What's up, everyone? This is Courtland from indiehackers.com where I talk to the founders of profitable internet businesses and side projects to get a sense of how they got to where they are today and how the rest of us can do the same. Today I'm here with Mubashar Iqbal, also known on the internet as Mubs. He was Product Hunt's Maker of the year for 2016 and he's an extremely prolific developer of side projects and other delightful things on the internet. How's it going Mubs?
Absolutely, happy to be here. I've been a big fan of Indie Hackers so it's nice to actually speak with you and hopefully have something interesting to say for the audience as well.
Yeah, I think you're one of the first people to come on the podcast who's a regular poster in the Indie Hackers forum. I always see you in there commenting on different things and showing off your projects so it's pretty cool to have you on the podcast, too.
Yeah, it really is an awesome community 'cause I think there's just a lot of people there who are trying to do a lot of the same things and also hitting a lot of the same struggles as well.
I mentioned you were the Maker of the Year for Product Hunt In 2016. Can you give us some sense of how one acquires that title and what exactly it means?
Yeah, absolutely. I was actually the runner up for 2015 as well and they did change the way that they figured out who the winner was from 2015 to 2016. In 2015, it was just like the same as the other categories that Product Hunt Had in their awards where people just went in and voted for who they thought was the maker of the year or the product of the year, et cetera.
For 2016, they changed that to kind of be a little more data driven. They looked at how many products people have launched and how many uploads they got and kind of things like that. And I think I just beat people by just doing more than anybody else did, I launched more apps on prototype than anybody else did in 2016. And it wasn't, and they weren't just all kind of like throwaway apps. They almost all were significant apps that got a lot of uploads and had things like that. That was kind of how I kind of got to be Maker of the Year.
Yeah, what were some of the apps that you launched in 2016?
Oh, 2016, from the big ones for 2016 was I think we launched BotList last year in 2016. I also, I'm actually going to cheat now and actually pull up the page 'cause there was a lot of them last year but...
That's the thing about being so prolific. You forget what you've worked on. It's just so much.
Yeah. And that's the other thing that I think I like to do is I work with other people to kind of help launch their ideas so it's kind of significant when you work on your own idea and you kind of launch something that's very personal to you and obviously sticks in your mind and all that kind of stuff.
When you do as many things as I do, I'm actually helping other people achieve their dreams and their ideas and kind of make them into real apps as well. They're still significant to me, but they're way more significant to the other people as well.
Yeah, that's why sometimes I do, I have to go look up, who did I help last year to launch their ideas and things like that. There was actually a few leaderboard apps that I kind of launched last year which for Medium specifically, there was top authors and top publications. I started to blog a lot more on Medium in 2016 but it was very hard to find who were the other authors who are highly followed or who were putting out good content and what were the good publications to submit my articles into and sort of that kind of stuff. I kind of built some apps to kind of help people find top rated authors and the top rated publications kind of stuff like that. Also did some work on Quuu last year which is another side project that I kind of helped out with with some friends of mine over in England. So we had some launches around that as well. It was a pretty interesting and varied 2016.
Yeah it sounds like it. I mean there's a lot in there that explains why I wanted to have you on the podcast because I think for most people, working up the motivation to launch one project is difficult and doesn't happen or even coming up with the idea for a single project that you can be committed to often doesn't work out for most people.
Being able to maintain old projects that you've worked on is a hairy problem and finding cofounders to work with who are actually reliable people that can help you get something out the door is another challenge and you seem to have perfected this entire process, every step of it, to the point of insanity. I'm hoping that we'll be able to dive in to some of the specific lessons that you've learned with maybe not every project 'cause we'd be here for like 10 hours but with a lot of them. I think a good place to start is the beginning of the process which is coming up with ideas. How do you know what projects are worth working on and how do you decide what to do?
Yeah, it's kind of an interesting one. I think for me, a lot of it has to do with solving a problem of my own. And I think it becomes a lot easier to kind of find those projects when you're trying to solve a problem that you have. And obviously if you have that problem every day, that makes it a lot more obvious as well.
For example, one of the first things that I ever launched on Product Hunt was a website called Interviewed and it was basically just a way to find podcast episodes from specific people, so when they'd been interviewed. If I wanted to go... Patrick Collison, since we're now part of Stripe and since Indie Hackers is now part of Stripe we can start with him. If you wanted to find all the interviews from Patrick, you can basically just have a page you can click on his profile and you'd see all the podcasts that he'd appeared on and which kind of episodes he was on.
And so that was just trying to solve a pain point that I had. I was trying to listen to podcasts, I was trying to find interesting people, see what they were doing, see how they were doing things and so I wanted to get as much information about what they were doing and suddenly I found there was no way to kind of find all of the podcasts that somebody was on so I kind of solved that problem for myself.
And then it obviously grew out of there, added more people, added more podcasts and things like that. It's kind of hard to maintain that 'cause you have to kind of keep listening to a lot of podcasts and kind of update them. I did keep it up to date for awhile, now it's kind of more of an archive, there kind of historically. But yeah, I think that's my main way of kind of finding ideas, finding things to solve. It's just if you're doing something and you're like, damn, this is annoying, why does it work like this or if there's some information that you're looking for that isn't there, instead of waiting for somebody else to solve that problem for you, I just tend to solve it myself.
