Emerging From The Unknown

My First 100 Days Working For Myself

On the first day I sat at my desk intent on writing some code so that I’d have something to sell as soon as possible. But then I remembered I was unknown to the world. I had no audience—and there was no reason for one to exist. Everything I had done throughout my career up to that point was locked within the confines of the companies I had worked for. I had no illusion that people would find whatever I was going to offer, and even if they did find me, why would they want to do business with me?

The day before, I had left my job of eight years to work for myself. Even though I had a vague idea of what I wanted to do, I left without a concrete plan. My first preference was to build my own software product, ideally something for software developers or small business owners like me. I also considered doing some consulting, or maybe even buying a small established online business and running it myself. But I calculated that I could afford to focus my first year exclusively on trying to build my own product, so I decided to do that and leave the other options as fallbacks. Still, I had to face the problem that nobody knew I existed.

Up to that point, I had never tweeted, never blogged, never had a Facebook account, never open-sourced anything, and I had no useful connections to start with. I was new to this, and I didn’t know what to expect, but I decided I wanted to try to get some attention first, then figure out what to do with it. And at that point there was only one thing I could think of that was plausibly interesting enough about me to gather some attention. It was the story of why I decided to abandon a successful high-paying career well before its peak.

By the end of that week, I opened a WordPress account and wrote my first blog post: Only Intrinsic Motivation Lasts. Then I posted it on Hacker News and made it to the front page for a few minutes. Suddenly, I had some attention.

Planting the Seeds of Word of Mouth

Then I kept going at it. I wrote a few more blog posts, and I started using Twitter and a few other social platforms to document the various choices I was making while figuring out my next steps. Within three months, my blog posts were read by over 100,000 people, and a decent number of them chose to follow me on Twitter and other platforms.

But then I realized that the value of all of this had little to do with the number of followers or article views. People started to talk to me, and about me, as if they knew me personally—as if we were longtime friends. And then I figured that they did actually know me personally. The things that I shared, and all the interactions that followed, allowed them to see who I am, how I think, what I believe in, and how I respond to questions and critics. And if I’m going to expect my business to arrive through word of mouth, then I’m depending on people getting to know me personally. Social media has certainly created some problems in our society, but it has allowed word of mouth to thrive again. This is giving small businesses a chance to compete on trust and authenticity. Whom would you prefer doing business with? Somebody you trust and know personally? Or some faceless Fortune 500 company trying to get your attention with intrusive ads and one-way communication?

I expect that I’ll continue to adapt how I establish my online trustworthiness as time passes and social platforms evolve. Right now, my strategy is to simply document what I’m doing and how I’m thinking about things related to my work and my business. Instead of giving advice, I’m just documenting. I find it much easier to just share my thought process and the things I’m doing rather than trying to distill what I know into universal advice.

Going to Market

The first step was getting people to know me, and that’s going well. Now I don’t have to depend on the chance of getting to the front page of Hacker News or Product Hunt to have people discover my work. Instead, I’m relying on word of mouth, initiated by the people who got to know me through my interactions online. It might be slow to start, but word of mouth fans out. At least I’ve planted the seeds.

Next time I’ll be writing about how I came to pick the project I chose to work on. You can also find me on Twitter if you’d like to follow my thoughts in real-time!