In December I set out to get my first product, Serenity, off the ground and prototyped to a point where I’d feel comfortable putting it in front of close friends and family. I also wanted to complete my annual goal review and goal setting exercises for the New Year. It was a fairly productive month despite the holidays; I published my 2018 goals, and I ended up writing a lot of code. However, I didn’t quite get my end of year review into a publishable state (I did go through the entire exercise before writing out my new goals) and I’m still a little embarrassed to show Serenity to friends.
Unexpectedly, I also had a huge marketing breakthrough for Serenity in December, managing to gather 80 email addresses with a $250 FB ads credit over ~a week. Even better, these numbers came from a split test, where I intentionally spent money on poorer performing ads to establish a baseline for comparison–running the best ad in the experiment over the entire budget will probably yield better results. This success provides clear signal that what I’m marketing addresses a need that people want solved, and that I potentially have an efficient channel to reach them. However, it doesn’t validate how much (if anything) people might pay for a solution.
Now that I have potential customers waiting for my product, I’m realizing that I’ve fallen into a common entrepreneurial trap: I don’t know how much product I need to build for it to be “enough”, so I keep delaying throwing something over the fence out of the fear that the product will be missing important features my potential customers will want. Left unchecked, I could easily build the product in a vacuum for months, extending the time needed to find my first paying customer while building features that may or may not provide real value. The answer to this trap is a slight execution strategy shift: rather than guess at what customers will want, or guess at how much product I need to provide before customers will pay, I should let the market decide. This means that my priority now is to create a “free trial” period and slap either a real or a mock payment gateway on the product. I can spend ~$50-$100 in ads to pay for a new cohort of potential customers, measure how long they stay engaged in the free trial, and see if anyone actually pays or indicates that they would pay at the end of the trial period. I’ll risk alienating some potential customers in the process, and I don’t want to throw buggy or unpolished pieces of the product over the fence, but I can and should post the product before it’s strictly “ready” in my own eyes.
My priorities for January, however, have shifted away from Serenity. I’m taking my first consulting project this month, and it’s likely this project will take most of my January bandwidth. Those who read my 2018 New Year’s Resolutions might be remembering how I said I’d be generally avoiding consulting projects this year and thinking me a hypocrite, so I feel the need to justify why I’m taking this project. Though the project is paying a decent sum of money, money isn’t the only consideration here. This project is actually for a friend, and is in the healthcare space, which is one of my stronger interest areas. I think this project provides some useful exposure and credibility-building experience in an industry I care about (and may get more involved in longer-term) while also bolstering my war chest. Also, while I do have enough money in the bank to potential weather no profits from my business for a year or two, even while traveling around the world, I’d be lying if I claimed that having a little extra cushion doesn’t put my mind a bit more at ease.
Since I’m also slated to depart for South East Asia on February 1, my priorities are as follows:
- Make sure all of my affairs are in order before I leave the country. (This includes things like making sure I’m happy with the legal structure for my business, taking care of my taxes, getting vaccines, and other logistics which I either cannot take care of while abroad or really must happen before I leave.)
- Execute on this consulting project. Try to wrap it up this month, if possible.
- Stretch: polish Serenity up a little bit, slap a free trial/payment flow onto it, and run my first cohort through the product to see if anyone bites.
I’m also making it a goal to get back to more consistently writing these updates closer to the actual beginning of the month, since I know I’ve been slipping on that.
Sanity-wise, there were some moments of fear in December, but mostly I stayed focused. Even through the fear, I stayed productive by maintaining a few touchstone habits like waking up early, meditating, exercising, and making my bed. I think my larger fear right now is less that I will fail, and more that I’m wasting my time or doing something that might not lead me to where I ultimately want to go.
Unlike much of the working world, I’m not really on the rungs for any predefined career ladder, and I know that some things do require that one build a track record and earn experience over time. I have been trying to think critically about what my narrative is and where what I’m doing leads me (or leads me away from, since every choice inevitably means not choosing other things). Some reflection on this has led me to the conclusion that taking some limited consulting projects tied to industries I care about helps me to continue to build a story for myself for working in those industries even if I don’t ultimately do tech in those industries (law or policy have been ideas I’ve played with for a little while).
I’m also realizing that entrepreneurship is and always has been one of the primary skill sets I’ve wanted to develop. I believe at our core, many entrepreneurs are passionate, empathic problem solvers. We’re the kind of people who get excited about making the world a better place by solving problems through the creation of businesses, services, and products. I think there are a lot of problems that can be solved this way (Elon Musk has inspirationally pushed the limit on this), though there are also some that can’t (e.g. policy).
For me, entrepreneurship is one tool in what will hopefully become an arsenal for a life spent working on the problems I care about most. I also believe that cracking the value creation cycle means that I won’t ever need to be tempted by money from sources outside myself, which I’m hoping will mean that I can maintain a higher level of personal integrity and authenticity (this is particularly important to me if, for example, I were ever to go into politics).
I mastered the technical implementation and execution aspects of software entrepreneurship a long time ago, but I still need to work on some of the surrounding skill sets, including learning to steer my own ship with confidence, crossing the marketing chasm between value and delivery of value, and designing products that people will love to use. Though it sometimes feels like I’m wasting time when I’m not writing code, or like I’m failing when I find myself gripped by fear, these are actually the moments when I’m learning and experiencing exactly what I need to right now.