In this episode, we talk about how to be a successful soloprenuer with Jen Yip, founder of Lunch Money. Jen talks about the impetus for creating her popular personal finance app, Lunch Money, how to balance building something for yourself but that is also good for general consumption, and how the lines between personal life and work life can become even more blurred when being a solopreneur.
[00:00:05] SY: Welcome to the CodeNewbie Podcast where we talk to people on their coding journey in hopes of helping you on yours. I’m your host, Saron, and today, we’re talking about how to be a successful solopreneur with Jen Yip, Founder of Lunch Money.
[00:00:18] JY: I think getting used to working on something end to end is very good or when you eventually do embark on this whole solo founder journey.
[00:00:27] SY: Jen talks about the impetus for creating her popular personal finance app, Lunch Money, had a balance building something for yourself, but that is also good for general consumption, and how the lines between personal life and work life can become even more blurred when being a solopreneur after this.
[00:00:54] SY: Thank you so much for being here.
[00:00:56] JY: Thanks for having me.
[00:00:57] SY: So Jen, you already have a really awesome and impressive career working as a software engineer at companies like Twitter, and now you’re a solopreneur, founder, and creator of Lunch Money, which is a personal finance tool that a lot of people, including my husband, really, really love. Before we dig into the company and what you’re doing today, how did you first get into coding?
[00:01:19] JY: I mean, I’ve been in my coding journey longer than I haven’t, at this point, when I feel like I’ve lived many lives through it and stuff. So I started coding basically when Neopets came out. I think you could do some HTML, CSS, kind spruce up your shop. I had a guild. I was part of guilds. And then you could also kind of spruce up the CSS there. And then from there, I found a little community online of other kinds of pre-teens and teenagers. And we all kind of got into making these personal websites. And that’s kind of what I spent my summer doing, just learning as I went, like how to create websites and we all had a blog and we would kind of tag each other in it. So it was a nice little friend community and we kind of encouraged each other to keep refreshing our layouts and being creative with how we were presenting our personal site. So right off the bat, when I started coding, there was a lot of creativity as part of it and self-expression, which I thought was really cool. Then when college applications rolled around, I was deciding between computer engineering and chemical engineering. I was really good at chemistry and computer science. And I ended up in chemical engineering. And I remember when I first started the first semester, I was meeting all these other people from engineering school. And I was kind of jealous that some of these other peers that were in electrical and computer engineering were kind of learning coding, and it was more in depth than I had ever been exposed to in high school. And then after my first internship as a chemical engineer, I just realized it wasn’t for me. So I made the switch over and then I kind of got into that institutional learning of software engineering, computer engineering concepts.
[00:03:00] SY: What made you feel that chemical engineering was not for you?
[00:03:05] JY: I think I erroneously thought that if I was good at chemistry in high school, surely the rest of my life could be revolving around that. I think this is also a part of the issue where it’s like we expect high school students to know what they want to do for the rest of their lives in a way. And so luckily, I got into a pretty good engineering school in Canada, and so it was easy for me to switch from chemical to computer engineering eventually.
[00:03:34] SY: Nice. So you graduated with your degree. What did your career trajectory look like once you graduated?
[00:03:42] JY: So as part of my degree, actually, I was in a five-year program and I graduated with two years of work experience.
[00:03:48] SY: Nice!
[00:03:48] JY: So I went to the University of Waterloo in Canada. So you do four months of school, four months of work, four months school, four months of work for five years, which is really great because you get exposure to what it’s like working in the real world. You’re making money to help pay for your tuition. And for me, I think what was really valuable was not learning what I wanted to do, but more learning what I didn’t want to do because I worked at just embedded software companies that were very old, but very established and very safe, which felt good. And then I also worked at very new startups in San Francisco where it was just me and like two co-founders. So seeing that whole spectrum was really useful. And by the time I graduated, I had an offer to work at Twitter, worked there for three and a half years, a little over that, got burned out. I joined a company as a co-founder and then we went through YC Fellowship and we went through 500 Startups and then I burned out again. So that was, I guess, my first five and a half years-ish in San Francisco, yeah, which marks the beginning of my career.
[00:04:51] SY: So what’s interesting is that burnout has been a big part of your story. You’ve burned out twice and that’s a topic that we talk about all the time. I’ve seen it come up even more often now with the pandemic and people trying to adjust to going back to the office, if that’s the thing they’re adjusting to, the whole mass resignation thing happening. I mean, there’s just so many different reasons why people are burned out and kind of needing to hit that reset button. When you think about your career and the fact that you burned out a couple times, what do you attribute that to? What do you think contributed to the fact that you experienced burnout a few times in your career?
