Rather than pursue a traditional career, Hiten Shah (@hnshah) decided to follow the choose-your-own-adventure life of being a founder. Since then he's launched more than 30 products, including five multimillion dollar products and a few spectacular failures as well. In this episode we talk about embracing and reflecting on failure, making better business decisions through research, the importance of sharing and teaching what you've learned, and how to make sure you're working on what matters.
Hiten Shah, welcome to the Indie Hackers podcast.
Courtland, welcome to talking to me.
Thanks Hiten. You're someone whose name has come up over and over again since I first got into tech 12 years ago, man. You are everywhere. You've done everything. You started something like four or five multi-million dollar businesses.
You founded Crazy Egg and Kissmetrics and I think it's safe to say that without those two companies, founders would be tracking metrics, analyzing them very differently than how we are today. You are the co-host of the Startup Chat podcast. You spend a ton of time, I think, just helping founders build better companies.
You've got a book and a mailing list and a blog called Product Habits that I subscribed to. You share all sorts of critical information for building successful products. Today you're running a company called FYI with your co-founder, Marie Prokopets and or even a guest on the Indie Hackers podcast, which I think is probably the coolest thing that you've done.
Of course it is.
I wonder if you reflect on spending your life this way and having a career as a serial founder? You could have easily not done any of this stuff. You could have easily been a doctor or a marketer at somebody else's company, helping them build their dream. What's so great about being a serial founder instead?
Adventure. I think being a founder is the same as, the way I would describe it as, it's a choose your own adventure and that's what I find the most exciting thing about it.
That's why there's some folks out there, even such as my co-founder, Marie, who I really suggested early on that she should work for herself because she's – I would call it a choose your own adventure type of person. At that time I never really thought that we would work together or I didn't really have a second thought about it.
I was just reflecting on the person I knew her as. And I think there are a lot of folks out there that fall in that camp of really having the most enjoyment in life by being these choose your own adventure type people.
So that would be the way, I've never described it before, but as you're talking and asking me this question after that wonderful summary about my history, it just boils down to that. It's amazing how you can also have that experience and have a normal career.
I think one thing I would point out, a quick story I've never really told publicly is, at one point there was a company called Causes that Sean Parker from Facebook was a part of. He was a co-founder I believe, and him and Joe Green, who was running it at the time was also a co-founder.
They invited me over to Berkeley to see their office and hang out in the evening and they were basically looking for someone to head up product. And this was many years ago, many years ago, I don't even remember what year. And I had, that was only time I've ever met Sean Parker.
And I met Joe Green a few times before that. And they literally were explaining to me what Causes is and hanging out. We were talking and then we had, we had dinner and at one point, like Sean Parker mentioned, "Oh, you know, this would be a great thing for your career."
And I said, "I don't have a career. I'm a founder." And so that's the way I look at it. And that's my viewpoint. And I think when you're having a choose your own adventure life and you get to have that today, I mean, so many of us have that opportunity today. So, so many of us. It's amazing. And it's different than a career.
So that would be the first thing I would say is, I'm not insulted by the terminology or anything like that, but it really clicked at that time with Sean Parker when he was trying to imply I had a career and I was telling him, “I don't have a career. I don't view my life like that.”
I think career usually implies you have a job and you're going to go level up and have more jobs and work for other people, which is totally cool. If folks didn't want to work for other people or work for companies they didn't start, more accurately, then I wouldn't be able to build businesses.
So this is out of a lot of respect for those folks too, which I'm sure we'll get into at some point today in some different ways. But at the end of the day, I don't have a career. I'm a choose your own adventure type of person and it's what I know. So that's why I do it.
I love that. I've never heard anyone describe it as an adventure. I hear people talk about freedom a lot, how they don't really want to be under the yoke of someone else. But I'm a big believer that you should run towards things not away from things. So having your own adventure really is, I think, a great way to describe it.
I also like that you’re an evangelist for having your own adventure. You get other people, you got Marie, in some respects to quit her job and join you on this adventure. I spend a lot of time doing the same thing, trying to convince people, “Hey, you know, starting a company is not as scary as you might think and it's super fun actually. So why not take that leap?”
In her case, she was already out. I was just like, “Hey, this is right for you, kind of thing. And I think so.” And what was more interesting was, I don't know who convinced who, but eventually we just started working together and it's been a real adventure.
It's been one of the most fantastic adventures of my life. One of the things I've learned the most from is by actually working with her and working on the things that we work on.
What do you think got you started down this path in the first place? Before you started very first company, what convinced you that you don't necessarily need to be somebody who has a career in the traditional sense of the word?
I completely blame my father for my existence as a founder. The reason is when I was four or five years old, I think he debates on what age it was. We both, well not we both. He told me I should be, I should work for myself. He didn't call it founder or entrepreneur. He said I should work for myself.
His theory was that that's the only way you can maximize the amount of money you can make, value you can add to the world. He is a physician, he's an anesthesiologist. He also runs free health camps all over the world, including like eye surgeries and really intense sort of procedures and things like that, but free, all over the world.
He's traveling a lot and he's also essentially a full time physician. He's the one that really, not even pushed me, but basically just straight up told me that. There are a lot of reasons for that that are probably personal to him about what he was unable to do in his life and what he wanted for me. And also the fact that he kept emphasizing that point and was just like look like, like gave me all the examples, help me see it.
He even says that like as a physician he doesn't use his brain and it's all muscle memory. I'm like, “That's a really interesting way to look at it.” I think those things all led up to at least my initial impression of what I should be doing with my life. I think the other piece of this is that he was very supportive of that.
There are many folks you know who are born in India and have raised kids here in the U S and they tend to have a viewpoint of, my career or what I'm doing as a physician is great. My kid should have that opportunity as well and do that. They basically give their kids a different sort of experience that my father gave me.
He gave me a very open experience. I got into tons of trouble growing up, all kinds of things. Partly probably to resist this idea that I should be my own boss or do my own thing in ways to basically rebel against him for convincing me of this or just giving me this impression from early childhood.
So I've never really had a job. The only job I've had is an internship in high school at a medical devices company that my father knew the two founders when they started in the garage, in their garage. The company is now a public company. It's called Masimo. I was like the intern in the IT department. My claim to fame there is, it was down in Irvine, California.
My claim to fame there is, I think I took the company picture when they were much smaller than they are today. My dad got some early IPO stock and then he gifted it to me and it's just been climbing up since. That's my story there. I don't know any better, just like many other things in my life.
I just don't know any better. I don't know if I want to know better cause I don't know the other side. Maybe one day I'll experience the other side one way or another. But right now I'm, for lack of a better word, I start companies and I tend to get people to work with me
It can be so impactful to have somebody telling you that it's ok to be a founder. Like they don't even have to be pushing you like your dad was really, they can just be like, “Hey, this is a path. Consider it.”
