Designing My Life | Part VI: Prototyping Experiences

I’ve spent the last 11 months of my life prototyping experiences in effort to identify the best way to create a meaningful vocation for the next chapter of my life. The idea around prototyping is to create a small test where you can learn as much as you can without building ‘the real thing’.

In this instance, the ‘experiences’ are different versions of your working life. Rather than committing to a specific job or venture for the long-term, you create a prototype experience to test it.


The book Designing Your Life encourages readers to prototype experiences of their different ‘life plans’ in order to learn about what each opportunity means in terms of income, quality of life, fulfillment, etc. InPart V of Designing My Life, I mapped out a life plans which broadly fell into four categories of opportunity:

  1. Consulting as a digital product designer / manager (what I’m doing now)
  2. Tech startup
  3. Property for good business
  4. Immersive design + technology education

My Long-Term Goal

My long-term goal for my working life is to create a meaningful vocation where I am: Fully engaged, constantly learning, earning good money and helping people at scale.

Breaking down the four component parts, I have:

  1. Social purpose — I want to help solve real problems for real people, at scale
  2. Financial — I want to increase the portion of passive vs. active income earned so I have more freedom to do what is good and right
  3. Relational — I want to build long-term relationships with people rooted in honesty, respect and trust
  4. Personal — I want to be fulfilled and challenged on a daily basis. I want to constantly learn and grow.

My Approach

At previous stages of my life, I would have jumped head-first into one specific venture and committed all of my energy to making it a reality. This time, I held each opportunity loosely and designed small time-boxed prototypes to test each one.

Each test needed to have three explicit criteria:

  1. Definitive start and finish
  2. Opportunity for positive cashflow (if pursued long-term)
  3. Ability to pursue in-person locally in Norwich (not remotely)

I learned in my time at OpenGov how detrimental working remotely is for me, so I’ve shifted all my focus to pursuing in-person opportunities locally in Norwich. At first, I was gravely disappointed at the working culture and community in Norwich and Norfolk, but there came a tipping point where I started to meet the right people and a prominent, thriving subculture began to emerge.

Here’s an overview and breakdown of each of my tests and learning:

Consulting

My main goal for my consulting career is to enter into the high-end of the market where I can charge significantly more for my time so I can spend more time on passive-income generating ventures.

In 2013 I started freelancing for $20-30 an hour building Wordpress websites. That quickly grew to $50-75 an hour doing UX design for small and medium-sized businesses in 2014 and 2015.

By 2017 I was earning $100–125 / hour working remotely as a lead product designer for a couple Silicon Valley startups.

By 2020 I want to be earning between $200-250 / hour doing high-intensity short-interval consulting projects and speaking engagements.

In order to explore different ways to do this, I surveyed the market and identified two up and coming trends:

  1. Design Sprints
  2. Behavior Design

The Test

The first test for each of these consulting services involved a two-day bootcamp with the creator of each method. I did a Design Sprint Bootcamp with Jake Knapp and AJ&Smart in Berlin in June 2018 and a Behavior Design Bootcamp with Dr. BJ Fogg of Stanford University in California in July 2018.

You can read my review for each bootcamp here:

Design Sprint Bootcamp One of the Lego design teams at the Design Sprint Bootcamp in Berlin

Behavior Design Bootcamp BJ and I at the final presentation of the Bootcamp

Both of these experiences helped me learn:

  • What is required to fulfill this service as a consulting
  • What the market looks like
  • What the community and network is like
What I learned

Both of these services are a great addition to my consulting toolkit and help differentiate me in the market, provide me with focus and move me towards my long-term goal.

I spent about $10k and two months acquiring all the knowledge necessary to deliver these services.

In the six months following, I have delivered six Design Sprints as a consultant and have secured Behavior Design speaking engagements at three multi-billion-dollar companies. There is no way I would have gotten into conversations with companies of this size had I not trained with http://bjfogg.com/ at Stanford Persuasive Tech Lab.

Tech Startup

My long-term goal for my career is to launch and sell a successful SAAS company. I want to bootstrap a venture and sell it for over $1M within 5 years.

