We are not normal people

When it comes to building products, the biggest problem technical (and creative) people have is this:

increasing the technical challenge while creating a product does not increase the chance for more sales

This surprises us. We get an idea for a thing, think about the technology we’d use to build it, and get excited.

“I could build this on the Twilio API!”

“I could learn that new CSS framework!”

“I could use this new tool I just purchased!”

The problem is that all of this is focused on us, the creator, and not on the customer, the consumer.

Repeat after me:

“We are not normal people.”

Say it again:

“I am not a normal person.”

We’re not. What’s “normal” for us is often alien to our customers. If we’re actually going to sell products, we need to quit thinking about what’s cool to us, and focus on what customers actually need.

Here’s a lesson I learned the hard way: the best way to do this is to listen.

Let me give you an example:

I was walking to my barber for a haircut, thinking about all the ways technology could improve my barber’s business. “Software is eating the world!” I thought. As I walked, I began to create software (in my mind) that would eliminate perceived inefficiencies, save him hundreds of dollars a month, and increase sales exponentially.

Then I go in, got my haircut, and got a reality check.

Me: “So, have you ever tried using scheduling software for your appointments?”

Barber: “Oh man, I’ve tried like 10 of them. Terrible! They’re all terrible.”

Me: “Really? None were helpful. Why?”

Barber: “Almost all my bookings happen on the phone, or via text message. There’s nothing I’ve found that’s more efficient than looking at a paper calendar on the wall, and finding them a time. If I have to walk over to the computer, I’ve already wasted too much time. I have 5 seconds to look, and determine when is have a spare block. All the software I’ve tried just gets in the way.”

All the plans in my head, for incredible barbering software, were crushed, in a single conversation.

This is the power of getting out and actually listening to people.

Sidebar: there’s a temptation to try to change people’s priorities so they fit our ideal. For example, I could have argued with my barber that a paper calendar is a terribly inefficient way to organize his business. This is almost always a bad idea. First: he knows his business way better than I do. Second: trying to change people’s priorities is almost never profitable. The amount of energy, time and dollars required makes it a losing proposition.

Here’s the hard part about building, and marketing, products: we have to commit ourselves to the best solution for the customer EVEN when it’s not the most challenging thing to build. Here’s a scary thought: in some cases, a customer might not NEED more software!

If we’re really going to help people, and we’re really going to improve their lives, we have to be open to all possible solutions.

  • Sometimes the best solution for a customer will be to write a book.
  • Sometimes, yes, they’ll need good, simple software that solves their problem.
  • And sometimes, like my barber, maybe what they really need is a better paper calendar, that helps them book appointments more efficiently.

Really, we won’t know until we listen. If you want to get good at marketing and sales, you’re going to need to get good at really listening. Throw away your preconceived notions, and open your ears to what your target market has to say.

You can do this in direct conversation, like I had with my barber. However, it’s also helpful to go to places where you can be a silent observer.

Luckily, the Internet has lots of places like this, especially if your target audience is online. Go to forums,subreddits, Facebook groups, and Quora and listen to what people talk about.

Here’s what you’re looking for: what are people always complaining about? What pain gets brought up over and over again? (Hat tip to Patio11, Derek Sivers, Hiten Shah and Amy Hoy for teaching this to me originally)

I’ve always hung out with developers. Although I don’t write a lot of code, I like working with them. In my day job as a Product Manager, I partner with them every day. In my spare time, I hang out with them on forums like Hacker News, Slashdot, and JFDI. And in my hometown, some of my best friends are engineers. We go out for beer, have lunch, and play volleyball together.

When I hang out with my developer friends, I ask questions and I listen. Here’s a pattern I started to see: developers have the amazing ability to build things, but they’re intimidated by marketing. It confuses them. They don’t know where to start. Here’s a few quotes I’ve collected:

“Like a lot of programmers, I used to view marketing and sales as something that was scummy and below me. It amounted to essentially tricking people into giving you their money and they didn’t get much in return. It wasn’t until I became a salesman that my view on sales and marketing completely changed.”

