This may be one of the harder, more difficult entries to write. I am almost tempted to not even write it, but I've convinced myself that every step of the journey is important.
Almost exactly a month ago, I hit rock bottom. I was completely broke. I had nineteen cents in my bank account. My credit cards were maxed. I had next to no food in the cupboards. No gas in the car. My bus pass for community transit was empty. I was so poor that I couldn't afford the $2.75 to take a one way bus trip to my office. And if I did, I also couldn't afford to spend $8.65 for a lunch burrito. If I wanted to take the bus to the office, I would have to sneak onto the bus and keep a wary eye out for fare enforcement officers and hop off the moment they get on (happened a couple times). The only food I had for days was dried quaker oatmeal. Put a bit of it into a bowl with water, microwave it for 2.5 minutes, and then take it out, sprinkle some dried oats on it and try to mix in a pinch of brown sugar. I ate just that for days. Have you ever felt like your stomach is full but you're still starving? That's what eating the same food every day feels like. Trust me when I say this, there is no #*@!ing glory in being a starving artist.
I was down hard. I was literally starving, eating oatmeal twice a day to conserve food. I needed to hatch a plan to make money. Whatever I've been doing, it wasn't working out. I need a new plan. Normally, I'd lean on my girlfriend for help, but she's down hard too. The best she could do was loan me $50. I went straight to safeway and I very carefully wandered the aisles looking at how much food costed and what I got for my money. What gives me the most nutritious energy for the least amount of money? Canned soups cost $2.30 each, there was a 2 for 1 deal on loaves of bread, a dozen eggs are ridiculously cheap, a quart of milk is a little over $3, etc. If I cook my own foods, it's a lot cheaper than anything else. Cheap eggs, milk and bread? It's time to feast on french toast! I made that $50 stretch really far and bought over a weeks worth of food supplies.
But what happens when the food is all gone? Then I'm back to square one, back to starving. So, the $50 of food is a loan, not a grant or gift. I need a better plan. I decided I would go to the Sunday farmers market and setup a table and sell my girlfriends wine openers to people. I got some stock. I got a folding table and an old tent, a metal folding chair, and a demo stand. All of the previous booth props were stolen by my girlfriends former business partner. No signs, no props, no table cloths -- nothing! I had to do everything from scratch and start over. The booth fee costed $60, and by the grace of god, one of my credit cards was just barely not maxed that morning. I could pay the booth fee. Then, I didn't have a bottle of wine to demonstrate with either. And the table I had was covered in various paint splatters and looked like it had obviously been pulled out of a storage closet (it was). I almost couldn't even run the booth! I bought the cheapest bottle of wine I could find. 10am rolls around and the street fair begins. Throngs of pedestrians show up. I don't have a table cloth to cover the hideous table I brought. I spend 45 minutes walking all over town looking for a place that could sell me *anything* to cover my table with. Meanwhile, I'm beating myself up for being so stupid and short sighted as to not bring one from home. It was costing me 45 minutes and whatever the cost of a table cloth would be! I finally found a lady at the street fair who could sell me some sort of cloth for $25. One credit card swipe later, I'm in business.
Without a doubt, I have the shittiest booth in the whole event. It was so miserable, people would want to look away and at something else more interesting. I'm just one random scruffy looking dude standing behind a forgettable table with a forgettable product. I borrowed a total of $100 from my credit card for the privilege to stand there. I had not eaten that morning because I had no food. My credit card was surely maxed, I couldn't even buy a black coffee if I wanted one. I had $0.19 in my bank account. I was starving. The reality was, if I wanted to eat, I would have to #*@!ing *sell* product. There is no standing around waiting for people to maybe stop by my shitty booth. It's shitty, nobody is going to be curious to stop by and window shop when there's an ugly window and nothing appealing. If I wanted to eat today, I had to actively pull people in and sell. Nothing else but me was going to bring in sales.
I took that on as a challenge. I told myself, "Eric, it's time to see what you're made of. Can you really sell, or do you rely on crutches like a pretty booth?"
