How to Get Startup Ideas: The Meat Grinder Approach

There are a million books and blog posts on how to get startup and business ideas. Many people think the biggest road block to successful entrepreneurial life is having that one great idea. Once you get even a modicum of success, lots of people will start asking you about how you got an idea like that, and for any tips and tricks on how to “come up” with a similar idea.

The concept is extremely tantalizing and sounds so imminently teachable that it’s a favorite tool of lifestyle business spammers everywhere. 7 Step Guide to Profitable Business Ideas. Join My Webinar on Finding Your Dream Business Plan.

But this is entirely the wrong way to think about it.

First of all you should be coming up with at least five possible business ideas every day. This part should be basically effortless. People trying to sell this part are scamming you.

If you are going to be a successful entrepreneur at all you should innately be looking around you at your life and the lives of others, thinking what are their problems. What are their desires. What do they spend money on. Which of those things are broken or could be done massively better or cheaper or faster. You should be constantly thinking this way. It should annoy people who spend a lot of time around you.

If you’re not doing that, you’re probably not going to be an entrepreneur… sorry. It’s okay. There are lots of other great life paths but this one isn’t for you.

There is one common exception to the rule. You might be hung up on one idea, and that stops the process of thinking of new ideas. It’s cool, you just need to build yourself a better meat grinder.

The secret to coming up with a successful business idea is putting hundreds of ideas through the meat grinder.

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Human-powered Software Services

Your bookkeeper, now with superpowers
Your bookkeeper, now with superpowers. Bench.co

I’m very interested in human-powered software services. I recently signed up for bookkeeping services from Bench which replaced my frustrating experiences with purportedly easy to use bookkeeping apps like Quickbooks and LessAccounting. Which is not to say that those options are bad software options, but Bench takes a completely different approach that I like much better.

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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.

Why be transparent about money?

I’ve been super transparent lately about a lot of things — perhaps to a fault. In particular I’ve been sharing a lot of specific numbers around money. The live financials for my business are available on a public dashboard. I wrote pretty openly about how I paid my bills over the last few years. I walked through the painful details of raising money for my solar startup and then shutting it down. All of this lead a few people — including at times myself — to ask, um, why am I doing this?

A few people have asked me why I do it. I’ve also had a few people talk about others who publish their financials — not know that I did too — and criticize it. Calling it bragging. I can see how some people might find it off-putting. Particularly when you have some entrepreneurs who do it solely to give themselves a public high-five on how much money they’re making. But I think the best answer to this is a commitment to transparency through both the ups and downs. It is annoying if you’re selectively transparent, only publishing the details about the things that work and sweeping the trials and tribulations under the rug. It’s the same problem we have with Facebook and Instagram giving us a false impression that everybody is living a happier and more interesting life than we are. Our social streams are filled with carefully curated snippets of the best parts of people lives. People rarely share when they’re bored, or lonely, or snap a selfie of themselves wallowing in self doubt. I hope that I’m doing a decent job so far of sharing both the good and the bad, but it’s something to constantly pay attention to.

This wasn’t an original idea from me. I was inspired by the folks at Buffer, Keen.io, Baremetrics and several others.

But here are few of my reasons for transparency:

Everything is more interesting in the context of real numbers

Language is imprecise. When people or companies blog about strategies or tactics that worked or didn’t work, it’s very hard to know what that means and if it’s relevant to you. In the context of real, live numbers these topics become concrete. This action added X in monthly recurring revenue, this strategy saved this many cancellations. It’s honestly just a better story.

Transparency is a marketing edge

Most people are very private about their finances and real financial numbers are a little bit taboo. Blog posts with that kind of data are just juicier than the same content without it. The first post, where I laid out the origins of my micro-SaaS business and introduced the live dashboard, received about 1,000x more traffic than any other post I’ve ever written.

