If I said 2020 was a good year would you angrily stop reading now? It wasn’t at all what I expected, and there were so many hard things, but it really was a good year for our family.
How is this a gift?
When going through hard times it’s easy to focus on the negative. We all do, and it’s perfectly natural. But it can also help to ask one question: how is this a gift?
2020 was a crazy year. It was painful, lonely, and filled with uncertainty, but there are ways that it was a gift.
- Josiah was born on January 1st, 2020, the first day of a year with once in a century events. I was able to take plenty of time off to be with him and the rest of my family, but usually I would still go on a handful of business trips throughout the year. Thanks to COVID I went on exactly one: our team retreat at the end of February. Other than that trip, and a quick weekend trip with my older boys later in the year, I got to spend time with him every single day.
- I am far more resilient and confident that I was a year ago. I started my career in 2008 and had never lead a company through a recession. Because the last 8 years that I worked on ConvertKit were all through a rapidly growing economy I wondered if I had what it would take to lead through a crisis or recession. I did. While the economic crisis wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected (at least not yet), I prepared and lead through it in a way that I am really proud of. I expect 2021 will have just as much adversity as 2020—world events don’t care about your calendar—but I know that I’m a more resilient person facing whatever 2021 holds.
- I trust my instincts more. I’ve run ConvertKit on a solid, profitable foundation from the beginning so that we could weather adversity. When so many people said we should raise money, hire faster, and spend more aggressively, we charted our own path. We prepared for the recession and that paid off. You can read my post to the team in March. Back in December I was talking to friends and family about the virus. Maybe it means I pay too much attention to world events, but that gave me plenty of time to prepare and not be caught off guard when the world changed. When you’re charting a different path it can be hard to trust yourself. I was right and my preparation paid off, because of that I trust my instincts more now.
Celebrating the ways the year was a gift doesn’t in any way diminish or take away from the pain, hurt, and loneliness that I and so many other people experienced.
In 2020 ConvertKit grew from $19.83 million ARR to $25.85 million. While it wasn’t the 40% growth we were targeting, we still scaled quite a bit.
Launching the free plan
Our primary focus was to increase ConvertKit’s footprint in the market by launching a free plan. With the free plan we grew from about 28,000 users (all paying) to about 285,000 total users with the addition of the free plan.
Overall user growth was less than we had projected (we were pushing for 500,000 users), but our free to paid conversion rate performed well at 5% compared to the 3% we expected. We started the year with just landing pages being free, then we gradually added email sending and steadily increased the subscriber limit to 1,000. In 2021 we’re going to continue to experiment with making our free plan more valuable (without hurting our paid conversion rate).
We had planned the free plan as our one big move in 2020, but when COVID hit I couldn’t shake the feeling that we weren’t doing everything possible to support creators. It was still too difficult to earn a living online, you had to piece together too many different tools.
On April 15th I showed up to our leadership team meeting and said we were going to build and launch a commerce product (which we originally had planned for sometime in 2021) in the next 90 days. We didn’t have anything designed, but in my previous career I’d sold over $700,000 worth of digital products so I knew exactly the features and user experience I wanted.
In a true testament to the hard work and skill of the ConvertKit team, we pulled it off. 90 days later, on July 15th, we opened ConvertKit Commerce up to the first customers. The result is pretty phenomenal. Setting up a product and getting to your first sale is really easy. Having the ability to sell products in the same product as your email marketing and landing pages makes so much sense.
Without a baseline for sales it was hard to set a goal for Commerce revenue, but it has been slower to get going than I expected. As of the end of the year we’ve sold $411,000 worth of products through ConvertKit Commerce and are averaging about $125,000 in sales per month. My goal is to grow GMV to over $2 million per month in 2021. If you sell digital products I’d love to have you migrate to ConvertKit Commerce.
