In episode 670, join Rob Walling for another solo adventure, where he discusses why, while striking luck in your SaaS journey is great, working hard and building skills is the sustainable way to build businesses for the long haul. He also shares his personal approach to work when burnout is on the horizon and finally an anecdote relating to SaaS marketing approaches.
Topics we cover:
- 0:41 – RSS feed issues, undesirable startup tasks
- 2:52 – Two exclusive episodes of Startups For the Rest of Us
- 3:39 – Success takes hard work, luck, and skill
- 11:00 – The grind of content creation, burnout on the horizon
- 21:38 – Bad player or bad instrument?
Links from the Show:
- Episode 667 | Increase Your Exit Price by Decoupling Yourself from Your Business with John Warrillow
- Sugarcult – “Stuck in America”
- MicroConf YouTube Channel
- MicroConf On Air Podcast
- Sherry Walling (@sherrywalling) | Twitter
- The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Keeping Your Sh*t Together
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!
Anytime you count on luck, you count on being early to a market. You count on shooting the gap and being there just at the right time as the technology catches up. That’s not a great path. It’s not repeatable. If you want to go for one in a million and buy a lottery ticket, you can do that, right? That’s the venture funded path. But trying to be a boot strapper and rely on luck is super dangerous.
It’s Startups For The Rest Of Us. I’m Rob Walling. I’m your host as I have been for the past 13 some odd years, 670-ish episodes. Funny story, episode 666 came out just a few weeks back and, of course, there were the requisite jokes and death metal memes on Twitter, which I thought was super fun. And just a few days after 666 came out, it really wanted to be the final episode because our RSS feed stopped updating. And when 667 came out, which was the episode where John Warlow and I talked about building SOPs and increasing the value of your company, it wasn’t appearing in most podcast apps.
And so I spent a day or two troubleshooting and after, I mean it was, I said five hours on Twitter, it was more like 8, 9, 10 hours back and forth. We had this really old system that was set up kind of before podcast hosts, because traditionally these days you would just use their feed URL, but we’ve been around since before there were podcast hosts. And so although we host with Castos, we were not using their feed URL. And so 8, 9, 10 hours later with support from our old provider, I just decided that we should pull the plug and move our way over to fully embrace the Castos ecosystem.
So a day or two later, we were all set up and now everything’s in one place and cashed and handled by the trusty folks over at Castos. But it was quite a journey. It’s that moment in your startup where you think to yourself, “I don’t want to be doing this.” You’ll hear me talk a little later in this episode about some, I’d say burnout may be a strong word, but I’m entering, I can feel myself approaching burnout. I can see it in the distance. I’ll go into more details later. But when I feel that way, I don’t want to work on bull [inaudible] tasks, which is [inaudible] around with my RSS feed.
It’s like the last thing you want to be doing. It’s like you buy a brand new house and everything’s amazing, and then the plumbing line goes out, or the sewage line breaks or some electrical thing that really needs to work goes out. And so you have to spend a bunch of money or a bunch of time fixing it. That’s how it feels when this happens with the RSS feed. And so every X amount of years something goes wrong with it, and I’m just glad to be on the other side of it. So hopefully, if you’re hearing this episode, everything is now fixed and you have the new feed.
Before I dive into the solo topics that I’m going to be tackling today, I wanted to remind you that there are two exclusive Startups For The Rest Of Us episodes that have never aired on this feed. And you can get them simply by entering your email address at startupsfortherestofus.com. Two never before released podcast episodes called Eight Things You Must Know When Launching Your SaaS, and 10 Things You Should Know as You Scale Your SaaS. So it’s launching and scaling.
And I have these handy PDF guides for the episodes. If you don’t want to listen to the full MP3, you can look through at the points I make. And these are evergreen episodes of lessons that I’ve learned in the 20-ish years that I’ve been thinking about and starting and advising and investing in SaaS companies. So startupsfortherestofus.com if you want to get on the email list. And with that, let’s dive into my first topic of the day. The first revolves around how I often talk about how success is hard work, luck and skill, and it’s different percentages or varying degrees of each.
And sometimes you don’t have any luck and you just work really hard and you bring a lot of skill to it, and you’re successful. You brute force it, you grind your way through. And other times, luck is a huge factor and you get 10 times more luck than someone else and maybe you don’t need as much hard work and skill to make it. And other times you put in the hard work and you have the skill, but luck turns against you. And to illustrate this, I want to take you back to 2001. And there is a band called Sugarcult. No one’s ever heard of them. And the only reason I had heard of them is they were kind of like a pop punk band, like a Blink-182 type thing. And a friend of mine went to college with, I don’t know, two or three of the guys in this band.