Transparency gives you just the right amount of credibility

Neither too little nor too much. If I say something, and someone thinks that it’s BS and would never work, they look at the real numbers and think, well maybe this guy knows a thing or two and isn’t a total moron. On the other hand if I say something and someone reads it and thinks it’s the most brilliant strategy they’ve ever heard and they should abandon everything and prioritize it. Well, they can look my numbers and say, well this guys isn’t exactly making millions so maybe we should take this advice with that appropriate sized grain of salt.

I think this is easily the most important benefit of transparency. The world is full of people who eke out a bit of money selling scammy schemes claiming to make you millions. Transparency is the solution to credibility in an increasingly opaque and anonymous world.

The moment people think you know something there is a temptation to try to start educating and to sell that education. There’s always endless demand for it. It’s easy to fall into it. I’ve caught myself several times thinking I should start selling ebooks, courses and consulting and how it easy it would be to fake it til you make it. Publishing my numbers keeps me honest.

As internet platforms make it ever easier to publish and sell ebooks, webinars, online courses, it becomes more and more difficult to filter out the real stuff from the scams. Without transparency there is some risk, or at least some small nagging doubt that you’re being had.

When I think about even true thought leader superheroes writing about entrepreneurship there’s always this nagging question in the back of my mind. Did they ever actually build real businesses that actually made profits?

Yea maybe they have obviously become very successful. But what if it’s built on bullshit? It’s not hard construct that scenario. I don’t know from first-hand experience, but I think if you can bullshit your way to a best-selling book and start collecting big speaking fees it’s probably not that difficult to translate that momentum into further success. You get invited to advise and invest in some of the best startups and voila, now you’re a validated success story and people eat up your advice.

And it’s so easy to fake it. I know because when I was really struggling with SolarList — incinerating my savings and racking up credit card debt — people were always confusing me and the business for a big success and assuming I was crushing it. An Angelist page, a shiny website, a well-produced video and some software that works is all you need to convince the vast majority of people that you’re an inspiring and successful software entrepreneur. Throw in a solid beard for good measure you’ve got all the credibility you need.

Transparency — particularly the third-party verified variety like my dashboard, which is connected directly to my payment processor — eliminates all those questions. If some day I become a big success, everybody will have real data on my (is humble right word?) origins. And if I turn out to be a big failure, everybody will know what is was that I squandered.

Struggling

I’ve been struggling lately with what to do next in 2015. In 2014 I had mostly to choose from a limited selection of hard choices. We had to make the decision to shut down SolarList. I then had to find a way to get back some of the enormous amount of money I lost on the project. I spent a good chunk of the year turning my side project into a full time income and building an ecommerce/startup consulting practice. In 2015 I’m very slightly moving up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. My safety and (largely financial) security are in a decent place. My attention is shifting (back) to things that maximize my ability to do something that matters in the world. Systematizing the things that make money is increasingly freeing up more and more of my time, leaving me to figure out what exactly to do with it.

At the same time I’m in Chiang Mai. A digital nomad nexus filled with people doing unconventional things with their lives. Everyone you meet just slightly amplifies the feeling that literally everything you can do with your life is on the table or at least worth considering.

I found myself pretty scatter-brained. I’ve been generating ideas faster than I can evaluate them, but I have also been evaluating them — testing them out, throwing me out to smart people for a valued opinion. Thanks folks for bearing with me. As I tried evaluate ideas, some of them seemed to be not totally stupid. So the next question is, well I can’t do ALL of these, so I should start trying to compare them.

And this is where things just get weird. Every time I compared ideas, either in conversation or in my own head, I found the line of thinking started as a neat little two-column list of pros and cons, and rapidly devolved to a very existential discussion of what did I truly value in life.

Literally, I start off talking about two types of web apps and end up in a deep discussion of human fear of our own mortality. I’m talking about converting travel guides from PDF to HTML and end up debating, intensely, whether giving 1,000 people a moment of joy they will remember their whole life is ethically more worthwhile than materially improving 1,000 people’s standard of living in some useful but ultimately boring way. What the hell! How can I possibly make a simple decision when everything devolves to an insoluble philosophical question.

