I’m killing my book project and moving it to the blog

More than a year ago I decided I would write an ebook on building Micro-SaaS businesses. I was really enjoying the experiment in radical transparency, sharing the metrics and details behind building my own small software company on blog. Readers were enjoying the long form blog posts and I felt I had enough material that was genuinely new and interesting to put together a longer writing project. On top of that I saw several folks having some real success with ebooks, and having just read Nathan Barry’s Authority ebook about selling ebooks, I also thought it would be cool to try out a new business/revenue stream.

After a ton of thought and feedback from friends and readers, I’m killing the ebook project and moving the content over to my blog, where it will be available for free. You can start reading the first three chapters now here.

Because I like to over-share. Here are the main reasons why I decided to kill the project despite really not wanting to give up on it.

The Process

A big part of what I preach in my ebook is the concept of shipping fast and iterating. It’s also what I’m actually pretty good at. Writing a book is the opposite of that. You sit there and write and write and edit and re-write endlessly perfecting the entire product and hope for a splashy launch. It works well for some people but I hated it.

I began to dread opening up my text editor. I procrastinated interminably. My blog posts dried up almost completely because I felt it was too indulgent to spend two hours on a blog post when I was so far behind on my book. So in the end nothing would get written for months at a time.

The Economics

Since I decided to write an ebook I’ve talked to, or found blog post or podcasts by, several ebook authors. Anecdotally it seems like, if you really crush it with an ebook, putting in nearly a year’s work of writing a great book, pre-marketing it, building an email list, doing guest posts on other blogs and in general doing a ton of non-sleazy self-promotion, you can earn $100,000/year for 1-3 years with an ebook project. This also seems to be outrageously rare. Most people with a medium-sized audience and a decent ebook can expect $5,000 – $20,000 unless it’s a total dud.

The email launch list, built only from my blog/Medium/Twitter is just over 1,000 people at this point. I don’t love doing some of the things that successful ebook marketers say, probably correctly, that you have to do to really sell a ton of ebooks. My honest assessment was that this ebook project would be a big success if I did $15k – $20k in sales in the first six months. Frankly compared to almost any other way I could spend my time that money just didn’t move the needle for me.

So the financial success of wrapping these ideas up in a package and putting a price tag on it just didn’t get me that excited. But more importantly, I just really did not like the idea of selling a book about how to make money on the internet. This is just the scammiest genre on the web and I was constantly re-writing sections of the book to strike a balance between having a strong confident opinion on something and not coming off as the 12-step sure fire plan for internet financial freedom.

I may find a way to make some money off this through speaking fees or transparent co-marketing or something, at the very to try to break-even on the 100s of hours I’ve spent writing about Micro-SaaS, but it just feels great to not be selling a book on it.

The Scope

Some day I would like to write a book-length something. Just as a personal goal if anything. But I made a big mistake in choosing the scope of this ebook. A lot of good books have already been written about the various components of building software businesses: launching, marketing, building fast, supporting customers, hiring and so on. My value-add is in writing about my particular take on a business like mine. So the sensible format for the book was to go through almost every major topic in building a Micro-SaaS business, synthesize the information I found most useful, and provide my own caveats, deviations and strategies that specifically applied to a small, bootstrapped, profitable SaaS company.

This turns out to be an enormous scope! The latest draft in my text editor was over 45,000 words. On top of that, I’m still working on this business, learning new things quickly and evolving my thinking on many of these topics. I found myself reviewing early chapters (initially written a year ago) and having to completely re-write major sections because my thinking had changed so substantially. This is just not the kind of scope that lends itself to the static, crystalized structure of a book. I never felt like the project was getting any closer to done, the more I learned in real life the more I felt I needed to change, edit or add to the ebook. And all this action is happening in the track changes section rather than in public where it would actually be useful to people.

But I’m really excited now

The decision has been made and it feels great. Having the book free and online feels like a much more natural fit for this content. I’m energized to get back in the flow of publishing content, getting feedback, being as helpful as I can.

I’m also going to take advantage of the format. Rather than just giving you the digitized version of dead trees, I’m looking to build more interactive tools.

The first one is an email mini-series on the process of actually generating a Micro-SaaS idea. By far the most common feedback when I sent out the initial draft to 400 readers was to go beyond the principles of what makes a good Micro-SaaS idea. So I’ve put together five days of exercises that I think will be helpful to build a list of SaaS business ideas. From there you can use Chapter 2 of the ebook to help refine them and figure which ones are worth testing and validating. If you put your email in this form below (even if you already subscribe to my newsletter) you’ll start the mini-series, or mini-course, I’m not sure what to call it.