And we were into that type of music, me and this friend, let’s just call him Mark. And so my friend and I actually would play guitars because I was in grunge and pop-punk bands around that time. Never did much with it, but it was just a fun hobby that I enjoyed. So he said his friend Sugarcult got signed to a major label and their single was going to come out in mid to late 2001. And I was super envious, right? This is so cool. And he kind of had talked about some of their songs and he’d shown them to me, and they were good band, and they’d been playing together for a lot of years. And the songwriter was good. They had put in the time, they had the skill to do this. We were living in LA at the time, and in LA everyone, you’ll go to a Starbucks there and there’ll be a guitarist playing and singing originals, and it is world-class amazing songs.
And that was the point when I moved to LA when I realized, “Oh, I’m never going to make it as a musician.” Not that that was ever really on the table. But I realized that there were people who had put in so much more work and were so much more talented than I was on that front, that it was just never going to happen. And that’s the moment where it became, “Hey, this is a hobby and I’m going to do it for fun, and I’m never going to try to make a living at this, right, or be a professional.” But these guys had put in the time, and they were good, and they had put in the work and they were grinding and touring and playing all over la and they had been signed to a major label. And so I was excited for them.
I didn’t know them. I think I met them once at a party, but they weren’t friends of mine, but they were friends of a friend. And their single was slated to come out in early September. And then September 11 happened, and the attack on the Twin Towers and America was in this massive shock. And it was this huge blow to so many things around this country and safety. And I actually remember there was a huge patriotic push. I think some people who maybe took for granted what it was to live in America or be an American, I think were reminded of that. And I just remember there being a patriotic push like I hadn’t really seen in my lifetime. And so at the same time, I think it was a week or two before September 11, Sugar Cult’s lead single came out. And I remember my friend telling me, “Oh, they’re going to get radio play and they’re going to be on MTV.”
And I was a little skeptical of that. You kind of hear that stuff. You hang out with enough people in LA and it’s like, “Oh, my commercial’s going to be on”, or “I’m going to be on MTV.” And then it doesn’t happen. They get on the cutting room floor or whatever happens, things change and they don’t make it. But we did actually hear their single on the radio, which I was super impressed by. And this was their big bet. This was their first single off their first album. And if it took hold, then they could potentially have a pretty lucrative career as musicians. And the song, unluckily, as it was, was called Stuck in America. And it was a typical pop punk song of kind of like, “I’m an angsty teen and I’m stuck in-“. It wasn’t like anti-America.
And in fact, we’ll play a little snippet of it here, but it’s a typical punk song that you would’ve heard for 30 or 40 years from anyone in any country. Not only was it called Stuck in America, but there was a line in it that said, “Everyone’s talking about blowing up the neighborhood”, which had no meaning prior to September 11. It’s just a turn of phrase as these 20 year old, 22-year-old kids just out of college just doing their thing and being angsty. And yet, this all took on this new really negative meaning once September 11 happened.
I remember feeling really bad for these guys because it was their break. And in entertainment you kind of get one break. They had another single, they did get some radio play, they did some touring, but that was really it for them. And to turn this to startups and entrepreneurship, the same thing can happen to you where you go to launch on Product Hunt or you go to hit your email list and some massive Google or Apple project launches on Product Hunt. I don’t know why they would, but you get the idea, you get upstaged and your best laid plans turn into nothing. Or you have your email launch list and that day when you go to launch, some massive crisis in the stock market happens and no one’s paying attention to your emails. Or any newsworthy thing that draws everyone’s attention. You know, you think about the number of things that COVID disrupted.
Sometimes luck doesn’t play your way. And this is actually why hard work, luck and skill, of those three, I always bank on hard work and skill because I can build my skills and I know I can put in hard work, but luck if you try to count on it, it’s just too unpredictable. And I want strategies and approaches that are repeatable and that as much as possible, not always possible, but as much as possible are relatively proven. And I’ve seen them work over and over. And anytime you count on luck, you count on being early to a market. You count on shooting the gap and being there just at the right time as the technology catches up. That’s not a great path. It’s not repeatable. If you want to go for one in a million and buy a lottery ticket, you can do that, right? That’s a venture funded path.
But trying to be a bootstrapper and rely on luck is super dangerous. And we see some people doing it. We see in our space some founders who kind of get lucky, and then when they go to do it a second or a third time, they can’t, right? And I’m not trying to say, “Oh, they’re not a good founder”, or “They’re a bad person.” It’s nothing like that. But when you think about building and growing your startup, my advice and the way that I do it myself is to put in the hard work, build the skills, do it over time in a repeatable fashion. Think in years, not months. And maybe you’ll get lucky and maybe you won’t, but it won’t matter. You’ll be successful anyways. And I do still love that quote from Thomas Jefferson, where he said, in essence, the harder I work, the luckier I get.
