2021: An Annual Review

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I’m switching things up and instead of focusing on habits and goals (see previous years), I hope to start a new tradition with an annual review of the past year. Since I’ve written extensively on what’s been happening with Barrel throughout the year (see Agency Journey), I’ll focus more on highlights and activities outside of work in this review along with some thoughts on the upcoming year.

Major Highlights

Welcoming Teddy

Teddy newborn

We welcomed our son Teddy in March.

On March 10, 2021, Melanie and I welcomed Theodore (Teddy) Kang-Lee. Just over two years younger than his older brother Grant, Teddy is such a different baby in both physical features, demeanor, and behavior than Grant. It’s been an absolute joy to watch him grow this year and to see him interact with his older brother and our dog Sidney.

Our Ten Year Anniversary Party

Peter Melanie 10-year Anniversary party

We celebrated 10 years of marriage by getting our families and friends together.

Melanie and I celebrated ten years of being married and, in the excitement of people getting vaccinated and being together again, held a big party in July. Friends and family drove and flew in from out of town as we saw our respective kids mingle for the first time while enjoying tacos and margaritas outdoors. We had a lot of fun, and it was a real special treat to see so many close people in one place again.

Barrel Turns 15

Barrel 15 celebration

The Barrel Partners toasted to Barrel’s 15-year anniversary of being in business.

Sei-Wook and I celebrated 15 years of having founded Barrel together. It’s been quite a journey (see our commemorative website). We reflected on how grateful we are that we’ve been able to do this for so long, all the wonderful people we got to meet and get close to along the way, and how it’s enabled us to have comfortable and happy lives. There’s a lot more to do in terms of taking Barrel to new heights, but pausing to acknowledge how far we’ve come was very important. Also big props to both our partners Wes and Lucas who celebrated 10 and 8 years at Barrel, respectively, this year.

Our New Vacation Home

New home

The view from our new vacation home is what convinced us this was the right place for us.

Over the summer, Mel and I became aware of a home in the Hudson Valley that checked off the top attributes on our “dream home” list: great view, near Mel’s brother’s family, spacious enough for family and friends to stay over, and quiet/private location. We immediately scheduled a tour and shortly afterwards, put in an offer. We were told a couple of days later that we had lost out. It was very disappointing. However, the next day, we got a call letting us know that the initial offer had pulled out and that the house was ours if we wanted it.

In October, we closed and now officially have a new home base in Hudson Valley. It’s been difficult to make much use of the home with two young ones in tow, but we finally got to stay there for an extended time over the holidays and it was marvelous. We’re very excited to spend more time there in the coming year.

Other Personal Highlights

Became a Columbia Alumni Association Board Member

I was voted in as a new board member of the Columbia Alumni Association (see news post), a university-wide organization that serves over 375,000 members across seventeen schools. It’s quite an honor to be serving with 43 other distinguished alumni from across the university. I’m looking forward to contributing to the CAA’s efforts to increase engagement among alumni, especially in this post-COVID era, where we’ll need to be smarter about leveraging virtual events in interesting ways.

Podcast Guest on 5 Different Shows

I was invited to speak on five different podcast shows this year. I had a great time sharing the Barrel story and my personal perspectives on various topics. I had to overcome my dread of hearing my recorded self and just embrace the opportunity.

Sent 52 Newsletters and Published 36 Blog Posts

I’m very pleased that I kept my writing habit up throughout the year. While I got most of my writing done on weekends, I had a good enough system going to let me publish fairly regularly. I got into a good groove of writing about agency business and leadership sprinkled with some personal interests. I’m looking to add ecommerce UX and marketing to the mix more frequently in 2022.

I started the year off writing more about investing, but I think I will take a step back from it as my personal finance approach has shifted quite a bit with the purchase of our vacation home. More to come later in a personal finance blog post.

I published 32 blog posts on peterkang.com and 4 more on AgencyDocs, my side hustle business that sells templates and guides to other agency owners. Here are links to those posts:

57 Yoga Sessions and 80 Strength Workouts

I tried to go for quantity versus quality when it came to workouts this year, making do with short burst 20-30 minute sessions. I saw some good gains with both yoga and strength training. I have greater range of motion and balance than ever thanks to yoga, and my dumbbell strength workouts seem to have added some muscle mass while also increasing my ability to lift heavier stuff.