So I sat down today and I started writing, and talking to myself, and talking to my computer and listening to it back. Trying to dig deeply into the different distilled conflicts all these options kept circling back to. And all of the sudden I was like:

Oh.

There’s absolutely nothing unique here at all.

All of these conflicts distilled to some very fundamental dilemmas that probably every human faces on some level. You only have so many units of time and energy in your life and you constantly have to distribute how much you dedicate toward trying to fulfill each of these categories. All of these are hard too. They’re all a gamble. You can put all your time and energy into one and still not get the desired effect, on top of having neglected the others. Life is hard that way.

So what am I thinking about and what are these categories, you might ask. You might already think I’m full of crap and have closed this tab. But for those of you still with me, read on.

Making more money

Why would I want to make more money? I guess some people might find this question silly but I think it’s an important question to ask. I hate thinking about money. I get a visceral reaction in the pit of my stomach to thinking about budgets and accounting and taxes. In my personal life I only want to make money for the purpose of thinking less about money. And I think there is hopefully an achievable crossover point where I have enough money that I don’t really have to think about money at all.

But moreover it seems like it really does take money to do something interesting with one’s life. Money is influence. Money is optionality. Money can give you back 100% of your time and energy to focus on things other than paying the rent.

One of the biggest mistakes I made with SolarList was increasing my expenses too quickly without the ability to cover them. As a result we couldn’t take a long view on the business, we didn’t have time to experiment and basically it was a total crisis just to pay the rent. I never want to go through that again, so building up financial security has a lot of value for me.

So I’m looking at some options. One avenue is to take the lessons learned from SolarList: digging deep into the customer education and sales process of solar energy, building software and doing dozens of user interface experiments. To take that and do enterprise consulting with big companies. Another is to continue to build out my ecommerce and consulting business. And another is to build another product like Storemapper. With so much experience in building a micro-SaaS product I feel confident I could churn out another few simple products and catch a small winner pretty shortly. Two profitable micro-SaaS business would almost certainly throw off enough cash that I could basically spend 100% of my time not making any money for the foreseeable future, at least until/unless I needed to support a family.

All decent. I’m lucky to even have them as viable options.

But they also don’t feel very meaningful. At the end of it I’ll just have the money and have spent the time. Who really gives a shit about money. Right now I’m in Thailand where it costs about $1,000/month to live really really well. I’ve just spent the last year thinking, involuntarily, a lot about money and I fucking hate thinking about money.

Do meaningful things, make a dent, etc

This is the big one. Basically I just want to be in perfect health, full of energy, have all my finances taken care of and spend all of my time trying to solve important problems that will matter 200 years from now.

Elderly heiresses take note: If any wealthy aristocrats would like to sponsor me in that endeavor, I’m certainly open to arrangements.

When I quit my job I had a vision for my startup. There was this massive energy transition that needed (needs) to happen to save the freaking world. In my job I had learned that I was particularly good at buildings tools that accurately described big parts of this transition and could make them concrete and quantifiable. I learned that I could be at times particularly compelling at dispelling inaccurate beliefs about this energy transition, using that data and those models. So I wanted to scale up what I felt I could do on a person to person basis. Massively scalable, personalized education that would change the minds of millions of people and meaningfully accelerate an energy transformation that could save the world!

Fuck that’s meaningful, right!?

So why do I spend my days working on an ecommerce widget!?

Well, see above, it creates a degree of financial freedom for me. I work on it because it has high leverage of time, it can pay the bills and give me more time in return to work on big projects.

So, I should be working on big meaningful projects right?

Yes, I should.

But, honestly I’m hesitant and yea, a little bit afraid. I have only just barely scraped my way to avoiding personal bankruptcy. My first startup basically failed, had to have shitty conversations with investors — friends, mind you, who put their hard earned money behind me, and lost it. I invested three years of my 20s with very little meaning to show for it. I’m still psyching myself up to get back in the ring.

