Every year, I post a retrospective about what it’s been like to start up a company. If you want to catch up, check out past posts in the Brent Ozar Unlimited tag.
This post covers year 10 of the company: May 2020 to April 2021.
Boy, did that year suck or what?
What a rollercoaster. COVID raged, we weren’t supposed to wear masks, then we were, then we got vaccines, then a lot of people did their own research, then the Delta variant hit.
During Year 10, a lot of good things happened to me while a lot of bad things were happening to other people. I was aware of that as it was happening, too: I had survivor guilt the whole time. All during year 10, I gave back in as many ways as I could: donating to causes and giving money to folks whose jobs were impacted by the pandemic. At the end of the day, my annual recap posts are about how I fared during the year, reflecting on what worked and what didn’t, and as guilty as I feel about it, a lot of good stuff happened to me in Year 10 (as opposed to Year 11, more on that later), so here we go.
Year 10 included the
worst part of 2020.
Year 10 started out with the world in quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a terrible, terrible year for most people on earth. People died, lost loved ones around them, lost their businesses and their jobs, and spent the year being stressed about what was happening to them and their families.
I was very privileged:
- I had been working from home for over a decade, and essentially nothing changed about our lives at home.
- I was well-prepared for a financial emergency.
- The company was prepared, too: we’d already let go of the consultants in Year 8, and the only employee we had left was Richie Rump, my developer. We were financially prepared to weather the storm even with zero income and continue to pay Richie’s salary.
As year 10 started with emergencies everywhere, I was thinking, “Okay, no problem, we’ll deplete our savings, but I’ll have a lot of time on my hands to build training material and apps so that we’re prepared when businesses start spending again.” I was excited about adapting to a different new normal. It wasn’t going to be pretty, but I’m flexible. I can adapt.
We started planning to spend most of 2021 in Iceland. We figured it’d be safer than being in the US because they were taking COVID19 more seriously, locking down their borders to most folks, following the science, and doing social distancing. As Year 10 started, we began working with the Icelandic government to work remotely. Iceland appealed to us because I have asthma, so I was a little more susceptible to COVID-19’s damage than other folks.
I was concerned for my health because in San Diego, people just weren’t being responsible. We would get into an elevator, and then people without masks would get in with us – despite clear signage all around the elevators saying, “You have to wear a mask in here.” When we tried saying something to them, they’d respond with, “It’s okay, I’ve been tested” – demonstrating that they really didn’t understand the latency of testing. Whatever. It was infuriating, and it made me thankful that California closed all offices. Things could have been so much worse.
Mandatory work-from-home was great for remote consultants & trainers.
Things got weird. COVID19 didn’t cause a business slowdown for me at all. The opposite happened.
The consulting business took off. The quarantines accelerated some businesses dramatically. I can’t give client specifics, so I’ll make up an example in a different line of business. Say you run an online scheduling service for food deliveries: suddenly, your business would explode overnight. Database issues popped to the forefront of a lot of companies’ minds, and they suddenly had no choice but to fix urgent performance issues. I was initially paranoid about finances, so I wanted to accept work while it was available – still expecting it to dry up at any time – so I ended up booked months in advance, which is extremely unusual for me since I focus on emergency consulting.
Vendor sponsorships took off. Vendors would normally sponsor in-person conferences in order to reach prospective clients, but those were off for 2020-2021. They reached out to online content creators with existing audiences. I’d been selling sponsorships on BrentOzar.com and sponsored webcasts, but I started getting so much of it that I had to automate the sales process through WooCommerce. In year 10, I made more on sponsorships alone in year 10 than I ever made as a DBA, and I was really happy with how my passive income strategies worked.
Most importantly, the online training business took off. Companies that would have ordinarily sent their teams to conferences or training classes suddenly had no choice but to switch to online training. When I’m teaching online classes, every additional student is basically 100% profit: I’m already teaching the class anyway, so it’s not like another student adds additional costs. This part of the business was crazy profitable in year 10.
