In episode 653, join Rob Walling for a solo adventure where he talks through three topics, including the story of an Armageddon beer, developing taste, and an important question that all entrepreneurs should ask themselves.
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Topics we cover:
- 1:41 – The Armageddon beer story
- 10:49 – Developing taste as an entrepreneur
- 18:25 – What if I succeed?
Links from the Show:
If you have questions about starting or scaling a software business that you’d like for us to cover, please submit your question for an upcoming episode. We’d love to hear from you.
The Armageddon beer is there for when things get so bad that there is no hope, it’s when it’s absolute Armageddon. And when that happens, you and I are going to come into this trailer alone, we’re going to open that beer, each going to drink half, then we’re going to drive to the shop, the corporate headquarters, we’re going to turn in our keys and we’re going to walk. If it’s that bad, we’re going to drink the beer. And if it’s not, then we’re going to finish this job.
Welcome back to another episode of Startups With the Rest of Us. I’m Rob Walling, and this week we have a Rob solo adventure, where I’m going to talk through a few topics including a story about an Armageddon beer, how I would think about attacking a competitive market, asking yourself, “What will I do if I succeed?” And maybe more if time allows.
Before we dive into that, I want to let you know that MicroConf U.S. tickets are now sold out. So if you want to come to MicroConf U.S. here in Denver in a few weeks, get on the wait list at microconf.com/americas. I would expect a few additional tickets to become available. Sorry you missed out on tickets, but I hope to see you there.
And also, MicroConf Remote 6.0 starts today. It is solely focused on sales, leveling up your sales game as a SaaS founder. For tickets, head to microconf.com/remote. Even if you missed today’s session, which is about a 90-minute session, recordings will be available for those with tickets. So, microconf.com/remote.
I’m going to tell a story that I’ve told once on another podcast, but I’ve never done it here and I’ve always felt like it should be solidified in this archive.
Good friend of mine, whom I’ve known for decades, is a project manager at a big construction firm. And at the point in time that this story takes place, he was one of the best, if not the best project managers at this massive company.
And so, he was put on what was considered the most difficult job the company ever did. And almost like a movie setup, he was working with a general foreman that he had worked with many times, and this general foreman was retiring after this job. It was his last job. And this job was an absolute bear. I’m not sure I’m going to be able to communicate how difficult it actually was, but essentially it was a three-year job compacted into 12 months, maybe nine months.
So if you think about writing software, and if I told you, “We have a year long software project and we’re going to do it in three months or four months,” you can imagine how hard that would be and how many things would break along the way, across all the axes of things that could break.
So my friend and the general foreman are running this job. They’re planning how they’re not going to lose their minds running it. And the general form says, “Look, this is the hardest job either of us will ever run. It’s probably the hardest job ever run in this state, maybe in the country. But in this state, I’ve never heard of a job that is going to be more of a meat grinder and have more risk and more exposure than this job. It’s going to be so stressful.”
And as they’re talking about this, my friend opens the mini fridge in the trailer and he sees the usual water and soda, and then he sees a bottled beer in the back. And he says, “What are we doing, man? You can’t have alcohol on a job site.” And the general foreman says, “Don’t worry. If anyone drinks that beer, it’s going to be the least of our worries.” And my friend looks at him puzzled and the general foreman says, “Look at the label.” And he looks, and in Sharpie it’s written, “Armageddon beer. Do not drink.”
And the general foreman continues, he says, “The Armageddon beer is there for when things get so bad that there is no hope. It’s when it’s absolute Armageddon. And when that happens, you and I are going to come into this trailer alone, we’re going to open that beer, each going to drink half, then we’re going to drive to the shop, the corporate headquarters, we’re going to turn in our keys and we’re going to walk. If it’s that bad, we’re going to drink the beer. And if it’s not, then we’re going to finish this job.”
So my friend kind of shrugged it off or laughed. It just seems like a preposterous idea, right? Flash forward a few months, they’re in the middle of the job and it’s worse than they thought it would be. Everything’s falling apart. Everything’s hard, working 12 hour, 15 hour days, seven days a week. Just incredible pressure on the crew, hundreds of construction workers, and certainly on the people running, running the job, the project manager and general foreman.
And at a certain point, the project manager’s working on something, the general foreman says, “We have a problem.” Lays out some drawings and said, “All of this cable was mismeasured.” And you might think of cable as something in your house, right? A little wire that runs power to an electrical outlet or a light switch. So if you mismeasure that, you spend 10 bucks, 50 bucks, and you get another piece of wire and you cut it. These are pre-measured cables that are inches thick, two inches, three inches, sometimes four or five inches thick with their insulation. Very difficult to bend. They’re copper. They are just incredibly heavy. You need cranes or forklifts to move a spool of them around. And they’re incredibly expensive.
