November 1, 2019

I'm Steph Smith. I鈥檓 a senior analyst at the Hustle, a self-taught developer, a nomad, and have had 350k people read my blog. AMA!

Hi everyone!

I鈥檓 Steph. 馃憢 3 years ago, I was unhappy with my life, so I decided to design a new one.

Since then, I鈥檝e been lucky enough to work remotely as a growth marketer, writer, and indie maker. I currently work as a senior analyst for the Hustle (building out Trends) and was previously the Head of Publications at Toptal. While working FT, I also taught myself to code and have launched a handful of projects.

This year, I decided to start writing about the topics I care about most: remote work, continuous improvement, and technology. Since then, I鈥檝e been lucky enough to have 350k people read my thoughts.

This month marks my 1-year celebration of launching my first project and I'm excited to celebrate on Indie Hackers. I鈥檒l be here on November 13 at noon GMT to answer all of your questions!

Ask me anything! 馃

  1. 5

    Hey Steph!

    How does one go from "being unhappy" to "designing a new life"?

    How did you flip that switch? Was it gradual or was it overnight? Was their a tipping point? What specific steps did you take?

    1. 2

      Hey Harry! Thanks for the great question.

      It was super iterative and not overnight. When I realized I was unhappy, I tried to break down what the inputs to that were and how much control I had over them. At the time, I was unhappy with where I was living, was commuting 2h a day, and had a job that was good, but not fulfilling or inspiring.

      The common thread there was that I could control where I was working, at least to some extent. And in that case, the solution was finding remote work. The main constraint was that I didn't want to trade my career for the ability to do so.

      I spent the next 10 months looking for the right role, while working iteratively to get there. I didn't know how long it would take, but I just started picking up whatever remote roles I could get my hands on. At one point, I think I had 3 side jobs, in addition to my full-time consulting role. Some offered me full-time work, but it didn't feel right.

      Eventually, after applying to probably over 100 roles throughout those 10 months, one that I could sign onto with confidence came along (that was my initial role on the growth team at Toptal).

      So I suppose to answer your question, it was definitely gradual--putting together as many pieces in the hopes that something would eventually go my way, and having the humble patience that the work would pay off. (Also, having fun learning along the way!)

      And even after that role, there were so many aspects of designing my life that came later. But I think that's the nature of designing one's life. Start with the biggest or most substantial barrier that needs to be solved. Ask yourself, "What will unlock the most potential X?" where X could be happiness, opportunity, time, etc. and tackle that first. And remember: don't settle for trading off significant portions of your life as that will just trade one problem for another!

      Stay curious. :)

      1. 2

        Smiled as I read this. Thank you. Interesting that it was a long road. Which in hindsight does make sense. I'm not sure how substantial an overnight change can be.

        1. 1
  2. 4

    Hi Steph. Your journey is super inspiring! What advice would you give someone just starting a blog to get their first 10k visitors?

    1. 1

      Hey! Thanks so much.

      The first thing I would say is that there are a lot of blogs out there. The barrier to entry is so low (which is a wonderful thing!), but that means that there's a lot of low-quality stuff out there.

      So my first piece of advice is to focus on quality! And tied to that, make sure you're focusing on something that you're an expert in. Ask yourself the question, "What can I uniquely contribute to the world?".

      Related post: Writing is Thinking

      Just like building a product, your blog should in some way be solving a problem for people. It sounds obvious, but many people jump into creating content without really sitting down to think about this. Just like a good product sells itself, a good article can do the same.

      Once you have the content, a few pieces of advice on distribution:

      • Similar to growing a product, think about where your readers would hang out. Distribute there, but always focus on providing value first. For example, if you're writing dev-centric articles, post on dev.to, but also look for dev subreddits. If you're writing about productivity, Medium might be more your place to syndicate. If you're writing about hiring, LI is your friend. Test as many channels at the beginning and then double down on a few that work. And remember to develop a voice on each platform that aligns with their users.

      • Hacker News has been very good to me. If you're lucky enough to trend there, you not only get a bunch of traffic, but those sweet, sweet backlinks that will increase your domain authority.

      • Focus on SEO from the beginning. SEO is a long-term game, so it likely won't bring you your first 10k visitors, but it will be essential later on for growing past a few viral hits.

      Write as often as you can, without sacrificing quality. You'll be surprised by what people cling to and what no one cares about. The more you write, the more "at bats" you have.

