[Article originally published on Indie Hackers.]
Indie hacking is a minefield, even to those who have years of experience. It seems like everyone has an opinion on the who, what, when, how, and why of building a business. There is always more you could learn and more you could do, if you only had the time, money, and resources… and unicorns!
How do you decide what to build? When to build it? Who to build it for? How are you going to make the sales? Do the marketing? Manage the finances? Build and manage the tech? Do you actual know enough to do things? At what point should you stop researching? This list goes on and on.
And then, for each of these kinds of questions, there is an epic list of things that you could do. The paradox of choice. When you have too many things to choose from, you end up choosing none and not making any progress at all. That makes a sad indie hacker.
The reality is, that much of the information and advice out there is probably not relevant to your situation. All those amazing results and case studies you read about? They're (probably) written with glorification and glory in mind. There's also a huge likelihood of them having a big team and budget that doesn't match yours. If only I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone mention how Dropbox or Hotmail grew their business.
The point is, as an indie hacker, you cannot do it all. You shouldn't do it all. There's no point in trying all the things. There certainly is no need to try to be like everyone else; you'll quickly lose your uniqueness.
Create Your 'Not To Do List'
What I'm trying to say is that you should think about the things you don't want to do or can't do. Define them. Accept them. Then use them to help you move on.
Here are some ideas I've collected on what to include in that list. Some are from my own experience, others are ideas from other people in the Indie Hacker community.
1. What are your boundaries?
When I started Ministry of Testing, a community of practice for software testing, I had a clear vision in my mind that we would be ethical and do our best to focus on what we believed was good for testers.
It was a loose boundary. It wasn't written down on paper, but it was always on my mind. What this meant in practice was that, at every opportunity, I asked the question “is this good for the testers?” Or, “is this the right thing to do?”
It meant doing things like…
- … turning down sponsors because what they wanted (ie. sales-y expo booths, sales talks and spamming of emails) wasn't really what we believed was good for the community of software testers that we wanted to build.
- … turning away content which wasn't helpful.
- … hedging our bets on people with a clear desire to make a difference over someone with more experience.
- … making the events as affordable as possible.
- … creating a scholarship fund.
- … recording all the talks of our conferences ever (where we now have an entire archive of nine years of event talks which is really helpful).
Having the boundaries made it easier to make decisions. Making decisions makes it easier to progress (and hopefully grow). If something came along that didn't align, we wouldn't waste our time pursuing it. We would say no, then keep our head down focusing in on the things that did matter.
Takeaway: Boundaries can help you focus in on what really needs actioning.
2. Saying no to growth hacking
The startup world seems to have become infatuated with the idea of growth hacking.
Here's an idea to mull over: not everyone loves growth hacking.
I think I should probably refine that and say this instead: there is a bad taste in what growth hacking has become—an (often annoying) feature for the user demanding the return of growth results.
Real growth hacking shouldn't be annoying your audience.
I'm not here to debate the definition of growth hacking—there is no time in my life for that—but I'd love to put it out there that just because things like a “pop up email form” converts more emails, it doesn't mean it’s good for your product or your reputation.
When we founded our company, we intentionally told ourselves we would never growth hack.
We were disgusted by the gurus & the jargon. We couldn't stand the concept of disruptive inbound customer gamification or agile growth wizardry, blah blah blah.
Instead, we began it very slowly. There was never some bleedingly high spike in contracts or revenue.
But it just grew, very slowly, very dependably, and still is.
- Gil Gildner
Takeaway: You can say no to growth hacking and still grow as a business.
3. Don't spend time on your competitors
It's great to know who your competitors are and the kind of things they do, but sometimes it can become an obsession that serves you no good.
I took a good long look at my competitors before I started my business and then I decided to mostly forgot about them. I knew what software testers needed and my competitors weren't offering that. I built a community and I focused on listening to them, rather than worrying about what other testing companies, conferences or communities were doing.
I personally found looking elsewhere for inspiration helped my business stand out and grow. I often found myself drawn to the world of design and ethical business. I would frequently ask myself if the things I came across were relevant to what I was building. I'm pretty convinced that if I had stayed focused on our competitors I would have failed to see the many opportunities that exist out there.
I'm not worrying about what my competition is doing.
Takeaway: Don't let competitors distract you. Seek inspiration from elsewhere.
4. Don't go to (those) events
One of the biggest reasons I chose to do events for my business was to create real life connections of value. It was important to me that the events we put on was something that felt truly worth the cost. We avoided things like exhibition booths and sales talks from Day 1 because that wasn't on our 'to do' list. Instead, we focused on trying to do great stuff for the attendees and speakers.
I know events can change people's lives. There are also events that suck so much out of you without giving you anything back. I encourage you to be super picky about what you attend. This applies to both free and paid-for events. Your time is your most precious possession, treat it with care!
Before signing up to an event decide what is important for you:
- What do you want to take away from it?
- Will you actually get to have proper conversations with people?
- Who else is going?
- Are the talks available online?
- Is the cost, travel and downtime worth it?
- How can you prepare for the event to get the most out of it?
With some exceptions I avoid conferences and events. These tend to be major distractions. The same is true for events or socials designed to attract leads-- they have a very high up-front cost for planning and often don't lead to meaningful conversions. I also don't sponsor events for the same reason.
Hosting or doing events can make sense in some situations, but I am shocked at how many new startups sponsor free lunches, happy hours, sampling events, etc., that are very costly in terms of resources but don't convert nearly as well as online marketing.
Takeaways: Seek out the good events; they can be invaluable. Avoid the superfluous one; time is your greatest resource.
5. Refine Your Social Media Usage
I love social media. I hate it too. I know I'm not the only one to feel like that. It can be such a time-drain. There have been huge debates about the ethics of the companies behind them.
