I've been reading about inspiring founder stories for years, wondering how people did it. I'd read posts on Hacker News, Indie Hackers, and other forums like DEV without ever sharing or posting myself. In fact, I wouldn't even leave comments. I was what I'm guessing many of you are: a lurker.
But a couple of weeks ago that changed. I launched my product Key Values, something I built all on my own, and got it to the top of Hacker News and Product Hunt, netting almost 30,000 pageviews in a few days.
There is a lot to say about what comes after that initial traffic spike (the post-launch trough of sorrow as they call it), but today I'll talk about what came before it.
Below, I discuss the six major barriers that I had to break through in order to go from lurking to launching.
I moved to San Francisco to go to grad school at UCSF and I didn't even know what a startup was until after I dropped out two years later. I was amazed by how people casually started companies, raised money, pivoted, folded, and then started new companies. It seemed like entrepreneurship was in everyone's DNA but mine.
Even after working at my first tech startup, I still couldn't see founder potential in myself. I wondered what I could have been had I been born into a family of business owners instead of a family of academics. I was 26 years old and had worked hard my whole life to pursue a career I no longer had interest in. It was a pity party mixed with mania, and I felt so behind compared to everyone else, I thought I'd never catch up.
Then I decided to embrace that.
I would trust that slow progress is better than no progress.
I decided I should learn to code. I mentally prepared for months of confusion and Lean Cuisines, signed up for a coding bootcamp (which I didn't actually finish), and started learning how to make something out of nothing. It was hard and I might have cried several times, but I knew this is what it'd take to catch up.
Even after I was able to get contract work, I still didn't have the confidence to start a business of my own. I didn't know when I'd feel ready or what kind of business I'd start, but I did know that whatever it was, I would need a marketing website.
I set out to find clients who needed a web developer to build a new website from scratch, but already had designers and a marketing team for me to learn from. I was looking for opportunities to get more exposure and breadth, and essentially bootstrap my education on how to become a founder.
Ironically, I needed Key Values to help me find jobs that aligned with my personal goals and values, but it didn't exist yet.
It took longer using the old-school method of waiting and hoping for the right opportunity to come my way, but I did eventually find work that paid me to round out my skill set and gain more confidence.
We all want to start at the finish line, but we can't. So start at the starting line and just focus on moving in the right direction. It doesn't matter how long it takes you.
I needed more than just confidence to try and start a business. I needed money. I needed time. There are tons of people who can work on passion projects after work or on the weekends, but I am not one of them. I've never been able to split my attention and focus on doing many things at once.
As a freelancer, I knew that I could start and stop at any time, but I needed enough of a cushion to work with focus, uninterrupted. People suggested I find an angel investor or raise capital, but... I didn't even have an idea yet. I needed a financial situation that would give me time to make mistakes and learn things slowly.
So I decided to hustle hard, double up on client work, and save money myself.
I worked over the holidays and on weekends, and went back to poor grad student living (I remembered how to live off of $32k/year in San Francisco). I stopped eating out, stopped drinking, and stopped buying things I didn't absolutely need. I even stopped taking Ubers and Lyfts and started biking everywhere.
I made sacrifices early so that I could later give starting a business my best shot. It took me more than 18 months, but eventually I saved up enough money to give me about 12 months of runway.
Everyone has a number of tolls to pay in order to get to where they're trying to go. It helped me to just focus on paying each of them, one at a time.
I was pumped to start my journey as a first-time founder. I knew how to code, I had money saved up, and felt confident that I'd be able to persevere through tough times. However, I was missing something pretty important.
I didn't have an idea!
Even as a web developer, I didn't see the world as a sea of problems that could be solved with technology. I'd often complain about things (why is it so hard to share bookmarks, I wish Spotify let me cut songs together in a playlist, it's so annoying when I forget my passwords!), but never thought if I could engineer solutions myself. Idea generation was a muscle I'd never worked out before.
So I gave myself homework to write down ideas every day, no matter how bad they were. In addition to writing down ideas, I also got in the habit of validating ideas to see if they were any good. Unfortunately, I ruled out each of them because I'd find out that someone else had already thought it before.
Then I had an incredibly important eureka moment.
Do not rule out ideas that there are already solutions for. I was driving, listening to a podcast of Laura Roeder talk about this and I almost had to pull over, it was such an a-ha moment for me.
