Today I received an email from a concerned NotSharingMy.Info user who wanted to recommend the site to their clients, but was embarrassed to do so because of how it mentions subscribing to porn newsletters as one of the intended uses. While I can understand where they are coming from, it apparently tickled my internal freedom fighter so I couldn’t help dropping all the work and spending the next two hours crafting a response where a simple “sorry, but we can’t change that” would suffice.
Just so these 2 hours don’t feel entirely wasted, I decided to publish it here. Consider it my official position on the matter.
Hi everybody! Sorry about the silence in the last few weeks. I’ve cornered myself by promising to post some actual facts and data instead of the usual twaddle. Which turned out to require some more homework than I lately had time for. Finally I realized that I need to take my own medicine and start small instead of trying to squeeze the entire chronicle of my marketing efforts into a single post. So here goes: The story of “anorexic launch”.
If I was given an opportunity to send a message to my past self leaving his job and starting his first company, here’s what it would say:
You are going to suck at everything. You will never be professional again. And the sooner you learn to appreciate it, the better.
(OK, OK, to be honest I’d also add “And send the damn invoices on time you lazy insect!”. Oh, and “Do kiss the girl.”, but I digress.)
These days I cannot help noticing skeptically risen eyebrows whenever I brag about things like hitting 300 visits/day with notsharingmy.info or the 20 followers of this blog as if it was any sort of noteworthy achievement. “The guy is out of touch with reality” people must be thinking. But I’m not. I do have a sense of proportion and (I like to think) even some kind of taste. And thus I know perfectly well how badly I suck. But I also know one simple fact that bystanders are usually overlooking: you don’t achieve a lot without achieving a little first. And taking pride in whatever little progress you’ve made is merely a mental trick to maintain momentum.
Doing things that neither you nor anybody else have done before is in the very spirit of entrepreneurship. And how on Earth could you be suddenly good at something no one has previously done? There is no step-by-step manual you could follow and no simulator you could use to gain experience in a risk-free environment. Instead, you keep sucking until you figure it out and then you move on to the next seemingly unapproachable problem. It’s in fact when you start feeling that you know precisely what you are doing that the loud scary alarm in your head should go off signaling that you’ve stopped making any progress (or worse, fooling yourself).
So keep pushing the limit and keep sucking. Professionalism is for amateurs.
P.S. This post is the last for a while in the inspirational bullshit series, I promise. Hard facts and numbers are on their way.
Before we get down to business it might be worth pointing out that I’m a guy who makes a really big point out of being cheap (or frugal if you prefer it to sound nicer than it really is). This whole blog after all is devoted to the story of me being cheap about starting an online business.
And nevertheless I’m going to say this: being cheap can cost you a fortune.
Not long ago, Kevin Rose tweeted
“i honestly think coming up w/a name for your product is actually harder than building it.”
I can certainly relate to this sentiment. Naming things is damn hard. I first learned it back in the day when I went by the name “Gangrene Bacillus” and was a member of “9th Bit” virmaking crew (don’t be too hard on me, I was 15 and “Hackers” just came out). But what I also learned at the same time is that creative energy is limited and if you obsess too much over the name you might end up not leaving enough of it for whatever it is you are naming. And so I trained myself to let go, the skill you can tell I used to come up with the name “Not Sharing My Info”.
It might sound trivial, but this is probably the most important lesson I learned from my experiment so far: online influence does matter and unlike most other things it’s not something you can figure out when you need it.
Social media this and social media that is thrown around so much that my mind basically shuts down whenever I hear it. But take it from a non-marketer who had no Facebook and no Twitter account till late 2010: these words do mean something and if you are going to build a successful online business you better know what it is.
As I’m trying to follow the chronological order of events, in this post I would have to describe my experience building the application. The problem is, there isn’t much to say about that part. I just sat at the computer and coded it, spending about 8 hours total. So instead I’m going to talk about something more interesting (but relevant): programmatically sending email.
