Binpress Podcast Episode 39: Sacha Greif


On this episode we talk with Sacha Greif, a designer and developer behind a myriad of projects. You might know Sacha from his book Discover Meteor, which provides a comprehensive introduction to building web and mobile apps with Meteor, a realtime JavaScript framework. Or you might know Sacha from his work on Telescope, a real-time, open source social news app. Still, you might know him from his work on SidebarStep By Step UI DesignFolyo, or other projects.

Sacha covers why it’s important to have side projects, how to transition from freelancing to building and selling products, how to stay motivated along the way, and much more.

Listen to the podcast in the player above, or click here to download it directly. Subscribe on iTunes or do so manually by using this RSS feed.

Show notes


Alexis: Sacha, thanks for coming on the show!

Sacha: Hey, thanks for having me.

Alexis: Yeah, absolutely! So I’ve mentioned in the pre-show – I was kind of fan-boying out for a little bit there – I’ve been following you online since about 2013 from one of your products. Before we get to Step By Step UI Design, which is how I got into the world of Sacha Grief, let’s dive back into the past and tell us a bit about your background. Where’d you grow up?

Sacha: So, I grew up in Paris, France. I spent most of my life there, although now I live in Osaka, Japan. My background – I guess I kind of have a dual background in coding and design. Originally – the way I got started, like a lot of people, is just messing around in Photoshop, messing around with flash, doing some websites for friends–.

Alexis: Those were the days. [Chuckles]

Sacha: Yeah. I mean I still remember my first actual job – professional job – I had to manually search and replace through hundreds of HTML files because nobody had invented PHP or MySQL yet.

Alexis: Oh boy.

Sacha: So, that was fun. [Chuckles] Yeah, but around that time I also went to college to study Computer Science, so that gave me a foundation and the more technical stuff of things like coding and math. It’s funny because a lot of people know me more as a designer, I guess, but my background would be more on the technical side. Although I think if you study computer science yourself you’ll probably know that it doesn’t actually help that much for building stuff on the web.

Alexis: Right.

Sacha: It’s super theoretical and you spend time building compilers that compile from one language to another or something, and when you go get to the web the problems are both a lot simpler but also involve a lot of parameters, so it’s a really different way of thinking.

Alexis: Yeah, it’s a – for me, I didn’t study computer science. I’m a self-taught coder, but the teaching style is very different from the building style to different worlds in some instances, so I don’t understand that–.

So at what point did you – did the design take more of a root in your life?

Sacha: So, I actually got a bit sick of computer science. I really wanted to build things and – every time I did not really know what I wanted to do but now looking back I realized that’s why they don’t like it because it was missing that whole practical building things aspects. So actually, I quit computer science and studied Chinese – Mandarin for a while, and ended up going to China. And at first I was supposed to go over there to study the language, but I also got bored with that and then I ended up finding that job as a web designer, basically, by chance mainly because I spoke French, English and Chinese, because at that point my web design skills were like four or five years behind [chuckles] of like, “Oh, what’s this new CSS thing I keep hearing about?”

Alexis: CSS 2.

Sacha: Yeah, even though I was still used to table layouts and stuff like that. So yeah, that was the point at which I re-entered the design and development world. And I realized I kind of liked it, mainly because had changed since my previous experience, and with new technologies – CSS, a lot of pretty cool things. And after doing that for a while – so in China and then back home in France – I realized that the part I liked the most was the design. So that’s how I transitioned from being more of a generalist to being more focused on UI design.

Alexis: Okay, so you have this job in China and you eventually moved back to France – was that because of a job opportunity, or your visa was up, it’s like, “Okay, it’s time. You got to go.”

Sacha: Yeah, it’s kind of a mix of all these. Also, my girlfriend was still in France so I had a lot of ties in France. I ended up finding a pretty good job in Paris so that was good, too. I wonder sometimes what my life would be like if I stayed in China at that time and moving back home, but I guess we’ll never know.

Alexis: So you’ve carved out a niche for yourself in terms of not only building products but particularly more on the past as a freelancer – did you immediately jump into freelancing after this gig in China? Or did you take some time at nine to five jobs before you stroke out on your own?

Sacha: One year working at UNESCO – it’s a big governmental organization in Paris – and I got pretty tired of that as well. I guess that’s a reoccurring theme in [chuckles] my life.