Micro-SaaS Idea Generation Mini-Course

Get 5 days of exercises in your inbox to help you come up with your own profitable Micro-SaaS business idea. Even if you've already subscribed to the newsletter drop your email in here to start the course.

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Most of the content for each chapter is already written so hopefully I’ll be able to polish and publish them quickly from here on. If you want to get each chapter as they go live you should definitely put your email in one of the various forms on this blog. Thanks for reading and looking forward to getting this stuff out the door and in your inbox.

SaaS Is Here To Stay

Justin Jackson thinks we are at peak SaaS. We are not.

Justin asserted on Twitter that SaaS is ripe for disruption. SaaS founders, like myself, piled on arguments against the theory in a fun exchange. What follows is a thought-provoking article with a lot of great points but a dead wrong conclusion.

In this post I’ll tackle two specific, very good, questions he raised:

  1. If you are currently bootstrapping a software business (whether you intend to raise VC later or not) should you be thinking first and foremost about SaaS? Yes, absolutely.
  2. Is SaaS losing appeal relative to other software business models? Nope.

First I’ll look at some of Justin’s specific arguments, then I’ll add some support for my counter-claim: not only is SaaS not about to be imminently disrupted, but the software industry as a whole is inexorably shifting towards the as-a-Service model.

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Build Your Own Personal Robot Army: Part 1

I never set out to build a robot army. But today, there are at least a dozen little robots who do my bidding on a daily basis. Between managing my personal life and running my Micro-SaaS Business (Storemapper), my robot army does drudgery while I sleep and makes my life a little easier and more productive. Here’s how you can build one yourself. In Part 1 I’m just going to look at the robots that required no coding to set up, later I’ll do a post about all the little custom scripts I’ve got running on Heroku Scheduler.

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Debt Free

I turned 30 last week and as a birthday present to myself I paid off the last chunk of the nearly $60,000 in debt I accumulated trying to build a software startup. I thought I would write a little about what that’s like and whether I’d do it again.

In the Summer of 2011 — four and a half years ago… dang — I quit my job.

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Technical skills for non-technical people in tech

Tech is one of the few growing bright spots in the job market and understandably a lot of folks want to figure out how to get a job at tech startups.

When I quit my job and started getting into tech/software/startup things I was “not technical” — meaning specifically that I didn’t know how to write software. I’ve had lot of conversations with people trying to break into the market who are also not technical, didn’t grow up hacking, didn’t get a computer science degree and can’t write a line of code. I taught myself to code so a lot of the conversations start there: “Should I learn to code?” While I was technically non-technical in startup parlance, I am in fact a pretty technical person and spent a good part of my pre-startup career mastering nerdy things like Excel Macros so it made sense that I would eventually learn to write my own software. But for many people I’ve talked to, I don’t think learning to code, to the point where they would actually be able to get a job as a software engineer is a good idea.

So how do you get into tech if you’ve decided that you don’t want to write code.

Many people respond by really emphasizing things they believe to be the antithesis of technical skills: salesmanship, networking, being a people person. Maybe it was once the case that all software engineers were antisocial nerds incapable of expressing themselves in public who were dependent on non-technical people to get things done, but that is not at all the case now. Startups increasingly brag about their focus entirely on products, their salesforce of zero, their T-shaped team fully capable of writing and speaking convincingly among everything else.

It’s true, if you are good at sales you will always be able to get a job, but if you are young, or without a ton of relevant experience, and trying to get into tech, there are just too many applicants claiming to be able run through walls and sell snow to eskimos.

Learning to write server code and deploy apps is not a good fit for everyone at a startup, but there are quite a few non-coding but still a bit technical skills that I would highly recommend acquiring. Every startup will value this skill set and in many cases developer/designer colleagues will love you for having them.

So this is my proposed list of technical things non-technical people who want to get into tech should learn.

Know how to use a task managers correctly

Create some test projects and learn how to use Asana, Trello or Basecamp or all three. Learn all the features. Read the companies blog posts and tutorials. Because they are so product and engineer heavy, tech startups tend to live and die by their task/project management apps. Nothing is more annoying than adding someone to the team who keeps adding tasks as subtasks, not tagging correctly, forgetting to add due dates and so on.

Onboarding someone who seamlessly jumps into the project, and even starts cleaning up the task manager and making others lives easier is a dream come true for startups trying to grow the team rapidly.

