[…] because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And […] it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.
Early last year, I started working on a side project to create a websocket server from scratch. I wanted to know what the technical limitations were to serve millions of concurrent connections at scale. Well, I found my answer(s), and along the way I picked up a few extra problems that needed to be solved. The end result was recv.io (receive eye oh), a globally distributed pub/sub network that doesn’t lose your messages.
Later that year, I decided that I should quit my job and focus on recv.io full-time. A cliche, I know, but there was an entire other blog post worth of reasons why quitting was the right move. To prepare for the transition from developer to founder, I decided to analyze the [un]knowns.
- Known Knowns: I know how to build products
- Known Unknowns: I don’t know how to build or run a company
- Unknown Unknowns: I don’t know exactly what I don’t know about building and running a company.
For the known unknowns, there were many resources available. I devoured as many founder stories and forum posts on Indie Hackers as I could get my hands on. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone to seek out articles on marketing and financial tactics for bootstrappers. And yes, I learned quite a bit from those sources. But there was something else missing from this equation. A hidden variable that represented some intangible gap in my knowledge. Then I stumbled upon MicroConf, and it clicked. It was the human element that I was missing.
What is MicroConf?
Straight from their website:
The World’s Biggest Conference For the World’s Smallest Self-Funded Software Companies
Basically, it’s a place for founders of “bootstrapped” software (mostly SaaS) companies to meet and share their knowledge and experiences, and to help and support each other.
I still don’t quite remember how I found it. Possibly Hacker News or just random googling. But as soon as I digested it, I knew that if there ever was a place to discover those unknown unknowns, this was it. It was a bit pricey (especially for a bootstrapper), but after feeling around for a bit on the internet, the consensus was virtually unanimus that the experience was worth it, both for the talks and for the “hallway track” in between talks where you get to meet and talk to other attendees and speakers.
So, I booked my ticket for May 1st — 3rd for Starter Edition, and never looked back.
Indeed, as promised, both the talks and the hallway track were well worth the trip. You can find the full list of speakers and notes on their talks here.
Below are some lessons that I picked up while there. Note that it is sprinkled with a few uncredited quotes from the talks. This is to avoid focusing too much on the “who said it” rather than the “what did they say”, but if you happen to be one of those speakers that I’ve quoted and would like to be credited, please let me know.
Lesson 1: It’s not just about the product
“Whom do I want to serve?”
Like many other attendees, I was passionate about what I was building. I wouldn’t have quit my job if I wasn’t 100% behind it. As a developer, the problems recv.io was meant to solve were challenging, exciting, and useful. This passion was my driving factor while developing it.
But, when building a product that you can then build a business on, passion for the product is not enough. It’s about the kinds of customers you want to attract, and waking up every day knowing that your business is built around serving them, and whether or not the thought of that makes you happy and fulfilled.
Furthermore, advancing your product with new features and functionality should almost always center around continuously helping your customers solve their problems. Whom do I want to serve? This question is capable of validating your product from its very first version to its last.
There’s no point in wanting to leave your day job behind and building an entirely new lifestyle on top of a business that you hate, right? Should your work continue be a chore, or should it be a source of fulfillment?
For recv.io, the answer was obvious. I was building this for developers and teams to make their lives easier. To turn their hard problems into solved problems. And I felt fulfilled by that.
Lesson 2: Build an audience
“Be useful on the internet”
This is one of those that you always hear about, and it seems obvious, and yet its importance seems lost to people like me (solitary developers who tend to avoid social interaction, even on the internet).
Here was my initial launch strategy:
- Build awesome product
- Launch on Product Hunt + Hacker News
- Pray it goes viral
This is pretty much a “winning the lottery” strategy, and I suspect that many others also bank on this strategy, and of course, the majority of them are disappointed.
But what if I already had a list of people who I knew with reasonable certainty would be interested in my products, and also trusted me enough to not only listen to me, but to give my products a try (any maybe even give me money for them)? That’s the ideal, right? That also happens to be what an effective audience looks like.