Leading through a pandemic
At our very first team retreat I remember feeling nervous to be leading a team and to have everyone looking to me. And that was in a good time. Starting in March I found myself needing to lead through a crisis and uncertain times. Having Barrett (ConvertKit’s COO) as a partner through this was critical.
As events started to be canceled, lockdowns were announced, and kids came home from school we scrambled to figure out how to react. First we made sure everyone on the team who needed time could take that. Family comes first.
Then turning to our team and customers we had one message: keep creating. It was so easy to keep scrolling through the news and refreshing the case counts. But that just feeds a cycle of growing anxiety and you aren’t actually doing anything.
The Future belongs to creators
In order to spread this message Barrett and I started a daily podcast called The Future Belongs to Creators. Our goal was to be the steady voice for the creator community through a time of crisis. It worked. The community rallied, people shared what they were creating, and it helped creators focus on the things they could control.
We ran the show daily through the spring, then switched to twice a week through the summer and fall. After 97 episodes we passed it off to our teammates Haley, Miguel, and Charli who will run with it in 2021.
The Creator Fund
Our business took an immediate hit as customers rushed to cut expenses, but ultimately so many businesses moving online was good for us. But our hearts went out to all the creators who had their businesses disappear overnight. Particularly touring musicians, anyone doing in person events, and the entire travel industry.
Barrett proposed starting a fund to help pay rent, groceries, childcare, or medical expenses. I loved the idea and in 24 hours The Creator Fund was live with a $50,000 donation from ConvertKit.
With donations from dozens of individuals (including 4 of our own team members) as well as large donations from Digital Marketer, Teachable, Thinkific, TinySeed, and Moment the fund paid out over $185,000 to hundreds of creators.
Black Lives Matter
Racial tensions in the United States reached a breaking point in early June and hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to take a stand against police brutality.
We made our stance clear as a company (and lost plenty of customers because of it) and started financially supporting organizations pushing for the long-term change needed to build an equitable society. Particularly supporting Campaign Zero and Code2040.
Personally I wanted to do more. The protests and demonstrations felt so far away from Boise, Idaho, but I knew there were so many people living here who needed to see that the community supported them. Before Trump Boise welcomed more international refugees each year than LA and NYC combined. While it was controversial in a very conservative state, citizens made it very clear that refugees are welcome here.
Trump cut out all of those refugee programs and many organizations built to support refugees closed down because there wasn’t funding or any new refugees. I wanted to show that there were people in Boise who were committed to building a welcome, equitable, anti-racist community. A couple phone calls later and I bought billboards that said “Black Lives Matter” on both the major freeways as well as the busy streets into downtown.
A thread on Twitter about how I bought the billboards was widely shared and resulted in dozens more billboards going up all around the country. In a second round I added billboards in six more cities around the state.
On one hand I felt I wasn’t the best spokesman for this movement. I should stay in the background and instead support and amplify those who have lived experiences with racism and oppression. Then I realized in addition to amplifying their voices I could reach another demographic: white conservatives who may be more likely to listen to me.
The billboards turned into a platform to go on conservative talk radio and explain about racism and privilege, to explain at church why we say “Black lives matter” instead of “all lives matter”, and in newspaper interviews how we all need to step up and be better allies.
I was also honored to be invited to a panel put on by Rachel Rodgers to share how businesses can use their influence to end racism. Speaking in front of 3,000+ people in a live audience was nerve-racking, but I was glad to play a small part.
This isn’t over at all. For all the demonstrations, news coverage, and company statements there’s been very little policy change. My hope is that everyone who was inspired to be an ally in June continues to push and fight for real change.
With all our in person events canceled (including our fourth year of Craft + Commerce as well as our team retreat in the UK) we had an events budget that we wanted to put to good use. Haley on our brand team came up with the idea of hosting ConvertKit Creator Sessions. The first one was a cooking show with one of our customers. Then there was an afternoon workout. We weren’t sure what it would become, but Barrett and I kept pushing Haley to experiment.
