Living and learning in 2017

by Joel Hooks

Make all the big life changes at once…

In 2016 we moved our family of 6 out of our home of 15 years across the country to settle in Vancouver, WA. That’s quite a lot of change for everybody involved. My partner lived her entire life in Fort Worth, TX. Her family was, for the most part, within a 20 mile radius of our house.

It’s hard to even begin to describe the level of trust and commitment that this amazing human has given to me. ❤️

Our backyard.

Shortly after arriving in the Pacific Wonderland, we made another decision, and on Feb 9th, 2017 she arrived. Our little Romi π.

A baby?!

HOLY SHIT 5 FUCKIN KIDS ARE YOU KIDDING ME LOL??

They say you should make and execute as many major life changes as possible in as short a time span as you can, right?

Hah.

They don’t say this, because it is a lot. At this point I can’t even recommend that people have kids, much less 5 of them.

selfie partner

I wouldn’t change a thing though, and this little firecracker of a baby girl makes me smile every time I see her.

The fam.

They say the Lord giveth…

One of the reasons I love living in the PWN is the closeness of my family. After 36 years in Texas, we were finally close enough to casually visit them. In the summer of 2016 we were able to spend a full week lounging at Loon Lake in Washington with my cousin Lizzie and her family.

It was wonderful. We looked forward to doing it year after year.

I miss you so much.

On March 2017 Lizzie was killed in a sudden and random car crash.

Aunt Mary, Uncle Dave, Sarah, Jim, Luke, Andrew, Mable, Theo, and all the other people that cherished Lizzie and her love of life…

I love you.

I didn’t want to cry today, but here I am.

Hug them.

Back to work

Through all of this joy and pain, I’m privileged to have a stable growing business, that continues to provide a living wage for my family. The stability has meant that I’ve been able to be there for my partner in a more meaningful way than I was with our previous 4 kids.

It means that when I was sad for a month, I could step away and take care of myself and my family without having to worry about how we would pay rent.

This year egghead has grown. We saw about 20% growth in revenue, and have added several amazing team members. We were able to afford 100% health coverage for our full-time employees and their families. This was huge for us, because having to worry about these things can be a real emotional drain.

The biggest challenge for me personally, as the director/orchestrator, has definitely been the team building. For the second year in a row I got it wrong and had to correct my mistakes. It’s painful. It feels cruel. It makes me personally ashamed. It makes me sad.

But that’s part of the deal. And I have to analyze what when wrong, and how I can correct the problems for the future in a way that saves people the turmoil that sudden job loss causes.

It has to work for me. The job has to satisfy me. I have to be selfish. I have to protect myself. I have to build something strong and resilient that can keep me entertained and fed for decades.

This has to be balanced with providing the same for others of course. If this thing that we are building is an “engine of opportunity”, a thing that provides amazing jobs to as many people as possible, it has to do that for me first.

Leadership is a learned skill, like almost everything. It’s hard af, and the only thing I can do with the failures is try to learn from them so they don’t get repeated.

Doubling down on what works…

egghead has evolved quite a lot in since John and I started it in 2013. In the beginning it was John & Joel, but it quickly evolved into a platform for content creators (instructors) to publish their learning material and let us take care of marketing, delivery, and support.

The paying members of egghead are ostensibly our customers, but our true customers are the content creators.

Much of the year has been spent improving the experience for egghead’s instructors so we can

  • make the opportunity to instruct on egghead more accessible to more people
  • increase average instructor revenue in a meaningful way
  • provide a more consistent learning experience for egghead members

Step one was to provide a written introduction and guide for new (and existing) instructors to reference. The guide is a living document that we are able to reference and amend as the process evolves over time. We wrote it free and open to the world in the hopes that others might be able to benefit, regardless of how they choose to publish their work.

On top of this we did extensive work building software tools that provide a more consistent and clear experience for instructors when they publish their works.

It wasn’t too long ago that I asked them to email me a link to a Dropbox folder and then manually did the rest. heh

React ❤️

In 2017 we made massive changes to our website and infrastructure, fully embracing the React JavaScript framework for our user interface.

It’s been wonderful. Robust. Delightful to use.

At the end of the year we have a massive library of components across many many pages in production. It is easy to maintain and add new features.

I’ve been developing UIs for 20+ years and React is by far the best developer experience I’ve had.

It’s great. We pair it with MobX. Also great.

Throwing away perfectly good code.

We approached this initially with an entirely different instructor website, but this idea ended up being confusing. There was on “single source of truth” to refer to, and it split development efforts across two distinct products.

After spending 6 months and many tens of thousands of dollars building out this multi-faceted approach, I had to make the tough call to kill the entire thing, effectively throwing all of that hard development and design work into the bin and starting fresh with a consolidated single-site approach.

That’s a hard decision to make, but it was the right one. Now we are on track.

UX Research

We’ve got the honor of working with a handful of amazing consultants. The biggest area that we choose to invest in is research.

User experience often gets lumped in to UI development and treated as a visual exercise.

Reality is that good user experience starts with research.

We need to understand our users and their needs.

For egghead, this is two-fold. We want to understand what our members need, and we absolutely need to understand what our instructors need.

So we hire professionals to help us.

This has worked out extremely well, and has lifted everything that we do. We aren’t guessing, or using our intuition for every decision. We still guess and intuit, but we can now often refer to well executed research to feed and support the decisions we make.