In the absence of that, all you really have is society and society is relentlessly telling you one story, giving you one option. It's an assumption baked into every level of society that you are an employee, that you have one specialization, that you sort of turn yourself into a cog that's meant to fit into some bigger machine, that you have a boss, you get weekends off, you get granted vacation time.
It's a shame this society is so relentless telling everybody the story because what if you're a person who likes to choose your own adventure but you don't even know about this other path? You're never going to do it. You’re just going to be unhappy at work all the time and wonder why. That doesn't mean it's easy to be a founder.
I mean, even if you know about this ultimate alternate path, it's not really much of a path, right? There's not a playbook for how to be a founder. There isn't a founder school really. There are no railroad tracks to guide you. You just kind of have to figure it out.
Not at all. Not at all.
How did you figure things out?
I was getting out of college and my now cofounder of a bunch of things, not Marie, but Neil, who at the time wasn't my brother-in-law, but I was engaged to his sister. I have known him since he was 11 and I was 15. We were basically connected because of his sister.
She said, “Hey, my brother has one customer paying him 3,500 bucks a month to do SEO and you should probably go work with him or talk to him and see if you two can work together cause you're getting out of college. He's getting into college and he's kind of serious about doing this,” and I'm like, “I don't know anything about the internet. I know about like Kazaa and all those different products of Napster and etc. that will let you download music and stuff like that.”
That was the most advanced I got. I've had a computer since I was eight. I was programming using QBasic back in the day, but I never really, I was really great with computers but never really went further than that in terms of getting deep into it or understanding marketing online or anything.
So we just started a team up and started working together and then from there we decided we wanted to build some software products. We were making good money at the time and we started investing in building products. Neither of us are technical, so we started hiring a bunch of folks and learning what all that felt like from an engineering standpoint and things like that.
Try building about a dozen different products and got what I would say I keep saying got lucky with Crazy Egg. That creates heat maps for where people are clicking on a page.
That product launched right around 2005, early 2006 and it's self-funded as of right now and will continue to be for the foreseeable future because it's been going so long this way. That's what we basically did with our capital from the consulting company. We started a SaaS business. That was somewhat accidental, but we were definitely trying really hard to try.
Trying really hard to build a SaaS business because we saw that consulting wasn't going to take us as far as we wanted from a just cashflow standpoint as well as like valuation and things like that. With consulting someone is spending their time to do the work.
What was it with Crazy Egg that you refer to you when you say you got lucky and why were these other dozen products that you worked on not lucky in the same way?
So many reasons, but at the end of the day Crazy Egg really met a market need. All the other ones didn’t meet a strong enough market need. We did a ton more research and diligence in the market opportunity and the differentiation and all those great things with Crazy Egg that we just didn't do prior to that with our previous endeavors that we tried.
I call it luck just because I'm not sure how deliberate we were, but we were just getting smarter with each iteration, each thing we were doing. This was back in 2003 to 2005, 2006-ish. We were just hammering ideas and seeing what would work.
We even did a few after Crazy Eggs, early days, just because we didn't know if it was going to work or not ultimately. I find that there's nothing more valuable than building or trying to build and launch and learn and the idea of you just figure out how you want to do it and how you get to find your special way to do that.
Essentially that's why going back to the whole, choose your own adventure. Each time you're choosing an adventure, you're choosing a market to serve, a customer base to work with and a product to build with them. That whole thing is something that's very individualistic.
Today, even with the audience you have and the folks that are listening, they're builders, they like to build stuff, right? So they can just build lots of stuff and learn what they favor, what they like, what they gravitate towards. That experience is, I think under – underappreciated, this adventure that you go on, even if you fail.
You don't know if you're gonna fail when you start. Is failure really failure or is it just a set of experiments and a set of learnings that you get to look back on and reflect on and say, “Oh, I learned this, I learned that and that led to the next thing that I'm doing.”
I sometimes look at business advice and strategy and all this information that's out there is kind of like a pyramid. At the base of the pyramid you've got advice that maybe applies to every business everywhere. You go up a little higher. The pyramid gets skinnier.
It's advice that applies to maybe only internet businesses and then only SaaS businesses and then maybe only, I don't know, analytics businesses and then at the very top and you've got you, which is just your own unique style for doing things and no one has any advice for you because you have to figure it out on your own and it reflects your personality and the way that you want to do things.
After having this period of really launching a dozen different products and learning more along the way, what is the personal style that you would say you came to develop and inject into the things that you built?
Yeah, this really, especially came out I think more recently, especially as I started working with Marie more. We have a lot of complimentary values, ideology, and ways to work that have been really helpful as well as many differences between us in terms of how we think about the world and our experiences from the past.
The thing that really hit me and I think as more necessary than ever is really making sure that the problems you're solving for customers are related to their top challenges, their priorities. That can be in consumer products or B2B products. You really want to focus in on what are their top challenges, top problems, and how do you go identify them.
We spend a lot of time on getting really great at finding the problem people have, whether it's a problem they have with our product, our business, our funnels, our user experience, our marketing even or even problems they have with products and alternatives to what we're looking to build or problems that people describe they have in the market.
Then we get to double down and figure out what kind of – the right kind of solution to build. This really hit me many years ago with the lean startup movement that I was a part of in the early days, as well as idea of customer development from Steve Blank. So lean startup from Eric Ries, customer development from Steve Blank, and a lot of the qualitative analysis that Sean Ellis would do around product market fit.
These are things I would say that were my teenage years, so to speak, of the internet and learning how to build products. This was about 2007 to 2010-ish, 10 plus years ago. That really helped me develop this thesis. That being said, when there's lots of money flowing into the system and there isn't a recession or a crash or the housing market crash a while ago when there's a lot of money, it's much easier to just not be as disciplined.
I think now more than ever, it's so easy to be actually disciplined because you have to, customers have so many choices. You don't actually get to take up their time unless what you're providing them is really, really valuable. And so to me, like my perspective is research first. It's not the bad word research, it's not, take six months to do research.
It's the rapid research, it's the iteration that you can do when you're really focused on customer needs, customer problems. I think the thing I'm really inspired by as a concept of customer obsession from Amazon and that really resonates with me and I like to talk about that a lot. How can you be obsessed with your customer?
Because if you're not, someone else will be more obsessed than you and then you are essentially going to lose.
Yes, that's it. I've had kind of a similar path. I remember 2012-2013 reading a lot about the lean startup, etc. But it wasn't as dialed into it as you were. I mean, you were intimately involved with creating that kind of stuff.
I was just reading it and then promptly ignoring all of the advice and not doing any research, not talking to customers, just building whatever felt good to me to build as a developer. Then not succeeding.
Then, I think when I created an Indie Hackers, I took a more research-based approach. I spent days just talking to customers and looking at what they needed and coming up with an idea. It worked a lot faster and more successfully than anything I had built in the past. So I totally align with you on that research-based approach.
