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4 of my biggest mistakes from 2 years of building 👎

I've made some exceptionally poor decisions in my time as an indie hacker 👎

I wanted to share 4 of my biggest mistakes that I believe makers should discuss more frequently.

(Note: These are based on my own personal experiences)


1️⃣ Thinking I need to build an MVP

By failing at so many products, I've learnt a thing or two about validation.

In my opinion, the only source of validation you need is revenue - not upvotes, not subscribers, not positive feedback.

Now, when it comes to finding your first paying customer, building an MVP will only hold you back.

If you're planning to build something that solves a genuine pain point for someone, they should be willing to pre-register and pay for access.

Instead of spending days, weeks, or months building a product, you should use this time to speak to potential customers.

A cold email is the best MVP.

Sell the idea of the solution, then find someone willing to invest in the remedy.


2️⃣ Thinking I was one iteration or feature away from finding success.

If you're building a product, you'll quickly learn if it has real potential.

If you're 6 months into a build, adding one new feature isn't going to suddenly move the needle.

When it comes to building, you'll either know if it's working or not.

What's the best way to know if something has traction?

Refer back to point 1 👆

Sell before you build.


3️⃣ Spending too much time trying to build an audience

I've recently come to realise that building an audience and building distribution are two completely different things.

If you're building an audience, you'll spend months/years working to attract 'potential' customers in the hope that you can later monetise this following.

Distribution, however, is focused on connecting you with real customers who are already looking for a solution to a problem.

If you're an indie hacker trying to get to revenue as quickly as possible, sourcing a distribution channel, not building an audience, will be the fastest way to monetisation.

I've genuinely spent years of my life trying to build an audience, only to find that I had built a following of the wrong 'potential' customers.

If you're building an audience of like-minded peers, you're essentially building a network of friends, not customers. And you know what they say about selling to friends and family...


4️⃣ Learning pointless skills and knowledge

I spent 3 years of my life working for startups. I loved being surrounded by tech.

Every day, I'd spend hours reading articles and research papers about new machine learning models, product roadmaps for social platforms, and the latest in crypto.

While I was infatuated with staying up-to-date with the latest trends, I also wasted so much time learning things that didn't apply to my ultimate goal of creating my own business.

Even now with tools like no-code, I'm always in envy of the amazing products my peers are building and sharing on Twitter.

While I'd love to spend time learning new tools, I also know that it's only a distraction from building my own business.

While this affects my ego in the short-term, it builds momentum towards my goal in the long-term.


In summary 👇

These are some of the most important lessons I've learnt throughout my own journey to-date.

I'm also sure there's plenty of makers with opposing opinions who are much better off than I am.

Mistakes are essential for your personal growth. You won't evolve without them.

While advice can be helpful, nothing is more powerful than experiencing the outcomes of something first-hand.

If you found this thread useful, you can find more of my content like this across Twitter.

  1. 4

    Depends. I doubt you can cold email a huge bank, for example. It took us 6.5m$ and 3.5 years to build something they'd be willing to review and even buy at a startup i work with. I agree though, that you can do pre sale without building an MVP. Though that is not validation. The validation comes if they dont churn after they start using it.

    1. 1

      The product you're building, as well as the industry you serve will definitely influence what's possible when it comes to creating an MVP.

  2. 2

    I agree with pretty much everything except

    If you're planning to build something that solves a genuine pain point for someone, they should be willing to pre-register and pay for access.

    I think this is extremely unrealistic.

    Obviously some people get this to work but I imagine they are the exception and not the rule.

    1. 2

      This is a hard idea to sell but Lachlan is right in my opinion. I have made the same mistake but weirdly, after getting it right the first time but just couldn't see it.

      When I started out ten years ago I had basically zero skill and no ideas, only enthusiasm. If you're there with a customer and you know how you can solve their problem, they'll definitely pay for it.

      People are more willing to have faith in you than you might expect. However, I acknowledge you do have to have a good relationship with the person.

      Gosh the number of times people have given me a chance to solve their problems now I think about it is quite high. Made good money on it too.

      The mentality that you're solving a problem you have no validation needs solving is a very hard one to avoid. I actually think the ones that succeed are the ones that solve genuine pain points even if it's with something super ugly but functional.

      Reference: how Podium started for example. Worth a mint now.

      1. 0

        The caveat that we've both agreed on is the requirement for an already existing relationship with the decision maker / money person.

        This is a deal breaker for the vast majority of makers which is why I think the proposition is largely not feasible .

        1. 2

          But not impossible. Is the best approach to set about making those relationships then?