Ultimately it has become an incredible look into an artists creative process. Think of it like one part NPR Tiny Desk concert, one part masterclass. We’ve now featured artists like:
- Drew & Ellie Holcomb
- Mat Kearney
- Lennon Stella
- Ingrid Andress
- …and so many more
You can see them all on the ConvertKit YouTube channel.
My biggest takeaway from living and leading through a crisis is simple: take action. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed and fall into a spiral of refreshing news and getting further depressed. Choose action instead. Everyone is just waiting for a leader to follow.
Normally travel is a fairly long list with 16-20 destinations per year for a mix of family vacations, team retreats, and conference speaking. This year the list is pretty sparse:
In late February we had our 8th team retreat in Oceanside, California. I’m so grateful we got that in at basically the last moment. The very first confirmed COVID cases were being reported in the US, but it was still in the single digits. We were able to spend a wonderful week connecting as a team.
A few days after the retreat we went to Kauai for a family vacation. Visiting a Hawaiian island each winter has been a great tradition. We split a 12 day stay with half in Princeville on the north shore, then the other half in Poipu on the south shore.
The highlights included staying right on the ocean, hiking the Na Pali coast, lots of surfing and boogie boarding, and plenty of great home cooked meals.
While we were there cases really started to pick up, flights started to get canceled, and countries in Asia started to close their borders. I’m glad we got our normal trip in before things got too crazy.
3. Coeur d’Alene
Over the summer, while cases were pretty low, we went with our friends Casey and Amelia to their family lake cabin in northern Idaho. We charted a plane (the same PC-12 we took to Cerro Gordo in 2019) to make it a nice quick flight and avoid commercial airports. As our only vacation of the summer it was worth the splurge.
We spent a long weekend reading, playing board games, wakeboarding, and swimming at the lake.
4. Camping at Silver Creek & Redfish Lake
We got in a couple camping trips to places near Boise. That time in the mountains is some of my favorite! This year we rented a trailer for both trips and it made for a really comfortable trip (especially with a baby). Just for fun we tried to cook over the fire as much as possible and made some really great food.
5. San Diego
In October I took Oliver and August on a quick trip down to San Diego. It was our first time flying during COVID (just a quick 2 hour direct flight) and I was pleasantly surprised with how safe it felt with 100% mask usage in a mostly empty plane and airports. 4 days on the beach and getting takeout from restaurants was exactly what we needed as a getaway from the cold weather and being stuck at home for months.
While we didn’t do as much travel as other years, we had a great time at home going on plenty of hikes, building a slip-n-slide, delivering gourmet food by drone, and so much more.
For those who don’t know, in 2017 we bought 4.5 acres in the middle of Boise and since then have been working on turning it into a working farm/homestead through regenerative agriculture. A few projects we finished:
- Building walking paths through the garden
- Planted a large section of the back field that had been dug up for our new septic drain field
- Landscaping another large section of the yard and putting the trampoline in the ground
- Planting 25 new trees including a new orchard and an aspen grove
- Remodeling our guest house to upgrade the kitchen, paint, and add a new bay window
Finished the tiny house office
Building a tiny house was my biggest project in 2019. I started in March and moved in a year later in April 2020. Now every day I work from an office that I built myself.
The total cost was about $29,000, doing most of the work myself or with free help from friends. About $10,000 of the total went to hiring out areas like cabinets, spray foam insulation, drain side plumbing, roof sheet metal, water heater installation, installing the mini split air conditioner.
There are still plenty of little touches to add like shelves, a custom cushion for the couch, and curtains for the main doors to bring it from an office to a place where guests could stay if we hosted a large group.
Doubling the farm
The property next door has always been in really poor condition as the owners got older and no longer had the ability to maintain 4.5 acres. This year they decided to sell it and hired a contractor to remodel the entire house and sell it for them. We were able to sign a deal early so we had a say in many of the finishes used in the remodel.