Do you spend dedicated time brainstorming ideas to work on or do you have some sort of list of ideas that you're keeping? Or do you just wait for inspiration to strike and then work on whatever's the most exciting?
Yeah, it's kind of a mixture. There's some ideas that you kind of hit on the idea and you're like immediately I have to work on that idea. But I've been trying to do less of that.
But yeah, so I've got a Trello board actually that whenever I hit a pain point or something that I think that would be a cool thing to work on I go and add a card into my Trello board that has that idea in it. I've been doing this thing where I've been tracking the fact that I've added it in already so I know that I've hit that same pain point and thought it was a really smart idea to kind of solve that pain point and then I go to my Trello board and say, "Oh, it's already here."
So I've been kind of tracking how many times I've had that thought and so the more times I have that thought, the more likely it is that that's actually a good problem to try and solve. I kind of track my ideas through that but occasionally I'll just hit on an idea and be like okay, I'm going to work on this right now.
Yeah, I get that same thing where it's like I just have to do this thing right now all the time. Another thing about the way that you come up with ideas and the projects that you work on is that you don't seem primarily motivated by profit and very often it looks like most of the things that you release aren't constrained by needing to make a profit. You don't put ads on there, you don't sell things. What drives you to build things?
Yeah, I've had a job since I left school. I've been doing the software thing for about 20 years now and that whole time I've been employed. Doing the side projects and things that I do, profit hasn't been the primary factor in terms of why you're starting something new.
Probably about two or three years ago, the main reason that I started doing side projects was I was working at an agency at the time and I had been working in kind of agency world for about three or four years and I was doing some really awesome stuff with some really awesome people, but because of the way that the agency world works and because of the way that they're very secretive about who's doing what and who's subcontracting, who's building what website.
I was doing some really awesome stuff but I couldn't talk about it. I couldn't say, "This is what I just built," for the last six months or whatever. I found that my public profile had kind of diminished. People weren't really aware of what I was doing and kind of things like that. I kind of started doing side projects more as a way to kind of spread the word about hey, look, I just built this thing that's cool and just kind of expand my network and my public profile more. That was kind of like the main reasoning that I got back into doing all of these things.
Yeah, I think it did, I think it definitely did. People definitely know who I am now.
Have you ever considered going full time with your side projects? I guess at that point they would no longer be side projects, technically speaking, but do you have a dream or a goal of being self employed and generating all of your revenue and income from your own projects? Or do you think you're happier with the status quo working a full time job and keeping your projects as hobbies on the side?
Yeah, I've thought about that a lot. Obviously, if I have a project that takes off and starts making a lot of money, it's actually funny 'cause I've spoken to people in the past and I've said to them quite openly like although I have a drive to make projects and make software and to kind of launch things, I've never really had the strong desire to be a CEO and a leader of a company.
I think that's a completely different skillset in terms of taking an idea and implementing it. That's not really what a CEO normally would do and even when you get to the other kind of higher level roles in terms of like the CTO of a company and those kind of things, once you get past a certain size, those people aren't very hands on anymore.
They're more, they're managing the process, they're talking to investors, they're talking to partners, they're kind of doing that whole kind of management shuffle sort of at that point. And that's not really what I enjoy. And so I think that's why I've never really had that pull to like okay, I want to go start my own company and do my own thing like that because I never really wanted to do all of those other things. I'd much rather have my hands on, taking ideas, implementing ideas, implementing new technology, doing those kind of things. Yeah, I've never really had that pull to, I want to quit my job and I want to start my own thing. That's never really been a strong appeal.
Yeah, that makes complete sense. It's a totally different mindset, it's a totally different skillset and it's a totally different set of tasks that you find yourself doing and responsible for on a daily basis. You find yourself doing all sorts of management tasks and getting away from writing the actual code and building the products.
Although I will say that there is a lot of room in between releasing free side projects and starting a bigger company with a team that requires a lot of management overhead. A really good example is Dave DeSandro of Metafizzy who I had on the podcast a couple weeks back. He's making one off tools for developers to use on their websites. And what I find particularly cool about it is that once he's done building a tool, he's done. They don't require a whole lot of maintenance overhead so he can just move on to the next one and not have to worry about it.
And what's also cool is that he releases his tools for free, they're also open source. Anybody can use these for personal projects but if you're a company, then you need to pay him something like $20 or $40 per developer for a license. It just seems like a super chill business model.
I've definitely considered like what people call that lifestyle kind of business as well. Like it doesn't have to be this big enterprise. I don't necessarily want to go run a big company with 20 employees and that kind of thing but if I had one company where it's just like me and maybe one other person and we're making a couple hundred thousand dollars a year, that would be fine.
As long as I'm still kind of involved in the every day operation kind of of that thing. I think that would be something that would be interesting. I think also, like you said, maybe it's kind of pivoting where I can still do what I enjoy and still find a way to run my own company but it's not about growing the company, it's about running the company and still doing the things that I enjoy. If I could figure that out, I think that may be something I want to do but I think until I figure out exactly what that is, I think I'll kind of stay exactly where I am.