The frequency started to dip towards the last few months of the year as work spilled over to late evenings and I also lost some motivation. I’ll be looking to pick up the slack again and get back to hitting 4-5 workouts per week.

Became Barrel CEO & Started Up Barrel Holdings

In May, I officially got the title of CEO with the full blessing of my co-founder Sei-Wook. We felt that with our plans to scale the business and to structure the org for success, having clarity in our titles would be helpful. Sei-Wook became COO & President, focusing on the business operations (finance, HR, IT, legal), while in my CEO role, I’m responsible for the Barrel brand, company vision & strategy, sales & marketing, and capital allocation decisions. Our other partners Lucas and Wes also got new titles – Lucas became Chief Experience Officer responsible for our Creative Marketing Services Group and Wes became Chief Technology Officer, overseeing our Technology Services Group.

In 2021, we also officially launched Barrel Holdings and spun off a sibling agency called Vaulted Oak, which focuses on ongoing website support & maintenance contracts. While it was a challenging and difficult move and one that suppressed Barrel’s topline numbers for 2021, I think Vaulted Oak will prove to be a great business decision in the long run. It’s headed by Jason Fan, my old high school buddy and longtime Barrel employee who has done a marvelous job of delivering for our clients and being resourceful in growing Vaulted Oak in such a short period of time.

With Barrel Holdings, we are creating a platform for the long term where we hope to incubate and launch more businesses and perhaps even engage in some M&A activity where there is opportunity. We’re very excited about how our network of companies can benefit each other and the clients we all serve.

Invested in 2 Funds and 9 Startups

I spent a good chunk of time in 2021 talking to founders and exploring investment opportunities in startups. It was fun to learn about the problems these startups were trying to solve, and I enjoyed the opportunity to also help these founders with intros as well as thoughts on marketing and UX.

As the year wore on, I wanted to focus more of my time and attention on Barrel-related work, so I decided to pull back on early stage startup investing and instead relied on investing via a couple of VC funds. One is Vermillion Ventures, run by my buddy Bob Wu, which invests in Asian American founders via high quality VC leads. Sei-Wook and I jointly invested in this one. The other is an e-commerce-focused fund investing in startups that are very much in the ecosystem that impact Barrel and our clients. Barrel Venture Partners, the investment vehicle for me, Sei-Wook, Lucas, and Wes, invested in this fund.

For Barrel Venture Partners, which has made 16 investments over the past 3+ years, 7 of those came in 2021. The other Barrel Partners put their trust in me to actively bring deals to the table and to do the due diligence. In addition to the e-commerce-focused fund, I sourced and made bets on 6 different startups:

  • Legitimate, a physical NFT startup that powers physical assets with digital interactions to promote connections, engagements, and conversions
  • Confetti, a wedding streaming platform that increases guest participation and engagement
  • Surge.ai, a big data startup that helps brands spot consumer trends across various channels
  • Finestra Health, a startup looking to bring more transparency to healthcare costs
  • Accelpay, direct-to-consumer e-commerce for alcohol brands
  • Pavestep, performance management software with a focus on continuous feedback

Personally, I invested in three startups:

  • Drop Party, a “drops for fandoms” platform looking to change the way brands and fans can engage with each other
  • Customer.io, through Republic’s crowdfunding raise, I put some money into the fast-growing automated messaging platform
  • Pyrra, “intelligence for dark social media” helping security and govt. orgs surface bad actors – this was the largest check I ever wrote for a startup, a bet on co-founder Welton Chang, one of my oldest and closest buddies

I don’t think I’ll be as active with startup investing in 2022. I still have capital calls coming for the funds, and I’d like to devote 2022 to really focusing on growing Barrel Holdings. Of course, if an interesting opportunity comes knocking, I’ll always be curious and open to learning more.