Ultimately we paid about $800,000 for 4.5 acres with a fully remodeled house to expand the farm to 9 acres. The new property needs a ton of landscaping work (including building a massive berm to separate it from a busy road), irrigation, tree planting, and more.
The idea is to make a destination farm where friends and family (as well as airbnb guests) can come stay. We’re paying for the new property by operating three new airbnbs. The main house is 5 bedrooms, then we built a tiny house with two sleeping areas, and we are working on renovating the shop into a 2 bedroom guest house. Combine that with the guest house we already have and our farm can comfortably sleep 22 people (not including the house where we live).
Some of our favorite times this year were hosting friends who came through Boise (shoutout to Jake & Rachel and Justin & Justine), so we hope to do a lot more of that in 2021. I especially want to host our mastermind group and their families for a retreat once COVID allows for it.
This year I didn’t make as many angel investments, but instead focused on buying more significant positions in other businesses.
- Real estate — In addition to buying the property next door to add 3 airbnbs, we bought a second 4-plex in Nampa. Once we finish the remodels we’ll have 12 units on airbnb. The business is now earning $16,000 per month (in the winter) and we expect that to climb to $25,000 per month as we add the next 5 units and go into a busier season. I own 40% of the business with my partners Patrick and Philip each owning 30%.
- Harkla — My friend Casey runs an incredible products company called Harkla. They design and develop products for families with special needs. His early investor was open to selling some shares, so I bought 10% of the company. They are growing really quickly and I expect them to be one of my best investments. Also, it’s fun to learn about e-commerce.
- SparkLoop — Newsletter referral programs are one of the fastest way to grow an audience. We looked into building the functionality directly into ConvertKit, but found it would take an entire squad to build and maintain it and we decided to prioritize features like Commerce instead. So in order to still offer that functionality we partnered with SparkLoop to bring referral systems for free to all of our Creator Pro customers. ConvertKit also acquired a minority stake in SparkLoop.
- Circle — Years ago all community software was terrible. Today there are a few good options, but Circle is by far the best. If you’re starting an online community there’s no better tool than Circle.
- Primer — A year ago my good friend Ryan Delk told me he was starting a company to bring homeschooling mainstream. Being homeschooled was incredible for me, so I had to get involved with a small angel investment. What the team has built is incredible. I can’t wait to see them reach more kids!
Going forward I’d like to find more businesses that I can acquire a meaningful % of (5-20%), rather than just making small angel investments. This may look like partnering to start another business or two, or buying into more traditional businesses that aren’t seeking venture capital.
It was a great year in the stock market. After pulling back some at the peak in February I invested steadily throughout the year, with Tesla and Shopify being my best returns.
I did sit on cash to do more real estate investments for a market correction that never happened. With the influx of people moving to Boise prices just steadily climbed. Don’t try to time the market. I am glad I bought a couple properties when I did and saving that much cash did enable me to buy one building in cash that wasn’t eligible for a conventional loan.
At the beginning of the year I had a nice streak going of consistent workouts. I was even the person who would fly into a city to speak at a conference, then head to the hotel gym to get in a workout before heading to the speaker’s dinner! Before the lockdowns started I bought a pull up bar (when you still could) and rings. So while I really missed the ability to go to the gym for most of this year, I still got pull ups and ring dips in, as well as squats with a kettlebell.
My current max reps in a single set are:
- 21 pull ups (either grip)
- 18 ring dips
- 42 push ups — I only started working on push ups in the last few weeks, so I’d like to push that higher.
I miss going into the gym to use barbells. Hopefully that comes back in a safe way in 2021.
I miss soccer even more than the gym. I went from playing 3-4 times a week to not playing at all. While plenty of people still played, I just didn’t feel comfortable playing indoor soccer with the number of COVID cases in Boise.