I focused on online training.
Remote training was the most profitable thing I did. Adding attendees was all profit, because each additional attendee in a class doesn’t really raise the class expenses. However, remote training quality was often terrible. I’d presented on webcasts for years with conventional tools like GoToWebinar, WebEx, and Zoom, but…the conventional webcast experience just wasn’t great for attendees.
So from the start of year 10, when I was realizing that the in-person conference game was simply over for the next couple of years, I knew I had to focus on one thing and one thing only: I wanted to have one of the best online session experiences in the SQL Server business. If I could get to that market position quickly, and also make sure that the community understood my market position, then I would be financially secure despite the pandemic.
I started by investing time & money to learn lessons from television presenters. I learned how to use OBS, bought a lot of audio & video gear, and tried new techniques inspired by Alton Brown. My favorite presentation from year 10 was this session explaining database statistics using playing cards:
That one was polished, but most of my live streams were either me coding, presenting, or doing open Q&A sessions – more on that in a minute. Practice, practice, practice. Every week, sometimes multiple times per week, I live streamed.
I wanted to make sure everybody in the community got the chance to see how high-quality and interactive my online sessions were, so I did a lot of live Q&A sessions like this:
(As a side note – to facilitate that Office Hours Q&A process, Richie and I started PollGab.com, a separate company from Brent Ozar Unlimited. I gave Richie a bunch of ideas and money, and he turned it into a Real Thing™. Before PollGab, my Q&A sessions were a total pain in the rear. My original goal for PollGab was to spend up to $75K on it over the course of 2 years, and then either sell it to another company, or let it generate side income. We started it in Year 10, but we didn’t start taking public signups – more on that in Year 11.)
I stopped doing user groups
and online conferences.
It might seem odd to put all this work into online training, but then not present at virtual user groups or conferences. However, I saw a few problems with those kinds of things that made me step back from ’em.
I wanted to give back at times that worked for me. In the past, whenever user groups asked me to present, I’d say yes – often scheduling them months in advance – but then I was locking myself down at those dates/times. I had to be in front of a computer, with awesome internet, and ideally all of my studio gear. That was a cramp in my style that I just didn’t want to bother with when I was trying to gallivant all over Iceland.
A lot of online conference platforms sucked. User groups were using a mix of Teams, Zoom, WebEx, etc, and the attendee experience on those sucked pretty badly compared to what I was doing with streaming. Paid conference platforms were even worse. I wanted my attendees to have an amazing experience, and I just couldn’t get that with user groups and conferences.
I wanted to simplify my training marketing. If people wanted to buy online training from Brent Ozar, I wanted them to know exactly where to go: BrentOzar.com. If I offered online conference workshops all over the place, then it introduced a lot of conflicts of pricing, availability, marketing, etc. I just wanted to keep it simple: if you want my stuff, buy it from me, end of story.
I felt my decision not to do online user groups & conferences would be controversial if I talked about it publicly because folks might see it as me refusing to give back to the community. I kept quiet about it, only explaining it privately to organizers when they would ask me to present. They understood.
It worked: it kept my calendar flexible, let me do free public streaming with a really high quality, and helped market my training classes leading up to our annual Black Friday sale.
The Black Friday sale
made over $1M USD.
Every year, we ran a big Black Friday sale at BrentOzar.com. I had no idea what to expect from 2020 because:
- Good: everybody was stuck at home, so I had more potential customers
- Bad: with the slumping economy, companies were cutting back on optional expenses
- Terrible: because in-person conferences were forbidden, every in-person conference company was jumping into online events, trying to get the same revenue I was trying to get
- Good: I’d been streaming and proving all year that I delivered a top-notch product, whereas most online conferences were tapping on the microphone trying to figure out how to turn it on
I wrote about my Black Friday 2020 planning and marketing, but what I didn’t write at the time was that I’d set a $1,000,000 sales goal. I kept slicing and dicing the numbers in Excel, and it seemed possible, but…at the same time, it seemed outlandish. We’d crossed $500K and $700K the two years prior, and this seemed like a huge jump – especially with the bad economy.
