manythingsblog

Playing startup

March 11, 2019

In which Taylor play-acts at startups, then starts to grasp the most fundamental piece of startup advice that people have been telling him loudly for eternity 😬.

TL/DR:

Solo-side-project-bootstrapping can feel fake. Like you’re just going through the startup motions.

Real talk: It’s all fake until you talk to customers.


Context: I’m building ProjectPoll by myself, without outside money, on the side of a full-time job, with a family.

That’s (definitely) not bragging — I’m making all the mistakes, and moving at a glacial pace. But it’s useful context for this article.

I think the process of building, and especially the start of marketing, has felt strangely unreal. I’m doing startup “things” — writing articles, coding features, reading lots of internet advice — but if I step back and self-evaluate, it feels like I’m play-acting.

Why?

Some of this, I think, is inherent in the bootstrapped solo-founder side-project life.

I have a “real job” that pays the bills — my side project does not, so it’s clearly less real.

I’m working alone, so progress, success, failure, all is up to me. If I choose not to work on it tonight, no one’s going to say anything. But that’s not how Important things work in Real Life, so this must be a fake thing.

I spend time with my wife and kids as a first priority. They’re just plain more important to me than this project. But if this was a truly important goal, wouldn’t I be willing to make sacrifices?

I have limited time, and startups are all about moving fast, so my code’s not as well-crafted as it should be. I have lower test coverage than I’d accept in a “real” project. Is this really the way Important Things are built?

I don’t really like social media — but it seems like that’s where founders and makers and such are, and I do enjoy following them — but trying to post in the same style feels… fake.

Cold email gives me the creeps — I can’t just be a normal human; I have to craft a message that feels human, yet professional, has an enticing subject line, but also a compelling call-to-action… This advertising voice feels super fake.

Content is king, and I like writing — but there are tons of people who are way more experienced in my target field than I am — can I really write Definitive Guides and thought-leader content? No one wants to read “5 ideas that may possibly help, if you’re just like me,” but it feels fake to state my opinions with more certainty than I feel.

Yeah, I know, this is a sad list. ;)


Weeks have been wafting by, as they tend to do. I’ve been working on marketing, but feeling relatively aimless. I wrote an article. It didn’t go viral. I sent a few more cold emails. No response.

I posted on Indie Hackers asking for some marketing ideas — even as I was typing the post, I had an inkling of what people would say. Sure enough, right away someone[1] said, “You don’t need marketing yet — you haven’t validated the idea. You need to find some potential customers and talk to them.”

Y’all heard this before? It’s the first damn piece of advice you get. Everyone says this — I’ve told people this before.

But for some bizarre reason, this is hard. I hadn’t done it. Sure, I’ve talked to some coworkers, and a few people online. I’ve sent some cold emails (secretly hoping no one would reply). But I hadn’t really followed this, the first piece of startup advice.

Confession

Okay, yeah — this is an article about talking to people. I’m going to tell you to get out of the code, go outside the building, and accost some hapless customers.

But listen — I do, I truly do sympathize with how hard this is. It was a real mental block for me — weeks would go by where I felt like I was doing useful work, but not getting any results. But I hadn’t done this first thing.

I’m not sure what clicked this time — I guess it was personal now — I’d made this post, so I couldn’t just skim the replies and nod sagely. But this time, I went to LinkedIn, found a local business owners in my space, and messaged them.

And they replied, and we set up coffee dates, and we talked. It wasn’t hard — I didn’t write an advertisement, I just wrote a note telling them who I was, and asking for feedback/insight/help on my new project.

I got good feedback, and both companies are going to try it out. I have a better idea of which features are important to real customers, so I can work on those next.

This feels real, now.

Remember that list above? All those feelings of fakeness? I think what I learned is this: It doesn’t matter what you do; until you go talk to customers, it’s not real.

Maybe you aren’t feeling this same “play-acting” feeling, but trust me. If you haven’t talked to customers, it isn’t real yet.


One thing

All the facts are still the same. It’s not like it feels real because it’s taken off like a rocketship, or I hired ten people, or quit my job. It’s still not a validated idea. I have tons of work to do. But something about talking to real people makes what I’m doing less fake.


Wrap up

I’m pretty sure I’m uniquely slow to learn this. Or uniquely good at rationalizing my choice to do anything but talk to people. Everyone I follow on Twitter certainly seems to have it figured out.

But maybe I’m not unique — maybe there’s one other person out there who’s convinced themselves to do anything other than go talk to customers, and maybe they’ll read this and it’ll resonate. Because I really do understand how hard it is. And if that’s you, here’s my advice: Find someone to tell you to go talk to people.

It’s easy to think you’re in a special case, that the generic advice doesn’t apply to you, that you want to build a “different kind” of business. So find someone who will tell you, personally, to go do it.

Once you do it — once that first meeting is set up — you’ll realize how blindingly, obviously right this advice is. And it is. And you’ll feel kinda dumb for not doing it sooner. But don’t forget how hard it was. Sure, please, start telling other wantrepreneurs to go do this, but don’t trivialize it, even though it feels obvious now. It’s a big step.

I’m not a successful founder (yet) — you’re probably better off contacting someone (anyone) else. I bet they’d be happy to tell you this. But I’d love to hear from you anyway! Shoot me an email, tell me to go talk to more customers — I’m sure I’m second-guessing myself already.

Thanks for reading!


Footnote

[1] Specifically, thanks to Louis Nicholls for the excellent advice 🙏. ⤴️


Taylor Campbell is building ProjectPoll in the woods of Virginia