My Company Has Earned Its First Paycheck

I've believed for a while that, if my company died, the most likely scenario would be dying without a single dollar earned. There are so many ways for this to play out. It's an endless minefield.

There's just not talking to any real humans, which is the number one way that I've seen people fail at starting their businesses. They just start working on some product, frequently with some extremely poor intuitions around what people would actually pay for, and then they ship and the customers never come.

There's being uncharismatic. There's not making time. There's having the wrong business partners. There's being poorly networked. There's being well-networked but being unsure how to progress the relationship. There's doing the work for free to "build a relationship". There's being able to progress the relationship, but only making money by charging a supreme discount "to build a portfolio", which I don't count - this is giving away your services for free with extra steps. Hoo boy, there are a lot of ways to explode with nothing earned.

Well, we got paid and have follow-up work. It is a tiny sum of money - AUD 2,500 of non-recurring revenue for 8 hours of work... which is exactly what a Big Fucking Consultant charges out their staff at, so I'm counting it. If we die now, it will not be at the $0 mark, and it is happening. A company with revenue in the millions and executives with a lot of sports cars took us seriously. And as promised, here's how it happened (with identifying details changed), some thoughts, replicable strategies, and notes on the experience. With all of these tools at your disposal, you too can guarantee that your company will be guaranteed a tombstone with the storied >$0 revenue dead, rather than the sad $0 dorks.

Instead of wasting time adding a disclaimer fifty times, I'm going to say it once here - any advice below, no matter how confidently delivered, is coming from a 29 year, and it cannot be emphasized enough that I don't know fuck all about anything.

I. For God's Sake, Talk to People

Many people ask things like "How do you get started freelancing?". I've seen people ask that, and have been the person asking that question.

It's really easy and some people won't like the answer. You reach out to every single person that thinks well of you, and you say "I've started a company that does this and we're looking for people that have problems in this space." This is overwhelmingly how I've received every job I've taken on.

The Unreasonable Effectiveness Of Talking To People

When I graduated, I emailed a psychology professor (the awesome Joshua Wiley who I've since learned has written a book on deep learning, and whose equally awesome wife helped me escape the siren song of doing a PhD) that I had met once for five minutes, three years ago, to send him a snippet of a programming assignment and to let him know I needed a job. Two weeks later, another professor had an emergency related to a PhD student being unable to clean some eye-tracking data before an important deadline. Enter me - I billed them for 15 hours of work and solved the problem.

Shortly after this, it was time to get an actual job as my visa was coming in. I had just watched my brother take six months to get a job despite being brilliant (due to our visa situation), so I knew throwing my CV into the void was stupid. I employed a nifty trick that I will only share over email to avoid handing firepower to the spammers of the world, and reached out to someone outside HR that didn't care about my visa status but did care about not hiring an idiot.


Bothering to actually call and sound intelligent over the phone guaranteed me an interview. And of course, I had already attended a AUD 300 interview coaching session with James Lynch, which means I had a huge leg up over the average candidate. I had one project under my belt thanks to Josh. I ate the other candidates alive - I still remember how sad the next candidate looked after hearing all the laughter coming out of the interview room - and had a job as a data scientist. Yep, through wild circumstance, I applied to be a sad data analyst but they had a data scientist gig open that they gave me. I had a job the day after my visa cleared at AUD 100K. And my first point of contact is now one of my closest friends and mentors - that's a pretty good outcome.

Because I talked to two people.

Every other job I've ever had was the result of meeting people on the job. Just. Talk. To. People. Let every human being you've ever met that might possibly think well of you know exactly what you're looking for, and ask them if:

  1. They can introduce you to someone who has achieved something similar
  2. They can introduce you to someone who might need that work done
  3. They can keep an eye out for you over the next few months

Frequently the results manifest months from when you make the initial contact, and most people never get back to you. I've spoken to friends who found work for me seven months after the initial request. The fourth member of my company is a medical professional I met at a machine learning conference in 2019, which I paid for out of my own pocket at AUD 500 as a broke student.

As for this job - I told a family member exactly what type of work I was looking for about ten months ago, and one day the CEO mentioned they needed help while he was in the room. One "I know someone that specializes in that!" later, I'm in their office taking requirements.

I describe this whole approach to life as "maximizing your luck surface area", which I later found out is a term that has been independently coined in a few places. But as Taleb would put it, I'm leveraging asymmetry - I can say no to bad offers that are presented to me, so I suffer very little from massive exposure. For example, in the same time period as the story above, I received an offer to be a "lead data scientist" at a borderline fraudulent fintech company in Singapore for just enough money to not starve... so I said no.