[00:05:33] JY: I think for me, like knowing my personality, I just kind of throw myself into whatever I’m working on. And when I was at a big company like Twitter, they’re growing as a company, obviously they have to change processes, they have to reorg their projects and their engineers and stuff. And I was so into my project and I remember one day they gave it away to someone else, on another team. And I think that was just kind of when I realized like this thing that I had been putting so much effort into and energy into is suddenly gone. And then it kind of just gave me this whole crisis where I’m like, “Well, am I valued at this company? What am I doing?” It’s so easy to just be dedicated to something and have it pulled away from you. And so I thought that the solution to that was to start my own company. Obviously, I would have full autonomy. I didn’t have to necessarily answer to anybody. And then that was interesting because doing your own company kind of presents its own pathway to burnout.
[00:06:37] SY: Yeah, for sure.
[00:06:38] JY: Yeah. And that was definitely just the pressures of being in Silicon Valley and not working in big tech and working on your own startup. Anytime you got, everyone just wants to talk about how your startup is going. And it’s just that type of city where what you do is so closely tied to identity. And we went through the YC Fellowship Program, which is kind of like pre-YC, and then we got rejected from YC twice and that rejection was so hard for me to take. I think that was kind of the first major time in my life where I tried so hard at something and someone just flat out told me like no twice. So that was kind of a different kind of burnout, just kind of realizing I’m not happy when I think about the average age of a startup, it’s about seven years before you exit or you crash and burn. And doing the math, I would basically be mid-20s to early 30s working on a startup perhaps. I was like, “I can’t do that.” My mental state is not good. I’m frustrated all the time. And then I just had to leave.
[00:07:39] SY: I find this really interesting, because I think that when we talk about burnout, I think the assumption is that burnout is tied to how hard you work. And I think that the general understanding and definitely my understanding before I started experiencing it, reading about it and really kind of digging into it is that if you want to prevent burnout, work less, self-care. Those are kinds of the general advice that I’ve heard. And what I’ve found through my personal experience and through reading a little bit more about it is that it’s more about energy in, energy out than it is literal hours worked. With your example, with the Twitter example, the first time you burned out, it sounds like it wasn’t technically how hard you were working on that project, it’s that you were giving it so much energy and putting so much love and care and attention into it and then it just got taken from you. You got nothing back out of the investment that you put in. And I found that true for myself as well. I found that I can work many hours and feel great and keep going. But the moment when I start to burn out and it starts to become a problem is when I feel like I’m investing a lot and then things just aren’t working. Right? It’s not coming together. It keeps getting rejected. It keeps falling apart. And that lack of energy back into me has been where burnout really starts to kick in.
[00:09:05] JY: For sure. I totally agree. I think a big part of it is definitely like energy management.
[00:09:10] SY: Right. Right.
[00:09:11] JY: I think it’s also expectation management.
[00:09:13] SY: Yes.
[00:09:14] JY: I think for me it’s like you start a company and all you hear about in the news is startups that raise all this money and exit, but you never hear about the ones that fail. And so if you just kind of go into starting a company thinking you’re going to follow that successful path and chances are you’re not reconciling that in your mind is a big source of burnout too. Your mental energy is also just drained from that.
[00:09:41] SY: A hundred percent. I think expectations is huge. And I think that applies to entrepreneurs. I think it applies to early career developers, people breaking in. And I think that the headlines for a long time have been learning to code in 12 weeks, got a six-figure job. And I think now we’re hearing the more realistic version of, “Well, before that 12-week boot, I was actually learning to code for a year,” and just being a little bit more realistic and understanding that there isn’t a narrative or a way to become a founder or to become a software developer. And that I think when we manage our expectations, I think we’re less likely to burn out and able to handle the ups and downs a little bit better.
[00:10:25] JY: Also, just like the more you’re in tune with yourself and how you react to things, like you just learn about your optimal environment when you do your best work. Some people are morning people, some people are night people. With me now, I go through a cycle where I’m like coding a bunch and then I need a break. Like I just know that’s my formula that works for me.
[00:10:44] SY: Absolutely. So when you think about your life today as a founder and you think about how to prevent burnout for you now and hopefully in the coming years, how do you think about that? How do you take those lessons learned from your past burnout experience and apply them today? You mentioned kind of schedule management and eating, sleeping, that type of thing. Are there any other things that you do intentionally to mitigate burnout that might come in the future?