So he throws this drawing down and my friend looks at it and the color just leaves his face, and the hair stands up on the back of his neck and he says, “This is it. We’re done. This is hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars of a mistake that we have to replace.”
And if you don’t know construction, it’s a razor-thin business. So you often bid jobs at 10%, 15% gross margin. Those are bigger jobs. If you get smaller, you can work more margin in. But then, you try to make it up in efficiency or frankly in volume. You’re keeping your crews busy. And if you can even make a 5% net margin on a $6 million job, you’re making $300,000, that’s something. And then, you’re also making a gross margin, which is a big part of a overhead in construction. I won’t go down that rabbit hole. But hundreds of thousands of dollars on even a large job is a tremendous hit, and it can flip you upside down. It can make the job turn into a massive loss.
So my friend, whose face is now white, is just staring slack-jawed at the drawing, trying to figure out what happened, panicking. And the general foreman said, “Should I get the beer?” And it was an instant level set. It was a moment where my friend thought, “This is bad, but it’s not that bad. We don’t need to drink the beer, drive to the corporate headquarters and quit our jobs. We can figure this out.” And I love that. I love that It was a mental reset to go from panic, “The sky is falling, it’s Armageddon,” to, “We can figure this out.”
And so, what they did was they realized, as they actually tried to troubleshoot it without the panic, without the adrenaline going through their veins, that they were mismeasured, but there were some that were supposed to be longer than others. And so, the longest ones, although they were short, they were long enough to be for some of the other runs. And so, what initially appeared to be… I don’t remember the numbers, but let’s say it was $400,000, $500,000 mistake, turned out to be a $200,000 mistake. Still a big deal, but they figured it out.
And throughout that job, I believe there were one or two more times where the general foreman said, “Should I get the beer?” And they finished that job and they actually made buckets of money on it. I don’t actually know how. I don’t know all the details of how they possibly turned it all around based on the stories I’ve heard, but it’s one of those movie-like moments, where the odds are stacked against you and somehow they pulled it out. And then, the general foreman retired.
The reason I’m telling you this story is I imagine in your entrepreneurial journey, as you are building your company or companies, that events happen, things come along that make you feel like, “Well, that’s it. Guess we had a good run.” And I think someone asking if you need the Armageddon beer, whether it’s literally someone asking that, or if you have an object or a human that can level set and reset your mental model to, “Is this actually business ending?” I think that’s a tremendous superpower to have.
I’ve talked on this podcast and elsewhere about how my biggest regrets around building and selling drip was never what I did, but it’s how I felt while I was doing it. Between Russian spammers, sending phishing emails, between most of our IPs, getting blacklisted at different times, between angry customers, entitled customers who had made a mistake flaming us and then me personally on Twitter, to competitors who ripped us off, and on and on, there were all these moments that felt business ending.
And I’ll admit, the reaction I had often was they almost felt life ending in a way. But every time, after the adrenaline finished coursing through my veins, I would circle up the team and say, “How are we going to fix this?” And we did every time.
Obviously, I’m not saying there are never business ending events and nothing can be so bad. But if you’re like me, I felt a lot of speed bumps that I turned into roadblocks in my mind and I beared a mental burden that was detrimental to my mental health. And honestly, I don’t think it was anyone’s fault on my own.
And actually, after selling Drip, I vowed to never return to that mental state again, no matter how hard it got. And in fact, I haven’t. Even though today with MicroConf and TinySeed, I deal with larger sums of money, I deal with, I say it’s vicarious, but more intense situations through the founders that I’m invested in, and frankly, there are things that are happening and have happened that should be much more stressful than they were back in the day, I’m a different person now because I asked myself, “Is it time to get the beer?”
So I think if you’re a person who feels these things deeply and maybe feels like you’re constantly stressed about little or big things, having a symbolic Armageddon beer, whether it’s an object that you realize, “If it ever hits the fan, I’m cracking that open and I am consuming this sparkly water, this beer, this can of soda.” Or if it’s a human who asks you, “Should I get the beer?” Some other phrase that level sets what you’re actually going through and compares it to a business ending event, because usually those two will not be the same.
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My second topic I want to talk about is about developing taste. I was thinking about this the other day and about how when you first start consuming media, let’s say films or songs or music of any kind, really, it’s almost like you don’t have anything to compare it to.
