Steph Smith on making $130k w/ an ebook, creating a course in 20 days, and the latest trends

Indie Hacker: Steph Smith (@stephsmithio)
Creator of of: Doing Content Right, Doing Time Right, Shit You Don't Learn in School
2021 Revenue $150K
Zone of Genius: content creation, trend forecasting, all things side-hustle, remote working

@StephSmith gets things done. She’s launched 10 projects in the last two years, including an ebook that brought in over $130K.

I’ve been following her journey since early 2019, when I first interviewed her about learning to code in eight months. This time, we covered her latest success and she broke down how she makes it all happen. She’s deep, real, and ready to take responsibility for the trajectory of her own life. Hoping you find this write-up as inspiring and eye-opening as I found the interview itself.

On learning to code and shipping her first project

It took me eight months of learning to code, before I shipped my first project. At the time, I was terrified. I remember staying up all night, obsessing over the copy and trying to perfect the launch. Fast forward to two months later and I’d somehow won an award at Product Hunt's “Maker's Fest.” I think that shows that anyone can do this. I did what is at everyone else’s fingertips: I took a $20 online course, started creating, and put myself out there.

That was in 2018. Between 2018 and early 2020, I shipped four different projects, none of which made any money. But along the way I learned so much.

On resisting what would eventually make her profitable

My ebook, Doing Content Right, wasn't just my first profitable project — it was the only project that made any real money. The other things I created I hadn’t charged for. They were mostly for fun, but this was different. With this project I was actually filling a gap in the market and meeting a need that I saw every single day.

It’s funny — I was really resistant to seeing myself as a content creator, even though it was clearly a big part of what I was doing and where I was finding success. Identity is so powerful. I identified more with being a product manager or growth marketer.

I noticed that there was so much junk out there in the content world. It made me want to create something better, but I still struggled with that identity. The term “ebook” had a negative connotation. Even with the success of the product today, I often don’t even feel excited to say that I’ve written an ebook for that reason.

I think it’s important to ask yourself, “When people ask for my help, what are they usually asking for help with?”

But with time, people naturally started to associate me with writing and content creation. I’d get tagged in tweets and referred to as a writer. I realized that the thing people asked me for help with most was content creation. And finally, I just leaned into that request. That’s really when I decided to write the book.

None of the other projects I launched really met that criteria of being something that people asked me for. But the book did. It filled in a gap.

On Parkinson’s law (and writing a book in 7 weeks)

Parkinson’s law is the idea that work expands to the time allocated to it. So if you give yourself a year to complete a project, it’s probably going to take a year.

Some very, very disciplined folks might manage to complete it in a shorter time period. But I, personally, am not one of those people. That’s why I like to set ambitious timelines for myself.

For the book, I gave myself 50 days to write it. And because I was sharing my progress in public, and I’d done a presale of the book, I really had to stick to it. Even then, I ended up going a week over!

Parkinson’s law can work for you or it can work against you. What I’ve learned over the past couple of years is that ultimately, most successful people aren’t necessarily smarter or more disciplined, they just understand how to use their psychology better.

On working “like a lion” and creating a course in 20 days

Once I commit to a timeline, I go all in. It’s almost like I’m cramming for a test. Essentially all of my free time is focused on that one singular goal. When I go for a run, I’m brainstorming examples for one chapter. When I’m brushing my teeth, I’m thinking about how I can reframe another chapter. The ambitious timeline meant several 3AM nights, but it significantly compressed my timeline and after the goal was reached, I could completely relax.

I also gave myself 20 days to finish my most recent project, which was a course: Doing Time RIght.

I had the benefit of my book’s success so I had this list of 3,000 people. They were really happy with the book, and ended up being a lot of the customers for the course. So far 750 people have taken the course and we’ve made around $45,000. It’s on a similar pace as the book was.

I’ve worked like this since I can remember, but I found Naval Ravikant’s analogy a wonderful way of framing this: working like a lion versus a cow. Lions rest for most of the day, but sprint when they need to, chasing after nutrient-dense meat. Cows that constantly graze and require several stomachs to process their low-quality food.

On crossing $130K in 8 months with an ebook

The first step was just creating something that people love and want to talk about. I even had people talking about why the book was doing so well. This step sounds incredibly obvious, but it’s something that I see people skip all the time.

