September 10, 2017

Writer's Block, or The Wantrepreneur Blues

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    For my side project work, I've often found that direction and energy are quite closely related. More often than not, my lack of energy is actually a lack of direction. I know that I could sit-down and figure-out what needs to be done, and in what order, but project planning is far less fun than coding. Once I've clearly defined the problem and I understand how to implement the solution, we're in the fun "doing" phase (a.k.a. making stuff that does stuff) that encourages a positive feedback loop of enthusiasm. The trouble is that planning and discovery phases require a lot of work with little to demonstrate- this quickly depletes my energy reserves.

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    Here's my story, I don't quite have a lifestyle business yet but expect to quit my job within a year. Concretely, what has changed for me is my mindset has gone from "maybe I can start a business, other people do it but I'm not sure if I can" to "I can 100% definitely start and run a business."

    The business I'm starting right now (haven't launched yet) has been a forcing function to make me learn at a very fast rate. Back-end coding (what I get paid to do at work) is only a small part of starting a business, especially because I get those tasks done so fast. I've had to learn front-end coding, design, how to research a business idea's PageRank/seo, marketing, competitive server hosting (for when AWS is too costly) and read about 1000 stories on to get some idea of what is possible.

    How did I get this far? First step is, realize you are embarking on a marathon, not a sprint. This is like any other undertaking that takes months/years of steady work and discipline (losing bodyfat, learning a foreign language.) To be at peak mental performance you need to get enough sleep and eat food to give yourself energy.

    Be realistic with your social life. Sure, go to the bar, but only after working all day on Saturday on our own project. Same with TV, tinder dates, anything else besides your job and your side project. Budget time for things you love, ruthlessly cut other things.

    When you "mess up" just forgive yourself immediately and move on, don't dwell on it.

    Once you meet some fellow entrepreneurs, go co-work with them at a cafe, demo your progress, and talk about your business. This helps keep up motivation. Follow entrepreneurs on twitter. Sometimes when I only talk to non-entrepreneurs for a few days I start to question myself and feel crazy for wanting this.

    I like to put stories in Pivotal Tracker for my side projects, and do a more-or-less realistic estimate on points. That way if after work I have a small amount of time/energy to work on the side project, I can knock out an easy one point story. Then on Sat and Sun knock out the big three point stories.

    Don't take on other big projects. This isn't the time to learn Spanish, spend every weekend hiking a big trail, quit smoking, attend night school, or learn a big new tech paradigm unrelated to your company.

    Figure out how you waste time and eliminate it. For me that is idle news reading and watching twitch.

    The crazy thing is that I actually get more other stuff done now that I'm doing all this work. I've lost bodyfat without really trying (eating the same meals over and over to reduce prep mental effort), read a bunch of books, met new entrepreneurs, found new music. I think it comes down to changing my attitude, getting enough sleep, figuring out what/when to eat to maximize energy, and spending more time with encouraging people and less time with negative people.

    Hope this helps!

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      I relate to this so much. I freelanced for awhile, tried my hand at a business when a prototype I made went viral, got burnt because I didn't truly understand the business side.

      It took me the past year of building my own tiny house to realize the value of just focusing on a small task at a time. Sure the big picture was there, but every night I knew I could work on small tasks. I knew the weekends were for when I could plan for big chunks of work to get done.

      It's funny how time flies when you're focused on getting done. Unlike my business venture, I absolutely knew I couldn't quit on this idea. And eventually it materialized.

      I'm going to take this mindset to starting my own business. I understand there are going to be unknowns and challenges, but in the end you can solve them. It might take starting over, but that's just part of it.

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        There is really is no substitute for long periods of focus - you don't even view it with the same disdain you have for work when you are in that state.

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      Are there any known ways to find like-minded people to join my project?) I've launched landing, iterated many times on it, even spoke with tens of reporters (who are my target audience) - but everytime again I start to lose focus - still think the idea is great - but the progress is so slow when you're alone. So, i realized that finding a partner is the most effective way to go forward now.

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        I've met the people I cowork with outside of tech events, when people asked what I do and I start with my side business (instead of my job.) When entrepreneurs meet another entrepreneur, sometimes they want to connect and stay in touch.

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    I like that you broke things down into three distinct challenges/needs. That's the first step to being able to make permanent and consistent improvements in each area.