It's incredibly important to think about what these things mean to you. There is no right or wrong. Results and industries vary widely, too. It's also almost impossible to opt out completely, and I sincerely applaud you if you can.
If you’re feeling like your social media usage is suboptimal, think about these questions:
- Is your social media driving connections?
- Is it providing value?
- Are you committed to nurturing it long term?
- Could you get better results focusing your time on something else?
- Does it align with your ethics?
- Are you trying to be on too many channels and sucking at them all?
I'm not creating an Instagram account, going to their site or even checking Facebook more than once a week. I'm not relying on Google for analytics (except YouTube). I'm not buying ads through either. The only algorithmic newsfeed I regularly subject myself to is IH itself.
The world, especially the online world, is becoming more addictive and rather than try to resist it directly, I'm opting out at the entry point as much as I can.
Takeaways: Think about what social media takes away from you; is the investment worth it for the return you are getting?
6. Avoid Ads From The Big Guns
Did you know there are businesses that grow without doing ads? I even speak from personal experience! I've flatly refused to spend money on ads, often preferring to spend money on being nice to the community that I had created.
Mostly when I talk about ads, I'm thinking of ads served by the tech giants like Facebook or Google. There are many good reasons not to use these types of ads:
- it takes time and money to get it all set up and working
- ads are generally getting more expensive and becoming less effective
- if you feel strongly about ethics and privacy, do you feel ok sending your money away to these big companies?
- do you feel it is ok to follow people about with the use of pixels?
- when you stop using ads, you stop getting results.
It's not that I believe advertising is bad; it's the way that it runs the internet that I personally dislike. Ads are a choice. They can work really well for some people at the right time.
I'm intentionally not running Facebook ads because I disagree with pretty much all of their privacy behaviors.
I'm intentionally not basing my software around ad revenue and trying to sell it directly to customers. If it works, it'll be a much better incentive alignment and feel more "honest".
I've intentionally designed my software to track as little as possible about each user. The only data collected is whatever is directly necessary to serve them, and I don't do anything with it. Planning to anonymize it further as well.
I am happily not doing sponsored ads. Had a horrible experience using Weibo (China's twitter) with over 5000 views of my educational posts (world class resumes & LinkedIn Profiles) in seconds, 25000-50000 views within a few hours. Tried this for a couple of weeks. Not a single lead even though we posted in English and Chinese. Felt like a huge click-bot ripoff.
Takeaway: Think before you advertise. Ads can give you a temporary boost, you should really ask yourself if you are getting an ROI on your investment.
7. Say no more often.
It's so easy to get excited by all the things. And sometimes it's hard to say no. I'm guilty of this too. I say yes, and I end up over committing. What follows is stress, letting people down or not delivering on promises.
I went through a period of just saying no to everything. I had reached a personal breaking point and just had to take a step back. I see so many other entrepreneurs go through the same thing. Some won't admit it, but I often notice the signs. Because I've been there too.
Sometimes, I got some serious FOMO. It was hard at times, but it also meant that I ended up focusing on the main thing that mattered at that time: making the business work. Luckily it worked for me, but it was a three year journey.
[I'm not] Saying YES to EVERY opportunity that comes my way. (I feel like I get too excited and create a rod for my own back, sometimes).
Takeaway: Focusing in on what’s important is better than saying yes to too many things.
8. Stop searching for a co-founder
This one was inspired by Ricky Snarko and it was something I wish I had not wasted time on in my earlier days. Even though I had started my community myself, I kept thinking that I needed someone else to help me take it forward. The reality is that I didn't (at that point in time). I wasted a lot of time, and caused myself some unnecessary heartache in the process.
As it turned out, I did end up getting two people on board to help me take the business forward and to the next stage, but each one came on at a different point and happened in a more organic way. It felt right.
I'll probably get heat for this. But not looking for a co-founder until the market-product fit is truly achieved and the business model fully validated (i.e. an ad spend of $1 will guarantee a $3 in revenue minimum).
Takeaway: Have a bit of faith in fate. The right things will happen at the right time.
9. Don't grow too big
The world seems obsessed with the idea of rapid growth, yet we don't realise the reality of what that means. We end up associating rapid growth with success. With growth, the workload naturally increases and the type of work that needs doing changes. Your project can quickly end up going from a fun side project that you love maintaining, to a huge burden of processes, legal, HR, and financial things to deal with.
I'm one of those people who has grown a company to 10 staff and along the way decided that I don't want that responsibility anymore. Before the growth, the idea sounded amazing. I just personally didn't really enjoy all the things we had to do as a business to achieve that.
I'm intentionally not trying to attract a lot of users. I can't handle massive support if needed and I must focus on my agency and clients. So it's better to grow slowly for now.
Takeaway: Think about your situation and ask yourself what kind of growth you really want.
10. And finally, keep focused on your most important tasks
Distractions and procrastination are the death of success!
Everyone wants your attention. You even have to fight against yourself to (re)build habits that help you become a better and more productive person. Combine that with technology that is increasingly designed to distract you and it’s all too easy to give up hope!
This is why having a no to do list is so important. It helps define who you want to be and helps you keep on track.
I actually keep a "not to-do list" and one of the most important things on there is:
Don't switch context from your most important task to a lower important task.
Using Most Important Tasks (MIT) really helps me get the things done that make the most impact. The doist team has a great blog post on this: https://doist.com/blog/eat-the-frog-todoist/
Takeaway: Who you are is as much about what you don’t do as it is about what you do!
That's my list of ten things that you might want to include on a not to do list; and if you’re looking for more, there are even more listed on the original discussion post.
Feel free to add some more in the comments below!
[Article originally published on Indie Hackers.]