Continuing the tradition from 2021, 2020, 2019, and 2018, here’s my reflection on 2022. (Disclosure: this post contains affiliate links for some of the products I mention and/or recommend.)
I ended last year’s review with the goals of doing less, laughing more, and eating delicious food with family and friends.
One of my favorite things this year was getting and playing the game Hearing Things. I have a pretty good poker face when playing games, but something about this game makes me convulse with laughter… like, can’t-catch-my-breath, gotta-run-out-of-the-room-to-compose-myself laughter. I’ve loved playing this game over the last year with my family and friends.
Work this year was a doozy.
One pattern I’ve learned about myself is that I like a clear mental load before undertaking any big new endeavor, even if I don’t know what said endeavor will be yet.
For two years, my startup Arcade has occupied my brain space, but I was dedicating very little time to working on it. I had to admit to my co-founders Mike Carbone and Leslie Camacho that I didn’t see a way that I could devote the appropriate amount of time and effort to being the CEO of this company. We decided to wind it down. I’m grateful for the brain space back, and I’m sad that I still don’t have the design tokens tool I want. Maybe I’ll revisit this idea again someday.
Deciding to shut down SuperFriendly—the agency I’d run for over a decade—was the most impactful thing for me this year. The last two years included a lot of volatility for SuperFriendly, like soaring revenue with dwindling profits, the end of trying to scale up, a shift away from the longstanding contractor staffing model, and more.
As I got more involved in coaching our clients last year, I realized how much I wanted to run a business with teaching more as the core than deliverables. I didn’t know how to make SuperFriendly the vehicle for this, so it felt like time to shut these doors. After 10 years, 9 months, and 6 days in business, SuperFriendly will file its final tax return in 2022.
I’m so grateful to have had the chance to run a company for over a decade. To be trusted by 126 clients and SuperFriends to do the work that we did was beyond my wildest dreams.
I’m blessed to have never had to wonder in my life where my next meal is coming from. While I’ve always taken the provision of my physiological needs for granted, closing SuperFriendly raised a big question mark for where my family’s main source of income would now come from. We definitely entered a reduce-as-many-expenses-as-possible and dip-into-savings territory for a few months. That was pretty uncomfortable for Em and me. We’re not completely out of that yet, but we’re close.
In September, I officially opened Dan Mall Enterprises, LLC. dba Dan Mall Teaches as an official step making teaching at scale my main business. I’m still experimenting on what those offerings currently are, but I have ideas and plans that’ll manifest in 2023.
In June, I released the Design System in 90 Days workbook with my long-time collaborator Crystal Vitelli. It stemmed from a frustrated attempt to describe SuperFriendly’s complex process of setting up a design system practice to prospective clients and turned into a fun and quick internal project to do, as well as another foray into selling our own products. Six months later, this lone workbook has made up an unexpected chunk of my SuperFriendly salary with very little marketing other than an early launch push. I do wonder what it could do with proper marketing, and initial tests to that end are very promising.
Even more eye-opening for me is the opportunity to teach at scale that I never fully realized. In 10 years of SuperFriendly, we worked on 126 projects. With an average of 3 people on the client side that we were working with per project, that’s 378 people we’ve had the ability to teach through our work (ignoring that fact that most of our clients were looking for deliverables/output from us, not learning). In 6 months of having the workbook for sale, 444 people have purchased it. The difference in revenue from a $349 workbook and 5-figure to 8-figure projects is miles apart, but it’s inversely proportional to the amount of reach over time. It’s a quality vs. quantity thing, and I’m eager to play with the sliders to learn if a different mix works better for me and the people that interact with me.
On its own, that’s not enough to meet my financial needs, but I have a vision for a suite of channels and products that make up a formidable portfolio of teaching at scale. Again, small tests with a mix of higher-priced premium products like my video course, lower-priced lighter products like my design system email course, and other products and free resources are very promising.