Fortunately, I've had a smidgen of direct sales experience. I've given the same demo thousands of times. I knew the pitch by heart. I knew all the jokes. I could put on a performance. I knew how to work a crowd and draw people in... sort of. People are not going to buy from me because they like my product or like my booth, they're going to buy from me because they like my demo and I entertained and wowed them. Or... so I believed.
An hour went by. Dozens of demos, but not a single sale. My stomach is grumbling.
Another hour went by. Still, more demos but no sales. Two hours, and not a single dollar?! Did I just waste $100 of food money to make nothing?! I was starting to wonder if there was something wrong. Were people truly not buying from me because my booth presentation sucked? No way, I can't believe that. I was giving dozens of demos and people were amazed by the product and laughing at my jokes. It's just a matter of time and patience, and someone will open up their wallet.
Finally, my first sale happened. It was a credit card purchase for $30. Damn, no cash -- that means I can't eat. But hey, I got a sale! It was validating! People would #*@!ing buy because of me! my shitty booth didn't matter! My waning confidence was restored! I could do this! And gradually, the sales started coming in, one by one. Finally, someone paid cash. I had no change, so they had to pay exact price. The moment they gave me money, I let them leave and then made a beeline to the nearest food truck and bought some sort of Hawaiian food. It was greasy and disgusting, but hey, it was food. I ended the day with a total of $260 in sales, $60 of which was cash and enough to buy another weeks worth of groceries at Safeway. I could survive for another week at least. And if nothing happened, I could do the fair event again the next weekend. And maybe upgrade my booth with a nicer table cloth? It was going to be desperate times and pure survival mode.
My office rent got processed a few days later. My bank account was now $400 in the hole plus a $25 NSF fee. Rent was late. Things were starting to look grim again.
Then, something amazing happened. A friend had met someone who was looking for someone that knew how to work with Leap Motion for their project, so he referred them to me. He told them that I was one of the best people in the country (I sort of am). I told my friend that if this goes through, I'll buy him dinner. So, I talk to the client and figure out what's going on. They're an established VR / film company based out of LA and they're having trouble with twisting at the wrist with leap motion and their character model (candy wrapper problem). I told them I'm a freelancer and could help them with their project. So, contracts are quickly signed and I take an initial down payment of $500 (yay, food and bus fare!). The client asks me how my VR work is going, and I reply, "Well, it's a bit of feast and famine cycle..." and he said he knew exactly what I meant. He had no idea how hungry I was. But, what an opportunity!
The key thing to realize about freelancing is that it is ALL about building a solid reputation for making happy customers. Be an excellent professional. Work hard, work fast, work smart, get along with everyone, and bring value to your client. If you can do that, you will get a good reputation and have an established, healthy working relationship. That means repeat customers, more business, and good referrals -- which mean even more customers. The same principle of actively selling product behind a shitty booth applies to selling yourself and your services -- delight your customers and present them with something of value greater than their money. This is so key and fundamental to business, you must learn it. If an MBA degree doesn't teach you this, you need to ask for your money back.
It turns out that this arm twisting problem was much more difficult than anyone had expected. You have to have two twist bones parented to the elbow, the mesh needs to be weighted correctly, and then you need to read the leap motion bone transform values and apply them to your skeletal rig in real time. The problem is, the only constraints people have on their arms are their physical limitations. An arm and wrist can be oriented in all sorts of funky directions, and if your approach can't handle them all, you get deformed arms, it looks bad, and it breaks the immersion of virtual reality. It's much harder to get perfect than I anticipated.
The project itself was relatively simple. This guy had hired a Ukrainian development team to build his app. I looked at it and it looked like it was something barely held together with duct tape and glue. I rebuilt the whole thing in two days using the old work as a prototype, but this time I "did it right". I told my client that if he can't see a difference, I did my job right. He couldn't. Now, some dumber business people might say, "It looks exactly the same! What am I paying you for?!". This guy was smart and technical enough to see how much everything changed under the hood and how much more elegantly simple it was. It's maintainable! And it can change to meet new requirements without falling apart and costing lots of extra time and money to fix! Anyways, to take one step forward, sometimes you have to take two steps back. I ended up taking over development for the project. Sorry ukrainian devs!
