Just over a year ago, I decided to leave my management consulting job and try my hand at full-time Milelion-ing, trading Powerpoint slides and power suits for coworking spaces and everyday casual.
It wasn’t an easy decision. On the one hand, I absolutely love reading and writing about credit cards and loyalty programs. I often spend my free time searching for award space I have no intention of flying, build points calculators for fun, and see every vacation through the prism of a potential trip report. This is the kind of thing I’d pay you to let me do.
On the other hand, it meant walking away from a well-paying job, and a career path that while not the most exciting, had well-defined milestones and structure. It also meant no more traveling on someone else’s dime, round-the-world trips, and any hope of maintaining elite status.
Nonetheless I decided to take the plunge, and you know what? It’s been fantastic. It’s one thing to do a job to make ends meet. It’s another altogether to do a job because you love it. And I love doing The Milelion. Whether it’s crunching data for a post, running a workshop, hosting a drinks event, doing an interview, or writing a quick article in between meetings, it’s never for a moment felt like work.
Now that I’ve passed the one year mark, I thought it’d be a good time to share some reflections on the things I’m thankful for, some challenges and interesting decisions I faced, and what I hope for the year ahead.
I think the only appropriate place to start is by giving thanks for how things have turned out. I mean, this could have very well been career suicide- taking a year off to follow a passion may play well in other countries, but Singapore employers are much less charitable about gaps in the CV (“So, I see here that you blogged for a year?” “No, no, it was a…vertically integrated…blockchain-powered…e-commerce portal”)
And yet, through God’s sheer providence, things have worked out well. Going into this, one of my main concerns was that this career switch would come at a hefty financial cost. It’s all good and well to follow a passion, but bills still need to be paid, right?
Well, let’s just say that The Milelion has not just allowed me to pay my bills, but save for the future, give to my church, support causes I believe in, and even enjoy the odd nice thing here and there. This isn’t unicorn startup territory, but then again, it doesn’t need to be- the fact that I’m able to make a living from something I love to do is blessing enough.
Being self-employed, particularly in a one man operation, is equal parts thrilling and terrifying. It’s thrilling because you’re the boss (and also the janitor, come to think of it). You set your own hours, you pick your own projects, you keep whatever you make. It’s terrifying because there’s no hiding. No one else is going to pick up the slack if you don’t step up, and you’re solely responsible for the P&L. Want to goof off the whole day or spend a week at the beach? Sure, but you’re not getting paid to do so.
When I was employed and drawing a regular monthly salary, it was sometimes easy to forget how reliant I am on God to provide. But the past year has made me more acutely aware of it. There were months where I wondered where the next project or engagement would come from, and at just the right time, something materialised. That’s clearly not my own effort or ability; it’s timely providence.
I think this sums it up pretty well:
“Don’t worry and ask yourselves, “Will we have anything to eat? Will we have anything to drink? Will we have any clothes to wear?” Only people who don’t know God are always worrying about such things. Your Father in heaven knows that you need all of these. But more than anything else, put God’s work first and do what he wants. Then the other things will be yours as well”- Matthew 6:31-33
When I decided to go full-time, the elephant in the room was whether I’d be able to stay objective. After all, it’s one thing to throw stones when your blog is a side hobby. But when it becomes your main source of income? Would you dare to write with the same frankness as before, knowing that it may adversely affect your chances of landing future engagements?
I’ll let the record speak for itself. Here’s a chronological list of every post written since the site started. The Milelion continues to do what it’s been doing since day one: endorsing good products or changes, and calling out boneheaded decisions, bad products and promotions.
At the end of the day, this site lives and dies on its reputation for publishing quality content. So while it may seem financially attractive in the short term to wax lyrical about anyone who’s willing to pay, it really isn’t a smart thing to do in the long run. It’s simply self-interest to tell it like it is.
Now, in an ideal world, you’d have the editorial and business teams sit separately so one doesn’t influence the other. That isn’t possible for a one man operation, but I do take steps to ensure I manage that tension as best as I can.
In concrete terms, what that means is diversifying the engagement mix to ensure that no individual company contributes more than 20% of overall revenue, because if it gets to the point where I feel I can’t afford to piss someone off, well…we’re in a very bad place. I also continue to put upfront, clearly labelled disclaimers when a particular piece of content is sponsored, and retain final editorial control over every piece that goes up on the site.