          What is it they say, it's 'who you know, not what you know'...

          I once attended a talk by a well-known business man from South Wales (as in UK Wales not New South Wales) and he'd grown up on a council estate. One day with all his pocket money he went to the phone box, rang the States to speak to a company there selling oven cleaner.

          He spent something like two weeks doing this, he built up a rapport with the lady on the reception and convinced this company to set him up an account and send this marvelous new oven cleaner to him in the UK. He was the first person outside the US to import the new product so had an edge in his local market. He cleaned ovens.

          Off the back of that he's built quite an empire over the years including large property investments and a string of businesses. Embarrassingly I cannot for the life of me remember what he was called which doesn't help add any reliability to my anecdote so I'm sorry about that.

          It is really hard making relationships with people it is and we're not all lucky enough to go to have been at school with David Cameron or have Rishi Sunak's mobile number (cough cough Greensill).

          I dunno. :-)

    2. 1

      From my own personal experience as an IH, to my experiences at small startups and large enterprises, where you are bombarded with sales email every day - I just can’t see it.

      Maybe the Kickstarter route? I dunno. Not for me.

  3. 2

    Your first point is probably the one we all need to come to grips with very early on. You need to engage with as many potential customers as possible to understand how they define and see 'the problem' and how seriously they need or want to solve it.

    And, agree on point 3. An audience isn't a customer base, save for a few special cases. Engage with potential customers, they are the revenue source.

  4. 2

    Have you got an example or story you can share of doing #1? I'm genuinely curious. I always hear people talking about doing it, but there seems to be very few examples of people successfully doing it (especially in a B2B environment). Would love to hear about your experiences there.

    Agree with #2 and #4 (and #4 is a great example of feeling busy / productive, without actually being so).

    Don't think I agree fully with #3 though... I think building an audience can work and has merits, and there are examples of people doing it (and monetizing it) very successfully, but I suspect you really need to into doing that sort of thing (e.g. love building communities). Doing it for the sake of finding a product idea or whatever... maybe not (in my totally uneducated opinion).

    1. 2

      Hey, @InextricableSquirrel I've got a post about validating your idea and collecting revenue before you even start building, with some examples of how I did this in the comments! https://www.indiehackers.com/post/how-i-validate-ideas-and-generate-mrr-immediately-system-8f522c8ff0

    2. 1

      For point #1, I'd use myself as an example.

      I was previously building a B2B product in the recruitment space for digital marketers.

      Instead of building the product, I cold emailed as many target businesses as possible and mentioned that my product was about to launch in a month. At this point, it was nothing more than an idea.

      Because it solved a genuine problem, I had 2 customers ready to pay for access when it launched... only COVID hit a week later and wiped out the whole industry.

      Even for my current product - a B2C education course - I sold pre-access before creating the content.

      I can also agree with your point about building an audience. There's examples out there of people building an audience, then monetizing it well.

      As I mentioned, it hadn't worked in the case of my own product or industry.

      I do still believe that if your an indie hacker looking to quickly get to revenue, spending years building an audience isn't the best path.

  5. 2

    "If you're building an audience of like-minded peers, you're essentially building a network of friends, not customers" This is something I agree with wholeheartedly. This is a great list. I am guilty of number 3. Spent 2 years building an Instagram profile to 400k, sold two items in the first month after launch...

    1. 1

      Although I'm aware that an audience can potentially become customers, I genuinely believe they're two completely different things.

      Crazy to hear your experience! Are you running managing the IG profile?

      1. 2

        The IG profile is sitting idle and has been for nearly two years. I started it with the little to no plan then tried to find a way to monetise it, which turned out to be the wrong move, but a good learning experience.

        I did make money through the account, primarily through paid promotion but nothing even close to the amount of effort I put in. The website associated with it generates decent traffic through Pinterest, so I feel the working on Pinterest, and the website is a better use of my time. However, I've not done much with either recently. I'm working on a project more in my skillset and interest.

  6. 2

    I've definitely fell victim to #4 which is a form of Shiny Object Syndrome.

    At one time it was possible to keep up with the latest tech – I used to be proud of being the person people asked to find the "best" tool for the job. But as the pace of development accelerates, I'm finding more and more the desire to build and apply tools to a project, not just for the sake of knowing.

    And If I need to solve a problem, I'll go out and find out on an as-needed basis, and it gives me a reason to reach and ask others for help – another thing I'm practicing.

    1. 2

      Yeah. Shiny object syndrome is real. It's insidious because it can feel useful and productive, but is in reality just another distraction.