And that’s how I think about it, is the more hard work and skill that you put into something, the more likely you are to experience that good fortune, that serendipity when the time comes.
All right. Second topic of the day. I hinted at it earlier in the intro, and it’s basically that about six months ago I started feeling a twinge. And it’s a twinge of early burnout. And less burnout, it’s more of being tired of the grind of content creation. So for me, I put out 52 episodes of startups for The Rest Of Us every year and have since 2010. 52 individually outlined and recorded and produced YouTube videos, MicroConf.com slash YouTube, and 52 episodes of the MicroConf podcast, MicroConf podcast.com. It’s a lot of content. Also, some other things, live streams, TinySeed, playbooks. There’s all kinds of time spent in front of a microphone or a camera.
And I’m okay with that. That’s my job. I’ve built my job. This is the best job I’ve ever had. But like anything, no matter if it’s the best job you’ve ever had had, and the job you were designed for, it’s something you’re great at and you enjoy, you do eventually burn out on things. The grind can get to you even if you love it. And so I started seeing this about six months ago, and I kind of started mentioning it to some people I work with, like producer Ron, producer Sandra, like, “Hey, I don’t want to burn out, but this is how I’m thinking about it.” And so I started thinking, how can I figure out how not to burn out? Because I have burned out in the past and it’s bad. And coming back from burnout is way harder than just avoiding it in the first place.
And so I’ve taken a couple steps and I want to share them with you because I feel like this is my fifth time, seventh time, 10th time, I don’t even know if I can count how many times I’ve felt this, where I notice that I have all these audiobooks about business and startups, and I have all these podcasts about business and startups, and usually the leading factor, the leading indicator, the canary in the coal mine, is that I go to look at them and listen to them and I don’t care about any of it. I find myself just not wanting to learn one more thing about startups or business or entrepreneurship. That is a sign to me that something’s off. Because my entire life, since I was 11 or 12 years old, I have thought about, lived and breathed entrepreneurship in one form or fashion.
And so anytime that I’m not feeling that way, not feeling positive to think about and talk about entrepreneurship, I know that something’s off and I’ve kind of overdosed a bit, if you will, on the content. And I need to step back and get a fresh perspective such that I can continue to create with inspiration so I’m not forcing it. And so whether this is the fifth or the 10th time I’ve dealt with it, I now have strategies that I use to cope with it to avoid burnout. Now, recovering from burnout is something my wife, Dr. Sherry Walling has talked a lot about. And if you just type in Sherry Walling, recovering from burnout, dealing with burnout, she’s recorded YouTube videos, podcast episodes, and there’s an entire chapter of the book, The Entrepreneur’s Guide, to Keeping Your [inaudible] Together, all about this. So that’s not what I’m talking about.
I’m actually talking about things that I’m doing myself to avoid burning out, to avoid feeling like I’m phoning it in or avoid feeling like I just don’t want to record the next episode of a YouTube video or a podcast because I’m not there yet. And that’s a good thing, because as I said earlier, it’s easier to avoid it than to come back from it. So a few things that I’m doing. One thing I’ve started doing is I’m taking a break from recording YouTube videos on a weekly basis and even this podcast. So for a few months I’m going to batch them. So I recorded, I don’t know, four YouTube videos in a week, two weeks in a row. And so that’s almost two months of content. And now I can take a break and not have to think about the YouTube videos for a bit, and it allows me to recharge.
With this podcast, I got to have five or six episodes, and that’s enough of a break. The podcast usually is less of a drain on me than the YouTube videos for whatever reason, probably because I’ve been doing the podcast longer and it just feels more natural. But being able to take a break without losing a week, without missing any weeks is important to me. It’s kind of a personal goal to get 52 of these things out year in, year out. But I will say if I do fall into burnout, if I start to crash and burn, I probably would take some drastic action and either bring in some help or there’s other things I could do, slow down the pace of YouTube videos. I have this thing though, I cannot not ship this podcast every week, so that’s not something that is even on the table.
So taking a break from the grind and actually recording in advance so that I can get a break is one thing. Another thing that I’ve been doing when possible is just to take time off from work. And I took a full week off with my family, and we went up north and did some kind of glamping up there. That was amazing because there was really no cell service and there was intermittent wifi every day or two. I could check in, but realistically, it was a nice time to unplug, digitally detox. I deleted several social media apps from my phone, which I’ve continued to not pay attention to and that’s been pretty helpful. And then in the next couple of months, I will be taking just a bit more time off than usual. A, it’s summer, my kids are out of school, and it’s just a great time to get outside and travel.
