Turning Your Knowledge into Products
One of the big downsides of the freelance world is that when you’re not doing billable work, your income goes to zero. So, there’s a lot of talk about creating income streams that aren’t dependent on your selling your time.
Turning your knowledge into a product – or a product line – is one way to go about this. And, for some insight on how this is done, let’s track down an old college friend of mine.
Your first contact with him may well involve voice mail, which shows his enthusiasm for all things iPhone: “This is Mark Knopper’s phone! Please leave an iMessage!”
So, I left an iMessage.
Mark called back a few hours later, and he shared the story of how he turned his passion for baseball and all things Apple into a popular iPhone app. From Mark’s perspective, it’s the story of how, after earning a computer science degree, attending Apple conferences, and racking up more than 10 years of programming experience, “I became useful!”
Mind you, this is coming from a guy who co-founded a company that he and his three business partners later sold to Cisco Systems. He’s considered to be an international expert on router technology. And, when we were college students and lived in the same cooperative house, he was known as the organizer of projects that others really wanted to get involved with, even if it was just washing the dinner dishes. There was just something about that guy’s enthusiasm.
My first close encounter with Mark was at a house party shortly after our university’s fall semester started. I was a pretty shy kid, but I was enjoying the music and didn’t want to just stand there. So, I gathered up my courage and asked Mark to dance with me.
Our dance took us all over the house – up the stairs, down the stairs, and over to the living room piano, where Mark played me a song. I’ve never experienced a dance like that before. Or since.
But I digress. Wasn’t this a story about an iFriend with an iDea?
As mentioned above, Mark was a principal in a company that was founded in 1996 when he and three friends quit their jobs at Ameritech, a telephone company serving the Upper Midwest region of the United States. At the time, Mark had a stay-at-home wife and two small children. Which made the notion of quitting a steady job with a salary more than a little scary.
But Mark and the guys went ahead with their Internet Engineering Group, which first started in partner John’s living room. It grew to occupy a second floor office in downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan. They did consulting projects for several high-tech companies, including Cisco.
I remember visiting the IEng office and seeing whiteboards covered with mathematical formulas I couldn’t begin to comprehend. My math education had stopped two decades before with introductory calculus, which I needed in order to graduate from the University of Michigan with an economics degree. Mark was a computer science major, which, if I’m recalling our co-op house discussions correctly, called for a lot more math.
Cisco announced the acquisition of the Internet Engineering Group in late 1999. As part of the acquisition agreement, Mark and the 12 other IEng-ers became part of Cisco’s Optical Internetworking Business Unit. Mark remained with Cisco until 2003.
After leaving the corporate world for the second time in his adult life, Mark decided that he wanted to learn new things. Since he was a longtime Mac enthusiast, he set his sights on becoming an Apple applications developer, but information technology being the ever-changing thing that it is, he had to change his plans. Seems that Apple released a nifty new device called the iPhone, and all the cool kids had to have one.
And, as we all know by now, it isn’t enough to just have this cool phone. You must have apps for it. Lots of apps! (Gee, I’m starting to sound like Mark.)
So, Mark’s computer-based historical baseball player statistics program became an iPhone app. At first, he released it as a free app, and it got more than 500,000 downloads.
“I realized I may have left money on the table,” Mark said.
So, Baseball Statistics started sporting a price tag of $1.99. It’s now up to $2.99, and, as Mark reports, the 2009 sales came close to paying the rent on his one-room office. Which is a good thing, because Mark’s one-man Bulbous Ventures has grown to a three-man company. Partners Tom and Matthew were part of the old IEng group. The trio is now working on several software projects in addition to Baseball Statistics.
Since we’re nearing the end of this story, it’s time for three takeaway lessons:
- In financial parlance, Mark and his three IEng partners experienced what is called a liquidity event. While liquidity events may never happen to most of us, those who have experienced them often find that they’ve become well off financially, but they still yearn for meaningful things to do. Mark chose to follow the path of self-directed learning, and that resulted in an iPhone app.
- Knowledge that gets turned into a product has a way of morphing into a product line. It can also become a company. Which means dealing with business partners, employees, customers, and a lot of other things you didn’t have to handle as a solo freelancer. As for your freelance clients, you’ll probably have to bid them farewell. Reason: You won’t have time for them anymore.
- An experimental, flexible mindset is a good thing to have. Recall that Mark just put his iPhone app out there, not knowing how it would do. In Mark’s case, things have worked out well. Having prior entrepreneurial experience helped, and so did his ability to adapt to a changing market.