February 14, 2020

Have we stopped being rule breakers?

Alex West @alexwest

Hello everyone, and sorry for the controversial title, I just wanted to share a few internal thoughts that have been troubling me over the past few months, and this is the only place where people may understand me.

I was planning to write some post and talk about the product I’m launching today, but while writing it I realized that there is something more important I want to share. So fuck it.

I remember first finding this website and the whole indiehacking scene about two years ago. It was love at first sight, so refreshing to see all these rule breakers defying common startup logic. I was attending a startup accelerator at the time, and it was like my brain exploded. You don’t have to go all or nothing, you don’t have to become a billionaire, you can be a modest millionaire. You don’t need co-founders, funding, ads, a ground breaking idea. Every rule was broken.

I was sold, I’m going to break every rule. I had more success in the first 6 months of indiehacking than in the previous two years of building “startups”. I was breaking every single idea I held true.

However, over the course of these two years, I found myself stuck in a pattern and creating my own rules based on what I saw around me. Some of them might sound familiar.

-Has to be B2B
-Has to be SaaS
-Has to scratch my own itch
-Has to be my burning passion
-Has to be in tech so you can launch on ProductHunt, HackerNews and Reddit
-Has to make the world a better place
-Ads don’t work
-Affiliate marketing does not work
etc etc

Just to clarify, these rules were made by me subconsciously, I am not insinuating that anyone forced them down my throat. On the contrary, all the amazing guests Courtland has had on the podcast have said that just because something worked for them does not mean that it’s an unbreakable rule of nature.

So this is not a bash on anyone, I love this community and I care about it. That’s why I’m posting this.

I have a hunch that it cannot be just me, maybe we are all falling into a pattern and a set of rules, and the once rule breaking indie hackers are coming up with their own rules and caging themselves up.

What do you think?

  1. 10

    Sometimes I feel like my Ministry of Testing business is out of place here because it's not 100% SaaS (it's more like 25% SaaS and 75% conference/training/sponsorship) and that is often looked down upon as less valuable or important.

    But then I slap myself in the face and say 'don't be stupid Rosie'. Sometimes it is others who give me a slap. Ministry of Testing is awesome for what it is. It makes money, ethically and positively. It keeps 10 people employed with a great work life balance. And on top of that we are making an impact on the industry. All without my day to day input (this took me years, btw).

    I might sell it one day. I might not. It might be a mammoth one day. Or maybe it won't even exist. Some days I want complete rid of it. Then the next day I want to hold on to it. I have no idea what is going to happen. I'm not going to pretend that I have an awesome plan for it. I have no clue what I'm doing.

    For now, the team are doing a great job and I don't want anything to get in the way of doing that.

    It provides me a 'passive' income' and I get to go and do other things I enjoy. Win.

    1. 2

      Love the honesty, @rosiesherry

      I think that being the odd one out in the crowd has a lot of advantages. (1) The business is doing awesome (2) you have a unique perspective to add and (3) you'll be less likely to be copied so you can post more freely.

    2. 2

      Thanks for sharing real feelings!

    3. 2

      Of course it's a win :) Keep rocking!

  2. 9

    It's really hard to produce creatively when also consuming. You go out on a 10-day hike, maybe with a few drugs, and have the most wonderful idea that's guaranteed to help the world and also pay your bills. It's exactly what you want to be doing. It's perfect in every way.

    Then you get back and start making it, while also seeing other successful companies and reading articles about best practices. You make compromise A for SEO, compromise B because it's what everyone else is doing, compromise C because you have imposter syndrome and don't think your idea is unique enough, compromise D because you're scared that you're actually too unique.

    In 15 minutes you've gone from a completely original idea to just another turnkey SaaS product.

    Or maybe I'm the only person who goes through this cycle. :)

    1. 1

      Head on that's me :(

    2. 1

      Um, are you me?

    3. 1

      You just described something very familiar...

  3. 8

    It's a natural human tendency to want to copy what others are doing, especially when you're in situations with a lot of uncertainty. We're always looking for rules of thumb, because it's usually the best way to survive. This gets amplified even more inside tribes of similar people, which can easily turn into echo chambers. So I'd say don't beat yourself up over feeling how you feel -- it's natural.

    Here are my thoughts on each of these "rules," including some counterpoints:

    Has to be B2B

    This became a rule of thumb because tons of indie hackers build B2C products that customers don't find valuable (read: won't pay for). Generally, businesses tend to pay more money for more types of things than do consumers. However, it's also quite common to build a B2B product that customers don't find valuable.

    So I think a better rule of thumb is simply: build something your customers have proven they find valuable… in other words, things you already see them paying lots of money for. There's actually lots of stuff like that in the B2C space. For example, individuals spend tons of money on education, transportation, and housing. There's a reason you see so many indie hackers succeeding as educators.

    What you don't want is to, say, build something for consumers that you rarely see consumers paying for. How many of your friends pay for to-do list software, or for a personal CRM tool? Probably none. Selling that stuff to consumers is like trying to sell a screwdriver to a chef. However this same rule applies for B2B customers, too—don't make stuff they haven't historically paid money for.