I remember when my oldest son, who’s now 16, he was eight or nine, and we started watching movies together, a lot of movies, like the early Star Wars films, Back to the Future, Goonies, E.T., even Blade Runner as he got older. And then, of course, The Thing, 1982, as he got older. Just all the classic ’80s films that you should kind of have in your repertoire. And when I first showed him these films, he didn’t have anything to compare it to. He didn’t know how good Star Wars was compared to other science fantasy. I remember he read Lord of the Rings when he was little, and he said, “I want more books like that.” And I said, “Well, that’s one of the best. It may not be the best, but it’s certainly going to be hard to find another book that good.”
And it’s a trip when you’ve only read one thing or you’ve only seen one movie, you don’t have taste. I’m not trying to be snooty about taste, of like, “Oh, I have refined taste.” I just mean a reference for comparison to know what’s good and even to have a strong opinion about things for yourself. That’s what I mean by taste.
And to carry this into what we deal with every day, I remember as a developer writing software early on, and I had no taste as to what good code was. I didn’t know the difference between hacky spaghetti code that I had written since I was eight years old when I learned to code and really well-structured, these days, well-tested, unit-tested, amazingly easy to read and easy to edit without regression code. I didn’t know the difference. And over the years of coding, you start to learn those lessons.
Same thing with design. I was a software developer for several years and did not develop a design taste because I didn’t read books about design. I didn’t expose myself to a lot of design. And I would run into people who would say, “Oh, that font…” Derek Reimer’s this guy, “The font kerning is off.” I’m like, “What are you talking… I don’t even know what font that is.” I can’t name a font by seeing it. I don’t have that taste. I still don’t. And folks like Derek, folks like Tracy Osborne, who we’ve heard on this show, many others who have just impeccable design taste, and it’s because they’ve exposed themselves to a lot of things, they pay attention to the details.
And look, do I have taste in other areas? Absolutely. And by taste, again, I mean opinions. I care strongly about how audio sounds in a podcast. There’s a reason when I record these, even though they’re on video, I have this mic two inches from my face, because when I move it down six inches, I hear the difference and it bugs the (censored) out of me. And that is having taste.
There’s a famous clip of Ira Glass, who has run This American Life, which is usually the number one radio show and number one podcast in the country, and has been for decades.
“Nobody tells people who are beginners. And I really wish somebody had told this to me, is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it, and we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap. That for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good. It has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, your taste is still killer and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you. You know what I mean?
A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people, at that point, they quit. And the thing I would just say to you with all my heart is that most, everybody I know who does interesting, creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste, they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be, they knew it fell short, it didn’t have this special thing that we wanted it to have. And the thing I would say to you is everybody goes through that. And for you to go through it, if you’re going through it right now, if you’re just getting out of that phase, you got to know it’s totally normal.
And the most important possible thing you could do is do a lot of work, do a huge volume of work, put yourself on a deadline, so that every week or every month you know you’re going to finish one story. Because it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you’re actually going to catch up and close that gap, and the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.
In my case, I took longer to figure out how to do this than anybody I’ve ever met. It takes a while. It’s going to take you a while. It’s normal to take a while, and you just have to (censored) fight your way through that.
He’s basically talking about when you start creating anything, and in this case, let’s stick to audio content, but visual, being a musician, singing, all of these things, when you start creating anything, usually, you’ve listened or looked and developed a taste and an opinion of what you like and don’t like. And the quality of things that you make at that early stage do not compare to your taste.
I used to be so frustrated when I was in bands. I was in a couple different bands. We would write songs. The songs were good, they were catchy. We’d go to record them, and no matter how hard I tried, my vocals were never up to my taste. They were never up to the standard that I wanted them to sound like. And even now, listening back, I did vocal lessons, I practiced, I did all the things that you would need to get better, and yet they were never at the level that I wanted them to be.
And then, there are other things, like building companies or writing, the written word, writing blog posts, writing books, recording audio, all of those things, I remember when I started doing each of them. And I remember I didn’t know how to build a great business, I didn’t know how to write a great blog post, I didn’t know how to write a good book, and I wasn’t capable of creating good audio content. If you go back to the first 10, 20, 30 episodes of this show, it’s terrible, and that’s okay, because our audience was small and we were learning how to do it. And then, over the years, my abilities have caught up with my taste, both in my writing, although that still takes me longer than I would like, and in building and growing companies.
And so, almost like a fractal, whether you’re looking at a very tiny thing, like writing this function or this method in code, or whether designing this single image, or whether designing this webpage, or whether designing this company or this movement, in any of these things, if you want to develop taste, you need to expose yourself to a lot of that thing.
