2017 in Review

Welcome to my third retrospective in four years.

I didn’t bother writing one of these for 2015 as I was glad to see the back of the year, but in hindsight I regret not doing so as it was a formative time for my re-invented business and it is useful to be able to look back and see how one has grown or changed.

I also really enjoy reading other people’s reviews, especially those of my direct peers, so I was determined to get something on paper for 2017 even though it was half way through January by the time I chose to give the task enough bandwidth.

So, standard disclaimer: I write these for me. If they are interesting or useful to you, then that’s great too.


Siftware

My business became 11 years old in 2017 and it was without a doubt the toughest year it has faced.

Things started well and I was bullish about gaining more traction for our productised service offerings, but then things went rather pear shaped in the spring.

Thankfully, it all turned out great in the end, but it was touch and go for a while.

We ended the year much tighter as a team, stronger & more profitable as a business with a number of great new clients and most importantly with leads arriving at our door ready to spend money. They had pains our ‘products’ could remove and were easy to convert.

It wasn’t easy, though, and I wouldn’t have got through that horrid time without my family and team trusting in the vision and sticking with me ❤.

$bigClient moved to a 3rd party SaaS

One of our largest clients gave us notice that they didn’t need our services any more. They were purchasing a SaaS off the shelf which meant they no longer needed support, maintenance and feature development on their custom system that we’d inherited a number of years previously.

In addition another client had recently come to the end of a large development cycle and had dropped into tick-over mode.

It was a perfect storm and the overall hit was huge. 40%+ drop in income overnight and it mostly came without warning.

Even with cash reserves and the unused overdraft I have sitting there waiting for emergency scenarios like this, there was no way the business could survive more than another 6-8 weeks at current burn. Also, at the end of that period I’d then be five figures in debt.

Something had to change.

I nearly quit

I spent an intense weekend weighing up my options and it is easily the closest I’ve come to walking away. I had just enough notice that I had the money to meet all my financial obligations including redundancy payments and the office lease without going into debt, but it really felt like giving up and we were so close to having a self-sustaining business.

One more go

In the end I decided that the obvious option was to KBO. To keep on going. Things were looking so promising otherwise and it would be a waste.

My team and I came to an accommodation. We all dropped to less hours and together we found one developer a great job with an ex-client which turned out to be a win-win situation for all involved.

Literally on the day that the new paradigm kicked in – one less developer and everyone on reduced hours – we started winning new work.

I kid you not.

Within a month all the developers were back to full-time and we have since grown past our head-count at that time.

Sales down profits up

For the calendar year sales were a few percent down but profits were up around 15% when compared with 2016, which I’m naturally delighted with. This is mainly down to efficiency improvements and tighter processes around managing projects.

Monthly recurring revenue from just support retainers is at a level that it can comfortably support a full-time developer’s salary, up from a zero standing start 3 years ago.

Most importantly our reserves were boosted and our pipeline extended by three months. We are in a much stronger position with a number of new clients coming on-board we have more eggs in our basket with no single point of failure client that we rely on. Most of these clients are signed up to a subscription too rather than the previous paradigm of all work coming to us from our clients ad-hoc.

It’s actually working

Three years ago I left Microconf EU in Prague thinking for the first time that I didn’t need a SaaS or software product to be able to retire at some point in the next 10 years. Instead I decided that I would take my already profitable business and ‘productise’ its service offerings.

Easier said than done, though. It meant guessing what the market looked like. I had to make a bunch of assumptions around my ideal client and what their pains were.

Nobody was talking about support and maintenance of web applications (except maybe Dan Norris’ WP-Curve, but they were WordPress focused). We had to come up with a productised model for complex, bespoke and probably ageing web applications where no two were alike.

Basically we had to figure out how to turn a complex and unique consulting engagements into a thing that could be purchased with a credit card.

We enter 2018 with those assumptions validated. We have multiple clients that have purchased our offerings and we can point to as successful case studies.

Most importantly, prospective clients are coming to us with the exact pains that our products can solve. We have the processes in-house to deal with them and a fantastic team to deliver the work.

All we need is the volume now.

Flat out and accelerating. 1 mile to go.

Running

2017 was my second full running season but the first where I took it seriously.