High quality UX research is very expensive, and when you are bootstrapping a business, it can feel like it might be a waste.

“Shouldn’t we spend this money on development and get features out the door?”

But, every time we’ve done this the results for us have been overwhelmingly positive.

The trick is to actually use the research! Because it is such a large chunk of our operating costs, we deeply respect the work and use it to drive design and development in a direct and tangible way.

Knowledge is power. Knowledge is confidence.

More please.

We started a podcast.

My favorite show of 2017 has to be The Hot Ones, which is an interview show on YouTube where they eat progressively hotter chicken wings and ask famous people questions with each step. It’s great.

There was an episode that featured Gary Vee, who’s a generally inspiring guy that has some serious skills making money online. He told Sean that it was crazy that he didn’t have an audio version of the show, and it was a click moment for me.

I hopped on Slack and told John, “we’ve gotta do a podcast”. His response:

“Hah, I just finished that episode too and thought the same thing”

So we did the needful and got a podcast up and running.

We made it easy on ourselves and used the excellent PodcastMotor service, which is the rondo rotisserie grill of creating podcast. Coupled with Zencaster, it takes all the grueling production work out of the picture so John and I can focus on interviewing guests.

Millions of emails

I sent somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000,000 emails in 2017. They all are attached to my work email and “Joel from egghead” is the sender.

This has been, and continues to be, extremely lucrative. Most of these emails are content announcements. I’m letting people know that there is new stuff to watch. Everything we release is released free for a week before becoming member’s only, so everybody has the chance to learn something.

2.5 million of those emails were sent in December for our end of the year extravaganza. We released 18 courses over 12 days. On the final day we sent 4 emails, and a last last last chance email on the day after the promo ended.

The last last chance email resulted in $50k in additional revenue, but it also pissed off at least a dozen angry men that sent me hateful responses.

I can live with that.

For the month of December 2017 we are cutting almost $250,000 in royalty checks to our instructors. A quarter of a million dollars into the pockets of hard working developers and open source contributors.

Feels good. Really good.

It wasn’t all work. Lots of fun too!

Outside of work and the big life events, I had a lot of fun in 2017.

Ink

Once you get over the fact that you’ve defaced your arms forever, it’s way easier just to do more.

My approach to tattoo is to pick great artists and let them do what they want. I thematic suggestions, but every tattoo is part of an art collection that I carry around with me. It’s an expression of the artist, and not a deep meaningful personal milestone.

tattoo freakshow

The abstract colorful pieces are done by Winston the Whale in PDX. The wrapping undead crystal space dragon was done by Joby Cummings.

I’ll probably get more.

Wheels

I traded in my beloved 2015 Subaru Impreza STI.

vroom vroom

It’s such a great vehicle. Fast (enough), responsive, comfortable, and excellent in all road conditions. The spoiler is even useful when you are going too fast on winding roads (at the track, hopefully).

The intent originally was to hit the track more often, but after the one and only track event I participated in, I learned that it wasn’t for me. It’s a lot of work, very expensive, and has a non-trivial risk of death. It’s also not fun for the whole family.

So, I got a Jeep.

wheelin

I’ll be honest, driving the jeep around town isn’t much fun. It’s a truck. It’s heavy. It’s slow.

Every other vehicle in this reason is a Jeep.

But, it’s a shit load of fun driving on the trails.

at the top of the world with my boys

We are able to explore the backwoods that this wonderful region has to offer. We can go places that are hard to get to and see spectacular sights.

This Jeep is no fuckin’ mall crawler.

Good times.

Woodworking

Working with wood is fascinating. From a tree to a useful object. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and in 2017 I was able to try it out. I took a class at a local maker space in Portland (ADX), and built a small table.

hammer of justice

I finished the table early so I spent the last night of class constructing this joiner’s mallet.

Now I’m planning my garage shop, so I can dive in and make useful things from wood on a regular basis.

Self-care

I didn’t gain much weight. At 43, I worry about death a lot. Being overweight contributes to that. I’d like to lose weight in 2018. I know how to lose weight. I’ve done it before. Candy is delicious… 😭

For the first time in 30+ years I don’t have to wear corrective lenses! I got LASIK. It’s awesome. DO IT. 100% worth it.

four eyes

Team gatherings

egghead is 100% remote. That means we don’t see each other in person very much. This summer we got together in Utah with most of the team.

Living near Portland is nice because people actually visit here, unlike Fort Worth.

I got to prove to Taylor that his job at egghead wasn’t an elaborate catfish.

new friends.

And John and I finally had the opportunity to converge our families.

a good partner

Next year we are going to gather in Prague. Can’t wait!

Art Camp

For the last several summers I’ve gone to Aspen to Anderson Ranch to have Joshua Davis, the Dark Wizard of computer generated art, school me in his craft. In 2017 we worked on Arduinos, and I learned a ton. In 2018 we are going to do computer vision. Can’t wait.

art is life

THE PATH OF TOTALITY

Holy shit. Total solar eclipse is really really amazing. If you’ve got the opportunity to see it, do it. Fuck the traffic. Sit your ass in the long line of cars and witness this event.

total eclipse of the sun

2018 Plans

More of the same, really. We are going to keep doing what we are doing, incrementing, improving. Small changes. Nothing radical.

For the first time we’ve got a solid 1 year plan for the business based on research.

We aren’t going to have any more kids, or move across the country. We might get to travel a bit.

It should be nice.

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