How working less hours will make me more productive (and a better saxophone player)

During a holiday break, you often realize certain things about your way of working that you don’t see at all while you are in your day to day stream of work. A complete break of a few days will power off your working brain completely, and will give your mind the opportunity to think in a different and creative way.

One of the conclusions I made during the last Christmas and New Year holidays was that the last few weeks of 2013 I working always, everywhere, and on everything at the same time. But in reality I was never really working and never taking a real break, and because I worked on everything at the same time, I was working on nothing for real. Working very hard from early in the morning until late at night and always jumping on the next small urgency is a perfect way to look very busy – and a perfect way to be very unproductive.

There were mainly 2 problems…

First problem: there was no clear cut between work and play.

I often had my laptop next to me during dinner, just in case an urgency would pop up (not the best way to enjoy your dinner and family time). I checked my emails on my smartphone late at night right before going to sleep (not the best way to relax and get 8h of sleep). I would take my iPad everywhere with me so I could work from anywhere, just in case.

This is so wrong. Working all the time and everywhere is not a sign of efficiency or effectiveness. It’s a weakness. If the only way to run your business is by working 16h a day, you are in the wrong business. There are plenty of industries where working 8h,  6h or 4h per day (or per week!) is enough to run a very profitable business – that is, if you work smart. On average, my business does not require me to work more than 8h per day… given one works efficient, effective, to the point, dedicated, well rested and full of energy and focus.

The more time to you have to finish a task, the more time you will waste on unnecessary details, fine-tuning, procrastination, Twitter, emails, jokes, cleaning your office, trying out a new app, and all kind of distractions that have nothing to do with the real work.

So here is a very simple thing that I will try to do from today on. Each morning, I’ll spend 10 minutes setting up a very simple “work / play scheme” for that day. It looks more or less like this (and will probably be slightly different each day):

The day has a very clear separation between “work” and “play” blocks, and comes with one very simple rule:


“Uh…but what if I have a lot of work?! 8 hours is not enough!”
Well, then make sure you get it done during the working blocks. Skip the non essential stuff to finish your task. You can do it. If you know you only have 2 hours to answer that RFP, then you’ll make it in 2 hours. Without a time limit, you’ll probably work 4 or even 6 hours on it – half of your time distracted by Facebook, reading blogposts and checking your mailbox every 10 minutes.

The exact start and stop time and the length of the time block do not really matter. For me they’ll be different each day – one day I’ll start sooner, the other day later, depending on some personal things like if I have to bring my daughter to the kindergarten in the morning or not, if I have saxophone classes or not in the evening, if I’ll cook for dinner or not that day. Probably I’ll end up with an “early” variation, and a “late” variation of this day scheme.

It’s mind relaxing and stress reducing to define clearly in advance which hours you’ll work and which hours you’ll play. I’m sure it results in much more focus and attention during the work blocks. As well as much more joy, fun and pleasure during the play blocks. A clear cut between both work and play time ensures work will feel like work, and play will be like play. Actually printing out the work schedule each day and visualizing it in front of you on your desk will give even more structure to your day, since you will really feel obliged to follow your commitments and stick to the schedule.

Second problem: working on everything at the same time

The other problem was the difficulty to get into a highly productive and efficient working flow. Checking your email, tweeting, answering a phone call, reading a blogpost, writing some code and correcting a typo on your website are all very useful tasks. But not if you do them in the same 30 minutes, since there is way to much context switching. It’s so much more efficient to code for 2 hours, then spend an hour or 2 on writing a blogpost, and then cleaning your mailbox for another hour. That’s 5 hours of well oriented and focussed work. If you’d jump on every task that is thrown at you (and if you run a business or you are freelancer, there are whole lot of todo’s thrown at you all the time, everywhere, 24/7), you are switching context all day long, and you’ll never get into a deep, relaxed, focussed and dedicated working flow.

You all know how it feels to be “in the zone” or “in the flow”. Time and place disappear, you are in the now, working very dedicated on one single thing that has all your attention. It does not feel like working. But you all know as well how a hectic, disoriented, chaotic day full of urgencies screaming for attention feels like. It’s depressing. You feel like nothing has been done, although a lot of energy has been spilled and you feel very tired at the end of the day.

