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What skills are most crucial for running small internet companies? (indiehackers.com)
354 points by ChanningAllen on Nov 20, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 77 comments

I'm running Savio[1], which is my fourth small internet company I've run since 2007 (the previous three were sold).

At the risk of sounding cliche, the three skills that have been most valuable are:

1. The ability to build software that meaningfully solves a customer's problem

2. The ability to reach people who have the problem my software solves

3. The persistence to grind until we have a decent product and can regularly reach people who have our problem.

The above may seem like they're outcomes. But understanding problems and building solutions is a skill. Finding and reaching people is a skill. Grinding effectively is a skill.

Every other skill (writing well, communicating well, selling the visions, giving good demos and customer service) is in service of the above.

[1] - https://www.savio.io

This reminds me of Brian Balfour's "Four Fits" model which is the bedrock for how I think about companies.

You need four things: (1) a market, i.e. a set of customers with a valuable problem; (2) a product that actually solves that problem well; (3) a channel through which you can reach these customers; and (4) a business model to sustain the above efforts.

A good business idea attempts to account for all of these, and usually starts by looking at the customers and their problems and working backwards. But most new founders confuse "business idea" with "product idea." They focus entirely on the product, which is only one part of a business. And then after they've finished building, they go out in search of customers with problems, trying to fit their square peg in to round holes. I strongly recommend against that path.

#2 is so much harder than people think.

All of the points are really really hard.

Actually everyone has a different skillset, therefore the hardest from the 4 options is different for everyone.

#2 is v hard, I can confirm that. Infact it should be the first thing to be solved

You may have listed in no particular order, but, if you did, I would argue #2 as the most important.

I disagree, and this is the mistake I made earlier in my career. Having the market is most important. I have built great products that flopped and ok products that were incredibly successful.

Quoting Andy Rachleff: If your startup addresses a market that really wants your product, you can screw almost everything up and still likely be successful. On the flip side, if you are really good at execution, but the “dogs aren’t eating the dog food”, you have no chance at winning.

“When a great team meets a lousy market, market wins. When a lousy team meets a great market, market wins. When a great team meets a great market, something special happens.”

It sounds more like we agree. "Having a market" and "The ability to reach people who have the problem my software solves" aren't so different.

But while "people who have a problem" equals a market, it's nothing if you cannot reach them.

The three of them form a triangle. Which side of the triangle is most important?

This is not a magical thing. Id argue it is fairly mechanical. The biggest issue you'd face is fear. Focus first on conquering that.

I think they're all necessary.

Product + grinding - building it and nobody comes, will get there eventually. Easier to learn to sell than to make a good product.

Sales + grinding - selling a turd, hopefully will get there. Harder to learn how to make a good product than sell.

Product + sales - flame out early

How did you tackle problem (2) here? trade shows or something? How do you go from 0 (no connections to industry X, or people who face problem Y) to being able to do 2 without some inside connection?

Re problem 2 - I’ve had decent success using Gabe Weinberg’s Bullseye framework.

re no connections to industry x - if you don’t have connections it means you probably don’t have the insight necessary to solve a problem for people in that industry. I’d probably look closer to home. If you really want to, reach out to people on LinkedIn and offer to pay the first couple for an hour of their time. Then reach out to more people and share insights from the first few. In short, add value. Soon you’ll be an expert.

Read The Startup Owner's Manual, or the previous version of the same, Four Steps to the Epiphany, and apply what you've read.

Add Lean Customer Development by Cindy Alvarez

Loved Cindy's book. Hey talk 'From 0 to Interviewing Customers Well in 90 Minutes' [0] available on YouTube is a great resource too.

[0] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d5hc7sseHbE

How are you even going to know what problems need to be solved if you have no connections to industry X?

Very well put - thank you, it's a help for me to focus on

Here's what NOT to do, from my experience in the first decade of this millennium:

1. What came first: More work or more developers? Don't stress your development team for ages without hiring new employees. They'll burn out and hate working for you.

2. Don't focus all your energy on outward appearance. Your work should speak for itself, not your amazing expensive new car and tailored suits.

3. Don't stop innovating. The developers who were there since day 1 who refuse to adopt new tech? Yeah, get rid of them. They're pulling the rest down to their level.

4. Seniority isn't a guarantee for superior knowledge; and being junior doesn't mean their opinion is invalid. Don't fall victim to playing favourites. If you hire people, then they're equal.

5. If you are one of two founders: Don't have sexual intercourse with the wife of the other founder of the company. He will find out and because you have 50/50 shares in the company, everyone needs to pick a side. This destroys the company.

6. And that also means you can no longer afford to lease that $1400/month luxury off road SUV that you only drive in a town without even a single hill in a 100 mile radius.

I was just an employee for this company, I was in my teens when I started working there, and I thought these 30-something owners of the company knew what they were doing. They didn't.