“I am an engineer and product developer by trade. However, sales and advertising are much tougher for me. What works? Social media? Google? Bloggers?”

A developer who knows how to code and market a product is basically unstoppable. I want to help my developer friends to be unstoppable: to build, market, and sell their own software.

Would you like help with marketing? I talk about marketing and building products every week in my newsletter.

Here’s your homework for this week: I want you to go out, and listen. Leave your ideas at the door. Just ask questions, observe, and record the trends that you see.

Justin Jackson

Feeling threatened

Watching how a company, industry, or individual responds to a threat tells you a lot about how much they understand the needs of their customers.

Recently, Squarespace announced a new feature that allows users to self-create their own logo, online, with simple tools.

The announcement generated criticism from professional designers:

“Hey Squarespace: Impressive how eager you are to destroy your standing with graphic designers. I have to ask how this is a good idea.”

“This really bothers me. These guys should know better than to devalue what others in the same industry do for a living.”

“At first I kind of thought everyone was overreacting about #squarespacelogo until I saw how much of a mockery it makes of my profession.”

It’s natural to feel defensive when something threatens your livelihood. I understand that; it’s scary to think about.

But we really need to look at things from the customer’s perspective: the customer doesn’t really care about the design industry, it’s ideology, or it’s problems. They only care about their own problems.

Ultimately, if the customer finds a different approach to solve a problem (like Squarespace Logo), and it gives them the outcome they want, it doesn’t matter how we feel.

Really, the key to being successful is to eschew your own self-focus in order to stay hyper-focused on what the customer needs. If you’re good at finding (and solving) pain you’ll always be in business.

Squarespace originally built their brand by disrupting two industries: web development and web hosting. Instead of spending thousands of dollars hiring a web developer, a customer can create (and host) their website using self-serve tools, starting at $8/month.

Now they’re doing it again with logo design. Maybe the people who use these cheap, self-serve logos will experience adverse effects: maybe they’ll lose business, or lose the respect of their customers.

Or maybe… they won’t. Maybe these new Squarespace logos will fit their needs perfectly. Ultimately, that’s up to the customer to decide. If they like the results they’re getting from cheap self-made logos, they’ll keep using them.

If you’re going to rally paying customers around your cause, you have to show them what’s in it for them. You’re going to need to show them data: “a professionally designed logo will improve your brand’s perception by 150%”, “according to this study, a well designed logo increases the pride felt by employees”, or “a designer can save you money, by providing an identity that can live for decades.”

But instead of focusing on the customer, and where you might be able to offer more value, I hear rallying cries that come off as defensive and self-focused:

Shop local!
“Don’t outsource programming work overseas.”
“Hire a real designer to create your logo.”

Meanwhile, the customer is staring back at you and asking: “Why? What’s in it for me?”

I think we, as designers, developers, and business people, can ward off most threats by getting to know our customers intimately – and finding places where we can offer legitimate value. No self-defence necessary.

Justin Jackson

Further reading

Want to take the next step?

I send out a weekly newsletter most Saturdays. We’ll discuss building and launching digital products, marketing, and discovering what customers really want.

* indicates required

The 2013 revenue stats I didn’t want to share

I work full-time as a Product Manager, but I also love side-projects. Like many of you, I’ve been working on little products and ideas in my spare time since I was in high school. People who know me say:

“Oh, Justin’s always working on something.”

2013 felt pivotal for me: it was the year I met many of you (the folks who read this blog, and interact with me on email). It was the year I wrote some of my favourite pieces: This is a Web PageJ.F.D.I., $20 in an Envelopeand Why You’re Not Making Sales. I was also able to produce about 50 episodes of Product People, my podcast.

But more than anything, 2013 was the year I really launched my own products. I quit thinking, dreaming and talking about it – I started doing it.

