July 25, 2019

Build things that matter

Courtland Allen @csallen

Every week I get emails from founders trying to sell me things, and I almost always say no. Why? It's not because people aren't building useful things. They're mostly pretty useful! But they're almost never aligned with my top priorities. The #1 reason I say no is simply because I have other things I'm focused on.

This is true for all of us all the time. For example, how many books are sitting on your shelf that you consider important to read, but you haven't yet, because you're busy doing other things that are even more important? If someone is going to ask for your time and money, they need to provide something more urgent or important than those books you've been meaning to get to. That's the minimum bar.

It's not enough just to build something good or useful. You have to build something that helps your customers with their top priorities, because they literally don't have time for anything else.

I talked to Hiten Shah on the IH podcast about this recently. He said two things that really stood out:

  1. "Make sure that the problems you're solving for customers are related to their top challenges."
  2. "Do your homework. Find out what actually matters to customers."

One trap that's easy to fall into is believing that you need to solve a problem that nobody else is solving. Sure, you can avoid competition that way, and sometimes you can build something huge. But if you go this route, you need to be careful that the problem is a valuable one. It could be the case that no one is solving the problem because customers don't care enough to pay for a solution.

A better bet for most indie hackers is to solve problems that you know exist and are valuable and are top priorities. These are surprisingly easy to find: people are paying lots of money for them. (Conversely, if you decide to solve a problem and your target customers aren't already paying for other solutions to that problem, it probably isn't a priority for them.)

If you go this route you'll have competitors, yes. But you can deal with competition by solving the target problem for an underserved market, or by solving it in a way that's uniquely differentiated and/or better than the competition.

Be boring in picking the problem, but creative in devising a solution.

There are probably a few exceptions to all this. You can build a solution to a tiny problem if your customers have tons of employees who have the bandwidth to work on tiny problems. For example, Stripe has entire teams of people who do nothing but work on documentation. Stripe has the bandwidth to work on many priorities simultaneously and indefinitely, as do many other companies. One of many reasons why B2B is easier than B2C, and why it can be surprisingly easier to sell to bigger companies than smaller ones.

Another exception would be if you catch people at the right moment in time. For example, there was a time when I needed a host for my podcast mp3s, and so for a brief window it was my #1 priority. (Someone actually got lucky and pitched me during that window.) I had the same happen to me in reverse when I was selling ads for the IH podcast — I emailed a few marketing departments who just so happened to be experimenting with podcast ads. That can work, but you have to be willing to do lots of sales.

But I recommend making it easier on yourself and building things that matter.

  1. 4

    This post makes me worry about zohunt.com. @csallen do you think it's a priority to anyone out there?

    1. 3

      I think recruiting has a large market. There will always be new graduates. People will continue to, at some point change jobs.
      You only need to have unique strong points. One suggestion (Doesn't have to be done now though, as an MVP is your launch point)

      • You could reduce the burden on HR recruiters by intelligently doing analytics on applicants and present a nice summary. This way, HR Managers won't waste too much time on such a task.

      All the best!

      1. 3

        Thanks a lot. I will start by reaching out to recruiters and hiring managers.

    2. 3

      I don't know a ton about applicant tracking, but I think almost all companies pay for solutions here once they reach certain size, no? If so, that would indicate to me that you're solving a high-priority problem, or at least a problem targeted at companies big enough to focus on multiple priorities.

      The challenge I'd guess is—how do you compete with the more mature ATS solutions out there?

    3. 2

      The thing we struggle with at work is metrics around recruiting. I do about 1/3 of all the engineering screens and I have very little metrics available to me unless I calculate them myself. I actually discussed this with the recruiters and other interviewers today about what metrics would be helpful.

      Here is my actual data:
      Engineering Screens: 22
      Currently active in pipeline: 3
      Thumbs Down: 6 (~73% of candidates move to next step)
      Strong Yes: 4 (~25% of approved candidates considered strong yes)
      Hired: 1

      The biggest thing I am blind on is how many offers have been given out and of that how many accepted vs not accepted (and the reason). I only know that 1 offer has been given out and accepted since the candidate now works with us.

      Part of this issue is company processes but if this were automated it would be great. We actually hired a 'recruiting ops analyst' to look at our recruiting metrics.

      Note: We use greenhouse.io at my work.

      1. 2

        Thanks @Winslow, This really sounds link a pain I should address with the fact that I have a data science background.

        My challenge is to really know what metrics are important to most of the companies. Would contracting a recruiting ops analyst be a good decision here?

        1. 2

          It definitely wouldn't hurt. Not sure how many "recruiting ops analyst's" actually exist but reach out to recruiters and engineers that do hiring and see what their painpoints are.

          1. 2

            Thanks very much. I know a few recruiters and I have many engineers that are always hiring

            1. 2

              Awesome! Feel free to reach out as well.

              FYI: I think your pricing page has a discrepancy on the starter package regarding number of active jobs. It says 1 then it says 5 in comparasion table.

  2. 3

    Another reason to build something that matters is you are going to spend a lot of time on it. Don't just build something you think you can make money on, build something you really care about.

  3. 2

    A fundamental truth that needs to be repeated often 🎯🎯🎯

  4. 2

    Love the idea of building things that matter, but what matters to me might not matter to someone else haha. I've been trying to focus on companies "building things that matter" through social causes or environmental missions for TheGoodStartup.com's blog, but I like that you look at what matters according to the customer's point of view! It's a lot easier to work on something when you care about it and know that you're making a difference, so imagine all the cool things our community of makers can be doing!

