Maybe it's different for all makers, but I think time is most precious resource a maker has. I've never met a maker who felt like they were on top of everything they needed to do, or didn't have a stream of projects that they are "meaning to get back to". Most of the things I talk about here boil down to not having enough time
This started out as a message to my Github sponsors (similar to patreon) about why I needed to change the sponsor rewards I offered as I wasn't delivering on them and I felt shitty about it. But when I started typing out what I wanted to say, it turned into something I felt like be worthwhile sharing.
Social media highlights success and amazing projects and products people make, but I'm not sure enough is surfaced of the sacrifices and effort that goes into these successes. I think then it's very easy to think you are the only person who is struggling.
While I wouldn't describe myself as a "success" in maker terms, I have had successful moments and achievements. These are usually the things I share and talk about, which contributes to the only showing the good sides aspect of social media. So as a contrast, let me share some of the things I struggle with.
I've no idea who is going to read this, but I hope you get something from it.
The Overall Time Equation
If you don't know me, let me introduce myself, my name is Brian Lough (like "lock"). I'm a software developer and I live in Ireland with my Wife, Caroline and our two daughters (3 and 1). As you can image with two young kids, finding time to work on things is a struggle at the best of times.
I write libraries for Arduino boards, mainly around connecting to Web APIs to fetch data such as Youtube subscriber counts or interacting with Telegram messenger on ESP8266 or ESP32 boards.
I also have a YouTube channel where I share my work and also show other things I think are interesting related to hobby electronics.
More recently I have also started to sell Kits and Shields I design on my Tindie Store (Kind of like Etsy, but for electronics).
The above takes a lot of time. In truth, the time to work on things often comes at the expensive of things like sleep, exercise, hanging out with Caroline or playing games with my buddies.
Now, you might be reading this and saying that "you should always prioritize your health and well being".
You're right, I should, but in reality, I don't.
Here is another sacrifice, Coffee was my favorite drink, but I haven't drank coffee (well anything other than a single cup of decaf most days) in nearly 3 years because it was starting to affect my anxiety levels. I used to sacrifice sleep in order to work on libraries and videos so much I would drink 4 or 5 double espressos a day in work to keep up productivity. At then even at weekends where I did not have access to a coffee machine, I would natural drink less coffee and I would start to get headaches. I used to drink energy drinks like red bull or monster too, I gave them up at the same time. Maybe it's unfair to blaming making for this, but it definitely started it!
I always feel like I just have so much to do, and so little time to do it. But I don't think I could possibly spend any more time than I already do on the "making" side of my life, and if anything I should be spending less. I often get up early to do work before the girls wake up and it's usually what I do after they go to bed.
So I have a finite time to work on stuff, and in that time I need to balance how I'm going to spend my time. Be it libraries, videos, tindie or Github sponsor content. Spending time on one directly impacts how much time I spend on the others.
We recently moved into our first home, we got the key of our house the day Ireland announced a lock down of all non essential travel, this meant we had to move house with no help from friends, family (I am the second oldest of a big family, I waited my whole life to have an army of people helping in occasions like this!) or even the possibility of getting trades people. This meant I had even less time than usual to work on stuff. Ideas don't stop during this time, only time to execute them does.
Switching Off, I Just Can't
Truth is, since I started making YouTube videos 3 and half years ago, I find it very difficult to switch off. This isn't a new thing to YouTube thing I suppose, I've always had side projects that consumed my attention, such as this crappy game I made for the Ouya years ago.
Some of this lack of ability to switch off is the thrill of working on something interesting and the challenge of getting it working. Just this week, one of my dogs woke me up at 5AM to do it's business. While bringing the dogs out, I made the mistake of looking at Twitter.
My buddy Emily was after getting my ESP32 I2S Matrix shield and she was trying it out with multiple displays stacked vertically, and it wasn't working right.
This is a known issue, the libraries treat multiple displays as horizontal ones. While out in the rain with the dogs, I had an idea of a simple way of potentially fixing it. I thought it would be possible to use Adafruit GFX to create a virtual display that a user could draw on it handled mapping it to how the matrix library sees it.
I got back into the bed to try finish my nights sleep, but I knew it was a futile effort. I could not stop thinking about the problem and would my idea of fixing it actually work. 5 minutes later I was up and at my PC. (It did work by the way!)
