2021 year in review

Because infinite players prepare themselves to be surprised by the future, they play in complete openness. The infinite player does not expect only to be amused by surprise, but to be transformed by it.
— Finite and Infinite Games

I find Finite and Infinite Games to be a remarkably pretentious book, but as I tumble through the years I’m referencing it more and more. In the finite game, you play to win. In the infinite game, you play for its own sake. 2021 was about infinite games.

2021 has been a wild year. I feel much more capable than a year ago, and dare I say it, I feel like I’m operating at a much higher level.

Reflecting on 2021

I set a couple of goals for the start of 2021:

  • Increase the pace of work and projects
  • Action more ideas
  • Get “out” of client work
  • Publish blog posts weekly

I felt going into 2021 that I was capable of doing more, and my goals were focused on that. I didn’t know what deserved the increased action, but I felt I was ready for it. That ended up happening, but not quite how I envisaged.

I certainly increased the pace. Much of that has come from learning how to seriously leverage technology at Ellipsis, the marketing agency I run. Alongside excellent process automation, we’ve built world-class SEO AI tech, and are implementing AI that’s significantly better than what’s available commercially at a fast rate.

I also launched my first serious side-project business in years, with FlipWP launching in a flurry of activity over the summer. I’d been talking to Iain more and more, and launching Flip made a lot of sense.

One hears a lot of advice. You should focus on your strengths; you should scale through technology; you should do products; competition is for losers… 2021 was the year where it all started to make sense.

I focused on my strengths, and what happened next will shock you

Effective executives are not blind to weakness.
— Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive

People say you should focus on your strengths. All this time, I’ve been focusing on my weaknesses! I jest: 2021 was the year where the power and implications behind focusing on my strengths really became apparent.

In the 80/20 rule, I am great at the first 80 and not great at the final 20. The thing about the 80/20 rule what you’ve made is serviceable, but fundamentally unfinished.

This has been the lesson at Ellipsis: I’m great at bringing new things to market, innovating with new ideas, and so on, but I’m really weak on the operational attention to detail. My approach to having a bunch of new enquiries is to say yes to all of them and figure it out later. That was fine for a couple of years, but we have a team of excellent professionals now and I owe it to plan things properly.

Part of that means working with excellent people, gettin g excellent advice, delegating responsibility for the stuff I’m less good at — and then getting out the way. There’s no point having excellent people if you don’t give them space to do their jobs. We’ve done the 80 bit of the 80/20 of Ellipsis, but doing the final 20 will be an ongoing process that’s never finished.

I increasingly get why entrepreneurs are often serial entrepreneurs. If you’re good at the 80 bit, you’ve just got to keep doing it. Hand-in-hand, I increasingly see the value of having a plan for what to do if it works. The lesson has been clear: understand what you don’t know, clearly delegate responsibility, and get out of the way.

This has a flip-side, of course. I’ve been down a deep deep rabbit hole with AI. A year ago I didn’t know anything about AI. I thought it was mainly science fiction. I’ve now taught myself everything I need to use genuinely cutting-edge AI and Machine Learning in all parts of Ellipsis. When you’re obsessively interested in something, it’s usually a sign. If you can harness that into a commercial project, all the better.

This, more than anything else in 2021, has been eye-opening: tackling a topic as complex as AI has given me the confidence to tackle anything else I fancy.

On becoming a no-code AI expert

To remain valuable in our economy… you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things.

Cal Newport, Deep Work

A friend is an AI researcher at Oxford, and early last year we were chatting about how I was using Zapier to do simple logic. He asked if I’d considered using AI. I said no, because I don’t have a billion pounds to spend on it. Turns out right now is the moment that small businesses can start leveraging AI.

It really was a eureka moment the first time I got a prediction back from Zapier’s AI module: I fed it text and with some simple training it could come back with an answer. That led to a huge rabbit hole. My goal initially with to stop our process automation from being “stupid”. We had simple rule-based decision trees in our process automation and could make those decisions smarter.