Alexis: You and me both.

Sacha: And yeah, but I think something that I have in common with a lot of people who are self-taught is the imposter syndrome.

Alexis: Uh-hm.

Sacha: And I had no trust in my design skills, really. So deciding to move to a freelance career was pretty scary, and the way I can mitigate at that was by selling themes and templates.

At that time ThemeForest has just started and I figured, “Okay, if I put all the theme, either people will buy it or they won’t. And if I suck, I’ll know right away there won’t be any reason to be anxious about, “Oh, someone’s paying me but I might not be up for it or good enough,”

Alexis: Right.

Sacha: So that’s my way of getting back.

Alexis: The work was already done, yeah?

Sacha: Yeah. And that’s how I ended up finding almost all of my first couple of clients. They bought my themes or templates and they liked the work and hired me to do more for them.

Alexis: I will say that I have no confidence to my design skills, but that lack of confidence is well placed because my design skills are not good at all. [Chuckles]

Sacha: Well if you’ve built on a theme and people buy it, you know, that’s validation right there. Your own thoughts don’t even factor in anymore, so that’s what I thought was really cool.

Alexis: That’s true, yeah. So I will say that you given an audio resume, eventually you wound up working at Hipmunk or – not ‘at’ but ‘for’, I should say as a freelancer – Intercom, Codeacademy, Le Monde – the French newspaper – how did you make that transition? How did you find those big ticket design gigs?

Sacha: So the Hipmunk one is interesting. I actually wrote a blog post where I re-designed their UI, and yeah, they really enjoyed that. I think – you know it wasn’t always that great but I took care and explained every decision so even if the decision was wrong they could read my thought process and see that there was a reason for the things that I was doing – something that really appealed to them – and that’s how we ended up working together.

I think either for Hipmunk or Codeacademy, Intercom, I think a lot of companies are looking out for the best person, but the person that’s the right fit. So the fact that I was already familiar with their product, or for Codeacademy that was – I was available on very short notice; for Intercom, I was a user of their product. In all these cases there was a connection already there from me and the company, and I was also willing to pitch in to help with small specific things without requiring them to hire a new person or go through the whole process, so I think that’s why all of these things happened.

Alexis: So how did you – when you were designing the themes at least, how long did you spend doing that?

Sacha: I spent about one year designing themes.

Alexis: I’m curious – how did you decide, “Okay, this is the kind of theme that is in demand. I have to make a gaming website theme, or I have to make a ‘blank’ portfolio page or–.”

Sacha: Oh I had no idea [chuckles]. I think it’s mostly luck.

I should say I got in like by the end of first month or second month of ThemeForest. So at that time the level was nowhere near what it is right now. Like my themes right now would not sell single copy for sure – they’re pretty crappy – but at that time it was decent, I guess. So I had a landing page thing for start-ups, I had a portfolio theme for designers, and those did pretty well.

Alexis: So at what point did you decide to shift into products rather than continuing to do freelance – or I should say, focused more on products rather than freelance?

Sacha: So when you’re working as a freelance designer, there’s a really cool aspect, which is that you get to work on new products all the time, and you get to be part of the most exciting phase where everything is fresh, everything is new, and the field is wide open. But at the same time you can never really see things through, you know. So for Hipmunk for example, I would design something but then I don’t have – I don’t know how it turns out, or I don’t have the capacity to make adjustments later on. So that was the same with all the products I worked on on a freelance basis.

I was always a bit frustrated that I wasn’t able to really make – know if I were or weren’t – if it’s making a meaningful impact.

Alexis: Right.

Sacha: So that’s what I like about products is I can take them from start to finish, including design but also marketing, blogging – you know, everything. So that really appealed to me, and I guess around 2012 I started looking for ways to make that switch. Or even actually summer 2011, I think. Yeah.

Alexis: So what was the first manifestation of that urged to make the transition?

Sacha: So the first manifestation would be a project called Folyo, which I actually just solved recently.

Alexis: Oh, I did not know this.

Sacha: Yeah, and so Folyo is a site that helps start-ups find designers, and I think that’s kind of a really common idea; it’s basically a two-sided marketplace that connects people, so that’s my first real start-up idea.