I ended up finishing the project much faster than they had scheduled. As of today, it's done! The client is ecstatic. Everything works perfectly and it looks amazing! The project is a pilot project for a VR film series, so if my clients client gets funded to produce the series, I think I'll have a lot more work in my future. The total pay for this project was $4,500 and took me about 10-14 days. That will be enough to pay my late rent and buy enough groceries. Whew! No more eating oatmeal for the near future. The extra good news is that this was a "small" project and there are much bigger ones on the horizon. There's a sliver of a small chance that I might actually be able to build a financially sustainable business out of this VR stuff. I must be extremely careful though: If you only rely on one client for your bread and butter (literally), if they go away, you starve. So, I must be sure to diversify and broaden my client list so that losing one doesn't cause me to starve. And, if I'm going to be thinking ten steps ahead here, I should eventually take on an apprentice and train them to become highly proficient VR developers. This would allow me to take on bigger future projects and offload some work to my team.
Also, I learned a very, very important lesson about money management: Never, ever repay a debt to anyone if it means you're going to go hungry. They can wait, hungry bellies can't. This is the crucial mistake I made which made me go hungry for a week. I thought it was important to not owe anyone anything. As an ideal, it feels great to be debt free, but a hungry stomach doesn't give a flying #*@! about lofty ideals (A hungry belly also doesn't care about any pathetic excuses for why you won't sell).
The other super important, crucial thing to remember is that a business is ultimately about making money. Whether you're an indie game developer, working for a AAA game company, or working in any other industry, your job/company must make more money than it spends or else it will starve and go out of business (and you'll be jobless and starve too). Think very carefully about whether you're adding value to your company, whether other people are adding value or not, and what needs to be changed in order to stay profitable. The size of your company doesn't really matter. In fact, bigger companies can be dangerous too because people get comfortable, and comfort breeds complacency, and complacency kills, especially when it becomes a cultural norm at the company. Sometimes, having a lot of money is a curse too because it shields you from facing harsh realities and changing course when things aren't working. If you look back to my very first blog post, you'll remember I started my adventure as an indie game developer with $500,000 in my personal bank account. Today, although I'm still very poor, I feel I am better armed, wiser and better poised to become successful and profitable than the day I started. The adventurous journey towards financial sustainability (and eventually profits) in a tough industry continues onwards! The future looks brighter now than it did a month ago, though I can't rest and get complacent.
(Warning: don't read further if you want to have a pleasant day)
Also, on a side note, it's been a bit of a tough last week. I parked my car in an alley behind my office (in a homeless mecca) and worked until 4am, and came back and discovered someone had smashed my window and grabbed $400 in VR equipment. My girlfriends ancient cat also went into really bad health. He wouldn't eat, could barely drink, was almost blind, couldn't even stand, and was constantly meowing in pain. It was dying. I took it to the "value" vet for confirmation. I had to pay $22 to confirm the poor thing was dying and no amount of money could save him. They wanted to charge me $178 to put the cat to sleep, tried to upsell me on cremation services, a few inked paw prints, etc. I declined. The vet then went down on price and offered to inject the cat with a narcotic for $48 to help him die faster and ease his pain. I declined that too. I took the dying cat home, brought him to the backyard and let him see his last morning sunshine and hear the birds and squirrels one last time. I grabbed a shovel and dug a small little grave for the little guy. He was meowing weakly in pain, laying helplessly next to his final resting place. He was suffering. It was time to go. I put him into his little grave and killed him quickly with the shovel blade pressed to his neck followed by a hard stomp. For a brief moment, he had an unforgettable look of shock and betrayal on his face and his legs splayed out in reflex, and then he died and never moved again... I thought I would be a bit more emotionally hard about it (being a war veteran and seeing lots of dead animals at our ranch), but killing a dying cat was not easy. I got choked up afterwards. It was an act of mercy and the ethical thing to do, but still... not easy. I realized that sometimes, to maintain the divine sanctity of life, you must provide death, because to continue living in hopeless suffering inevitably ending in death anyways, only serves to prolong suffering and corrupts the essence of living.