Is there anything that happened to you in the past with any of your businesses that sort of solidified this in your mind as the way to go? Did you ever take an opposite approach and have it not work out?
Yes, constantly. One classic example is we tried to build a podcast advertising network many years ago. This was the mid two thousands, a little bit later, six, seven or eight, I don't remember which year. It failed because we didn't do the research. And what ended up happening is Michael Arrington from TechCrunch when he wrote the post about it, the product was called Fruit Cast.
When he wrote the writeup he basically said are $250 CPM equivalent. That was basically more than what radio ads were going for. We didn't do the research. We had no idea. We were so focused on the podcaster. This was 10 years ago, over 10 years ago, when podcasting wasn't as big as it is right now. That failure was like a big one and we just didn't do the research.
We didn't do the homework. If you don't want to call it research or whatever, do your homework, figure out what actually matters to customers. Figure out what they're willing to pay for it. Figure out what they're paying for it today. There's so many aspects of this that you can double down on, especially now when a lot of things are public.
You can type in lots of things in Twitter, you can do a lot of Google searches, you can look at a lot of the review sites. You can look at reviews on iTunes and the marketplaces, whether it's a Google Android marketplaces in the stores and really see what's going on. You can even look at reviews in your category for the market that your business is in. Look at book reviews and figure out what people are thinking about the category.
There's a ton out there and you don't have an excuse. Even if you're an engineering and you don't gravitate into talking to people. You can do a ton of research to find their problems online and it's very, very, very easy to do. Absurdly easy to do that I would say that you can get a ton of knowledge about what problems people have just by combing the internet. Process wise, I would say just be organized about how you collect that information and then you can analyze it.
What we do is we put any of this kind of research, we call it competitive analysis or market analysis or for us competitors are like alternatives to your product, not just direct competitors. And you can just – essentially if you're an engineer, you might want to go crawl a bunch of these reviews, right and pull them in or whatever.
We tend to do it very manually these days and just read everything which I liked doing. I think you should be reading all these things. Then start categorizing them manually and then start learning, Oh, these are the challenges people have, here's how they're describing them. Using that as your way to think of, what are the creative solutions that you can put together.
One aspect of this that I just want to double down on before moving on from this piece is like there's a part of lean startup that Eric Ries talks about called basically problem and solution. He really calls it like you have a problem team and a solution team early on in the company. You can say it's not necessarily a team, but it's about having the discipline to go just focus on finding the problem.
What are the problems people have? What are their top challenges? Things like that. That's essentially what I describe. Then saving all your creative energy, not for that, not for finding the problem, not for analyzing it, not for documenting it, but actually for coming up with the most creative solutions, the MVP, minimum viable product, if that's what you're into.
Or the first pass at solving the problem. That's a separate endeavor. That's where you put your creativity. That's where you should be using your creative energy, not when you're trying to look for the problem. I see people mix this up still. Those are two very different things. You could almost say they use different parts of your brain if you want to go there.
But at the end of the day, that difference is really powerful of knowing that, look, I'm looking for the problem. That's all I'm doing right now. After I find the problem, then we're going to go talk about the solution and figure out what are the right solutions that we want to go after. What are the experiments we can run that solve that problem better than anyone else?
Or you could do it the way that most people do it, which is the bad way, which is just start with the solution. I really want to build this thing. I really want this to exist in the world. You create that and then usually it does not go well.
Let's talk about this process that you're describing as it's applied to your companies because you've started –how many products do you think you've started in your non-career as a founder. How many products have I started my life? It has to be dozens by this point.
Well, it was dozens in the early days. I could easily say you're looking at like 30 plus if I really want to dig in and consider certain smaller things, products, and things like that. We built a scheduling product for Twitter before Buffer existed and we never really launched it, but we did a whole bunch of research on it.
It was called Share Feed and then they actually acquired it at some point. We played around with a lot of things back in the day and that's just one random one. We built a product called tweet this or twit this T-W-I- T- T-H-I-S we partner with somebody on it and then they took it over. That was a Twitter button, a tweet button before they existed.
So there was just a lot of these random things I could just go off on. We built a social media buzz tracker called Surph, S-U-R-P-H, back in the day. We built this thing called Product Planner to map out user flows for products. I could go on. This list is very long and they aren't like the big ones where we tried to build a web hosting company and wasted a million and never launched.
There's a lot of these stories that are out there that we've shared. My co-founder, Neil and I, him and I are the ones that were doing a lot of that experimentation. More recently Marie and I have built definitely at least five to ten products and not all of them worked. Now we're consolidated down to having Product Habits as a brand and an email newsletter and hopefully more coming soon and then have FYI as our course or a business that we work on.
So maybe the best thing to talk about is FYI. How did you apply this process of really doing the research and talking to customers and making sure that you're focusing on the problem first before you start working on the solution? How did that apply to coming up with the idea for FYI and getting started building it?
FYI is a really interesting one. We had two different products before we built FYI that basically failed. We were building, at first, a product called Dogo where we let people upload their pitch decks for pitching investors, whether it's pre-seed, seed, Series A, Series B and later. Then they could invite their advisors in and advisors could give feedback on the decks.
We just noticed that that was a problematic process and we noticed some challenges with it. We did a bunch of interviews and I would say got some false positives on the problems that were worth solving. So then we just built it.
We were building that because we thought we might raise a fund and wanted to invest in companies because Marie and I were really good at and are really good at giving people feedback together and helping them think through their business problems and things like that, which we both I would say used to love to do and have definitely been doing a lot less lately because of our shift in focus.
We built that and it was an early access. We never got out of early access. Then we decided that wasn't a top priority for founders. The top priority when they're raising money is literally introductions to investors. If they don't know them, that's a top priority. Not getting feedback on their pitch decks.
Even though we had built a pretty good product for it. It helped like 300 people with their pitch decks. Not even using just the tool, but we had given that much feedback on pitch decks. We have a whole storytelling framework for pitch decks that's out there that we haven't really shared publicly, but I share it with anyone that needs to raise money.
We did that at first. We even ran workshops on helping people with their pitch deck. It was a really interesting time a few years ago when we were doing that. This was before there were actually as many seed funds as there are today and things like that. We decided to move on because we just didn't want to raise a fund and to get into that market.
We realized that the software product we had in mind that would help us in that market wasn't right and it wasn't really solving the top priority people had. A product that helped you get introduced to investors, whether it's angel list platform or something like that was probably way more interesting to build and work on. Hence why angel list is pretty massive and worth a lot of money.
And so what we did is we did this crazy thing that I made up that I still get shit for it, basically. Excuse my French. Which is basically copy and paste Dogo and let's build a new product that's for a wider audience. We actually did launch that product. It was called Draftsend.
We wanted to let people essentially upload a PDF and then add audio to it and get this really awesome player where it wasn't a video, but as you were moving through the slides, you were able to hear the audio and it felt like a video experience.