Biggest Challenges

Adjusting to Life with Two Kids

It’s been a struggle at times adjusting to life with two young kids. The combination of a newborn with a toddler going through potty training, new sleeping patterns, and a new school has been a handful. The entire family has battled multiple bouts of sickness, each taking turns with whatever germs Grant brought back from school. The lack of sleep and the juggling of many tasks has led to instances where patience was in short supply and feelings of self-pity kept on growing.

The logistical challenges of doing things with two kids has sometimes been frustrating. The low point was when we drove up to Hudson Valley for what we hoped to be a 3-day weekend to enjoy our new home, but the fussiness of both kids and Grant’s eventual tantrum outbursts to “go back home” led us to abort and drive back the same day. It was just poor timing as Grant was right in the midst of his potty training, but it took me a few days to shake the disappointment of that weekend.

I’ve told myself on multiple occasions whenever things have been extra hard: “These tough times will pass, and we’ll look back on them with fondness.”

As things have gradually improved, the only appropriate feeling is one of gratitude: both kids are healthy, growing, and happy, and we’ve been able to create for them a comfortable, safe, and loving environment.

Dealing with Work-Related Stress

The last few months of 2021 was perhaps one of the most stressful work-related periods in quite some time. Barrel struggled with the loss of key clients as well as a dry spell where we weren’t able to land significant amounts of new work. Add to this a wave of resignations across different roles that negatively impacted multiple projects. And lastly, a handful of projects were in serious trouble after we failed to provide adequate support and oversight. All of these things led to a very somber and tense time where we seemed to be hit with one crisis after another.

Looking back, I think the Barrel Partners and team leads did a great job in keeping our cool, making a series of difficult decisions, and getting things done day-in and day-out to address all the crises while looking for ways to turn the momentum the other way towards progress and wins. But there were days when we were thick in the mud of things and feeling hopeless, discouraged, and burned out. I remember days after work, when I couldn’t stop staring at the inbox or at Slack, unable to tear myself away for fear that some other bad news would pop up out of nowhere. Not the healthiest of behaviors.

Having a coach during this time was helpful as I talked through how I was feeling. My coach Janet helped me face my anxieties head on as I learned visualize worst-case scenarios and what that would feel like. I realized that ultimately, these were not life and death situations, and however crappy, it was very likely that we as a company would overcome our challenges.

Having some time away from work during the holidays has been great for clearing my head and feeling re-energized. It also helps that we ended the year with some positive momentum, winning new work and having launched several new projects. New challenges, issues, and problems will always arise. I’ll have to keep working on the way I perceive these situations and how I choose to turn them into stress or into something more positive.

Most Impactful Books

I started many books this year but didn’t finish the majority of them. I don’t think this is a bad thing. I still got some great highlights that I’ve fed into my Readwise app (more on this below), which eventually becomes resurfaced in my Daily Reviews, turning into ideas for my writing.

I picked these 7 books as the most impactful because I still think about them from time to time and because they helped me see certain things in new ways:

  • Skinship: Stories by Yoon Choi: Incredible collection of short stories touching on the Korean-American immigrant experience. Some of these stories felt so close to what my family experienced growing up that it was a level of intimacy that I had rarely felt in a book.
  • The Motive: Why So Many Leaders Abdicate Their Most Important Responsibilities by Patrick Lencioni: I wrote about the key takeaways from this book in this blog post about the five omissions of reward-centered leaders.
  • Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box by The Arbinger Institute: I found this to be a revelatory book that made me think about all the times when I had deceived myself and behaved in ways to justify my being right versus trying to see and understand things as they are. The core lessons are powerful reminders that we often get in our own way when it comes to relationships with others.
  • The Millionaire Real Estate Agent by Gary Keller: A diagram-rich book filled with tactical, actionable models that can be applied beyond the real estate industry and used in other industries. I absolutely loved the way Keller broke down the real estate business into clear concepts tied to concrete numbers and how they can each be impacted by specific activities. This is the level of detail that we need to be certain of at Barrel in order to find long-term success.
  • The Overstory: A Novel by Richard Powers: This book changed the way I look at trees forever. It’s a beautiful book about trees, humans, and the different ways they intersect. More importantly, it’s about how much we don’t know about trees, how we’ve taken them for granted, and the magic they contain.
  • The Joy of Selling by Steve Chandler: This collection of pithy sales advice has some really inspiring nuggets that transcend just sales and is about life and personal growth.
  • A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine: I’m so glad I ended the year with this book. It was a reminder that having a philosophy of life is a worthwhile endeavor and that the Stoics offer a compelling blueprint. To live simply, to live virtuously, and to override some of our natural impulses to overindulge, envy, and worry – these all read like wonderful antidotes to so much that ails us today.