The other reason I can't switch off is I constantly feel like I'm behind on stuff. I'm always thinking
"oh I need to figure out that bug"
"There are PRs I haven't looked at"
"I need to finish that library"
"I really need to do a video, it's been a few weeks"
"I need to pack those tindie orders"
Caroline looks over at me often and asks what I'm thinking about, I'm half ashamed to admit to her that it's often one of the above is going through my head.
The more stuff I have to do, the less productive I feel, I just feel like it overwhelms me. Other than tindie stuff (which I'll get into below), nothing really has deadlines, they are just ones I impose on myself.
Tindie: not without it's challenges
Tindie is kind of a strange beast for me, if you follow me on twitter you might have seen I passed over 1000 sales this week.
This is an achievement I'm very proud of, but, in truth, it is not without it's downsides. My Tindie adventures has significantly taken away from the amount of time I spend on videos or libraries. In a typical week, I would spend more time on Tindie stuff than making videos.
There are some one off time costs of doing things with Tindie, designing the product, writing up the documentation, sourcing stock etc. that I guess you have control over if you want to do it or not. Caroline looks after most of the bagging of stock, although I'm sure she'd prefer to be doing other things!
Even this week I am sinking additional time into it, I decided a few weeks ago to build the first run of a couple of products myself to judge demand. I think not investing too heavily into an unproven product is generally a good idea, but I completely regret this decision. Now I have stock here and I don't have a way proper way to reflow them yet, so sorting that out moves to the top of my to-do pile. I have one of Unexpected Maker's reflow master here and a toaster oven ready to mod, but now it has to be done.
And then when you have products listed, the amount of orders you get in a given week dictates the amount of time you have the spend on it. The majority of this time is spent packing orders or answering support queries. There is no prioritizing something else over it, it just moves to the top of the list because it has a deadline to ship it out. The only way to stop it would be to close the store (even temporarily).
The good side of the Tindie coin is that, if you don't take time into it, it is by far the most profitable thing I do making wise. It's been busy for the last few weeks, which is great for the money side of things, but bad for the productivity side of things.
I do genuinely love seeing people enjoy the things I make and Tindie has been self funding since very early into it, including funding some other aspects of making journey, but it has come at the cost of my most precious resource, time.
I also feel like the money I get from Tindie more often than not just goes back into more stuff on Tindie (different products, stock etc), so sometimes it feels a little like a zero-sum game, but the only loser is time! That isn't true though, as mentioned, Tindie has funded other avenues of my maker journey, but sometimes it feels like it.
I don't know for sure, but I don't know if my YT audience really cares about the Tindie stuff. Other than a couple of videos that did not perform very well, I have been keeping them fairly separate. Or at least not making videos about the Tindie journey, but I do feature my Tindie projects in videos if it makes sense.
Opportunity cost is an economic term, that is used to describe the opportunities you have to give up in order to allocate your resources a certain way. The easiest way to think of it is money: say you decide to go on a big expensive trip to Disney World, the opportunity cost of this would be a new TV or upgrading the car or whatever else you can't afford because you are spending the money on the trip. Another example is I spent a few hours writing up this blog post, I could have been working on something else!
I released my first video in over 3 months recently, a review of the TS80P soldering Iron.
While not really my regular content, I felt I was in a good position to provide an opinion on this Iron due to my work on the TS100 Flex-C-Friend, which was also powered by USB-C Power delivery.
I was pretty happy with this video. You could argue it was a little dry, that is kind of my style though, although I did try sprinkle in a few more jokes than usual, but overall I thought it would be the kind of thing I would want to see. I also thought I added an angle of reviewing this iron that none of the other review videos had ,power supply compatibility, which I think is one of the most important parts about it. Views wise it did very poorly.
Honestly, I didn't take it that well, which is something I'm a little ashamed to admit as it is ultimately unimportant during the grand scheme of things. It makes it sound like I spun out of control or something, nothing like that, but I was just pissed off with the situation at the time.
Anytime I release a video and it does poorly, all I can think about is the opportunity cost. I spent maybe 10-15 hours on that video (probably more) and that 10-15 hours could have been spent on something that might have performed better.
When you have as limited time as I do to work on things, that 10 or 15 hours is a massive chunk, as much as I would typically get to work on stuff in a week maybe. In order to make this happen Caroline had to take over with the kids at the weekend to allow me the time to do it. So not only am I sacrificing stuff to make this happen, so is she.
So when I say I was pissed off, I was probably as pissed off at myself as much as anything, for burning so much of my most precious resource, time.
As mentioned, it was my first video in over 3 months and it was on a topic that is not what people follow me for. This was stupid of me.
