest start to a business. There were talks that our contract would get renewed. But talk is cheap.

We spent the first 3 months of 2020 working on Viyo.io and launching ReactLibraries.com. These were great learning experiences and really awesome case studies to show that we can launch products! But they didn't make enough to pay the bills. As we waited and prayed for something to materialize with adidas, we also worked on a new potential client. This project was large and would have covered us for at least half the year. We did a lot of discovery and planning work (for free, which was a mistake that we learned from). The team loved us and we thought we had it in the bag. We didn't. They took all of our discovery work and continued to shop around for better quotes. A pretty expensive lesson, but a lesson nonetheless.

Sink or Swim

By April of 2020 I had gone 3 full months without making any money. I have a wife and 3 kids to think about, so I was starting to get anxious. I decided to start looking for a job. This wasn't how I saw my first year in business going. If I was going to "give up the dream" and work for someone, then I was going to shoot for the moon. I decided to apply to 4 of my favourite companies. Shopify, Microsoft, Github, and Automattic (makers of Wordpress). I ended up getting responses from 3 out of the 4. Only Microsoft didn't respond.

The interview process for these types of big tech companies is often long and drawn out. That was fine. I had prepared and I was ready to spend the time. Shopify moved the quickest, which made me happy since they were my most preferred option. All of the interviews were moving along just fine, but inside I still felt uneasy.

It's hard for me to describe the feelings that were going on inside of me during that time. The lockdown had just started so my kids were home from school. We were trying our best (but probably failing) at being their interim teachers. We weren't able to see any of our friends and family. The news about COVID seemed to be getting worse every day. I had tried to start this business and seemingly failed. And now I had to deal with the pressures of interviewing and finding a new job. There were definitely several sleepless nights.

The Turning Point

I don't remember the exact day it happened, but it was like a light switch flipped on. I had many talks about it with my wife because it was a decision that affected our family. She's also amazing at bringing me down to earth. I took a lot of time to think and get perspective. And eventually, I realized that this was life giving me opportunity not adversity (or opportunity thru adversity). So I made the mental shift and took action right away. I dropped all of my ongoing job interviews and started focusing on growing Stack Five. I was going to sink or swim with this business. One of the biggest drivers of this decision was the opportunity cost of not doing this now. The Canadian government had just announced CEWS so we had a safety net for a few months. We also had some savings in the bank. And the worst-case scenario was me having to look for a job. Not a terrible worst-case scenario by any means. So why not take the chance and pursue a dream? We only have one life to live.

Coding to Talking

My whole life I've focused on the creation of the end product. I've been an artist, musician, designer, and developer. I spent the first 10 years of my career as a JavaScript developer and UI/UX designer. The goal has always been to be really good at the craft. The reason that I'm saying all this is to convey how big of a shift it was for me to move into business development and sales.

I could write a whole separate blog post about going from developer/designer to business development/sales (and I just might one day). Long story short, it was the biggest transition I've had to make in my career.

Nothing then Everything

The day-to-day of business development for me was simply connecting with people. I reached out to everyone I could think of in my network. I went through my entire LinkedIn contact list and sent messages to every person that I had even a small connection with. I joined Twitter and talked to people. When I ran out of ideas, I started reaching out to other agency owners and business leaders to find mentorship and guidance (I'd highly recommend this for any first time entrepreneur). I did this with almost no results for almost 3 months and it was hard.

Then one day it just clicked. I don't think there wasn't a particular thing that I did that caused it. It just seemed like the momentum of putting in the time towards spreading the word finally caught up. Around the end of June, for about 3 weeks straight I was having 3 to 5 meetings a day, often with new clients. By the end of July we had 10 projects rolling and 5 contractors.

The Road Ahead

As of today, we have enough runway to operate into March of 2021. We still have a long way to go and there is still a lot of work to be done. But I feel like we've weathered the storm. I am so fortunate because there are a lot of business that did not make it through this year. I try to remember to be thankful everyday because I get to spend time with people that I love working with (both our team and our clients) on projects that I really care about. Entrepreneurship is hard and unpredictable. It's definitely not what I expected.

I don't get to code and design everyday anymore. Those crafts will always be part of me. They just aren't the mediums that I use to create day-to-day. But that doesn't mean I'm not a creator and maker anymore. Now I'm focused on creating new relationships and making existing ones stronger. I work hard everyday at building Stack Five into the type of company that I always wished I could work at. A company that values relationships and balance over growth and profits. It's a different type of craft, but one that I'm grateful that I get to work at.

Copyright © 2024 Geoffrey Chan. All rights reserved.