My Intentions for 2022

Rather than setting goals, I have a few themes I’ll be keeping in mind backed by some daily routines to keep me accountable.

Prioritize Gratitude

I intend to spend more time reflecting on how fortunate I am with all that I already have. I haven’t embraced the concept of “enough” in my life as often as I want to, and I think my subconscious drive for more has also been a source of my discontent.

One technique I’ll be using more in my daily journaling will be to express gratitude for the hard things in life. Ryan Holiday talks about this in his essay on gratitude. Rather than resist the things that make life difficult or miserable, learning to express thanks for these things can build mental strength and help see the silver lining in even the most challenging setbacks or circumstances. For example, the stubbornness and illogical behavior of our toddler son these days has been exhausting and frustrating, but I can be thankful for the experience to build my patience and become a better parent. To be able to lean into such a sentiment, especially in the moment when things feel like they’re going poorly, can hopefully center me in a positive way.

Frequently exercising feelings of gratitude will help me feel upbeat and energized, which in turn will show through in my day-to-day interactions with family, friends, and co-workers. It’s a tall order but one worth pursuing.

Sleep Early, Eat Clean, and Exercise Often

There were stretches during 2021 where I did a good job in sleeping early (bedtime by 10:30PM at the latest), eating clean, and exercising often. These would result in sustained high energy levels as well as general feelings of positivity. The things that derailed my efforts were nights out with friends (very few, but impactful), Barrel emergencies that kept me working late, and “veg-out” evenings when I told myself I was too tired to do anything and watched TV.

I worked out 190 times out of 365 days, which means I basically exercised every other day. I’d like this number to be closer to 300. Even 15 to 20 minutes of intense cardio or strength training will be worthwhile. I’ve never ever had an instance where I wished I hadn’t worked out. The challenge will always be about overcoming the initial inertia, the self-justifications of “oh, I pushed it hard the other day, why not take a breather today?”

I’m going to put some effort into creating a greater variety of 15 to 30 minute exercise routines and keep things interesting. I often made the barrier too hard, insisting I had to do a “proper” workout or nothing at all.

Because I usually work out after the kids go to bed, what I eat for dinner also impacts how I feel about working out. If I’m committed to working out, I’ll be careful not to overeat and also avoid foods that take too long to digest. The cleaner the meal, the more quickly I’ll feel ready to work out. This means foods with more fiber, less fried stuff, and generally more veggies, fruits, and whole grains (check my Operating Rules Diet Edition that I published in 2021).

When it comes to sleep, eating clean and exercising will snowball into helping me be ready for deeper sleep. The exertion from exercise and a comfortable stomach from easy digestion will allow for an easier transition to sleep. I view sleep the same way I do exercise – there’s effort and a lot of technique involved in executing a good sleep session. This means being properly hydrated before bed, no alcohol or food at least 3-4 hours before bedtime, temperatures set to keep me comfortable, and no looking at the phone in bed. Even if my sleep is often interrupted by our kids during the night, controlling what I can makes a big difference in the quality of sleep as evidenced by my Whoop data. Clean eating, no alcohol, and earlier sleep times almost always results in higher recovery scores and lower resting heart rates.

In general, the trajectory of my lifestyle in the past 5 years has trended towards more in these three areas, so I’m optimistic that in 2022 I should be able to make further gains. I’ll dutifully tally all of my exercise days again and everything else should follow suit.

Increase Reading, Highlighting, and Taking Notes

I’ve been using the Readwise app for a couple of years now. I currently have almost 500 straight days of use going as a streak.