[00:11:13] JY: One big thing that I’ve been really working to squash is the feeling of guilt that comes with burnout. I think what I’ve noticed for me is that when I’m approaching burnout status, my work is sloppier. I don’t feel as productive. And then there’s this wave of guilt. And the guilt almost makes me want to put more effort in, even though my body is telling me like, “No, we’re running out of energy. We need to rest.” And then there’s guilt of like, “Oh, I expected this to be done this week, but it turns out my energy levels are not really allowing for that,” but I feel bad about it and so I’m just going to either push myself to work and then not have the results and feel bad, or I don’t work and I give myself a break, but I feel guilty for not working. And so I just realized like once guilt is in the picture, if it’s not managed, it's a lose-lose situation.
[00:12:04] SY: Yeah.
[00:12:04] JY: So I wake up, if today’s not a good day, I’m going through a transitional period of my life, I’m going through some of my personal stuff and today’s just not a good day, then I just let myself take it off. And I don’t go there with the guilt. I don’t think about what I could be doing instead. I think about how I’m taking care of myself today. So maybe I can be a better me tomorrow.
[00:12:29] SY: How do you know when it’s time to just walk away? With Twitter, you ended up leaving that position, worked on the startup, and then you left the startup, and now you’re working on your own company. When you are trying to manage burnout, trying to do that reset, trying to refocus your life and kind of figure out what to do next, how do you decide when to keep trying and kind of keep pushing and figuring it out within your situation? And when do you know that, “You know what? I think the best thing for me, for my mental health, for my life, my happiness is to just kind of let this thing go and move on to something else”?
[00:13:07] JY: I think that’s a really great question because I think it’s something that’s maybe misunderstood or idealized by a lot of people. It’s easy to just tell someone to walk away from a bad situation. But I think the reality is that’s a muscle that we kind of have to work out in a way because the thing about leaving a bad situation is it’s very scary because even though it’s a bad situation, it’s probably what you’re most familiar and in a way comfortable in. And so I think that for me, I’m the type of person that is committed and loyal until I realize maybe a little bit too late that it’s not reciprocated or it’s just not the right situation for my happiness. So for example, at Twitter, I think for a long time, I was an engineer, I was working at this big company. I think coming out of college, I thought, “Working in the workforce, we’re all one big family and stuff.” That’s just not true when you have a publicly traded company. And so when that final project got moved, there were a lot of other little things that had gone through as an engineer there. And that was kind of like the straw that broke the camel’s back. I really believe that once you hit your breaking point, you just know. You just know you can’t go back there. But then leaving the startup, I guess that was a little bit more of a total reset because I burned out so hard from that that I just left the country.
[00:14:30] SY: Wow! Oh my goodness! Okay.
[00:14:33] JY: I had been living in the states for five years and I was just like, “Silicon Valley is not for me anymore.” I tried to work in big tech. I tried to do the whole startup thing. I couldn’t really get behind the culture, I think, and the hustle. And then I just was like, “I need to get away from tech. I need to not code for a bit and not think about any of that.”
[00:14:57] SY: Where’d you go?
[00:14:58] JY: I went back home for two months, spent two months with my parents, which is the longest time I ever spent with them, as an adult, because I feel like when you go home for Christmas, there’s enough time to just talk about the service level stuff. But then if you live with them for two months, then you get deeper conversations. And I was just at a point in my life where I just wanted to learn from everybody from different walks of life and stuff. And then I did about five months traveling through Europe on my own.
[00:15:22] SY: Wow!
[00:15:23] JY: And I was specifically trying to seek out different experiences. So I lived with a family in the middle of the mountains for a week, and I was helping to take care of their two little boys. And I spent a lot of time helping the dad fix the websites for his various businesses. And that was so eye-opening for me because coming from Silicon Valley where everything is about high salaries and how much money, it’s very money driven. But this family, the dad, had revealed to me that their household income is maybe 30,000 euros. But they live in a very comfortable house and a very safe commune and they own a ski shop for the winter and a fly fishing company for the summer. The wife runs kind of the little bed and breakfast. It’s such a cute little French idealistic life.
[00:16:13] SY: Wow!
[00:16:14] JY: But it’s like they live very well and they’re very happy. They didn’t need six figure salaries for that. That whole sabbatical was just a way for me to reset my views. Going to Silicon Valley right after graduating, it’s a very narrow path that I guess the culture tries to push you down. You work at big tech. You work there for many years. You make a lot of money. You’re changing the world. You’re working at companies that change the world. You’re at the forefront of technology and it seems really cool and stuff. But yeah, I just realized it wasn’t for me.