We had a great launch. We had a whole bunch of people who made these decks out there and the launch was great. It was like number one of the day, maybe the week or the month on Product Hunt. But the problem was there was no retention and we would have to tweak it a whole bunch to make it work for sales or marketing use cases.
We had built a pretty generic product and there were some real technical challenges with the audio side of it that we just kept hitting and also just didn't want to solve at some point because what we've learned is, we did an initial survey to analyze what features people wanted with the product and it turns out that was the first impulse that we had, and data point we had for FYI, which was basically that people wanted to organize their presentations and they felt like they were all over the place.
And so that, and plus us just being frustrated with two failed products and the document space made us step back and actually put out an early access survey that we shared the whole process we went through on our product habits email list, but we put out an early access survey.
One of the main questions was what's your number one challenge? Creating and sharing documents. It turns out the number one challenge, not even with just creating and sharing them but in general the documents is finding them across all the products that people use.
Now there's so many tools out there that help you create documents, share them, and there are new ones coming out every day. We basically learned that and we're like, “Oh this is the problem we want to solve. This is what we want to go after. The reason we want to go after this is cause it's a number one problem. It's a number one challenge people have.”
So it wasn't until that point, literally like probably nine to 15 months in, I don't remember the exact timeline. After two failed products, probably more like a year in, ten months to a year. We basically finally decided to step back and do some deep research and we did that and then we learned, “Oh, that's the number one problem,” and if you fast forward a little bit into that timeline, we ended up basically building a five day MVP, so it was a five day minimum viable product.
We built it in five days soup to nuts from start to finish and it was basically built a search box that allowed you to search across multiple tools and it had a Google drive, Dropbox, Box, and I think One Drive in the beginning. You've just got a search box and you've got to type in the keyword and find the documents across those tools.
There's a bunch of limitations with the APIs because we built it in five days on purpose. We handed it over to about two batches of about 20 to 25 people, and we learned a shit ton about what the product offering should be, exactly what the problems are with providing people with a search box.
What we realized as a search box is just not enough. If we hadn’t built that five day MVP, we probably would have spent so much energy building out a back end and storing all this data and maybe even doing machine learning and all this stuff, and we wouldn't have learned the simple truth, which is a search box is not enough.
It is not a product people will use enough. People will barely use it every week or two. And most people would use it just once or twice a month.
That’s deceptive too, because you can go really deep on a search box. I mean, you can build a search box, test that on people. They're like, “I don't really need to search my documents that much.” You're like, “Oh, let me just connect it to a few more tools and let me make it a little bit more accurate.”
You could spend probably months of your time building a search box for documents. How did you realize that you guys needed to build something different or you needed to add something to it rather than just going deeper on the search box concept?
We knew we wanted retention and we were really honest with ourselves after the first two sort of failed attempts. That's me who's done it before and failed a lot. Right? We had done research for both those other products. We were just not focused on the number one challenge, number one problem people have.
Once we realized that this is the number one problem and because we had already started doing a bunch of interviews with people, we started really looking at the interview data and the MVP data and realizing that there are certain ways people look for documents and we needed to really mimic that behavior in our interface.
They look for documents by getting in the tool that they use and type in searching. So we provided the search box, but we also let you get right in the tool and see all the latest documents in the tool. We also knew that people try to find documents based on what they think in their heads that they've recently had access to and modified. What they end up doing is we ended up building an activity feed that showed them all the recently modified documents.
Then the other thing they do is they try to find documents that people have shared with them and they know the people that have shared with them or the people that have created the documents. These were all mental models that people use in order to find documents.
They ended up creating this idea in their heads when they started looking for documents as to like, “What tool is it in? Oh I don't know what tool it's in. Have I accessed it recently?” Or “Hey, did Cortland share it with me?” With that whole process, we basically learned that we need to build an interface and an experience that lets people find their documents in ways that they already are doing it.
That's, I think, a big thing about research, which is you're trying to identify the behaviors that people already have. Because otherwise you're forcing them to create a new behavior. This search box, believe it or not, was a new behavior for them when they were finding documents. It was the way that they found documents.
It was like the last thing they wanted to do. It wasn't the first thing they wanted to do when they looked for documents, it was the last thing. And so it was used like 10 to 20% of the time when people were looking to find documents. So building the search box and help. The funny thing is in our space with FYI people, there's a graveyard of companies that just built a search box because of the hype around it.
Like you said, how you could double down on it. But really it's the research that helped us get our heads out of our asses, so to speak, and really look at what's going on and what people are doing and realize that we were wrong. A search box is not enough. Thankfully we didn't spend any time at all on building it because we were conscious that, hey, if this solution doesn't work and the fact that other folks have failed with the solution, what's wrong with it and what's it missing and what more do we need to do?
That's really all the things that were in our heads. It's been really enlightening to think about things like that. Even today, when I talk to founders, I try to focus in on like, what are the knowns and unknowns? What are the things that have happened in your market and what are the failures that have happened and how can you actually assess why those things failed on your own and figure out what's going on from the user's perspective?
Secondary to that, I'm looking and spending a lot of time in the research when we interview people or do surveys to understand what behaviors they currently have. What are they doing today? Because what they're doing today is so much more important than you creating some kind of new experience for them.
Because whatever experience you create for them has to help them do what they're doing today better. Otherwise, you're nowhere. Even when you think about consumer products, everything you look at with Facebook or Instagram or Twitter, all those things are things that people want to do. It's things they're already doing. These platforms just make it a lot easier for you to do them,
So you've built over 30 different products. Most people listening who are just considering becoming founders, they've built nothing, or maybe they built a few side projects. They haven't had the opportunity to learn as many lessons as you've learned the hard way, right?
You've learned, probably through doing it wrong, that you needed to keep your MVP to five days, right? You probably built things that took much longer in the past that you've internalized that lesson. You've learned that you need to be aware of the habits that users have today and not try to change what they're doing too much. You learned that you need to do research.
You've learned that you need to look at competitors who've come before you and try the same thing that you're doing and learn from their mistakes rather than just repeating them. You have this whole checklist, I guess, of lessons that you've learned from building so many products. How do you think about all that information that you've accumulated?
How do you make sure that when you're going into something that's new, you're not forgetting lessons that you've learned in the past?
I really love that question, Courtland. It's so important to learn from the past and also not get bogged down by it. Because we can do that too, right? Like, Oh, I failed, I failed, I failed. So I'll give a bunch of things. Well, one, and this is something I really credit to Marie quite a bit because she's very adamant about this and we're creating a culture, and processes internally in our company.
She's been talking about a little bit around postmortems, which is basically everything you do, write a review of it. We have a postmortem template and we have a bunch of sections on it. We do that for everything. Marketing initiatives we do. Product initiatives we do. Sometimes we'll do it for an event that happens in the company.