But also I feel this tug. I feel this hole to want to recharge. And so one of the biggest things, if you do encounter burnout and you go into full fledge burnout, a big thing you have to do is just stop working. Sometimes it’s a month or two, and it’s usually when you feel like you can’t do that, and I’m nowhere near that point, but to pull away for weeks at a time is what allows you to come back down and recharge. And so a few days here, a few days there I feel like should be good for me, given the state of things.
The other thing I’m doing is I am taking a break from business podcasts and audiobooks and a lot of social media. I’m still on Twitter a little bit, but realistically I just need to step back, need to clear the head. The other thing that I’ve started doing is once or twice a week, I’m working from a new location. I’ve been working from home for about 20, well, more than 20 years now. Geez, it started when? It was 2001. So yeah, almost 22 years on and off.
I had a few jobs in there, not for very long, unemployable they call me. But I’ve started working from a couple different coffee shops, and I don’t have this massive monitor. I don’t have a good recording set up. It’s super noisy. The desk isn’t the right height, all things are wrong. And yet I get incredible amounts of work done because it’s this new stimulus, it’s a new environment, and it actually causes me to work on things that I really don’t want to work on from my house. It’s like I’m tired of working from my house for now, and so I need to almost mix that up.
So I think there’s a little bit of, I’m overusing the word burnout, but just frustration or boredom with the same situation. It doesn’t help that the weather’s gorgeous here, right? I’m recording this in early July of 2023, and in Minneapolis, this is the place you want to be, right? It’s amazing here in the summer. And so here I am sitting in the same room that I’ve been sitting in for however long we’ve lived in this house many years, and I look outside and it’s like, “Oh, I kind of don’t want to be here.” But somehow when I’m at a coffee shop, I feel like I am out and about and being with the people. So working from new locations is another thing I’ve done to mix it up. In addition, I’m trying to fill my time with non-work stuff on the weekends and the evenings because I have a tendency to slip into always thinking about work, which is good and bad.
It’s good because it makes me productive. I’ll be thinking about it while I’m doing dishes or I’m in the shower or I’m working out or whatever, and I come across those amazing shower moments. I think Paul Graham maybe was the person who coined that, but it’s that moment where you solve a problem and it’s just because you happen to be running a background process the whole time. That’s great. The negative side of it is it burns me out. And so as a result, I’ve been trying to do more tabletop gaming. I’ve been picking up my guitar a lot more than I used to. I’ve been revisiting old music that used to inspire me, stuff from the nineties, even the early two thousands. I don’t listen to a lot of that anymore. Whatever it is. It’s like No Effects and Blink-182 and kind of just the grunge and the pop punk from that era.
And that’s been helping change these patterns because I’ve been listening to the same music now on and off for months, and I’m kind of burned out on it. So going backwards, going back and listening to old Beatles stuff, drinking some coffee, listening to some hard driving songs has really helped start to break that free. I’m trying to break the grooves, get out of the grooves that are in my head. And then the last couple things is I’ve been looking at every task. I’m really mindful now about every task that comes across my desk and I’m figuring out, A if it needs to be done, and B, if someone else can do it, if I can hand it to a VA or someone on my team or just postpone it or snooze it. How urgent is it really? It’s summertime right now. I want to keep pushing things forward, but given my mental state, I’ll say, now is not the time for me to grind.
There’s a time to grind, and there’s a time to give yourself permission to rest your mind. And that’s the moment that I’m in now. And I think that will last for a few weeks, maybe a couple months. I think a couple months is actually probably a lot longer than it will last. But I think having started this stuff a couple weeks ago, I think that within the next month or two, I will be back. And already, I was at a coffee shop today and I just started going down the Trello board. And instead of being frustrated with all of it, I just hammered through a bunch of tasks. It’s the tasks that stay on your to-do list for weeks and weeks and you think to yourself, “Oh, it’s going to take so much time”, and then you hammer through five of them in two hours.
I hate those tasks because it’s so frustrating, right? It’s like this procrastination machine that gets in your own head. And so I’ve already been able to break through those. And lastly, the other thing I’ve done is I’ve pulled a few “fun” work projects that are not super urgent, but have been on my list for… it’s kind of a wishlist of I wish this existed. I wish this was getting done. I wanted to make some very minor updates to the WordPress theme on Startups For The Rest Of Us, for example. And there was a couple other things that have just been hanging around. They’ve been bugging me. And so I took the time, I took a few hours and hammered them out and got them started. And I’m excited about those because I wanted to get them going. They’ve been bothering me for a long time, and it is motivating to see motion on those fronts.
