Writing things down (how to know what to do next)

January 11, 2019

In which Taylor learns the power of writing things down. Or maybe learns a lesson about validating before coding. Or about launching too soon. All of the above, perhaps.


Choices causing distress? Write down your biggest worry. Question it. Repeat until you know what to do. If what you’re doing makes you anxious, back up — write it down. You might have missed a step. Going backward is okay.

Whenever I’m stuck on something, if I stop and just write things down on paper, it inevitably becomes clear.

Topical anecdote: I’ve been working on ProjectPoll. It’s a pre-revenue, nights-and-weekends project, and I’m definitely past my comfort zone (half-coded, unlaunched things ;)).

I’ve always loved building things, but marketing is scary and unfamiliar. And there’s an overwhelming amount of information out there about the Right Way to do things, complete with stats on how amazingly they worked for the author’s unicorn startup.

Validate first, get people committed to pay before you start writing a line of code… These are all good and true. I didn’t do them. And I think it’s easy to discount how hard they are. I assume it gets easier, but let’s not pretend these are obvious or easy things to do.

Continuing anecdote: I started building ProjectPoll in August ‘18 (without validation). It’s a scratch-my-own-itch idea. I took 3 months (nights/weekends) and got it to a usable state. And here’s the problem: What should I focus on next? This has been remarkably difficult and emotional to figure out, and I’ve veered madly back and forth between excitement and despair.

The downward spiral of uncertainty

Some days I know I just need to do a bit more polish, add a couple more features, then I’d feel confident marketing it. As soon as I open an editor, though, I remember that all this work is wasted if no one wants the product. And surely there’s enough already built to find out whether anyone would ever use it.

So clearly, the right idea is to start selling first.

But that’s miserable. Cold emails are a numbers game. And what am I asking for? A purchase? A call? If the only real test is whether someone will pay for it, I need to sell it like it’s done, right?

And it doesn’t feel comfortable saying it’s done. It needs a couple features. Some polish. Y’know, I’m in this for the long haul. I’m fine if it takes a couple years for this to be a real business. Maybe I should ignore the fast-growth-VC voices and build the best damn app I know how, and be confident that this is a real problem in my niche. And success will follow.

Open code editor. Repeat process. Feel shitty and uncertain.

So that’s been my last couple weeks. Waffling, indecisive — rewriting marketing site copy, fixing some bugs, sending some awkward cold emails asking people to maybe please check out my app.

But here’s the takeaway. Yesterday I decided to build a plan of attack. I thought, in six months, when I look at ProjectPoll, where do I want to be? Product, marketing, social media presence, all of it.

But instead I wrote down “Worries: not confident the product is ready for real use.” And then I stopped and thought about that, and wrote down the counter.

“Counter: It’s enough to prove the idea, so don’t spend more time coding until it’s been proven.”

“So how to prove?”

“Get friendly beta users. Focus on feedback+features.”

“How do I get beta users?” And there it was, the beginnings of a concrete goal.

Before, I was waffling between selling and validating and launch-fast and beta-ing, and trying to maintain an aura of done-ness (because I’ve “launched!”). All those pull in slightly different directions. But writing this down, thinking about it, and applying my values to it, eventually pointed me in a direction I can be excited about.

I have specific tasks to do (change marketing site to make it clear we’re in beta; find beta directories; reach out to people for conversations about their project management problems). And I can do all that honestly, without feeling like I’m selling something that’s not ready.

A large part of this is fear, I realize. I’m not comfortable selling, and I don’t like rejection. Talking to people on the phone isn’t my idea of the best day.

But deciding that I’m not selling has helped. I’m not worried about whether the app is perfect. I do like to talk to people about project management problems. And I don’t want to do any of this if it doesn’t feel authentic.

Here’s a thing: Technically, this new direction? It’s backwards. At least a bit. It’s pulling back a little from the rush of “I’ve launched! We are definitely a real business!” to the work of “Is this the right thing to build?”

And here’s the point: These weren’t new epiphanies. The options and action items were on my list. But writing them down made the right direction more apparent.

I’m confident that some of my decisions will be suboptimal. But I know they also have to be true to me, and the company I want to build. And if I successfully built a company I don’t like, what’s the point of that?

So. Actionable things I’ve learned while stream-of-consciousnessing this post:

  • Feeling uncertain? Write down your concern. Write down the counter. Question the counter. Continue until it’s obvious what to do.
  • If you’re at a branch and it’s not obvious what to do, or you’re uncomfortable with your chosen course, examine your values. Maybe your discomfort is because you’re going against some core part of you. If you can’t be genuine while moving forward, stop. Back up. You missed a building block.
  • Sometimes you have to go backwards… to go forwards. Yeah, I wrote that down. Yeah, I feel a little embarrassed.

Postscript: Thanks for reading! If you have comments, I’d love to hear from you —, or @manythingsblue on Twitter.

Taylor Campbell lives in the woods of Virginia, travels with his family, and builds things with Rails and Javascript. (Check out ProjectPoll!)