    Direction is the easiest to fix. You only need to have a good idea once, and there are a whole host of people on the Indie Hackers forum who would love to help you work out the kinks on any of your ideas. Consider posting a list of the ideas you're considering and why you think they can/can't work. I'm fairly certain you'll get some good feedback!

    Also, the more you learn about business, the easier it is to come up with good ideas, and also to figure out how to navigate around the challenges. (Every idea has challenges, by the way.) Maybe spend a few weeks just reading other people's stories while directing 100% of your focus to coming up with ideas.

    As for time, I think you can hack this one a bit by picking ideas that don't require a massive time investment. If you've got a family and a full-time job, you probably shouldn't try to build a SaaS business, because the coding alone is going to take you months.

    I know this sucks, but it also helps to make a conscious decision to sacrifice some things. There are some TV shows, movies, and hobbies that I've consciously told myself I've given up on. I can't indulge in everything I want to do and have time for Indie Hackers.

    Energy is a tough one. I suspect you're on to something with the partner/co-founder insight. It helps to have someone who can keep you accountable. It also really helps when you've cleared out some time, and found a good direction to go in, so maybe solve those two problems first. You'll be a lot more motivated to work on things that have promise than things that don't.

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    I actually laughed while reading this because this is essentially my life 🙃. I have an ideas all the time, a lot of them seem brilliant at first then I either do some market research or get started and then I hit that road block where I lose faith in the idea.

    Its not a fun experience, I have a ton of repos on Github that I've created around some idea or another and usually when I can't come up with an idea to work on I go back and read through some and see how far I am. Some are so close but I can't bring myself to finish them because I've already convinced myself that they are not good products or the world doesn't need them.

    If I had someone working with me then I think I'd be motivated to finish some of these.

    But I believe finding like minded people is also pretty difficult. I'd love to hear from others how they go about finding people who like building these types of things.

    IMHO this is very different then making friends. I have plenty of friends who have no interest in building software businesses.

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      I am in the "no time" bucket (1-2 hours a day) together with the "no idea" (that I know how to market) bucket.

      Let's pick an idea, figure out if we can find customers for it and then make it happen?

      Worst that can happen is we get to know one more person who has an interest in building a software business.

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        I'm in a similar boat. I carry around a small notebook that I fill with ideas. I'd love to brainstorm with someone(or multiple someones) and see where it goes.

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          Same. However, I have plenty of time to devote to something. Happy to brainstorm to see if there's anything there.

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        Same. However, I have plenty of time to devote to something. Happy to brainstorm to see if there's anything there.

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      I started studying industrial design when I was 21 with the sole goal of finding someone that I could start a business with, because I wanted to develop a product. After about 18 months I finally found someone, but that was after having dropped out of the education, and finding someone in my network of friends who also happened to be very interested in business.

      It doesn't have to take that long of course - I guess you just have to get started and meet people.

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    Maybe you should add "talk to 5 potential customers" to that 13-point list.

    Having actual or prospective customers can help fill 2 of the needs: energy and direction.

    Energy: I think of two kinds of energy-inducing "devices": carrot and stick. You probably feel good when you talk to a happy customer - that's a "carrot" that can keep you going. But you also probably feel anxiety and urgency to fix stuff when customers tell you of their troubles with your product - and that could be the "stick" that might get you to turn off Netflix and go fix some bugs. YMMV because different people respond differently to these.

    Direction: every project comes with two kinds of risk: product risk ("can I build it?") and market risk ("can I sell it?"). If you build it but nobody uses it, then what's the point, in the grand scheme of things? That's where I've had many of my side projects get stuck - i scratched my own itch but didn't bother talking to others about theirs. After several build-to-decay cycles, I burnt out on side projects. Now I am taking a completely opposite approach: I won't build anything that I can't pre-sell to 5 other people.

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    I have worked with a partner on side projects for quite some time. We both had full-time jobs but still managed to "complete" some projects. But that didn't not help. If the project is not going very well, the motivation fades away anyway. So in my opinion the only thing that would help is a project that becomes successful (or at least gives a real hope that it's gonna be successful) relatively early on. Actually I don't quit my job to work full-time on a side project because I feel that it may not have any effect on energy or direction - just more time for procrastination.

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    I think you hit the nail in the end. Doing things entirely on your own is no fun.

    I've been running companies for the last 10 years and It's just now when I've decided to go back to basics and start a new one from scratch on my own that I realized something important.