There’s no substitute for doing. Great product people are great because they consistently build, launch, and sell. I’ve learned more from doing a single product launch than I did in 4 years of university. It’s not enough to plan something out, or build it and never launch it: it’s the act of putting your product up for sale that will teach you the most. That’s where the rubber hits the road:

“If you can get anyone to show up and pay you $1, you’ve made it on the internet. People don’t [charge money for their products], because they’re scared that their product sucks.” – Dan Martell, from our interview here

Why I’m sharing my revenue numbers

I wasn’t originally planning on sharing my revenue publicly. One danger with sharing numbers like these is that they can invite comparisons. Personally, when I compare myself to others (with higher revenue) it can be demotivating. The same could be true for many of you that will look at my stats: for some of you, my numbers will be higher than yours. I don’t want that to detract you from the act of creating.

While the transparency in the bootstrapping community is awesome (and can be really helpful) it needs to be tempered with a disclaimer: everyone’s situation is unique. We’ve all had a different combination of good + bad choices, opportunities, luck, timing, and life’s circumstance. That’s OK. We’re not in a race with other people: we’re merely trying to improve ourselves. If you made $50 from your own product in 2013, that’s great! This year see if you can double it to $100.

Here’s how I’m hoping my stats will be helpful:

  • They’ll inspire you to get started: things really clicked for me once I released Amplification, my eBook. You don’t earn revenue until you put a product up for sale.
  • They’ll show you what’s possible: yes, your situation is different than mine. But I believe that most of the folks reading this have the potential to build something of value, and earn their own income from it. Having someone buy my eBook was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life.
  • They’ll give you a picture of what “one guy” accomplished on the side: unlike a lot of my product compatriots, I don’t do this full-time.  I have a full-time job and 4 kids at home. I build and sell products in my spare moments: early mornings, evenings, weekends. Like Chris Bowler said, you need to adjust your expectations to match your current stage of life. If you have 20 kids, you’re most certainly busier than I am with 4. If you have a newborn who sleeps all day, you’ll probably accomplish more than a parent whose baby has colic.

My 2013 side-project revenue numbers

Month Web hosting (recurring) Podcast (recurring) eBook (one-time) JFDI.BZ (recurring) Monthly total
Jan $450 $450
Feb $450 $350 $800
Mar $400 $584 $984
Apr $400 $448 $848
May $400 $389 $789
Jun $400 $1,530 $1,930
July $400 $350 $750
Aug $420 $350 $876 $90 $1,736
Sept $370 $918 $1,250 $957 $3,495
Oct $370 $918 $998 $1,120 $3,406
Nov $370 $486 $1,260 $2,116
Dec $370 $933 $1,150 $2,453
Totals $4800 $5837 $4,543 $4577 $19,757

Revenue details

Web hosting revenue: this is ongoing recurring revenue I’ve had for years from websites I’ve built on the side. Basically, I charge a flat $50/month fee for hosting, automatic security updates + maintenance, and up to 30 minutes of customer support. I’ve been doing this for years, but didn’t put much work into increasing revenue here in 2013 (I don’t built many websites these days).

Podcast revenue: you’ll notice that in the first half of the year, I focused a lot of my time trying to earn revenue with my podcast, Product People. I knew podcast advertising was a tough business, but I wanted to give it a try. Even though I had great monthly advertisers (Sprintly being one), I realized that there wasn’t going to be a lot of growth here.  A funny lesson: serving 2-3 advertisers is actually more stressful, than serving 100 customers who are paying you for a product. Building an advertising business is a lot of work + a lot of risk for a potentially small reward.

eBook revenue: everything changed when I sat down and released Amplification. I was originally going to write a much longer book, but instead, I decided to write a short guide that I could get to market sooner. The original version was a 45 page PDF, videos of me showing my stats, and Excel worksheets. The initial price was $19. I’ve slowly improved the product (and increased the price) since launch: it’s now a 55 page book + the Hacker News Handbook, and includes a video case study. It now retails for $39. I can’t stress this enough: start with a tiny product. That’s something I learned from Amy Hoy, and it really helped me get my “first thing” out the door.

