Welcome back geeky FIRE seekers. The Coders of Finance series returns for 2019 and we kick off the year with Marc from VitalDollar.com. I just realized browsing the previous episodes that despite we are all coders how different our paths, visions, mindsets, and skillsets are. Marc just raises this diversity further. His way of running his business is truly inspiring and his achievements aren’t small wins in my opinion. So, Marc please take it over.
Tell us about yourself!
My name is Marc. I’m 40 years old and I live in Pennsylvania with my wife and our two kids.
My experience is different than most of the other people who have been interviewed in this series. I have some experience with web design and development, but most of my experience is related to online business. I got started with web design, but that led to me creating my own websites and blogs. I’ve been managing my own sites/blogs full-time since 2008.
Although I think of myself as an online entrepreneur first, an interest in web design was really what started it all. I used to design and code custom WordPress themes and websites for small businesses, both for clients and to create and maintain my own websites.
I ran a web design blog from 2007 – 2013 (more on that in a minute) so I worked in the industry even though I wasn’t taking that many client projects for most of those years.
In addition to the web design blog, I’ve also had blogs on photography, travel, and now finance. VitalDollar.com, a personal finance blog, is my current project.
Tell us a nerdy secret if you have one
I think my secret is that I don’t have a whole lot in common with most developers. My background is in business and what really attracted me to web design and development was the possibility of being able to create my own websites in order to make money. I saw the entrepreneurial side of it, and that led me to an interest in learning how to code.
When was your first encounter with computing?
My parents had a desktop computer when I was pretty young (I guess it was in the mid-80’s). I used it to play games. I had a baseball game that I loved to play, and there was also some horse racing game that was a lot of fun betting on fake horses. I remember the graphics were terrible. It looked like little chairs moving, nothing like horses. Looking back, I guess I’m kind of fortunate that I didn’t develop a gambling addiction.
What about education, was it related to computing, did you learn in a traditional way or something else? What kind of degree do you have?
My degree is in Business Administration, but in my last semester I took an elective course on web design and I really loved it. The course was very basic HTML and some graphics. By the end of the course, we were able to create a basic table-based website (this was back in 2002).
That course really got me interested, and since I was majoring in business I saw the potential in being able to code my own websites as business experiments. After college, I continued to learn on my own by reading books and following online tutorials. I had to learn CSS because the course didn’t cover that at all. I played around creating some websites of my own just to learn, although I don’t think any of those websites went live.
In 2006, I started doing some web design for friends and family that had small businesses. I enjoyed it and I needed some extra money, so in 2007 I decided to try to expand and find clients from outside of my personal network. I set up a portfolio website and a blog to try to attract traffic.
That blog took off really quickly. It did help me to land some clients, but I realized I didn’t really like the client work, and I actually liked working on my own blog more. I decided to shift my focus, and from then on my blog content targeted other web designers, rather than potential clients for my services.
Even though the target audience of my blog was other designers, I did get a decent number of potential clients contacting me through the site. I didn’t take on a lot of client work, but if there was a project that looked like a good fit, I would pursue it. It was mostly websites for small businesses and non-profit organizations, including a few churches. Most of them were custom WordPress themes, but I did do a few static HTML websites for clients, and I worked with a few other content management systems, like LightCMS.
When did you start to work? Was it in your field? How was it?
I graduated from college in 2002, and I worked in a few different jobs in the finance industry from 2002 – 2008. Although I always had work, I struggled to find a job that I liked. I wanted something that would give me a chance to grow and develop, but everything just seemed like a dead end job. That’s really what led me to start my web design and blogging side hustle in 2007.
In 2008, about 1.5 years after starting my blog, I was able to leave my job and pursue my own business full-time. At that point I was making some advertising revenue from my blog, doing some freelance writing for other web design blogs, and a small amount of client work for web design and website maintenance.
What are your experiences about the industry?
I’ve never worked as an employee in the industry. I did some freelance work for a few years, and I’ve also managed my own websites and blogs since 2007.
Running a web design blog, of course, I had plenty of contact with other web designers and developers. I always enjoyed getting to know other people in the industry, and I found designers and developers to be very welcoming.