Yeah, that makes complete sense. You have to find something that you enjoy working on and it's pretty cool to be able to jump around and work on a variety of things.
Right and that's also one of the things that I really enjoy. One of the reasons that I do end up doing so many different projects is that I enjoy that variety of: you work on one project one day, you work on something else another day. Or you help somebody one day, and then you help somebody else another day.
So you end up having this wide variety of things, of industries that you're working in of tools that you're working with as well and that's actually one of the reasons I did like working in the sort of agency world as well is you get that wide array of clients who work in all kinds of different industries and so you're not pigeon-holed into doing one thing every day and doing the same thing for years and years and years.
Speaking of tools, why don't you tell us about some of your favorite programming languages, frameworks, apps, and other tools that you use to get your projects off the ground?
Well one of the things I do try and tell people and again this kind of freaks people out is I say I am tool agnostic. I really don't care about what tools I use. I can use Ruby on Rails one day, I can use Laravel one day, I can use Node JS one day, I can use all the different front end tools too, like I've used React and Vue and jQuery and all those kind of things. Tools to me aren't that important.
I'm not going to say I'm only going to use one tool and if you're not going to use that tool on a project, I don't want to be on that project. But having said that, I'm more than willing to work with lots of different tools but my favorites probably right now, I use Laravel PHP for almost all of my website stuff and I tend to float between jQuery and Vue JS depending on how complex the front end is and then I do almost all of my hosting for all of my side projects is on... It makes it very easy to kind of spin up a project, deploy it, and have it up and running on a server.
I've done that in like sort of hours, had the idea, spun it up, figured out what it is and have it up on a live server, I can do in a few hours.
I hear so much about Laravel and it's funny 'cause PHP was the first back end language that I really ever used but it was way before Laravel existed so I'm going to have to have Taylor on the podcast and have him talk about it.
But what about products and any products you find yourself using besides Trello?
I mean I use Sublime Text as my editor of choice. I've tried just about every other one that appears. I've tried things like Atom and Brackets from Adobe and Visual Studio, and kind of all of those. They all have their strengths and weaknesses.
I think the thing I like about Sublime the most is its speed. Switching between different files and opening files and switching between different projects and things like that, I still haven't found anything that works as fast as it has. And it's got all the standard features in terms of themes and sort of all that kind of stuff too. It looks really awesome.
I think that's probably the tool I use every day and probably for like eight or 12 hours a day, is I'm kind of in that a lot. Outside of that, I try and keep my development stuff really lightweight. Obviously we use things like Slack to kind of talk. I use Slack to kind of talk to people I'm working with on side projects and things like that. But other than that, other than things like the social media tools like Twitter and those kind of things, I tend to stay kind of lightweight on apps.
So one of the things that I really like talking about is learning to code and really like the necessity of learning to code in order to build an online business or release a side project or any sort of app that people will use. And one of the things that you do very well is work with various collaborators on your projects. Do most of the people you work with help you write the code or do you generally work with people who don't know how to code to help them bring their ideas to life?
Yeah, I generally, I tend to work more with people who don't know how to code or they code a little bit so they kind of have a sense of what needs to happen but they don't always know how to make it happen. And so I find, obviously, when you're trying to do things as quickly as I try and do them, I think having more hands actually can kind of slow things down in there.
When I'm working with other people, we try and make that clear segmentation between okay, I'm going to do the technology stuff, I'm going to write the code, I'm going to manage the servers, all that kind of stuff, but I work with designers a lot so they handle a lot of the visual aspects of what the website should look like and how it should look from page to page, from screen to screen, so of that kind of aspect of things.
And then when I'm working with other people too who are more kind of businessy type people, we kind of tend to talk more about okay, this is how I want the website to work because this it the business solution that we're trying to solve. I just have them articulate what the website is supposed to do and how it's supposed to do it at sort of a very high level and then I take that and I turn that into wire frames and then we kind of turn that into a functioning app as well.
Yeah, I think being a programmer and working with designers is such a bad ass combination. I'm in love with the design team at Stripe. Obviously, they're super talented and my desk just got moved to kind of where they sit. I spend all day just like spying on them and peeking over their shoulders at what they're doing. Let's say you're not a programmer. A lot of people listening in are probably not programmers but they would love to be a partner with somebody like you on a project to get something out the door. What is it that you look for in a collaborator to say, okay, this is somebody that I could work with?
Normally, I have lots of conversations with people who've got ideas that they want to build. Normally, I'm looking for something that's not necessarily 100% original, right, but I'm looking for an idea that's not just I want to build Facebook for animals. I want something that's fairly original or at least is solving a pain point for you, specifically, at least. Even if it's not you specifically but it's something that you've spoken to, it's something that you've, it's a potential market opportunity.
I'm not saying it has to make money but at least you know that there's an audience for what you're trying to achieve. 'Cause I've kind of had those conversations with people where it's like, well I saw, a friend of mine launched an app that does this and now I want to launch an app that does like that too. And those kind of ideas obviously don't end well because they haven't really thought through what that idea is. And so I think that's the other thing that I look for is even if you can't code, you can think about the solution that you're trying to create, like how does it work in terms of, not technically, but you're trying to get information from here and you're trying to connect to another person or you're trying to automate a process.
