- This week’s tip: SlimTimer
Mike Taber: This is Startups for the Rest of Us: Episode 3.
Mike: Welcome to Startups For the Rest of Us, the podcast that helps developers be awesome at launching software products, whether you have built your first products or are just thinking about it. I’m Mike.
Rob Walling: And I’m Rob.
Mike: And we are here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. So, Rob, what is going on this week?
Rob: Not much. I’ve been working on an AdWords campaign for the last several days on and off, and just trying to revamp DotNet Invoice’s AdWords. You know I noticed over the past three years, which is how long I’ve been running Adwords for it, the performance of it was good while I really monitored it. About every three or four months I went in and just kind of cleared out some dead wood, did a little bit of tune-up here and there. But over the past, maybe, nine months to a year, I barely did any maintenance, and it really degraded quite a bit over that time.
So, we actually were almost seeing a dead even ROI. It was approaching that. A 200% ROI for the previous two years. It really just kind of started coming down. So I spent maybe four hours, five hours total, and I grabbed a bunch of new keyword ideas and broke out a bunch of new ad groups. Looking forward to it. I am about a week into some of the results and continuing to tweak, but feeling good about it. How about you?
Mike: Not too much, actually. I’ve done virtually nothing the past week or so. My wife and kids have been sick, so my main focus has been in avoiding them to not get sick. [laughs]
Rob: Yeah, that’s tough.
Mike: But it could be worse. Like I said, I could be sick, so…
Rob: Indeed. Well, very good.
Rob: In today’s show, we are going to talk about the biggest roadblocks to your success. Mike and I have been entrepreneurs for the better part of 10 years-more than 20 years combined. And between the two of us, we have seen a lot of roadblocks that get both in the way of us, as well as in the way of the people who we work with and advise.
And today we are going to talk about four roadblocks that we’ve seen-the biggest four roadblocks that keep people from succeeding in launching a software product or, beyond that, making that product successful.
So I am going to start off with the first roadblock. The biggest mistake I see people make is launching a product that has no market. You know, there is a common belief that building a good product is enough to succeed. But unfortunately, it is not.
If you are a typical micropreneur, you won’t have enough money, power, or fame to generate demand for a product that people don’t need or don’t know they need. And this plays back into something that we call the “Product Success Triangle”.
So the success of your product or website is going to depend on three things: the product itself, the market that you are selling to, and how well you execute. So to cover all three sides of that triangle, your product has to be good, you need a group of people willing to pay money for your product and who can find your product, who are hopefully actively searching for it. And the third part is you have to market, sell and support it; that’s the execution.
So with this in mind, your product is one third of the equation. The other two thirds are your market and your execution. But the interesting thing is, as developers, we focus almost solely on the product, when, in fact, it is much less important than the other two legs of the triangle.
Mike: So you are saying that the product itself is only about a third of what it takes to be successful.
Rob: Yeah, and it may even be less than that, especially in the early days before you have any type of reputation. You know, down the line, if you build a good product and it is two or three years down the line that people start spreading it via word of mouth, but especially for the first six to 12 months, very few people are going to be talking about it.
And so, your actual product itself has less to do with your success than how well you are able to execute on your marketing sales and support and how much your market wants your product. So, ultimately, not having the market for your product is the number one roadblock, and it is the kiss of death.
Mike: So if not having a market for your product is the kiss of death, I mean how do you go about finding that out? I mean isn’t that the important question? I mean you have to know that there is a market for your product. How do you find that out?
Rob: That is a good question. You know, there are a bunch of different roads you can take. The easiest one, if you don’t have any data, you don’t have anyone to survey, you don’t know any prospects or customers who might use this product is to do keyword research. And we talked a little bit about that in a previous podcast. But it is to use keyword tools to try to gage demand for certain things.
The problem with keyword research is it is just far, far from foolproof and it is a vague estimation. Ideally, you would use that as a first step and then you would move into contacting actual people who might be interested in the product and talking to them one on one via email, or phone, or in person, and figuring out if they actually are interested in this thing and if you feel like there is a real market for this.