> 3. Don't stop innovating. The developers who were there since day 1 who refuse to adopt new tech? Yeah, get rid of them. They're pulling the rest down to their level.

Sorry, but adopting new tech isn't innovating. Building new tech is. Adopting new tech may make it easier. Or it might just be that your developers are bored and need something to entertain themselves.

Re-read the first sentence.

> 3. Don't stop innovating. The developers who were there since day 1 who refuse to adopt new tech? Yeah, get rid of them. They're pulling the rest down to their level.

Here is one, listen to the experienced developers, stop innovating tech and focus on building what the customer actually wants/needs in a robust manner. In my experience, the focus on 'new tech' and not customers has been the death of startups I have worked in. Flakey products based on the latest and greatest tech has been another.

That escalated quickly

It's amazing how much driving a nice car in a downturn makes your employees hate you.

> 5. If you are one of two founders: Don't have sexual intercourse with the wife of the other founder of the company. He will find out and because you have 50/50 shares in the company, everyone needs to pick a side. This destroys the company.

This sounds juicy...

It's surprisingly common and you really don't want to get involved in any way.

Unless you are a divorce lawyer.

Flexibility. Humility. Optimism.

Flexibility means you’re willing to do any task needed, whether it’s filling out some spreadsheet or going to a conference or figuring out how to come up with an intelligent database schema. Flexibility also means you don’t need to build everything perfectly, that you have the flexibility to leave some things a little less-than-perfect.

Humility to admit you don’t know what the best route is, because everything is in the primordial state. It may involve a company-wide pivot, it may involve something much simpler and easier, but admitting you might not know everything is crucial.

Optimism helps you ensure all the things stewing about you don’t totally get you down, and that you will find a way out. Some pragmatic thoughts and realism are needed, too, but optimism in the early stages means “sure, I think I can do that” comes to mind rather than “oh gosh that sounds really hard, I think we shouldn’t even try.”

Well said. Being humble is incredibly important. I think of it in the context of having a beginners mind: having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions.

I try to remind myself that every person I meet has something to teach me if I'm willing to listen.

A Willingness to Hire Fast and Fire Faster

I think you need to be really careful with this. Treating employees like fungible commodities doesn't really foster any particular sense of commitment or a strong team. It's okay, I suppose, if you're a solo founder (or a couple of co-founders) and you just hire an endless stream of Upwork freelancers to do various tasks and then dismiss them when they're done (or if they're not performing well enough) - but if you scale beyond that, you actually need to treat people like they're humans.

I'm sure it's well-intentioned by the author, but I've seen people really take this to extremes and behave like total bastards - and they didn't start out being bastards, they just began their journey down the slippery slope of sacrificing common decency to pursue the goal of doing what was, they thought, necessary for their startup to succeed. (When you fire someone on the last day before Christmas because "it was a tough decision, but we're a startup, and we have to make tough decisions", you know you've reached the bottom of that slope.)

Yep - A willingness to hire slower and fire earlier would be much better advice.

Part of the issue is that there isn't a single correct way to hire somebody. Your hiring process must be able to adapt to a given candidate's circumstances.

For example, say that you met somebody who is already working somewhere, and through the course of networking you understand that they're not happy where they currently are but they're not actively looking for new work either. If you decide that you'd like to poach them, then you must necessarily take a slower approach, since they're not being actively pursued by other companies (since nobody knows that they're on the market) and you want to make sure that they'll be happy at your company and everything else that's an essential part of recruiting.

On the other hand, take a senior engineer who left their last startup because the startup went out of business, and whose skills will be in high demand by many competitors. You have less latitude as to how much time you can take during your hiring process before they get hired out from under you by a competitor. Committing to never hiring quickly is a recipe for filling your ranks with mediocre talent.

Common advice is you only have to be good at either hiring slowly or firing early.

Google, for example, was apparently very good at hiring (slowly) - at least in their early days. So it didn't matter that they were (are?) terrible at firing.

Facebook was the opposite AFAIK. It didn't matter that they hired too soon and too many of the 'wrong' people - because they were good at letting them go before it did too much damage to the business.

On balance, I'd rather be good at hiring than firing, as it seems to be much more fair on employees.

As someone who works for a small company, but doesn't run it, I'd say resiliency is very important.

The smaller you are, the more you need to be able to ride the waves and expect that things are going to shift out from under you very quickly.

Think Kayak vs Ocean liner.

Do such checkpoints really help in the long term? An athlete begins to learn by doing and then watching others. There's no playbook there, he just begins by playing an abridged version of the pro. A highly successful athlete is the one understands his game on his own and not following what the sporting greats before him did. I believe ambitious journeys are a process of self-discovery. If there is anything that helps is learning from the mistakes of successful ones, learning from one's own mistakes and doing one's own best each day. It's a deliberate practice.