The Test

I prototyped this experience with a client named David Lloyd who had an idea for a tech startup but didn’t know how to test it. I brought in James Box and James Batesof Berst and together we delivered four back-to-back Design Sprints to define, test and validate David's idea.

The result is Cultivate. Check it out.

What I learned

I’ve acquired a skillset that is very suitable to running a tech company and I very much look forward to doing so long-term. Whether or not Cultivate becomes that venture is yet to be seen. I wanted to help get Dave’s concept off the ground and was very pleased at what I was able to do in such a short amount of time.

I’ll be on the lookout for more opportunities to create SAAS products that solve genuine human problems at scale, like Cultivate does.

I also learned the importance of a thriving startup ecosystem to support new ventures. Had I been in a place like San Francisco when Cultivate was getting its first legs, I think we would have formed a team of engineers very quickly. But given we were in Norwich where the software engineering talent is sparse in comparison, it was hard to get the right people on board quickly.

Property for Good Business

Ever since I moved to the UK, I’ve had lots of different ideas how I can use property (as an asset) for growth in monetary and social capital. In creating a divergent range of ‘Life Plans’, I explored many different options. Given these are all substantial, long-term ventures I needed to break down something small, low-risk and testable.

The Test

The hypothesis I was testing for this experiment was I believe renting out a property on Airbnb can be a financially profitable vehicle for social good by employing good people from challenging backgrounds to clean and turn over the properties.

The test was to manage a 2 bed terraced house near Norwich City centre for 6-months and to contract with former refugees to fulfill the cleaning and turnover duties.

I am 5-months in and have:

  • Secured 25% more income for the property owner than an AST with a traditional agent (including agent fees)
  • Provided £250-400 / month of income for a former refugee, introduced by a local charity
  • Earned £250-700 / month of profit as a managing agent
  • Defined a repeatable and scaleable model for offering across the city
What I learned

This is definitely something I want to pursue long-term. I am going to be incorporating a business with a partner in March to provide this offering to more customers and slowly roll-out at scale with other local charity partners.

We’ve got a massive opportunity to create monetary and social profit here. Stay tuned!

Immersive Design + Technology Education

Ever since I first worked at Galvanize Denver in my first year as a UX design freelancer I have understood the importance of a thriving co-working space for launching a business (and any design or technology career). Seeing UX Designers, Web Developers and Data Scientists emerge from a 6-month program and land jobs within days at companies working in the same building was an amazing sight to behold.

Galvanize Co-Working Space event

Galvanize Co-Working Space atrium

Now that I’ve seen a major gap in the Norwich market for such a space, I’m delighted to have an opportunity to meet this need.

The Test

I’m currently working with several partners on a venture that would see a Wework style co-working space come to Norwich city centre that includes:

  • Flexible co-working alongside permanent offices and meeting rooms
  • Web development, UX design and data science bootcamps
  • Startup accelerators
  • Community networking and events

This is a slightly harder experience to test, but the vision is to create a scaleable and repeatable model that works in any lower-tier city like Norwich, Ipswich, etc. If we are successful, we’ll see cities like Norwich producing successful startups at a similar per capita rate of London and Cambridge.

We’re in the process of securing heads of terms for our first space in Norwich and I’ll be leading the design of the space, the brand and the offering.

Another exciting venture from the provincial town of Norwich!

Conclusion

Over the last 11-months, my mindset around prototyping experiences as opened incredible doors to me that I could not have seen had I adopted the more ‘singular’ mindset that dominated my past. By seeing opportunities as experiments that I time-box and test I have made life more playful, more flexible and a lot more fun.

This approach to working aligns perfectly with my work as a design consultant. I’m surprised it’s taken me this long to figure out how to prototype experiences!

I highly encourage any young professional looking for a more meaningful and fulfilling work life to adopt a prototyping mindset. If you’re going through a similar journey and want to share notes feel free to reach out!

Send me a message at john@john-ellison.com or find me on Twitter (@iamjohnellison).