Assuming you're already there, here are some things that I did. You can find visual examples on slide 16 onward in a deck that I created:

  • Building in the open: This is talked about a lot, so I won't go into depth, but the way I like to articulate it is "opening your garage door." Don't wait until launch day to build hype around your product.
  • Narrow your path to feedback: This book started as a tweet where I asked people if they would pay for it. It turned out in this case, the answer was yes. Sometimes it's no! But this helps you get feedback quickly to ensure you're on the right path. And people pre-buying helps people put their money where their mouth is.
  • Pre-sales: Speaking of pre-sales, having customers buy in early means you have a cohort of customers supporting you when you're ready to launch.
  • Delayed Product Hunt launch: The same strategy was used with Product Hunt. Many people launch right when a product is ready, but if you approach it that way, you're hoping the PH launch will generate your success, instead of the other way around. In other words, if you launch immediately, you are relying on the success of a launch, instead of your audience creating the success of your launch.
  • Affiliates: I utilized Gumroad's affiliate program and saw a ton of sales come through there. This is dependent on you having a great product that people are excited to share.
  • Lowering friction to consume: One underrated thing that I don't see enough creators do is lowering the friction for someone to consume the content. Even if they buy, if they never consume, they will never share, become an affiliate, etc. There were several things I did to encourage consumption, including structuring it like a textbook, a first-page that walked you through how to use it, and having video sessions for those that didn't have time to read. I also tacked on a community and gave readers different reading formats, like MOBI for those who prefer Kindle.
  • Help people help you: Tied to the above, you want to make it as easy as possible for people to help you. Have shareable assets within your book, whether it's highlighted quotes or infographics. The quotes that I featured in my book were tweeted about much more widely than other parts of the book.
  • Tiered pricing strategy: One of the things that has been commented on the most, is my tiered pricing strategy, which meant the price went up as more people bought. This triggered scarcity and also helped me find the right price point/discounting mechanisms later.

It's important to note that I already had maybe 7,000 followers before launching and also spent years writing online before creating this. In other words, I had a group of people already listening.

On keeping her day job

When I started creating things, there was this ambition to be completely financially stable through my products. But interestingly enough, I'm at that point and I still really enjoy working my day job, and I also just really enjoy my side projects.

At some point I will probably break off. I’m very transparent with my employer about wanting to build my own company one day. But for now I've found this really happy medium where I can continue to do all of these things and still really enjoy all of them. The second any of them is not fulfilling or I feel like I’m not learning anymore, I’ll probably stop balancing both.

On being “too late” in the tech space

Everyone says, "I'm starting too late. I missed the bus,” but that's misplaced. It's true for a fad, but technology is not a fad and there isn't just one “tech bus” that can be “missed.” I imagine it to be more like, every day a “tech bus” comes through and picks people up and that's been happening for decades now, only to continue. Just because you didn't get on the bus yesterday, doesn't mean you can't get on the bus tomorrow, but you should get on soon. As of now, only around half a percent of the world knows how to code, so if you start today, you're still an innovator.

The same thing can be true with content. People were saying that it was too late to start writing 10 years ago.

Podcasts started in 2004. Youtube launched in 2005. Twitter was founded in 2006. The first newsletter was written in 1704!

Successful creators are minted on all of these platforms every single day. You’re not too late to the party, because there is always room for people to replace the existing with something even just 1% better.

On designing a life that works for her

Six years ago, I was unhappy with where I was living. I was commuting 2 hours a day, and had a job that was good, but not fulfilling or inspiring.

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 three side jobs, in addition to my full-time consulting role. A few of them 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).

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. And throughout that period, gaining more skills so that I increased my chances of landing a great role.

And there were still so many aspects of designing my life that came after that role. 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!

Steph Smith creating her life

On where she found the courage to take responsibility for her life

I believe that you can always take responsibility for where you are. You can take ownership over the actions and choices that are available to you. I think the seed of this way of thinking started when I read Viktor Frankl’s, “Man’s Search for Meaning.”

Frankl was a psychiatrist who was held at Auschwitz during WWII. One of the through-lines of that entire book is this idea that you always have a choice no matter how dire your situation is, or how little autonomy you have. You still have a choice about how to act in that situation, what mindset to have, and what you do about where you are. And I think that's true.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” - Viktor Frankl

If you’re blaming other people, even if those things may be true, that's likely not helping your situation. Ultimately, I think taking that responsibility, even though it may be a hit to your ego, even though you may be frustrated at the world, is the best thing you can do for yourself.

Even if it's from a selfish place, take responsibility so that you can improve your life and you can look back and be proud of yourself and be like, “Wow, that was really hard. And I wish I didn't have to do that, but look at what I did and look at the place that I'm at now.”

Choosing not to take responsibility for your life hurts one person the most. And that one person is you.

On what’s next

I hope to continue chasing my curiosities!

For now, I'm really excited about continuing to grow my podcast The Shit You Don't Learn in School and possibly build a Google Sheets game. Yes, a game. 🙂

Eventually, I plan to start my own company and if we're talking long-term... I'd love to make my way back to science.

If people want to stay updated, they can stay updated with my newsletter or subscribe to the pod.

Wrap-up snapshot

What I’m reading: I’m in the middle of a few books right now, including:

  • How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan
  • Ashlee Vance’s Elon Musk Biography
  • The Psychology of Money by Morgan Housel

I’ve been behind on reading recently, but I share my favorite books here.

