Creative in a candy shop.
The world is filled with awesome tools. If you’re a creative person, like I am – these tools and technologies always catch our gaze. They twinkle brightly, sweet candies for us to snatch as we’re walking down the infinite aisles of the internet. Because of this, we’re always embarking on new projects – seeking that lighter than air feeling when our vision takes life.
This article was originally intended to help people finish software projects, but I realized it could be extended to all sorts of things. Startup businesses, content generation, design, music, art – you name it.
Early on in my career, I was struggling with finishing any of my personal projects (professional work didn’t seem to suffer the same effects, but that’s another discussion). I have a folder on my machine with what I consider to be a graveyard of applications, the result of a partial effort with a vast array of technologies.
After a while, I came to a realization. Creative effort that is partially complete might as well not exist altogether. Our unfinished projects gather dust, never to seen by the masses. The reason we make things is to share them with others, and the possibilities are endless when we do.
You might make someone’s day. You might impact someone’s life.
You might just change the world.
None of this can happen if they’re incomplete. It’ll just be a fragment. A morsel of a dream not yet realized.
Don’t let this happen to you.
I started becoming aware of productivity traps that would hamper my efforts and cause a project to get discarded. So here are a few things that I’ve found will help anyone stay on track and make amazing things.
Start with what makes your project special.
There are many moving pieces to every project out there. For instance, if you’re building an application by yourself, you’ll need to think about your choice of technologies, how you’ll deploy it, its design and user experience, marketing so that people can see it, and its monetization strategy. That’s a lot of stuff isn’t it? Its very easy to get caught up into some of these topics and spin your wheels on the ‘what ifs.’
Attempting all these things at once is a heroic effort, but one made in vain. This mindset was a tremendous damper on the projects I would try to build. I would get stuck on designing sexy user interfaces and neat interactions. I would write out copy for the landing pages and design logos. The problem is that these things take a lot of time and effort. I would exhaust my energy on the details and never get to the meat of the project. This is a huge problem – our projects and work should always be prioritized by their core function.
The process of figuring out which things make our project special is relatively simple, there are only three questions you must ask yourself.
1. What parts of the project must be done in order for this project to be special?
You might know these as the components of the key value proposition. It can be easy to lose sight of that when we work alone. I’ve found that when focusing on these first, I’m able to breathe life into the project.
For instance, when developing a mobile application for a fortune teller based of human movements, I knew that it needed to have a movement detection algorithm based on accelerometer data.
When creating a day planner web app, I knew I wanted it to have easy & intuitive interaction design allowing the user to drag items and resize them.
This concept is the same for non-tech ideas. Research and validation should be performed first on the components which make the idea unique.
If you’re starting a food stand in a busy part of the city, start with making delicious food – not with the marketing, the monetization, or the supply chain. Invest in making the end result valuable to the world, and then validate that it actually is.
If you’re starting a blog, don’t spin your wheels on how you’re going to distribute your content or creating your logo – start with what makes your blog special from the millions of others and plan your content!
2. Can it be done?
The question you’re trying to answer when you tackle these key value propositions head on is: Can it be done?
This is so incredibly important. Why force an idea if its impossible?
Maybe the technology isn’t there yet to produce your amazing food consistently. Maybe the pallet of the local farmer’s market isn’t refined enough. Either way, you must figure this out early, and the sooner the better. You want to minimize the opportunity cost of not working on other things (or simply living your life).
There is no worse feeling then investing tremendous time & effort, only to find out that the original premise for your idea was flawed.
There’s a second psychological element of starting with what’s special. If you end up completing the special components to your project, you receive a huge boost in morale in motivation. You’ve shown that the most crucial part of your project can be executed, and that you did it alone. I’ve found that this carries you forward into the later stages of the project, building off of successive successes (try saying that 3 times fast).
3. Is it worth trying?
Lastly, now that you have the most important pieces out of the way, you can begin sharing with others. You can’t necessarily do that if you started with something less important to the idea, for instance, having a website for your food stand doesn’t really mean it’ll be successful, BUT – if people try some of the food you made and they love it, you know you’re on the path to success!
Early validation is a great thing in personal projects – not only can you form an opinion on the work so far, but others can help further shape your idea to become more attractive.
And if you find that the idea didn’t work, then you’re free to move on to another. That’s the beauty of it. You take the most important parts of an idea and give it your best effort. You will find out SOONER, not later, what the idea is worth!
That’s the beauty of it, you spent a relatively short amount of time on the important things, learned from it, and can now move on to new ideas.
Do it every day.