    2. 2

      Your last point resonates with me!

      If you ever need to know something, it'll take you all of 10 minutes to learn, vs the hours you would have spent learning about it when it wasn't necessary at the time.

  7. 2

    Mistakes are essential and hindsight is often painful. To your point about thinking you have to build an MVP, I think the deeper point you're making is that MVPs don't have to involve code.

    There are many different ways to build an MVP. Email is one. Ideas have also been validated with nothing more than a tweet or a simple spreadsheet.

    I also think you hit the nail on the head about audience building. Places like Product Hunt are often just a circle jerk of makers upvoting and becoming traffic for other makers.

    It can help spread the word and give you an initial bump, but if you're not selling to other makers and that word of mouth is not reaching your target audiences, it's just a vanity exercise.

    1. 2

      As averse as I was about making mistakes, I'm slowly learning that they've become a superpower over time.

      Knowing the outcomes of previous mistakes is the best way to avert future risk.

  8. 1

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  9. 1

    As you said, mistakes make us and our projects grow, and some of them like lesson 2 can be painful to realise.
    If you haven't already, I would recommend to read The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick. It provides a pretty good strategy to approach your audience and getting to know what they would really want to get as new product without ending with "building a network of friends". A short and easy read which you surely won't find pointless ;)
    Best of luck for what's to come!

    1. 1

      Thanks for the recommendation! I've heard of the book before, but will be sure to add it to the reading list 👍

  10. 1

    👏🏼 Finally someone who tells the truth! Thanks for sharing.
    For those who don't know him: I met Lachlan a couple of months ago, he is a great marketer and no-code developer! Follow him on twitter as well

  11. 1

    #4 is a bit tricky because you do need to be learning new things and gaining new skills. It's a question of exploit vs explore and right now your choosing to exploit what you already explored previously.

    1. 1

      This is a great point.

      There is an inevitable disadvantage for those who remain stagnant, so a healthy balance over time is essential.

      I just think for makers looking to get from 0-1, this is helpful advice to follow.

  12. 1

    I love some of these tips. Pre selling is awesome, what is the one way you have seen that has worked each time?

    1. 1

      Each product and industry will be different, but I'm yet to find a pre-launch strategy that beats sending a personalised email individually to target customers or existing leads.

      1. 1

        Awesome, thank you. I'm assuming the goal of the email is to get them on a call and learn about their problem and then pre-sell?

        1. 1

          Absolutely. The hardest part is getting them on a call, but after the call, everything is 100x easier.

          Once you have a real relationship with the customer, you'd be surprised at how willing they are to invest in you and your potential solution.

  13. 1

    Great read, great lessons. I think point number 3 is a great lesson.

    1. 2

      Thanks! I see so many makers falling into this trap.

      As I mentioned, it can definitely be helpful in some circumstances, but I also believe there's more efficient alternatives.

  14. 1

    Thanks for sharing, this was a great read.

    As a content creator, I may have been guilty of trying to building an audience with free content before figuring out marketing and whether people would pay for my courses.

    Early on I chose to sell courses on a marketplace (Udemy). In retrospect this was the right decision as I didn’t know anything about marketing & distribution when I started.

    Now I’m a lot more confident with the entire process and I feel I can do more on my own.

    I haven't tried asking people to pay upfront for courses (normally I create some content first, then make it available for Early Access - many others seem to go this way with info products).

    1. 1

      This is exactly the kind of distribution-first approach I prefer. Nice work!

  15. 1

    Thank you so much for this thread, incredibly helpful! Definitely guilty of 2 and 4.

    I'd also add not actually spending considerable time speaking to customers to guide your building. Been guilty before of just building for my own sake.

    1. 1

      Absolutely. I've been down that road more times than I can remember too!

  16. 1

    I had the same experience working with some startups, they focused more on service and technologies other platform used rather than what can make money and idea validation. Currently I can tell talking with someone if his solution will add some value to the market or not :D

    1. 1

      When your experience building products grows over time, you can definitely start to notice if products/makers are on the right track or not.

      1. 1

        truly yes. I run a customised solution farm, many startup comes for a cheap labor cost. But currently we are focusing more on clients that has valid ideas. Successful products work for our marketing too

  17. 1

    Well written @lachlankirkwood specially those quote

    "Mistakes are essential for your personal growth. You won't evolve without them.

    While advice can be helpful, nothing is more powerful than experiencing the outcomes of something first-hand." I like those quote's and it touched me most :)

    1. 1

      Awesome to hear it was helpful. Thanks!

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