But we did it. Much champagne was consumed.
Normally I’d have excitedly blogged about that, but…it just wasn’t appropriate in 2020. So I stuck it in my Epic Life Quest task list, got my dream British hot rod, and kept going. I continued investing in training by working on GDPR compliance to open up sales to the EU/UK, which took a couple months of work. That paid off as well, adding another $400K USD revenue during our 20th anniversary sale.
The database industry was slow to adapt.
The first few months of Year 10, I kept a close eye on paid conferences and training companies to see if they were also adapting to the new reality quickly, and…nobody was. They were either expecting in-person conferences during 2020-2021, or they were still using the same old meetings with bad audio, low resolution postage stamp videos of the speaker, and hardly any interactivity at all between speakers & attendees. They just didn’t adapt, didn’t invest in their product, and they paid the price.
For example, the Professional Association for SQL Server, aka PASS, was a big positive force in our industry for decades, but had been struggling to adapt to industry changes. I think they’d had a lot of the right pieces over the years, but just couldn’t put them together at the right time. Years ago they’d run popular streaming events called the 24 Hours of PASS. It was a great brand, had a lot of people excited, but…then they made a series of decisions that weren’t focused on the good of the community. For example, PASS let sponsors buy their way into sessions, presenting biased marketing material without clearly labeling it as such, leading to the audience not being able to trust PASS’s content. I warned about this problem back in 2014, and not only was I ignored, PASS doubled down on it, letting vendors buy their own entire virtual conferences called Marathons.
The material and delivery was bad. The audience won’t eat unseasoned, unadorned spam, and the social buzz around 24HoP disappeared rapidly.
PASS was taking in millions of dollars per year, but they weren’t saving it for a rainy day – they were just shoveling the community’s money into a private for-profit management company. PASS kept raising prices for both attendees and vendors, while simultaneously giving them even less value, and not paying enough attention to the value they were providing back to their customers. When COVID-19 hit, PASS couldn’t adapt fast enough to survive, and they shut down, selling their brand name and assets to Redgate Software.
Like I said at the beginning of the post, Year 10 involved a lot of mixed feelings. I was bummed that PASS (and most user groups) collapsed, but on the flip side, it meant that my training business didn’t have a lot of competition that year.
The training profit let us take a
mini-retirement in Iceland.
Long before Black Friday hit, we were deep into planning our 6-month move to Iceland with a 6-month teleworker visa. We wanted to work as little as possible during our time in Iceland. I’d still do consulting if I had to in order to bring in enough money to stay secure, but ideally, I’d hardly work at all. I would teach classes for 1-2 weeks at a time, do a little work, and then we would hit the road and roam the countryside until the next classes.
The training profit was so high that we just decided, screw it – we would only teach one class per month, and then spend the rest of the month retired. We couldn’t possibly skip the opportunity to have Iceland all to ourselves: the attractions were mostly outdoors, and Iceland was empty because they weren’t allowing most tourists in. In just one of the 2-week vacation sprints, we visited the Hverir sulfur vents, the opening scene of Prometheus, the black lava pebble beach at Djúpalónssandur, the columns at Reynisfjara Beach, so many glaciers and waterfalls, explored the plane wreck at Sólheimasandur, the Hofskirkja turf church, saw a lot of reindeer, ate the best mushroom soup I’ve ever had, held icebergs at Diamond Beach, visited a live volcano eruption, and so much more. Our pictures we so different than the usual Iceland tourism photos because nobody was around! We almost always had the places entirely to ourselves.
Even during the vacation sprints, I still kinda-sorta worked. I naturally wake up really early each morning (usually 3-5 AM) and do asynchronous work. I’d respond to client emails, write blog posts, write new training material – but after that, the work stopped, and we were on vacation.
While in Iceland,
I stopped taking new clients.