I actually came up with that on my first trip to San Francisco because everybody was telling me how hard it was to find designers, and I figured, “Oh, here’s a need to be filled and maybe I can do something about it.”

So I launched that – I started working on that in summer 2011 and launched it in September, I think. And at first it was really bare bones, it was just like a mail chimp e-mail list where – of designers – and I would forward them job offers from companies. And then slowly I built it up as a full-pledged app having features, having more users. But it never really took off mostly because I was never able to give it the attention it deserved, so that’s why I eventually sold it to the Workshop theme.

So Robert Williams – and he’s a guy who is also in that space and has more resources and more motivation than me to continue that work.

Alexis: I was reading a blog post during research as I want to do before podcasts, and it was maybe from two years ago, or you said that you’d kind of ran out of steam with Folyo, but then you were going to go out at it again with fresh eyes. Any lessons that you’ve learned in that time, what worked or what didn’t work?

Sacha: Yeah, I guess I ran out of steam again. [Chuckles] Yes, so it didn’t work. You know, I think I gave it a fair shot. I don’t know if I’ve tried everything – probably not, but I tried a lot of things within reason. I think at the end of the day I just lost my interest in that space, and also my other projects started working a lot better.

So it’s always hard when you’re fighting uphill and you have other projects started growing a lot smoother, you have to make choices, right?

Alexis: So speaking of the other project, what is the other project?

Sacha: So – going back to Folyo – one of the issues I had was I had a hard time marketing my articles because when you write about code, you have Hacker News which is a great place to get traffic, to get feedback. But for design there wasn’t really such a place, so I had this idea to create a kind of Hacker News for design, and that ended up becoming Sidebar – so, which is actually more of a newsletter of design links.

Alexis: Yeah.

Sacha: So that was my first project after Folyo, or rather during Folyo. And from that came Telescope, which is the open source version of Sidebar. So Telescope is basically an open source, Hacker News-like app, which I built in order to build Sidebar. And we can talk more about it later if you want, but from Telescope came–

Alexis: Oh yeah. Discover Meteor? [Chuckles]

Sacha: –Discover Meteor, which is a book about what me and Tom Coleman, my co-author, learned while building Telescope. So it kind of all flowed together. Looking back it seems – you think it’s all a straight line, but actually every project lead to the next in a random fashion, I think.

Alexis: Or you could say, a spider web fashion – see what I did there? [Chuckles]

Sacha: Yeah.

Alexis: You wrote recently about the spider web strategy; I think that this is a good place to mention it. So, what is the spider web strategy?

Sacha: So the spider web strategy is kind of a fancy name for the idea that you have one project sitting at the center of your web, and then multiple smaller projects sitting on the outside – on the outskirts, rather – and because I see other people struggling to monetize their projects, but you don’t actually have to monetize all of them yet, you just need to monetize one. And once you start thinking like this, it becomes easier because you can put out free stuff, you can have loss leader projects, as long as they’re trapping the users into your web and sucking the life out of them [chuckles]. Maybe it’s not a great metaphor after all.

But you get the idea – the idea is to have an array of projects, and not to treat them all equally but focus on one that’s at the center, and then other ones, yeah.

Alexis: Right.

Sacha: Maybe like the project ‘Solar System’ would be a better name? I don’t know.

Alexis: Yeah, that could work. I do like the spider web strategy. For marketing purposes, I would stay away from sucking the life out of your users. [Chuckles]

Sacha: Yeah, probably.

Alexis: So, one of those projects is Discover Meteor, which came out of your work with Sidebar and Telescope.

Sacha: Yup.

Alexis: That is another Sacha Greif product that I own. [Chuckles] It is a book that helps people learn JavaScript framework, Meteor, which if listeners at home have not checked this thing out you really should. It’s a very slick framework, and the book itself is, in some ways, more than a book. It’s more of a resource; the website is great.

So tell us how that came about and, I guess, let’s start with the origins towards Discover Meteor and then I’ll dive into some of the other questions like pricing and marketing – what you learned from those kinds of things.

Sacha: Sure. So as I’ve mentioned I wasn’t working with Tom Coleman on Telescope, and Tom lives in Australia. And he’s also been working on this framework for Meteor for a long time. And when I got started with Meteor, he was one of the most active users – actually he still is – but the other thing is he lived in Australia, I lived in Japan so we were online at the same time. [Chuckles] And I think mainly for that reason I ended up hassling him all the time with questions and, “Oh, why isn’t this working?” “How do you did that?” And I – he was really nice about it, he helped me, he didn’t ask for anything in return.