JFDI.BZ revenue: the idea behind JFDI was to quickly validate a pain pattern I kept seeing in the conversations I had with people on my email list, on forums, and on Twitter: building a product on your own can be pretty lonely. It’s hard to find people that you can immediately bounce ideas off of, or who can give you good feedback and advice. The initial “product” was a $10/month Campfire room. Since then, we’ve raised the price to $20/month, and expanded JFDI to a full membership site, with forums, a searchable membership directory, and regular campaigns (like Week of Hustle).

Additional details

First: keep in mind that these are revenue numbers, not profit. I’m going to need to subtract taxes, payment processing charges, and hosting fees off these numbers.

Last year, it looks like I made roughly $10,000 in income on my side-projects. This year, I was able to double that. In 2014, I’d like to quadruple this year’s numbers.

What will you accomplish in 2014?

I’d like to help you achieve your goals this year. If you’re just getting started with building and launching your own products, now’s a great time to join my mailing list. Why? I know how it feels to be where you’re at right now. I’ll be showing you the techniques I used to get my first products off the ground, and what I plan to do this year to grow my revenue by 4x.


Succeed with your own product in 2014

When you’re trying to build your own product, it’s easy to get in a rut. Stuff happens, and it affects your momentum: failed launches, procrastination, fear, not knowing where to start… all these things take their toll.

But 2014 is a new year. The new year is the perfect time to renew your energy, and actually launch something.

Here’s a framework for helping you succeed with your own product starting this January.

“The best time to take action toward a dream is yesterday; the worst is tomorrow; the best compromise is today.”

~ Alvah Simon, Author

Who is your audience, and what do they need?

It’s time to go back to basics: who are your customers?

In the midst of building your product, you might have forgotten about who you’re trying to serve with this thing you’re building.

Take the beginning of January develop a clear vision of who your customer is, and what they need. Reach out to customers personally. Get a feel for who they are, what they do, and what they need help with.

You’re not just developing software / writing a book / offering a download: you’re helping real people solve real problems.

“[Successful companies] create products for people in their audience — not some niche industry they discovered maybe needed software or books… they focused on helping people”

~ Amy Hoy, 30×500

What are you building, and why does it matter?

Now, take a look at your product. What have you been building? Does it match up with what your customers need?

Maybe that feature you were hammering on in 2013 just doesn’t matter – it’s OK to stop working on it. In fact, to succeed, you’re going to need to focus on what does matter.

Where’s the gap between what you currently provide, and the pain that your audience has?

“People don’t buy software, they buy outcomes.”

~ Brennan Dunn, Planscope

Focus on one thing at a time

Trying to solve multiple pain points all at once will spread you too thin. Pick the biggest pain point and focus on just that until it’s shipped. Coming up with ideas for new features gives you a temporary high: it’s invigorating to think about other projects you could work on. But the key to success is seeing one project through before starting on another.

If you’re looking for a good organizational system, I recommend Personal Kanban.

“There’s not much more important than focus and tenacity.”

~ Seth Godin, (Source)

Remove distractions

In order to really focus, remove every distraction that you can.

Just sit in your office, and observe your impulses. What breaks your concentration?

Maybe it’s when the phone rings. Or a Twitter notification. Kids yelling? Bored of your surroundings?

Take note of the things that keep you from getting your best work done, and try to minimize those things.

“Each time a worker was distracted from a task, it would take, on average, 25 minutes to return to that task.”

~ Clive Thompson, Meet the Life Hackers

Deal with personal issues

You’ve observed what environmental distractions affect your productivity, but there’s one more factor you need to consider. You have internal distractions as well: the stress in your life.

If you’re worried about debt, a relational issue, your health, you’re not going to make good decisions in other areas of your life (including business). Deal with those personal issues first!

More reading: How stress affects your mental health.