Readwise ingests highlights from different sources such as Kindle, Twitter, Instapaper, and others and resurfaces these highlights as daily flash cards. I can star these flash cards to resurface later, make notes on them, or share them outside of the app on Twitter or as text messages.

The “Shared with Partners” section in my Agency Journey series is powered by Readwise. Every week, I come across a handful of quotes that I then share in our group text with my Barrel Partners. I then collect some of these at the end of the month and share in the Agency Journey blog post.

What I love about Readwise is that it lets me get value from books I’ve read over and over again. Highlights from books I read years ago have become really useful thought-starters. My daily routine of reviewing the flash cards is one that’s full of surprises and potential.

In 2022, I intend to increase the volume in order to further enrich my Readwise experience. First, I will invest more time in reading in general so I can increase the number of highlights. The nice thing about Readwise is that it doesn’t care if I finish a book or not, just that I make highlights. So if I find that I’m not motivated to finish a particular book, I’ll just start another and keep the momentum going.

Secondly, I’ve upped my Daily Review flash card allotment from 5 to 7. This means each morning, I’ll review 7 resurfaced highlights on my Readwise app. The difference is minimal on a daily basis, but annualized, it’s another 700+ highlights I’ll have processed.

Lastly, one new habit I’ll pick up is to write more notes in these flash cards. I’ve rarely done so, opting to share with friends or on Twitter instead, but I think there’s value to appending notes that can resurface along with the highlights later on. Every Sunday, Readwise surfaces flash cards that I’ve starred, and having notes with these will help me remember why I thought they were worth saving at the time. Over a long period of time, these notes can accrue into valuable raw material for my personal writing.

Go On More Hikes

On the day after Christmas, I found myself going for a short drive around Hudson Valley while the kids were napping back at the house. I ended up at a hiking trail about 20 minutes from home that would take me to a fire overlook tower. It touted 360-degree views of the area. It was already close to 4PM and the sun would set in half an hour. I decided to give it a go anyway and started running up the trail.

stissing mountain hike

Scenes from an aborted hike the day after Christmas.

About 10 minutes in, I ran into someone making his way down and asked how much further it was to the top. He said I might make it in 20 more minutes if I really pushed it, but the climb down would have to happen after sunset, which would be challenging without a flash light. I thanked him and pressed on for another 10 minutes. I got up a good way, but I looked at the time and didn’t love the prospect of fumbling my way down in the dark. I also felt that reaching the top just as the sun was setting would be a bit disappointing.

I turned back and headed down, making my way back to the car in probably half the time it took me to hike up. I felt great. The air had been crisp and clean. The trail was steep and fun. I could get used to this. I resolved to go on more hikes in the future.

Whether alone, with family, or with friends, I want to make hiking a more common part of my life. It’s a great way to experience nature, to get some peaceful thinking time, and a way to get exercise.

I’ve gotten a Notion started with a handful of hiking spots scouted out. If I can hit up 12 or more hikes in 2022, I’ll be very pleased.

The Review is the Reward

I was in a bit of a funk when I started writing this. I had initially viewed 2021 as a disappointment, a year marred by struggles, missteps, and a lot of stress. But as I jotted down the various highlights and revisited so many wonderful moments captured in photos and text exchanges with friends and family, I couldn’t help but realize that amid some of the challenging times, I actually had a very rich and fulfilling year.

The very act of writing this review has been a great gift to myself, one that’s already making me feel very good about the coming year, and now something concrete and valuable that I can come back and revisit in future years.


  1. I’m a reader and a subscriber of your newsletter. Your post is always impressive. I hope you continue to write in 2022. Happy New Year!

  2. Michelle Kim says

    I enjoyed this post very much, Peter! Appreciate your candor, transparency, vulnerability, self-reflection and overall self-deprecation (though I think sometimes you’re too harsh on yourself). Cheers to an even better 2022 and hope you can do more hikes (invite Sei-Wook :))!

    • Peter Kang says

      Thanks, Michelle! Happy New Year, and we’ll definitely have to do some joint family hikes this year!

  3. Jeffrey Choi says

    Thank you for sharing so much, Peter! Learn a lot and I’ve picked up a ton of good tips, habits, and principles from these. Hope you have a strong 2022!

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