Earlier you mentioned a Step By Step UI Design so that was kind of a very small book that I – e-book – that I launched earlier that year, and from that experience I kind of had confidence that I would be able to do it again and launch another e-book successfully.

So that’s why I approached Tom about the idea for Discover Meteor; either way to make money, but also to thank him for the time he spent helping me, and make it worth his love to – for all these time he spent.

Alexis: Uh-hm.

Sacha: So he liked the idea and we started exploring. Well, first of all there was a demand for that, so we set up a blog, we set up an e-mail list, we started talking to people, taking notes from all work on Telescope, and building an outline for the book.

That was maybe fall of 2012. Then maybe on the first six months of 2013 we started really working on the book; got it done in maybe two or three months, and then release it in May, I think.

Alexis: So you can pull in what you’ve learned from step-by-step design or UI design as well. And that book made what, 10,000 bucks in sales in the first month alone?

Sacha: I think it made more; I think it made about $25,000 in a month. And I should say it’s like, first of all the book was, maybe, 40-pages? It was really short; it was mostly pictures, and it was also priced at six dollars.

Yeah, so it was kind of the opposite of what you see now with most e-books it was kind of thought of. Because it wasn’t our first try – I didn’t really study the topic before, like I studied for the e-books of marketing before; I just had this hunch that there might be a demand for that based mostly on the blog posts I have written before.

And yeah, it turned out I was right. It did really long on Hacker News, it got pretty popular, and then that’s what enabled me to work on my other projects because I had this cash stored for rainy days.

Alexis: So from both of these – have you said publicly what you’ve made from Discover Meteor? Because I’m curious of that performance as well because it seemed to have caught on fire more so than the design book.

Sacha: So I think the last public figure we shared, we actually have a really detailed case study with Gumroad, and so I’m not sure which figure we shared exactly, but I think in the first year we made around $200,000.

Alexis: Man, oh man! [Chuckles] Okay, before we dive into the pricing and the marketing aspects, I have to wonder – did you think it would be this successful?

Sacha: Maybe not this successful, but I did have high hopes – I wouldn’t do it otherwise.

Alexis: [Chuckles] That’s true.

Sacha: If you’re going to spend six months of your life on something, you better hope it’s successful.

Alexis: Right.

Sacha: So, I had high hopes for Meteor, which, it felt kind of – well, it’s getting there, I think. It’s still early days, it’s still – a lot of people kind of still see it as a bit experimental or a bit new, but I think it’s slowly gaining ground. And my hope – our hope when we wrote the book is that Meteor would be the next Rails basically, and we would have the number one book for the next Rails.

Alexis: Somebody who’s coming from Django – Meteor makes life a lot easier [chuckles], especially for reactive stuff. Any–.

Sacha: We are the next Django for Django folks. I don’t mean to–.

Alexis: [Chuckles] It’s the same thing. So when it comes to pricing, how – what did you learn from Discover Meteor and your step-by-step design book?

Sacha: Actually I learned a lot from Nathan Barry. So Nathan is a guy who launched his own e-book after seeing me launch Step By Step UI Design, and unlike me he priced them pretty high, so I think his pricing strategy was maybe $40 and a hundred and 250. And he was very open with his pricing and his financials, so from his experience I saw that he made a lot of money with the high-end package.

So even thought the top package had less sales, it was like 50% or more of the revenue just by virtue of being more expensive. So that showed me that it was a good idea to have that high-end package. People might buy it or they might not, but at least you’re giving them the option. It’s like not everybody buys a Porsche but there are very few who want to buy them.

Alexis: Now, was Nathan’s book also around 40-pages or so? Just similar lengths, similar conceivable value but just priced higher?

Sacha: No, his book was first of all a lot bigger, and the reason why he was able to charge higher prices was because he packaged in a ton of resources so, there were interviews like screencasts, I think even Photoshop files, maybe HTML, CSS files – so there was a lot of value even for the high-end package.

Alexis: Now, when it comes to marketing – this is the bait of many creators – how did you spread the word for both of these books?