Instead of soccer I took up running (at least until it got really cold). Our team organized a virtual 5k, so I set up a Strava account and started running. My goal was to run the actual race in under 24 minutes. Unfortunately the smoke was really bad from the forest fires for a couple weeks before the race day, so I didn’t get in as much training as I’d hoped. But I still went out to run and pushed really hard, pulling off 3.1 miles in 23:58! Not bad for so little training!
Later that day on our product team call Sai, one of our product managers, pulled up my Strava profile and pointed out that I only did 4.99 KMs… and of course she claimed it didn’t count. What? I was shocked. How could that happen? 5 kilometers = 3.1 miles. Or wait… it’s actually 3.107 miles. I had Strava set to miles and had stopped the moment it hit 3.1, not realizing that I was 30 feet short of a real 5k.
And the team wouldn’t let me live it down.
Worst of all, they pointed out that it would have taken me more than 2 seconds to run the last 10 meters, so even if I had finished I wouldn’t have hit my goal.
The rules of the ConvertKit 5k said we just needed to submit our best time within a 5 day window… so I agonized for a few days over whether I could shave off enough time to make it worth doing again. I decided to give it another shot, really pushed myself, and came in at 23:19 for a real 5k. Taking 4th place in the race.
Overall I learned three things:
- Gamification works on me (thanks Strava).
- I’m very susceptible to peer pressure.
- If I really trained I could actually be good at running.
So with that in mind I’m setting a 2021 goal for a sub 21 minute 5k. That will keep me in shape for when I start playing soccer again.
For years I’ve wanted to learn to play an instrument, but never committed the time. In December I decided that I should just do it. I picked piano since it’s the best instrument for a foundation in music and Hilary already plays, so we have one in our living room.
So far it’s been fun and challenging. After 30 days of steady practice (sometimes just for 10 minutes a day), I can play some basic songs. My goal is to practice at least 200 days next year. After a foundation with piano I’d like to take voice lessons.
Last year’s goals
It’s funny to look back on these now. I missed nearly every goal I set last year. But I still feel like it was a wildly productive year! Just very different than I expected.
- Grow ConvertKit to $28 million in ARR — Nope. Ended up $2M short at just under $26M ARR.
- 500,000 users for ConvertKit — Missed again. We’re at about 280,000 total users.
- Publish 12 vlog episodes & 12 educational videos for 24 total videos — I posted 5 fun videos, and then did 3 new podcast episodes for my new show, which are quite educational. So 8 out of 24. But at the same I launched a podcast and recorded 97 episodes!
- Launch a woodworking business with Oliver and August to sell handmade goods at the farmers market and other venues — Nope. It wasn’t the year for selling anything in person. I did redo my shop and add a dust collection system, so we’re in better shape to do this if they still want to in 2021.
- Visit one of our philanthropic projects in person — Nope. I had plans to either make it to Burma or down to see New Story houses in Mexico, but neither worked out with COVID
- Charter a sailboat to practice our newly acquired sailing skills — Yes! Mostly. We went sailing in Hawaii at the beginning of the year. While we didn’t captain the boat, we still got really good practice. Hopefully the full trip can happen in 2021.
- Complete 100 weight lifting sessions — Yes. I had a great gym streak going before all the gyms closed, but I continued working out at home with kettlebells, pull ups, and ring dips. I’m not where I would be if I had kept going to the gym, but overall I’m not in bad shape for a pandemic.
Goals for 2021
- Grow ConvertKit 40% to $36 million ARR
- Host two large gatherings on our farm (assuming COVID vaccines allow for that)
- Sign a book deal — this has been on the list for far too long. I’m finally really close
- Practice Piano at least 200 days of the year
- Launch a new local news business
- Run a 5k in under 21 minutes
- Send 52 issues of my newsletter and record 52 podcast episodes
Writing this review has made me grateful for so many things. 2020 was an incredible year, even though nothing went to plan.
Thanks for reading! And if you wrote your own year in review post I’d love for you to include a link to it in your comment.