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