Put regular check-ups in your calendar

If you haven’t already, make it a goal to schedule the following things in your company’s calendar:

  • Quarterly product check-up: are you on the right track? Are you helping customers with real needs?
  • Monthly accountability group meeting: get together with other folks building products. Share your struggles, questions, and successes.
  • Bigger events / conferences: plan to attend 1-2 conferences this year. Put them in your calendar now!
  • Quarterly fun: plan something fun. Ideally, something every 3 months is ideal. This could be as simple as taking the afternoon off to go see a movie, or planning a weekend ski trip.

January is a great month to figure this stuff out

It’s ok to take the month of January to go through the process:

  • Ask “who is your audience, and what do they need?”
  • Ask “what are you building, and why does it matter?”
  • Pick the biggest pain point and make that your first focus for 2014
  • Observe your work environment, and remove distractions
  • Think about how you could reduce your individual stress
  • Plan a calendar

Why didn’t you launch last year?

Did you make a goal to launch your own product last year? Did you succeed?

I struggled for years to get a product built and launched. This past year I finally launched two small products: a book called Amplification, and an online community called JFDI.

Here are some reasons you might not have launched last year, and what you can do to overcome them this year:

You just didn’t start

You thought about it, dreamt about it, and talked about it, but you never put pen to paper (or hands to keyboard) and just started.

“Just get started.” – Nathan Kontny

You didn’t set aside regular time to work on it

Getting started is half the battle, finishing is the other half. If you’re trying to build something on the side, schedule a regular time to work on it. I’ve found that building a regular habit (like getting up every Saturday at 6am, and working 2 hours) is the most effective way to schedule your time.

Your idea was too big

Nothing kills momentum like a huge project that you’re barely making a dent in. This past summer, I had plans on writing a full book called Build & Launch. Once I started writing it, I realized that at my current pace it would take me at least a year to launch. I decided instead to launch a smaller book + resources. I thought it would take me 3 weeks (it ended up taking 3 months), but I did launch. Shipping something small is better than not shipping at all.

You didn’t build an audience

Trying to build a product without an audience is like hosting a dinner party when you haven’t invited any guests. First: if you don’t know who’s coming, you don’t know what kind of food to make. Second: who would cook a big meal if they hadn’t invited any guests? If you start anything in 2014, start building an audience.

You tried doing it alone

Brennan Dunn just posted a “year in review” on his blog. The guy is a machine: he’s done well over 6 figures in product revenue this year, has 9 different products, and is a wizard at automating his marketing. It looks like he’s doing this all by himself, but the truth is, Brennan has a good support network:

[One of the best things I’ve done in 2013] was I’ve kept myself accountable to others.

When you’re bootstrapping, things can get a bit lonely. Especially when, like me, you live in a pretty agrarian part of the world.

I spent a lot of time building and strengthening relationships with fellow product people this year. It’s helped me for partnerships, cross-promotional opportunities, and get advice and feedback on initiatives I was experimenting with. But most importantly, it helped me keep myself accountable to others, while helping others stay accountable to themselves.

I’m involved in two Masterminds, one meets weekly and the other (which I just joined) meets every two weeks. I also hang out in two group chat rooms for bootstrappers. Being able to show up and see familiar faces who know what you’re up to and can provide on-the-spot advice or feedback.

What are you going to do different 2014?

It’s time to just start. Start by building an audience. Set aside regular time to work on your project. Focus on a small product first! And get a support group: hang out with likeminded people that can encourage you, give you advice, and give you feedback.

Justin Jackson

PS: I run a community called JFDI. It’s aimed at bootstrappers that want to build relationships, and accountability, with other bootstrappers. We have a Campfire room we hang out in, and we also run a regular “Week of Hustle” every month: it’s designed to help you start and finish a project in a week. The next one begins January 2, 2014 (perfect timing if you’re thinking about tackling a product launch this year). We’ve just opened up registration again: you can sign-up here.