When I started my first job at a startup 12 years ago, I thought:
This startup will be able to help everyone in the world
It will change the way people work, learn, and communicate
I will get rich quickly and get the freedom to work on what I want
But this is not what happened. What I learned over the years is that working at startups looks more like this:
- How can I help these 1-2 people achieve their goals today?
- How can I help them do just one thing better?
- How can we get them to pay even just $20-50 for this solution?
That amazing startup
Have you ever seen a revolutionary startup? Something that blows your mind. Maybe it was the startup that inspired you to start your own business.
Their product video was perfect 👌. The headline spoke to your soul 😍. You couldn't click on the "Sign up" button quickly enough ⚡️.
You made it through their inevitable waitlist and finally logged in. The buttons are just where you expected them to be. Clicking on them pops up the screens just as you imagined.
It just works.
What you didn't see
That headline, that video, that onboarding experience — they each took decades of compounding research, engineering, and learning about what people want.
What you maybe didn't think about from browsing their homepage:
- The startup has a marketing lead with 10+ years experience launching and marketing early-stage startups
- Before releasing the current version of the website, the company had an ugly front page for 3+ years while they gathered feedback
- The team behind the startup has collectively launched 8+ ideas, just in the past year, that have all failed
Behind the scenes, there's all this work that goes into a polished product.
It's a hard truth, but as indie makers, we've all had products we've invested years into that went nowhere.
We invest nights and weekends into something we truly believed in, hit that publish button, and *crickets*.
No one showed up.
It can make you desperate and frustrated and burned out. You don't understand WHY no one cares / WHY no one sees you / WHY no one gets the value of your project.
There's a lot of good advice out there about launching early, getting real feedback from users, and iterating quickly:
"Be helpful on the internet and give away valuable stuff for free in order to build an audience"
"Launch privately at least 20-30 times and iterate on your product based on real user feedback before you launch publicly"
"Pre-launch your pre-launch to early fans and start building excitement in the market for your solution early"
"Put up a landing page first and see if the messaging resonates — if it doesn't, change the copy and try again"
But, at the end of the day, all of the great advice boils down to: get feedback constantly.
The regular way to do things
Most companies approach the problem from multiple directions.
They hire a market research firm to understand where people in the market hang out, how they talk and what they need.
They hire designers and product people to interview potential customers and build something they need, using prototypes and mockups.
They hire marketers to create sticky content, run campaigns and write copy that's going to resonate with their audience.
They hire salespeople to talk to potential customers about their needs and design a solution that fits them.
And they hire customer support agents to fill in the gaps, propose temporary solutions and workarounds, and provide value manually where necessary.
This is a lot of work.
A healthy company
My last boss was an absolute champ.
He joined Sales calls to see what they were selling. He talked with the Marketing team to see what their goals were. He stayed in regular contact with Customer support so he had a pulse on what customers were requesting that we couldn't do yet. And he ran the Product team and told us what the most important thing to build next was.
In short, he tied together the separate strands of the company into what every company dreams of: a team that works together toward the same goals...
Marketing highlighting what Product builds, while Sales hands off ambitious prospects to Product to get feedback from, and Customer Service builds workflows that Product eventually integrates into the product.
Any company that encourages collaboration among its departments even half as much as my boss did will see dramatic success beyond the norm.
The indie hacker hack: Being human
Big companies use hundreds of people and dozens of departments to:
- Gather feedback constantly
- Publish content & updates frequently
- Test new ideas internally & externally every day
But this is something that a human being does naturally. It's in our nature.
It's called: being helpful.
A competitive advantage
When you genuinely care about the problems a person experiences, you simultaneously accomplish 3 things that the biggest companies always strive towards.
- When you're genuinely yourself, you're motivated. No one needs to push or entice you with a raise or a promotion. There are no politics. Things are simple: you want to solve a problem for someone, so you go about doing just that.
- When you start solving a problem for someone and get their feedback along the way, it's natural to incorporate this feedback in some way. This virtuous cycle, in which someone values you for listening to their problems and you value them for helping you build something useful for the world, is the foundation of almost all commerce and exchange.
- And when you are genuinely yourself and get feedback because you want to solve something, something magical happens: you form real relationships with people. People see you as human, grow to trust you, and want to help you, as you helped them.
These 3 practices are the things every giant corporation hold dear because it's what keeps them alive. Motivated employees who care about the customer and form a real relationship with them.
There's nothing better — but there's also nothing more human! So as an indie maker, use this competitive advantage and just be yourself!
The cost of not being yourself
I've been told by so many well-meaning advisors and books and courses about all the things I need to do to become successful. They have the best intentions and what they say makes perfect sense, like 1+2=3.
The last time I read a viral Twitter thread, it made me feel like I finally understood the secret to business success. It made me want to change everything about my business overnight.
But we've all been down that rabbit hole: you get 10% into implementing the change the following week, prepared to erase years of your own work doing things "the wrong way", only to realize that the whole endeavor is probably going to take you about 100 times more effort than you assumed it would.
And there's no end goal in sight. Just a Twitter thread promising fast results.
If you can't be yourself and learn on the go, you're always going to go down these rabbit holes — following the next best "instant success" copywriting formula, signing up for the greatest productivity course ever, and writing & rewriting everything you want to post 10 times before you eventually decide not to publish...
Not being yourself takes A LOT of energy.
Being yourself despite the challenges
"I can't be myself! I'm not charming enough, funny enough, cool enough!"
I've struggled with self-doubt and feeling out-of-place my entire life. Rehearsing words I never say. Holding opinions I feel deeply. Not standing up for myself when it counts.
It's draining, minute-by-minute, to always wonder: "What would they think of me if I said the things I'm really feeling?"
There's another option: just saying it.
People will disagree with you vehemently. That's a good thing. People will think you're strange. That's a good thing. People will ignore you. That's a good thing.
It will all help you find your audience, your people, your tribe.
The internet is overwhelming
The internet gives us the opportunity to present ourselves to the world however we want, while at the same time letting us experience just about anything we imagine.
However, spending all our time acting like someone we're not and simultaneously living in a fantasy world that crumbles as soon as we close our laptop isn't that healthy.
The former will keep you disconnected from people on a genuine human level, while the latter will give you the feeling of accomplishing your goals without actually doing anything meaningful.
As counter-intuitive as it is, the secret to attracting true friends is telling people openly who you really are. And the secret to business success is the same: finding a way to communicate in a genuine way about problems that matter to people and helping them solve them in the open.
When you're genuine, it's sustainable for you.
And what about all the unsubscribes you'll get when you send your first newsletter? Don't worry...
That's a good thing.