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

This is real life

One thing the online gurus don’t talk about is “real life”.

In some ways I’m guilty of this too. I talk about launching products, building ideal routines, and “achieving the dream”.

But the truth is… real life is messy.

A lot of us like our online personas, because they’re clean. We can hide all of our mess behind smiling avatars, stylized Instagram shots, and clever status updates.

Let’s be honest: we’re not perfect Internet rock stars. Each of us have a personal reality with some “real life stuff” in it: kids who wake us up at 3am, a family member who gets sick, bills that need to get paid, feeling down and lonely on a Saturday night, a messy house that we’d never share on Instagram…

Talking about Instagram, check out this picture, taken by my daughter:

Justin Jackson: real life parenting, this is funny

It’s me, in my bathrobe, eating cereal, with my son on my shoulders (drumming on my head). It’s funny to me now, but at the time, that was a hard morning. My kids got up early – I was tired. I’m wearing my dumpy bathrobe, trying to eat my cereal in peace, when my 4 year old climbs me like a tree. I’m too tired to ask him to get down. He starts singing and drumming; he’s so happy to up there, I might as well just finish my cereal.

You see, I can pretend to be cool on the Internet, but in real life I’m just a dad in a bathrobe.

And the truth is, we all have “stuff” like this. There’s real circumstances in our lives, and those circumstances affect us. This is real life, and it’s good to talk about it.

So let’s talk about it.

First: everyone on the Internet is a real human being, just like you.

Even though some people seem perfect and impossibly cool… trust me, we ALL have real human stuff we’re dealing with. And all those pictures you see of gurus laying in hammocks on a tropical beach? Sure those pictures are real (probably), but that’s not their real life. Everyone has a real life and an illusion of their life that they show online.

BTW: that photo of me above isn’t even “real”. I put filters on it in Instagram. I blurred out some of the mess around me. It’s an illusion.

Second: the relationships you’ve built are really the best thing you have.

“The upshot of 50 years of happiness research is that the quantity and quality of a person’s social connections—friendships, relationships with family members, closeness to neighbors, etc.—is so closely related to well-being and personal happiness the two can practically be equated.”
– Christine Carter, Ph.D., Happiness is being socially connected

You have a loving spouse? Cherish that relationship. Invest in it. Be a good lover.

Do you have kids? Man, parenting is hard. But those kids are amazing little human beings. They need your attention, your direction and your love. You’re responsible for them; take that responsibility seriously.

And friends: if you have good friends, that you get to hang out with regularly, that’s like gold. Seriously: I know we all want to build great products, have popular blogs, and make an impact in our industry… but hanging out and laughing with friends is actually better. Don’t forget that.

Third: in terms of building and launching our own projects, there’s a balance here.

On one hand we have to accept that our reality will  restrict what we can do. For example: I’ve had the flu for the last 2 weeks; all I could do was rest in bed, and wait for it to pass. That’s life. If you’re a single mom with 3 kids, your reality’s going to be different than a single 22 year-old. Each of us have unique circumstances that will affect what we can work on, and when. This was especially true for me when it came to writing a book: I decided that a full 300 page book wouldn’t be possible (with 4 kids and a day job), so I wrote a shorter guide instead.

On the other hand, we have to figure out ways to appropriately rise above our circumstances: to get outside our comfort zones; to claw, climb, and push ourselves to where we want to be. Doing something out of the ordinary does takes some grit and some sacrifice. Here’s what this means for me, personally: I’m not going to miss my daughter’s Christmas pageant, but I am going to wake up really early on a Sunday to write a blog post.

Ultimately, our relationships are way more important than any business we’re going to create. Let’s not sacrifice our friendships on our journey to build and create cool stuff.

Fourth: we can’t do this alone.

If we’re going to do extraordinary things, we’re going to need support. The support I get from folks I’ve met on the internet is helpful: a Skype session, chatting in the JFDI Campfire room, or a personal email goes a long way.

But, I’ve found my best support comes from my friends here in my hometown of Vernon. When it comes to “real life stuff” nothing beats local support. You need friends that can actually show up at your doorstep and give you a helping hand, encouragement, and a listening ear.

Finally: let’s talk about depression.

If you’re depressed, or even if you’re just feeling down, please get help from a professional therapist. If you’re struggling with other issues (relationships, self-identity, addiction) getting regular counselling will help. Take care of your health first!

Was this helpful for you? If you want to chat, reach out on Twitter, or join my mailing list.

Justin Jackson

PS: I originally sent this email to my newsletter list, and had some really great conversations with the people who replied. If you’d like to be part of my list, sign-up below:

Where do you find the time for side projects?

Ever since I published the revenue numbers for my side-projects, I’ve been getting this question a lot:

“YOU HAVE 4 KIDS AND A FULL-TIME JOB?! Where do you find the time for side-projects?”

