Adrien Joly

@adrienjoly

What I learned while working as an indie developer for 2 years

Exploration of Black Rock City, Burning Man 2017. Photo: Camille Betinyani

7 principles I wish I knew before quitting my job, about marketing, productivity, and self-awareness.

ℹ️️ This article is a quick translation of “Ce que j’ai appris en travaillant à mon compte pendant 2 ans” (🇫🇷), and can be seen as complementary to “12 months to become an Indie Hacker”. Feel free to read it non-linearly.

Two years ago, I had an awesome job.

Eating out with Whyd’s team, a few months before quitting.

As the lead developer of an ambitious startup company: Whyd. I was developing a B2C product blending two of my passions: music and technology. Every day, a 15-minute bike ride would take me back to my team, my friends. With them, I was never bored, and we laughed a lot!

On top of that, I was paid well to do something I loved: coding.

Nevertheless, I became envious of other developers who got rid of their bosses to do their own thing: indie hackers. I wanted to work my own way and take my own decisions. After 4.5 years, I had gained enough confidence to quit and start my own business. So I did.

Two years later, I realise that my understanding of the world has evolved. My understanding of work, of the value of what we produce, of their “users,” and about life and relationships in general.

Back then, I was self-confident, but also very naive. Now, I’m not that confident about anything at all — including myself — but I believe that the experience I’ve had during the last few months made me stronger and wiser.

This is the kind of advice I would have loved to be given, back in 2015.

Users are not unthankful. They are desperate.

We’ve received hundreds of emails and tweets from people complaining about bugs while using our product: “Whyd.” Because it was the result of hard work, and it was provided to users at no cost, I could not help thinking that these users were unthankful.

One of the principles from the excellent book “How to win friends and influence people,” by Dale Carnegie.

After reading “How to win friends and influence people,” I measured how naive I was. Rather than “unthankful”, Dale Carnegie advocates that people are simply self-centered.

Let’s put ourselves in a Whyd user’s shoes: everything they want is to listen to music. Whyd is just a solution among thousands. The user probably found Whyd thanks to our marketing efforts towards growth. The user did not choose Whyd. They got convinced by Whyd as a good solution for their need: to listen to music. So, when this solution does not work as promised, we can understand that the user is upset. By complaining, they don’t mean any harm against the team that developed Whyd, they manifest the deception of not being able to solve their need fully yet, despite their efforts and trust.

Give before expecting to cash in.

When I started as a consultant, I was insecure towards clients. I feared to fail. To not make enough money. I feared that my clients would abuse my time and services without paying.

One of the strategies I applied to secure my income was to brand myself as a “10x developer.” A super busy software engineer that works super fast by optimising his focus. With that posture, I strived to make my communication with clients and prospects more concise, pragmatic, and uncompromising. I do believe that I’m a good software engineer. But, in retrospect, I was mostly showing that I was a cold, unreassuring person. Besides the risk of earning a bad reputation, adopting this posture can lead to picking opportunities for the wrong reasons. For instance, letting exciting missions go, in favour to missions proposed by clients that tolerated to play my game. It happened to me once: I accepted a mission that wasn’t really a good fit with my interests, just to stick to my values and to not lose face. Was that a smart way to take decisions?

I learned that, in order to create quality relationships and build a better future for myself, I had to give more first, without expecting anything in return. By giving, I mean: to listen, to give advice, to suggest, to show, to share, or more generally, to help people. Besides making the world a better place, giving is a great way to demonstrate one’s quality, skills, and benevolence. The fact that I’m writing this article and publishing it publicly is a good example. The idea of publishing useful information is also the basis of “content marketing.”

Anecdote: A few months after having given strategic advice to young startup creators, I had the surprise of receiving an email from one of them. He was telling me that he had launched his startup, that it was developing well, and that my advice had helped him a lot in that process. I was so happy to read from him, and to read that my advice was useful, that it cleared every trace of guilt I was feeling for not having found a way to charge him and/or other creators I had met at that time. In retrospect, I had just offered him some advice (that was obvious for me), while drinking a few beers. But, for him, this meeting apparently had a lot of value. Thinking about it, I’m glad I indirectly contributed to the birth of a new startup, and I’m flattered that its creator remembers and values the help I gave him.