In order to force myself into flow, every morning – when defining my “work” and my “play” blocks – I’ll pick a set of tasks I want to get done that day, and I’ll assign them to the work blocks for that day. Today, the tasks are:

  • write a blogpost and have it published, as well as some online marketing and content sharing (content marketing is our main marketing strategy for Zorros and ArchiSnapper)
  • do a meeting with client XYZ (was already decided so I did’t actually choose this one)
  • work 1 hour for client XYZ
  • do some technical things (feature analysis, planning next release, …) for ArchiSnapper
  • set up 1 drip email for ArchiSnapper
  • review and work on our ArchiSnapper blog structure, layout, and see how I can make it convert better

Then I will assign these tasks over the different working blocks for that day, and I’ll try to get them done. Again, by being allowed to work during PLAY time blocks, I’ll have to focus purely on these tasks during the work blocks. I know upfront that if I’m too distracted with other todo’s popping up, I’m not going to make my todo list of the day. My every day goal is then to finish my little todo list for that day during the work blocks, and then disappear from work for the rest of the day.

I’m sure I’ll work less hours, more relaxed, and I’ll have more done at the end of the day.

2 birds, 1 stone: my saxophone playing and sound will get so much better!

As you have probably noticed, there is 1.5h in the play blocks foreseen for practicing saxophone. I love playing jazz and funk saxophone. Playing an instrument (just like doing sport or any other kind of complete distraction) obliges you to be only in that moment and forget about everything else. It’s a very good way to completely relax and enjoy life. During a jazz concert, you better not worry about work or your empty fridge, or your next solo might sound not so cool :-)

As with anything, if you want to become better, you’ll have to work on it. Nobody was born as a good saxophone monster. Charlie Parker practiced 14h per day during years. My teacher says that 1h of saxophone practice per day is the absolute minimum to get better, play the horn more natural, make it sound exactly what you want it to sound like and construct a nice solo. And studies have shown that you need 10.000 hours of practice to master anything like a pro. By planning in 1h to 1.5h of dedicated saxophone practice in my daily schedule, I’m sure I’ll become a better saxophone player day after day, and I’ll enjoy at least 1h per day of complete distraction from work. 2 birds, 1 stone!

Hear it yourself!
Below are 2 samples. Try to guess who is the guy who has a serious practice routine and who is the one playing the sax every now and then.



Did you hear it?
I’m sure you did notice a difference in sound, quality, feeling, expression and swing. If not, I’m sorry but then by all means don’t go for a career in the music industry :-)


Looking back after 1 year of productizing our service business

As you might remember, beginning of this year I announced that we would switch our Ruby on Rails consulting and development business Zorros from a service business into a products business.

Our primary goal was to be break even on recurring revenue (bootstrapped of course). This means that the automated stream of (products) revenue should equal the cost of running our business (paying all the wages, hosting, bills, …), so that we wouldn’t have to worry any longer on getting one off deals month after month.

Did we succeed?
No, we are not yet break even purely on recurring revenue. So, theoretically spoken, we did not succeed our challenge.

Do we consider 2013 as a year of success?
Hell yes we do! Here is why…

Money money money, must be funny

First of all, we have built up around $6K in automated monthly recurring revenue, which will continue to flow in during 2014, and is still growing month after month. Purely money wise, this means that we already have 72K (=12*6K) of revenue settled for 2014. That’s 72K less of worries, sales and sweat. A great way to start the new year I would say :-)

The first 100 paying users

But more important than the actual money, we got our first couple of 100 paying SaaS users, starting from nothing. We gained A LOT of insight into how to market and launch SaaS products, how to convert users, how to optimize the sales funnel, the website copy, drip campaigns, content marketing and so much more. When you do something for the first time, you make mistakes. Plenty of smaller mistakes and bigger mistakes. Launching your first SaaS product has a huge learning cost. We did pay a lot of learning fees in 2013. As from 2014 and every single year after, it will be cheaper, faster and somehow more straightforward and natural for us to launch other products or grow our current product suite. The first 100 paying users are more difficult to get than the next 100. SaaS entrepreneurship is definitely something that can be learned and one can become better and better at it.