When I answer, I’m tempted to make up something that sounds really impressive:

“Well, I stay up every night and hustle until my eyes bleed.”

But I don’t do that. I also don’t currently use a really complicated time management philosophy. There’s a few things that I’m doing right now that have been helpful for me. If you’re like me (a parent and/or someone who has a full-time job) they might be helpful for you too:

1. Where are you going?

One of the best things I did this past year was making a decision to launch my book “by the end of the summer”.

Setting a goal is so helpful; once you have a destination it really clarifies how you should be spending your time.

Your first step is to define what you want to achieve. I personally like 3 month projects – they’re smaller in scope, and easier to get going.

2. Jump aboard the inspiration train

If I get inspired, I try to start working on that idea right away. If I wait longer than a day, I lose the momentum.

This is especially helpful for cranking out an initial draft of your project. When you’re inspired, you have a lot of energy, you’re mentally alert, and you’re motivated. The first draft of many of my blog posts are written in fits of inspiration. I’ll blurt it all out as fast I can. Then, I’ll try to sit on it overnight, and come back and tweak it the next day.

“Inspiration is like fresh fruit or milk: It has an expiration date. If you want to do something, you’ve got to do it now. You can’t put it on a shelf and wait two months to get around to it. You can’t just say you’ll do it later. Later, you won’t be pumped up about it anymore.”
– Jason Fried and David Heinemeier-Hansson, Rework

3. What do I want to accomplish this week?

I don’t always keep this habit, but when I do, it’s really helpful. I use a Kanban board to write out a list of achievable tasks for the week. I put all those items in the “Backlog” column. Then, each day I pull up the list, choose one task (by moving it to the “Current” column), and work on it until it’s done.

Kanban board

Bonus: I’ve also found it helpful to have a shared Kanban board with other side-hustlers and JFDIers. I do this in Sprint.ly, but you can use Trello this way as well.

4. Ok, but where do you actually find the time?

I mentioned setting goals, using inspiration, and Kanban first because setting a good foundation is important. I’ve found having this foundation is more helpful than the actual logistics (which actually aren’t that exciting).

The short answer is: I work on side-projects whenever I have a spare moment. I sacrifice other things (watching TV, reading the newspaper, playing video games) so that I can do creative work.

“It takes sacrifice to make something great. In order to shift your mindset and experiment with ideas, you have to choose a new path. You have to change your paradigm from consumption to creation. ”
– Paul Jarvis, Everything I Know

I get most of my work done in the evenings, right after my kids go to bed, or early in the morning. My regular routine is to wake up early on Saturday and Sunday, and get 2-3 hours of work done before anyone wakes up.

I’ve also found it helpful to take my lunch hour (during the work week), head to a cafe and give myself 50 minutes to just write.

During these times, I eliminate distractions (Twitter, open tabs, notifications) and I focus on achieving just one thing.

Justin Jackson

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.


It’s not us, it’s them

I Skyped with Adam Clark the other day. We’re both planning on launching new products in 2014. He’s launching a WordPress theme built specifically for churches under the Lift Themes banner and I’m planning on releasing another book plus a software product for dev teams.

(Sidebar: I like chatting with Adam: he has a warm, inviting quality that makes you feel like you’re sitting on his back-porch, sipping sweet tea in Tennessee.)

It wasn’t long into our conversation that some of our insecurities started to come out:

“How would a failed launch affect my reputation on the net?”

“What would my peers think of me launching this?”

“I understand I need to connect with my audience, but I’d rather blog about things that are easy.”

Then we stopped. We realized we’d been chatting about ourselves a lot. What wasn’t getting as much attention? Ahem – how about our customers? You know: the people who might actually shell out their hard earned cash for the wares we might produce?

Me, me, and more of me

I regularly get questions from people looking to build products. When I ask them: “Who are the people you’re going to serve?” I get blank stares. We all spend way too much time thinking about “our idea”, “our design”, “our code”, and “our dreams” … but not nearly enough time thinking about “our customer”.

Building great products is not about “us” – it’s about “them”.

“Evolution does not favour selfish people”
writes BBC science reporter Melissa Hogenboom.

This is also true for product development: if you build a product that’s “all about you”, you’ll find you’re the only one who cares about the darned thing. But, if you build a product “all about them”, there’s a greater chance that “they” will care.

Who are you going to serve?

Our culture celebrates self-centeredness. To build great products, we’re going to need to re-align ourselves to a different paradigm: it’s not about us, it’s about them.

Here are the questions you need to ask:

  1. Which group of people are you best suited to help?
  2. Can they afford to pay you for your help?
  3. What do they really need?

I’ll be covering this topic in more detail in a future post (you can subscribe here, and get notified as soon as I publish it).

More reading

There are so many great thinkers talking about this right now. Here are a few selections from Clayton Christensen, Amy Hoy (this too), and Brennan Dunn on the topic.