But I'm Not Good At Networking


If I could think of an alternative, I would do that instead. I had to learn how to stop sitting around in my room playing video games all day. I had to learn how to find a good barber, how to dress myself like someone that at least commands a modicum of respect, and how to make small talk.

Worse than that, you have to learn how to enjoy it or it'll be insincere.



It would be remiss not to acknowledge there were some unconventional steps in the above, such as paying for an interview coach. The expected value of a job in tech is probably at least AUD 80,000, so you would have to be very confident in your interviewing skills to not think you can improve your interviewing enough for it to not pay for itself. I'm a firm believer that clear-eyed calculation and a love for the unorthodox is a lot more valuable than "intelligence" as measured by IQ. I call this grab-bag of qualities "cunning".


I have benefited a lot from being selfless, as strange as that sounds. My girlfriend has commented (sometimes unhappily, though I'm working on it!) at how much time I spend helping people. A heuristic that might hint at the kind of thing I mean. I spend between AUD 100 - 200 buying other people lunch or dinner a month. That's approximately 7 nice meals a month, and I do it without thinking, for people that will probably never be in a position to do me a favour, especially if they're starving PhD students. I actively network on behalf of anyone that emails me looking for work, connect them to my personal network if they pass sanity checks, and am currently teaching two overseas friends enough programming to get their first tech jobs. I've spent AUD 120 this week on buying copies of Computer Engineering For Babies, one for a coworker and one for a friend, both of whom have adorable little newborns.

It's a happy way to live life, and it, through no particular strategy of my own, has probably paid off tenfold. As a rough rule, when I give the in the right way to people that I want to keep in my life, all the sordid accounting handles itself. And what I don't get back in money, I get back in companionship. And I've tried having lots of money and no soul - it was miserable, so I know what I prefer. I'm going to lose so much money visiting readers in Europe, and I can't wait.

I am probably going to deeply regret this when I'm old.

II. It Was Way Better Than My Day Job

The service we provided was extremely simple. We helped a company evaluate all the potential business intelligence options for a very specific use case, wrote up a list of recommendations and sent it their way. We did this for free, as I considered it a pre-sales piece which would hopefully lead to us doing the implementation for them. However, I knew that they were good enough at engineering that there was a non-zero chance they'd do the work themselves.

I started by spending an hour taking requirements from the team. We knew the vague shape of the problem from email exchanges, so I produced a literal physical checklist of every question we had for them (29 of them). I then spent two hours at their office taking requirements from their lead engineers, had lunch with their team, and went home.

Adding all the extra time together, we spent five hours comparing various open-source tools against their requirements before eventually settling on a clear winner, and chucked together a markdown document. I paid for Remarq so that the markdown looked presentable, and we sent it to them. Eight hours all up, give or take.

When we finished, they ended up doing the work themselves... and were so happy with the recommendation that they asked us to bill them anyway for the initial consult because they had more work for us, and didn't want us to feel like we got a bad deal on the last contact. And accepted a full AUD 2,500 bill without blinking, which is just straight up the rate for grabbing someone from Deloitte for eight hours. I can't get a goddamn raise from my actual employer for saving AUD 500,000 and total strangers paid me the highest hourly rate I've ever received as a courtesy.

And we can just say no to working with jerks! Prior to this job, we were contacted by an extremely small local company for an issue they had with a website. The owner was rude, questioned why we were quoting so much for a "simple" change (that would immediately have unbroken their payment portal which was losing thousands of dollars per day)... and we just dropped him on the spot. Good riddance, get fucked, have fun on Fiverr. Whereas at my day job, we have some absolute narcissistic, life-ruining bullies running some departments - as every big company does. I don't get a choice in whether I have to put up with it when an internal stakeholder behaves this way, unless they do something so atrocious that I can sue them over it.

III. Only Working With Smart, Ethical Friends Is Delightful

There's not much to say about this, save that those eight hours of work were just incredible. I was treated so much better by the client than I have been at any of my day jobs simply because I was an external party. And I'm not even treated badly at my day job! I'm just sort of a vague blob to the organization. The engineers probably think of me as that extremely outspoken guy, I suspect the middle managers know me as "that strange engineer with the dreadful eyes that see right through us", and the actually important people don't know me at all.

But working with my team, which has a final fixed size of six people... it was just so nice.

I didn't have to waste time arguing with stupid ideas, because everyone who said something stupid (including me) would immediately abandon the position within seconds of issues being pointed out.

I didn't have to waste time explaining what we were doing and what our ethical standards were, because I picked moral people. And it wasn't easy - there were two points where we realized we could hint at a particular solution and generate a huge pile of revenue. But someone would say "We don't do that here", and then we didn't.