Building something by yourself is hard. I can’t help but bring software development into this, but taking an idea from start to finish requires a tremendous amount of legwork. When you’re developing an application you have to plan, design, and build the front and back end architecture, as well as deploy it, market it, and monetize it. Each of these have their own intricacies.
Both software development and personal projects have these aspects, and there is a ton you will need to do to get your project to a finished stage. This requires building a routine where you put aside time each day and make progress towards a goal.
When I was developing an idea I had for a new mobile app, I spent several hours a day writing code. The time I spent writing the application per day actually wasn’t all that important, it was the fact that I did something every day – keeping my mind focused on finishing the project.
For smaller projects I recommend spending more time per day (3 – 5 hours), that way you have an uninterrupted block of time in which you’re learning & building, and at the end of 30 days you’re more or less done. For larger projects, I recommend a marathon approach, ensure you’re doing something everyday, even if only for an hour or two.
How can you build a habit?
Set a time for yourself, and ensure you’re free every day to execute on that habit. Set a reminder on your phone, and reject invitations to things. Make sure your mind is clear to work on the task at hand. It will get much easier over time.
Once you’ve built a habit, you have the choice to put more time and effort into it, as well as employing some flexibility. If you begin to become infatuated with the project, you realize that at an idle moment, you have the choice to work on it, and more often than not, you want to!
Design before execution.
Every idea is born from a vision. The natural mechanism of the brain is to imagine what the final outcome looks like, before we can put our idea into words. This visual thinking is a real and present thing, and is studied by Harvard Medical School. They found that we can have trouble controlling our overactive imaginations as they bleed into linear thought. I believe that the real power comes from channeling our imagination into design.
Just like artist, architects & engineers plan their creations with a design document. We should be planning our creative projects in this way. Since we start with special, we first design & plan the defining characteristics of our idea.
Naturally, you might include the following:
- Description of the feature
- Sketch or picture of what it’ll look like
- How it contributes to the final vision
- The problem it solves
- How people interact with it
- How you might implement it
- What risks you might face while implementing it
- What risks you might face when it’s in use
- Possible workarounds or mitigation for these risks
You don’t necessarily need a formal document or 10-page report – getting your thoughts down on paper on how the idea might work and a sketch is sufficient most of the time. In terms of the human creative process, sketching is the best point of origination. When you have that idea come into your head, make sure to capture it on paper, even if you have a hard time drawing.
You can and should sketch anything. Not just art, or user interfaces – you can draw marketing automation & sales pipelines, the hierarchy of our team, the product/customer interaction.
I have had sketchbooks filled with ideas for the things I wanted to build (unfortunately, I may have only pursued about 25 percent), but it assisted me greatly throughout the process. There was no need to go back and rethink what the original vision for the project was. I have found that when you embark on something without a plan, it’s easy to get mired in the details of the moment.
When you’re planning, focus on planning; when you’re executing, focus on execution.
Avoid the engineering & design rabbit hole.
This is the most common trap I suffered in my inexperienced days. I would develop a single page of an application and continuously make it look better, until I forced myself to move on to the next thing. Looking at the workflow for professional engineers, I see that it’s always better to start with the core functionality before dressing it up.
Even a skeleton of your project is fine,just do a simple layout of all the components in your project. Build your key features, and if the idea is worth pursuing, you can decide what to improve incrementally.
The second part to this is focusing on functionality but never being satisfied with the implementation. You would call this a perfectionist mindset, obsessing with the best ways to do things. It’s a gray area, but if you’re dealing with the issue of not finishing your projects, or you’re simply a beginner, getting your project to a point where it works is completely fine. Build off of it, and if it prevents any of the other special components in your exploration process, then go back and re-architect it.
Don’t get distracted by new stuff.
If you tried to utilize every latest technology, I’m sure you would go insane (I speak from experience). The quantity of releases and updates aren’t just hard to keep up with. They’re also new and shiny, and distract you from what you’re working on.
Creatives and engineers are very likely to fall into this trap. They see their peers using new tools and immediately feel like they’re missing out on something.
However, once you work with enough tools or mediums, you begin to realize that the end result is all that matters – each tool has its benefits or quirks, and it’s up to you to know how to use it correctly.
Don’t get caught up in your tools, unless they are needed for what makes your project special. For everything else, take the easiest and quickest path to completion.
Drive it to completion – you’re not done till you’re done.
So you’ve built out 80% of your project? Congratulations!
You still have a ways to go to share it with others.
