Your business isn’t about finding a great idea

My friend Adam Wathan and I had a good chat on his podcast. Here’s a bit of our conversation.

Justin Jackson:

Tell me about this thing you said on Twitter:

“Racking my brain for ideas is always unproductive, stressful, and makes me feel terrible.”

Adam Wathan:

Yeah, so I work for myself, and I can kind of spend my time doing whatever I want to do as long as it pays off down the road. I’ve done a bunch of different stuff:

But in general, all that stuff felt like scattered ideas. I always have to know what my next project is while I’m working on the current project. I’m just hoping that I’ll have an idea to put after the next one. It feels like I’m building the bridge as I’m like walking across it.

And in the back of my head, I’m always trying to figure out: “What do I actually want to be doing long-term?” Because all these things feel like temporary little projects.

For example, the Vue.js course: I took maybe eight weeks of actual work. (Obviously, I had to learn the ideas and everything for years before that). But the actual work of deciding to build it, putting up a landing page, and recording the videos, that was an eight-week project.

A lot of my projects feel like that. They’re these temporary things that I get an influx of income from.

So I’m always trying to figure out: “what do I actually want to be?”

The dream for me has always been to make some sort of SaaS or something, right? I want to be able to sit down, work on features for a product, put it out there, get users, and be able to just focus on one thing and grow it for many years. I feel like I’m always chasing that.

Sometimes I get into a little bit of a funk. It’s usually a few weeks after I finish a project, and before I’ve started on the next one, where I don’t have a focus.

When I’m working on a course or a book, it feels like I have this purpose. I’m like: “Okay. This is the thing that I’m doing. This is what’s occupying my mind,” and I can just hustle on that.

But when it’s done I get back into this mode where I’m thinking: “Okay, so what’s next? What am I gonna be working on long-term?” and it just gets me in the spot where go down this hole:

“Okay, I want to make a SaaS. What sort of SaaS could I make?”

“What sort of scratch-my-itch problems do I have?”

“Can I just imagine an idea?”

A lot of developers have probably felt the same thing, where you’re trying to brainstorm and force yourself to come up with some innovative thing that’s going to be a successful business.

Of course, it’s never going to be that easy. You’re never going to be able to just sit and like force your brain to invent some amazing idea, you know?

It’s hard because I feel like I have to keep thinking about it to try and figure it out. But at the same time, I know there’s no way I’m going to come up with something trying to invent some idea. It can be really disheartening.

So I don’t know. What do you think about this?

Justin Jackson:

I mean there’s so much in there. First of all, I can identify with that pressure. There’s a big presssure to figure out: “what is my life’s work?”

Adam Wathan:

Yeah, exactly.

Justin Jackson:

There’s this question: “Is that what I’ll be known for? Is it enough?”

In some ways, I liked it better when 37signals had a bunch of ongoing projects because it was easy to say: “Cool, they’ve got a bunch of projects; I’ve got a bunch of projects.”

But then they doubled-down on Basecamp. They said, “this is our best idea. This is our life’s work.”

That creates this pressure for us because those guys are our heroes. Their move to focus on Basecamp made me panic a bit: “Dang. Ok, what’s my best idea? What’s my life’s work going to be?”

That kind of pressure is terrible for creativity. We lock ourselves in a closet and say, “Okay, I’m not getting out of this closet until I’ve got a good idea.”

Adam Wathan:

It’s so true though, man.

Like I’m sure people listening to this right now are laughing; they know that feeling.

Justin Jackson:

It’s so dumb though. How many good ideas are created in that “locked in the closet” scenario? Very few. It just doesn’t work that way.

As an aside, it’s interesting for me to be looking at this as your friend. Because from the outside, you’re clearly good at what you do (helping developers).

When you’re dealing with this stuff personally, you can’t see the forest through the trees. It’s hard to get a sense of the bigger picture. But the people who are around you can see clearly. When you’re in the forest, and all you can see is the trees, you need folks who can help you zoom out and look at the big picture.

It sounds like Derek Sivers’ book, “Anything You Want,” was kind of your sage, helping you zoom out, hey?

Adam Wathan:

Yeah, I can talk about that a little bit. So the book, “Anything You Want,” is Derek Sivers’ story and lessons learned from running CD Baby. It all the philosophies he took away from that experience.

Justin Jackson:

For you young folks: the “CD” in “CD Baby” stands for “compact disc.”

Adam Wathan:

Exactly. Haha, so anyways, I’ve read this book multiple times. It’s one of those books, where every time I read it there’s a different message in it for me, depending on where I’m at with what I’m doing.

This time, I had this realization: Derek, at his core, he’s a musician right? That’s where CD Baby came from. He’s a musician. He wanted to sell his CDs online, and he just figured out a way to do it. His friends wanted him to do it for them too. And the next thing you know, he has this successful business that he didn’t plan on.

What’s interesting is he didn’t go into this problem as a software developer. He didn’t want to start a software company or a CD warehousing company.

He’s a musician and his buddies are musicians and he had musician problems and wanted to make being a musician better. Starting CD Baby was the way he ended up doing that.

That was my main takeaway: his business was really just helping musicians. That’s what the mission was. It wasn’t about any idea. It came from him saying: “I care about helping musicians be better.”

Something about that really flipped my perspective.