Sacha: So for the first one, I had this audience of designers and people who are interested in design already through my blog, though my work as a freelancer, for being active on the sites like Dribbble and Twitter, and so on. So that was not easy, but at least I had this already. And then I got really lucky that the book did really well on Hacker News, so that’s probably the single reason why I did so well for Step By Step UI Design because it’s got like number one or number two on Hacker News. If it hasn’t it would be a different story, and maybe I wouldn’t be talking with you today.

And then for Discover Meteor, we just blogged, basically. Yeah, we blogged a lot, and also we were both pretty active in the community. At that time the Meteor community was really tiny so everyone–.

Alexis: Everybody knew everyone.

Sacha: Yeah, everybody knew everyone. Cam was the maintainer of the package management system for Meteor, which meant that basically every single Meteor developer had to use his work, and probably it would know about him. So it wasn’t like we just came from the outside and tried to impose ourselves as experts.

Alexis: Alright.

Sacha: We kind of grew along with the community, and all the while we were blogging about what we were learning, so I think that’s how we did it.

Alexis: I’m curious now that you are focusing more on products rather than freelancing. Again, it’s alright if you’re not comfortable to share even in broad strokes how your income breaks down from freelancing and projects, if it comes from mostly one project or if it’s divided between a few.

Sacha: It’s a hundred percent projects. I haven’t freelanced in three years.

Alexis: Man! Okay.

Sacha: Something like that. And yeah, most of my income comes from Discover Meteor, a little bit from Sidebar; that’s probably about it. So maybe like 90%-10%.

Alexis: So I’m – for folks that are on a similar position who want to do less freelancing and more building inside their own products, do you have any tips in general in terms of how to get to a point to make ends meet?

Sacha: So I wrote another post called Product Spectrum, and my point in that post is that there’s a spectrum that goes from maybe full-time employment to something like Twitter. So full-time employment you’re making a lot of money from one person – your boss – and Twitter is making tiny amounts of money from a huge user baseline. Millions of people on Facebook are even better examples, like billions of users. And you can’t jump from one end of the spectrum to the other right away – that’s going to be really hard, so instead you want to go slowly.

So you want to go from making a lot of money from one person, to making smaller amounts of money from maybe two or three customers as a freelancer, to maybe doing something like productized consulting where you cannot streamline your offering, and implement systems so you can make a lower amount of money and so your service is cheaper, but then they’re easier to provide, then you have more customers.

And then from that you can maybe do a high-end e-book, or what people call ‘info products’ where you – you know, you’re not trying to have millions of buyers, but just a hundred people buying your book would already be good. And so you can make your way down to where you’re doing like B to B or B to C products.

So that’s kind of what I did more or less, but it’s definitely a step by step process, right, you can’t – I mean, you can but it’s going to be really hard to jump in and quit your job, and try to start a software as a service company. I’m not saying that can’t be done, but just like if you want to do it the slow and steady way, then I like my approach of it better than just, yeah.

Also, I feel a lot of the people who could do that, like they can rely on getting funding. It’s very different if you’re in Silicon Valley, right? You can quit your job and launch a start-up, get into it YC maybe, get some funding – so it’s a different story. But if you’re in Osaka, Japan or whatever, you got to take it slow I think. And you’re creating your time, basically, for that funding.

Alexis: Right. Using the pitch, Uber, for ‘insert here’, anywhere else but Silicon Valley; won’t really work.

Sacha: Yeah.

Alexis: We’ve already covered this, sort of, the importance of side project in terms of spider web strategy; but two things I’m curious about; you’ve written a post where you said that side projects you take really no more than about ten hours or so, get them out there quickly, and they should feed into your other projects. But is there – how do you gauge instances where maybe you need to spend more time on a side project because it’s getting attraction, or maybe there’s a project that you’re working on, for example Folyo, where it’s like, “Okay, it’s time where I need to move on or find somebody to sell it to or just drop it.”

Sacha: Well the reason I wrote about that rule – the ten hour rule – is because most people never launch their side projects to begin with. Like they’re working on it and they’re like, “Oh, it’s not ready yet, maybe the next month I’ll have more time.” And then they end up never launching because of that, so if you can limit yourself to ten hours and make it your goal from the start, I feel like it increases the odds of launching a lot.