These are the same as engineering retrospectives or five whys exercises when something goes wrong. It's all in the same category of whatever happened, review it, get your lessons out, good, bad, ugly, and then basically be able to do it better next time. We create templates for things like that. We have a postmortem template for most of the things we do on product development because that's really the core of the business right now.
We also do a bunch of marketing stuff, so we do postmortems on what happens, like from a Product Hunt launch and things like that, so we can do better next time and that helps us do better next time. I think that's a big, big, big piece of it that I can't stress enough. Second piece, there's three. Second piece I would say is just related to that, it's just lots of documentation.
We're a remote team and documentation and process and being able to iterate the process through great documentation, postmortems, all that good stuff is really important and really key and gets me super excited because it's how you essentially get better faster is by actually knowing what you did and why you did it and then what happened and reviewing it.
Documentation and process, I think, are a big piece that we think about a lot. Then the third one is something that's a little different and I'm actually excited to share it and talk about it a little bit cause I see this pattern, I've seen this pattern on the internet for a long time, especially since the early days of 37Signals, now Basecamp where they don't quite do it exactly like this and we definitely do it a little bit differently, but what we do is we basically, with our Product Habits brand, it's a newsletter.
We're essentially doing things, teaching them, and then learning ourselves because we taught – because we're forced to teach other people how to do it. It's not forced, but it literally is. Because we force ourselves to do things. We have the accountability that we need to tell them what we did. Then even more importantly, we need to tell them how we did it. Then we learn.
An early access program for a business or product, we've nailed it, and we've shared about how we did it for FYI while we were doing it. We were using that audience to come on the journey with us and they helped us with interviews and things like that because they knew that by doing that they would learn and they wanted to learn.
That's one. We did that with so many other things. We did that with being able to build the five day MVP. We've documented the processes around doing that and sent emails to folks about it while we were doing it and used them, then too, to basically have this exchange where, “We'd like you to try the five day MVP and we want you to come and basically give us feedback. In that process you learn how we do it, too.”
Then we shared back what the results were and what we learned and all that kind of stuff. We did the same with partnering with the folks at a ProfitWell, also known as Price Intelligently, and did a whole bunch of pricing surveys. We did a series on pricing surveys for FYI early on before we launched and explained all that in great detail.
We did it for user testing to explain how we user tested popular products, the products we user tested were Mixmax, Duolingo, and Grammarly to see how they do onboarding. Then we wrote all about the onboarding process that these companies had based on user testing and what we learned from it. And that was when I was scared to do user testing cause I thought you needed to be an expert.
But then we forced ourselves to do it and we realize that you can do it without being an expert. We taught people how to do that. There's countless other things we've taught, including one that's kind of near and dear to my heart. We had a whole series on engineering estimates and being able to do hourly estimates on engineering instead of points.
You know, all kinds of things that people do there, like t-shirts sizing and all that good stuff or not so good stuff, and we wrote a whole series on that. I think the key thing, the third thing there is, when you force yourself to share with the world that helps you get better already. Then when you take it to another level and say, “We're gonna actually share it with the world, tell them what we're doing, and then also teach them how to do it.”
That puts it on another level. Right? That's why I was mentioning 37Signals and Basecamp. Those folks were one of the first to actually share what they were doing. I'm not sure if I would say they were teaching people, they were teaching people by example, which is super cool in itself. We took it to another level and said, “Why don't we learn ourselves by essentially teaching people deliberately step by step how we did it, what we learned, why we did things.”
Yes, that sharing is so underrated. It's such a good strategy for getting yourself to do what you were saying at first and do postmortems on the things that you've done, right? If you're accountable to an audience that you've got on Twitter or a mailing list to really share what you're up to you then you're going to do it.
It's so easy to just avoid doing a postmortem. I think the default is you just do things, they kind of work, they kind of don't work and you just move on to the next thing, which is shiny and fun and reflecting on something that failed is really not that fun, but it's super helpful. How else are you going to get better if you don't ever sit down and ask yourself, “What went wrong?” Or even, “What went right and why did it go right and why can we do more of that in the future?”
I've started doing this actually with my personal life. We were talking earlier, I've been playing a lot of chess too and God, I love playing chess. It's so fun, but you don't get better if you don't take the time after you play a game to sit back and analyze your moves one at a time and figure out why you made that move, what you could've done better.
Otherwise it's going to be the same over and over again.
Starting a startup is kind of like playing chess, in that you've got a, yeah, I'm bringing out the chess analogies here. I'm obsessing it.
You've got a lot of moves. What I find challenging, and I'm brand new to chess, I've been playing for like a week and a half, is that at any position you've got a dozen moves that you can make and for whatever reason, oftentimes the best move is just really hard to see.
It's really unintuitive. It's the one you're not considering. Considering all these other moves. How do you, as a startup founder, when you have an equally, if not more, bewildering array of choices in front of you, how do you decide what the best next thing to do is? With FYI you identified, “Okay the search box is not enough.”
You can go in any direction, you can pivot to a totally different startup, you can start a different company, you could add different features. How do you know where to go?
More research. I mean, it's great. Once you have people using your product you go and talk to them again, right? Talk to the same people, talk to different people, and really started understanding what problems they have now. So it's almost like there's a gate. You solve number one, number one challenge people have, right? You get good at that.
There's enough people that are using your product to solve that problem for themselves. Then you basically figure out what's the next challenge, what's the next problem I should be solving? So for FYI, we knew we were going to build a singer single-player product where we wanted individuals to love it cause we're building a business where anyone can get started for free.
Now what we know is that we've learned a bunch about how teams want to use FYI or how teams have different problems around documents and we want to solve their problems now. That's the next step. That's the next level of FYI. We really believe, actually, the product's only half built and half done until we get there.
It's never done, but really the 1.0, so to speak. Right now what we're building is FYI for teams. Because we saw a pattern, people would come on and then they would recommend the product to other people on their team without much prompting from us. If they are in a company, we end up seeing them recommend it to other folks in the company just for a simple reason, which is it helps them find their documents faster.
We're doubling down on that idea and saying, “Well what are the dynamics behind the teams and how teams find documents together, how they collaborate on documents together and what they're doing there and what are the things that we can do to make their lives easier around finding documents when they're doing that inside of a team construct, inside of a company.
That's the next thing. We did that by essentially research and learning a lot about them and our original research also hinted at some of the things that we could do around teams. We just didn't want to go build a product that was just utilized for teams because we're not a communication tool in the same way Slack is.
Where in Slack it's like, if everyone comes into the product, that's when it's going to be valuable. If only some people in a team come into the product and use it, it's not really that valuable. You are drawn to it because that's where work happens, according to Slack. That's where communication is, right? So you're kind of left out if you're not in there.
There's a great pull to Slack for people to communicate. For our product it's really just about finding documents, sharing documents, organizing documents, and being able to basically have a better experience and make your life easier because the knowledge that you need can be found really easily. A lot of times that knowledge is not something that you created.