[00:16:48] SY: How much time passed when you were removed from tech before you started your company?
[00:16:54] JY: I traveled for about eight months total. I did some stuff in Asia as well. I decided right away I was going to move to Toronto. And so after freelancing for a bit, living in Toronto, the winters are really harsh. My partner and I would go to Asia and live for four months there and then come back just in time for the beautiful spring and summer. And then we would do that. So while I was in Japan, I started to turn my financial spreadsheet into an app, which would later become Lunch Money. And it was interesting because when I started that, I never had it in my mind that eventually I’m going to start my own company and it’s going to be this. Actually, I was very jaded from starting my own company.
[00:17:37] SY: I was going to say, I’m surprised that you went from your most recent job experience to doing another startup.
[00:17:43] JY: Yeah, I was like, “I’m not a business person. I’m not Type A,” all these things. I just was giving all these excuses to myself. So I coded Lunch Money purely for fun, purely for myself. I didn’t do any of the things that they say you should do when you start a company like presale or see if other people actually want this. I just did it for myself, had many milestones along the way. So I was like, “I just want it so that I move off of my spreadsheet onto this app.” And that happened within a few months. And then I was like, “Oh, maybe I’ll get my mom on it. Maybe I’ll get a few friends on it.” And then one day I posted on Hacker News and I think I got over a thousand signups, had like 300 emails. It was insane. My phone was blowing up. And it was the validation I needed to quit my freelancing jobs right away and just kind of work on Lunch Money full time. That was almost three years ago.
[00:18:55] SY: Tell us a little bit more about the app itself. What does it do? What problem does it solve and all that?
[00:19:01] JY: So Lunch Money is a personal finance web app. The main differentiator is that it supports multi-currency, which was a feature that I felt the big players at the time were lacking. So for example, I had made most of my money in US dollars. I was living in Canada. So spending in Canadian. I was living in Asia, which is primarily a cash base. And I am a big budgeter. I love to see my spending habits, but I want to see it all in my primary currency, the one I think in. And so because the big players in the game at the time like Mint and YNAB, they didn’t support that. So I did it all in a spreadsheet. I was kind of manually updating the exchange rates, but it wasn’t totally accurate because it was fluctuating a lot at the time. And so eventually when I did create Lunch Money, the first thing I did was I made it so that any feature that I create is going to be multi-currency supported. In the very basic level, you could add a transaction that’s 20 dollars US. And then also I just paid a hundred yen or something and then I could see, “Oh, okay, today I’ve spent 11 dollars US,” or something like that.
[00:20:13] SY: So I found that so interesting because I feel like budgeting apps, I mean, there are so many different types of budgeting apps. I was looking into the FinTech industry maybe like a year ago, and I was very surprised to see that there’s a lot of options, a lot of tools. And it seems like the thing that you focused on that was different was the multicurrency, which to me feels like a unique problem for people who travel a lot. And I wouldn’t necessarily think that that would be a huge market. Or maybe that’s just me not being part of that market or not knowing how big it is. But given that one feature which seems to be the primary differentiator in thinking about just the competition of just budgeting apps in general, what do you think it was about what you were building that resonated, especially on someplace as, frankly, ruthless and competitive as Hacker News? And you are able to get that many signups and that many emails is really awesome. What do you think it was about what you were doing, what you were building that really connected with people given that context?
[00:21:17] JY: Your intuition is right. I thought this multicurrency was going to be so big, I was over indexing on SEO or multi-currency and stuff. And honestly, like a way smaller percentage of my users than you would expect actually use the multicurrency feature.
[00:21:33] SY: Okay.
[00:21:33] JY: And so tying back to your question, I think what it was, was people were just ready for kind of an independent app to kind of take over this personal finance base because you have Mint that’s owned by Intuit and you have YNAB, which is overly complex. It’s great for the use case, but it has a very high learning curve. And I think coming in with Lunch Money, I positioned it as a delightful way to manage your finances. I have this cute logo. My primary colors are bright yellow and green. It puts a different spin on something that’s traditionally very dry and serious.
[00:22:12] SY: Yeah. Good point.
[00:22:13] JY: And I think also the fact that I was a solo founder. I coded everything myself. I designed everything myself. I think that’s what resonated with the Hacker News community.