I can hit up anyone on the team and say anything from "design a distributed system for streaming data to the client's server" to "find out what our tax obligations are as directors"... and then they just do it. And they do it in a way where I don't have to triple-check their working, because I know they'll consult the group if they need either technical or emotional support. Like, fuck, I go to work every day now and am just blown away at how bad people are at getting things done. It's extra crazy because one of my team members works at my day job, and the difference between the version of him that feels ownership of the work and the version of him that blearily clocks in at 9AM could not be more different.

And we do other weird stuff too - two of our team members didn't do any work on the project. They still get a totally even split. We did some quick thinking on failure modes and incentives.

Splitting the money based on hours worked encourages us to either invite people to work when they're not needed or to exclude them when they are needed, and breeds resentment if someone else was more effective.

Splitting it totally evenly means that some people would be encouraged to work less and take their free payday.

They're both failure modes, but we could just say "Well, if the company dies this way, it dies this way. I trust you all to drop out if you can't put time in."... and that's it. We could accept the risk of doing something totally out-of-the-box, which would never in a thousand years be on the table at my day job, even though they can't go five minutes without saying the word "innovation" while doing exactly what every consultancy is recommending to every organization on the planet.

IV. Next Steps

We know the business won't die as a total failure, but there's so much more to do and learn. There are going to be dozens of points where we are tempted to behave unethically to squeeze money from clients. I've realized that we need a lot of recurring revenue for me to salary my friends - an amount that turns a few thousand dollars into a measly drop in the bucket. It's the first time in my life where I've had to seriously start thinking about how to generate numbers in excess of a million dollars per year with nothing but grit and the people I play board games with.

Even though we're all theoretically totally equal partners, I've been the main driver to this date, and am probably the closest thing we have to a CEO (for now). I now spend a huge amount of time communicating vision and keeping morale up, and that's just with a team of six. A year ago, I thought only absolute scammers said things like "communicating vision", but I get it now... I just also see that most people who say they're doing it absolutely are not.

There are accountants and lawyers to talk to, so that I don't inadvertently lead my friends into blundering their homes away because we didn't buy the right type of insurance.

Who knows what the future holds?

But of relevance here, I'd like to thank everyone who wrote in to advise me or even just say they enjoyed my writing. I won't name everyone because... well, I've responded to every email, so you know that I valued the correspondence. The advice helped me avoid so many blunders, and deserves a post on its own. And the emails of support gave me a lot of courage to take the leap into doing this seriously - it's so easy to think that you're the crazy one for finding the corporate environment repulsive.

There are two readers I'd like to call out in particular. There are a few people I'd like to shill for, but due to the extremely career-threatening tone of the writing here, I ask everyone one-at-a-time whether they'd like to be associated with me. Incidentally, if you've emailed me with any advice at all and would like to be seen by the type of person that reads this blog, let me know and I'll add you below:

David Kellam sat me down, knocked several years of painful mistakes off my career, assisted me in finding a lawyer, then bought me lunch. David, I am sorry, I cannot imagine anything that would vibe less with my audience that the marketing material on that website. But I know with near absolute certainty that you are the master and I am a humble student, so it is probably the right play for whoever you are targeting. My confidence in David is so high that I'm probably going to spend hundreds of dollars on one hour conversations every time we have a high-value sales meeting coming up, out of my own middle-class pocket, because the expected return makes it a no-brainer. If you run a business, just go talk to him.

And David Gerard for doing a lot to circulate my writing when it first came out, giving me a lot of excellent advice for a young engineer many months ago, culminating in something I repeat a lot: "Work is work, but the minutes can't be miserable."... and also being the first person with a Wikipedia page to talk to me, which was pretty cool! That does a lot for a young person's confidence.

I just realized that 50% of the long list of people I'd want to thank are Davids. Huh.

PS: If anyone knows Patrick McKenzie or Nassim Taleb, hook me up so I can thank them myself.

V. In Conclusion

We went to a rooftop bar and got drinks to celebrate our first win, as small as it was. We laughed, drank, and shared a wonderful evening with close friends. We tossed some ideas around for consulting products that were guaranteed to make lots of money, and we gunned them all down because someone would say "I'm only in this to work on projects I believe in, and I don't believe in this".

As I made my way home that night, slightly buzzed due to the abysmal alcohol tolerance of a Southeast Asian man that voluntarily wears white shirts to work at the age of 29 and whose perfect evening is tea with a book, I realized that I have no idea what comes next, but there is nothing else I'd rather be doing right now.

Take it easy, and thanks for everything.