Have to have checkpoints and goals. Everything you're doing is an experiment to increase revenue/velocity. So measure, frequently and correct.

You are right but one doesn't need a checklist or a threshold for skills to be an entrepreneur. My argument on comparison with athletes was that we all learn on the go - no one is perfectly fit for any job until one starts doing it.

Its been said time and time again but its being able to get things done, and at a minimum being able to google the right thing. It gets harder from there, but at least thats a start.


The one thing where smaller companies can excel is shipping a viable product. Most people I know are willing to give smaller companies a break on a polished product if they know they will see updates in a timely manner. This is something smaller companies can outmatch their larger competitors and will also get them more loyalty from their users.

Shipping a viable product, with timely, dependable updates is crucial.

Marketing and sales.

As awful as that sounds to many people it just isn't enough to build an amazing product, write great code, or design something beautiful. You need to be able to get out there and tell people it exists in order to succeed. Without that ability your startup will fail. In fact, in my experience at least, far more companies fail because they couldn't reach customers than fail because they couldn't build something. Building something is the easy bit.

100% this.

You can have the best castle, but if no-one visits, what use is it?

I've met too many programmers with great ideas and execution, but have failed with marketing/sales because they think it's all fluff. Communication is key.

Absolutely agreed. My current job is far and away the least technically challenging/complex/interesting work I've done in my 15 year career but it's the most monetarily successful because of stellar sales and marketing and support teams.

Unless you're audience is as technical as you are, the layperson on the street will not know the difference between 2 products given numerous similarities. They NEED to be told that one product is better and just want to talk to a real person to explain how the damned thing works.

Good UX is primary. Good code is secondary. When good UX and good code fail, good human interaction is what is the kicker.

> Building something is the easy bit.

Building something is certainly easy. Building something people want and works well is pretty hard. Unless you have the latter, all the sales and marketing won't do much for you unless you have an established legacy walled garden that people are forced to use.

News flash. That’s part of marketing. Not programming.

The past decades and even now, people tend to expect programmers to do everything related to tech.

This fairytale is why so many fail.

I don't understand this claim.

Building something people want is marketing? Requirements gathering? Business analysis? Project management? Engineering? These are just subdivisions of marketing?

Yes, actually. Academically marketing is defined by the general marketing mix of: Product, Pricing, Place, and Promotion. Product here relates to fully understanding the end users goals. You then need to design a product that meets those goals, and a brand which communicates to your user how those goals are met.

It's common place now for people to think of 'marketing' as 'advertising'. It is a much more robust subject than that. This is driven largely by the product management role being so closely integrated to the engineering flow. As I understand it, traditionally product management was a marketing department role. You can see this more with non-software companies like food or transportation.

Interesting TIL. Definitely not how I perceive marketing though. I always saw it encompassing promotion and brand.

> I don't understand this claim.

I'd say it is more accurate to characterize your points as a "marketing feasibility analysis". But this is as much my opinion based on my understanding of marketing, as it is actual "marketing of a product" per se.

I'm a marketer here. If you want some help, reply. I'm happy to grab coffee in the Bay Area and help give early direction to your startup.

Hey man, would like to pick ur brain some regarding saas sales, sadly I am not based in the valley or US for that matter, mind if I email you, quick question what is the fastest no bullshit way to validating ur saas idea and seeing if people needed it, I was thinking of driving google ad words traffic to a landing page will that be sufficient?

Google AdWords campaign is good way to gauge market demand. Key is to identify granular high intent keywords in your market and setup your campaign to only target those keywords. If you are able to capture a decent amount of exact keyword search impression you can work backwards to get an idea of overall traffic/demand for your product. Keep in mind if you run a short campaign you will have to take into consideration seasonality - you can likely extrapolate this info by analyzing monthly search volume in AdWords keyword tool.

The other important factor is validating keyword intent. You need identify some action that indicates the likelihood of a user paying for your service. If you can measure that and combine this data with search volume, you will be in a good position to assess your products feasibility.

I've just run a nice unsuccessful Adwords campaign, and I think my lack of knowledge on how to correctly use Adwords, alongside Analytics is where I'm going wrong. Any chance you know of some decent resources / quick-start guides to help understand Adwords and how to use it?

Happy to help.

bobbybottleservice (at) me (dot) com

(it's a throwaway alias - don't make a judgement on the name.)

My cofounder is in the Bay area, and we're looking for help in this area. How do we get in touch with you?

bobbybottleservice (at) me (dot) com

(it's a throwaway alias - don't make a judgement on the name.)

Hey, I’m based in the Bay and would really like to pick your brain, let me know your fave joint for coffee.

bobbybottleservice (at) me (dot) com

(it's a throwaway alias - don't make a judgement on the name.)