      Best of luck!

      1. 2

        Wow thanks for the detailed reply Steph!

        I love your blog and your South Africa drone vid (but sad it鈥檚 not on your list of favourite places :P )

        1. 1

          Thank you! I really did love South Africa (Cape Town in insanely beautiful), but I don't know if I could live there longterm because of safety. I know it's mostly safe, but I just like not having that worry in the back of my head!

          1. 2

            Yup I feel the same - it's insanely beautiful but couldn't live here long term because of safety. There are parts that feel as safe as Europe (most of the time / until they're not) but the constant vigilance is stressful and it sucks to have to think about which areas really are safe and whether you really can walk somewhere even at short distances...

            1. 1

              Exactly! I just prefer the peace of mind. It's a shame, because it's such a wonderful country and it really deters some people from even going in the first place. I'll definitely be back!

  3. 3

    Hey Steph!

    You've achieved an incredible amount in just 3 years. I'm super impressed and glad that I got to know you in real life! 馃槉

    I'm curious to know if you've ever been hit with Impostor Syndrome, and if so, how do you fight it off?

    It's happening to me a lot these days.

    By the way, I just started reading Algorithms to Live By, thanks to your recommendation in Lisbon 馃榿

    1. 1

      Hi Merott!

      Hope you've been well since Lisbon! And very happy to hear that you're reading Algorithms to Live By - let me know what you end up thinking!

      I definitely get hit with Imposter Syndrome. All the time. There's a few things that have helped me keep on pushing forward:

      1. Recognizing that no one really "knows what they're doing". Imposter Syndrome is rooted in this idea that all these people know what they're doing, and we don't. I still often feel like I have no clue what way is up or down, but it's been comforting to realize that a majority of people are the same. I originally learned this when I graduated uni and felt like I was entering the "big bad world" where I would quickly find that everyone was much more experienced/smart/capable than I. I was lucky to be in a position where I was thrown into situations where I'd be working with VPs of large Fortune 500 companies. And in those meetings, I realized these people are also flying by the seat of their pants! That was really mindblowing for me. Since then, I鈥檝e noticed it鈥檚 not just the VPs, but pretty much everyone. The key difference between people who seem like they know what they鈥檙e doing and those who don鈥檛, is the former take some sort of action.

      2. The digital world is architected to show everyone at their best. You only share your 9s and 10s, not your 2s or 3s. So recognizing that what you see online isn't an accurate representation of people's happiness and success is reassuring.

      3. The more I do, instead of dwelling on the concept of doing, the more I find myself almost subconsciously proving to myself that maybe I'm not such an imposter. So sometimes when I find myself overwhelmed or insecure, I just remind myself: "One step in front of another. Keep moving. You'll get there."

      And finally, I'll leave you with my personal favourite quote from Steve Jobs.

      "When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world.

      Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family, have fun, save a little money.

      That's a very limited life.

      Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.

      Once you learn that, you'll never be the same again.鈥 - Steve Jobs

      1. 2

        Thanks for the insights, in this answer, and the other answers you've given here! It's very inspiring :)

        This one, in particular, stood out to me:

        I was lucky to be in a position where I was thrown into situations where I'd be working with VPs of large Fortune 500 companies. And in those meetings, I realized these people are also flying by the seat of their pants!

        I can definitely relate to that. I had a very similar experience in the past!

        ---

        I'll let you how it goes with Algorithms to Live By鈥 I'm a very slow reader鈥

        1. 1

          Yes, it was truly eye-opening. People at the top of the "ladder" were no closer to clarity.

          I'm also a slow reader, but I promise this book will be worth it! :)

  4. 3

    Much respect! How did you get so much traffic in under a year? do you find it more convenient to write on your own blog? or to start on a well-stablished platform like Medium. I have a bit under 1k followers on Medium with roughly 20k monthly readers but I'd like them to start reading in my own site. What ca you recommend me?

    Keep it up, you're inspiring!

    1. 2

      Thank you!!

      I must admit, that I think some luck played a role in my blog's success. But, if I were to boil it down to a few things, it would be:

      1. Writing only about things that I can uniquely contribute to. There's so much content out there, so in order for me to stand out, I chose to optimize for quality. And specifically, articles that I would be really proud of, but could also on topics that I could deliver more value to than the average person. Sounds obvious, but is rarely taken into consideration when people think to start blogs. (Not targeting you in that comment, but just that it is often forgotten)

      2. Due to my focus on what I consider to be quality, I found my pieces getting picked up really frequently. A large portion of traffic can be attributed to Hacker News specifically, as four of my ~15 articles from this year made it to the frontpage. I have a general distribution checklist that I go through for every article. There are probably 20 or so outlets on there that I've tested, but now opt towards the most successful for my content.