Perhaps a little anecdotal story of how this plays out in real life. A company reached out to run a banner ads campaign, which would bring very good income for a few months. The contract was signed, the ads were running, when a few weeks in I published a post about one of their products.
A few minutes after it went live, I got a text from the agency who brokered the deal. Here’s how the conversation went:
Like Delilah bugging Samson (and to be fair, I am absolutely ripped like he was), the conversation went on for quite a bit. Basically “I know you said you wouldn’t take it down, but could you please take it down?” on repeat several times a day, for a few days.
Let’s leave aside the fact that this represents an unacceptable overreach; I’m just amused that companies today still don’t understand the Streisand effect. There’s no better way to amplify a story than try to suppress it.
Eventually the agreement was terminated, and with it a big chunk of revenue. It stung, of course, but like I said from the start it’s about the long game. It’s a slippery slope when advertisers believe they can dictate editorials, and quite frankly, I’d rather go back to making Powerpoint slides than go down that route.
As easy as it’d be to slap a big sticker across the site saying “unbiased and impartial”, I don’t think that’s the right approach. Not just because it comes off as self-aggrandizing, but because that’s for others to say about The Milelion, not for me to say about myself. I’m a firm believer in “show, don’t tell”, and readers are the ultimate judge of impartiality.
To be sure, the temptation to compromise will always be there, and it’s dangerous to tell yourself “oh, that could never happen to me”. That’s why I pray that God will give me integrity and wisdom as I continue to do this job. I find the following verse a good general rule for running The Milelion:
“The LORD detests dishonest scales, but accurate weights find favor with Him” –Proverbs 11:1
So that’s the goal for the year ahead- to continue being an “accurate weight” in the world of miles and points!
One of the best things about doing The Milelion is helping to grow the travel hacking community in Singapore. To that end, we’ve worked to create community spaces where enthusiasts can swap tips and tricks, share stories, ask questions and help each other out. It’s what we’ve done with our Telegram group, with the monthly meetups, and with our Seedly collaboration.
The vast majority of the time, this works out great. It’s always fantastic to meet readers and hear about how they managed to redeem Business Class flights for their whole family, or try First Class for the first time, or stay at their dream hotel, all without breaking the bank. I’ve met readers online and in person who have become friends, and that’s a really rewarding aspect of the job.
The flip side is that such spaces can also attract trolls. Understand when I say that dissenting opinions are not trolls. I’ll be the first to acknowledge I don’t get everything right, and I’m glad when someone reaches out to correct me or point out a flaw in my thinking. By trolls, I mean people who get a kick out of sowing discord, or being rude to others and putting them down.
We’ve seen that in some of our online channels like Telegram, where we’ve banned a few individuals who have shown themselves incapable of civilized discourse (and trust me, the bar for discourse is very low online). But it’s quite hard to stop a determined troll- they can create multiple accounts, post from a new IP, or cause trouble via a new medium.
I realise that trolls crave amplification, so it’s probably best not to go into too specific detail about some of the events we’ve encountered. Suffice to say, it’s an unpleasant experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone, and thankfully, most of these have been isolated incidents.
Now, it’s difficult to know how to react in situations like this. I think it’s normal to be a bit upset- after all, you don’t go into this wanting to become someone’s enemy. At the same time, however, I see it as a test of whether I’m willing to be obedient to what God says, even when it’s tough.
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that”- Luke 6:27-28, 32-33
That’s pretty heavy stuff, to say the least, and almost an impossible ask because very often, my first instinct is to respond in kind, to get even, to hurl the same words back. But then I’m reminded of (1) how pointless that is (see rule #1 about arguing on the interweb), and (2) what a bad witness it sets. After all, we won’t convince anyone that there’s something special about being a Christian if we react the way everyone expects us to. No, what really turns heads is if we’re able to display a kind of supernatural grace and love, even to those who don’t reciprocate.
And yes, it means loving trolls too. It means recognising that there is a person behind that keyboard, who may be facing a hard time at home or at work, been bullied themselves, or bear deep hurts from their past. It means forgiving them, praying for them, and genuinely hoping they can one day know this same grace and love.