Now, of course if you know you’re – that launching is another problem for you, you can’t spend more time. Or even if what I like to do is, can I try to get it to a launch-able state in ten hours, like get that MVP out, and then you can keep improving on that, but knowing at the back of your mind that if you have to you can launch it; it’s kind of done but then you’re kind of improving it. It’s not like – I think there’s a big difference between thinking like this or thinking that, “Oh, it’s not done yet; it’s not good enough yet.”

Alexis: Right.

Sacha: Right, so yeah improving, polishing is great, but you have to be aware that it’s polished, the core of the thing is done – exists already.

Alexis: Yeah, I’ve also found myself working on something – a certain feature for maybe four hours on the day, and on the fifth hour I paused, and I think to myself, “Wait a minute, why am I working on this; this isn’t necessary. This is something that will – would be necessary in the future, but now I got to ignore it and focus on the more important things so I can–.”

Sacha: Right. I think it’s kind of a psychological thing. It’s a different mindset when you’re polishing something and making it even better, and improving on top of something that’s already good, versus working on something because you feel it’s not good enough, and you feel frustrated. The mindset is very different, and so I tried to encourage a more positive way of thinking where you’re kind of like a craftsman that’s yet to get to the next level and not just, “Oh, it’s crap. I need to start again; I need – it needs this, it needs that.”

Alexis: Right.

Sacha: Even though the result might be the same but the mindset is different.

Alexis: Now going back to the question of when do you know it’s time to stick to a project, or when do you know if it’s time to move along?

Sacha: That’s a hard one. I mean for Folyo, I felt pretty discouraged and de-motivated after two years, and that’s the plan where I will dispose saying, “Okay, here is how I feel, I’m going to give it one more shot, and I’m going to give up.” And only to end up at the same point more or less two years later.

It’s not really the same plan because we did work a lot on Folyo; we did improve the product a lot. So the product itself was a different point but I guess, yeah. I mean, personally I was backed at that de-motivated stage so it’s like, “Oh well, I should’ve just quit two years earlier.” But at the same time I did get some useful experience from this; two years. I did improved a product which might hopefully be useful for the new team.

So it’s really hard to tell. I would say get to the point where you feel de-motivated and then push a little bit more, and think about quitting. You definitely don’t want to just quit on your first impulse because you – it might just be a temporary setback or a bump in the road. If you just quit there, you’ll never know what could’ve been. But at the same time, if that persists, if you can’t make it more even when you’re pushing through, then maybe it’s time to call it quits.

Alexis: Speaking of that kind of should I push on, or how to help myself push on. You wrote about the finish line theory, and the whole marathon versus the sprint side. How does that factor in to working for the long term?

Sacha: I’m trying to remember what that was about.

Alexis: [Chuckles] So it’s more of you should see life as a–, or the products that you’re working on as a set of sprints, rather than a marathon or something like that.

Sacha: Well, it’s also about managing your own psychological state. So if you give yourself a single big goal that will take a year to accomplish, basically the payoff is at the end of the year so you have to keep yourself motivated for a whole year with no rewards, and doubt will creep in. You’ll start doubting yourself, you start getting de-motivated, and you might never reach that one year goal.

Now, if you can find a way to break that one year goal into like monthly goals, at the end of every month you get that reward, you get that success and the feeling that you accomplished something. And at the end of the year, the result is the same but throughout the year, psychologically, you’re in a much better place.

Alexis: Yeah.

Sacha: You have that positive reinforcement every thirty days.

Alexis: Otherwise it’s torture.

Sacha: Yup. So that’s something – a mistake I see a lot of people make. You set a huge goal for yourself like, “Oh, version two is going to be awesome,” and you talk it out to people, and you put all that pressure on yourself. Whereas, maybe you could’ve just said, “Okay, well version 1.1 is going to be pretty cool,” and go from there.

Alexis: So as a designer and developer working in web products, or not only just web products but digital products, you can rely on yourself for a lot of things. What are some instances where you can’t rely on yourself for some of your skills that you have to – or prefer to – hire out, or lean on somebody else?

Sacha: So I’ve hired out people for things like illustrations. For example, we have a Discover Meteor t-shirt, which was created by a very talented illustrator called Sel Thomson. So that kind of creative work where I want somebody else’s touch and somebody else’s input. Also, I suck at illustration.