And frankly, another way to avoid this is to acquire a product that already has some success, that already ranks in Google, and already receives traffic, and already converts customers. And that whole product acquisition thing is something that we will talk about more on future podcasts. It can remove a lot of the market risks that we are talking about here. Again, it is not for everyone, but acquiring a product can have the advantage of getting around this roadblock pretty easily.
Mike: Roadblock number two is having [xx 5:40] goals. If you don’t have clear written goals for your product, it means you don’t pay a penalty for sitting in front of your TV or RSS reader for a few hours each night. Taking a week off has no visible impact on your launch date because, well, quite frankly, you don’t have one.
In our last podcast, we talked about the importance of having goals before you start building anything. And once you have those goals nailed down, the next most important thing that you need to do is reach your launch date. If you don’t have clear and specific goals, you are essentially flying blind.
Instead, if you specify what your goals are and track the time that you spend every single day, whether you work on your product or not, you will be able to track your progress. It is critical that you understand and are completely aware that your week to week activities will impact your launch date for good or bad. The intent of tracking this is to ensure that you are on target for your goals. Remember, the reason you are doing this isn’t to beat yourself down for not getting things done. It is to help keep you on track for meeting those goals.
Rob: Mike, what is a good way for someone to track their launch date? First, to arrive at their launch date and have it in front of them so they are reminded of it, and then to track that on an ongoing basis. How have you done it in the past?
Mike: I use a couple of different methods, and what works for me is not necessarily going to work for you or for anybody else. But personally, I use a variety of different things based on the specific project that I have.
So just to throw out some of the samples of things that I use, I use a combination of Basecamp, FogBugz, Notepad, Excel. I tried Microsoft Project in the past, but it was absolutely awful. I couldn’t stand it. But I also use index cards and notebooks. I keep a separate notebook for each of the major projects that I have going on. They are just simple one subject notebooks. And, you know, I just write things down on them. And if I need to, I will just translate them into a to-do list or into a FogBugz, or into Basecamp based on what it is that I write down.
Rob: Cool. Yeah, I’ve only gone the Excel route. I haven’t used any of the other tools. But it has been pretty accurate for me. I was able to define how many hours a week I was able to devote to a product. And then over on the right-hand side, I put a big list of all the tasks that were going to get me closer to launch, and I put estimates up there. Excel totaled those up, divided them by the number of hours I could work per week, and then it would do a calculation and it would take today’s date and it would add that number. And it could calculate, on the fly, a dynamic launch date.
So every time I open that spreadsheet, it would update it. And realistically, if I took a week off, then when I opened it up, the launch date was pushed out a week. And if I took just a couple of nights off, or if I wasn’t working on the estimate items on the right-hand side that were actually getting me closer to launch, then it would creep out. So I found it was a pretty good approach to doing it.
Mike: Yeah, I think the important thing to realize is that there is no one way of doing it. I mean each person is really going to kind of fall into their own method of figuring that out. And I think that that is exactly why there are just so many different project management software packages on the market, is because each person has different things that are important to them and they all have their own market that they cater to. That is why there is just so many of them, because everybody says, “Well, this piece of software doesn’t work for me because it doesn’t do X. And some other package did do it, so that is why I use it.”
Rob: Roadblock number three is inconsistency. So the main problem with inconsistency is that it makes you lose momentum. And momentum is critical to staying productive. Inconsistency results from a large number of symptoms, but distractions are a major cause, and distractions are everywhere. There are newfangled distractions that are inventing themselves all the time, and they disguise themselves as productive work.
So I am going to take a long at two causes for inconsistency. The first on is a lack of focus. Now, the odds are high that there are more things vying for your attention than you care to admit, including things, like I said, that masquerade as real work, things like Tweeting and reading your RSS reader.
You really have to pay attention to how much TV and video games you consume. How many times have you found yourself thinking you were being productive, only to look back and figure that you suddenly had spent three hours searching and evaluating something that you really didn’t need until six months down the line?
Reading tech mags and blogs is a decent way to stay informed and to kill time at your day job, but it is a terrible way to get real work done and move towards your launch. The hard part is that it sure feels productive to read these magazines, or even to read business books; things like “Why we Buy”, and “Made to Stick”, and “Outliers”. They are all the rage. Everyone is talking about them. It seems like you need to read them just to stay informed.