Pro tip: It works the other way round, as well: people like to be helpful. The secret is to call a favour “a favour.” I’ve seen too many people (including myself) awkwardly saying “feel free to…” Most times, they were expecting a favour without actually asking it as a favour. Try being more clear and direct when asking favours: pick fewer people, choose them mindfully, and don’t forget to explain how their help will help you. You’ll see that people will be delighted to help!

Monetising a product takes more than visibility.

When I started working on my own products, I was convinced that making a profit was not going to be too painful, thanks to my experience developing B2C web apps efficiently, and the pragmatism of my product ideas. Leveraging ProductHunt and my social network, I succeeded in getting 10000 users on my first product, within 10 months after launch.

My first product, installed by 10,000 users: Next Step for Trello

I was very proud of what I had built. The perfect balance of usefulness, product quality, design simplicity and efficient engineering. A developer’s wet dream.

But I realised that asking people to pay for premium features was not as easy as I had thought. Probably because I had relied too much on my own vision and intuitions to develop this product. I had pushed my vision to a crowd, instead of solving a problem (or a need) of a pack of users.

By reading Justin Jackson’s articles, I understood that I was lacking basic marketing knowledge. Justin often insists on the idea that, in order to make dollars, a product must be designed to give “super powers” to its users. For instance: in order to reduce carbon footprint, Telsa do not market their cars as ecological cars. Rather, they sell “high tech”, high performance cars. Cars that people desire to buy. Buyers are not looking for an ecological car, they want to be part of a minority of drivers who live on the edge of technology. This explains why Tesla integrated the “Insane Mode,” making their cars accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in just 3 seconds.

It’s become clear that my first product does not give super powers to anybody. So the best I can do is to get to know its users, to better understand their needs, then to help them fulfill them.

I tested for you: A few weeks after launch, I sent a survey to my users. I asked them what would make my product really indispensable for their everyday use, and how much they would be happy to pay for this. The results convinced me to launch a crowdfunding campaign to develop a second version of my product, based on the most popular feature requests. At the end, only three users agreed to participate, and the campaign failed. My advice: survey results are overly optimistic. The decision is not fully made until the user sent their payment.

Marketing: “everybody” is not a target.

Too many startups hope for press coverage on Techcrunch or spam their contacts to get more votes on ProductHunt. Yes, it does feel good to have your product loved by thousands of people, right after launching it! But is early fame a good thing for your business?

Being an advocate of the Lean Startup philosophy, I know that it’s important to increase a product’s retention (i.e. reach a level of quality that makes their users keep using it over time) before trying to optimise acquisition (i.e. growing the user base). I did apply these principles while developing my first product. But I had underestimated the importance of talking to my users individually. I had no idea who my users were, and what kind of value they were running after. So how could I ever sell anything to them?

In retrospect, I had better pick a more specific target. Yes, targeting a “niche” means having fewer potential users. But, by getting to know them better, I would have built a product that was better tailored for them. So, this would have hopefully resulted in more sales.

Sure, this kind of communication is not scalable. But doing this manually would have made users trust me more, thus increase retention. And loyal users are more likely to recommend my product to their colleagues, resulting in a better, more organic growth.

Note: Multilingual creators, this reflection also applies to the language you decide to use when communicating online. When I share stuff in English, I can reach a global audience. When I share in French, my audience is way smaller, but it results in more opportunities, at least in the short term, because most of my network is more attentive to communications in French, and people from my network trust me more than random people from my global audience.

Wording: use keywords that your target searches for.

On my first product’s landing page, I did my best to pick precise keywords. I wanted to explain my vision clearly, and its features concisely. My objective was to make a “high fidelity” description of my project, for visitors.

I had forgotten something important: how would visitor find my page? What keywords would they type on Google in order to find it, while looking for solutions to their problems?

A famous quote from Henry Ford about what people need VS how people express their need.