I guess for other smaller things like editing your book. I don’t feel like outsourcing generally though because it’s expensive. Either it’s expensive or it’s cheap and you’re going to be happy. So either way you’re not happy – if it’s expensive you’re not happy because you’re paying a lot; if it’s cheap you’re not happy because you have to do it yourself again anyway.

So I know a lot of people use virtual assistance, and some – l don’t. If there’s something I’m not able to do myself, usually I just don’t do it. For example, I’m really bad, I’d like analytics and conversion cracking and I’m not that interested in it, so I guess I could hire someone, and I’ve tried in the past to hire people, but I have other things to worry about and I feel – yeah.

One thing that I did try though, which might be a good fit is to hire people not to do a work but to teach me how to do the work.

Alexis: Okay.

Sacha: So I feel that’s kind of a better way because you actually learn something and then – if you don’t know how to do something in the first place, it’s really hard to outsource it because you can’t control the quality, you can’t direct the person, so I feel like learning those skills yourself is probably a better solution.

Although that’s also really hard because if you’re going to find somebody good enough to teach you something, they have to be really good at it and then they’re going to be really expensive– You have the same problem.

Alexis: And they also have to be good at teaching, which is a whole other–. [Chuckles]

Sacha: Yup, true.

Alexis: Okay, I’m curious because you’re living in Osaka, but you’re home is in France – do you consider yourself as a digital nomad who is travelling all over the place, or do you just really like Japan and you want to live there?

Sacha: Yeah, I’m not a digital nomad because I haven’t moved in like three years. Not really nomadic but, yeah, my home is in Japan right now. I don’t know if we’ll end up living here forever, so I moved here because my wife is doing her PhD here.

Alexis: Oh, okay.

Sacha: So once she’s done, I’m not sure what we’ll do; maybe stay here, maybe move back to France, maybe go somewhere else. I like France, I like Japan; there’s other places I like as well. I don’t feel strong attachments to one specific place, I guess, which is both good and bad, but when I’m talking with people I’m having this conversation a lot more recently like, “Oh, where do you want to move, where would you want to live on the planet?” So it’s pretty cool to think that so many –.

Alexis: It’s possible.

Sacha: Yeah, it’s possible. Of course, it’s like a tiny minority of people that I think is going to grow, and it’s pretty interesting to think about that.

Alexis: So since you’re not chained to an office, I’m curious how your work day is. Do you go to a co-working space, do you go to a café, do you stay at home?

Sacha: So I stay at home. I live in a neighbourhood where there isn’t much in terms of cafés, of co-working spaces, so all the ones I know are a little bit far, and I don’t like commuting. So I’d rather stay at home and get one more hour in my day.

Alexis: Right.

Sacha: Although I do go to a co-working space once a week just to meet up with friends and have people to chat with about web stuff and design and development, because otherwise it does get a bit lonely.

Alexis: Yeah. So how do you manage burnout? I have a feeling it might partly be the trips to the co-working space and diversifying the projects that you’re working on, but if you have any other tactics, feel free to dish.

Sacha: Yeah. I think a lot of it is what we talked about earlier, like setting smaller goals and managing your own psychological state, like I’d like to remind myself that people enjoy the work I put out, and because – sorry – our brain gets used to anything pretty quickly, right? So whether it’s good or bad, if it’s there’s a noisy room, eventually you’ll be able to fall asleep because your brain gets used to the noise. But then same with good things, so if people tell you you’re doing awesome work every single day, not that this applies to me, but what I mean is you would get used to it, right?

Alexis: Yeah.

Or if people – if you make a hundred dollars every day, at first you may be really happy but then you’ll get used to it and it won’t seem that much. So I think it’s important to reminder ourselves to pay attention to those things. If someone says that they’re using Telescope; if someone says they’ve bought the book and it has been helpful – yeah, I try to just pay attention to that and take it as a validation for the fact that what I’m doing is meaningful somehow.

Same people interacting with people – I think burnout, a lot of it is when you feel that what you’re doing isn’t meaningful, isn’t achieving anything, and the best way – I know two ways to fight that. One, is to – is money, and the other is people. If what you’re doing is making money, that’s a good sign. If what you’re doing is useful to people, that’s a good sign. If you don’t have any of these, it can get pretty depressing.