It's something someone else created. We're really focused around, “What do we do there?” And that's what the team and, we've been working on for a while now just to make sure that we're able to build the kind of business we want to and build a product that teams love. That's actually the mantra on our team right now, which is, “Build a product that teams love.”
You’re crafting this image here, Hiten, of solving problems on top of problems. Initially you do your research, you try to figure out, “What are users real pain points? What are their number one problems?” Then you attempt to solve that with your minimum viable product. Okay, well now users have new problems.
Your product doesn't solve it perfectly. So you do your research, you figure out what those are, you solve those. That uncovers a new set of problems and so on and so forth. At what point do you hit the elusive product market fit and how do you even define that term with your company, FYI?
Yes, product market fit is really, I think, twofold. There's a set of quantitative ways to define it and a set of qualitative ways to define it. To me the qualitative ways are like now what's becoming popular with superhumans sort of product market fit engine is what Rahul called it, which is something that Sean actually worked on.
It's a question he likes to ask, “Which is how disappointed would you be if this product no longer existed?” You're looking for 40% or more of folks saying they'd be very disappointed if your product no longer existed. I'm really happy that that's becoming more and more popular. It's had a resurgence. It was really more popular in kind of 2007, ‘08, ‘09, ’10, and even up until about 2012 and it kind of died down a little bit.
But this qualitative measure is really valuable and important. I think another qualitative measure people like to use as net promoter score and having a high customer satisfaction, which I think is a little different than this sort of specific metric. I like this metric a lot and net promoter score I use for different things but not necessarily product market fit.
A lot of people will use it for that. So those are qualitative measures. Then there are a few other qualitative measures like just word of mouth. I think when word of mouth for a product is strong and people are tweeting about it, people are sharing messages on Facebook. People are writing very positive reviews it constantly, unprompted by the company. I think that's a really strong indicator as well. Word of mouth is probably the strongest number one indicator if you can have it or see it, but not every market has a bunch of vocal customers that are on Twitter and Facebook and sharing all kinds of stuff. Right? That’s, I think, a big piece on the qualitative side of understanding product market fit.
Then there's a quantitative side where really, the most important thing is your retention rate period. Which is how high is your retention rate? Are people coming back on a daily basis? What percentage of people who sign up are still with you 90 days later? Those kinds of things are what really matter when it comes to the quantitative measure of retention.
We look at it qualitatively by asking people questions and understanding what kind of sentiment they have and how they feel about the product. Then we go a little bit deeper to understand the value propositions and things like that there, just so that we can iterate and double down on the value that the most satisfied folks are getting.
Then on the other side of it, really look at quantitatively, are we retaining people? And what's causing them to retain? And what's causing them to not retain and how can we improve retention? I would say that you want retention to be as high as possible and that means you're not looking for a 10% retention rate 90 days later you're looking more for 30, 40, 50% retention rate. 90 days later. You want to build a product and a business that can do that.
Yes, retention is one of the most underrated metrics, especially for new founders who haven't had the experience of putting out something that people seem to be excited about. Then they all leave and it's impossible to grow because –.
What's the analogy? You're pouring water into a bucket full of holes. You’ve got to plug those holes. It's something I focused on a lot with Indie Hackers, too. I'd love to just like talk to you about this retention issue for a while because it's tough. If you have a product that's not as retentive as you want, if people aren't sticking around for as long as you need, you're talking about doing research.
What other tools do you have to figure out how to make your product more attentive and what's your mental framework for how you envision this entire process of improving the retention of your products?
Yes, there's a number of different things. I think I will get into research but let me give you the other answers first, because I think the other ones can be valuable. So every product has folks who are actually highly retained. It's unlikely you don't have some group of people that are highly retained.
What you want to figure out is, study their behavior and figure out what's causing them to stay retained. What’s causing them – are they experiencing something that other folks haven't got to in your product.
Are there a certain types of, certain engagement that they have with your product? Certain features they’re using that other folks aren't using? Are they a specific type of person? Do they have a certain job title? Are they in a certain type of company? Are they working in a certain department? Do they live in a certain place?
All these things are what will help you figure out basically who's retained and why they're retained. Then your goal is to get more people like that or decide that those people that you have that are retained are not ideal for your product and they're not, let's say, a customer base that you can grow with and build a business from.
If that's the case, then you're back to square one looking for what you can change in your product. Then there's the folks that are not retained. My favorite thing to do there is more research on finding out why they're not retained. So if someone is dropped off and doesn't use our product after they sign up, the next day or a week later or whatever, go email them and find out with a single question, ask them a single question and say, “You signed up and you haven't used the product, please tell me why?”
Or, “You signed up,” and let's say it's a project management tool. “You signed up and you didn't create your first project. I'd love to learn why because I'd love to help you do it.” Then people respond and you just ask for a response by email. You just say, “Reply to this email.” Don't give them a survey. Don't make them try to get on the phone with you yet. Just ask for a single question.
Ask a single question in a short email and ask for their response and they will give it to you. And you get generally high relatively high response rates to that, especially if you catch them within two or three days of signing up for your product, if not sooner. It's really important. This you can assess based on people not getting through your onboarding and really hitting them at certain points in the life cycle of their usage of the product.
Because more people tend to be dropping off than continue for most products, for pretty much all products. So you're really trying to figure out why they're not continuing and why they haven't done the key actions with your product that they should.
What's cool about this is you can do this all well before you launch. A lot of people look at launches like the initial, inaugural revealing of their product to the world, but like ideally by the time you launch, you've had some people using your product and you've actually surveyed them or talked to them and tried to figure out who's sticking around, why are they sticking around, etc.
Yes. Completely agree.
Let's talk about funding because you've been on both sides of the coin here. You've raised money, you have self-funded. I think if I’m not mistaken, you're the –.
Yes, Crazy Egg, is self-funded, FYI Product Habits is self-funded, Kissmetrics was funded and I've invested or advised about 120 different companies that are, most of them are funded.
How do you decide what you want to do for a particular project of yours? You’ve briefly referenced the product that you started that you blew through $1 million without really launching or releasing anything successful. With the FYI, you've got, I think, at least a dozen employees working with you at this point.
That's a lot of resources. That's not cheap. How do you decide what's worth putting your personal finances into and when you should raise money?
Yes, it's a really good question. The way we think about that is we're looking to focus our energy on building a product that teams love right now. Raising money now would be not the right thing to do for us because we have the capital to keep spending money on it.
Obviously, if you don't have the capital, you've got to find the capital. You can do consulting or provide services or something to basically have capital to build what you need to build. If you're a developer, luckily you can build stuff, right? You're probably, if you don't know how to design, you can find templates and stuff that are out there and build out what you need, typically. To me, I like to think about funding as something where, it's best when you essentially don't need it.