Email marketing and marketing automation

For all the times journalists have proclaimed the death of email to be nigh, sending email is still an essential activity for all startups. Despite evidence that building an email list and talking to it regularly is very profitable activity, most startups actually don’t send enough email to their customers and prospects.

This is mainly because email marketing systems are still not that easy to use. Brilliant copy can get completely mangled by a poorly edited email template. Forget to check a certain box and your email is completely unreadable on mobile devices. Did you insert the FNAME variable correctly or did you send 12,000 emails addressed to “Dear insert name,”

Make a newsletter of your family and friends and practice sending emails, playing with templates, add call to action buttons and learn how the analytics dashboard works, how to track opens, read and click throughs.

Learn some basic email marketing automation such as how to build a welcome/onboarding course the sends new users an email each day after they sign up.

Mailchimp, Aweber, Drip are a few good options to try out.

Become a form wizard wizard

Forms are still the most underestimated web tool and with form wizards like Wufoo, Google Forms and Typeforms, they can be deployed in powerful ways without any coding at all.

It’s amazing how powerful a good form linked up to email marketing can be. Learn all the different field options. What other apps can be integrated. Should you build a Google Form and output the data directly into a Google Spreadsheet, or a Wufoo form that automatically enrolls signups in an email course on Mailchimp?

Do you really need an engineer to deploy a payment processing system when you can accept payments directly in Typeform without writing a line of code?

CSS tweaks

CSS is not coding and basic CSS is very very easy. It’s just a matter of learning a simple, declarative vocabulary. There are no complex functions, no math, and basically no variables. You can want to turn the text on your embedded form the same dark gray as your company’s landing page text you just need to learn how to say that in CSS:

#my-form label {color: #333}

Take a Codeacademy course and watch a bunch of videos on CSS Tricks.

Learn the most common Content Management Systems

Every startup has landing pages and almost every startup has a blog. Most of these are run on WordPress or Squarespace. Learn how to add and edit a simple page in each of these, learn the default options and how to add your forms and email signups widgets to each of them.

Being the idea person is one thing, but being the person who can create ideas, put them on a landing page and A/B test pricing options is a 10x more valuable.

A little knowledge of forms, email automation, CSS, and how to create a page in a CMS and you can execute that without writing a line of code.

Internet superpowers: Zapier and IFTTT

Here’s where you can out-tech the tech people on your team. When faced with basically any problem: Coders gonna code. This frequently leads to unnecessary custom-built solutions for fairly simple automation.

Two services: Zapier and IFTTT let you automate interaction between hundreds of apps and services without writing a line of code. Do you really need a fancy dashboard to run a cohort analysis of you email signups or can you just have Zapier export every signup into a spreadsheet and run a few Excel functions on it? Taking that off your engineering team’s plate so they can focus on the core product is a huge win.

Learn how to automatically create a support ticket for everybody that tweets at your company, send your inbound leads directly to your task manager so they all get assigned properly and followed up with quickly.

Bring your own army of outsourcers

Your startup’s lead designer is spending the afternoon redesigning the app onboarding process but you really need someone to remove the whitespace from a few logos so you can get a press release out the door. Interrupting their flow for such a little task is a huge drain, instead you should get very very good at using oDesk, Elance and Fiverr to outsource little jobs like that. You can often find freelancers to do things for incredibly low cost (e.g. $5) such that even if you were paying for it yourself it would still be worth it. But there is some overhead of time that you have spend familiarizing yourself with the process, learning how to select candidates and learning the hiring/managing workflow for each one.

Start spending some time and little money now developing that skill. The best part is you can save those freelancers in your account to call on later, an incredibly useful resource for you and your company.

Conclusion

Even if you had literally no other valuable skills, proficiency in all of these categories would be enough to get a job at a tech startup. You’d probably have to call yourself a growth-hacker or technical-marketer but you would definitely be valuable to almost any startup.

The last question is how to express this skillset to potential employers. The answer is LINKS. You must send links to THINGS. Startups do not care where you went to school, what your GPA was, who wrote you letters of reference. They care about what you made. So build a personal website, hire a freelancer to spruce it up, manage that freelancer in Basecamp, write about the process of hiring and managing that freelancer. Start a newsletter for a cause you care about, build a cool form for it on their site and learn from the analytics. Write a case study about that and put it on your site. Then send links to all of those things somewhere very early on in your job application.

Good luck.