When I talk to somebody, I want them to have actually thought about that, like what will the software do, not technically how will it do it, not technically how are we going to implement it but what does the software help you do. And the people who kind of sat down and actually thought through the process of what the software is supposed to do and who it's supposed to connect and those kind of things. That really makes it easier because when they talk to me about this is what I want to build and then I have to start asking them the questions of okay, well, how do you get that information or how do you know that you're supposed to send them to the right screens next. They've thought through a lot of those things as well. And so it makes me comfortable that we're actually building something that will actually work.
It sounds like you've almost got a formal checklist that you run through to figure out if something's worth working on. It's like, okay, does it have an audience? Check. Have they thought through the product? Check. What are some other things that are part of your checklist?
Well, I mean normally I want to know what they're going to do as well, right, like I understand you can't code, right, but how are you going to move the project forward as well.
Are you going to go and submit it to every app directory that's out there? Are you going to go and write articles and then talk about what you're building? How are you going to advance it as well? I could make the software for you, we can put it on the server, we can launch it, we can put up a website. How are people going to know it exists? How are people going to find the thing that we've built? So if you can't code that's fine because not everybody can code but can you do content marketing? Can you talk to customers?
How are you going to take what we work on, if we're going to take months or weeks or months making something, how are you going to help as well? And people who've thought about that as well. People who are just like, I want you to make it and then we're going to sell it and make lots of money. Yeah, that's not how things work.
I already did help, I gave you the idea. No, that's not quite. It seems like half the battle is just putting yourself in the right position to be around the kinds of people who are going to be good partners and collaborators. It's very easy to be surrounded by people who might have ideas but aren't particularly helpful in bringing them to life or even worse to not have anybody around you at all who cares. Where do you hang out and what do you do and what are your strategies for finding good people to work with?
Yeah, I mean it's just being available and being a part of the communities out there that kind of exist, right. I mean, I joined Indie Hackers as soon as I heard about it because that's my kind of people, people who just have that idea, that have that spark and they want to work on something and they don't necessarily have to be technical to kind of have that spark.
Like I said I've worked with a bunch of designers and one of the first projects I did was a designer had actually made every screen of the app. He's like, this is what I want to build. And so he couldn't implement that but the fact that he'd already taken the time to kind of think through all of the screens and figure out this is how the app should work was really awesome because I could look at it and be like, I know exactly what I need to build. Obviously, we kind of went over it and said, "Okay, we're going to change this and change that." But at least they'd taken that time, they'd kind of made that effort.
Yeah, I just try and, I make myself available on Twitter, people can reach out to me and we kind of have a conversation. Outside of that, it's just being involved in the community, being involved in Indie Hackers. I kind of hang out on like the show area of Hacker News as well. I kind of hang out even on Designer News as well even though I'm not really a fully fledged designer but it's again, it's finding people with the same attitude as you and I think just finding where they hang out and just hanging out with them as well.
I think another one of the big challenges that you're extremely successful at overcoming that I mentioned earlier is finding the time to actually get your projects out the door and see them through to completion, especially given that you've got a full time job, you've got a family, I believe, kids. How do you make that work?
Yeah, I try and be honest about this. I'm kind of a freak in that I don't sleep a lot.
How much do you sleep?
I typically, if I get four or five hours sleep a night, I'm okay.
Yeah. That obviously helps. I don't need a full eight to 10 hours that a lot of other people need. Having that extra three hours a day that normal people would be asleep, I'm not. And for me too, outside of that, I do treat what I'm doing as my hobby. It really is something that I enjoy to do and I just happen to really enjoy doing it in front of a computer.
I love making stuff. Some people like to go work on cars or they love to go work in the wood shop or do whatever it is. I just happen to love being in front of a computer writing code. And so I make time for it because it's something that I like to do.
But it's also something I can do while I'm doing other things. Because I'm also a big fan of TV and movies as well. I love to watch movies, I love to watch TV as well. It just so happens I can sit in front of a TV, watch a TV show and write code at the same time. It makes it a little bit easier when I can do these things at the same time. Making time is just that, it's something I enjoy to do so I make the time for it.
And like I said, I don't sleep as much as other people do so I mean what I used to do a lot was when my kids went to sleep, my kids they go to sleep at eight o'clock, nine o'clock at night, I would hang out with the wife for a little bit, she would go to bed as well around 11 o'clock, then at 11 o'clock I'd have two or three hours where I could work. But it wasn't work, right, it was a hobby, it was something I enjoyed to do. So from 11 till about two o'clock in the morning is when I'd do a lot of my stuff for side stuff.
Yeah, you're like, you've got genetic advantages where you can multitask with the TV and your projects and you can stay up late. You're like the Lebron James of side projects and I don't think technology's at the point where very many of us can copy your genetic makeup.
Yeah, I do try and be honest about that. It's not something that sort of everybody can do. And people can do it for a short amount of time, right, like you could do that for like a week or two like if you had already an idea that you really were passionate about, you wanted to launch it, you could do it for a week, right, you could just forego sleep but I've been doing it for the last, I've been doing it since I was in high school.