I managed to run 1200 miles without injury. I definitely consider myself lucky to have been able to train for the entire year without ripping or breaking parts of me.

I had a great year and my middle aged body amazed me with what it is capable of, pulling off race times I thought would never have been possible.

As well as numerous – but not as many as last year – 10Ks and a few halves, I ended up running a full marathon as well as a 30 mile mini-ultra and was happy with my performance in both.

In the club championships I came 23rd male which I was over the moon with. It is age graded, but even so there are some really fast people in my age category so I was chuffed to do so well.

This year I also took the England Athletics LiRF coaching course so am now insured (and police checked) to take out groups of people on a run. So far I’ve done this a few times for the club but it’s early days yet.

The challenge is not having an intimate knowledge of Shrewsbury geography and road names. I can easily find routes to run around Shrewsbury all day, but being at the back of a group and having to direct them means I need slightly better instructions than “erm, go down here a bit and then turn left by the … place, you know, near the thing” and doing it so you get back to the starting point exactly an hour later. If we were doing this in East London or Bristol it would be a lot easier.

The year I became an endurance athlete

For the first half of the year I was pretty relaxed as I wanted to build up a strong, injury-free, fitness base. So I kept to a relatively light but consistent training schedule.

I ran a few races and got a bit quicker and I also did lots more off-road running. Being on a hill or by a lake in the wilderness has always been a love of mine so introducing running into the mix was an obvious next step.

Around July I ran a half marathon on the Shropshire hills and surprised myself by doing it without any special training in around 2 hours 10 minutes. This was an amazing time for me given the tough terrain and the serious hills; well over 2000ft of ascent.

Off the back of this I decided to try for my second marathon and promptly signed up for Chester.

My first attempt – London Marathon 2016 – was 10 months after I’d started the couch to 5K programme so in hindsight it’s amazing I managed to pull it off at all. I ended up injured and had a pretty hard time of it during the race itself, ‘bonking’ around mile 17 and announcing ‘never again’ at the end.

18 months on I had a solid fitness base and a lot more training experience. I chose a 12 week plan and strictly followed it, not only in terms of the training but also being careful with my diet and sleep patterns. I also stopped drinking alcohol completely about 4 weeks before the race.

Training for an autumn marathon was so much more pleasant than a spring one! It is light at 5am in the summer and there’s no ice to avoid. You have to be motivated and dedicated to train for a marathon, to do so in the winter is an order of magnitude more difficult. I was so glad for the relatively grey and damp summer we had as it was perfect for training.

Lake Vyrnwy Half

My first bit of feedback after lots of training was the Lake Vyrnwy half marathon. My training plan said I could go flat out as it was a tune up race for the marathon in a few weeks time. The slight problem was that I had clearly got faster during training, but by how much? I had no idea what pace to aim for.

Ignoring the biblical rain, I chose a slightly ambitious pace and got on with the job. But after the first few miles when everyone had settled into their rhythm I couldn’t help but notice that a were still passing me.  That’s not on. Regardless, I stuck to my pace and by around mile nine I was reeling them back in again. That’s the point I decided to accelerate taking around 30 seconds off my pace for both mile eleven and twelve, and I still felt fine.

So, the final mile I went for it. Going faster than I would normally run a mile at a Parkrun and crossed the line in 1:35:40 still feeling strong with spare gas in the tank.

I was walking on air for days afterwards. Best. Race. Ever.

Chester Marathon

I was a bit stressed the days leading up to the main event, getting ‘maranoid’, worried I’d get ill or injured after 3 months of my life being on hold. It didn’t help that the kids all had colds either.

I also put quite a bit of pressure on myself to break 4 hours but privately my goal was even more aggressive. Luckily I got to the race without incident (though I did oversleep!) and it was nice to have a big contingent of the club there too. We even had a gazebo on the finishing straight which made for a great base.

The race itself was almost anticlimactic.

I stuck to my target pace and churned out 27 consistent miles without stopping. I felt strong and even motored up the few small hills without slowing – something I’d trained for – and crossed the line well under both my public and private goals at 3:38:55.

I’d made it. I ran a sub four hour marathon. 1 HOUR and 15 mins faster that my previous best. Woot!