I know that sounds weird, but it's true. Funding is best when you don't need it. If you work backwards from that, all we're trying to do and the way we think about it is, we're trying to create – we're not even trying, we're doing this. We're building for our customers, we're focused on our customers and we're focused on creating the best possible product we can for them.
When we get to a certain place where more capital will help us grow, that's when we would consider raising money. That's the place we're in because we have revenue sources and an ability to keep funding the business until we get to that point, or even longer. And so to me, it's really about raising money when you're ready and you should be ready because you know what to do with that money that you go get.
Because otherwise you'll end up in spots where you have milestones to hit with your business and you've raised a bunch of money and you might not hit those milestones. Then raising more money gets really troubling. You're on this treadmill and you're in that game once you raise money. I like telling people that because to me, getting as far as possible before you raise money is really smart. I'm not religious either way. I'm good. Especially after raising a bunch of money and also helping a lot of people do the same, and also help them scale, and watching them scale. It's really just about raising money, once you're ready. And raising money, once you know what you're going to do with the money and spending as much energy as possible focused on your customer the whole time, because that discipline will last forever, if you can get really good at it.
I like that you point out that when you raise money you're now on this new track, you're on this treadmill where there's suddenly expectations of how fast you need to grow and how far you need to be able to get at a certain point in time. Some of those are just practical. For example, if you raised money and you basically hire a team, once you're out of money, you can't afford to pay them anymore unless she could raise money again.
So you actually need to hit these milestones to be able to raise again. But a lot of it is psychological. Your investors really want you to be able to move at a certain speed and reach a certain level when you've raised the money. I think it's very wise to be aware of that in advance because if you're not confident you're gonna be able to maintain that pace, it's not worth raising money, at least not now.
Most people listening in are people who want to go the self-funded route. They're not really interested in raising money. They're not confident that they live near enough investors or it can even pitch investors. What are some of the decisions that you need to make differently if you're going to be a bootstrapper, so to speak?
Yes, I like calling itself funded, not bootstrapping.
I know, I know you do.
But that I can rant on that.
You're the little voice in the back of my head that makes me feel bad every time I say bootstrapped instead of self-funded.
Heck ya, don’t feel bad, don't feel bad, just say self-funded, say self-funded.
Hit us with your rant. Go ahead and let it out.
The rant is just, we’re not bootstrapping. We’re not bootstrappers, we don’t have boots, we don’t pick ourselves up – most of us don’t have boots. We don’t pick ourselves up with straps on our boots. It’s literally like that image of two hands, each foot, one foot at a time. That’s not what we’re doing. We’re self-funding. We’re funding this ourselves in any way possible. Even the name and the terminology will help you think about it differently.
Think about it. There are companies out there that were self-funded for such a long time before they raised money and some that are massive and have never raised money. Right? MailChimp comes to mind as probably one of the largest companies that's self-funded. But if you think about how companies were started back in the day, they were started with loans. They were started with bank loans and things like that or started with you know very little money from the founders and they just figured it out and they started from scratch.
To me, self-funding is like starting from scratch. Bootstrapping is something that I don't even know what the word means. So it's my mini ran on it. I can go on for days on that. Literally.
Yeah, I know. I agree with you, though. You’re right.
Just because we need to use the right words. Yeah, we need to use the right words, I think, I don't know. I mean maybe I'm a stickler for words and semantics but I want to spread the gospel and thank you for helping you do that there. I don't have very many too much gospel except self-funding is different than bootstrapping cause self-funding is self-funding. Someone mentioned to me, “Oh then there's customer funded.” I'm like, yeah customer funded is great but that's also self-funding.
These are all subsets. These are all things that fall under the umbrella of self-funded. If you want to encapsulate, say self-funded.
Even bootstrapping, whatever that means. Anyway. I think, to your question about self-funding and my advice and suggestions, it's kind of like what I was saying earlier. You can find a way to spend your time, increasingly spend your time on whatever you're working on that is your own thing. Because this is really just about you doing your own thing as you're working on something else.
Companies are getting way more open to side projects. So that's an example, right? While you're working somewhere else. That's one idea. I'm not saying you do that or you don't do that. I know many folks who work in corporate environments that actually have to two laptops because they're doing freelancing on the side or something like that. They don't want to use their company laptop for doing that stuff.
That's totally cool. I've seen that with two phones as well, and that's a very specific reason why. Then what I've seen also is that there's folks who have agencies or doing freelancing and they want to build their own products and they start with something more lightweight. They start with a digital book or eBook or a small course or something like that.
They look to market it and sell it and get that muscle of marketing and sales and things like that. They usually do that in the category of product that they want to build. Then there's just lots of engineers out there who are going to just build things. All I would say is do some research first, do a lot of research first. One other important thing I don't hear enough about self-funding is make sure you start with something that is designed to make money early.
That is not limiting. That's okay. Unless you have enough capital to keep putting into something or you have a way to get that capital without funding your own money somehow. Through consulting or services or freelancing or whatever it may be that you do. Or through savings, even, if you really want to spend your savings on it, so that you can essentially take your time with it if it's something that you think will monetize later.
I'd be very careful with some of those ideas when self-funding. I'd also be very careful with markets where it's really hard to acquire customers and in really assessing some of those things. The market opportunities you go after, I'm one to believe you should go after anything you want.
At the same time, you want to make sure the starting point you have is right for you. That's something that I don't see enough people thinking about, which is what's the market that matches with my capabilities to keep the keep the business alive.
You spent a lot of time helping founders. You've talked about Product Habits, which is your eBook, a newsletter and blog. You've got a little forum on your Product Habits website, too, where it's like, “Hey, sign up for a 20 minute call with Hiten,” which I've done before. You actually helped me out with Indie Hackers a few months back.
What do you get out of all this, this help and how do you manage your time as somebody who's incredibly busy, who is still the founder of several initiatives? How do you find the time?
This one's really interesting and I've been talking about it more and more. For me it's simply the difference between time and energy. And I want to do things I have energy for it and I worry much, much less about the time I have for things.
Especially as I've realized that serendipity is a big part of life and you can lose out on serendipity if you're so focused on your time. I really focus on, is “Do I have energy for doing what someone's asking me to do or what I'm about to do or what I need to do?” And it's not to say that if I don't have the energy for it, I don't do it. It's more like if I don't have energy for it, I think twice, three times before I do it. For example, you emailed me and I think within 30 minutes I emailed you back and said, “Yeah, let's do it.”
And within a few more minutes after that, once you sent me the links, I scheduled – you have two calls, you have a pre-call and you have this call for the actual recording, scheduled those up. We were on within days. Then this is less than a week later, roughly speaking, about a week later, and we're already recording this. I had energy for it.