Like I kind of mentioned, all the stuff I do kind of feels scattered. I have a bunch of educational products right? Then I have some open source stuff that I want to pursue. I also do some live-streaming stuff. And they’ve all felt like these isolated projects. They’re not pushing in one obvious direction.

What this book made me realize this time is that I was thinking too much about the category, instead of the job I was trying to solve by creating things in that category. It made me realize I don’t have to be in the business of creating education products. I don’t have to exist in that category. I have to think: “why am I making these courses?” I’m making them because I want to help software developers have more fun at their jobs, write code that they’re happy with, and build better stuff, faster.

When I flip that around and look at it from that lens, then it removes any guilt that I had about building something that wasn’t a video course. For example, my framework is totally solving that same problem for those same people. And it’s in a totally different category than any sort of educational thing.

Justin Jackson:

Yeah. I’ve talked about this a lot: “don’t start with an idea start with people.” You told me you remember me saying that stuff, but that this time around there was a new insight.

Adam Wathan:

It’s hard to explain. Yes, I’ve heard you talk about it before and it’s obviously great advice, but I think I took it as: “you don’t want to build something for people who can’t sustain your business. You don’t want to make like hobbyist software for hobbyist photographers who don’t actually have revenue.”

So I’ve always looked at that advice from a cold, clinical perspective: “make sure the market you’re choosing as money.”

This new insight is that my business isn’t about “the idea.” My business is helping whatever group of people I decide to help make progress with whatever their problems are. And doing that can take the form of just about anything as long as I’m still focused on the same group.

Justin Jackson:

There’s a lot to unpack with this idea of “choosing your market first.”

Yes, you want to choose a market that pays for things and is easy to reach.

But you also want “founder-market fit.”

Product-market fit is a good market and a product that satisfies that market. But founder-market is about finding a market that you really want to help.

It’s incredibly motivating to wake up every day and go: “Okay, who am I trying to serve?”

If you’re building something, and you like who you’re building it for, it’s energizing. You’re going to have a much better time. That energy will sustain you on the days where you’re not feeling particularly creative.

I have this old tweet that people got angry about:

Don't fall in love with the problem.

Fall in love with the people you want to serve.

Then, help make their lives better.

— Justin Jackson (@mijustin) May 17, 2017

I think it’s true though.

Let’s say something bad happens with your CSS framework, Tailwind. Maybe something new comes along that’s even better and everyone’s just…

Adam Wathan:

That’s happening actually, in some ways so you’re not far off.

Justin Jackson:

So you could have this feeling of: “Well that sucks because I’ve invested all this time in it.” Some people are so in love with their idea that they can’t let it go. They’ll say: “This is my baby, I’m holding on to this forever.”

But you can say: “Well that sucks, but my mission is to help developers make things they’re proud of. So if a better solution comes along, that’s great.”

Your mission is about helping the people, not your particular implementation.

Adam Wathan:

Exactly, look at newspapers. Their mission was to deliver the news to people. Their product was printing it and delivering it. But then the internet came along, and a lot of newspapers got killed.

However, the New York Times evolved. They have a giant tech team doing innovative stuff. They didn’t just latch on to this sentiment of “we need to get people reading this paper! Maybe if we make the paper smell better more people will want to buy our paper!”

You can’t get too attached to the implementation.

Justin Jackson:

There’s a strategy piece to this too.

If you enjoy serving a particular customer and you get to know them better than anybody else you’ll earn a reputation. And a good reputation is very difficult to duplicate. It’s a competitive advantage.

Even if a competitor comes along and steals a piece of your business, you’ll still have a big asset. You know your customers better than anybody else. Plus: they know who you are.

Founders should be motivated to help their customers no matter what the medium is. It could be a course, software, or a conference talk.

It’s a freeing way to live your life. Instead of getting attached to one idea, you can just move on to the next thing because you’re still passionate about the people.

Adam Wathan:

Yeah, one hundred percent.

Justin Jackson:

I also wonder: in a competitive environment, is this is the only approach that works?

For example, if someone came along that cared more about Laravel programmers than you do, they would probably kick your ass.

But the reason you’re killing it is that you’ve been doing this forever. Whether it was helping somebody fix a problem in a forum, or helping someone on Twitter, you’ve been doing this for a long time. You have a heritage. It’s in your DNA.

For someone to unseat you, they’re going to need to have that same DNA, history, and passion. Nobody can just start out and compete with Adam Wathan. It takes years of investment.

Adam Wathan:

Yeah, I totally agree.

This perspective has also helped me disqualify certain ideas for products.

I’ve always been sitting around brainstorming: “What am I going to build? What problems do I have? What tools could I make?”

But now I can see a lot of my ideas would mean helping a totally different group of people; people that I’m not necessarily motivated to help.

Justin Jackson:

This is something Seth Godin hits on all the time. He asks two questions:

  1. Who is it for?
  2. What is it for?

So you could come up with an idea, and ask: “Ok, who is it for?” Maybe the idea is for “course creators.” Well, you know that doesn’t fit your mission of helping developers.

If you have an idea for developers, you could ask: “Ok, what is it for?” And that’s where you see if your idea fits with your mission of making developers happier.

It’s a great checklist for ideas. Be honest about “who it’s for” and “what it’s for” and make sure that aligns with you and what you want out of your life.


You can listen to the complete conversation between Adam and me on Full Stack Radio.

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Published on July 21, 2018