But this is crap and excuses. What big things am I thinking about:

1) I’m still not over the original vision behind SolarList. I think about giving it another go in solar. I think about trying the same angle — software superpowered personalized education — in different markets like LED lighting. I’m still aggressively poking around looking for an idea that really punches me in the gut and forces me to commit.

2) On some level I worry that I’ve missed the opportunity a little bit. That big companies and marketing budgets are ultimately going to solve #1 in the developed world because the major technologies have reached a threshold where they make sense for a very large number of consumers. I’m super curious about what’s going at the edge of the grid with distributed renewable technologies. In mobile much of the innovation happened at the edges, like mobile money, and percolated back through to the broader network. I think the next big phase of this energy transition may look like that, where innovations happen at the edge in unexpected ways. I would love to start exploring that and documenting that. And exploring it, at least at first, in a totally non-commercial way. Just learning and showing other people what’s going on. This intersects with something else that I think about the next phase of the energy transition is that business models become less important for moving things forward and something that looks more like “art” becomes radically more important. Things that serve no purpose other than to make the observer feel something. And that feeling starts to change the way they perceive the world and that seeps into their decision making so that they simply decide they want to participate in taking better care of the climate, whatever the return on investment may be.

3) Outside of few individual people, nothing has had a larger and more positive impact on my life than travel. I don’t remember where I read this, but someone suggested a thought experiment: What job would you be doing if you woke up every morning and thought to yourself, “Wow, I can’t fucking believe I get to do this for work!”? For me I think that would be running company where the product helped more people travel for their first time, helped more people afford to travel more often and helped people have spontaneous adventures that they treasured their whole lives. That would be awesome. Also, I’m a traveler so I can just scratch my own itch and build products I like. But as I dig deeper I’m discovering that, well, a lot people think the same way and it’s a super complicated, super crowded market with a ton of very smart people who know a lot more than me already working in it.

Take care of self and do fun things

In 2013 I took very bad care of myself. I raced my mind at full-throttle. I drank too much coffee and booze. Stressed myself out severely and got in pretty bad shape. Since early 2014 I reverse that to some extent, mainly emergency maintenance. But I haven’t really invested in rejuvenating myself.

The conundrum is always that maybe you’re just too burnt out to do the ambitious stuff you want to do. Maybe I’ll do better at all of these other things if I take a few months to focus on traveling, re-investing in my education, learn a language, do more rock climbing, yoga and skiing. Maybe I’ll come out of that with 10x the energy and everything else will be better for it.

But wow is it hard to turn off that ambition. I probably would need someone to force me to do this as I can’t imagine convincing myself to do anything more than the minimum. But Southeast Asia is a lovely place to just relax and have fun for a little while. It’s cheap, the weather is nice and the food is good.

Probably not going to happen.

Giving to family and loved ones

This is a short one because there’s not a lot of nuance to it. Pretty straightforward. I don’t give nearly enough of my time and energy to my family and loved ones. I’ve lived a lot of my life on the opposite end of that spectrum. Mostly because I saw too many of my friends and peers sacrifice too much of their lives and opportunities for rote familial obligations. I always thought people spent too much of their time and money flying home for every holiday and doing stuff just because it’s what you do. They missed out on too many opportunities and experiences for it. I love my family, but I always felt a little comfortable passing certain obligations that society and tradition place on the eldest son.

But the fact remains that my family, extended family and loved ones could do with more from me. There’s help for the older folks and mentorship for the younger ones that I could and should give. As I get older, and more importantly as they all do, this gnaws at me more and more. Gotta do better.

So that’s what is on my mind. I’m going to, perhaps too rashly, post this unedited and then go for a digital detox for a few days. Maybe I’ll come back with a clearer head. Thanks for reading.