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A short guide for wasting hundreds of hours on your idea

July 14, 2018
side projects

I've killed two products I've spent a considerable amount of time building. I've wasted hundreds of hours this way. The clichéd "at least I've learned something" is my only consolation.

This is what I've learned.

Lesson one

Zapsnap, a temporary peer to peer screenshot sharing application, is the first product I've made, with design by @benjam1n.

I was totally hyped about Webtorrent, Node.js, P2P web and wasn't happy with the current screenshot sharing tools. Building some tool that would combine all fascinations with pains I've felt was a logical step forward.

So I've spent a lot of hours developing it, bought the domain, $10/mo server on Digital Ocean and it was ready for some users. Users? That's right, I haven't talked to anyone but friends about what I've been building, so I didn't have a lot of potential users to share my launch with.

Enter Product Hunt.

Product Hunt is a great place for sharing what you've built with people if you don't have an audience. It's much better for getting first users than Hacker News unless you're targeting the Hacker News niche. People on Product Hunt are generally more interested in trying new products. I launched it there and it ended in second place for that day. Here are some numbers:

Retention is another story, you'll generally get a spike in the number of users, but you have to have a plan for actually keeping the users using your product. The above graph has basically fallen to zero after the launch. It probably happened because I didn't spend any amount of time on engaging with my users. I have sent zero emails, literally. Another thing that led to this was probably the fact that people didn't find the product that interesting and useful, after getting familiar with it.

Zapsnap was a classic "just fucking do it" approach exercise. I was scratching my own itch, but I didn't talk to anyone else to find out if this product was even needed. Friends generally supported me, but I think they did it out of kindness. This is definitely not a way to go since you can't validate your ideas this way.

Building a totally free product was another mistake. I'm lucky Zapsnap didn't take off because popular free products cost more money than unpopular free products. Hosting gets more expensive, support takes more time, etc. With paid products, on the other hand, popularity is a good thing, given that you have a solid monetization strategy.

Offering something useful in exchange for money isn't something you should be afraid of and it's the best validation tool for your product. People are okay with paying for useful things.

Lesson two

Journmail, an application that reminds you to write one sentence per day, is the last product I've made, with design by @vblazenka.

I've built this product in an attempt to improve my consistency while writing just one sentence per day in a journal. Having learned the "free product" lesson from Zapsnap, I've planned to start charging for this product from day one. I didn't end up doing it, though.

I've spent a considerable amount of time developing it, bought domain, $10/mo server on Digital Ocean and then I've faced my biggest obstacle.

After figuring out how to implement recurring billing with PayPal, I've faced another problem with invoicing and accounting. I needed to figure out how to handle this sort of thing with my company here in Croatia, even asked people on Indie Hackers about it, but ended up not doing anything.

Billing and invoicing ended up being the most complicated part of Journmail. It was the last thing I needed to finish before the launch and I was keen on reaching that finish line, so I've decided to ditch the billing and invoicing and launch a free product. I've figured I'd make it free for early adopters and then make it paid when I find time to implement it. Looking back, I don't think this was such a great idea [1].

I've also launched it on Product Hunt, but it didn't end up being as successful as Zapsnap there. Product Hunt drove this traffic:

  • ~350 users that signed up
  • ~200 receiving daily reminder emails
  • ~20 users actually writing that one sentence per day every day

As with Zapsnap, I didn't engage with users, other than sending that automatic one email reminder per day.

Journmail was another "just fucking do it" exercise. Learned nothing from Zapsnap in this regard.

The killing part

So with having these two free products on autopilot, each costing $10/mo I've heard about the GDPR and figured I don't have time to implement any changes needed for compliance.

That's when I decided to shut both of them down. I've made another mistake here, didn't send an email with an apology to Journmail users (Zapsnap users didn't give me an email) and just shut it down overnight.

GDPR and lost interest in maintaining free products was what drove me to shut both of them down.

The point

We have a saying in Croatia - "Every school costs money". These lessons have cost me a lot of time and some money, so hopefully, this saves some of your time and money.

  1. A better idea would've been to make it free to try out with a trial period of 30 days. This would've given me time to implement the billing system while keeping people aware that it was not free. This approach was pioneered by folks from Basecamp.
@shime_sh Hrvoje Šimić
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