2020: A year in review

2020: A year in review

This review is ongoing. I'm up to about July at the moment...

This has taken a massive backseat and I haven't updated it in a while. I should really finish this before the end of the 2021 at least...

The stats

  • Age: 32
  • Money earned online: $2,196.27 (+2,196.27)
  • Twitter Followers: 3127 (+2127)
  • Years running Genius Division: 10 (+1)
  • Businesses: 1-ish

It was March 13 2020.

I was performing my weekly checks on all of the websites we look after.

I was checking the contact forms on the websites.

I noticed they'd received no enquiries for the last few days, even though there was no problem with them.

In another month's time I'd also notice that traffic for most of them dropped off a cliff.

But right now, the websites were quiet. The phones were quiet. Emails were quiet.

Business seemed like it had stopped.

Coronavirus had hit the UK, and I was worried.

Was this going to be it? Was this Genius Division's last months in business? After making it to 9 years—were we done?

It was December 18 2020.

Genius Division had had their best year ever. I'd grown my Twitter followers beyond anything I could have expected. I'd become known as a designer on Twitter worth listening to. I'd made my first money online selling a digital product.

I'd started lots of projects.

It had been a good year.

Not just a good year because of the looming panda-demic, but good compared to any other year. Probably the best year I'd ever had both personally and professionally.

So what happened?

Let's take a look back.

Well we probably won't go back
Well we probably won't go back this far. But back just a little.

January 2020. The month I rediscovered podcasting.

Nothing much happened for me in January. I’d vowed not to make any New Years resolutions and not change anything over the year before (how wrong I was to be proven).

Life was pretty good. I didn’t want to change anything.

The only thing that bugged me was that I’d dropped down on my podcasting. I couldn’t find a rhythm and didn’t know what to say. I used to podcast daily and now I was struggling to podcast every two weeks.

I tried to start a new series I called The 9 Minute Design Show but it didn’t last long.

  • I started podcasting again after a long break
  • I started the 9 Minute Design Show - and made tentative steps into YouTub

February 2020. The month I learned I'd been doing everything wrong.

I can't remember how I found it, but I stumbled on this weird Twitter account called Visualize Value. I'd been reading stoicism and self-improvement content for years, but the images on this Twitter account made me feel like I was learning new lessons from the content I thought I already understood.

I casually clicked around their shop. I noticed they had a product called the Daily Manifest. I am and remain a complete productivity nut and I'm always looking for ways to improve the way I do things, so I dropped a little bit of money into their pockets to download the Daily Manifest.

The DM included access to a Slack community. I didn't know what to expect, but I joined anyway and jumped in.

I jumped in early when the community had just started. There was hundreds of us (there's now thousands). This meant that I could stamp my personality on there when I threw myself in.

More than anything I'd joined a community that was obsessed with building things just like me. To keep up I had to start building. And building lots of things.

At that point in time the only thing I was building was my Twitter account. I'd made a pledge to take it more seriously after spending years hating it. I provided a little bit of advice in the VV community about Twitter occasionally, but mostly I jumped into conversations and just had fun.

The only thing I'm good at is hard work. The only way I know how to open a door is to hit it so many times it falls off its hinges.

I started hitting doors purely because I wanted to keep up with these amazing people I was connecting with in the community. It seemed to come easy to everybody else. Harry Dry. Brian Ball. Charles Burdett.

I had something to prove.

But what was I going to prove and how was I going to prove it?

Strange facts from February 2020

  1. I went to my last pub quiz of the year. I used to go to them every couple of weeks.

What I started in February 2020

  1. I started taking Twitter seriously and made a pledge to write 10 tweets per day.
  2. I started playing board games with a couple of friends. This would begin a new obsession, culminating in buying the biggest board game I've ever seen in December. It was called Gloomhaven.

What I learned in February 2020

  1. You can make friends globally. And it’s more fun when you do.
  2. Online communities are the future of everything. 2021 will see them explode even further.
  3. Without Jack Butcher and Visualize Value my 2020 would have turned out very different.

March 2020. The month I learned things weren't going to be as bad as I thought they were.


These books got me through this month: The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday, Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett, A Calendar of Wisdom by Leo Tolstoy and Perennial Seller by Ryan Holiday

By March 16 2020 Coronavirus fear had gripped the UK. There was a deadly virus out there that nobody truly understood. The news had started tracking the amount of people who were dying daily from it like some kind of sick sports score that never went away.