  5. 2

    This point coincides a bit with a recent change in our business model. At first, we launched a SaaS app that solves a problem that my wife and co-founder had. We had some traction in the beginning, but then suddenly, nothing. We realized that while many others had the same problem, not many of them were paying money to solve it. In our case, it turned out to be critical to find a problem that people are actively spending money to try and solve.

    1. 3

      Yep, there's a limit to "solve your own problem." It's a great way to start, but at some point you still have to put in the time getting to know your customers and what they care about.

  6. 1

    "Be boring in picking the problem, but creative in devising a solution." nice quote

  7. 1

    Really great post, Courtland!

    Another analogy is to starts with their "burning pain" - people who are white hot burning for your product (in the words of James Currier)

    More info about this here: https://www.nfx.com/post/9-habits-world-class-startups

  8. 1

    The #1 reason I say no is simply because I have other things I'm focused on.
    Really??
    Personally, I say no is simply I don't need their product or I do need but I'm not ready to pay.
    Another reason actually is I always feel when a person is trying to sell pretending he/she wants to help. I call it hypocrisy. And that's why I'm against call emails - because people are ALWAYS want to sell even if they believe they "just want to help".
    It's not enough just to build something good or useful. You have to build something that helps your customers with their top priorities, because they literally don't have time for anything else.
    Courtland, it's strange to hear it from you. First of all, there is a lot of products that don't look superuseful and even useful (the classic example is Twitter). Secondly, nobody actually knows that "this" product is somebody's top priority. Well, it's possible to know (reading their posts on forums) but still not 100% reliable.

    1. 1

      Personally, I say no is simply I don't need their product or I do need but I'm not ready to pay. Another reason actually is I always feel when a person is trying to sell pretending he/she wants to help. I call it hypocrisy. And that's why I'm against call emails - because people are ALWAYS want to sell even if they believe they "just want to help".

      I rarely get pitches for products that aren't useful to me or that I don't have the budget to afford. They're almost always useful and affordable, but require too much of a time investment into something I don't care about.

      First of all, there is a lot of products that don't look superuseful and even useful (the classic example is Twitter).

      One of my favorite podcast episodes is a conversation between Chris Dixon and Marc Andreessen, where they talk about being investors and trying to find companies that provide a lot of value, but where people don't quite understand the value and write it off. The best example they can name is Twitter, where even after its massive success, the majority of people still don't understand why it's valuable.

      Twitter is absurdly useful to a great many people. I don't think it's correct to label it as an example of something that's not useful. Rather, it's a great example of something that people are very bad at analyzing the utility of, mostly (imo) because they either don't understand human psychology, or because they simply haven't looked into the ways people are actually using Twitter.

      Secondly, nobody actually knows that "this" product is somebody's top priority. Well, it's possible to know (reading their posts on forums) but still not 100% reliable.

      Totally disagree here. As Hiten said, "Do your homework. Find out what actually matters to customers." This isn't just random chance. You can research. There are entire books written on how to conduct effective market research, how to talk to customers, etc.

      Of course you're not going to be 100% certain of anything, but 100% certainty isn't the bar you should be setting for yourself in the first place.

      1. 1

        Totally disagree here. As Hiten said, "Do your homework. Find out what actually matters to customers." This isn't just random chance. You can research. There are entire books written on how to conduct effective market research, how to talk to customers, etc.
        Market research even when done very well is not the same as knowing a person's needs. It's the same difference as the difference between stats of crowd and a separate person of the crowd.

  9. 1

    It's hard to find a problem that matters. But still trying?

    1. 3

      I recommend looking at what people are already paying lots of money to do, spending lots of time talking about, etc. These problems are all around us all the time and aren't difficult to spot if you get rid of the arbitrary requirements like "must be totally 100% unique" etc.

      I'm talking to Sam Parr tomorrow. One of his first businesses was to literally open up a hot dog stand, which of course helped people solve the problem of, "What am I going to eat?" It's not a tech business, but you get the point. Even absurdly crowded domains like the food industry have lots of room for new entrants.

      What do you like doing? Who do you like talking to? Pick something you're genuinely interested in, then see where the money changes hands in that industry.

      1. 1

        "I recommend looking at what people are already paying lots of money to do,"
        Where would you start to answer this question? It's something I think I'm lacking?

        What do you like doing?
        I like foods (especially coffee), education, data analytics, video games and shopping online.

        Who do you like talking to?
        Not sure really. If someone got something interested to talk, I generally just discuss that.

        1. 4

          Just Google top expenditures for consumers or businesses. You'll get lots of nice lists. It's obvious stuff: food, housing/office space, employee wages, transportation, clothing, education, entertainment, etc. You listed a few of these when you listed your interests.

          Let's examine shopping online. My guess is that the vast majority of the money here is made by e-commerce businesses running online stores, the creators who make the goods sold in these stores, or affiliates who direct shoppers to these stores. If any of those appeal to you, perhaps you can do something creative in one of those areas.

          We featured an article on Dolls Kill recently, which is a successful e-commerce brand. I think their site is mostly curation and photos of apparel, not actually creating any clothes. But through their fashion and design sense and their skill at curation and creating an easy shopping experience, they've built up a huge brand and done millions in sales.

          And of course it was never an issue for them whether or not people would buy clothes. Obviously, clothes matter. Literally everyone buys them. The core problem here isn't exactly exotic.

  10. -7

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