It quickly became clear that the AI could make significantly better decisions than a human expert. This is a huge deal. I started training custom Machine Learning models and we started getting pretty wild results on client projects. We increased SEO Content performance by 30% early in the year, and we realised were sitting on so much technology value we needed to do a better job of articulating it.

That led to the launch of Ellipsis FALCON AI over the summer. FALCON AI is our custom suite of AI specifically trained to improved the performance of SEO Content in WordPress — and it runs on no code.

I’m increasingly bullish on process automation and AI for small businesses. Ellipsis uses AI better than… I’m guessing the vast majority of businesses of any size. The technology is just becoming available to everyone, and there are huge competitive advantages to be had from adopting early.

I’m putting together a course on no-code process automation and AI that shares how we do it and how you can too. I’ll have that ready in February. Sign up for a launch discount!

I was way too focused on work for a lot of last year

The activity and action came at a cost. By July, I was fully down an AI rabbit hole (more on that later), Ellipsis was hiring and we were ramping up, and I’d launched FlipWP. But — I was working very long hours, trying to find extra time at weekends to work, and I was doing nothing but work. By the summer I found myself struggling with burnout.

My wife is a doctor and has been working gruelling hours over the pandemic. I responded for a lot of the year by doing the same: letting work become all-consuming and working ridiculous hours. In the moment I could justify it and enjoyed the projects, but over time it caught up with me.

I don’t know whether I was “burnt out”, as I was able to course-correct within a couple of weeks, but I was unhappy, unfit, unhealthy, and certainly heading in that direction.

There was some COVID lockdown stuff mixed in there: not getting out the house enough certainly contributed. It was a wake up call, though, and a prompt to make sure my priorities were in the right place.

I’m big on self-reflection and a bit of thinking time sorted it out. I made a concerted effort to get life more back to normal (starting with going back to my co-working space), reintroducing the strict boundaries around work I’d put in place following my last dance with burnout five years ago. I will fully embrace new ideas and projects and get very excited about them. That helps me be a good entrepreneur.

It also means I can and do get carried away, though. I want to be able to do my work for a long time, and for me that means doing work in moderation.

It’s noteworthy to me how quickly bad habits spiralled. The mental hoops I jumped through and justified to myself to do more work were ridiculous: one of my barriers is I don’t have any email on my phone. But, I found myself downloading the Gmail app, checking email, and then uninstalling; presumably to try and persuade myself I wasn’t breaking my no-email-on-phone rule.

I had minor eye surgery in August. I was waiting alone in a hospital room waiting to go into the operation. I hadn’t been allowed to eat or drink all day and really wasn’t feeling good — and I found myself installing Gmail and sending emails. It was absurd, and bad.

We launched FlipWP as the perfect “side hustle”

Launching FlipWP was good last year. Iain and I had been talking more and more since he started Plugin Rank. We both had demand for people wanting help selling their WordPress businesses, and we saw an opportunity to serve a missing piece of the market. The business has been a solid side project: we’ve signed up around 100 buyers at $250/year and had a steady flow of deals come through the site most weeks.

FlipWP is also an example of a smarter kind of business. There was clear demand for a single place to buy and sell WordPress businesses, but now that it exists nobody else needs to make it. The network effects of a marketplace like this make it a winner-takes-all market, or at least one with a very strong moat.

Understanding this — and doing it — in practice is where dealing with advice like “competition is for losers” comes in. With Flip we’ve seen it, and I want anything in 2022 to be similarly strongly “moated”. Iain and I are always discussing new ideas, and I presume I drive him mad asking “what’s the 4D chess version of this?” Good strategy often means doing different things, differently. There’s often an “easy” option to be had, if you can find it.

I’d give us a 7/10 so far. We’re delivering on the core value proposition, but we need to tell better stories about buyer and seller success, and there are some obvious complementary products to work on.

My attention is kinda shot

I’m big on Deep Work. I’ve written about it many times over the years, and Ellipsis’ whole operations are built around the philosophy. It’s a little disappointing, then, to realise that my attention is shot right now. I really struggle to do real Deep Work at the moment. Even whilst writing this I compulsively checked my Fantasy Football team’s score (it’s doing great btw — I’m in the top ~0.5%).

