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How I Learned My Skills

A short five years ago I didn't know how to make a website. Now I make $30k/month with a web app.

August 03, 2020

Five years ago I didn’t know HTML, CSS, or JS. I didn’t know how to use Firebase as a backend, or Node for webhooks and server calls.

I didn’t even know what SEO or copywriting was. I didn’t know how to do Facebook ads, Google ads. Nothing. I’d never done any of it.

The few skills I had were product, code and writing.

I’m writing this post because my brother is getting into FB ads. He’s considering running a Facebook ads service that takes on clients. Which is funny - I took the same path at one point. You’ll find out why I am glad I didn’t.

Read on.

Existing Skills

I learned how to sit down and figure out hard things using my brain during my stint at RIT as an electrical engineering student. I learned other things, but that was the biggest takeaway.

I learned how to make products at my old day-job as an electrical engineer. I made internal engineering applications to aid in testing manufacturing. I would integrate hardware (lasers, motors, detectors, etc.) with software (mostly LabWindows using C). I worked there for about 7 years.

When I made my internal applications, the goal of whether a project was successful or not depended on how much time it saved the team. Not only that, but also how simple it was, as it would get passed down from the engineers down to manufacturing.

My (incredible, taught me so much) boss used to say, “They want to push a button and get a banana.” It has to be that simple. Push one button, and it automatically does everything it said the button would do.

Because of the hardware aspect of the applications, I learned a lot about timing, asynchronous programming, and automation. These skills are integral to the product I develop today.

To slim it down, it’s essentially skills for building robotics.

At this job I learned the C programming language, and made all of my applications in C. This was actually great, because C is a language that makes you think about how the code is operating. It doesn’t just take care of everything for you.

I also learned a lot about PCBs, manufacturing, materials, optics, and people. I’m incredibly grateful for that opportunity.

Why did I leave? Well, the pay was better with what I made. And work was a long commute. It didn’t line up perfectly with our lives. That, and I couldn’t make extra money there. So I made money on the side.

But that’s not what this post is about. This is about skills.

New Skills

There’s a common pattern with all of my new skills that I have acquired in the last five years.

Course → Action → Refinement → Service Business → Confusion & Disappointment

I literally did this four times before I realized what I was doing wrong (and what I should actually do).

Five years ago I was watching Casey Niestat in his prime, vlogging every day on YouTube and talking about how cool life is when you can do that for a living. I wanted something similar, but I didn’t want to vlog. I wanted to code.

So, I set out to learn some new skills. Starting with web development.

Web Development

With web development, I didn’t actually start out wanting to make an agency that makes websites. I just wanted to have fun and make stuff.

I took a course on Udemy that taught about HTML, CSS, and JS. I also did Free Code Camp. I don’t specifically recommend that course, but I definitely recommend free code camp.

I needed an outlet for my new skills, so I built a blog for myself, a website for my church, several websites for friends, and so on. It was a lot of work, and a lot of fun.

But, the fun and games ended when I remembered that I needed to make money doing this, not just have fun.

So, I set out to make websites as a business. A web design agency.

And that’s when I learned something very critical about my personality and how I operate as a human: I hate doing what other people want when I don’t think it’s the best thing for them.

With these websites, people wanted terrible designs, terrible UX, terrible everything. I was the expert, and I would give my opinion, and they would say “no, do it this way”. I hated that.

After about three websites, I called them all and told them I was too busy and I couldn’t do any more. It was time to get back to the drawing board.

SEO

Learning SEO was very similar to learning web development. I followed my same pattern, which was taking a course, taking action, and starting a service.

I had the intention of starting an SEO agency this time, because I had in the back of my mind that I needed to make money doing this. Not just learn new skills and have fun.

So, I took this SEO course. It was incredible. The updated version is here.

The course was not only designed to teach you SEO, but it was also designed to teach you how to create an agency that made lots of money. Perfect.

So, I set out to do SEO as a business. An SEO agency.

And that’s when I learned something very important to my journey: why would I do this very valuable skill for other businesses when I could just do it for myself?

After roughly three interviews with businesses about SEO services, I quit them all. I decided I was going to do this for myself, for my own profit, somehow.

This was when I learned I needed to make a product, not do a service.

Facebook Ads

This is a more interesting story.

Once I had some skills under my belt, I found out about dropshipping, Amazon products, and selling physical products on the internet.

I had an idea that I couldn’t shake. My wife was into journals and hand lettering, and I had an idea for a black paper journal. Simple, but something that didn’t already exist.

This is also documented on my blog. Like this post.

I made a website, talked to some manufacturers on Alibaba, got some samples, and I was ready for business.

I knew I needed to build an audience quickly, so I turned to FB ads.

I took this course. It was actually really great. I learned a lot, and had a really good plan going forward.

The one thing I lacked, was capital. I didn’t have the means to do ads correctly simply because I didn’t have the money to spend on ads.

So, in the end, the project flopped. I spent about $2500 in ads, built a launch email list, and didn’t reach my goal on Kickstarter.

It was a bit disappointing. I really believed in the idea, and I know it would have worked had I had more time and more capital.

But, as was the common thread, I needed to figure out something that made money. And I wanted to make a product.

Firebase & Web Apps

At this point, I was confused and didn’t know what to do.

Well, I knew what to do, which was learn more skills, but I needed to make money.

This was when I met a friend who has a trucking business. He had an idea for an app that would automate document filing and driver processes. I had just wrapped up a failed project, so I was desperate.

I learned so much making this app. Everything I did here applied to the current product I make for a living. I learned how to make web apps with Firebase, how to integrate webhooks into a node server, and how to think about state management and data flow for a web application.

I didn’t actually take any courses this time. I just read the documentation. But I had a project to apply what I learned.

I spent about 9 months on this project. It didn’t earn me any money, but it earned me a ton of practical and profitable skills.

And the good thing was, it worked. And he was reasonably happy about how it worked.

It was right around this time that Indiehackers got started, and I found my people. I was inspired, challenged, and advised by some really good people.

I was filled with so many ideas about what to make with my new skills.

It was also during that time that I made a script for my wife to automate sharing items on Poshmark. I put it on my blog, and a few months later I started getting inquiries about how to use it. There was market demand for my ideas and skills.

The rest, is history (currently happening?).

The Takeaway

Learn new skills by taking courses (reading books, studying documentation), and apply those new skills by helping other people. With this approach you will learn so much more than just taking a course and sitting on the information.

I followed this path so many times, and it worked out really well for me. I learned so much, and now I can build just about anything I want to build.

It takes a lot of time. But I like to say, you can spend five years now to change the rest of your life. That’s a pretty sweet deal.

And it has totally changed our lives. I’m grateful for it, and I will continue to help and teach others how to do the same.

What skills do you want to learn? How can you help other people with those skills? Are there any courses, books, or other shortcuts you can use to get the information faster?