But reading books doesn’t get you any closer to launching your product. Personally, I love reading business books. But I stopped kidding myself a long time ago that reading them is going to help me launch my next product.
In a very long-term, high level way, they do contribute to your overall knowledge of marketing and buying behavior and other things. And if reading these books is a hobby, and you know that and you realize it, fantastic. But will it subtract one hour from your launch schedule? Not a chance.
So cause number two of inconsistency is over-commitment, and over commitment is a systemic thing. It is something that takes advantage of you over time before you even realize it. A couple years ago, I used to meet with a group of friends every Tuesday. And then I had movie night on Wednesday, I played music on Thursday, and we typically went out for dinner on Fridays.
So by the time Friday ended, I was so exhausted I would typically watch a movie and go to sleep. And although I didn’t appear overcommitted to my friends, who all work 9-5’s, none of them were trying to do this two job thing of working a salary job and launching a product. So they didn’t have a second job-none of them were overcommitted, but I was.
The problem is if you pack all these activities into your week or your month and they are recurring ongoing, you just overcommitted yourself, and it is hard to then get out of those commitments without feeling guilty.
Every time someone mentions a recurring time commitment to you, you really need to think twice about taking that on. You really need to think how it is going to impact your schedule. Because it is fine if you think, in advance, “Oh, I am going to kill my Friday night. I am going to have dinner with someone.” That’s fun. Every week, you know, it is a great personal thing, but you have to realize the impact that is going to have on your schedule.
And I do have a couple of weekly recurrences right now that I do, and I enjoy them, but I am not going to take on any more. And I realize the impact that they do actually take a few hours a week away from work that I could be doing. So it is definitely a balance, and it tends to be easier to over commit than under commit.
Mike: So roadblock number four is believing that you have to do everything yourself. I run a blog called singlefounder.com, so it seems a bit counterintuitive that I am saying this. But you can’t do everything yourself. The focus of my blog is to show you that you can create and run a successful business on your own. But being the sole founder of a business is a lot different than thinking you need to do everything yourself.
You need to outsource as much work as you can and essentially become the manager of your business. The key to being successful with outsourcing your tasks is before you start any given task, think to yourself, “Could an assistant possibly do this?”
Essentially, what you are trying to do is you are trying to outsource as much as you possibly can of your business to somebody else. Now, outsourcing tends to have some pretty negative connotations to it, and people also tend to think that, “Oh, well outsourcing, that means taking whatever jobs and tasks I have to be done and sending them overseas.” But that is not necessarily the case.
So, for example, one of the things that Rob and I each do is that for outsourcing the audio and video editing, we actually use virtual assistants who are located here in the states. One of the ones that we use is located over in Michigan, but a little bit out of the states, Rob, I think you use one up in Canada as well, correct?
Rob: That’s right.
Mike: Just because you are outsourcing, again, doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to send it overseas. You can certainly find virtual assistants online in the United States. And there are a number of different locations online where you can find those.
With that said, depending on the task, you might outsource that overseas as well. So there are a lot of different things that you can outsource to a virtual assistant. You can do things like competitive research, keyword research, tier one email support, directory submissions. There are a lot of other things that are related to development of your product itself that you could also outsource. Things like HTML or CSS editing, design-that is a huge one that I think that most developers tend to think about and say, “Hey, I am just going to hire somebody to do this.” And they don’t think about that as being something that is outsourced. But realistically, anything that you hire somebody else to do on your behalf, that is considered a form of outsourcing.
Rob: So Mike, someone listening to this might be thinking to themselves: “Wow, I have some small tasks that I might want to try outsourcing to a virtual assistant.” And they may have no idea how to get started with this. What do you think is kind of the first step someone needs to do in order to start outsourcing some of these tasks?
Mike: I think that the first thing you need to do is clearly define the things that you want to outsource. And they can be things that you want to outsource for a couple of different reasons. One, they may be things that you just simply don’t want to do.
So, one of the things that I outsource is audio editing and video editing. And although I enjoy video editing, it is a huge time sink. I can spend anywhere up to two, three, four hours for a couple of minutes of audio or video. Actually, more for video. Audio takes a lot less time.
