I asked several indie hackers about the skills they've found most crucial for running profitable Internet businesses. Their answers are below.
Being an entrepreneur is not something you learn and then do. It's something you do and then learn. So in my journey as an entrepreneur, the crucial skill I've developed is as powerful as it is simple. It's called "Command-Z".
That's right, the undo button. Sounds dull, I admit, but this skill is unique to the digital age we live in, and it's a secret superpower, because it lets you learn new skills you might never attempt otherwise.
When I was in 5th grade I ended up with a copy of Photoshop on my Macintosh Performa 550. I had no clue how to use it, and there was no internet to turn to for tutorials. But because I could undo every step I attempted, I never felt intimidated or afraid to explore. I knew I could always just hit "Command-Z". Imagine if, instead, I'd been given a stack of blank canvases and a box of paints. Just putting the brush down would have been expensive; each wrong stroke a waste of paint, difficult or impossible to take back. My learning curve would have been much slower.
But the undo skill is really more than that: it's an entire mindset. It's helped me develop the right attitude toward learning new things. When you face a challenge you've never encountered (which happens every day as an entrepreneur), you can't be encumbered by fear of failure. You need to be willing get in there, open things up, tinker around, and know you can always go back to where you started and try again.
Communication is the real key to creating shared expectations and efficient workflows, as well as maximizing your time. A lot of times I enter meetings and conversations with the goal of completing that conversation as quickly as possible.
To me, economy of language is a beautiful thing. How quickly can we create shared expectations and move on? A great example of doing this well is coordinating a time to meet up with someone — suggesting dates and locations at the same time can cut out one round of back-and-forth.
A lot of good communication comes down to asking good questions. And asking good questions is something I picked up studying journalism and interviewing the players and staff of the OSU football team. (More on that here if you're interested).
Two things which go hand-in-hand: developing a principled point of view, and ignoring what everyone else is doing.
Figuring out your own principles and opinions upfront makes it so much easier to decide everything after that. You'll have a clearer sense of what to build, when to build it, and how to talk about it. You'll also have a strong foundation to measure decisions against, which is crucial, because as a small team just starting out, you'll have a million decisions to make!
After that, you can go your own way with little regard for what your competitors are doing. It's certainly fine to see what's out there, but that information shouldn't have much effect on what you're doing.
We learned this when we were first figuring out our ideas for Hello Weather. We were entering a market with 10,000+ existing apps, some of which are owned and backed by enormous professional weather corporations. As novice entrants into the market, there was no chance we'd ever match up to that. So we focused on our unique point of view instead — building something extremely useful, readable, textual, with no fuss and no gimmicks — and then everything we did after that followed suit. We carefully curated our UI so it would be immediately understandable but rich with information. We didn't include ads because they're not compatible with our core values, which meant that we had to find another way to make money and sustain the business. And so on!
This worked out great for us. We're not the biggest app, and we don't want to be. We're doing exactly what we want, on our own timeline, and that's why we still enjoy doing it.
When your business is tiny it is hard to imagine a future where others will help you grow your thing. It can feel like an impossible dream. However, working relationships are so important for your personal and business growth.
When I was growing Ministry of Testing I was always on the hunt for people that could help me grow as a person, who had that real spark of belief in my work along with the potential to work with me on a low-commitment basis.
It doesn't mean that I ended up working with these people, but the simple act of looking led me to stronger relationships and new opportunities that made it so much easier to hire people when I was ready to do so.
As a founder, you always have a lot to do at any given time. If you aren't focused on the right goals, you'll always be starting something and never finishing, because you'll try to deliver on everything.
You need to focus on just one thing at a time. And if you're running a team, you need to ask the same of them — for everyone to try to deliver on a minimal set of goals as quickly as possible.
I've started many companies and invested in others, and this is a problem I often see. Few people have learned to organize their time and focus on the "small goals" that are integral to the bigger goal.
Getting shit done — is that a skill?
There are lots of skills I've learned over the years (programming, marketing, etc.), but all of them are useless unless I can focus them on tasks that will move the needle in my business.
This is a lot harder for a solo founder without someone else to bounce ideas off and keep you on track.
If your resources are limited — and they always are — you need to hire fast. If those employees don't deliver, you need to fire faster than you hired. The scarce resource in a startup is money, and money is time. So if you're wasting time with a bad hire, you're wasting money.
As a founder it's always hard to fire people. I think it's one of the hardest things to do in a company. But you need to do it if you want to prevail and, ultimately, save more jobs.
Most entrepreneurial people have a keen eye for problems "out there in the world," but I'm convinced we don't apply this corrective lens to ourselves at a higher rate than normal. Behavioral continuity seems to be the rule and not the exception: we all internalize a narrative of who we are and how we do things, and we have a hard time revising the narrative in real time.
This doesn't go well with running a small business. You simply have to wear too many hats, and some inevitably fit your head better than others. My personal narrative identity in the early days of Indie Hackers was fairly narrow. I was a writer of words and code. I was a passable web developer. I was a good "thing maker." But I also needed to be a capable strategist, recruiter, manager, and a whole lot more.
Change was inevitable. "Entrepreneurial people" can get away with simply telling you what's broken about the world, but founders have to be able to tell you what's broken about themselves. For me that meant stripping everything down to its component parts and building back up from there. Passively "narrativizing" myself was the main bad habit to break. I stopped being "a writer who can code" or "a coder who can manage" and turned into "a head that can squeeze into any hat."
In practice, this means if I ever catch myself asking, "How do I do this thing I don't like to do?" I reframe it to, "How do I become the kind of person who enjoys doing this thing?" And only then do I solve for X.
While growing my businesses I've had to make deals with investors, co-founders, contractors, employees, clients, etc. And there are a lot of variables to take into consideration during a negotiation — over and above your counter-party's position and mental state. You also have to account for personal feelings and long-term consequences. If you make a deal, for example, and your client is negatively affected later by a defect in your product, you'll be responsible. You'll also have problems if you don't negotiate a fair outcome for both parties. (If you're too sharky, they'll resent you, and if you give too much, they'll take advantage of you.)
Knowing how to negotiate correctly has brought me several new revenue streams and grown the existing ones. I'd say the best way to get better at it is to get in some actual practice, but it helps a lot having a mentor or a network of entrepreneur friends to assess situations together and get specific advice.
I've learned many new skills over the last two years since starting VEED, but writing is the one I'm proudest of.
Writing is second nature to many people, but for me, it's been extremely hard to learn. I'm dyslexic, so I've never been good at writing or reading. I didn't pass my high school English exam until I was at college — and even then, only after three painful attempts.
But over the past two years, I've been reading and writing a lot more out of necessity. And now, articles that I've written have been read by tens of thousands of people, with many readers reaching out saying how much they enjoyed the articles. It's really rewarding.
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