February 20, 2024

Finding Freedom as an Independent Consultant with Aaron Cohn

Pollen Team
Finding Freedom as an Independent Consultant with Aaron Cohn

Table of contents

When no-code developer Aaron Cohn gets an idea, it has to pass the “Aaron test” before he acts on it. 

He asks: If I build this thing, and I get paying customers, can I go on vacation for 2 months without anything breaking? 

After several years of starting and running companies — and burning out along the way — Aaron has shifted the way he approaches work to focus on what he cares about most. 

“What I want at the end of the day is more freedom,” he says. “True freedom, where you can really drop off the map.” 

Here’s how Aaron has crafted an independent career that allows him true freedom — and how he builds businesses that make money while he sleeps. 

How independent builders inspired Aaron’s independent journey

Aaron credits his mindset to the community at A.Team, a network of top software builders, where he was the 2nd employee and head of community. 

“I kept seeing the same pattern over and over again,” says Aaron, who interviewed every builder who applied for A.Team in its early days. 

People start out earning low salaries in full-time W-2 jobs; they get raises, but they get frustrated by bad bosses. They transition to independent consulting but initially for low rates, which causes financial stress. Over time they raise their rates, but eventually they get frustrated by stressful clients. 

“The true evolution is to get away from selling time for money,” Aaron says. 

The problem with venture capital-backed businesses

There’s a well-documented path for entrepreneurially minded people who want to break free of selling time for money: starting a venture-backed company. 

Aaron has seen enough friends and builders raise VC money to know that it’s not for everyone. “As soon as you take that 1st dollar, you have bosses,” he says. “You have to try to make a billion-dollar company.” The reality is that most businesses that would be life-changing for most people don’t need to be unicorns.

He also saw that the happiest, most creatively fulfilled builders were indie SaaS developers who figured out how to make enough money so they could work on projects they were excited about and spend time with their families. 

They charge a high enough hourly rate that they can afford to do client work just 10-15 hours a week, leaving them plenty of time for passion projects or their personal lives. 

Using these builders as a model, Aaron articulated his own vision for the ideal independent career: “I want to work with 5 or 6 of my closest friends, and I want to build stuff alongside them,” he says. 

Building a freedom-oriented career with the “Aaron test”

Many indie SaaS builders follow the advice of AngelList founder Naval Ravikant, whose viral 2018 tweetstorm advised: “Seek wealth, not money or status. Wealth is having assets that earn while you sleep.” 

Aaron follows this guidance by building software that can generate revenue without a lot of overhead — hence the Aaron test, where he makes sure that a project can survive without him for weeks at a time before taking it on. 

For example, right now, he’s working with a friend on a website builder that’s intended to be an easier-to-use alternative to Wix or Squarespace. “Squarespace passes the Aaron test,” he explains. “If everyone at Squarespace except the customer service team went on vacation for 2 months, everything would be fine.” 

That’s just 1 example of the kinds of projects Aaron takes on to help him generate passive income, or as he calls it, a “money printing press.” 

Aaron’s 3 tips for building a money printing press

As Aaron has shifted away from selling time for money, he’s hit on some tactics for quickly building income-generating assets. Here are his top tips to help any independent — not just SaaS developers — build their own money printing press. 

1. Learn no-code (or launch a newsletter, create a course, etc.)

Aaron’s money printing press is software. He’s a strong advocate for no-code development using tools like Bubble and FlutterFlow. (Pollen members, check out his complete list of no-code resources here.)

“More really talented independent people with domain expertise could probably build their own software,” he says. 

Aaron points to well-known indie developer Pieter Levels as an example of quickly shipping lightweight, low-maintenance apps that make you money while you sleep. 

But software isn’t the only asset that generates passive income. Others might create YouTube videos, write a book, or launch a boutique agency. For example, look at Lenny Rachitsky’s podcast and newsletter or Sahil Bloom’s Pallet jobs collective

2. Use clients as a design partner 

When Aaron is consulting for a client, he keeps an eye out for gaps that software could fill. If he sees an opportunity, he offers to build it for the client at cost if they let him sell the solution to other customers. 

By using your clients as a means of customer discovery, you can validate problems and potential solutions — from apps to courses or communities. 

3. Experiment and validate

To build things that generate income without a lot of effort on your part, you need to get comfortable with experimentation. 

“It’s better if you can put something in the hands of users sooner rather than later,” Aaron says. He’s designed an approach that helps him validate his ideas before he spends time and effort building them out. 

Aaron has a subscription to Carrd for 25 landing pages per year. When he has an idea, he spends $10 on the domain and sets a 90-minute timer. At the end of the 90 minutes, he sends the landing page to a mix of people he knows well and strangers (via cold DM or email) to get their take on whether the idea is valuable.

From W-2 wages to finding freedom as an indie builder

Aaron has worn a lot of hats during his career — talent booker, management consultant, founder, community builder. Each of his experiences has helped him figure out what matters most to him in a career. 

And now, he has an independent career that lets him build things he’s excited about with people he enjoys working with. “That’s when I have the most fun,” he says. “Building.” 

Pollen members can connect with Aaron on the Pollen Community. To join our community of top independent consultants, apply today.

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