    One of the major reasons why it was fun to start companies was because I started them with a friend of mine who was like-minded. We both loved discussing business ideas and we spent most of our time together, late nights, weekends etc. scheming our business. If we hit a roadblock, we worked together to fight our way past it.

    With all the experience I have today I figured that things would go rather smooth. I know marketing, I know how to talk to people, I can code, I can manage staff etc. etc. But can I motivate myself? I always thought I could, but I'm slowly realizing that It's a lot harder than it used to - and being alone is probably the main cause.

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    Great article @Tommy. Very refreshing to read something that's more of a confession than "X steps to achieving Y in less than Z days!".

    Where can we see the projects you've created?

    Just my two cents here, but I spent many years trying to refine the answer to this exact article and actually created a picture book trilogy about it. Just like your summary, it too involves working with other people as opposed to doing it all by yourself :) The trailer video for the books on explains my summary nicely if anyone is interested.

    1. 2 is my home blog, and I've linked a few projects there. I write and maintain a few other blogs with different subjects currently, which takes up a good amount of time.

      I have written a few Android apps in the past. The most recent is Regex Number Blocker It's not pretty, but it solved a problem I was having at the time and it has a few users.

      I also have an Open Source project I started for some of my Docker work called ManagEnv. I'm doing a minor update to that as subject matter for one of my next blog posts.

      If I listed off my abandoned projects, I'd probably cry myself to sleep tonight :). My favorite of those was, which I keep running on the off chance I have a shower epiphany on how to fix the issues with it.

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    Often related to energy is momentum. I've found its easier to feel energetic towards something when you have momentum. Hence, a big blocker of side projects can be those life events (weddings, family stuff, holidays, etc) as they seem to disrupt momentum.

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    Here's what has worked for me so far.

    Take your idea and break it down into smaller deliverable chunks, and focus only on 1 at a time.

    So let's say you come up with an idea that's going to do X, Y and Z and more, and you guess it will take a couple of months to complete. If you try to do X,Y and Z all in one go you're most likely going to realize at some point the share amount of work required, and you'll get demotivated and eventually just hit a wall.

    Find the most valuable chunk of your idea. Let's say it's X. Determine the most valuable functionality of X. Things that you are certain will take you less than a month to complete. A chunk of work that's not overwhelming, and that is within reach.

    Now focus on getting that out there to users/customers as soon as possible. Don't worry about Y and Z. They can come later. The point here is to get the crux of your idea out to users as soon as possible, and perform market research based on that core functionality. Get your product out there and see how people use it. Allow users to send feedback, and use that to plan forward. Chances are you'll find that customers don't even want Y and/or Z, but something else. If they do want Y and Z, make sure they know it will be coming in the next release. In most cases, customers will be happy to wait.

    Also, once your product is out there and it becomes a reality, a "physical thing", and not just an idea in your head and some boilerplate code, that's when things start to get real and you'll start feeling the passion and determination.

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    Hi Tommy, and thanks for sharing your struggle with us! My advice is twofold:

    1. maintain a public list of ideas, so that you can gauge other people's interest in them, that should help you decide what to work on when you have time and energy.

    2. have a list with the "next step" of each project that you've already started working on => when you have time+energy, it'll make it faster and easier to pick one. (instead of starting a new project)

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    Great post, thanks for sharing. Losing momentum is the biggest killer in side projects. And the biggest motivator for shipping side projects is having a hilarious or clever name.

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    I wrote a tool to help break out of "Energy and Time, No Direction." It's an idea generator that uses YC as Data: It will spit out ridiculous things most of the time but I find it usually only takes 10 minutes before you have a serious idea.

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    I also learned these lessons, and then decided to only start projects that (I think) will only take one day to complete.

    This worked for me for a while, I got several successful apps in the play-store (2k unique users per day for one app, $60 ad revenue per day for another app, 1+m users in total for all my apps).

    Then Uni graduation happened, I am now working full-time and doing a PhD. No energy left for side projects. Ideas are accumulating, but most of my free time is spent on sports/friends/cleaning/getting car fixed/reading/etc.

    I now have a new mantra, replacing 'only do projects you can finish in a day', that says, find new inspiration for old projects. Instead of looking for something new and unrelated like I used to, I'm looking for something new and shiny on old projects. I mostly want to spend my time dusting off old valuables, there is so much half finished work just laying around. If I can find a way to use all this time that I have already spent. So instead of looking for something new with great potential I'm looking for something broken lying around to fix.