#mind-body

If you’ve read any of my more recent stuff then you’d know that I can sometimes struggle with anxiety. I was mostly OK this year though there was a bit of a wobble in the summer. I was still functional & productive but not at full capacity. My marathon training ended up being a great anchor and by the end of the training period I was back to full strength.

My system for staying productive had a bit of a change. The regime became more relaxed and easier to manage. Like most systems it steals from lots of others but the main focus is setting seasonal goals and having a decent week plan. I still time-box my calendar, but less religiously, and I ensure that I review previous weeks to make sure things don’t slip. I still want Omnifocus to be released for Windows please, but my OneNote system is battle-tested and proven to work for me.

In October 2016 Cathie and I decided to go fully veggie after a few months of cutting down on meat. During 2017 I easily stuck at this and I can’t recall a single instance of  ‘I could really murder a burger’. I did have to make a few practical concessions when travelling and have the odd emergency dirty fish burger as the only other option was a Gregg’s in the service station (the veggie burgers in most popular fast food places are absolutely disgusting).

I am continuing to slowly ‘build a life I don’t need a vacation from’ with me giving myself the afternoon off ever few weeks to run somewhere wild as well as being present at home a lot more, doing home and family related tasks in amongst my professional duties. I no longer see one time period as work and the other private, they all sort of merge together and I am mostly maintaining a good and healthy balance.

Myfanwy looking badass

VW Camper

With the kids getting older and after years of considering we finally bought a camper van.

Our little 1989 VW T25 called Myfanwy – hint: ‘F’ is a vee sound in Welsh – has room to sleep 4 and a small fridge and cooker.

She is awesome.

We will of course take her on family holidays but she’s too small for the five of us even with an awning. We may do some weekends with tents too but the plan is to rent places and then use the van to have a base for day trips.

As the twins are approaching GCSE age we we’re going to start having situations where they’ll be doing their own thing and we can use the van to camp in for weekend adventures with our youngest (10 yo) .

It was also bought with my running in mind. I’m now able to go to a race in comfort, sometimes sleeping over the night before and most importantly I have a base for afterwards to get changed and recover. Making the whole thing a bit more relaxed.

2018 – steady state

I don’t like to share too many goals publicly because that can introduce unnecessary pressure. That said I am hopeful that I’ve reached a steady-state and 2018 is all about tweaking things.

Getting a working sales funnel for Siftware is my highest priority. I have the products the processes and the team to deliver, I ‘just’ need to figure out how to turn the sales tap on and off at will. I feel quietly confident that this is the year I’ll move this along

I want to build out our tools for managing work and clients this year. We’ve made a great start but I’d like to expand this to automating client on-boarding and ongoing reporting as a starter for 10.

Ultimately I’m looking at us producing a SaaS-like wrapper around what we do, to end up with Siftware-as-a-Service as it were.

It’s looking like I’ll be running a Shropgeek event in the spring on health and fitness to coincide with a really great trail run with a geeky name: May the 4th be with you. I’m looking forward to this as since I started running I’ve met lots of my peers who are really into their own respective sports and I want to recognise and celebrate that fact.

Writing: we have a love/hate relationship. I now enjoy doing it a lot more and have the opportunity too, but there is still some sort of mental barrier that I need to overcome. In the past the excuse was time or ideas of what to write. I don’t really have that excuse now as I know I can find the time and I have a list longer than both arms and legs full of ideas.

Last year I started some running ‘week notes’ and had some great feedback but then things tailed off. I plan this year to try a general week/fortnight/month note where I list out highlights of the previous period. Hopefully I can build up some momentum with this.

Finally, my running goals for 2018 are:

  • Run the Manchester marathon under 3 hours 30 minutes. This is an aggressive target and injury notwithstanding will all depend on me putting the training in
  • Run a sub-20 minute 5K. My current PB is 20:10 but that last ten seconds is proving to be a huge barrier. It doesn’t help that I loathe short distance races and rarely Parkrun due to family commitments
  • Finish the Snowdonia Marathon in October. The 2,700 places sold out in 2 hours this year and the feedback from previous runners is that it’s a superb race. I ran UP Snowden in 2017, in 2018 I’ll run a marathon around it
  • I have just joined the Fell Runners Association and once I’ve figured out how to run and read a map at the same time I intend to enter some actual fell races

Previous years

2014 in review: podcasts, blogs, books & conferences

 

2016 in Review