      3. I SEO optimize every article, which many newer bloggers don't think to do. Coming from a growth/marketing background, I realized how important that was and I've seen this "bedrock" grow to hundreds of readers every single day. That's how you build something consistent.

      I am personally a huge fan of Ghost and that's what I use for my own blog. It's really fast to set up and has a Medium-like editing interface, so writing is super seamless. Regardless of the platform you choose, I would definitely recommend self-hosting so that you can "own" your content and also control visibility. I've also been able to set up a lot more custom functionality and if you ever wanted to add your own paywall, Ghost recently launched that in v3.

      Congrats on the impressive following on Medium, but you can actually crosspost there with no issue (I do this with a much smaller following), so I would recommend at least having your own site alongside!

      1. 2

        Thanks for taking the time to reply. You're the best, keep it up!

  5. 3

    What are the three (or so) things that have most helped you grow your blog audience?

    1. 2
      1. Writing only about things that I can uniquely contribute to. There's so much content out there, so in order for me to stand out, I chose to optimize for quality. And specifically, articles that I would be really proud of, but could also on topics that I could deliver more value to than the average person. Sounds obvious, but is rarely taken into consideration when people think to start blogs. (Not targeting you in that comment, but just that it is often forgotten). This article speaks to this further.

      2. Publish as much as possible, without sacrificing quality. I thought I would know which articles would be hits, but I was often wrong. Create as much as possible to give yourself more "at bats" and experiment as much as possible. Don't let people's perception of your work impact your confidence in the craft, but use it to learn even more.

      3. I originally thought that people would want a blog that is heavily centered on one particular topic. Instead, I've received feedback that people are actually quite happy to read about an assortment of topics (remote work, tech, productivity), so long as they're thoughtful and tangentially related.

      4. I SEO optimize every article, which many newer bloggers skip over. Coming from a marketing background, I can't emphasize enough how important it is to build up domain authority and build a "bedrock" of articles that drive residual traffic every single day.

      5. Experiment across a bunch of different channels at first, but then focus on a few. Develop a small launch plan for every single article. Just as much work should go into creating a piece as distributing it. People often focus on one or the other, but they're two inputs to the same equation.

  6. 2

    Hi Steph!

    I love all of your projects. What stack do you use to code these projects? And how do you design your apps, given I could see consistent design used across all 4 of your projects. In addition, what resources did you use when you first started to code. Wish you best of luck for your coding/entrepreneurship/continuous learning journey.

    1. 1

      Hey! Thank you. 馃

      I use Node, Express, and Mongo for all of my projects! I don't know any of the fancy front-end frameworks and mostly just design as I code. Not necessarily best practice, but it works for me! I've started using Figma for some projects, so might start integrating that into my approach.

      The main resource that I used at the beginning of my journey was this course. I would definitely recommend it! It takes a while, but is really thorough and well-taught.

      If you're looking at getting started, I gave this talk and wrote these two associated articles. Hope you find them helpful!

      Learning to Code Products in <1 Year

      The 7 Myths of Learning to Code

      Finding Programming Inspiration: Learning to Code and Launch in Months

  7. 2

    Hey @stephsmith - what resources / activities did you find most helpful while self-learning how to code?

    1. 2

      Hey Rick!

      I started with this course. It's a great fullstack course that took me a few months, but is really thorough. From there, I just started building! Without building things, it feels a bit like learning a language but never speaking it.

      If you're looking at getting started, I gave this talk and wrote these two associated articles. Hope you find them helpful!

      Learning to Code Products in <1 Year

      The 7 Myths of Learning to Code

      Finding Programming Inspiration: Learning to Code and Launch in Months

      1. 2
  8. 2

    Hi Steph - great job on doing a 180 and kudos on all of your successes!

    Whats your biggest takeaway from the change? Any regrets?

    Interested in podcasting?