    Has to be SaaS

    SaaS is a great place to end up, but it's hard to start there. In fact, it's probably the hardest way to get started as an indie hacker. It's extremely slow and time-consuming, it's tough to get right, it requires tons of development effort, and it usually has a low price point.

    Many of the best people I've interviewed got their start doing content-based stuff or providing services. Content is just as scalable as code: write it once, then copy it infinitely many times across the internet. It's also great for distribution, as you can easily share content across social media channels and email inboxes. Then you can leverage the audiences you build as your own exclusive distribution channels for future efforts.

    For example, Indie Hackers began as nothing but an interview blog. Submithub began as a music blog. Key Values still is mostly just a content site. Nomad List started as a spreadsheet. Wes Bos and Adam Wathan are just putting out videos and courses. Etc.

    Has to scratch my own itch

    I think this is overrated, although there are a few upsides. Specifically, this can help you brainstorm an idea when you're having trouble coming up with one. It can also give you a head start in understanding the problem whereas someone else would have to go out and interview customers first. And it can help ensure you work on something you care about, which is great for your own motivation.

    However, just because you're building something for yourself doesn't mean others necessarily have that problem or care about it. And even if they do, it doesn't mean you know where to find them. And even if you can find them, it doesn't change the fact that you need to talk to them to understand their idiosyncrasies. Assuming you know what customers want without talking to them is a common failure more. So this advice can be taken too far.

    Has to be my burning passion

    I actually like this advice, although "burning passion" is a huge exaggeration. Most burning passions do not make for viable businesses, otherwise I'd be sitting around playing StarCraft all day and getting paiiiid.

    But I do think you should try to start something in a space you're interested in. At the very least, choose a market comprised of customers that you enjoy talking to and spending time with. It's really a huge disadvantage if your competitors like what they're doing and you hate it.

    Has to be in tech so you can launch on ProductHunt, HackerNews and Reddit

    Launching in all of these places is overrated. Launch in general is overrated as a growth strategy. Fewer than 1% of products end up growing virally on their own after they get an initial injection of users. What you need is a long-term growth strategy, a way to repeatedly get in the hands of your customers over and over.

    That said, targeting a tech savvy audience is an advantage. They tend to hang out in more online forums, do more Google searches, sign up for more mailing lists, watch more YouTube, etc., so they're easier to reach.

    Has to make the world a better place

    I steadfastly maintain that most indie hackers should have the initial goal of making their own lives better. Once you're financially independent, then you can worry about the world. Again, drawing from my own experience, the only reason I started IH was so I wouldn't have to get a job. It wasn't until later that I started caring so much about the impact it had on the world. I've seen this pattern with lots of other founders, too.

    That said, it's harder to steer your business in the "right" direction as it matures and gains more momentum, so it is helpful to think about this early on.

    Ads don’t work

    There are many dozens of counter-examples to this one. Ads are just hard. You often have to experiment with them a lot to get them working, then continue experimenting to keep them working. Plus they're expensive, so you need to start with a budget, and you need to be selling an expensive product, too. Plus they aren't a distribution moat, as there are no barriers stopping competition from coming in and buying ads the same way you are. (See: Blue Apron's downfall.)

    But I think due to all of the above reasons, ads are under-utilized by indie hackers. Even just for simple things, like driving a bit of traffic to a landing page to test out conversion rates, ads can be quite useful.

    Affiliate marketing does not work

    Same opinion as ads. People think you just need to flip a switch and you're done, but it doesn't work that way. Affiliate marketing is a ton of work. You have to be really hands on with your affiliates, working with them day in and day out, and greasing the wheels for them. It's a constant effort.

    1. 2

      SaaS is a great place to end up, but it's hard to start there. In fact, it's probably the hardest way to get started as an indie hacker. It's extremely slow and time-consuming, it's tough to get right, it requires tons of development effort, and it usually has a low price point.

      I actually find this to be a recent trend as a 'rule', it seems we as a group are moving more towards the stairstep instead of the big leap.

    2. 1

      SaaS is a great place to end up, but it's hard to start there. In fact, it's probably the hardest way to get started as an indie hacker.

      I always thought SaaS was a relatively simple, straight-forward option. Offer a service and charge money. Ad and affiliate-based businesses require a ton of traffic to monetize well, and at least in my experience from my last startup a two (or many) sided marketplace is a lot harder due to cold start problem.

      Pure content is also straight-forward, but a bit of a treadmill if it's not something you want to create anyway. Part of why I'm teaching a fairly niche language mostly only experienced devs are interested in instead of something with a much larger market (e.g. "how to pass a coding interview") is because it's a skill I want to sharpen and use in building my own projects. Ditto for running it more like a SaaS than a course. If I'd chosen something based purely off of market demand and hosted it on Gumroad, I'd probably have already gotten bored and abandoned it a year ago.

    3. 1

      Wow, Courtland thank you for taking the time to answer, I almost feel bad since the above rules where just the first ones that popped in my mind and I actually agree with many of them!

