2021 Letter of Review

What went well, what didn't go so well, and what I've learned in 2021

Every year, I publish a letter of review to track my progress for the year. You can read my past reviews here (2018, 2019, and 2020).

The three questions (based on James Clear's annual review template) I try to answer for myself in this review:

  • What went well?
  • What didn't go so well?
  • What did I learn?

2021 felt like an extension of 2020 in many ways. At first, I felt kind of meh about 2021. In retrospect, it was a good year for me with lots of growth in the right direction. It's how our brains trick us. We tend to overestimate what we can get done in a short time and underestimate what could happen in a longer time frame.

What went well

AppSumo

2021 was my second full year with AppSumo (I spent the first few years on Sumo.com instead of AppSumo). And I was responsible for growing the AppSumo blog.

In the first six months of 2021, we grew our blog from 35,000 to over 125,000 in organic pageviews. While it got hit by the Google algorithm update in June and July, it has since got back on track in Q4 2021.

We'll be doing more of what works to continue growing the blog. But what's truly exciting is that the blog has validated SEO as a solid customer acquisition channel for AppSumo. And we're ready to double down on SEO—not just for the blog but also the main site—in 2022.

Another good news was that I've gotten a pay raise—plus equity—in August 2021.

Wolo Yoga

My wife and I partnered up with two friends and started an ecommerce business selling yoga accessories. We've been thinking about starting an ecommerce store since 2020. We finally did it when we shared the idea with two of our friends, and they proposed to join us as co-founders.

Having co-founders could be tricky. But for us, it means we have extra hands to get things done. They also become sort of our accountability partners to start something new from scratch.

We started the project in March and launched a preorder campaign in April. Instead of investing a large sum of capital upfront, we decided to validate our product idea by getting preorders from family, friends, and strangers. We closed the preorder campaign with 47 orders and got 80+ more orders for the remaining for the year.

We've since invested more capital in the business to fill up our inventory. The plan for 2022 is to add more products to the store and build processes and workflows around marketing and operations.

Notion and Obsidian

I've been using Notion for years. In 2021, I developed a personal OKR system using Notion databases. It has helped me stay focused on my goals and set priorities. I gained a lot more clarity throughout the year by using the Notion OKR system.

Shameless plug: I've made my Notion system a template pack and listed it on AppSumo Marketplace.

One challenge I have with personal OKR is the positioning of team objectives. For example, I don't own AppSumo's and Wolo Yoga's objectives alone, and I am not the only decision maker. Having them on a personal OKR (or any system) helps me prioritize and plan for them. But it creates a problem of working in isolation. I'm still finding and experimenting with a solution for it.

Thanks to Nat Eliason, I stumbled across Roam Research in 2020 and learned more about personal knowledge management. With that, I found Obsidian and liked it more as a Roam Research's alternatives.

I've started taking more article and book notes, and even writing all of the blog posts and newsletter in Obsidian using what I learned from Nat's Effortless Output. Another great free resource I've used to build my Obsidian's second brain is Nick Milo's Linking Your Thinking.

Health and fitness

At the beginning of 2021, I was 81kg with 24% body fat. I ended the year at 75kg with 21% body fat. The lowest I've gotten was 70kg with 18% body fat in September but regained some of the weight I've lost. I see it as a success overall.

Since we're still kind of living through Covid, I did most of my workout at my office following GymnasticBodies programs. I've gotten better at bodyweight movements, especially for pull-ups. I've also learned and done my first Skin The Cat.

I set a goal to run 400km in total in 2021 and did it. To make it fun, I signed up for run challenges and got two medals in Q1. But I stopped joining more of these challenges and just run.

I've signed up for a gym membership and will be going back to strength training in 2022. My goal is to build strength on key lifts and cut down more fat.

Personal finance and investing

We—my wife and I—hit our net worth goal of 2021. We did that by saving and investing over 40% of our income. While I'm not obsessed with a FIRE goal (more on that later), we're now at 13% of that number.

I was a big fan of passive investing by dollar-cost averaging into low-cost index funds. But in 2021, I moved parts of my investment to individual stocks and cryptocurrencies. While they were down at the end of 2021, I've gotten a net gain throughout 2021.

For real estate investment, we finally rented out the apartment we bought back in 2020. However, we didn't get a cashflow-positive rental due to the rental market at our location getting hit by Covid. We're still happy with it because it helps cover over 70% of the mortgage payment.

Moving

At the end of 2020, we rented an office and moved into a one-bedroom apartment. We changed our minds and moved again in Q4 2021.

We plan to move out of the one-bedroom apartment and find a bigger apartment because we want to get pregnant in 2022. But a bigger apartment seems like a waste when we won't be home most of the time working in the office. In the end, we decided to let go of the office.

We rented a three-bedroom house and turned two rooms into our workspace.

The best part was the process of letting go of the office. We were expecting to burn a large sum of cash because our rental agreement hasn't ended yet. Moreover, we've spent some money to renovate and set it up in the first place.

But with helps from some friends, we've got everything sorted out and minimized our losses by finding a new tenant to continue the rental agreement. We would still let go of the office even if we don't find someone for it since it's a sunk cost anyway. But I'm grateful that we got it done with minimum losses, which was a gain.

What didn't go so well

DeanYeong.com

It wasn't a net negative for this blog, but I just haven't given the attention it needs to grow into something I've envisioned.

In 2021, I've written 11 new articles, which was an improvement from 2020 with only five articles. I've also read 14 books and published eight new book notes.

In terms of products, I've launched and hosted Systematic Output (a live workshop) with 19 students. It has gotten a decent response from everyone who participated. I'm planning to turn it into a self-paced course in 2022. Other than that, I've also listed High Performance Notion Pack (a bundle of Notion templates) on AppSumo and got 22 sales from September to December.

