Feb 4, 2020

Project portfolios

I want to be a maker again so I’m updating my coding skills. Sharpening my axe after 15 years is pretty exciting, not just because of what I’ve missed, but what’s changing now. The indie software game is only getting funner.

Real user feedback, fast

What took three months to build in 2005 can be built in two days now. Plus, there are a lot of easier ways to get it in front of early adopters. With this speed, the penalty of building “the wrong thing” is much lower.

We used to rely on heavy up-front customer research to avoid months of useless coding, but now it’s flipped.

Since launching something real attracts real users who are serious enough to try it. Instead of wasting time chasing maybe-customers for interviews, we can kick something out there and get qualified feedback, fast.

Fishing instead of hunting

I remember making a Wordpress plugin that got no love after a month, so I moved on. A year later it was picked up by Harvard University’s Nieman Lab, and got lots of love! I just didn’t realise until the opportunity had passed because I was focused on the next thing. Bad timing?

My friend Nemo was smarter. He had a site helping people find work-friendly cafes. It took off all over the world, but after months of full-time hustle, it couldn’t pay the bills. Rather than shut it down, he put it into an auto-pilot mode that didn’t require attention. It would email him when something interesting happened.

Six months later, it had doubled on its own, and he was able to hire a junior developer. Turned out to be better as side project, because that way, it didn’t have to be a vehicle for all his ambitions.

In startup land, we normally think of the first push as a kind of hunt for users, but what Nemo did was more like fishing. Nemo. Fishing. Get it?

Seriously, this really changes how we can think about launching ideas. If we’re being honest, a lot of startup success is because of luck and timing. Now, we don’t have to shut down projects if they don’t take off right away. We don’t need to pretend that we control when they take off. We can leave them out there and go fishing, waiting for the bite.

We don’t have to be victims of bad timing.

API super-powers

Simple apps no longer need a back-end developer, or a server admin. But with the same few lines of code to make a database query, a front-end developer can also sprinkle in things like machine learning, blockchain, real-time communication, remote control robots, even almost-live satellite imaging. All these things are available over simple API calls.

On one hand, this raises the bar for functionality. On the other, it opens up entire new fields for creativity. Game on!

Project Porfolios

Back in my Wild West days of the web, every morning, every night, every flight, I’d be worried: is the server up? If something wasn’t making money, the stress of keeping it running wasn’t worth it. Finally, the serverless paradigm means those responsibilities are outsourced and basically free.

Before serverless, one of my role models, Stef, was just a bit ahead of his time. He put together a VC-funded skunkworks called Makeshift, where they made their own product portfolio. They’d kick out a new product every few weeks. To see which to keep, they gave each idea 3 months. After that, they kept the products that had at least one person who used it more than anyone at Makeshift.

That was good enough to make a lot of great stuff, like attending.io but not good enough to justify further VC funding. Makeshift shut down, but Stef kept going as an indie developer.

Until now, keeping a software project going cost significant money and attention. Creators had to stay focused on one idea at a time, either to get paying customers fast, or commit to the extreme growth targets needed to justify venture capital investment.

Only investors got to hedge their bets with portfolios, but now the creators can too. And creators can make go/no-go decisions based on what works for them, not just big financial returns.

My own portfolio

In this chapter of my life, I’m grateful to be able to live cheaply and not worry too much about making money for a while. (I worked super hard in my education businesses so have some savings, plus Sofia is really affordable.) Being capable with these technologies, I’ll be able to express myself like never before. I can just try stuff. I have tons of ideas for education, privacy and communication tools.

After a decade in startup education, I’ve learned so much. I should be able to suss out commercial opportunities when they come up, but I won’t be dogmatic about it. If I’m being honest with myself, all my business successes started with me being useful to someone first, and figuring out the business model later.

I’ve seen it enough times. Accidental side projects have a better chance of finding their way if you don’t force them. So for me, this new chapter is all about just sticking stuff out there. My own little project portfolio.

What am I up to these days?

I’m a new parent, and prioritising my attention on our new rhythms as a family. I’m also having fun with slow creative pursuits: making a few apps, writing, etc.

Work-wise, I’m trekking along at a cozy pace, with a few non-exec, advisory roles for cryptography and microchip manufacturing programs.

In the past, I've designed peer-learning programs for Oxford, UCL, Techstars, Microsoft Ventures, The Royal Academy Of Engineering, and Kernel, careering from startups to humanitech and engineering. I also played a role in starting the Lean Startup methodology, and the European startup ecosystem. You can read about this here.

Contact me

Books & collected practices

  • Peer Learning Is - a broad look at peer learning around the world, and how to design peer learning to outperform traditional education
  • Mentor Impact - researched the practices used by the startup mentors that really make a difference
  • DAOistry - practices and mindsets that work in blockchain communities
  • Decision Hacks - early-stage startup decisions distilled
  • Source Institute - skunkworks I founded with open peer learning formats and ops guides, and our internal guide on decentralised teams