It would drive my parents nuts 'cause when I was in high school, I was like 15, 16 years old, I would be up till one o'clock in the morning and they would be like, well you have to wake up at seven o'clock in the morning and get ready for school and the like. And I was like, well, I'm not tired. I can try and go to sleep but I'd rather be up working. At that time, I was just playing around, really, I was playing video games and hacking on video games at the time but yeah, I've been doing it for as long as I can remember.
I think the most concrete thing that I take out of that is the fact that working on these side projects really needs to be your hobby. It needs to be something that you enjoy and that you're passionate about. As cliche as that might sound, if that's not the case, then you're going to find you have to make a lot of sacrifices in order to squeeze in the time because you'll be sacrificing the things that are your actual hobbies and passions in order to make room for this other thing that you're not that into. Whereas somebody like you can work on these projects and not feel like you're making a sacrifice at all.
Right and that's the other thing that I look for when I'm looking for a partner to kind of work on stuff. If they're coming to me with an idea, let's say they're a big musician. If they're building something that's in the musical industry, it's much more likely that they have the passion for that.
But if they're coming to you with an insurance idea, I want to build a website for an insurance service but they're like musicians and they want to play music all the time, why are you building an insurance service? That kind of thing too, I think that's really important as well, having an idea that you're really passionate about. It's not just about, I want to build a company around that but it's actually like a problem that I really want to solve because it's something that I really enjoy being involved with and being around other people who like that kind of thing as well.
What's your secret for getting things out the door quickly? Because not only do you spend a lot of time working but you seem to from start to finish, get a product out the door in like the minimum amount of time possible and it doesn't even look crappy. Like the things that you produce look great and they work great. What are your tips there?
That's just come from experience I think. 'Cause I've been doing this for 20 years now. And actually I just wrote a post on Medium recently. It's called Jack: The Master of All Trades. And it kind of talks a little bit about how some, I've got a lot of advice in the past about people have told me, look, if you want to be successful in life in a career, specifically, that you need to have like one skill that you do better than everybody else.
You've got to pick one technology, you've got to pick Ruby on Rails and just become the master of Ruby on Rails. And I've tried to follow that in the past but more and more, I've kind of come to the realization that I don't want to do that. But because I want to be a generalist. I want to be good at everything. I don't want to be master at one thing. I want to be good at everything. That means that when somebody comes to me with an idea and they want it to look not so bad, I can make a website that looks not so bad. I can think about servers and think about how can I optimize the server so that when I do deploy this new website, it will actually run and it won't crash the server. And I can think about the user experience and understand why it's good to have things positioned a certain way. And so having that generalized knowledge and that generalized experience of all aspects of making a project and a website I think is one of the things that really helps me get things out fast.
As I'm making things, I consider all of those things. I don't wait till the end and be like, oh, now I need to optimize the server or I need to go and optimize the code to run faster because it's going to crash the server. I'm doing all of those things along the way and it's often easier to do those things earlier on and do them along the way than to have to go back and reengineer things and to rethink things because I think that's where a lot of people waste time is they finish it, and then they go back to the start to like fix things. And I find, I tend not to have to do a lot of that. And so that's where I'm able to push things out really quickly I think.
It reminds me of my brother who helps run Indie Hackers but he's also a novelist and I remember him writing his first novel when we were in college and sending me chapter after chapter. And by the time we got to the end of the book, the latest chapters were so much better than the earlier chapters that he had to go back and rewrite it 'cause it sounded like two different books.
Right. Yeah, I think that happens a lot. I mean even from a design standpoint, I've worked with designers a lot and they kind of design the first screen and they hand it off to me and I'll work on it and then as we go further in the project, they'll do more of those but then when they get to the end they're like, well now that last screen doesn't really look like the first one that I gave you so I have to go back to the first one and kind of rechange how that one looks.
And so you end up going through all of the screens multiple times because it doesn't quite match anymore 'cause they've improved. By the time they get to the end of the project, they've improved where they finished so much that they feel that they have to go back to the beginning and kind of improve that over from the start as well. And yeah, I try not to do that. I try and factor a lot of that stuff in at the beginning and then just try and work through and just get it to the point where, I think the one other thing that I try and do is and again, I've written a post about this as well.
It's like I don't try and make things perfect. I make them good enough. I think because it's a personal project, they often feel like they put more pressure on themselves. It's mine, I own it, it has to be perfect versus it's my job, I'm going to do it, I'm going to do a really good job but I don't feel like I own it versus it's a side project, this is all me, I have to own it and it has to be perfect. But really as we know, there's no such thing as perfect and so we do as much as we can, we make it as good as we can and then we launch it.
And what's funny to me about that whole paradigm or that trap of getting sucked in to my project has to be perfect before I release it, is that most projects that people release nobody ever sees, they get zero traction. And so you can spend six months or 12 months releasing this perfect project and then nobody sees it and it doesn't matter that it was perfect.
