The Omega and the Alpha

The Omega and the Alpha

This is the seventh and final post in a series where I am revisiting CommonsWare, my long-time
business and current “hobby with a logo”. I thought it might be useful to some to
see how all that came about, the decisions I made, and so on.

The series:

As noted in the previous post,
I had a lot of success in the early years. Things might have peaked for me in 2014-15, when
I had the opportunity to train hundreds of developers at a device manufacturer that was
moving into Android… and then subsequently moved out of Android. 🤷

Perhaps that was foreshadowing, because by 2018, it was fairly obvious to me that CommonsWare
was “circling the drain”, and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it.

So, what happened?

As I noted earlier, I am not a marketer. CommonsWare’s marketing pretty much boiled down
to: be useful to a large audience and hope that you get enough
“true fans” to
keep the business afloat. This is not a bad approach when you can be “a big fish in a small pond”.
It does not work as well once the pond grows a lot, and in the case of Android, the pond grew
to be the size of the Pacific Ocean. Either you:

  • Find some shallow eddy in which you can still be a “big fish”, by focusing on some niche
    while sticking with the same word-of-mouth marketing

  • Adopt other forms of marketing, or relationships with larger brands, that allow you to
    deal better with a larger set of competitors

  • Drown

I drowned. I did not plan ahead for finding some smaller niche, and I did not have any clue
how to do anything else to keep CommonsWare at the forefront of developers’ minds.

By 2018, I started doing contract development work. I knew that the time I was working on contracts
was time that I was not investing in CommonsWare’s future. I did, though, elect to
declare “tech debt” on The Busy Coder’s Guide to Android Development and started in
on the second-generation books, such as
Elements of Android Jetpack
Exploring Android.
But I knew, even as I was writing those, that I didn’t have much of a prayer with the Warescription
model. I had too few subscribers and no clear plan for how to get more.

So, I did what a lot of people would do in that situation: I succumbed to depression.
Or, in the words of Britain’s greatest secret agent:
I lost my mojo.

In August 2019, through the efforts of Touchlab, I wound up
doing contract work with a company called MIRROR. They made a fitness mirror, one where
you can see the instructor and yourself while doing yoga, strength training, pilates, cardio work,
stretching, etc. At the outset, that was just another contract.

In early 2020, I cut that contract to part-time status. I had one last shot
at salvaging CommonsWare: dive into the niche of Jetpack Compose. I started
a Jetpack Compose newsletter and had plans for books and a lot of the things
you see others doing, such as an online catalog of composables and how to use them. My plan
was to keep MIRROR going on a part-time basis as long as practical, while using the time to build
up Compose expertise and content, in hopes of re-establishing myself.

But in June, MIRROR asked me to come back as a full-time contractor. I knew that if I did that,
I had no shot at saving CommonsWare. But, I was tired and depressed, and I felt like CommonsWare had
run its course. Plus, I really liked MIRROR, even after it was acquired by lululemon. So,
I returned to full-time contractor status. And, in late 2021, I joined up as a regular employee,
published the final edition of my books, and shut down CommonsWare.

2022 was a rough year for me emotionally. While I enjoyed the work with MIRROR, I was still
depressed over my “failure” with CommonsWare… ignoring the fact that having the business
survive that long and do as well as I did was a massive achievement. Few startups survive five
years, and fewer still make it past their first decade. I beat both of those. Few developers
will ever get the name recognition that I once had, and to a lesser extent perhaps still do.
Yet, I could only focus on the fact that I couldn’t sustain the business over the long haul.
Plus, being in my early 50s, I felt like being an entrepreneur was something I might never do again.

Which brings us to 2023.

Early this year, I was inspired, not once, but twice, to turn my life around.
I came to grips with my emotional state and got into therapy. I lost 25 pounds (hey,
those MIRROR workouts really do work!). I saw what I was missing
professionally due to my depression, and I finally got past the end of CommonsWare.
I once again saw the joy in what I could do, and I started feeling like the Mark
Murphy of old, for the first time in years. I started doing some “extracurricular” things to
try to help MIRROR (née lululemon Studio), and while those may not ever have an impact, I
felt good for trying to “move the needle” and make a substantial impact.

And now? I have plans for some more books. I am making no promises, but watch this space
for further developments.

I learned a lot during the CommonsWare years, about myself perhaps more than about
Android. For example, at times I was not very nice, and I will be forever chagrined
at aspects of my behavior. While it is a cliché to say that “I have become a better person”,
in my case I think it is true.

I am forever grateful to the Android developer community, from the experts to the newcomers,
for helping to grow Android to what it is today and to give me the opportunity to be useful.
I am thankful for my colleagues at MIRROR lululemon Studio
lululemon, for putting up with my foibles and letting me help along the way. And I will
be forever in debt to the person who inspired me twice this year to turn things around.

If I may be so bold to provide some advice, based on all of this:

  • Don’t be afraid to chase your entrepreneurial dreams. The likelihood of cataclysmic
    failure is very low. The most likely form of “failure” is just to fizzle, and while it
    will seem painful in the moment, you will be fine. The possibilities of success, and
    the joy you will get from that success, are far more than worth the fizzle.

  • That said, if you start a business, do not only have a plan at the outset. Have a meta-plan
    for how you will adapt your plan to changes in the marketplace, in your situation, etc.
    Be in position to “take a step back” and look at your efforts with a clear and unbiased
    eye. And don’t be afraid to change that plan… so long as you are not doing so on a whim
    and without clarity for how those changes will help.

  • Introverts can be entrepreneurs. Ask me how I know.

  • Be kind, and find ways to be kinder tomorrow than you are today.