Another related 2023 experiment I’m excited about is my upcoming 8-week design systems course in partnership with Dribbble. Partnerships have been hit or miss with me over the years, but the folks at Dribbble have been excellent collaborators for many years now. This kind of initiative is high-revenue and scalable, but it’s also high-effort—and it may not be profitable. I’m very curious how I’ll assess this once it’s all said and done and whether I’d do more things like this.
On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve started a new channel on Instagram (@danmallteaches) that has grown quickly in the 3 months I’ve had it. It’s nice to spend a few minutes or hours to crank out something small to share that people find valuable. It’s the visual equivalent of how I’ve used my Twitter account for many years now. And, although I’m a very late adopter, I’ve grown to love the fleeting nature of Stories as a way to share even quicker tidbits of… whatever, really. I like having a range of channels where I can practice varying levels of fidelity and polish.
My new YouTube channel is somewhere in the middle. It’s grown a little slower than other channels, but that’s entirely my fault. I haven’t fed the algorithm its main source of nutrition: longform videos! I have a few in the works, as I see YouTube as a major asset in helping me teach at scale. Spending time on this channel will be a significant part of my 2023.
I’m also learning that different channels are more conducive to different kinds of content. My newsletter has grown the fastest of all my new channels, but the kinds of things people seem to respond well to (or even tolerate) are very different.
In case you were already thinking it, I’m reticent to fully embrace a “content creator” moniker as I shudder at the connotation, but the denotation of the words themselves feel pretty accurate for my new focus. Still though, I definitely don’t have the rhythm down yet. I just named a bunch of things: Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, a newsletter… and there’s still more that I haven’t named, like LinkedIn, this blog, etc. Seasoned content creators either pick a few channels to focus on and/or know how to batch create lots of content in focused sprints that get distributed to all their channels appropriately and automatically. I don’t have those systems in place yet, so I’m a bit too manual or clumsy about it right now for my liking.
One of the first two blockers I’m trying to address is that I’ve realized that my office setup and calendar no longer work for the new type of work I’m doing. Docked laptop attached to external monitor with fancy DSLR-as-webcam plus key and fill lights worked great when my typical day was mostly meetings with chunks of emailing and a little bit of designing/coding. But my new workflow adds a lot more specific things, like filming, editing, brainstorming, reading, writing, and sketching. Rather than most activities being centered around a desk, I want multiple spaces that allow my brain and body to feel a physical switch that can trigger a mental switch to a different mode, not to mention serve the different functions needed. As I type this article, I’m waiting for a new table to be delivered that I’m hoping can act as both a space where I can sketch and read as well as serve as a beautiful setting to film at. I’ll share more updates as my space progresses (because content!).
On the front-of-house side, I’m excited that this will give me a lot of different ways that I can interact with and impact people. On the back-of-house side, I’m excited to learn how to run a very 👏🏽 boring 👏🏽 business. One of the things I loved about running SuperFriendly was that it was always interesting. Some projects had incredible margin; others were razor thin. Some projects were the most exciting we’d seen yet; others were solely to pay the bills. The business model required lots of moving parts: many clients, lots of inquiry fielding and communication, a massive network of SuperFriends with shifting availability and interests, and more. The variety and range was vast.
As a result, there was never a dull moment. But sometimes, I needed a dull moment, even if I didn’t want one. SuperFriendly was very much doing a lot of things the long, hard, stupid way, on purpose. With Dan Mall Teaches, I can see some ways to bring some predictability, both from a content and a revenue. Expenses are consistent and low, so recurring revenue with high margins is definitely possible. The picture is hazy, but I can make out its shape in the distance. In contrast to SuperFriendly, I want everything on auto-pilot now. I’m learning a lot lately about how to automate every part of a business, and I can’t wait to see what that frees me up to do.