It is one of the most recurring lessons on Indie Hackers, but it still took me a long time to understand it. If you look through each podcast episode and search for "competit" (for competitor, competition, competitive), you'll hear Wes Bos, Nathan Barry, Todd Garland, and others talk about the advantages of tackling a problem that already has solutions.
I didn't need a genius, never-before-done idea. In fact, I didn't even want one.
When I told people about Key Values, a product that helps engineers find jobs, everyone would name competitors. There are behemoths like Monster.com, LinkedIn, and Indeed, and at least a hundred more in this space. Previously, I would've given up on the idea immediately, but this time I didn't rule it out. Even in a crowded market, I still couldn't find an engineering team that shared my values.
I went further in validating my idea, making sure it was something I really wanted to work on.
Am I personally familiar with the problem I'm solving? Very. I literally spent the last couple of years working as an engineer, experiencing the pains of finding jobs myself.
Do I know if customers will pay? Yes! And this is part of the brilliance of not ruling out ideas that there are already solutions for. There are many competitors already making money from companies wanting to recruit, hire, and retain engineers.
Do I know of any effective channels to reach my target audience? Tons. As an engineer myself, I know that engineers hang out on Twitter, bootcamp alum mailing lists, Hacker News, and DEV.
Will I enjoy working on this every day for the next 2 years? I love meeting new people, talking about company culture, helping people find happiness and fulfillment, and learning about organizational psychology. I get to call this work?!
Is this a winner-take-all market? No way, Jose. It's a big pie and I only need a little slice. Nobody else has to lose in order for me to win.
If things go well, can I easily scale? Yes, I can automate the process of onboarding teams to my website by having them write their own profiles. It shouldn't require much, if any, extra money or manpower on my part.
Can I still walk away with a win even if my idea fails? Absolutely. I will learn so much talking to different engineering teams and building a product from scratch. More importantly, I can build an audience through Key Values and can take that with me even if the idea itself flops. Worst case scenario, I'm already researching which teams I'll apply to if this doesn't work out.
For anyone that isn't an idea person (ðŸ™‹) coming up with an idea is a massive barrier. I admittedly still suck at it. But you'll immediately be better at it once you stop ruling out your non-genius ideas.
Before I started building anything for Key Values, I spent weeks interviewing engineers, meeting with engineering managers, getting coffees with technical recruiters, and researching personality tests, dating sites, and match-making algorithms. Meanwhile, I was keeping up my indie lurker status.
I'd see other people ask for feedback about their products on Indie Hackers, and I'd think, "Wow. I'd be so embarrassed to show anyone that!" I was certain that my early versions would be prettier, better put together, and more thought out.
I promised myself to ask for feedback at the end of each week, and every week, I'd make an excuse and push it back. I kept delaying.
I spent almost 3 months working in a vacuum, obsessing over things like cool hover effects without having shown my website to anyone. I didn't even know if anyone wanted what I was making! I worked alone for so long that I went a little crazy. Don't do what I did.
After months of lurking, I finally got the courage to make my first post in the Indie Hackers forum. I had 15 replies (okay, 6 were mine), but the feedback was so helpful and it sucked me out of the dark and lonely hole I had been working in.
I wish I had asked for feedback sooner. I wasted time and energy building out features that no one even wanted and spent many weeks feeling lost, spinning my wheels.
So what if your design sucks? Ask for design help! Not sure what your business model will be? Then ask for feedback about different pricing models! Don't be afraid to put yourself out there.
If you're doing it alone, you're doing it wrong.
If you're stuck, show people the ugly behind-the-scenes and tell them what specifically you need help with. Fellow makers and founders can help you get unstuck. You might not feel ready to put yourself out there, but I promise you that your product will never be good without your doing it.
I had never launched a product before and was incredibly worried that I'd mess it up. It was stressful thinking about when I'd launch, what I needed to get done before I launched, and how I'd recover if everyone who saw my product ended up hating it.
To get over my own anxiety, I decided to do a series of mini-launches first.
My first post in the Indie Hackers forum? I absolutely count that as a mini-launch. I incorporated everyone's feedback, graduated my key-values.herokuapp.com domain to keyvalues.io, and a month later, I mini-launched again with my second forum post in the IH forum..
The next week, I posted in a Facebook group for Dev Bootcamp alums and then the week after that, in a stealth-mode all-women's forum.