So even though it is not the most urgent thing that I should be working on right now, again, I gave myself permission to maybe do something that isn’t the 100% logical choice, but that will help me be motivated to keep pushing forward. So if you’re experiencing burnout or you feel like you’re approaching it, hopefully those ideas are some helpful tips that you can take away coming from someone, me, who’s dealt with this a lot in my life, and eventually I’ve gotten over it each time. It just takes more time the further I get into it. And so being able to identify it early, I think is a key piece to that.
My next topic is one I call bad player or bad instrument. So my youngest son, he turns 13 next week, he has been playing violin since he was three. And so he’s a decade into this instrument, and he is really, really good. He will play Bach, Beethoven, Vivaldi, Mozart as written. Normally, when you start out, you have these simplified versions, and he will play these very complex pieces of music virtually flawlessly. He’s a pretty incredible musician. I’m super envious of him, actually. He has perfect pitch. He learned it. It was not natural, but I can clank a cup with a spoon, and he’ll tell me what note it is, and he’ll say, “Oh, that’s a C sharp.” Or he’ll say, “Look, well, it’s between a C and a C sharp.”
I’m like, “Are you joking?” And then I’ll go play it on my guitar or on the piano, and he’s right. And he’s a way better musician than I am, than I will ever be for sure. So what’s interesting is he picked up his first, I think it’s his first violin from when he was three, maybe it was one from when he was five. It’s this tiny, tiny, tiny little violin, and these things sound terrible. They’re cheap and because people know, the violin makers know, they’re going to only use them for six months or a year and then outgrown them, and they just don’t sound very good. And so he picked it up and he was playing these complex pieces of music on it, but it sounded like crap.
And it occurred to me that if you didn’t know him, you wouldn’t know “Is he a bad player or is it a bad instrument?” And by bad, I mean poor quality. The sound quality isn’t great because even if you put an amazing player on a crappy instrument, you’re not going to get an amazing sound. And that got me thinking, of course, as it is apt to do about SaaS marketing. Really startup marketing in general. And about the challenges of knowing if you pick a marketing approach and implement it and it doesn’t work, is it a bad player or a bad instrument?
Meaning did you just not do it very well? Or is the marketing approach not a fit for your type of company at this point in time? And I hate that uncertainty, right? You don’t want that many variables because then you don’t get to an answer with much certainty. And so there’s been some advice I’ve been giving to a lot of TinySeed companies where they go to start a new marketing approach. And my advice is, “If you have the budget, hire someone who’s really good at this, who has a proven track record doing exactly what you need.” So if it’s cold outreach, hire one of the productized companies that do this. If it is SEO, learn enough about it yourself, but then get advice, pay for advice so you know that you’re doing it well. If it’s pay-per-click ads, Facebook ads, ad words, you know, you get the idea.
These different marketing tactics, if you have the budget. And of course with TinySeed companies, we’ve given them funding. So the answer usually is they have the budget. And my advice is you want to eliminate the possibility that you’re doing it wrong. And is there still some possibility that you hire someone who’s good at it and they do it wrong? There is, but it’s a lot lower than you trying to figure it out. And this is coming from me, Captain Bootstrap, who learned every marketing approach at all my startups, and at least I either implemented them myself or would then teach junior people that I would hire. I never followed this advice and I wish I had because I wasted a lot of time figuring this stuff out, and I wasted a lot of time figuring out marketing approaches that weren’t a fit for my companies.
And I don’t regret learning the ones that worked because then I could run them and tweak them and optimize them and all that. And that’s how I grew HitTail into a mid six-figure company. And that’s how we grew Drip into many millions in revenue and all the things that came before it. So I don’t have regrets around it per se, but I know that I spent a lot of time kind of flailing and grinding on things where I probably should have found someone who was better at them than I to hire them to at least prove it out and then maybe I learn it and take it over. Or maybe I keep paying them because if they’re generating new revenue, then I have the money to try that next marketing approach.
Those are my three topics for today. I hope you enjoyed this Rob solo adventure, and I hope you’re looking forward to the rest of this year. 2023 is shaping up to be super interesting and recovery from 2022. Things are starting to go up into the right a bit more. We’re seeing the stock market recover. We’re seeing some M&A activity start to reemerge. Funding rounds are getting closed just a bit more. It’s not like 2021, but it’s better than 2022. And even if you don’t depend on any of that, there’s just more money moving through the system. And so now’s a great time to focus, double down, avoid burnout, and keep pushing it forward. Thanks so much for listening this and every week. This is Rob Walling signing off from episode 670.