There are two challenges you need to solve
- How to get it out to as many people as possible (specifically the people who would respond to your project)
- How to build a system of feedback so you can continue to improve your creation
In future articles, I will show you the process in which we find and contact these people at a massive scale, similar to how I curated a list of 2,000 recruiters in my article on SXSW.
In the software world, this means working with cloud platforms to deploy your projects in a scalable manner, and then setting up content management systems to have continuous contact. In the art world, it might mean making connections with a gallery and then promoting the hell out of your art. But once you’ve created something, you need to make it work for you. It needs to be on your portfolio. Share it with everyone you meet.
It’s a piece of you, and you finished it.
Sharing your project is sharing yourself. Show the world who you are.
Pursuing your own projects takes reserved courage. You don’t have the backing of a team, a boss, or a company who’s got “everything figured out.” Instead, you figure it out for yourself. It’s a journey full of unknowns. From one stranger to another, despite not knowing you personally, know that I believe in you – and the only person who really needs to believe in you, is yourself.
Thank you to The American Genius team for bringing me on as an editorialist.
I’ll be writing regularly and I’d love to hear about what you need help with, and your thoughts on this piece – send me a mail at ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’ if you’re looking for a conversation around your latest project.
And remember, Start With Special.
What to consider before you pivot your business model
(BUSINESS ENTREPRENEUR) Many businesses have had to pivot during the global pandemic but maybe yours isn’t one of them. Consider these questions first!
When Ross asked Rachel and Chandler (Friends TV show 1994-2004) to move a couch, many of us will never forget his voice inflection and how many times he yelled “PIVOT”! It’s actually a really funny scene and if you’ve never seen it, it might be worth 3.5 minutes of your time. Ross had the best of intentions by starting with a sketch and enlisting help from friends but even that ends up in hilarity as getting his couch in to his apartment doesn’t work and he ends up being offered $4 when he tries to return it (stay for the end of the clip).
The best plans and intentions for your business are often met with what the market and customers demand, where technology grows, and where your ROI is the best. You often know that your original plans will grow and evolve, even in uncertainty and now… a global pandemic.
Many entrepreneurs and small businesses have had to lean on technology to add virtual services (or expand their offerings) to meet our current norm where people are just not out and about like they used to be. Some have seen this work well and others have had to completely re-design their offerings to maintain safe and socially distanced considerations.
The thing is, businesses that have pivoted are being highlighted. But it is also worth looking at what has worked for some businesses that didn’t have to completely shift their strategies in 2020. It is likely that they had to adapt but maybe not a ridiculous Ross-type “pivot” that resulted in a complete failure of the mission.
Harvard Business Review (HBR) shared an incredible article, “You Don’t Have to Pivot in a Crisis” with great insights about what to consider if you think you need to make changes or if you want reassurance you are still on the right track.
HBR shares a powerful thought:
“The lesson here is that when a crisis hits, it pays to resist knee-jerk reactions on how to handle external shocks and ask what is going to work best for your company, based on the particular realities of its business. Ignoring the playbook of rapid cuts plus strategic pivoting can be the smart move… However, staying the course doesn’t mean inaction.”
Here are three thought starters you may want to consider for your business:
- What product line or service is best serving your customers right now? Is that one of your strongest and/or could it use some attention?
- What product line or service is not quite meeting your needs or customer demands at the moment that had seemingly always worked (not forever! Just right now)? For example, in person gatherings and promotions like events, conferences, trade shows.
- Is there something you’ve always wanted to explore? And could now be a great time since people want things more virtually? Examples: Selling branded swag, workbooks, content subscriptions, educational webinars.
These are three simple things but could help point you in the right direction of where to focus your time and energy – at least for now. You may not need a complete re-design or to take a new road, it might be some tweaks and adjustments to hang on to what you’ve worked so hard to build.
How to choose the right software for your business
(BUSINESS ENTREPRENEUR) What are the best software products for your up-and-coming company? Use these questions to decide which kind is best for you.
It’s almost impossible to run a successful modern business without some kind of software to help you stay productive and operate efficiently. There are millions of companies and even more independent developers working hard to produce new software products and services for the businesses of the world, so to say that choosing the right software is intimidating is putting it lightly.
Fortunately, your decisions will become much easier with a handful of decision-making rubrics.
Determining Your Core Needs
First, you need to decide which types of software you really need. For most businesses, these are the most fundamental categories:
- Proposal software. Customer acquisition starts and ends with effective proposals, which is why you need proposal software that helps you create, send, and track the status of your sales documents.