[00:22:23] SY: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense to me. I feel like, especially in the last couple years, I feel like there’s a huge interest and support going to solopreneurs, indie hackers, bootstrap founders, kind of the people who aren’t taking VC money, don’t have a big team. They’re doing it on their own or maybe they have just one other co-founder. I have to say that that was one of the things that got me excited about discovering you and being like, “Wow! This is a really slick product for one person to have done all the parts of this product.” It’s kind of like the big push with like support small businesses. It’s like support the solopreneur. It definitely feels good to be able to do that. But even if you are a solopreneur, at the end of the day, if you don’t have a good product, if it’s not solving a problem, doesn’t really matter. And it seems like you got both down.
[00:23:13] JY: Yeah. Thanks. I think I don’t say this enough, but I’m proud of myself and how far I’ve come and just having done this all on my own. Obviously, there are a lot of challenges along the way, but I’m really happy about having found my sweet spot in entrepreneurship and in this whole coding career. I feel like I’ve tried working at a big company, starting my own company, venture funded, freelancing, and now this, I call it bootstrap solopreneurship. It’s like you’re a hundred percent independent. You’re creating a product. You are talking directly with users. It’s something that I use myself. So it’s very, very fulfilling for sure.
[00:23:56] SY: How do you balance building something that genuinely scratches an itch, genuinely solves your pain point, but also making sure that it’s not so tailored to you that it doesn’t actually work for anyone else?
[00:24:12] JY: I love that I built Lunch Money almost like going against all of the advice that you normally hear about how to start a business because I just love demystifying all of these nontraditional paths to get to where you want your life to be. I think that there’s a lot of advice out there that’s like, “This is what you need to do to build a business. You got to get an MBA or whatever.” And so yeah, it’s been really fun to kind of just stumble into this with Lunch Money. I think a lot of it was definitely luck, but I also believe that luck comes easier to people that work hard. I think with Lunch Money, I mean, honestly, I never thought about building it for other people until a thousand people signed up and were basically like, “We want this.” And I was like, “Whoa!” I think that’s something that is definitely a different path than what a lot of businesses and other companies I know started. Once I had other people using it, then I had to start thinking very pragmatically about how to eventually tailor Lunch Money to their needs too. And so a lot of that was talking directly to users. I think that was so valuable once people started signing up. But one thing I kept hearing was, “Do you have a developer API?” Of course, being the Hacker News community, they kind of want to hack on it. And I was like, “I wouldn’t create a developer API for myself. I just have my server API that I have access to.” And so then I was like, “It makes a lot of sense to create a developer API. I could create a developer ecosystem as a company of one. It may not be sustainable for me to work on this solo, but to have a community that kind of builds on top of it, I feel like that’s the kind of company that I would want to run,” I was thinking. And so the developer API was one of the first major features that I worked on right after I launched, I guess, accidentally. Even with the developer API, I sent out surveys like, “Hey, what kind of end points do you want to see?” I think that it’s really important to always kind of check in with your user base, especially if you have at least 100, 200 users. There’s so much you can learn from them and what they want. For example, I use Canny, which is a feedback tool where you can put in feature requests and other users can upvote it. And so I have a section for my developer API, and right now, the one with the most votes is a better kind of like OAuth situation for the API. And so I thought, “Okay, I’m going to work on that.” But then also that was maybe like a few months ago that that was the case. And I just decided to send out a new developer survey and that ranked like the lowest.
[00:26:56] SY: Whoa!
[00:26:57] JY: It was really interesting. And I was like, “Oh, okay, well, people just want more endpoints.” And it kind of makes sense. It’s interesting also, working on a personal finance app, because it is very personal, like everyone looks at it differently, everyone manages it differently. And so learning about how people use Lunch Money has just been a total trip, too. Based on their feature request, I’m just like, “Wow, you guys are doing crazy hacks to make this work for you.” And it’s really cool to see.
[00:27:27] SY: I think one of the risks in solopreneurship and solopreneurship being literally, you were the only person working on this, is what happens to the business when life happens to you, right? When you have at least a co-founder, maybe a couple employees, contractors, et cetera, you can take a little bit of time off if you need to. You can step away. You can pass on responsibilities. With the bus count, right? There’s a higher bus count, which is generally a good thing. Being a solopreneur now that you’ve been doing it for three years, how have you been able to kind of balance your life and the things that life throws at you with all the different responsibilities that come from being in charge of the entire business?
[00:28:13] JY: When you’re a solopreneur, if you’re not working on the startup, nobody is. And so when I think about the first two years, which is like getting to 10K MRR and that being a mark for, “Okay, we’re profitable. We’re good. We don’t have to kind of worry so much about the same growth problems that we did, like early on.” During that point, it’s all about the grind. It was really hard for me to even take a day off. I would take maybe a weekend trip, but I always bring my laptop with me. For a long time, I believed that if I didn’t work on it, that everything would just fall apart.