I quickly stopped reading the news, but it was always in the back of my mind. Some kind of morbid curiosity took over me at least a couple of times a day. My fingers automatically typed in guardian.com and I somehow found myself obsessively scanning the latest gruesome figures.

That fear was gripping business too, including ours: Genius Division.

We started doing worst-case scenario modelling. We worked out how much of a runway we'd have if we lost all of our clients, 50% of our clients, 25% of our clients. We spent hours discussing what we should do next. Every email we got we expected to be another client cancelling a project.

But a weird thing happened at Genius Division.


Some of our clients had become difficult to get hold of. Some projects had slowed down. But only one potential client cancelled their project. Another one reduced their monthly support package with us.

All of those clients we were expecting to leave us? They didn't.

It was the first sign I was getting twinkles of hope.

We actually acquired a few new projects. Things weren't going to be as bad as we expected.

I closed out the month with my girlfriend developing a cough. She got sent home from work because of it and was told to self-isolate for 7 days. Because I lived with her I had to self-isolate for 14 days.

So...I had to work from home, stay at home, not leave the home and not do anything else.

To try and give me something to do in the evenings I started making YouTube videos that I called Quarantime with Craig.

Strange facts from March 2020

  1. I went to my last in-person networking meeting of 2020. Good riddance.
  2. I did my last BJJ class of the year in Catterick. This was something I used to do every month. I miss this quite a lot even all this time later.

What I started in March 2020

  1. I started my illustrious YouTube career with Quarantime with Craig. I had to self-isolate for 14 days and needed something to do after I finished my work.

What I learned in March 2020

  1. I started to see the benefits of writing tweets every day. My audience on Twitter was growing. I even made a YouTube video about it.
  2. It taught me that I had to prove I was an expert online. I wasn't owed anything.

April 2020. The month I learned things were in my control and the death of my Small Town Mindset


These books got me through this month: Alchemy by Rory Sutherland, Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Good Strategy/Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt

The pandemic had now become background noise for me where it remained for the rest of the year.

The thing making the loudest noise was the Visualize Value community and this new bunch of friends I'd began to make.

These new global friends saw things so differently to me that it fascinated me.

So much so I wrote this thread on Twitter.

I was also reading Alchemy by Rory Sutherland that was making me see things quite differently. Well, very differently.

My problem: The Small Town Mindset.

The Small Town Mindset keeps you stuck mentally and physically to a small group of people with small ideas. I'd always had big ideas. But they were often pushed back against by my own Small Town Mindset.

A mindset that says things like this:

  1. You're not good enough.
  2. Who are you to do this?
  3. You're just a random person from a small town in the UK. You don't deserve to do this.

The person often saying this isn't even a real person. As I said, I was saying this to myself. The Small Town Mindset is a product of thinking small, not of living in a small town.

The VV community was changing me daily. I was having conversations with people from all over the globe. I was discussing ideas, trying out things with them, talking to people on Twitter.

My Small Town Mindset was becoming The Global Mindset.

Around this time, I recorded this podcast.

It was just after my last in-person networking meeting of 2020 that it hit me. I'd just finished meeting around 20-30 really nice people in a room in Barnsley, but I didn't even get the chance to talk to them all. I'd spoken deeply to probably 5 and lightly to around 10.

As soon as I left the room I jumped on Twitter. I chatted with about 30-40 people within 20 minutes. My mind was forever changed.

The future wasn't in meeting people in a small town.

It was in meeting people globally.

A couple of weeks later I wrote this tweet.

And then I made That's The Job with Rich Baird. I wanted to make more stuff.

Why not just throw something else in the mix?

And I nearly forgot this too.

I had a zoom call with Christopher Murphy (if you are reading this Chris we need that catch-up). Somebody who I'd had the pleasure of seeing at design conferences over the years and somebody I'd always looked up to. We met through the VV community (so many good things would continue happening here through the year).

Strange facts from April 2020

  1. I started my first steps into live streaming by helping a friend live stream a PowerPoint presentations night. It was more fun than it sounds.

What I started in April 2020

  1. I started my illustrious YouTube career with Quarantime with Craig. I had to self-isolate for 14 days and needed something to do after I finished my work.
  2. Not content with one YouTube thing, I made another YouTube thing called That's The Job with Rich Baird.

What I learned in April 2020

  1. Meeting people globally has much higher leverage than maintaining an idea that you must meet in person.
  2. The Small Town Mindset is very insidious indeed.

May 2020. The month I re-discovered my love for design


These books got me through this month: I didn't buy any new books this month. I was still reading all those other ones. I'd given up on Antifragile as I found it too verbose.