- Lead generation and sales. You’ll also want the support of lead generation and sales software, including customer relationship management (CRM) platforms. These help you identify and track prospects throughout the sales process.
- Marketing and advertising. Marketing and advertising platforms help you plan and implement your campaigns, but even more importantly—they help you track your results.
- Finance and accounting. With finance and accounting software, you’ll track accounts payable and receivable, and countless variables influencing the financial health of your company.
- Supply chain and logistics. Certain types of businesses require support when it comes to supply chain management and logistics—and software can help.
- Productivity and tracking. Some software products, including time trackers and project management platforms, focus on improving productivity and tracking employee actions.
- Comprehensive analytics. Enterprise resource planning (ERP) software and other “big picture” software products attempt to provide you with comprehensive analytics related to your business’s performance.
Key Factors to Consider
From there, you’ll need to choose a software product in each necessary category—or try to find one that covers all categories simultaneously. When reviewing the thousands (if not millions) of viable options, keep these factors in mind:
- Core features/functionality. Similar products in a given niche can have radically different sets of features. It’s tempting to go with the most robust product in all cases, but superfluous features and functionality can present their own kind of problem.
- Integrations. If you use a number of different software products, you’ll need some way to get them to work together. Prioritize products that make it easy to integrate with others—especially ones you’re already using.
- Intuitiveness/learnability. Software should be intuitive and easy to learn. Not only will this cut down on the amount of training and education you have to provide employees, but it will also reduce the possibilities of platform misuse in the future.
- Customizability/flexibility. Out-of-the-box software products work well for many customers, but they may not suit your current or future needs precisely. Platforms with greater customizability and flexibility are favorable.
- Security. If you’re handling sensitive data (and most businesses will be), it’s vital to have a software developed with security in mind. There should be multiple layers of security in place, and ample settings for you to tightly control accessibility.
- Ongoing developer support. Your chosen software might be impressive today, but how is it going to look in three years? It’s ideal to choose a product that features ongoing developer support, with the potential for more features and better functionality in the near and distant future.
- Customer support. If you have an issue with the app, will someone be available to help you? Good customer service can elevate the value of otherwise average apps.
- Price. Finally, you’ll need to consider price. The best apps will often have a price that matches their quality; it’s up to you to decide whether the extra expense is worth it.
Read about each product as you conduct your research, and pay close attention to reviews and testimonials from past customers. Additionally, most software companies are happy to offer free demos and trials, so you can get some firsthand experience before finalizing your decision. Take them up on the offer.
Finding the Balance
It may seem like purchasing or subscribing to new software products will always improve your business fundamentals, but this isn’t always the case. If you become bogged down with too many apps and services, it’s going to make operations more confusing for your staff, decrease consistency, and drain your budget dry at the same time. Instead, try to keep your systems as simplified and straightforward as possible, while still getting all the services you need.
You won’t find or implement the perfect suite of software products for your business overnight. It’s going to take weeks, if not months of research, free trials, and in-house experiments. Remain patient, and don’t be afraid to cut your losses on products that aren’t working the way you originally intended.
Simple ways to keep your company’s operations lean
(BUSINESS) Keeping your operations lean means more than saving money, it means accomplishing more in less time.
The past year and a half has been challenging, not just economically but politically, and socially as well. While it would be nice to think that things are looking up, in reality, the problems never end. Taking a minimalist approach to your business, AKA keeping it lean, can help you weather the future to be more successful.
Here are some tips to help you trim the fat without putting profits above people.
Artificial intelligence frees up human resources. AI can manage many routine elements of your business, giving your team time to focus on important tasks that can’t be delegated to machines. This challenges your top performers to function at higher levels, which can only benefit your business.
Consider remote working
Whether you rent or own your property, it’s expensive to keep an office open. As we learned in the pandemic, many jobs can be done just as effectively from home as the workplace. Going remote can save you money, even if you help your team outfit their home office for safety and efficiency.
In today’s world, many are opting to completely shutter office doors, but you may be able to save money by using less space or renting out some of your office space.
Review your systems to find the fat
As your business grows (or downsizes), your systems need to change to fit how you work. Are there places where you can save money? If you’re ordering more, you may be able to ask vendors for discounts. Look for ways to bring down costs.
Talk to your team about where their workflow suffers and find solutions. An annual review through your budget with an eye on saving money can help you find those wasted dollars.
Find the balance
Operating lean doesn’t mean just saving money. It can also mean that you look at your time when deciding to pay for services. The point is to be as efficient as possible with your resources and systems, while maintaining customer service and safety. When you operate in a lean way, it sets your business up for success.
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