Okay maybe not kill it, but we have seriously stretched its meaning to point of uselessness. We need some new terms that are more accurate and meaningful.
Ira Glass, the creator of the radio program This American Life, has this famous quote that’s worth reading in its entirety:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
It’s such a useful insight for creative work. It’s also a broader lesson that the thing that will be your ultimate strength can be, during a transition phase, a weakness that you have to overcome. Having great taste is ultimately something that will make your work great, but in the short-term, when you are beginning to learn a craft, that same taste tells you that your work is worthless. Your taste makes it hard to persevere through the practice and master the craft to a level a worthy of your own taste. To make it through that phase, you have to let some bad work happen—your own—and have faith that the process will improve it over time.
Something similar happens often when making the transition from a maker to a manager. Credit to Paul Graham for pointing out some important differences between makers and managers in the modern workplace. Although in this instance I’m not talking about scheduling, but taste or something like it.
Most of the people I know who are now managers, didn’t go to business school and train to be a manager, they started as makers. They started as founders, doing all the making at a company they created from nothing, or they started as key individual contributors, the first marketer/designer/developer at a small organization. Over time the organization grows, to hit its goals it needs a design team and an engineering team, and so talented individual contributors start hiring, resourcing, planning and managing.
And here is the most important skill I know for making this transition smoothly and effectively:
Let bad work happen.
Five years ago I built and launched the first version of a SaaS app on a single flight from San Francisco to Buenos Aires. Slowly and steadily, Storemapper grew into a healthy location-independent business for one person and then later a small dedicated remote team. At parties, I would describe it as, “not a startup; a healthy growing internet small business.” This year, almost exactly five years after launching, I sold the business for what, to someone growing up middle class in Florida, is a life-changing amount of money that will enable all kinds of exciting new projects and adventures. From start to finish, it has been an exciting ride, much of which I have documented here on the blog. With the sale concluded, I wanted to share as much as I could about the process of building a business that can be sold and how I sold it.
There’s always a risk that these posts turn into a 5,000-word humblebrag. But I really do think it’s worth a read because, unlike most business acquisition stories, which often feel like an out of the blue stroke of good luck, the way that I sold Storemapper feels very replicable for other entrepreneurs. When I spoke to someone two years ago about what it would look like if I ever sold the business I would say, “I’m not trying to sell it now, but if I ever did it would probably look this…” And six months ago I would tell a few folks privately, “I think that one of the people I met recently might be the one to buy Storemapper and if they do it will probably go like this…” And, then basically when it all went down it looked more or less like… that. There wasn’t some single huge stroke of good luck, though of course, I got lucky in the little ways that every successful business has to. An excellent outcome, but also a perfectly reasonable and achievable one that I think can serve as something of a template for other bootstrapped entrepreneurs.
This is a long and detailed post. I had so many questions going into this process and I didn’t find a ton of good posts from the founders perspective on selling bootstrapped businesses. So I thought I would just throw everything I could think of into a post and let you skip around or save it for reference when you’re considering selling your own business. Grab a pot of coffee and let’s get started.
First the obvious: why sell your software business?
A little personal news… I’m joining the team behind Maptia. Actually, I’ve been working with them for a bit over six months but I suppose I’ve convinced them to keep me around at this point. This post is mostly about the why part of the story and it’s fairly personal. If you mostly want to hear the more concrete stuff about what we’ll be doing and when it’ll be over on Maptia where I’ll be writing a lot more often shortly (you can subscribe here).
I gave a short talk on Micro-SaaS businesses at the B2B Rocks conference in Paris (July 2016). I really had fun with this presentation since most of the conference program and attendees were focused on venture-backed, enterprise, “big” SaaS topics. The full video is below. Big thanks to Alex for organizing and inviting me.