Indie is a Startup: Butt in Chair

by Rich on July 4, 2011

This is the second in a series comparing indie publishing to technology startups. I’ll follow up with more posts looking at the lessons indie publishers can learn from the tech world. They can stand alone, but you’re welcome to start at the beginning.

A few years ago, I tried to start a technology company. For someone in my business, it’s not an unusual thing to try. It’s also not unusual for these ventures to fail, as mine did.

The details of what I tried to build aren’t important here, but for convenience, I wanted to build a service which would encrypt email messages so they could be used easily and safely to send private information. My partners and I had grand plans and enough experience to know how to make it work and how to sell it.

We fell into a very common trap. We wanted to be sure we had solved the messy and unpleasant problems which, while important, weren’t the focus of our business. How would we manage users? How would we deal with reporting? How would we handle passwords? Those are all problems which can be nasty to solve, are important to running an efficient operation, and which were all our problems instead of our customers’ problems. That should have been a clue we were on the wrong path.

With all of our planning, work, and investment, we never got around to actually encrypting and sending an email message, the whole reason we we started the company.

That sounds completely ridiculous, and it is. What it’s not is uncommon. Plenty of tech startups fail for exactly that reason, which boils down to considering scale before substance. We would have had to solve those problems once we had a bunch of customers, but we’d never have customers until we had a product.

This is the classic butt-in-chair problem for writers. If I don’t finish the story, my killer platform, my billions of twitter followers, my promise of a cover blurb by Ray Bradbury, my gold-plated Facebook network don’t matter.  There’s nothing wrong with developing those things. They are important. It’s a question of investment priorities. Your product is your priority, the rest is infrastructure.

I failed to focus on the product and so I fell flat. Don’t do it that way. Get your butt in the chair. I’ll be in the one next to you.

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