I was like, “Oh, Courtland. Yes, I enjoy talking to him.” I actually haven't listened to a single podcast of yours. I actually spend my time not listening to podcasts until I get on them, and episodes. But I read a lot of the reviews and I read a lot of the show notes and things like that and that's what I like to do. Then if something's really compelling I will definitely listen to it. But usually I get a lot out of that.
I feel like we spent so much time worrying about time management and we don't spend enough time worrying about energy management. Energy management is the idea that like, “Do I have the energy to work on this right now? Do I have the energy to go do that call? Do I have energy to wake up today, get out of bed and do what I have to do?”
And if I don't, it's not about not doing it, necessarily. It's more about figuring out why. You cannot sustain things that you need to repeatedly do if you don't have energy for them. And if you only make time for them.
Totally agree. And if you're focusing all of your efforts on time management, if you're just obsessing about your schedule and what time you're going to do things and you're not really paying attention to the energy and how you feel when you're doing these things, then it's counterproductive, ultimately, because you're going to have to pay that costs later, right?
You're going to be doing all these things you don't really have the energy to do and then you're going to run out of energy and you're going to have to recover and recovery takes time. You're going to find yourself on the couch watching TV, eating potato chips, and that's time you could be doing things so you actually have the energy to do, so.
It really comes back to bite you later on. So I asked some people on Twitter to submit some questions. I always feel bad doing this because people tweet questions at me and then I forget to ask them. Someone asked, “How do you figure out early things that ideas that are time wasters?” They said that you've spoken about wasting a lot of time when building Kissmetrics, but you haven't talked about how you sort of thought differently about the problems you're trying to train to solve. How do you avoid wasting time or I'll say wasting energy, as a founder?
Yes, it’s really just about working on things that matter. You have to figure out your own systems or learn systems for figuring out what matters. What matters to your customer, what matters to your business, and how do those two things match up? I think a good example is FYI, we know that the problem existed for individuals, that they needed to find documents across all these apps.
So we literally hustled, as they say, even though the word doesn't really resonate with me, but we iterated the product every week until we found the interface and the experience that people love, in order to find their documents. Once we did that, we doubled down on it, built out the backend, really sorted things out, built out the onboarding and all that stuff so that it was really great. Then we tested that and then we shipped it. Then we launched.
That was a May 22nd of 2018, so a little over ago. Since then we've built a desktop app and now we've been building a bunch of – we've been doing a bunch of integrations. We have about 20 integrations now. Then the next thing we're doing is basically building a product for teams. Because we heard that that's what we needed to do, that we heard from customers that that's what we needed to do.
We just want to work on things that matter. If the things I described don't matter, we shouldn't be working on them. I think that's the distinction, which is work on things that matter and figure out what you're going to do in order to make sure the things that matter – to identify the things that matter. Usually it starts with the customer, which is what matters to the customer.
Sometimes early on a business, it matters to you. That's why I said earlier, what matters is that you can keep investing in what you're doing without stopping. That's really important. If you can't invest in what you're doing and continue it, then don't start it.
So then your assessment is, “How can I make what I'm doing, something that I can keep doing? What is the construct I need in my life or my business so I can do that?” Do I need to make money some other way and spend half my time on my product and project?” Or can I spend all my time on it because I have the capital? Is it not that capital intensive?
Looking at the market, the players in the market, the companies in the market, the way to get customers, all those things add up to, “Can I sustain what I'm doing?” I think that that's a really key piece of it, prior to getting customers and users and talking to them is really figuring out the sustainability of what you're doing and that's what matters early on.
Then over time what ends up mattering is customers, right? And making sure that you're working on the most important things for them. Right now we know the most important thing we can work on in the business is build a product teams love.
I love that answer. I'm pretty sure that's going to be the title for this podcast episode. “How to work on things that matter with Hiten Shah.
Love it. Yes, that's pretty good summary. Nice work.
It really is. Let's close out with one more analogy from chess here, Hiten. Like I said, I'm a beginner at chess. If you're a beginner of chess, what you find yourself doing is making what are called blunders, right? You might be playing a great game and then you just lose your queen because you just made a terrible move that you didn't really need to make.
What's scary about blunders is even good chess players to make them sometimes. I was just watching a game this morning. It was between two grand masters playing in a tournament and it got down to the end of the game. This one player had two possible moves he could make. That's it. There are only two possible moves. One would win him the game and one would lose him the game.
And he didn't make either move, he just resigned because he didn't see the winning move. He just didn't check it. So even grandmasters can blunder sometimes. What are some blunders that founders are likely to make, especially first time founders, but even experienced founders sometimes and how can they avoid them?
Yes, and I've made these number of times and we talked about a bunch of them. I think the number one problem is you work on something, you build something that doesn't matter. You build something that nobody cares about. That's usually because you didn't do your homework beforehand. That's the reason why.
You just didn't take the time to step back and think about it. And think of it in a way of, “What's the problem I'm solving? Who has that problem and is it the most important problem to solve for them?” Those three questions are really important early on. That's what people don't do. I didn't just tell you what the problem they have is, I told you how I would solve it.
Every time that I haven't gone through those three things, I've essentially failed because whatever I was building wasn't aligned with what people really, really needed, what their number one challenge or problem was. Even today I was direct messaging with the founder and he was literally telling me, “My product takes two minutes to install.” I'm like, “Cool.” And he's like, “But nobody's installing it.”
I'm like, “Okay,” and then I'm like, “Is it a priority for them? Is it related to a challenge they have?” The founder said, “It's not a priority.” They have these three other priorities that he listed out and all I replied to him with was, “Find a way to make what you're doing a priority for them or find a way to frame it so it helps them with one of their priorities and make sure it helps them with that priority or just pivot, as they say, and change up what you're doing to build something that actually helps them with the priorities they have.”
Because if you're not helping people with what they care about, then you're not meeting them where they are. The key in life, in general, to have a happy life and also a successful product is to meet people where they are and continue to do so as you grow and scale the business.
Great advice and it's something I really hope people take to heart because you're right, it's one of the biggest blunders you can make as a founder and it's something you always have to be on your toes for. You can never take it for granted and relax and stop worrying about what matters to people.
Hiten, thank you so much for coming on the show. It's been a pleasure listening to your story, listening to some of your semantic rants. Can you tell listeners where they can go to find out more about you and FYI and maybe how they can get in touch if you feel like giving some of this free advice to people.
Yes, I'm, I'm happy to. I'll definitely be jumping on the Q & A and we can see if we can do something special if you're up to it.
I'm @hnshah on Twitter, so H-N-S-H-A-H. Then I'm at my product, which you can all use because it's free and it's paid, but it's freemium as they say, is at usefyi.com and it's called FYI. Then my newsletter is free, completely free and it's called Product Habits and it's at ProductHabits.com.
Those are the three main spots today. You'll see me on Indie Hackers as well, whenever Courtland says I should show up.
Anytime man. AMA next week.
If you want, let's do it.
All right. I'll email you.
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