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Week 5 of 52 to Indie Hacking

Week 5 of 52 to Indie Hacking
By Jim Zarkadas • Issue #5 • View online
In case you missed it here is what happened on my previous weeks.

The stairstep approach
It was Monday and I was feeling lost. I had no project idea to work on and no structured process to find one. The only area that I was feeling some progress was networking.
On Monday I was looking into my Twitter feed and at some point I found an article from Rob Walling. It was called “The Stairstep Approach to Bootstrapping”. In his article Rob explained why starting small and doing one step at a time is helpful and prevents you from big failures. He calls this approach “The stairtstep approach”.
Let’s say for example I want to build a website where people can watch programming courses and pay a monthly fee of 50$. I will have to create lots of videos so that I can ask a monthly fee and I will have to build a strong marketing strategy where I spread the word through multiple channels. The product development (videos), the pricing and the marketing are all pretty complex and advanced. With the stairstep approach I would start by selling individual videos on a single channel. It’s way easier to sell a set of videos for a one-time fee of 50$ as a new indiehacker. I will have to create less content, the pricing will be simpler and I can use only one channel for marketing (e.g. Youtube). I will take one step at a time.
This approach felt like a great fit for new indiehackers. Indiehackers are usually engineers or designers that want to build profitable products on their own. What they lack of, is business and marketing skills. That’s why it’s important to keep it simple and do one step at a time.
A great example I found is Joel Hooks, the founder of egghead.io. Joel owns a website with programming video tutorials and now owns a product that generates 255.000$ revenue per month. He started by selling programming tutorials as a package with a fixed price. He had no platform with courses inside. No subscription-based payments. Just a Youtube channel with people that were following him, and some programming video tutorials. He took the stairstep approach. He didn’t build the platform immediately. He started by building an audience on Youtube and sold a simple product to them. Same goes for Adam Wathan who made $2.5MM out of design and coding tutorials. Both took the stairstep approach.
At some point I thought: “That’s what I miss. All of my ideas so far are about building either marketplaces or subscription based tools. What I need is a simple product that it’s easy to price and sell. Selling an e-book for example is easier than selling a platform with a monthly subscription. An e-book doesn’t require me to be there and provide support all the time. I mainly need to focus on marketing.”
I have to be honest with myself. I have never built and sold a product before. I am new to indiehacking and I mainly know how to sell myself and my hours as a freelancer. That’s why I built a design agency in the past. But freelancing is different. You are being paid for your hours, and your price is defined by the knowledge you have. Products require a different mindset.
The day was over and I wrote down my conclusion. “Alongside with the product ideas I am going to explore, I should build and sell simple products that will help me grow my marketing and business skills.”
Coming up with ideas is a skill
Coming up with ideas is not easy. I used to believe that only talented people are able to come up with great ideas. That it’s a talent they are born with. I used to also believe the same for design. But once I started demystifying it I realized it’s just a matter of passion and practice.
The last week I spent a lot of time reading about the skill of generating ideas. I realized that it’s a skill I have to develop and not a talent I have to be born with. I realized I only need to find a way to teach it to myself, practice it and make progress.
My main issue was and still is that my ideas are too mainstream. They are not focused enough on any niche. They are not creative or practical enough. Something in my process feels wrong. The fact that I focus on coming up with ideas feels wrong itself. I know deep inside me that I should focus more on understanding and observing a specific audience and identifying problems that worth solving. It should be more about observation and research and less about brainstorming.
So what I am missing here? Structure and a process. That’s why I got lost and disappointed the last weeks. It’s the exact same issue I had with networking. I only had a goal without any clear process to guide me how to think and measure my progress.
A few weeks ago I asked the surfing community to write me about problems they have. Today this question feels wrong to me. Asking people about problems they have is too vague. Problems on what? On learning to surf? On getting to the surf spot? On buying equipment? It’s like I’m expecting them to give me the idea I should work on and help me skip the step of problems research.
I get why I act like that. It’s uncomfortable to do customer development. To talk with a community on a frequent basis, interview people and just observe how they tackle with problems they have. Customer development was never a core-part of my work routine. I used to be a product designer and developer, and I rush all the time to get to the point where I can build a product. Because it’s comfortable and more exciting for me. But entrepreneurship is not only about excitement. It’s about doing the uncomfortable things as well, and becoming good at them.
At some point it was clear. I had to focus on improving my customer development skills. Once I learn how to spot opportunities and problems worth solving I will be able to come up with a good idea. I opened my todo list and added a task for next week “Buy and read a book that will teach me how to do proper customer development”. Buying a book felt like the best first step since I don’t know any tools, or framework to follow for customer development. Once I find some, I can start practicing them and see how it goes.
Book me for a free design review session
In my previous issue I wrote that networking should be treated as a project. That I should come up with creative ways to meet more indiehackers and build meaningful relationships with them. The last week I spent a few days thinking about how I can achieve that. I need to have a good reason to start a discussion with someone. It could be that both of us are looking for a new friend, for a co-founder, for some help or for something else.
On Wednesday I had a todo item in my list to “Contribute to indiehackers.com for 1 hour and give design feedback”. Giving design feedback is something that I have committed and do regularly the last weeks. “What if I combine these two?” I thought. “What if contribution to the community is done in a more personal way that helps me build meaningful relationships?”
Without overthinking I made the following post on indiehacker.com: “Giving back to the community - Book me for a 30mins UX design feedback session for your project.”. I decided to experiment for 2 weeks and do 30mins video calls where I can meet with other indiehackers and give them personalised design feedback and advice.
The results were remarkable. In one day all spots were booked and I opened some more for the next two weeks. In total, 22 people booked me for a design review session. To be honest I was afraid about this experiment. Jumping on a call with a person you don’t even know feels scary. Many things can go wrong. But many things can go well too. It just comes to which scenario I am going to focus on.
The last week I did 5 sessions in total. I met 5 different people from 5 different countries. Each person had a different story to tell and a different vision. Some products I reviewed were side-projects made for fun and some others were projects with the goal of becoming profitable. In the end everything went fine and I had a small success to celebrate for. I proved myself right. I treated networking as a project, I experimented without overanalysing and I learned something new.
Sharing empowers people around us
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🎒 Nomad List is now an Open Startup™ sharing all its revenue data and user metrics 📡 LIVE