Alexis: Right. You don’t have any of that feedback.

Sacha: Yeah. I mean, or we can count likes or something, but that’s still people in a way. Even money – these kind of people, it’s just – money is not about money, right? It’s about people handing their money, which means they like your stuff, which means they’re validating you. So at the end of the day it’s always about being liked and being part of – with a group and it’s just like that same list of things that have moved us for a long time.

Alexis: Okay, so we – in your career so far, what’s one mistake you’d rather not repeat?

Sacha: I don’t really know. It’s hard for me to point out mistakes because I feel like everything I did kind of lead to another thing, which led to another thing, so I don’t sure what mistake means.

Alexis: Right.

Sacha: Because how can you know if you’re doing it. Another way would’ve been better, right? It’s kind of hard. So yeah, I never know how to answer that question, sorry.

Alexis: No, that’s alright. In all truthfulness if somebody had asked me that question at this point of my life, I don’t know how I’d answer it. Even though I have asked it of every single guest so far [chuckles].

Sacha: Yeah, it’s tricky.

Alexis: So I’m not being too fair. On the flipside however – now this might be easier – what’s one decision you’re particularly proud of?

Sacha: I think I’m particularly proud of having written my first book because it kind of kickstarted all my other projects. And it wasn’t a hard decision to make, but I did decide, “Okay, I’m going to do something different. I’m going to try an e-book which I hadn’t done before, which I don’t think I had browsed any book or seen an e-book about design before.” I’m sure they were at Tom, but I just hadn’t paid any attention to them. So I’m pretty happy I gave that a chance because, yeah, it made me enough money that I was then able to quit freelancing, and then launched a bunch of side projects, eventually launching Telescope and Discover Meteor, so that was a pretty good decision, I think.

Alexis: Is there anything that I didn’t ask that I should have? Or maybe some extra advice that you’d like to give to folks who are freelancing slash – you know, are trying to make that transition to a more product-based income flow?

Sacha: My advice would just be to know that it takes a long time. Don’t worry if that first project isn’t super successful; just the fact that you’re launching something already puts you ahead of most people. Because obviously if I launch something it feels like I’m not going to write about it, right? I’m only going to write about it if it makes a ton of money.

Alexis: Right.

Sacha: So then you get that bubble where everything you read seems to be from people who are super successful–

Alexis: Yeah.

Sacha: But obviously a lot of people are not, and there’s nothing wrong with that. You have to go through less successful projects before you can hit it big. So it’s part of the process.

You just have to get started like do – I’ll just get started launching something, like anything, the better it is. It doesn’t need to be perfect; it doesn’t need to make money. I actually feel it’s pretty easy these days, like you have Product Stand, you have Hacker News, Reddit, Twitter, Facebook; you can get traffic, you have Rails, Meteor to build your ad; have Heroku to deploy it. Honestly, if you want to launch something there’s not a ton of reason not to at this light, I think. So yeah, in the words of Shia LaBeouf, “Just do it.”

Alexis: [Chuckles] I have to add him to the very end of the podcast. And the last question – the hardest question of all – what’s your text editor of choice?

Sacha: It’s Sublime Text.

Alexis: Yes! Sorry. Personal thing with the Sublime Text. [Chuckles]

Sacha: I probably don’t use one percent of the features – I don’t have a ton of plug-ins or whatever. But it works.

Alexis: So, if folks would like to learn more about your project, where should they go?

Sacha: So they can follow me on Twitter at @sachagreif. They can go to to learn more about Telescope. They can go to for Discover Meteor, and for Sidebar.

Alexis: Alright.

Sacha: I also have a site at, but I haven’t updated it in two years, so it’s more of an archive at this point.

Alexis: And we should note that Greif is spelled ‘E-I’, not ‘I-E’.

Sacha: Yes. G-R-E-I-F.

Alexis: Alright, and for ourselves, you can follow us at Binpress, and myself @alexissantos. Sacha! We’ve made it out the other end of an hour and I’m sure we’re cut to hear for another two but you’ve got things to do.

Sacha: Thanks, yeah, it was fun. I really enjoyed our chat.

Alexis: Likewise! As for the listeners, we’ll catch you next week.

Author: Alexis Santos

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