      My point is that maybe we are not thinking that much outside of the box, including myself :)

  4. 4

    I am building a software product (not SaaS) with a lifetime license and free updates that is and will be sold both B2C and B2B.

    There have been very few days where I didn't consider switching to SaaS, there is so much pressure to just do what everyone else is doing and most success stories usually come from a SaaS platform.

    I have decided that I am going to stand my ground and release the new version as a product. I am a one-man company, I don't need hundreds of thousands of USD per month to pay salaries, I don't actually need the constant flow in revenue as long as the annual revenue is enough. Why shouldn't I use those freedoms to my advantage in order create something different that clients will love?

    My suggestion would be to not enforce some else's rules and limitations upon yourself.

  5. 3

    Most of those rules exist because it makes the IHs life much easier.

    You do have to start somewhere, however SaaS is the dream not the rule.

    • Has to be B2B
      Much easier to sell to b2b than b2c, higher ticket items, easier to get 100 customers than 100,000 users

    -Has to be SaaS
    MRR is amazing

    -Has to scratch my own itch
    Much easier to build and sell

    -Has to be my burning passion
    Easier to wake up in the morning and work on it, you can get this while working on the project

    -Has to be in tech so you can launch on ProductHunt, HackerNews and Reddit
    I don't think this is true, ideally you want a niche that doesn't have much competition but is still actively looking for solutions

    -Has to make the world a better place
    Save yourself before you save others

    -Ads don’t work
    Same as b2b very hard to get a lot of users

    -Affiliate marketing does not work
    SEO ranking changes quickly and businesses disappear, a lot of Affiliate marketers try to get into SaaS, not so much the other way

    1. 1

      Yes! Super valid points, exactly my reasoning behind them!

      But maybe it's a just A way for success, not THE way for success.. sometimes I feel like I forget that.

  6. 2

    To be honest I think you're projecting your feelings onto others. In other words, you've built an assumption that others feel the same way you do.

    Don't get me wrong, we all do this sometimes and it's perfectly normal to feel this way. I'm sure there's some truth to it and there are others that feel the same way you do.

    However, now that you've realised your doing it the next step is to also realise it doesn't have to be that way. There's literally hundreds of ways to build an indie hackers business and you can go back to breaking the rules.

    You said it yourself, one of the most appealing things about being an indie hacker is the freedom to break the rules. Even the ones you've imposed upon yourself.

    It's okay to build your own framework and creating constraints can be a useful tool to focus your creativity but always remember to check yourself. If what you've been doing hasn't been working or is making you unhappy it might be time to break your own rules.

    1. 1

      Couldn't agree more with you.

      And yes, reading it with a fresh mind today, it does read a bit emotional and assuming that everyone feels the same way. Not my intention.

  7. 2

    The IH podcast episode with Cory Zue is a good one for this - if you haven't heard it, he says on his Place Card Me product he did come up with his own rules, based on what he wanted (and didn't want) out of the project / lifestyle - sounded like a sensible plan - might be worth a listen!

    1. 2

      Yes! I listened to that one and loved it. Cory seems like a great dude :)

  8. 2

    Yes, we have. It seems to me founders from a couple of years ago were just doing things, trying them out and sharing their stories (mostly as social strategy, though they were aware of that).

    Today in IH you see questions like: "hey what hosting should I get?" or "are you using this framework everyone else is?". It's symptomatic of the situation: people not able to google for an answer and people conforming by using the same tech tools, maybe because they believe that the framework guarantees them success.

    Earlier founder seemed to be more aware that picking your own tools meant picking tools you're happy with and unconventional technical solutions are more likely to produce unconventional, indie products.

    -Has to scratch my own itch

    For me it's easier to spend time on something that I am going to be the first user of. Works very well with my perfectionist side.

    -Has to make the world a better place

    Corporations are already working on products that make the world worst and I don't feel the need to compete with them in this area.

    -Ads don’t work

    If you want to build quality products, you need to be privacy-friendly and have a great user experience. Ads go the opposite way.

  9. 2

    I don't view the things you mentioned as rules per se, I view them more as guidelines.

    They're not things you have to strictly follow in order to make a successful business, but they are helpful constraints to have if you are thinking about making a business and don't know where to start.

    There are definitely many products made by indie hackers that have broken one or all of the guidelines above and have still been successful. All situations are unique and the key is to make sure that you are doing things a certain way for a good reason.

  10. 1

    Hell yeah! I feel a little out of place here because everyone is trying to make a pure software company and I'm not.

    Here's how some of your bullets apply to my company:

    -Has to be B2B
    nope
    -Has to be SaaS
    definitely not.
    -Has to scratch my own itch
    Nope, I don't eat sweets.
    -Has to be my burning passion
    My sister's passions, not mine
    -Has to be in tech so you can launch on ProductHunt, HackerNews and Reddit
    lol. more like instagram for me.
    -Has to make the world a better place
    makes the world taste better, maybe

    Really great perspective.

  11. 0

    Fuck rules be a pirate or shut up and join the navy.