I'd also say that while there's a basket of broadly applicable skills, there's also a world of difference between high-touch sales like 7-figure services contracts vs low-touch mass market like driving 100k anonymous visitors to your site. And everything in between.

I am hearing that a fledgling startup needs to "Sell First" and then build it- They Will come. Any ideas on how I should balance the concept of the idea and the actual MVP that I would market to my early adopter customers? Thanks in advance for any insights.

I always try to find at least one client who has a problem I want to solve and ask them to fund development of version 1. If no-one is ready to pay for development of version 1, it is a sign that I don't have a market and shouldn't waste time developing. So far, I have developed two profitable products using this strategy. Even if it doesn't work, at least you were paid for your efforts.

I think "undo" is the wrong metaphor for decision making. It's "safe to fail" or "acceptable risk" or "acceptable loss." You always lose time and opportunity at a minimum, but in exchange for new information if you are willing to pay attention.

The obvious one that people seem to forget is persistance. The ability to get from 0 to a company that serves a purpose takes a lot of work and grit.

I think that ultimately a true believe that you can do it is what gets you there. A few people are able to believe that of themself, we see it as eragance, but I think that over time we can build our confidante by building bigger and bigger projects successfully. We can then use those past accomplishment as inspiration every time we have dought about where we are going in the future.

Definitely sales, marketing and having understanding of design, tech stacks, etc. I tend to cover all of these areas in my business at Bairmail (https://bairmail.com)

Empathy and listening.

You'll need those customers.

You'll need those for employees.

Get them wrong and you could end up trying to solve the wrong problem(s); perhaps with a team that is not team at all.

Other than that, making realistic sales projections, especially as it relates to your burn rate.

A strong sense of ethics.

I actually just wrote a bit about this on an interview at brandfetch with regards to browserless.io (https://blog.brandfetch.io/automating-browsers-with-browserl..., wish I could deeplink the section that's relevant). The TL;DR here is get really good at both your written and verbal communication. You're nothing if you can't properly articulate what you're building, for whom, and respond to critical feedback. This lone skill helps immediately in just about every aspect of running a business: programming, sales, and more. You need to be able to interact with your audience in a way that is concise and clear, and communication skills are how you do that.

Write, speak, blog and keep on doing it!

If you are running it you are sales first, management second, tech is third.

You are running a business not a tech company. You better be hustling and filling in the tech gaps later

Thanks ChanningAllen for the great work with indiehackers. This kind of content is my favourite to read :)

You can learn in two ways, somebody can communicate( share, tell, write) the truth to you, or you can do an experiment. People in a Capitalistic society are rarely taught to do experiments, because what is learned by experiment cannot be controlled. Knowing how, when and why to do the experiment is what separates those who can create from the group that can only do what they are told.

Surprisingly, no accounting...

The accounting profession exists, precisely because you need to get it right and successful founders don't have the time to be wasting their time on it.

Trust me on this: don't think you can survive the tax system on your own. Hire an accountant or bookkeeper.

...for taste.

Ministry of Testing link has the wrong url.

Ministry of Testing has the wrong url.

the skill of shamelessly shilling for yourself on HN, Reddit, Twitter, IH and PH all day long, everyday until you make it.

> the skill of shamelessly shilling ... all day long, everyday until you make it.

It's one of the most important comments in the thread.

Not only is it an acquired skill (selling), it's bonded to an extraordinarily valuable character trait: perseverance.

A lot of people can't do the necessary sales to drive their product/platform/service because they either can't absorb the hits from doors being constantly shut in their face (hearing no all day long, or worse), or they feel shame from pushing the thing on other people (most of whom do not care and don't want to hear it and do not want you wasting their time, and certainly initially that will all be true).

Promoting is selling. Selling is promoting.

The best sales people are shameless. Not in the sense that they're abusive, rather, in the sense that they'll push their offering to every corner of the globe as necessary, getting 99 no answers to get to that one yes answer. Being told no a thousand times feels very shameful, low and hurtful to most people and they can't handle it.

Promoting your thing, is always about selling. Shilling is nothing more than the task of selling being categorized as a disparaged craft.

This reply resonates so much with me. I think it takes years of experience to understand something like this (at least it took me a long time).

I too started from this thinking that promoting is shilling, but it's not. Every successful company in the world does it and there is absolutely nothing wrong with promoting your product or yourself as long as you're not breaking the rules.

I think it's the part of geek culture that misunderstands selling as shilling, which is probably the reason why so many good but small startups fail. They just don't sell enough.

It's the same ideology that charging for a product or service is bad somehow. I remember that a blog that reviewed a website of mine (a movie making software in 2007) was all gaga over the product but as soon as we went from free to paid, it put us in a special section called "website hall of shame". Just because we decided to charge something for a product which users were making money off.

I takes a lot of skill to sell, get rejected and hear 99 Nos for that single Yes and sometimes that's the only thing missing between a win and a loss.


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