    1. 2

      Hey Noah! Thank you. 馃槉

      My biggest takeaway from the change was that we can and should design our lives. We should bring the same intentionality that we bring to planning for Q4 or our next holiday to our major life decisions. It's surprising how many people just fall into the "way things are". Unfortunately, many people live in the cookie-cutter that is presented to them, instead of considering whether there is another approach that would make them more happy. I imagine life a bit like Tetris. In designing your life, you wipe the slate clean and add back in the pieces as they come. Stuff will come your way, but you decide where it goes and how you engage with it.

      I've obviously made mistakes, but no major regrets! I think that's mostly because I've changed my decision-making framework over the years to be more heavily weighted to regret minimization, instead of risk minimization. More about that in this article: Antifragility at Work: Change is the Only Constant

      I've been a guest on a few podcasts, but I don't know if I'll ever start my own. It's been a thought, but at the moment I have no idea how I'd ever fit it in. I also think it's become such a competitive/saturated space, but I said the same thing about blogging before I eventually decided to bite the bullet. We'll see!

  9. 2

    I'm just starting to blog, and am having trouble coming up with topics to write about. How do you go about brainstorming ideas, and deciding what to write on?

    1. 1

      Hey Shane!

      I would first ask why you're looking to start a blog? I find many people gravitating towards launching one because they see so many others doing it, but is there a specific goal you're looking to accomplish with it?

      I think in answering that question, you might find some topics come to mind immediately.

      From there, I find that as I research and write, I get more ideas. I try to take notes of concepts or things that spark interest throughout the day, adding them to a running spreadsheet of concepts. They don't need to be fully vetted--just early stage to get the "wheels spinning". You can also use Ahrefs to do keyword research which could influence article topics, but I would encourage you to start with asking yourself, "What are the things that I can uniquely contribute to?". In other words, what do I know that a majority of the world likely doesn't?

      Because my blog is not commercial, I use a mixture of my intuition and the phase of research an article is in to determine what to publish next.

      You might find this article relevant as it dives more deeply into the process and how I think about writing/ideating:

      Writing is Thinking: Learning to Write with Confidence

      1. 1

        Thanks Steph! I really appreciate you taking the time to write this out. I'm just wanting to get more well known in my industry. This has been really inspiring and I hope I can start blogging more.

  10. 2

    You mentioned that you grew as a remote worker at Toptal.

    Given that you spent 3 years at Toptal I was wondering if you could share your feedback on the company culture.

    I read that it's 500+ employees fully remote -which is very unusual.

    How did your days look like? How were your interactions with the leadership?

    1. 1

      Hey!

      Yes, Toptal is a fully remote company with hundreds of distributed employees. Unfortunately, since I'm no longer at the company, I can't really comment on the internal culture.

      As for my days, it was super flexible! Most of our calls were oriented around North American time, but outside of those standing calls, we were free to get our work done how and when we needed to. Depending on whether you were on the leadership team (I was) and what team you were on, there was a huge range in terms of how many calls you had. Some people were on literally all day, while others had almost entirely open schedules.

      Sorry that I can't provide much more info than that! Are you thinking of applying to the company?

      1. 1

        Thanks for the reply, makes sense and interesting to know that some calls might still be on North American time.

        Yes, I applied to one of their Growth PM role a couple of weeks ago now.

        Anyway, big thanks for the AMA and keep up with the blog. As I was saying on Twitter a lot of your topics resonate with me so looking forward to read more :)

  11. 2

    Hi Steph, give you worked for toptal, what would you recommend as a career for web developer bored on working on customer projects? I want to build my own projects but still need to earn money. I was hoping I could consult tech companies given my technical background and decent project management and soft skills. What do you think?

    1. 1

      Hi there!

      I think there are tons of paths, depending on your interests. Without knowing more, it's a bit hard to advise, but I think you could definitely consult tech companies in more of an advisory or strategic role. You could also consider starting an agency where you hire other developers and act as more of the individual interfacing with the client.

      Another option would be to join a company like Toptal or something similar, as a matcher, where you're using your technical skills to be the bridge between the client and the talent.

      As for working on your projects while working full-time, it can definitely be difficult! You might find this article helpful, as it's something I'm also tackling myself. Of course, one final option would be to try getting funding or co-founding a project with someone.

  12. 2

    Hey Steph 馃憢

    First of all, your blogs are really great & think I've learned a thing or two from you so thanks for that. Always been a fan of yours since your first project. My question is what is the role of a senior analyst? You guys building something like https://trennd.co/?

    1. 1

      Thanks Akshay!