Launch, get feedback, improve your product, and repeat.
Truth is, you don't want to go from zero traffic to 10k pageviews overnight. Thinking this way will give you unnecessary stress wrinkles, and it also makes it hard to prepare for.
By removing the intimidating, anxiogenic, self-imposed deadline to launch Key Values, I let myself reap the benefits of the Always Be Launching lifestyle. Each mini-launch let me practice answering tough questions, fix bugs that people reported, and make improvements to the design, UX, and marketing of my website.
You don't have to start with one big launch, so free yourself from thinking this way.
I heard tons of horrors stories about failed launches: misconfigured websites, servers crashing, only getting negative feedback, and of course the worst one, having a product launch be a total dud. As a first-timer, I was sure there were other things I didn't even know to worry about!
It's hard to defend against the unknown, so I decided to focus on what I did know.
I set up Google Analytics and Amplitude to make sure I was tracking basic user behavior. I didn't want to drive a lot of traffic to my site and miss the opportunity to understand how people were interacting with it.
I also read Pieter Levels' launch advice and took it to heart. Key Values is a static website hosted on Heroku, and I set up server-side caching using Amazon CloudFront to make sure my server wouldn't crash. I had identified Hacker News as being a good channel months earlier (during my validation phase), and I decided to post in "Show HN" where I thought I'd have a better chance of getting traction.
I jumped right into the comments. I introduced myself and provided some context based on the questions I had been getting from my previous mini-launches.
Another thing I did to prepare for my HN launch was rewrite my About page. I knew this would be a good idea but vastly underestimated just how important it'd turn out to be.
I did some research on what makes a good About page and made sure to hit the major marks. Open with the single sentence you want everyone to read. Include a photo of yourself. Make it personal. Provide a call to action to get in contact, subscribe, or both.
My About page ended up being the 2nd most visited page on Key Values.
There are plenty of things to worry about when doing your first big launch. My advice? Identify, analyze, and prepare as best you can. You won't be able to prepare for everything and that's okay.
Two things happened that I didn't prepare for at all.
First, someone posted Key Values to Product Hunt on my behalf and I wasn't sure what to do (I wasn't familiar with its community or what rules there were). While it ended up on the front page all day, I wished I could have coordinated my own Product Hunt launch. (You'll see that I didn't reply to anyone because I didn't even have access to comment on my own product. ðŸ˜‚)
Second, I hadn't prepared how I'd present Key Values to the press because it hadn't even crossed my mind. Matthew Hughes, a tech journalist, reached out to me over Twitter and since I didn't have a plan, I ended up forgetting some important things I wanted to communicate. It ended up alright though and he published an article about Key Values in The Next Web!
I prepared for my launch to the best of my ability, and looking back, can think of a few things I'd do differently if I had the chance. The takeaway though is that launches are a combination of preparation and luck. Focus on the things you can control and cross your fingers for everything you can't.
I did it! I launched Key Values. I built something I love and put it out there for other people to see and use. It feels like a rite of passage that I wasn't sure I'd ever go through, and I couldn't be more proud or happy.
When people ask me how I started Key Values, I tell them it was a side project that quickly turned into my full-time passion some time back in May. While this isn't untrue, it also makes it sound like something that happened overnight. Trust me, it didn't.
In some ways, Key Values started in 2012 when I left academic research to find a more fast-paced and risky profession.
It started at Homejoy (my first job at a startup) where I realized that a single line of code can be as impactful as having hundreds of 1-on-1 meetings.
It started when I made yet another career change to become a web developer, because I wanted to be able to start and finish projects without relying on others.
It started when I got inspired to create and innovate something of my own after months of lurking on the Internet.
It started when I learned how to adapt to the different working styles, goals, and values of my various clients.
It started when I became comfortable asking for feedback and engaging with my new community of founders, entrepreneurs, and indie hackers.
No one starts right at the finish line.
A lot of people are now asking me about what I'm going to do next. I've entered the post-launch trough of sorrow and the truth is that I'm still figuring out my next steps. I'm experimenting with different marketing strategies and exploring ways to turn Key Values into a revenue-generating business (I haven't started charging for my service). While I don't have all the answers right now, I'm optimistic and trust that slow progress is better than no progress.
I'll let you know how it goes. ðŸ˜‰