People will say that you should make videos you are happy with and to not worry about views, while I agree with the premise of that, I do only want to make videos I am happy with, but there is a reason I care about views, and it's growth.
Poor views == Poor growth.
To me, growth is the most important metric I track when it comes to YouTube, way more than revenue.
Why Do I Care So Much About Growth?
I don't think it's a vanity thing, or at least I've told myself that enough times that I believe it. I see growing to a certain size as a potential way to change my life for the better. As I mentioned earlier I still love working on stuff, just this week I was literally sitting alone in my office punching the air when something I have been working on over the last few weeks finally started to come together, I would love to be able to this as my main source of income and I see growth as the key to this. (I don't see any other way)
I've have been making videos for over 3 yeas now and while my release "schedule" (if you can call it that) may not reflect it, I have been working hard on it during this time, with basically little or nothing in the way of downtime.
To be honest I can't keep up the level of effort I do on this aspect of my life indefinitely.
There is only so much I can ask of Caroline in terms of "covering" for me. There is so only so many times I can ask my eldest daughter can we play later because "Daddy's working". And while my youngest doesn't ask for anything at the moment (she can't talk yet), I'm sure it won't be long before I'll be disappointing her by refusing her requests too. This paragraph is the single biggest thing I struggle with.
Last year , around the time of my birthday , I released the "Farewell to Subscriber Counter" video, a video where I built a bunch of different subscriber counters fro various YouTubers. I even managed to get Evan Kale to make a cameo.
This was my biggest video in terms of effort to date, I had switch my video editing software due to my old one not being able to handle all the footage. I took time off work just to work on this video. And as part of my birthday present, Caroline took the girls away for a day so I would have peace in the house to work on the video. I actually cringe thinking back on that.
But it was all worth it right? Not a bit. That video did pretty poor considering the amount of pimping I did for it on twitter, including some big channels retweeting it. A video with 6k views might not seem that bad, but I honestly put everything I could into that video. I spent so much time on this video I could have released 3 or 4 regular videos.
I put so much into it, I also managed to put 20v into two of my matrix panels before I was finished recording the video. While I can laugh at that part of it now, I wasn't laughing at the time, In fact quite the opposite. I had an anxiety attack over it. Yes, an anxiety attack over matrix panels, not something I'm proud of.
This also sparks the question, why am I doing this?
I have a great job, provides enough for my family and I to live comfortably. It is very flexible and I work on interesting things. So why do I want more? Is it worth sacrificing time with my family now for the childish dream of becoming a YouTuber?
Add to that The amount of people who make a living off YouTube in the electronics space is tiny, do I really think I deserve to be among them?
If someone like Bitluni, who builds super impressive and interesting things, with much more entertaining videos than me, has only recently grew to the size I predict I would need to be to make a living from YT, I often think "what are you doing? this is not going to happen".
I guess one could argue it's impostor syndrome, I think one could equally argue it's just being realistic.
To give some context, considering the money I currently earn from all my different avenues (YT ad revenue, affiliate links, Tindie, Github), I would need to grow the channel about 9-10 times the size it is now to be able to support my family.
I haven't done any sponsored videos at the moment, not because I disagree with them ethically or anything, creators have to get paid in my opinion, but because I hate the fact that videos would now have deadlines on them.
Filled With Determination
I don't know if I will wake up one day and decide that it's not worth it, but for now, I am still here and I'm all in.
I mentioned earlier I was pissed off with myself for the performance of TS80p video. When I get pissed off, I don't spend long wallowing in self pity, It normally makes me pretty determined.
I have been focusing and prioritizing work on things that I think people will enjoy from me, such as finishing the Spotify library and making some cool projects for the RGB LED matrix (the fist bumping scenario described earlier is related to this).
For videos, I'm going to try focus on doing a couple that are more on brand for me, to get back on the horse. I do have a couple of more unusual ones that I have thought about doing, but I'll try pepper them in throughout the "regular schedule".
Live streams for the moment have been cancelled. They have an opportunity cost with them too, and I think for the moment I would prefer to just stick on headphones, turn music up loud, and power through some of the things I need to do. I also worry about the impact they have on my videos being recommended to people. Live streams are not for everyone (including myself if I'm being honest, I struggle to find the time to watch through them) and if people are getting served up stream videos and they are not clicking them, I think big YT algorithm might be less likely to serve up more videos of mine in the future.
Let's see how it goes.
Slan go foil (bye for now)