      Yes, we're building Trends, which is a mixture of Signals (similar to what you see on Trennd), but also in-depth analyses, databases, AMAs/Q&As with founders, a community, and hopefully even more as we grow.

      My role as a senior analyst is pretty varied. I do a lot of the data analysis, but also heavily research and write about Trends. It changes everyday, but I love that I have a very direct impact on the product!

  13. 2

    Hey Steph,

    Love your blog馃槉

    I was wondering what's your promotion strategy for your blog posts? Or do you only send posts to your subscribers?

    1. 3

      Thank you, Alex!

      At the beginning, I tested a bunch of different things. I would reach out to newsletters, post on most social channels, and try out anything I could get my hands on. After the first few posts, I started to see patterns in the channels that were working for me.

      Now, I do a mini-distribution plan for every article which focuses on those channels. Twitter, Hacker News, and a handful of newsletters have been really good to me. Every so often, I'll venture into other channels like Reddit or Quora, but I just don't think I have found the right approach for some of them. It's really important to get the voice right for each channel. This is especially important for more critical channels like Hacker News and Reddit. @harrydry wrote an article about how to post on Twitter effectively here.

      Finally, I SEO optimize everything I do, so I've been seeing organic traffic drive a more notable percentage of my traffic these days.

      In general, I would encourage people to experiment at bunch at the beginning and then hone in on channels working well! Hope that helps!

      1. 1

        Thanks for the advice!! I appreciate it!!

  14. 2

    Hey Steph! I've been reading about your journey, and everything you've been writing about over on your blog for some time, and I really admire and appreciate the way you continue to share your story and insights into the things you've found helpful for improving various aspects of your life.

    One thing that I've been struggling with is prioritizing the different things I have going on. Between my job, my ideas, learning software engineering, and launching an NGO, I feel like I'm being pulled in a million and one directions, and making no particular headway in any one direction either.

    What are some ways that help you prioritize what you're going to focus on as your next goal?

    Tina

    1. 1

      Hey Tina! Thank you so much.

      Congrats on your ambition to do so much! It's a great attribute, if we can learn to reign it in. I totally feel you and recently have been feeling overstretched as well.

      Some things that I employ or have been wanting to do:

      1. I set quarterly objectives and revisit them weekly. Am I tracking toward them? If not, why? It's fine to reset goals midway through a quarter, so long as it's justifiable.

      2. I try to consider what goals unlock other things. For example, in learning to code, I am now able to not just create products, but also work more effectively in my job. So I try to ask the question, "What can I do today that will make the biggest impact in the next 6 months?". I try not to think much further past that, as so much can change in that time.

      3. I recently have come around to the idea of outsourcing for certain things or just backlogging them. I've always been the type of person who thought they could do anything if they just focused better or worked harder. I now realize that can't go on forever. So now I'm trying to actively hand over items, despite it coming unnaturally to me. What got me over that hump was just recognizing how capable other people are and how much more of an impact I can make if I allow others to help. Still working on this.

      4. If you do need to do everything on your own and want to balance a bunch of different things, I've found it helpful to track what I do daily. It sounds a bit much, but it helps me look back at say, "Hey, you haven't coded in like 3 weeks". It keeps me accountable to make movements towards my goals as consistently as I can.

      5. One final thing to mention is the idea of "epochs". Someone commented this on a HN post of mine and I really like the concept. I can't have everything a priority all the time, so I kind of switch main priorities between sections of time. This year has been focused a lot on writing. Last year was mainly focused on coding. Maybe next will be on my physical health. They're all things I constantly work towards, but the absolute top priority shifts over time.

      I hope this was helpful!

      1. 2

        Thanks for the detailed and honest breakdown Steph. I'll definitely be putting 1 and 5 together to come up with a more organized and realistic, modular plan on what I want to achieve over the coming months and years.

        I really look forward to your next set of posts on best practices and hope our paths cross at some point in the near-future.

        1. 1

          Thanks Tina! So glad you found a few points that resonated with you!

  15. 2

    Hello Steph - Congrats! I love hearing about people who are unhappy about their situation and go out and do something about it.

    Congrats!

    Rob Connolly

    TextJet

    1. 1

      Thanks Rob! 馃

  16. 1

    Hi Steph,

    Any feedback on www.glimm.io ? Any ideas as to how we should think about growth?

  17. -3

    This comment has been voted down. Click to show.

    1. 1

      Haha! They do @pavelz! The questions have got to come first though :)