A few other tweaks and improvements I've made:

  • Output Journal. While I'm using Notion for Personal OKRs, I sometimes prefer an analog system for the day and week. With that, I created the journal template and made it a free downloadable.
  • WordPress to Webflow. I've been checking out Webflow since I first started the blog. I finally gave it a try in 2021. It's easier for me to not worry about hosting and coding—and focusing on making the site look exactly like what I want. Both Webflow designer and CMS are powerful and easy to use enough for me that I'm very happy for finally getting the blog migrated.
  • ConvertKit to MailerLite. Don't get me wrong, ConvertKit does have powerful features for creators. But both of them have everything I need and are easy to use. The main reason I moved my email list was pricing. From a side project standpoint, I want to get to break even as soon as possible, and MailerLite allows me to get there quickly.
  • Updated book notes layout with category filter. I've always wanted to improve the UX of my book notes, but it was challenging for me to do it on WordPress. Creating the category filter on Webflow is easier than doing it on WordPress but still challenging for my skill level. Fortunately, I stumbled across Finsweet and decided to use its Attribute library and got it set up in less than two weeks.

Travel

While the United States got closer back to normal with fewer travel restrictions, it was a different story over another side of the world. In Malaysia, we've got a third Covid cases spike in May that led to another lockdown for almost three months.

Even after things got better, there were still travel restrictions and vaccine mandates in place. That said, I didn't travel at all in 2021—not even cross states.

However, I'm grateful that my friends and family were healthy and safe throughout tough times like this. To make up for not being able to travel, I started experimenting with outdoor activities such as rock climbing and camping with friends.

Lunchclub and meeting new people

I joined Lunchclub and had 17 meetings with some amazing people—from multiple countries and backgrounds—in 2021. It was a win for me when I couldn't go out. The thing was that I didn't make the effort to keep in touch with these people.

I've thought about meeting new people and building my relationships with a few growth friends. However, I haven't prioritized it as much as I liked to. I also see my location as a challenge as proximity makes connecting with people easier. In 2022, I would love to travel more and connect with friends in Kuala Lumpur and Austin.

Sources of income

Early 2021, I published an article about creating an income portfolio. However, I didn't have a concrete goal and plan for it. So far, it hasn't gone very well where 93% of my income source still comes from my day job.

I've done setting my 2022 objectives and growing a new stream of income isn't a priority. The way I see it is that a new income stream will happen when I execute the income-generating projects (like the blog and ecommerce store) well. So I should focus on those projects instead.

Focus and self-confidence

By now you should see that I wasn't very focused in 2021. I was involved in many projects at once. I'm not against working on multiple projects (lots of high achievers do that) but I'll need to get better at managing them.

While I've written more than I did in 2020, I would love to write even more. The lack of self-confidence and discipline was a key factor. The more I learn about productivity, marketing, and self-improvement, the more I feel like I have a lot more to learn before I can write and share about them.

It seems like I'm now at the lowest point of the Dunning-Kruger curve.

Anyway, I'm fully aware of the solution: To put in the reps, to build a habit of writing, and to ship the work; rather than focusing on creating something perfect.

What I've learned

1. The value of money vs life stages

Two books I read in 2021 made me rethink money and life:

  1. How Will You Measure Your Life?
  2. Die with Zero

First, we need to pay attention to and spend the time and energy on things that matter to us such as our health and relationships. The only time we could grow, maintain, and enjoy them is NOW. If you set it aside for too long, you'll realize that they are gone when you most need them.

Second, most of us work too hard for the money we don't need. While it's good to delay gratification, there are experiences we couldn't get when we're older—even when we have the money.

With that in mind, a goal I set for 2022 is to have a honeymoon with my wife. We haven't gone on a honeymoon after our wedding because we were focusing on saving. And then Covid happens. Now that we're planning to get pregnant, a vacation that belongs to the only two of us becomes kind of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I would never think about it that way if it wasn't for the mindset shift. I'll likely delay the honeymoon for another three to five years to focus on saving and investing. But now, I see it as a rare experience that I should prioritize.

2. Context is king

I consider myself a learner. And I'm constantly picking up new skills, strategies, and tactics from others and applying them to things I want to get done. But here's the catch:

People do certain things for specific reasons with specific circumstances that are unique to them.
  • A person gets viral on Twitter doesn't mean you have to and should do the same.
  • Someone going all-in into cryptocurrencies doesn't mean it's the right move for you—even when he/she is someone you trust.
  • A strategy that has gotten AppSumo X result doesn't guarantee the same result for your business.

That said, when you're learning from others, it's important to consider and understand the full context. And that's the hard part. It's an interesting topic to explore and I don't have a perfect solution for it yet.

A half-baked solution would be 1) aware of the importance of context, 2) know yourself, 3) review more than once case studies, 4) focus on fundamentals instead of tactics, and 5) experiment.

3. The paradox of financial freedom

Back to the topic of money. I read a lot about the FIRE movement in the past two years and was kind of obsessed with getting to my FIRE number. I was obsessed because I want to be free from all kinds of work.

However, two recurring thoughts I've had were "what would I do if I reach FIRE now?" and "if I'm free from all work, what's the meaning of doing anything then?

That's the paradox of financial freedom. Freedom of work isn't the answer. And there is true value in taking up responsibility and doing hard things.

With that realization, I stopped stressing over my FIRE number because if I enjoy what I'm doing now—which I do—why am I rushing toward being financially free?

I'm still working toward my FIRE number and keeping a pulse of it regularly. Getting closer to it guarantees a certain level of security and opens up more options. But beyond that, finding out what I want to do at any given time will be a higher priority.

Footnotes

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