I quit my tech job to open a coffee shop. So how did I end up building small, green homes instead?

A week ago, I launched my new venture The Sound Life, a for-profit social impact residential development project building small, green homes in unique sub-rural areas.

thesoundlife.co

After I posted about my launch, I immediately got texts from friends and family members asking, “Wait, I thought you quit your job to open a coffee shop?!” After 18 months of self/unemployment trying to start my own business amidst a pandemic, even I had to stop and ask myself, “How the hell did I get from Point A to Point B?!”

Spoiler alert: there is no Point B on this journey.

Hi, we’re the Watts. We like a lot of things: coffee, fishing, & building homes.

For years, my husband and I dreamed of opening a coffee roaster and cafe in our neighborhood after we started home-roasting coffee beans in a shed in our backyard. (We lived in a suburb just north of Seattle, so it felt like the cool thing to do.)

As FIRE dreamers, we’ve always worked hard to avoid debt and lower our cost of living. So we devised a creative plan to reduce our monthly mortgage so one of us could afford to quit our jobs while we bootstrapped our startup efforts without going in to massive amounts of debt. We decided to build a 700 sq. ft. backyard cottage that we could live in while we rented out our main home to create passive income. The rental income wouldn’t entirely replace one of our salaries but it certainly helped and the project increased our home value and therefore created more equity in our home in the long-run.

By September of 2019 near the completion of the backyard cottage project, I decided to be the first one to take the leap after burning out in my tech job fighting false promises for a raise and a promotion to a senior level position. (Sadly, my experience is a common one for mid-level career women in tech. I volunteered for three years for an organization fighting this very problem and still became one of the statistics we worked hard to prevent.)

Then BAM 💥 six months later the pandemic hit halting our plans to open a brick and mortar business that relied on foot traffic for profit, so we pivoted to starting the coffee business in a more affordable rural area (not yet knowing how long the pandemic would really last.) I write about that experience and story in more detail here.

But like the rest of us, we’ve been in limbo waiting for the pandemic to ease restrictions so we can start a viable business out here. Reality started sinking in and we felt the coffee idea just wasn’t meant to be right now.

Basically this was me for all of 2020.

Meanwhile, throughout the year we had Zoom calls, emails, direct messages, and chats with several families interested in our backyard cottage project. I presented a Yelp talk to their employees. We even started selling the design plans and created a guidebook to help people build their own small energy-efficient homes.

We quickly noticed a trend. A lot of families, including ourselves, started saying “If only we could build one of these homes on some land, start a garden to sustainably grow our own food, live closer to nature, and spend more time adventuring!”

We were repeating our story so often in 1:1 conversations that we decided to start a podcast to reach a bigger audience (just like a good millennial couple does!) So we converted a spare room in our garage into a podcast studio to start sharing our own financial journey and coach people how to build a freer, sound lifestyle like we are trying to do. (The Sound Life show is coming soon! Subscribe on YouTube to stay tuned!)

The Sound Life podcast studio, aka our garage

I never dreamed of becoming a real estate developer. It just happened.

And that’s when it hit us: we were already running this business. I became even more passionate (ahem—obsessed even) with the idea of helping people build sustainable homes they could afford after meeting families and hearing their stories straight from their heart.

I never dreamed of becoming a real estate developer. It just happened. And I am loving every minute of it. This doesn’t feel like work, it feels like building a community. I am head over heels in love with the idea and I didn’t even realize why until someone asked me, “Why do you love this work so much?”

It suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks and I was immediately flooded with emotion: I grew up with a father who was in and out of homelessness and sketchy housing situations after struggling to reenter society post-release from prison.

I distinctly remember a time when I would look under highway overpasses half-expecting to see my dad sleeping there after telling me he had to spend a few nights there on occasion. While I never did find him there and he is living in low income housing again, I still can’t drive under a freeway without thinking about it to this day.

Growing up, my dad was a contractor and builder. My siblings and I spent days sitting on construction sites helping him while he would hang drywall or plaster walls showing me how to hold the blade at just the right angle to create the desired texture. I had mostly forgotten about these memories until I started this venture. No wonder I love this work. It’s in my blood.

This startup journey continues to force me to dig deeper into myself. To the heart of it all. To my reason and purpose. To find my why.

An old construction site photo from one of my dad’s projects in the 90s.

This startup journey continues to force me to dig deeper into myself. To the heart of it all. To my reason and purpose. To find my why. And I believe that I finally have. Completely by accident. (At least for now. I don’t actually buy in to the notion that we only have one, singular purpose in this lifetime on this planet.)

I tried to start a coffee shop and instead I’m building homes for people. And maybe one day we can still start our own coffee shop in one of our green buildings too. So to whoever is out there questioning their direction or how to get from Point A to Point B. The answer is you’ll never know. The entire point is the journey itself to see where it will take you.

Just get started even if it’s the wrong thing. That’s the only way to find where you’re supposed to be.

I hated this advice when I first began this adventure because it didn’t really give me a sense of direction, but I completely understand it now: Just get started even if it’s the wrong thing. That’s the only way to find where you’re supposed to be. Nothing ever turns out the way you planned anyways.

While the Sound Life is not a low-income housing project, if we can use our early projects to learn to scale cost effectively and find meaningful partners in this industry, then hopefully we can provide more accessible pathways to homeownership. Our vision for affordability comes at the sweet spot of our small home size as a 2 bedroom, 1 bathroom starter home under 1000 square feet where inventory for this size of a home in the area is significantly low (if not non-existent) on the existing housing market.

At the end of the day, we’re just a team of really good humans building really green homes. Come live closer to nature with us!

thesoundlife.co

See our vision: thesoundlife.co/vision

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