Do I do it perfectly? Hardly. But it’s worth trying. In the meantime, I’ve found this to be a useful article, so I hope it helps anyone else dealing with a similar situation.
As a footnote, I’ve actually tried responding to a few such messages, asking if they’d like to meet up and chat. I’ve never gotten a response, but I’d like to imagine that one day someone will take me up on it, and then we can establish the fact that nothing can’t be resolved over a nice glass of prosecco.
Shortly after I decided to go full-time, I received an unexpected email from Randy Petersen (I don’t think the two events were related, for the record). For those of you who don’t know him, he’s basically the godfather of miles and points. Randy founded FlyerTalk and BoardingArea, pioneered the Freddie Awards, and has forgotten more about the miles game than you or I will ever know.
In the email, Randy mentioned that BoardingArea was expanding its geographical reach, and invited me to consider joining them as they scaled up. I was flattered- it was like getting a call up to the big leagues, a chance to be featured alongside bloggers I’d been reading for so many years like Lucky and Gary Leff and the folks at FTU.
And yet, after seriously thinking about it, I decided it wasn’t for me. Despite BoardingArea’s expansionist ambitions, they remain very much a US-focused platform. I don’t imagine their audience would be too interested in reading about UOB’s latest promo shenanigans, or the changes to the Chope rewards program, or anything that isn’t Chase Sapphire Preferred related ;). Therefore, the traffic boost would be minimal.
More importantly, I didn’t get the sense that they really had a plan for South East Asia. It’s not like we’re going to see an FTU or MegaDo in this part of the world, hence it felt more like an joining a club rather than being part of a concerted movement to build the frequent flyer community in the region.
BoardingArea offers its bloggers a lot of support with hosting, plugin design and SEO, and I could see that being really useful for someone blogging part-time. However, if the plan is to run it as a full-time endeavor, then I’d rather stay independent and use the time to get things done myself.
Finally, as much as I respect some of the bloggers on that platform, there are others whose antics I disagree with. I remember reading an account of one guy who snagged a mistake fare that got cancelled, and undeterred, showed up at the airport and made a scene demanding they board him. He didn’t win, but it’s behaviour like that which gives all of us in this hobby a bad name. I mean, what even was the point of all that? I love a good mistake fare, but I go into it knowing that the airline has the choice of honoring or cancelling it. If they honor it, great! If not, c’est la vie and move on. I know that being on the same platform doesn’t mean sharing the same views, but I didn’t like the idea that my blog would be seen on the same landing page as stuff like that.
So as nice as it was to be noticed by Randy, I decided it wasn’t the right direction for me.
Looking ahead to 2020
“Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”
I always hated that interview question, partly because I can’t resist the urge to give a snarky reply (“in a mirror”) and partly because, well, who even knows? Make all the plans you want, but like Mike Tyson said, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”. Or perhaps more eloquently, “a man’s heart plans his course, but the LORD establishes his steps”– Proverbs 16:9.
Thankfully there’s been no mouth punching, but even so, I could only tell you roughly what I have in mind for 2020. More airline reviews (I’ve listed a few products I’m itching to try here), more hotel reviews, more credit card guides, more community building (remember to join our community on Seedly!), and hopefully one big event where we can all say hi.
At long last, I’ve appointed a digital agency in Singapore to handle the day-to-day running of the website’s backend. There’s a laundry list of things for them to fix, but at least now there’s a group of professionals to handle all the things I can’t. If you’ve noticed any website oddness, please let me know so I can flag it to them too.
Summing it up
It’s a funny world, isn’t it? If you told me back in May 2015 when I penned my first entry that three years later this would be my full-time job, I’d have laughed at you (and then promptly gotten back to making slides). Yet here we are, and it’s only getting started.
Year one of full-time Milelion-ing was great, and I can’t wait to see what the second year brings. Thanks to my parents for being supportive (even if they still struggle to explain to friends what exactly I do), to the Milelioness for never complaining when we opt for the four stop route when a non-stop flight is available, to the admins for keeping the peace and being the adults in the room, and to everyone who’s supported the site in one way or another, whether it’s applying for cards, coming for workshops or just leaving an encouraging comment.
Here’s wishing everyone a great 2020. May the year be filled with miles, award space, and special moments with family and loved ones that cashback users can only dream of. What a time to travel better for less.
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