Here's the open dashboard 👉 https://t.co/ZwcbR9rbGu

Thanks 👨‍🎤@JohnONolan from @tryghost and 👨@joelgascoigne from @buffer for leading the way https://t.co/J6LwYNKcgZ
In the startup world there is a movement called “Open Startups”. Open startups are the ones that embrace transparency and openness by sharing their metrics and learnings with everyone. Here is a big list of them. “Open startups” movement has been a great inspiration for me.
Convertkit for example is an Email marketing tool for creators that makes more than 1 million dollars revenue per month. In this page Converkit team present all of their revenue and other financial data. It’s cool to hear that they make millions but being able to look into their graphs is different. It feels more real.
Sharing is powerful. It gives me courage to move forward and try new things. Once I build my own product I want to join this movement as well. I want to be open and let other people learn and find faith through that. It’s important to keep this movement and tradition going.
It was Friday and the week was almost over. I decided to take Friday off to relax and go skating. However I had one important task for that day. On the afternoon I had a call with a professor from the University of Amsterdam. Earlier that week I had messaged him that I am interested into doing guest lectures to the design department of the University of Amsterdam. One of my teammates in TicketSwap where I worked in the past, studied there and I knew that they were doing a great job. I am not a big fan of universities. I actually dropped out my studies and never got a bachelor degree. The way they used to teach me never motivated me. That’s why I decided to ask to become a guest teacher. Because I would like to share practical knowledge and market insights with students. To motivate them and show them new paths. My goal is not in any case to become a full-time professor but to share my learnings from my journey of building products and businesses. Education is all about sharing. It’s about passing your knowledge to others and creating a better and sophisticated world together.
On 4PM we had our call. They appreciated my goals and ideas and asked me to send them my portfolio. Once they review it, they will get back to me and discuss how I can be involved in the future. For now the only thing I can do is to appreciate the moment. And celebrate that at least I have a chance. Maybe they will accept me, maybe not. The only thing that matters is that I tried, and this is already a success.
Did you enjoy this issue?
Jim Zarkadas

On the 1st of June 2020, I quit my job and started pursuing a career as a digital solo entrepreneur (aka indie-hacker).

For the next 12 months , every week I'll be sharing all of my learnings as well as the behind the scenes of coming up with an idea and making it happen. I've no clue what kind of products I am going to build, and figuring this out is also part of my journey.

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