Right and that's the other thing, I mean I try and tell people too, especially when I'm working with collaborators as well is like there's no such thing as a finished product anymore. If you have a successful thing on your hands, it will change every day from now until you stop working on it.
nd so there's no such thing as finished. There's no such thing as perfect because if it's not finished, how can it be perfect? And so just let's launch it, we'll see what people say and if they tell you to change something, that's what you do. And so yeah, so there's no such thing as perfect, launch it, get it in the hands of people as soon as you can, they will tell you what's wrong with it.
I think another cool thing about the vantage point from which you can look at things is that very few people get to see the actual behind the scenes details of taking a project from start to finish as many times as you have.
Maybe investors have but very few people in the driver's seat have actually gotten to do that because they're not as prolific as you. I'm sure going through this process time and time again you've learned a lot of lessons about how to actually get the thing that you've made into the hands of users rather than the typical fate of most projects and businesses which is to fade away with nobody ever trying it out. What are some of the lessons that you've learned about promoting what you've done, distributing what you've done and what channels have you found particularly effective for getting the word out about your projects?
Well, I think I actually learned this lesson when I worked in the agency world as well because I think a lot of times what happened in even in agency world is so a client comes to you and they want to hire your agency to kind of rebuild their website or rebuild a specific app or launch a specific app that they have in mind but it's a large company that you're working with, there's 1,000 people at the company but the person talking to you isn't necessarily the person who's going to be using the product or isn't even the person who's going to give final sign off on that particular app or that particular website.
A lot of what happened in sort of the agency world was that there would be a project manager on the company side as well as on the agency side and so we would go through the cycle of figuring out what the requirements were and doing all that kind of stuff then doing the build and doing the launch, doing the hand off of the project and then the person who's actually responsible for the application or the thing who's actually going to sign off on it and say, this works the way it's supposed to, they would see it at the end of the cycle and they would be like, well this doesn't work. And so I think that's kind of like my first inkling of like you have to get it to the people who are actually going to use it as quickly as you can, kind of came about through that.
Do you have a process that you go through for finding those initial users and getting it into their hands?
It depends on the app and it depends on if I'm working with other people and things like that, too. Typically, a lot of the things I do side project wise are kind of meant for people like me in terms of they're either software people or their web design people or things like that. And because I've been a part of the community for so long, I already have access to a few of those. I'll build something and long before I launch it I've shown it to 10, 12 people already just to get their initial thoughts on it, just high level, this is a good idea, this is a bad idea, I like the overall look and feel of it, sort of that kind of thing.
That's like the ultimate hack, and it's what you said earlier, it's building things that you want to see yourself because then you, ultimately what you really want to do is just understand the customer or the user that you're building for and if you're building a product for yourself, then of course you understand where you hang out online, what kind of features are important to you, et cetera. And that makes it easier to build a product that other people like you will also enjoy.
Yeah, absolutely. and then, I mean, there are certain websites out there like we've used BetaList in the past, we've used for our kind of a splash page, this kind of web app is about to launch soon. You collect email addresses, you kind of send out the emails, hey, we've got our MVP out, we'd love for you to come and try it out.
Product Hunt just started something like that called Upcoming as well where you can kind of list your upcoming product that hasn't launched yet. You can connect email addresses, kind of get feedback like that. Increasingly now as well, there seems to be, there's a Slack for that too. Whatever industry you're working in, whatever product or service you're trying to build, there's probably either a Facebook group or a Slack group of people who are your target market. Join that community, start being a part of that as soon as you can.
Obviously, don't spam them or kind of anything like that but start engaging, start seeing what they're talking about, start seeing are they actually experiencing the same pain that you're trying to solve? And if they are, awesome, if they're not, find out what problem they are trying to solve. And just start having those one on one conversations with people in those communities and to see if you're trying to solve something that really exists.
What's your take on Product Hunt itself as a distribution channel for getting the word out about something that you've built? And do you have kind of a checklist or playbook that you go by for promoting what you've done on Product Hunt?
So I think it kind of depends on why you've built something. I find Product Hunt is great. It may not necessarily get you the biggest audience numbers that you can get elsewhere but I find most influencers look on Product Hunt first before they look elsewhere.
When we launched willrobotstakemyjob.com about six or seven weeks ago now, Product Hunt was the first place that I kind of launched it. I knew it would do well on Product Hunt but I knew that that was my door into a lot wider space. We launched on Product Hunt. I'm not sure if you heard that story but we got from the like six million page views in less than three weeks, I think it was.
Yeah, it was huge. I remember you posting about it on Indie Hackers and I thought it was mind blowing how much traffic you got.
It was awesome. I think the thing was is that even thought Product Hunt itself didn't send us a lot of traffic, there was a lot of people who check Product Hunt to see what's cool and what's new so that they can then spread the word elsewhere 'cause we got most of our traffic from MSN and AOL and places like that but had I not posted on Product Hunt, the people who wrote about it on those other places would never have heard about it.
So you didn't pitch any press? You didn't actually reach out to them?
We pitched a couple after we'd launched 'cause that was our plan was we'll launch it on Product Hunt, we'll kind of get our initial feedback from the community and then we'll kind of start to reach out to the press once we're happy with everything working the way that it's supposed to and everything looking the way that it's supposed to.