[00:28:50] SY: Yeah.
[00:28:51] JY: That did not turn out to be the case. I think there are a lot of reasons for that. One, Lunch Money is a B2C company. I think when it’s a B2C, there’s a lot less pressure to be very responsive. So for example, if I was selling software to companies that have commitments to their clients and then I have a commitment to them, then it’s a lot more pressure. Usually, there’s an SLA of less than 24 hours or whatever it is. I think an important thing to learn to do as a solopreneur is how to make yourself obsolete. I think this is true for any leader actually, but I was trying to automate a lot of things. I hired someone from the Philippines to help me with very specific customer service type questions that are very hands-on, but it doesn’t require me to be the one to do it. I created a Slack community and paid users get access to it. And it’s grown to the point where someone can ask a question and then they’ll have at least five different users answer for me. And so I don’t need to constantly be monitoring all these things.
[00:29:57] SY: So one of the big pieces of advice that we hear in tech and probably in other industries as well is just this importance of balance and separation between your work life and your personal life and trying to create boundaries. I feel like it’s been a huge theme in the last couple years of defining those boundaries with your manager, with your company. And for a solopreneur where you’re doing everything, to me, as an outsider, that seems kind of impossible. It feels like so much of your life is a part of your work and vice versa. How do you manage that? Are there boundaries that you’ve created for yourself? Is there a separation or is it kind of one big thing for you?
[00:30:37] JY: Yeah. I think what’s interesting about bootstrap solopreneurship is that the line of work and life is very blurred, but I kind of love it. Honestly, when I think about Lunch Money, I see it as a video game that I just want to play all night. I don’t see it as work. I refer to it as work, but it doesn’t come with the same emotions I think that talking about work often brings. And so for me, I would love to work on Lunch Money all the time. I would love to play games all day. Right? I just feel lucky that the thing that I want to immerse myself in is something that has an impact in other people’s lives and also can support my lifestyle. The other thing that I love about Lunch Money is all the people that I get to meet. Like when I lived in Taiwan, a Lunch Money user reached out and was like, “Hey, I read your blog.” Him and his partner were also going to be in Taiwan the same time I was. And then we ended up meeting up and now they’re like one of my best friends.
[00:31:36] SY: Oh, cool!
[00:31:37] JY: Yeah. And it all started because they discovered Lunch Money on Hacker News. I think that’s what’s so great about this, I guess, like line of work is that it’s so personal. There is no work-life balance, but in the best way possible in my mind.
[00:31:55] SY: You have been very open online, very vulnerable online about a recent divorce where you needed to take some time away from Lunch Money to kind of process things and deal with that part of your life. Can you talk about that period of time?
[00:32:11] JY: Yeah. I mean, I was working on Lunch Money. I’ve been working on it for the last three years. It’s a very big part of my daily life. I always love to be either coding or talking to users or thinking about ways to improve it. And yeah, I went through this unfortunate event. It was for lack of a better term, a blindside situation. And so I really just had to take a lot of time for myself. And what that meant was I just didn’t have the energy to work on Lunch Money. And I lived with a lot of guilt. Guilt is really a big thing that is in the way of healing sometimes. I felt really guilty about just kind of stepping away from it and not really having said anything. But then I also knew that I needed to do this for myself. So I ended up actually not working on Lunch Money for about six months. A number of my users actually reached out and was like, “Hey, I noticed you haven’t been putting out features.” It wasn’t at all kind of like complaining. It was more like concern because I had been so active up until that point. And so I thought that it was so nice.
[00:33:18] SY: That is nice. Yeah.
[00:33:19] JY: I think there were a few times where I felt I had a little bit of energy and I just wanted to push something out for Lunch Money. And when I did, I would get emails like, “Oh, it’s great to see you back. Hope you’re doing well.” Stuff like that. Thankfully, Lunch Money was at a point where during my absence, it actually continued to grow. And all of the automations and the Slack community and the person that I hired, they were all instrumental in that being the case. And I do feel very bad that there were definitely support emails that went unanswered or maybe unhappy customers that were confused why they weren’t getting responses when I had been so responsive up until then, but I think I have a good reserve of energy. I feel very healthy in my mental state. I feel like I’ve gone through a lot of healing. Yeah, it’s just exciting to get back into Lunch Money and come back with a fresh set of eyes., kind of a new user base than before because now it’s got a lot more users, a lot more developers on it. So kind of like the next new phase.