Are you still coding?
Not really. The extent of my coding now is limited to some small customizations to the styling of WordPress themes, or maybe some opt-in forms. I always coded my own sites up until about 2014. Running my own sites kept me busy enough that I didn’t have time to really get practice and stay up-to-date with trends when mobile browsing became a lot more popular. Another factor was that premium WordPress themes were getting easier to customize, so for the past few years, it has made more sense for me to use available themes rather coding from scratch. When I started coding responsive themes it was taking me too long. With plenty of WordPress themes available, it just seemed unnecessary to do it myself.
How has the ability to code impacted your business?
My business started when I was doing freelance web design work, so it never would have started without coding. My interest in design and development allowed me to grow a successful blog that gave me a great start to my career and had a big impact on my family’s finances.
What is your current financial situation and what are your financial goals?
My wife and I are hoping to be able to retire early, but not exceptionally early. She has been a stay-at-home mom since our daughter was born in 2012. We hope that she’ll be able to work with me in a few years once our son starts school (our daughter is in kindergarten this year).
The goal is to be able to retire by the time our youngest graduates from high school, which should be about 15 years from now. I would be about 55, and my wife would be about 53. We’re on track to reach those goals, but in the world of self-employment, you really never know what might happen.
I don’t view financial independence quite the same as some other people in the FI community. I don’t think 25x our annual expenses is enough for either my wife or I to feel freedom over money. To me, the whole point of financial freedom is the actual feeling and relief of not needing to worry about money. Our goal is to have 50x our current annual expenses, which I should allow both us to truly feel that freedom. Right now we’re about halfway there.
Tell us about your journey so far?
My 20’s were pretty much a waste financially. Like I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t able to find a job that I liked, and my income was on the lower side all the way through my 20’s. I started my web design and blogging side hustle when I was 28 and left my full-time job right when I turned 30.
Fortunately, my 30’s were much more productive years. I was able to have some success with the web design blog that originally started as a side hustle. I managed that blog for several years before I sold it in 2013 for $500,000.
After that, I had a few different photography blogs that I started. I’ve sold those blogs now (you can read on my blog about how I turned a photography hobby into more than $1 million), but they were a lot of fun to manage for a few years.
Now I’m focusing on growing Vital Dollar, although I also have a few small niche websites.
How did your profession affect your finances (directly, indirectly)?
I think my profession has significantly impacted my finances. When I started my own business our financial situation wasn’t that great. We weren’t in debt, aside from a mortgage, but we were saving enough money to reach our goals. We managed our money pretty well, but our income wasn’t high enough to allow us to meet aggressive goals.
Since I started my own business, my income has been significantly higher. My wife was able to leave her job, which never would have been possible on my old income. We’ve also been able to grow our net worth, pay off our mortgage, and give ourselves a shot at reaching our early retirement goals.
Would you recommend starters/career shifters to step on this path?
I would definitely recommend an online business for anyone who is interested, and willing to put in the work. It wasn’t easy and took some sacrifices early on, but it has paid off. I love being able to work from home and choose the projects that I work on.
For the coders out there, personal projects and side hustles are a great way to get started with entrepreneurship.
We coders have our eternal debates, let us know which side do you stand?
- Desktop OS – Mostly PC, but I also have a Mac. I don’t really have a preference, I just have more experience with PC and they’re cheaper, so that’s what I typically use. On my photography blogs I sold some downloadable products that were basically software add-ons, so I have both so I could test my products.
- Mobile OS – Android. I’ve never used anything else.
- Browser – Mostly Chrome, but I also use Firefox. There are a few Chrome extensions that I use a lot, so that’s the main reason I stay mostly in Chrome.
Thank you, Marc, that you have shared your journey with us. All of us can learn something from you. Many coders are just dreaming about dedicating themselves to their own projects full-time. Of course, it is not without reason as a huge percentage of startups fail pretty quickly. Playing it safe and starting something on the side is always a good idea and still lets you test the waters.
What do you think? Which would bring more success to a coder as an entrepreneur, business skills or technical skills, or both on an equal level? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.