We have an audience

Next to that, we did build up an audience. Beginning 2013 we had no audience, right now we have several 100 of paying users and we have built up a mailing list in the architects and construction industry for our product Building up an audience is really not easy and takes time. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. But once you have an audience, you have a set of people putting trust in you, getting real value out of your product in exchange for their hard earned money. It’s so much more easy to launch and sell a second product, an extra feature or an eBook for the same audience than building up another audience from scratch. You are not a stranger to your existing audience. You have passed the entrance exam. Tap into the same audience! Our audience of architects, construction companies and safety coordinators is worth a lot to us, and we’ll keep on building up a bigger audience via blogging (see our blog with tips and tricks for architects), content marketing, personal interaction, product improvements, interviews, guest blogging and word of mouth.

A “productizing” mindset – or how everything in your service business can become a product

2013 gave us a different mindset. Before you try your first SaaS product launch, thoughts go like:

“Well, we’ll build a simple piece of software for [doctors | architects | developers | freelancers | …] that will [save them stress | boost their revenue | save them time | …], we will sell it at $49 per month, and then we just need to find 1000 paying users to make 50K per month. Let’s get rich and drink piña coladas in Hawaii !!!”

When you already launched a SaaS (successfully or not), you know this process takes years of effort, sweat and tears. There is no such thing as an overnight SaaS success. Prepare yourself for a long marathon (or 10 in a row). And instead of betting everything on that one SaaS, productize your entire service business little by little. Every cent of recurring revenue helps.

While on the long term a pure SaaS business is the ultimate goal, our mindset is on “productizing” our entire service company. There are more easy “products like things” that are somehow scalable and repeatable, be it not as scalable and passive as a pure SaaS. It’s not OR a service business OR a SaaS business. Everything between a “fixed price, one time consulting/development project” and a “SaaS product that is making 50K a month purely on auto pilot while you are traveling the world” deserves attention.

Trainings, eBooks, courses, affiliate links, code snippets, master classes and retainer packages are just a few ways to make money in a semi-product mode. They are maybe not as perfect, scalable, passive and profitable as an established SaaS product, but they are certainly different (better) than the “trade your time for money” business model of a pure service business. And most of them are less risky, more easy and less costly to set up than launching a SaaS. During 2014, we will continue productizing our business with some (or all) of the above revenue streams. Every extra percentage of revenue that is NOT earned via “time for money” is welcome.

In a pure consulting business, all the revenue is coming in via trading your time for money. This can be frustrating and not comfortable, as every month you have to ensure to make enough one time deals, there is no way to grow or scale (without working more hours or growing your staff), and there is no passive income as every dollar earned requires labour. Your business is not predictable, as income streams are rather random. Pure service is a stressful business to run.

An (relatively) easy way to cut the direct link between your earnings and time spent is by productizing your service business little by little. Trainings, eBooks, code snippets, icon sets, affiliate links, WordPress themes and recurring monthly retainer packages are all ways to cover a certain percentage of your monthly costs by (semi-)automated revenue streams. With dedicated focus, time and perseverance on productizing your service business, you can easily get 35% of your revenues from productized services. The experience and lessons learned from productizing your service business (selling 500 copies of your eBook is a good preparation to sell your SaaS product later on), together with the extra time you have bought yourself (you have 40% of passive revenue so you have to accept less consulting work) will make it much more easy to grow towards a pure SaaS product business in the future.

The ultimate goal is to grow towards a pure SaaS product business over several years (you should be prepared for 2 – 4 years of hard work before SaaS pays all the bills), where most or even all of your revenue is automated, passive and scalable revenue.

During 2013 we got our mindset into productization mode. Of course we still depend on and enjoy service and consulting work, and we will keep on doing service work. Especially for clients who are serious, collaborative, have a realistic budget, are looking for high quality consulting/development and share our values (simplicity, pragmatism, quality, solving problems, no-nonsense). But at the same time everything in our business is questioned, turned around and looked at from different angles, with a strong focus on all kind of PRODUCTS.

Up to another year of bootstrapping products!