November 16, 2019

What skills do founders find most crucial for running their businesses?

I asked several indie hackers about the skills they've found most crucial for running profitable Internet businesses. Their answers are below.

An "Undo" Mindset for Seeing Failure as Reversible

👤 Bruno Bornsztein, Founder of 🇺🇸 InfluenceKit ($7,400/mo)

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.

Effective Communication

👤 Jay Clouse, Founder of 🇺🇸 upside.fm ($1,600/mo)

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).

A Commitment to Principle-Driven Product Development

👤 Jonas Downey, Founder of 🇺🇸 Hello Weather ($4,000/mo)

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.

A Keen Eye for Promising Business Relationships

👤 Rosie Sherry, Founder of 🇬🇧 Ministry of Testing ($110,000/mo)

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.

The Discipline to Prioritize and Deliver Tasks That Move the Needle

👤 Josue Gio, Founder of 🇲🇽 GuruHotel ($16,000/mo)

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.

👤 Kyle Gawley, Founder of 🇹🇭 Gravity ($4,000/mo)

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.

A Willingness to Hire Fast and Fire Faster

👤 Josue Gio, Founder of 🇲🇽 GuruHotel ($16,000/mo)

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.

An Ability to Undergo Constant Self-Reformation for Your Business

👤 Channing Allen, Co-founder of 🇺🇸 Indie Hackers

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.

Negotiation and Game Theory

👤 Miguel Fuentes Buchholtz, Founder of 🇨🇱 Variacode ($30,000/mo)

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.

Writing

👤 Sabba Keynejad, Co-founder of 🇬🇧 Veed.io ($7,000/mo)

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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  1. 3

    Thank you for sharing. I want to be able to make decisions on delivering tasks that move the needle more. There's countless things to do on my list and I feel there's value in all of them (or it wouldn't be on the list). However, I need to practice/learn to get better at the value vs cost of getting that value. As time is a limited resource, especially for a solopreneur, finding those high value with low/mid cost out of my list is very crucial to my success.

  2. 3

    That answer from Sabba is very inspiring. It's not like you can outsource to fix dyslexia. That's a hard thing to overcome especially in the context of a startup...

  3. 2

    Great post @channingallen I especially like your own "skill" - that's up there with PGs writing and I think it's a concept that could be expounded on further

  4. 2

    @sabba there is strong evidence that dyslexia is more common among entrepreneurs than the general population. It's also higher among the incarcerated. People with dyslexia learn to persevere and bring novel perspectives to many situation, two traits that serve entrepreneurs well.

    See Skip Walter's "Dyslexia: the Invisible Fuel of Entrepreneurs" https://skipwalter.net/2013/10/03/dyslexia-the-invisible-fuel-of-entrepreneurs/

    It’s hard to update your worldview even when faced with strong disconfirming evidence, and one of the most likely consequences of launching a new business is navigating strong disconfirming evidence for your product concept. I have seen this bankrupt startups and that continued to invest in product or approaches that were clearly not working. I think this is why B students and dyslexics are more successful as entrepreneurs than “smarter” A students: they realize that even modest success requires a lot of hard work and a lot of things that you may try don’t work.

    “My dyslexia made me spend so much time when I was young trying incredibly hard to pick up reading–this seemingly impossible thing that comes naturally to everyone else–that eventually I built up a resiliency to not being very good at anything in particular. I became pretty comfortable just trying many many different things as creatively as I could, because there is a zero percent chance I’ll become “good at them” anyway. The upside of this is an inherent curiosity.” John Edgar ceo – stae.co.

    Some suggestions on writing; I would make a distinction between being able to think clearly and express yourself verbally and the ability to write your thoughts down.

    • dictate and use a tool like Dragon or rev.com to get a good first draft captured.

    • tools like Grammarly can help you revise, or work with a good copy editor.

    • sketch or generate diagrams to complement your writing and offer an alternate visual representation of your thoughts and insights.

  5. 2

    IMO It's decision making.

  6. 1

    I like the part about decision making by @Josuegio. I found that often I can avoid a lot of work if I just think about things a bit more and identify what moves the needle the most. Oftentimes I can create leverage by looking at things from a different angle.

    Even more often I found that I can reduce opportunity costs by systemizing things that might seem insignificant but free up time that can be reinvested in things that are more interesting. So one step back, 2 steps forward so to speak.

  7. 1

    fyi @channingallen the link to:

    "👤 Rosie Sherry, Founder of 🇬🇧 Ministry of Testing ($110,000/mo)"

    goes to guruhotel

    1. 1
  8. 1

    I think Bruno Bornsztein's "undo" is the wrong metaphor for decision making. It's "safe to fail" or "acceptable risk" or "acceptable loss." You always lose time and opportunity at a minimum, but in exchange for new information if you are willing to pay attention.

    1. 2

      @skmurphy thanks for the comment, but I'm not sure I follow. My point wasn't that there's nothing risked/lost, but that knowing you can reverse course and try again is liberating or empowering.

      1. 1

        @influencekit: It was not my intent to nitpick but to suggest that there is a significant semantic distinction between "undo" and "affordable loss" or "safe to fail." ,

        I prefer to define a decision as the irrevocable commitment of resources for clarity. There is no undo function enabling "reversible decisions." The liberation you felt with Photoshop was to essentially due to the creation of a save checkpoint that prevented the loss of your work to date in the same way.

        This is very different than what happens if you were to take a chisel to a sculpture or used a permanent ink marker on a poster.

        For me, its not able framing your choice set as having an undo function but taking care to make decisions where you can absorb/afford the full range of outcomes: you have a plan for recovering/continuing if they don't work out.

        You are trading a irrevocable commitment of certain resources (time and opportunity cost at a minimum) for a range of potential outcomes, some positive, some negative. At a minimum you should learn something. In highly uncertain situations I think you want to make the decision in such a way that you minimize risk of negative outcomes and maximize your learning.

        Happy to speak directly about this framing it would.

  9. 1

    My PoV is getting things done, in 2 words - 'execution bias'

  10. 1

    Very fascinating!

    @channingallen I have a great idea for you, and I would like you to start working on it from now on 😊

    Start collecting amazing Indie Hacker's stories about success, failures, lessons learned, inspiration, etc. Truly inner and touching stories from Indie Hackers. I will be happy to help you out.

    Book Name:

    Indie Hackers

    by

    Channing Allen

    🎉 🎊

      1. 2

        Awesome! 👏

        I believe you can compile these stories into a book form just like 'Humans of New York by Brandon Stanton'.

        The book will be focused on authentic indie hackers stories and should be called 'Indie Hackers by Channing Allen'

        1. 2

          This isn't a bad idea actually. Sort of like "Tribe of Mentors" by Tim Ferris