A near-term goal for 2023 is to hire an intern. This will be very different than the apprenticeship I used to run. I want someone who can knock things out for me using the tools and systems I’ve developed for myself. This will be a paid position, starting part-time at first and growing in responsibility and compensation over time. I’ll write a proper job description in early 2023 with the goal of hiring in Q1 or Q2.
As desired, clearing my plate stokes the frequency illusion that new things “just float my way.”
In the last few months, I’ve gotten more requests for mentorship than I have in the last few years. While it definitely fits my aspiration to impact more people, I’ve never figured out how to make this work. I don’t believe that mentorship is an act to be provided gratis. It can be, but it can also be part of a commercial transaction too. As with all my transactions, I want my customers to feel like they’re getting more than their money’s worth and for me to feel like I’m more-than-well compensated. I may spend some time in 2023 trying to figure out how these two things can work in harmony for me.
Though I’m focused on teaching at scale, it’s not lost on me that there’s value in sharing my experience one-to-one or one-to-few. (And heck, it pays the bills well too, especially now when I need it.) I’ve been doing some advising a few days a week with startups like Supernova and coaching a few design system teams in a light touch way. I’m incentivized to have one or two of these going on at any given moment to keep fresh on what current struggles are for my customers. I have yet to find a way that this contributes the amount I’d like to my financial portfolio of offerings without taking up too much of my time to do other things I want to focus on.
Conference talks are an obvious way to teach at scale, something I’ve been doing now for the last 16 years. However, as I shared in last year’s review, I’m growing less and less fond of teaching and sharing in that format.
Not that I doubted it, but I’ve embraced even more this year that I’m a maker. I like making things. I don’t know that I’ll ever stop making things.
What I have learned this year is that the channels for expressing this making can change, even as often as daily.
In 2022, I took 37,476 photos and videos, which is 129% more than last year’s 28,893 photos and videos. (Coincidentally, last year I shot 129% than the previous year. Apparently, my photography quantity grows by exactly 129% each year 🤣 ). Of the photos and videos I took this year, I posted 85 (0.22%) to my photo Instagram account, which was 23% less photos than I posted in 2021.
I didn’t buy any new photography gear this year (with the exception of another tripod and a few small lights), which reinforces the feeling that I’m pleased with my setup. I’m comfortable with my gear, and I think that’s coming through in the work. For reference, my go-to setup is a Canon EOS R with a EF 24-70mm f/2.8, EF 16-35mm f/4, and EF 100-400m f/4.5–5.6.
I can see a few small changes and pickups for next year:
Here are a few of my favorite shots I took in 2022:
Over the last two years as I was leading and managing more at SuperFriendly and designing less, photography became my primary creative outlet for making.
As soon as I started working on Dan Mall Teaches, I had little desire to shoot photos, post to, or even check my photo Instagram account. It was a near-visceral change, and my creative energy went into creating content for my new business as much as I could spare it.
I launched this new website at the end of October. This is the 6th major version of my personal website. I had two main goals for this version of the site:
A dozen people have mentioned having a podcast to me. I’d like to do one, but I don’t have any bright ideas on a particular angle yet, nor is another project a priority right now. Maybe I’ll put in the work to figure this out in 2023.
It has blown up over the last few weeks, but artificial intelligence is an official part of any creation process I do right now—and into the foreseeable future. I generate most of my share images with Midjourney, and I use it and DALL•E to generate layouts and color palettes when I’m starting any new design composition (Instagram carousels, landing page designs, etc.). I riff with ChatGPT about different variations of ideas. I use vidIQ’s AI title recommendations and daily ideas for content starters. Writesonic even helped me write this year in review, and Hemingway helped me make it more readable. I’m going on hour 12 of writing this article; maybe next year, AI can write it for me.
Relative to work, home life was copacetic in 2022, by design. We’re 2 years into our new neighborhood, and we’ve settled in.
Also, I’m as private about family and home stuff as I am public about work and business stuff, so I’m that much more apt to share less in this section. But, a few small tidbits, for funsies.
