Adventures of being a solopreneur.Part 1
A little known fact about Zigpoll is that it's run by one person 👋. I've been supporting myself for the past six years or so as a solo-entrepreneur and I figure it may be interesting to share some perspective and general thoughts... and honestly it's probably good for my mental health as well.
How I got into this situation
When I got married I quit my job. I had no kids so my lifestyle was sparse and I was fortunate to have about one year's worth of runway before I absolutely needed a new gig. I took the requisite couple of weeks off and then I worked furiously on what I thought would be the next big thing.
The idea was Hopscotch.global, a product that lets you string together multiple locations to create a whole afternoon or evening plan instead of just reviews for a single location. Kind of like a bar-crawl mapper, but you could also use it to plan the perfect date night, or family outing, etc...
Upon reflection I think this is a cool idea. Also, like you, I am very surprised it still kind of works after being untouched for several years. However, if you look at where this article is hosted and the general quality of posts (I called them "routes") on Hopscotch you may surmise that Hopscotch.global was not my golden ticket.
What went wrong?
In my opinion, I quickly fell into two pretty common traps for the hot-shot developer turned entrepreneur:
- Mistake #1: I was convinced that if you build it, the people will come. I assure you, no matter what you are building, they will not.
- Mistake #2: There was zero thought put into the business model. If you like to eat food and live indoors I suggest you focus on getting paid above all other considerations.
Mistake #1 stems from arrogance at my previous job. I was convinced that I, the super 10X developer, was the only skillset required to move the needle from zero to one. Unsurprisingly when the product was ready and it came time to market it to users I was utterly unprepared and immediately frustrated. What's worse is that in hindsight I barely tried anything and gave up less than a couple months later having learned nothing about marketing or sales in the process. Try not to make this mistake if you can help it; sales and marketing are incredibly important and nuanced professions, do not underestimate their value.
Takeaway #1: The product is only the tip of the iceberg, when it's functional is when the real work of marketing, sales, and iteration begins.
Mistake #2 stems from misunderstanding too many articles about VC funded unicorns and direct-to-consumer miracles that worry about users first and cash flow later. It's fun to dream about being a billionaire in your twenties but you need keep a clear head about what you are doing. If you want to start the next Snapchat you need a team and you need VC funding to pay that team while you make no money. If you want to be a successful solopreneur you need bootstrapped cash flowing as soon as possible. Pick a lane.
Takeaway #2: Unless you are already rich, you need to worry about getting paid. Make it a core feature of your product.
Tick tick... time for some freelance
After about 6 months with no income and a looming realization that Hopscotch was not gaining traction, I took my show on the road and found some freelance projects so I could continue to pay rent.
When you are doing this for the first time, be prepared that the first couple of projects will likely be "low-brow" compared to whatever your day job used to be. In my case it was HTML emails and CSS edits with Internet Explorer 10 and 11 requirements for a flooring company. I had no idea this type of work existed. The world is a very big place.
I suggest you suck it up at any part-time job if you want to extend your solo journey - especially in the early stages when lofty ambitions can (and often do) crash down to earth. Make it a priority to say yes to everything that comes across your inbox. When you are doing freelance you do not know when the next job will come in and it is better to have the cash now. Most importantly with every freelance job you gain new contacts and every contact is an investment that may pay dividends in the future.
I did several of months freelance while spinning up my next projects. It was boring and humbling, but it was relatively painless and it gave me enough cash in the bank to shoot another shot.
Takeaway #3: Freelance will extend your runway and build your network. All contacts can pay dividends in the future if you deliver good work.
Shopify and Spotify
Having burned my home-run direct-to-consumer billion dollar idea on Hopscotch I wanted my next project to be a reliable base-hit with a clear business model. So I turned my attention back to an area I that knew well: eCommerce.
Prior to going solo I was the head of Front-end Development at an eCommerce agency. This give me some insight into the agency's common customer and some of their pain points that I repeatedly encountered during business hours. If you're an experienced entrepreneur who is reading this, I expect your ears perked up. If you're not a seasoned entrepreneur let me repeat that for you:
Takeaway #4: Focus on markets where you have a unique insight into customers and their common pain points.
I started to work on a Shopify Application for their app store. The app is called Metafields Manager and it was my first modest success that would help bootstrap future opportunities. However it did have a drawback for me at the time: it was painfully boring backend software with a narrow market. If you were to pitch this to me today, I would be extremely excited by that sentence, but at that point in my life I was a hip twenty-seven-year-old who, while a tad late to party, was going to join the ranks of twenty-something billionaires with his grande scale ideas.
So I worked on my second "big" direct-to-consumer idea in tandem. The idea was a social listening app that lets users listen to Spotify in sync with anyone on the planet. A social-music phenomenon that, I naively thought - having clearly learned nothing from Hopscotch, would grow exponentially and start a bidding war from every major music label even though it had no clear business model. This product is called JQBX and, despite not living up to the full weight of its initial expectations, it became my second modest success for totally different reasons than I would have expected.
Takeaway #5: Boring projects are exciting when they pay. If you have energy and a lack of restraint like I do, try balancing the boring work with a moonshot product.
What comes next?
Well... a lot comes next. The details of getting both JQBX and Metafields Manager off of the ground deserve posts of their own. Once each of those projects started to gather modest steam I launched Zigpoll (spoiler alert) and, during the pandemic, I started a separate business running virtual parties that has landed some of the biggest bands on the planet as clients (more on that later). Both businesses are run entirely solo and would never have been possible without some of the takeaways in this post.
I hope you enjoyed this brief origin story and found it insightful even though it's a bit self-indulgent. On that note, follow me on twitter, I don't like shouting into the void so I don't have a lot of tweets, but if you follow me I will start chirping. Also please share this post as I'm trying to boost SEO for Zigpoll 😜. If you want a free trial or have any feedback or want to connect about anything at all: send me an email or use our contact form to reach out and I will get back asap!
Last Takeaway: Always internalize and respond to feedback. Your customers will tell you what they want but you need to chose to listen.
Thanks for reading and goodluck on your own journey!