The premise that sending email is “interesting” would probably make anyone unfamiliar with the matter raise their eyebrows. But every web developer remembers the horror of realizing that the emails sent by their application are going right to the users’ spam folders. Every major web framework / programming language out there has a simple routine for sending out email, and yet it’s never actually good enough to get those emails delivered properly. Why would that be? Why does something so trivial constantly turns into a major pain in the ass?
Let me start by showing something to you. This is the website of a company with several hundred billion dollars in assets.
But hold on, don’t reach for your guns just yet. I’m not saying design doesn’t matter. Of course it does. But there’s a lesson we can learn from Buffet here: you are never too rich to stop caring about your spending priorities. And especially not when you are just starting.
The whole point of launching “throwaway” startups is that your product becomes your market research tool. If it gets any traction you can consider investing more time and money and adjusting it based on the feedback you get. If not, you just move on to the next idea. But even if your product takes only a day to develop, it still makes sense to do a basic sanity check upfront.
Luckily there are some free online tools that let you do it real quick. In fact they often work so well that you wouldn’t lose your face over using them to evaluate bigger ventures.
It all started on a nice summer day when I stormed into a friend’s place excited with a new meta-idea. The idea was this: instead of trying to come up with the next big thing we would meet once a week and generate as many ideas as possible without paying attention to their quality. Then we would select the ones that can be launched in a week and out of those select the least crappy one and implement it. Of course one is unlikely to create the next Google that way (or do the say “next Facebook” now?), but one is also guaranteed to create nothing at all by trying to extract epiphany out of thin air. If we implemented ten crappy ideas maybe at least one would turn out not that crappy after all. And at the very least we would learn a lot in the process and get “unstuck”.
And oh boy did it get us unstuck. We only had one or two of those brainstorming sessions, but the crappy (and sometimes worthwhile) ideas have been breeding in my head like rabbits on viagra ever since. At the time it was just a gut feeling, but later I realized it’s a well known fact that limitations stimulate creativity (proof).
We never got to launching 10 ideas. The very first project took us much longer than a week to implement and before we were ready to launch someone else announced the exact same service. Of course in a real startup you don’t just stand up and leave at a mere announcement like that, but it was more of a game and the game stopped being fun. So we quit. We got so discouraged that we never took on the next project. There’s a lesson to be learned somewhere here!
But the lesson I ended up learning is that a project has to be even smaller than that for me to be able to throw it away without a regret. Projects like that are not easy to come by. If it can be launched in a weekend all chances are someone already did it (and usually multiple people). But I was in no hurry (as by the time I was already working on a “serious” startup) and eventually the idea arrived.
I was banned from a website for no apparent reason and couldn’t appeal because I didn’t remember the temporary email address I used to register. That’s when I realized what I actually needed is not a temporary email but an anonymous one. That’s how Not Sharing My Info, a permanent anonymous email service, was born. They call this creative process “scratching your own itch”.
As expected, trying to create a profitable Internet venture with minimum time and money investments possible turned out to be a fascinating experience. I had to do market research, product development, PR, marketing and even sales, all on microscopic scale. And while my little enterprise is not quite there yet, I now have a lot to share. This is what this blog is about. The name is an allusion to the lean startup movement, but it’s not sarcastic in any way and merely refers to the fact that I’m trying to take those ideas to their absolute extreme.
If you want to hear about my adventures as micro-entrepreneur and the things I learned, subscribe to this blog or follow me on twitter and stay tuned!
P.S. The web is full of angry rants by people demanding the words “startup” and “entrepreneur” to be considered sacred and never used with any meaning other than the one they think is appropriate. Well I have some bad news for you guys. I’m going to start abusing those words and referring to side projects that only take a few hours of work a week or less as startups and to people working on those projects as entrepreneurs. I’m going to do my best to devalue these words to dirt. Why? Because I believe the world will be a better place for it. When more people realize how little it takes to become an entrepreneur with your own startup the words will lose their lady-impressing powers. But we’ll have more people innovating, creating, and taking control of their economic fate. And I don’t know about you, but to me it sounds like a really small price to pay.