We started the year going through all of the Marvel movies in timeline order. It’s been one of the most fun things I’ve done as a dad. We skipped a few when we first started, but throughout the year, we’ve filled in the gaps. The only ones they haven’t seen are The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, She-Hulk, and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness; it might still be a few years before I let them watch those.
11-year old Sidda and 9-year old Charlie are both into singing and dancing right now. Sidda had roles in the local Frozen Jr. show last year and James and the Giant Peach Jr. show this summer. Charlie’s in chorus at school and will join big sis in a show this summer. They sing and choreograph their own dances together at home for hours.
Our family was featured in our town’s local magazine! It was fun for us all to do a short interview and photo shoot in our house last spring.
This year, we got suckered into installing solar panels on our house. The whole ordeal was a bit of a hassle, but now that it’s over, I’m glad we’re doing at least a small part to help the planet move towards clean energy. While we were at it, we installed a electric vehicle charger in our garage. Both Em’s and my car leases were up this year, so we both bought used Teslas. They’re so fun to drive, and we don’t ever have to worry about stopping at gas stations to fill up anymore!
We took a few fun trips this year as a family. In the beginning of summer, we drove to Acadia National Park, half because we’ve always wanted to go and half to see how an electric car would do on a road trip. (It was awesome like we expected, and it was awesome like we expected.) At the end of summer, we went to Alaska for a week. We did a lot of cool things there, but the coolest by far was taking a helicopter to the top of a glacier and dogsledding there for an hour. That’s definitely one of the most special moments we’ve had together as a family.
Outside of our nuclear family, my parents had some struggles in 2022, the residual effects of which threw me for a loop that I haven’t quite recovered from. That’s all I’ll say here about that.
I’m proud of the fact that I’ve played basketball regularly pretty much all year. I play about 2 hours every time I go, which is once or twice a week. I’m still not that good, but I enjoy it a lot. It’s great exercise, and I usually burn about 1500–2000 calories every time. I’m playing enough that I’ve even started to practice outside of the weekly games to work on parts of my game. I bring my GoPro to record the games so I can see what I need to work on—and also to make highlight reels that make me look better than I am 🤣. I’ve been working on my shooting form and my Euro step, and I can actually see improvement week-to-week! I’ve joined a new group of people to play with that starts in early January, so I’m looking forward to how I’ll need to adapt to play with and against a new crew.
Back in February, I was all set to travel and spend a week workshopping with a client, but I didn’t go because I got COVID. The first day was pretty rough with fevers and chills, but after that, I felt fine, other than some stray congestion that lingered for a few weeks.
I still drink a lot of soda.
In July, I vomited for the first time in 10 years. I’m still not sure why. I woke up in the middle of the night with a pounding headache, threw up, and went back to bed 🤷🏽♂️.
In August, I started going to a chiropractor. I initially went with some help for neck pain, which cleared up within the first week. Then, I didn’t know what I was going for. I felt the same for 2½ months. I didn’t feel any different for weeks after I stopped going 🤷🏽♂️.
On the mental health front, it’s been over a year since I’ve been working with my most recent therapist and coach, and she’s a keeper. She understands me like few others do, she doesn’t take any of my BS, and she knows where to affirm and where to push me. I’ve grown to trust her pretty quickly, and she hasn’t steered me wrong. More of this, please!
In 2022, I read or attempted to read:
For the third year in a row, most of my travel was personal instead of work-related. In 2022, I visited:
I added a few new sneakers to the collection in 2022:
My goals for 2023 are the same as last year’s: to do less, laugh more, and eat delicious food with family and friends. I love Justin Welsh’s latest newsletter about anti-goals, and I’ve been spending these last few days of the year, reflecting on how I can do less of what I don’t like doing and more of what I do.
I do also have a few specific things I’m looking forward to getting, doing, and trying;
Happy holidays to you, and wishing you a wonderful start to 2023!
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