I’m at least self-aware about this being a problem, but it seems to remarkably difficult for me to do anything about it. Especially when tired, willpower goes out the window. I have all sorts of inconveniences set up: I don’t have a browser on my phone, I have a Chrome extension that makes me wait to load Twitter, and so on. The core problem is still there though. This seems to have become more urgent over the last 6 months — possibly coinciding with me taking more meetings — and it’s a big problem to solve in 2022.

I’m reading a lot more fiction

Hand-in-hand with my attention being shot has been my reading habits: I read 14 books in 2021, which is my fewest since 2015. I read 40 books in 2020 and normally clock about 25.

Goodreads tells me I’ve read nearly as many pages as 2019 when I read 23 books, so maybe this isn’t so bad. The profile of my reading has changed significantly: I used to devour pop-thinking and pop-business books. Something like Atomic Habits shot to the top of my list when it came out a couple of years ago.

I have basically no interest in reading anything of the non-fiction that’s been a staple of recent years: Atomic Habits, Company of One, Digital Minimalism… you know the type. I keep a well-organised reading list that plans my reading across a range of topics I’m interested in… but I’ve been ignoring it and reading a lot more fiction, especially international fiction.

The translated fiction section of Blackwell’s in Oxford has become the source of nearly all my books (especially the extremely aesthetically pleasing Fizcarraldo Editions). The Nobel prize winning Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead was one my favourite reads of the year. It’s translated from Polish and I never would have considered it a couple of years ago.

I’m sure the arc will come back around. I do increasingly find something like Atomic Habits annoying in a way I can’t quite put my finger on, but that might just be me. I’ve read ~100 of the pop non-fiction books over the last couple of years and it might just be time for a change.

I do still find some reading for work useful and inspiring, but I’m also happy to follow my interests more. I’m just frustrated I didn’t carve out more time for reading.

I haven’t been able to run basically all year

I went into 2021 probably fitter than I’ve ever been. I was in a really good rhythm, running 5k 3x during the week and about 15k at the weekend. I was going faster and faster week-on-week, too. Then, one week at the end of January my knee started hurting. I’m still dealing with the repercussions in December.

I’ve never really taken cross-training seriously, and when I went to the physio they were surprised I’d been able to do as much running as I had been, given I was seriously lacking in strength. I worked on increasing strength and slowly got back up to 5k — and then I pulled my hamstring. I went to a different physio this time, and he had a plausible story for what the first physio had missed. We’ll see how that goes, but I do feel positive about finally fixing the issue. That all took 10 months.

I am all about routines, and losing my morning run from my routine was a real difficulty for parts of the year. I tried cycling, walking, even squash, but nothing stuck. I use my running time to clear my head, and the loss of that time really contributed to my burnout over the summer. I need to get back to a good rhythm for running and fitness as soon as I can.

This was the first really serious running injury I’ve had. It has changed my perspective a bit: instead of constantly pushing myself to go faster and faster, and neglecting recovery, I now just want to go at a solid pace — and be able to do that for the next 50 years.

Once COVID case numbers fell over the summer, I got back into playing squash. I love squash: it’s high intensity, great fun, and sociable. Playing too much squash probably contributed to pulling my hamstring. You may notice a trend here.

2022 will be about finite and infinite games

My job is unrecognisable year-to-year. To me that’s the core of the infinite game as an entrepreneur: create a business where the market rewards you for working on interesting problems.

I will carry on doing that forever, ideally. There is a balance, though. One a mastermind call a couple of weeks ago I was asked if I was too focused on the long term. I can see that: hitting £X revenue target is a finite game, but that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t play. I’ve probably been too snobbish about finite games in the past. For 2022, I will take them on.

I feel really good about where we’re at with Ellipsis: we have the core problems solved, our product-market fit is great, and we just need to add a bit of scale in 2022. I will carry on focusing on my strengths, and that means working on FALCON AI, working on new products, and building new things.

The difference is this year it’s part of the plan rather than a distrction from the plan, and excellent people will be making sure we don’t experience trade offs from me doing new things. Should be fun.