So how do you build one? Be useful on the internet.
Create publicly available (free) content that genuinely helps people. Examples include blog posts, tweets, forum posts, mailing list replies, Stack Overflow answers, Quora answers, video tutorials, podcasts, ebooks, etc. There are numerous media to choose from.
Of course, you should pick the media that best suits the situation. Here are a few mini-lessons on that:
2.1: Stick to your strengths
Don’t start doing videos or podcasts if you’re not a great speaker. Likewise, don’t write lengthy blog posts if you’re not the best at it. For example, I love writing, so blog posts are a natural fit.
Adam Wathan also illustrated how simple, helpful tweets can help increase your followers by orders of magnitude.
Yet, Twitter confuses me greatly, so I’m not quite comfortable using it as a medium just yet. At a roundtable session with Courtland Allen of Indie Hackers fame (and thus well-versed in audience-building), I was encouraged to utilize email newsletters until Twitter became more natural to me.
2.2: Know your audience
Who is your content targeted towards? Where do they hang out? What kind of content best resonates with them? What are their pain points? Answering these questions informs the kind of content you should create, the right media to present that content, and the most effective channels to distribute it.
Patrick McKenzie also had an excellent point regarding creating content for under-served audiences. Not only can your content help the not-yet-helped, but the lack of competition also means you become a de facto resource for that under-served community.
2.3: Develop a strategy
Preconceive a list of topics. Each topic should have a particular goal in mind: why should my audience consume this, and how would I want them to ideally react after consuming it? You can also align your topics with your product timelines, such that launches of new products or features are preempted by relevant content.
Having a list of topics also ensures that your stream of content doesn’t stagnate, so long as you continue to fill up the buffer of topics. An dead blog is worse than no blog.
I want to reiterate that your content should be genuinely useful. Take the Miracle on 34th Street approach, where caring about someone’s problem and then solving it for them builds trust, and they will arrive at your offering naturally, rather than having to sell it to them. There is a time and a place to sell, but creating helpful content is generally not it. Plus, it makes the world a better place, if even incrementally so.
Lesson 3: Talk to people
“Email literally everyone.”
This means engaging with your audience. And once you have customers, engage with them too.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Gathering feedback can not only help you refine your product and its features, but it can reduce churn e.g. improving the onboarding process or rethinking pricing. They can also help validate ideas and assumptions before starting on a new product.
Questions also open the doorway towards better understanding your audience/customers, which can in turn help you create more relevant content and products for them to consume. You can get quite nuanced with the resulting data as well, by analyzing your responses in order to create segments, which paints a clearer picture of who exactly is listening to you. Chances are there are segments in that data that you didn’t anticipate. You can then use that information to find new channels well-suited for your segments to gather additional members.
This lesson is not restricted to just the people on your mailing list. Cold emailing prospects isn’t as terrible as it seems. The right email to a social media influencer can help grow your audience or prospective customers by orders of magnitude overnight. Email literally everyone.
When you do email people, make it as much about the recipient as possible. Personalize as much as possible. Use plaintext emails. Make the ask as short and clear as possible. If it’s a cold email, remember to follow up.
I left MicroConf with a head full of lessons, new ideas and strategies. And yes it’s easy to say that you don’t need to go to a conference to learn what I did, the fact remains that this friendly setting, this unique experience, and this social way of knowledge sharing is what turned me from wannabe entrepreneur who has no idea what he’s doing, to wannabe entrepreneur who has some idea of what he’s doing. And that has made all the difference.
P.S. I’d like to thank all the speakers at MicroConf (all of whom I’ve learned so much from), all the attendees that I met and traded thoughts and feedback with, and a special shout out to Josh Ledgard of Kickoff Labs who was kind enough to give me incredibly useful feedback on recv.io’s landing page.