Obviously, it didn't end up working quite like that 'cause the press kind of found it and kind of ran with it all on their own. So yeah, I think that's the one thing I try and tell people is that Product Hunt's awesome and obviously, if you've got the kind of product that will be a good fit, I think it will send you a lot of audience and it will also send you potentially customers as well but I try and not make it my only way to kind of spread the word.
If you are going to do press, if you are going to pitch it, try and pitch the press at the same time as you're doing your Product Hunt launch. If you're trying to raise money on Angel List or something like that, if you're going to post yourself on AngelList, you're trying to launch on Product Hunt around the same time so that when people find your AngelList posting, they go, oh, I just saw them on Product Hunt.
'Cause there is that small community of people that hang out in most of the places that you would use to get more exposure and sort of more kind of start up related things but they kind of use Product Hunt as a has that product or that service been on Product Hunt? If not, why not? Why haven't they launched on Product Hunt?
If you can leverage Product Hunt to kind of make sure that people have already heard of you when you want those other things, I think that works the best that I've seen. When I've pitched press in the past, I've told them, "Hey look, I just launched this thing, it's number one on Product Hunt or it's number two on Product Hunt." They tend to pay more attention to it than if I just pitched them without having been on Product Hunt itself.
Yeah, it adds legitimacy to what you've done. And I've found similar effects on other communities on the internet where some communities are a really good launching pad to get what you've built noticed in other places.
A few weeks ago, there was an article that I really wanted to get on Hacker News but instead of posting directly to Hacker News, I submitted it to a subreddit, /r/entrepreneur and the people there liked it and eventually they submitted it to Hacker News because there was so many people there looking at it. Yeah, it's really good to be aware of the various communities you can post and get traction.
And obviously, Product Hunt is the one that I most associate with you just because you're so prolific there and you won Product Hunt's Maker of the Year. But I'm also glad that you mentioned your project that you released a few months ago, willrobotstakemyjob.com which if you're listening to and you haven't been there, you should go there and absolutely find out if robots are going to take your job.
I would love for you to go into detail and tell the story about that project from beginning to end because it has all of the challenges and all of the hallmarks, really, of getting any side project out the door. For example, you had to find a collaborator to work with, you had to actually build the thing and make it good but at the same time, be mindful of spending too much time working on it. You had to launch it and promote it and get it into people's hands. How did all of this happen and how did it begin?
Will Robots Take My Job, it's a very simple website, you go, you punch in the title of your job and it gives you a percentage likelihood that your job will be automated away either through AI or through robotics and kind of things like that. And actually, so it's not my idea. This is one of those ideas where somebody else came to me with the idea.
About two months ago, I joined the freelance.tv Slack group. Freelance.tv is a new website by Dann Petty who's an awesome designer out in California. And so I was just, I joined the Slack group and somebody reached out to me on the Slack group and was like, "Hey, I've seen you on Product Hunt, would love to work on something with you at some point." And I was like, "Well, absolutely awesome. I would love to as well."
But it's one of those things where it's like, well, I don't know who you are, I don't know anything about you, I'm not going to work on the next big project with you, why don't we start with something small? So his name's Dimitar and he lives, I should say, out in Bulgaria and so we did all of this in Slack. We didn't actually talk to each other until after we'd launched the actual app itself. We didn't actually speak online, we didn't do a hangout or anything like that. We did everything in Slack.
Yeah, we kind of tried to come up with some ideas of things that we could work on that would be kind of small in scope that we could kind of get a feel for how we would work with each other in terms of working, something that might someday become much larger. And so we kind of threw out some ideas.
And one of the ideas that Dimitar had was that he found this report that was published in 2013 by some researchers over in Oxford that just did the analysis of looking at 700 odd jobs, and looked at the skills that were associated with those particular jobs. They did all of the mathematical research to figure out what the likelihood of a particular job being automated away was. And so it was a very long-winded report, it was something like 50 or 60 pages long that talked into how they did all of their research and how they figured out what this percentage was.
And at the very end of it was like these three pages where they listed these 700 jobs and what the percentage was that that particular job would be automated away. And we were like, well, that's really interesting. Nobody's going to read a 50 page report and get to the end of it to kind of look at these things. We kind of found a way to kind of extract all that information out.
And we're like, well okay, so we know we can use this information. And then we're like, well, just having a job title and the percentage isn't very interesting so how can we pad this a little bit so it's a little bit more interesting? So we went and found on the Bureau of Labor and Statistics has a website which actually, the report actually used the same job code ids as the U.S. Department, I guess there's some official job classification stuff that exists.
And so we pulled down some information about how many people actually work in this job, what's the average salary for a person in this job, things like that just to kind of pad the sort of information a little bit to make a little bit more interesting. Once we knew that we could get all that information, we kind of like, okay, well, it's still a very simple website, right, like you come, you search for your job and we give you a page that gives you the likelihood that that particular job would get automated away with some extra information as well.
And so we figured we could kind of build it in a couple of weekends is kind of what we thought. And so that seemed small enough in scope that it was a good first project to kind of see if we like working together, if we liked the work that we did, sort of that kind of stuff. And so yeah, we kind of sat down and kind of figured out who would do what. And like I said, he was a designer and he actually did some front end work as well.