But I can spend hours doing a short five to 10 minute video. And, for the most part, that is if the video is done really well; if my first pass on it was very good. If I have to cut and splice a lot of different things, it takes forever. And, like I said, I enjoy it, but I really just can’t afford to be spending 15, 20, 30 hours editing a five minute video that I’ve got to publish.
So that is just one example of something that you could outsource that is just a time sink. And whether you enjoy it or not is kind of immaterial. The second one, of course, you would want to outsource things that you just simply don’t enjoy doing. A lot of people hate doing accounting, so that is why you hire an accountant. I mean I haven’t done my taxes in, I think, about 10 years. And the reason I don’t do it is because, one, I just hated it. I got into engineering because I liked numbers, and I probably should have gone into accounting instead just because I like money.
I started digging into the tax laws and doing all the deductions and everything. I spent 10 hours one year working on my taxes, and I was not even close to halfway done. So I just threw my hands up and said I am going to go hire somebody to do it. I took my taxes to a CPA and he was done in about two hours or so. It cost me $300.
That’s the sort of thing that you can outsource. And that is the second example. Another example of something that you can outsource is something that you just don’t have the skill set to do. Things that you don’t necessarily have the skill set to do would be things like designing of HTML or CSS pages for your website. I mean I am good at putting together HTML, but when it comes to the actual design or building logos, or creating buttons, forget it. I can do it, but the end result is not nearly as good as I would like it to be if I had a professional designer do it.
One of the mental hurdles that people have in terms of outsourcing tasks to other people for their business is that if you outsource something, nobody else is going to do as good a job on that particular task as you would.
So, for example, if it is audio editing or video editing, you hand that off to a virtual assistant or somebody who does that professionally and it is going to come back to you, and there are going to be certain things that you like about it and certain things that you don’t.
And you think to yourself, after a couple of times, “Why am I outsourcing this? I can do a better job.” And the fact of the matter is that no matter what task it is that you are outsourcing, no matter who you give it to, you are always going to think to yourself, “Hey, I could do better than this.” And there may be a couple of exceptions for things like graphic design, but you are always going to look at something and say, “Well, I could do better than that. Why am I paying somebody else to do this?”
And the fact of the matter is that you are right. You are absolutely right. You could do it yourself. But the problem is that then you are spending that time yourself when you could be spending that time doing other things.
What you really need to do is you need to step back and think about what your core competencies are and what you bring to the table and why you should be outsourcing some of those tasks. And again, it goes back to those three things I mentioned earlier about, one, if you don’t like doing something, two, if somebody else would have a very specific skill set, and three, if it is just a huge time sink for you. And if any of those three things apply, you really should consider outsourcing it.
Mike: So now it is time for This Week’s Tip.
Rob: This week’s tip is a tool that I use to track my time, and it is called SlimTimer. If you don’t already use a desktop based time tracker that allows you to click a button and start a timer and assign that to a given task, and then click a button and have it stop when you are done, I recommend you try it out. It is not for everyone, but I have been using SlimTimer for about three years. And although it took me a couple of weeks to kind of get in the mindset of starting and stopping a timer all the time, once I got in the habit of it, I will never go back to doing the whole entering time into a data grid on a web form. It just doesn’t work for me anymore.
The beauty of a tool like slim timer is it allows you to track, to the minute, what you are doing; what you are spending your time on. And it allows you to easily update your Excel spreadsheet that I mentioned earlier if that is the route you decide to go, or your note cards, or Basecamp, or however you want to track yourself. This allows you to keep tabs on how you are spending your time.
And what is interesting is if you sit down and you are doing anything and your timer has not started, then you need to figure out what that time should be going to. Because even if you are just checking email, then you should have an email task in your timer. And if you are watching YouTube, then you should have an entertainment task in your timer. Anytime you are at your computer, you should have that running. And it becomes apparent pretty quickly what your big time sucks are.
The cost structure of SlimTimer is also quite interesting. You choose a monthly amount to pay, down to zero dollars. So the idea is that while you are building your business, your solo startup, you can use it for free. And then once you start making some money, you are supposed to give something back. That is this week’s tip.
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