What I’m watching: I’ve been watching so many documentaries recently! A few good ones:

  • The Dissident: This film follows the death of Jamal Khashoggi, who was a Saudi citizen killed in a Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Huge controversy around his death (it was all over the international news), but an incredible story about human rights and how lucky we are to live in a country that has free speech. Pretty surprising elements to the story line involving Jeff Bezos, Twitter, and the United Nations. Also, anything my Brian Fogel is 👌
  • The Human Factor: Covering the Israeli-Palestine conflict over the last 25 years and some key characters involved in trying to secure a peace deal. What I appreciated about this film was the human factor (an appropriate name) that is behind some of the biggest world conflicts and the ultimate yearning for people to feel understood.
  • The Collective: This film covers a nightclub fire (you probably saw this in the news) that killed many in Romania, but then uncovered deep corruption within the Romanian healthcare system, due to many of the burn victims dying many weeks after the event. Unexpected journalists (from a sports magazine) investigate the political corruption and shine light on the importance of investigative journalism.

What I’m listening to: Too many podcasts. If you’re looking for a new one: The Huberman Lab podcast is the most 80/20 podcast out there.

Quote I’m pondering: This is my all-time favorite quote. 🙂
"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.” - Steve Jobs

Something I’ve changed my mind about recently: I think I recently stopped seeing the world for what I wanted it to be and instead, for what it is and how it operates. That doesn’t mean that I can’t still be ambitious or try to drive change, but I have to meet the world where it is.

Tangential to this, I think I’ve recently become more open to different political perspectives. Growing up in Toronto, I grew up very liberally. I remain on that part of the spectrum, but I think I’m much more understanding today of opinions that don’t align with my own.

The task I spend the majority of my time doing: It’s not what I spend a majority of my time doing, but I definitely spend too much time on Twitter. I’ve also been playing a lot of online chess recently, thanks to @courtland getting me back into it last year!

Trends to watch for: Since I work on Trends, I’ll start by saying there are so many trends to watch for. Just as I said that people are not too late to learn to code or build an audience, there will always be new trends that people can take advantage of.

With that said, I’ll refer to a few of the Trends that I recently shared in my Indie Hackers AMA.

  • Non-traditional remote work: There are so many opportunities outside of being “the next Zoom”, including WFH benefits, WFH fitness (ex: Cubii or under-desk treadmills), fractional real estate, nomad visas, corporate gifting, and more
  • Sleep: Meditation took off over the last decade and it's sleep's turn. The CDC calls the number of sleep disorders a public health epidemic. There's opportunity in so many spaces here, from info sites to weighted blankets, premium PJs, enterprise sleep programs, popular sleep drugs with expired patents, lucid dreaming courses, etc.
  • Genomics: With recent breakthroughs in things like AlphaFold, biotech is going to be a crazy industry over the next decade. People are already selling DIY CRISPR kits and I'm interested to see where this thing goes.
  • Esports: Another maybe obvious trend, but the opportunity to capitalize is way more diverse than most people realize. Ranging from gamer tourism and trade shows, gaming wearables and equipment and their resale markets, white-labeling merchandise, influencer marketplaces, etc.
  • Audio: I know this is a common trend to follow, but I think audio still has so much potential — especially in the infrastructure that has yet to be built. That’s why I’m still excited to ride that wave with my podcast: The Shit You Don’t Learn in School.

Some other trends that we've written about in Trends, that I personally find interesting: browser extensions, non-alcoholic booze, a renewed interest in more economic 3D printing, super high-margin products like perfume, dried flowers and plants, logistics and cold chain tech, hard kombucha, and basically anything in the pet or elder care industries.

One sentence of advice to new Indie Hackers: Life is a competition with yourself, not others. If you’re looking for more than that, here’s a thread on everything I learned on the road to $100k.

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  1. 8

    🔥 That's a value-packed interview.

    It’s funny — I was really resistant to seeing myself as a content creator, even though it was clearly a big part of what I was doing and where I was finding success.

    This part was helpful. Made me look at talents of mine that I may need to accept instead of going after other (shinier) skills.

    1. 3

      yesss, I loved that part too! really made me think.

    2. 2

      Thanks James! And agreed -- identity is such a strong motivator (for better or worse) and sometimes we can benefit from just noticing what the world wants from us, instead of pushing against that.

  2. 5

    Wow! That was awesome stuff. Thank you @stephsmith for this inspirational story. A lot to learn here for me. Thank you @Teela_na for sharing it over :)

    1. 1

      @HumbleBear my pleasure. and I agree, SO much to learn from here! 🔥🔥

    2. 1

      Thanks for reading! 💜

  3. 4

    Pretty amazing interview - I thought I’d done well writing the book and site for CareerSwitchToCoding.com in 35 days but to make a whole course in 20 with that amount of sales is amazing. I have made a tiny fraction of that amount 😂

    1. 4

      Thanks Simon! I can only build things under intense conditions or else I get demotivated and they never end up seeing the light of day!

      1. 2

        It’s an interesting super power 😀

  4. 3

    This was an incredible read.

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