[00:34:33] SY: What helped you refocus, kind get back into things after that six-month really emotionally difficult and turbulent time?
[00:34:43] JY: So it was a lot of leaning on support system. I think that is really, really important. A lot of self-reflection, self-care, just realizing like a lot of the love has to come from within for yourself working on that. And I think it’s really healthy for me overall to refocus on my mental health. I think before this whole divorce went down, I was also going on podcasts and writing about mental health and self-care as a solo founder. And now I have a totally, not a different view, but a deeper view on it. And I’m excited to share more about it. I’m still processing it and thinking about it, but something I read online a few weeks ago that I always think back to is like, “You got to share your story because one day it’s going to be someone’s survival guide.”
[00:35:37] SY: Ooh! I like that.
[00:35:40] JY: Yeah. And I feel like with Lunch Money, I write a lot about how to get solopreneurship, what I think worked for me, the struggles. One of my more popular blog posts is called, “The biggest mistakes I’ve made with Lunch Money.” What I’ve realized is society really pushes this ideal of like, especially if you grew up in suburbs, what you want to do is you want to go to a good school, you get married, you buy a house, you have kids, you have grandkids, you have dogs, whatever, it’s perpetuated in media and a lot of storylines, and no doubt it sounds like a great way to kind of live out your life. But I think society doesn’t really prepare you for when anything goes wrong in that narrative. What if the company you work for goes bankrupt or you get fired or you suddenly get divorced or you lose someone in your immediate family? I think that when these things happen, we tend to not talk about it. And there’s a lot of shame and guilt and it seems to be a theme here. But part of me and part of like what I’ve been through, I just want to start talking about it, normalizing it. I feel like we share so much on social media. “I got married, I got kids. I had a baby girl or a baby boy or whatever,” but I don’t know. I mean, I’m at a point where when I tell people that I’m going through a divorce, I want them to say congratulations, in the same vein that they would say that if I were to get married. So it’s trying to change the narrative.
[00:37:20] SY: Coming up next, Jen talks about whether someone needs a large breath of experience in tech to be a successful solopreneur, or if that’s a path also open to early career developers after this.
[00:37:44] SY: So one thing that’s interesting about you starting this business is that you started it after quite the resume, right? Quite the journey in tech working. You have started with the CS degree and then you worked at different internships, startups, big tech. And I’m wondering, do you think that it’s possible for someone who is newer, someone who maybe just got started in tech maybe has, let’s say, a year of learning under their belt, maybe one year of work experience? Let’s go with that, as an example. Do you feel like going into solopreneurship, doing the things that you’re able to do, is that a good idea? Do you feel like that’s possible, that’s realistic? Or do you feel like you really needed the level of experience and the breadth of experience that you had to build something like Lunch Money?
[00:38:38] JY: Like I said earlier, I don’t believe in one path, obviously. I think that, for me, I never planned to kind of live all these lives within my coding career, but I’m really glad that it happened. I think that the way that I have been living my life kind of primed me to get to this point. But that being said, I’ve met so many different people who have started businesses or even sold businesses that didn’t go through any of the experiences I did. I know somebody who was I think like a biology major and then on the side, they just started learning how to code websites and then started getting hired by, I think, local companies to create their websites and then just slowly built their network and gained their experience through that. And then eventually, they created their own SaaS company and sold it. That’s amazing. My ex-cofounder, she studied business and she went through Hack Reactor for a year and she created the MVP, which I was able to take over, and then work on more. But she was able to get that running for at least a year before I joined. So what I’m trying to say is there are so many different ways to get experience, and I think it’s important to think about what your goals are. Like if you want to get into coding to get a good secure job, then I think it’s very important to work at kind of a smaller-sized startup where you can wear a lot of different hats. You can see things working like really fast paced. If you want to eventually create your own software as a service company, depending on how you learn, maybe you’re the type of learner that can just watch YouTube videos and then create side projects and kind of learn as you go or you’re somebody who would benefit from having a mentor, then I would suggest going into the traditional workforce for at least a few years.
[00:40:31] SY: What experience would you say you’ve had that has been the most valuable to you building Lunch Money today?
[00:40:38] JY: Honestly, I feel like a lot of my life has been trying to walk that path that society kind of lays out for you of like graduating from a good college and work at a company for the rest of your life, and then live out that happy, married life with kids and all that stuff. And I feel like in a lot of ways, it hasn’t worked out for me, but it has pushed me to have experiences that I think a lot of my peers haven’t had, and it’s been so amazing to share my experiences and allow them to kind of take what they want from it and apply it to their own lives if they wish. And for me, it’s kind of allowed me to be a little bit more adventurous, I guess, with what I’m doing, a little bit like more willing to hit the reset button when things are not working well for me. And so I feel like with Lunch Money, I have full autonomy, but I’ve also built up this discipline and I know myself well enough to the point where I can manage all the moving parts well.