After reading Clifford Oravec and Justin Jackson, I understood that there were at least two kinds of behaviours to expect from potential users:

  1. Simple case: a potential user that searches for a solution by picking keywords that best describe their problem. Example: “fix broken windshield
  2. Complex case: a potential user imagines a solution to their problem — to the best of their knowledge — and searches for it by picking keywords that best describes their imaginary solution to the problem. Example: “adhesive patch for windshield

In order to increase the odds of both kinds of users to find my product, I need to build (a) landing page(s) that contain keywords corresponding to the problem — as expressed by “simple case” potential users — and to solutions as they could be expressed by “complex case” potential users.

To reach and convert more potential users, it is important to put ourselves in their shoes, and determine what keywords they may use to find our landing page(s). Knowing your target well is essential. (as seen in the previous part)

When in doubt: avoid regret, take risks.

Now that we’ve talked about product users and marketing, I’d like to share what I learned at a more personal level.

As a very rational person, I tend to list pros and cons before deciding anything. My level of indecision is so high that even the thought of having to choose what to buy in a clothing store makes me sweat!

Risk aversion probably made me miss many opportunities to evolve professionally and personally. Especially during my entrepreneurial period. Bummer!

It’s back from the trip at the end of my entrepreneurial period that I took the biggest risk of the last 18 months: I accepted to hold an 8-hour workshop in a school I had never taught at, with just a 24-hour notice! Why was this risky? I had never physically given a course about “Lean Management” before, and I had got no course material to rely on. Over the last 18 months, this experience ended up being one of the most exciting and rewarding ones!

Take-away: It’s important to keep reflecting, learn and be curious, but it’s even more important to not wait “to be ready” before going ahead with an exciting project. Challenges allow us to push our limits forward, or at least, to be able to discover what are our real limits. Following your gut feeling makes you feel alive, and evolve. Perfection does not exist. But regret definitely does.

Between pleasure and efforts: the quest of Flow

Let’s end this article with an experience that was a success and a failure at the same time: the optimisation of my productivity routine.

Web products usually take months before showing any sign of success. Because my time was limited by my financial savings, I had decided to develop multiple projects simultaneously. For that, I had developed a task planning and tracking system relying on a Trello board + a list of measurable objectives + a well-filled calendar every week + frequent retrospectives. My goal was to work as efficiently as possible.

This screenshot shows the level of planning I was reaching every week:

A typical week during my entrepreneurial period. Each 4-letter prefix refers to one of my projects.

After one year of use of this productivity system, I can confirm that it is effective. I developed a dozen of projects, published my results regularly and efficiently. Even my friends were asking me for productivity advice!

That being said, this routine ended up turning me into some kind of mechanical zombie. Now that I let go from my objectives and strict time management rules, I feel like I’m breathing again after a long suffocation.

I did probably not leave enough space to serendipity. Enough time for my brain to process. And enough listening to the moods and desires I was feeling at all times. I would not recommend anyone to apply such a strict time management routine for more than 6 months in a row.

Moreover, while I was having a lot of fun working on some of my tasks, others were draining me: tasks that relied on knowledge or experience I did not have (e.g. Marketing.)

A representation of “Flow”

If I was to create a business again, I would spend less than 20% of my time on this kind of tasks, in order to spend more time in “flow”: this state of immersion and pleasure that we feel when we’re working on something that is challenging and mastered at the same time. In my case: programming and writing.

In retrospect: I’m glad I was able to achieve that much is that little time. I’m also relieved to turn this page, in which I was too concerned about being efficient, and not enough about being connected to the real world, and to myself. As Sean McCabe advises: working on a too broad range of topics causes confusion for oneself and their network. Clarity and focus enable more relevant and exciting opportunities.

Conclusion and perspectives

Writing this article helps me to turn an important page of my life: a period during which I had challenged myself to develop and commercialise my own products, by myself. It’s also a trace of what I’ve learned during this period.

I also wanted to testify that following the “Indie Hacker” route does not necessarily lead to success. The many success stories I had read gave me the impression of an easy path. It’s definitely not.

You may feel sorry for me. Please don’t. I take the end of that entrepreneurial experience as an exciting occasion to start a new life, with fewer dead-ends to explore and a more solid mindset. I’m grateful for having been able to live this experience. And I’m excited about the next chapter of my life, now that I’ve become more knowledgeable about business, and about myself.

Thanks for reading! 😊

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