Like everybody who discovers Visualize Value I was initially fascinated by the simplicity of it. In my 15 years of design experience and my 12 years on Twitter I'd never seen anything quite like it.

The idea that simple graphics could be made to further simplify complex topics felt like something I wanted to do. I didn't want to just copy Jack though, I wanted to figure out a way to do it myself.

This was stopping me from starting.

So I just started my Unobvious Twitter account.

I published my first visual with the intention of making 1-3 a day until I got bored.

I felt terribly guilty when I first started. I felt like I was completely ripping off Visualize Value, even though the ideas and visuals I made were really nothing similar.

They were more me. Quirky. A little bit of humour. Irreverent.

It took me quite a while to get over my guilt. Probably a month or two.

But it quickly faded under my sheer volume of production. I was making 3 images most days. I was hooked.

My design work was feeding back into my client work. I was producing good work. I felt refreshed and like I'd rediscovered design.

It was—without exaggeration—magical.

I joked—but slightly not joked—that these were design meditations. But they were. They were improving my focus slightly every day and I was discovering new ways of creativity. I was discovering new ideas connections.

They were leading to opportunities too. I met Elias through Twitter and he invited me on his podcast.

It wasn't about the numbers with Unobvious. At all. But I was gaining followers much faster than my main Twitter account. I predicted that this account would eventually overtake my personal account. It isn't there yet, but it will be soon.

I'd discovered my thing. And I couldn't think of anything else I'd be rather doing.

Strange facts from May 2020

  1. May 2020 marked my first ever international podcast appearance with Elias.

What I started in May 2020

  1. I started Unobvious in May.

What I learned in May 2020

  1. A daily design activity has immense power to improve your skills.
  2. You owe it to yourself to be creative every day and make time for it.

June 2020 The month I wrote my second book


These books got me through this month: Blood, Sweat, and Pixels by Jason Schreier and Pimp by Iceberg Slim

OK it was a short book, but I started writing another book nonetheless.

Since I’d started my daily visuals I started to spot patterns. Lots of quotes addressed procrastination or how to get things done. I know it was my bias towards these topics that meant I spotted them first (my website is called get doing things after all), but it was a topic that fascinated me and I know it did others too.

Procrastination is one of the most commonly talked about things online. At the time I was tweeting a lot about it and talking a lot about it. Press Start felt like a natural follow up to Extreme Production to round off the series.

Press Start was going to be a short book and intentionally so.

Each chapter would have a visualisation, a quote and my written interpretation of that quote.

I wasn’t sure if there was even a market for it though. So I put out a tweet.

Lots of people responded. So I setup an email signup page to allow me to send them beta versions of the book.

As long as they helped me with some feedback they could get a look at the book as it developed. A win for me and a win for them.

I was determined to build it in public as much as I could. So I shared everything included the marketing plan on Twitter.

I spent the majority of June working on this in my spare time. Remember: I run a design agency 9-5 Monday to Friday. This stuff is just a hobby.

The other two important things I remember happening was meeting Brandon Toner and Dmytro Ason for the first time. One sparked from a Twitter conversation, the other was another connection through the amazing VV community.

Strange facts from June 2020

  1. Not so strange, but I recorded another international podcast with my friend Jens. This time we spoke about the rise of Visual Twitter.

What I started in June 2020

  1. I started writing Press Start.
  2. I started talking to Brandon Toner and had the pleasure of seeing him grow on Twitter.
  3. I started talking to Dmytro Ason and had the pleasure of connecting with him.

What I learned in June 2020

  1. I was reminded again of the fun of meeting people from all around the world.
  2. Whatever you put your mind to—even if it’s another bloody book—you can do.

July 2020 The month the UK lockdown (sort of) lifted

July saw nearly all COVID restrictions lift in the UK. The weather was excellent, the mood was high and things seemed to be picking up on a country-level.

The government even introduced a scheme to get 50% off any restaurant meals to encourage people to return to normality. It would only take a couple of months for everybody to realise that this was a very bad idea...

I started talking to Justin Mikolay about The Secret Matt Kobach Project. I'd been pestering Justin for months to do something with his excellent threads. When I saw this thread of him condensing Kobach's wisdom I knew something had to be done.

Strange facts from July 2020

  1. I helped my dad move an extremely heavy jukebox he'd bought. It was a thing of beauty. It was something like this, but not this brand.

What I started in July 2020

  1. Justin and I began The Secret Matt Kobach Project.

What I learned in July 2020

  1. Twitter allows you reach out to anybody and collaborate with them. It is magical. This would become a recurring theme in my year.