He did all of the UI and did the HTML and the CSS stuff and then I did everything else in terms of taking the information that was in the report, importing it into a database so that people could search it, collect the other information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and all that kind of thing and kind of glue it all together so that when you'd search for a job, you got back all of the right stuff.
And so we did that and we did it in a couple of weeks.
Obviously, working a few hours here and there, wasn't like a full time thing or anything like that. A few weeks later, we kind of launched it and it kind of went insane. Like I said, we kind of launched it on Product Hunt, I think we posted it on Hacker News as well in the Show Hacker News area, I can pull up the stats right now but...
I mean it was something like four million page views in the first five days or first few weeks or something.
I think we've actually crossed seven million now.
That's nuts. Not bad for a two week project.
Right. And it was one of those things, we were like, well, we're going to do this project just to see how we might like working together so that when we do something real, something's that's going to be big, that we actually know that we want to work together. I don't think we're ever going to do anything quite this large.
You skipped a few steps.
Yeah, we skipped a few steps. We just went straight to the large project instead. But yeah, so just looking at the stats now, yeah, so we've done 7.5 million page views since we launched and we launched on May the 29th is when we launched.
What do you think it was about this project in particular that made it so popular? And are there any lessons that you learned here that you're going to carry forward into your future projects?
No, I mean I think it's just a topic that people are really interested in. There's just a lot of talk right now about people being afraid of their jobs being automated away. It's a very common worry.
It's not limited to a particular part of the industry, like the particular part, the working population, everybody seems to be concerned about this whether you're a web designer or a web developer or somebody working on a farm. Everybody seems to be interested to know if there's going to be some machine or some AI that's going to come and take your work. And so I think that's one of the reasons that it gets so much attention is that it just is something that people are talking about a lot right now.
I think one of the other things that we did, a lot of other people, this report's existed since 2013. And so other people have built these kind of things in the past but I think the way that we presented the information too was really a unique way. I think some people had taken that same information and just put together a website that just had the list on it. But you're just seeing a list of jobs and the percentages. It's not very interesting.
And the way that we did it in terms of you actually type in your job and it kind of gives you the matches of the jobs. You can easily find your job.
And then we did put a lot of effort into making it so that you could share your particular job as well. We made it very easy for you to post on Facebook, my job has a five percent chance of being automated away. What's yours? Doing that kind of thing. We made it very easy for people to spread the word about the website as well.
Yeah, I see the social buttons there. I think it makes a lot of sense that you guys made it so personal. You're not looking at everybody's jobs, you're just looking at your job and how that will be affected which makes it more fun to share.
I think that really was the key thing because I think we did end up getting a lot of traffic, we'd see spikes coming from when it was posted on some news websites as well but we'd see a corresponding spike in social activity as well.
We'd see this spike coming because it was on AOL or it was on some TV station as well, it was covered on TV as well, it was covered on TV and radio as well a lot but we'd see that, that spike come in and then we'd see the long tail of that. Hours after that, we'd see the traffic from Facebook and Twitter stay high after that 'cause people were sharing it and people were finding it from Facebook and people were sharing on Twitter and people were finding it on Twitter as well.
So to close out because we're running out of time, I'd love to get your thoughts on what the average person can do to bring their ideas into reality 'cause I think most people are in a situation where they're facing a lot of the challenges that you seem to have overcome so effortlessly.
They have full time jobs, they might not know who to work with, they might now know what to work on. And once they've finished, they might now know how to get it into people's hands. What is the biggest or the best thing that they can do to go from where they are now to producing a project that people will pay for or at least that they can build an audience for?
I think the biggest mistake people make when they're doing this thing for the first time is they start too large. They try and build a massive project that solves 100 different things, that kind of thing.
I think most people, what they need to do is start small. Build a one page website that solves one specific, that solves one thing.
Because I think a lot of the things that people forget is, they look at things like Facebook and even Instagram and those kind of things and they see these big massive sites that are out there that do so much. You can share videos and pictures and you can share your statuses and things like that but they forget that when most of those things launch, they did one thing.
And I think that's the trap that people fall into is like well now I've got to compete with Facebook which means I've got to do all the things that Facebook does. But the reality is that you don't have to. Start small, build a small audience, do one thing. Once that's locked in and you're doing well with that, add the second feature, add the third feature, add the fourth feature.
And I think if you start small like that too it also makes the other things that you have to do easier too. If you're looking for somebody to build something, you're not presenting them with this 60 page spec of what they need to build because you're building 20 features. You're building one feature, you can spec that out in one page. Now when you're looking for people to work with, it's a lot easier to get them to sign on for building something smaller than this big massive thing that they would have to commit six months to as well.
You're speaking to my heart right now. If only I could take this episode back in time to little Courtland like 10 years ago. Alright, well thank you so much for the advice. Can you tell people who are listening in where they can go to learn more about you and find the projects that you're working on?
Absolutely. Well obviously, on Product Hunt, @mubashariqbal, same on Twitter, that's probably the place I am active the most. I share a lot of links and things related to making side projects and kind of things like that as well and my website is mubs.me so that's pretty easy I think.
Alright, well thanks for coming on the show and it was great having you.
Thank you very much.
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