And I’ll go back again and say I have some design sense, but I would not consider my taste super refined in terms of visual design. I can have opinions on it, but they’re not at the level that someone like Tracy Osborne or Derek Reimer are. So you don’t have to do this with everything, but choose what you want to get better at. Choose what you want to have more opinions about, and expose yourself to that. And then, you have to go do it if you want to get better at it. So choosing what you want taste in and then choosing what you want to get better at is a matter of exposure and repetition.
And it’s also a matter of listening to those who maybe have gone before you, right? Because unlike developing a taste for coffee or wine, you don’t need to do it all yourself. You can be exposed vicariously to growing companies through a podcast like this, or a community like MicroConf or Indie Hackers or the Dynamite Circle. It’s not exactly the same, but it is an interesting proxy. And given that you may only start a few companies in your entire lifetime, being able to read books, listen to podcasts, and hear from other founders who are doing it can help you develop that taste and maybe even get a little better at it too.
For my last topic of the day, I want to talk about this question. The question is, “What if I succeed?” It’s a question I think all of us should be asking ourselves. Whether you are just starting out, you’re working a day job and you want to launch a side hustle, or you want to launch a business that can get to 10K MRR and support you.
I think we can sit and dream about things without thinking about the realities of them. Sitting down and asking yourself, “What if I succeed?” And then thinking or writing can be a way to prepare yourself for how things might actually be, instead of having this arrival fallacy, right? The arrival fallacy is where you say, “Once I get to that point with a side income of 2K a month, then I will have arrived and I’ll be happy.” “Once I can quit my day job and work for myself, then I’ll be happy.”
Or for those of you who have six figure, seven figure, multimillion dollar businesses, what is your end game? Is it growing the business and taking off huge amounts of profit? Well, what if you succeed? Is it selling for $20 million? $30 million? What if you succeed? What are you going to do then?
I have asked myself this very question about things that I’m working on. “What if I succeed with what I’m trying to do with this podcast, the YouTube channel, MicroConf, TinySeed? What does that look like and what does it mean for me? And what then?”
I think so many of us get caught up in the day-to-day, and we can get caught up in the anxiety of things that are exploding. We can get caught up in the grind and really lose focus on long-term goals and also be unhappy. And if you’re unhappy today, while you’re growing your company, odds are decent, you’re going to sell that company and you’re going to be unhappy then too. It’s easy to blame unhappiness on external factors. Usually, unhappiness, I won’t say comes from within, but it often has to do with your state of mind and how you are thinking about things, rather than being solely blamable on external factors.
So this exercise of, “What if I succeed?” I think helps you avoid this arrival fallacy, because I’ve known many people who get there, who get to 10K a month, who get to 100K a month, who get to a $10, $20 million exit and don’t know what to do next, and are shocked that they’re not happy forever. Don’t be shocked. We all go through it.
Asking yourself, “What if I succeed? It’s not just what are my goals, but how will I feel? What’s the next step after that?” Because as entrepreneurs, we are always pushing and looking to that next step. So don’t kid yourself, that you’re going to get somewhere and retire, stop working forever.
I’ve had three times in my professional career where I have effectively taken six to 12 months mostly off. And one time I was working 20 hours a week, it was right after I switched to full-time product work, and this is almost 15 years ago now, and I took about six or eight months and I worked 15, 20 hours a week. Before that, I was working 40 hours a week consulting, and then 15, 20 hours a week on my side hustle. So I went from 55, 60 hour weeks down to 15, 20. It felt like I wasn’t working at all, and it was amazing. And then, I got bored.
Second time I did it was when our second son, who is now 12, almost 13, was born. I took about eight or 10 months off. And that time I worked like eight hours a week, very minimal work. I was truly trying to achieve the four-hour work week because I thought that was what I wanted. I thought that would make me happy forever, and I got so bored.
And then, the last time I didn’t kid myself at all, that I was somehow going to be happy not doing anything. That was after selling and then leaving Drip in 2018, and I vowed to take about six months off. It was super rejuvenating and regenerating for me, because I didn’t kid myself into thinking that I was going to retire, because I’d been through it twice before and I knew that I would do something next, but I knew that that next thing that I did would be exactly what I wanted to do, nothing more, nothing less. Because I no longer had anything to prove to myself and I no longer wanted to work on things that didn’t make me happy almost every day.
So if you’ve never sat down and asked yourself, “What if I succeed with this?” I think it’s a good exercise to have, to take some notes, think about how you’re going to get there, to think about what it will look like when you get there, think about what you’ll do after, and to think about if along the way you might need that Armageddon beer.
Thanks so much for joining me this week and every week. This is Rob Walling signing off from episode 653.