[00:41:44] SY: What advice do you have for people listening? Especially people in their early careers, just getting started, who would love to be solopreneurs one day, have an app that thousands of people are using, making money, they want to work for themselves. What advice do you have for those folks?
[00:42:01] JY: My best advice would be to do many versions of what you want to end up achieving. So Lunch Money was not my first app. I’ve done a lot of side projects. Maybe 80% of them I didn’t launch, 20% I did. I think getting used to working on something end to end is very good for when you eventually do embark on this whole solo founder journey. It’s a muscle that you have to build to get used to building up your self-discipline, building up your initiative, building up follow through, and all that stuff. And I think it is doubly beneficial, because as you’re working on the side project, you’re also learning as you’re doing. So it’s kind of like that exercise that works out all the muscles.
[00:42:53] SY: Now at the end of every episode, we ask our guests to fill in the blanks of some very important questions. Jen, are you ready to fill in the blanks?
[00:43:00] JY: Let’s fill them.
[00:43:01] SY: Number one, worst advice I’ve ever received is?
[00:43:05] JY: Anything overly prescriptive or absolute. So I think an example of this like, “Oh, the life path, you got to get married, buy a house, have kids.” Or advice on how to build a business. You got to pre-sale. You got to build your audience. You got to get people interested. Or even advice on how to learn coding. You got to go to a four-year program. You got to do a bootcamp or whatever. I think anything that is too absolute like that, there’s always a traditional path to everything and there’s always a non-traditional path. And it can lead you to the same place.
[00:43:38] SY: Number two, best advice I’ve ever received is?
[00:43:42] JY: Oh, shoot. I feel like I shared this already. But, I mean, I am reading so much content for my healing journey and the one that really, really sticks with me, and I’m going to repeat it because I think it’s so good. It’s like you got to share your story because it could be someone’s survival guide one day. And I really feel that way with sharing my story about my travels before Lunch Money, continuing to blog about Lunch Money. And I’m excited to kind of see my writing evolve into sharing this new part of my life that I’m going through.
[00:44:17] SY: Number three, my first coding project was about?
[00:44:20] JY: So I’ll share the first coding project that I launched that saw some success, I guess, but it was basically it’s called futuraretro, and it was an aggregator for EDM concerts, like electronic dance music concerts in San Francisco, because I was really into that scene. But then in San Francisco, there were a bunch of different clubs. So to see who was playing every weekend, you kind of had to check every individual website or you go to Eventbrite and maybe get 50% of the events that were happening. So I ended up building an aggregator, a giant calendar, and I got some affiliate links for some tickets. And I use APIs that would automatically pull in the genres for the DJs that were playing. And it was really cool. It was up for a few months, I think. And at its peak on, I think, Friday nights were the most popular, Thursday nights and Friday mornings. There would be like a thousand people on the site. So that was really cool.
[00:45:18] SY: Very cool. Number four, one thing I wish I knew when I first started to code is?
[00:45:24] JY: That coding is, oh, it’s so great. Coding is a tool to a whole world of creative opportunities. Once you learn how to code, you can create something from scratch. It’s art. Even if you’re not doing something visual, it could be something just purely logical. I mean, it’s like logical art. I think also another thing that more practical is that as you learn to code, you’re going to learn so many concepts and you don’t have to understand every single concept deeply. But it’s good to know that that concept loosely exists. It’s kind of like if you’re an artist, you’re not going to master every single medium, but knowing what each medium can kind of produce as an effect is helpful. So I think for me when I was learning coding, I just was like trying to memorize all these terms and all these things. But I think we hear this a lot from other seasoned programmers like we Google the most basic stuff.
[00:46:21] SY: Really do.
[00:46:22] JY: Yeah.
[00:46:23] SY: Well, thank you again so much, Jen, for joining us. Congrats on all your success with Lunch Money and I hope it continues to grow and do well.
[00:46:30] JY: Thank you so much. It was so great talking to you.
[00:46:39] SY: This show is produced and mixed by Levi Sharpe. You can reach out to us on Twitter at CodeNewbies or send me an email, firstname.lastname@example.org. For more info on the podcast, check out www.codenewbie.org/podcast
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