In the past, I’d been referring my overflow leads to a couple of friends of mine, but in January 2021, I decided to make it more official. I set up an automated workflow process so that new sales prospects were routed to specific consulting companies I trusted, and they would pay me per lead. Really well-qualified consulting leads can easily generate $5-$10,000 worth of work, and more for long-term remote DBA relationships. Consultants looking for more work would gladly pay hundreds of dollars for well-screened leads like that, and that passive income would help power my eventual retirement.
It worked well, generating $20K of income in the first 3 months of the system, enough to convince me to stick with it. I used that system through our time in Iceland, and then even continued doing it when we came back to America. I was much, much more selective about which client work I took on personally – the vast majority of consulting requests ended up going to my referral network.
This freed up more of my time, which led to a tough decision: should I try hosting in-person training classes again?
I wasn’t sure if Year 11 would be a return to normalcy.
At the end of Year 10, an awful lot of people were starting to bet on in-person events again. Recently-vaccinated conference organizers were chomping at the bit to organize in-person events. There was a lot of talk of Zoom fatigue, and a lot of conference organizers were pent up in their houses, climbing their walls, itching to get back together with their friends.
It was tempting for me to consider organizing in-person training classes for 2022. However, it would be an expensive bet. When you organize in-person training classes, you have to reserve the space long in advance, and you have to take some financial risks: laying down large deposits for event space, signing contracts to guarantee hotels that a minimum number of students will show up, reserving food vendors, etc. I had to decide whether to take that plunge.
At the end of Year 10, the delta variant of COVID-19 was spreading quickly, and we just didn’t know enough about it. It was spreading even amongst vaccinated folks, and far too many people had skipped their opportunity to get vaccinated, so they were ending up in hospitals.
I decided I wasn’t ready to bet on in-person classes yet, but I was ready to attend one or two in-person conferences (SQLBits and the PASS Summit) and teach one-day pre-conference workshops there. Those are way less financially lucrative – the teacher only gets a small percentage of the ticket sales – but there’s also near-zero financial risk.
Looking back, I’m happy with that bet.
As I write this in early 2022, I’m glad I didn’t try to gamble on a return to in-person training classes. The Omicron variant caused border lockdowns again, making it very challenging to plan successful, profitable events. I now think we’re only about halfway into the pandemic, and that there are going to be business, government, social, and travel disruptions into the year 2024.
I’m a little sad that I’m probably going to retire without ever running another in-person training class myself. Sure, I’ll teach small 1-day pre-con workshops connected to larger conferences, but there’s something special about building a rapport with a group of people over the course of several days, gradually seeing them “get” harder and harder topics and build confidence. That’s fun.
In-person multi-day training classes will happen again. Reunions will happen. Hugs will happen. I just don’t know when they’re gonna happen.
But Year 10 was isolation.
Being isolated from our friends, our families, and for me, even my home country. I think it hit the SQL Server community particularly hard because we were so used to getting together all over the world, so many times per year. I had so many friends that I would see at regional events like SQL Saturdays, national events, and international events. COVID turned that off like a switch, and turned on isolation.
During Year 10, I didn’t feel like I was feeling the effects of that, but looking back now, I can see that my internal battery was gradually wearing down. My social media profiles all say, “I like teaching, travel, and laughing,” and historically for me, all three of those have involved other people. Sure, I was technically teaching and laughing, but online isn’t the same, despite my best efforts. Nowhere near it.
In Year 11, my battery simply ran out. This post’s coverage ends April 2021, and I had a lot of personal life changes after that. I’ll cover that in next year’s post once I’ve got enough distance in the rear view mirror, but I just feel like I can’t close out the Year 10 post without mentioning it. Don’t worry about me – I’m fine – but I’m spending time thinking about how to get more satisfaction from teaching and laughing when doing it in isolation, and what to augment/replace them with. I still think we’re a year or two away from anything resembling “normal” teaching and laughing, and I need to make sure that my battery charges during that time.