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 ‘email@example.com’ if you’re looking for a conversation around your latest project.
And remember, Start With Special.
If you’re easily distracted, you’re more likely to thrive as an entrepreneur
(ENTREPRENEUR) If monotony and boredom at work- well bores you, it’s possible you may fit with the other entrepreneurs with a quick and constantly changing career.
When Bill Gates was a kid, he knew he liked messing around with code. He couldn’t have known how it might evolve, but he, like other entrepreneurs, was willing to live in the distraction, focusing on details when needed, but always learning, moving on, taking risks and growing in the process.
Some of the most successful folks among us are not content to sit and make widgets every day. They cannot thrive in a detail and focused work environment. So, it may come as no surprise to know that people who are more easily distracted are also more likely to thrive as entrepreneurs.
According to this study, if you are intelligent and get distracted more easily, those two qualities combined will likely enhance your creativity. And, that creativity and ability to use distraction as an advantage can be channeled to create new things, jobs, companies, etc.
For those of us who are more easily distracted, who enjoy doing different things every day, and who like learning, a recent article in the Harvard Business Review suggests a good option is to find a career path that provides the right amount of distraction and which is a great fit for your personality. If you do that your talent is more likely to be apparent because you are playing to your strengths. Also, if you are working in your sweet spot you will be more productive and motivated.
Maybe not surprisingly, the top job for those who live in distraction is entrepreneur. The term “easily distracted” often comes with a negative connotation, but considering an entrepreneur is taking risks, making things happen and creating companies, ideas, products that may have never existed, this spins that idea on its head. Entrepreneurs are the chief cooks and bottle washers of the world. They ideate, create, hire and inspire. None of that is possible in a monotonous work environment.
“Unsurprisingly, meta-analyses indicate that entrepreneurs tend to have higher levels of ‘openness to experience,’ so they differ from managers and leaders in that they are more curious, interested in variety and novelty, and are more prone to boredom — as well as less likely to tolerate routine and predictability,” according to the HBR story.
Other careers that are great fits for those of us (me included) who enjoy distraction are PR/Media Production, Journalism and Consultant. What these fields all have in common is, there is never a dull moment, switching from task to task is pretty commonplace, and you will do well if you can be a generalist – synthesizing information and weeding out the unnecessary.
Not sure where your strengths lie? Here’s a quick quiz to give you some feedback on how curious you really are.
This app lets you swipe right on the co-founder of your dreams
(BUSINESS ENTREPRENEUR) It’s said that business can be a lot like dating – and Tertle is taking advantage of that to find you a vetted, high-quality co-founder with a few swipes.
Much like there is a dating app for every romantic match possible, there is now a way to match with your ideal co-founder. And the name will help you ease out of your shell when connecting with your new partner.
Tertle is a new online app that helps you find the co-founder that best suits your needs. According to developers, “Tertle sends you frequent, vetted, high-quality co-founder matches via email or WhatsApp based on things that matter to you – giving you precious time back and putting an end to endless profile crawling.”
So how does it work? Like any other matching app, you first start by creating your profile. Tell Tertle a little bit more about you and what you’re looking for in a co-founder.
Next comes the vetted matching. Tertle will match you up based on things you both care about – like your skill sets, location, values, and interests. Finally, you connect and chat. Receive weekly 1:1 video chat calendar invitations at a time that suits you.
When answering why Tertle was founded, developers wrote, “We, like you, are startup fanatics. Finding the right co-founders is one of the most important decisions you’ll ever make in pursuit of a successful venture. We think there’s nothing currently out there that really hits the mark in helping like-minded co-founders easily connect—and so, Tertle hatched.”
As a reviewer pointed out on Product Hunt, the safest (and most heard about) route when selecting a co-founder is to choose someone you went to college with or have a long-standing relationship with. However, this may not always be an option and so it’s nice to have a little help from profile-matching algorithms.
Tertle developer Ryan Connaughton appreciated the Product Hunt feedback and expressed the following, “In terms of the algorithm, I’ve been matching people manually to test the waters while also working on a simple algorithm as MVP (what skillsets they’re looking for and location IF thats also important to them).
Following an MVP, my thinking is I can vet harder with more in-depth data collection (personality types, values, problems spaces of interest, etc). Of-course this will require a much deeper user-research/spike piece first before I can get to the right solution.
In addition, there can only be so much ‘filtering/vetting’ you can do before you have to get some hard validation that this is the right person – that being, actually working together. So assuming that I can get the prerequisites above right and there’s interest, I think there’s then potential of guided mini-hackathon style projects or some kind of ‘trials’.
Worst case scenario: You meet someone new, learn some stuff, give each other feedback for you to grow and have fun building something. Best case scenario: All of the above, plus the problem/solution holds water and/or you form a continued lasting relationship.”
The site boasts being free to beta users forever; so, if you’re on the hunt for a co-founder, it may be worth it to join the waitlist and see what’s out there.
Freelancers, this social site seeks to skyrocket your networking experience
(BUSINESS ENTREPRENEUR) Contra promises freelancers a new way to flex their experience by leveraging professional relationships in a bold take on networking and – at its core – hiring in general.
In the modern technical world, freelancers act as nomadic one-off hires that come aboard to complete a job and then are released back into the void. The rise of the gig economy and similar services has delivered new opportunities for those who need work and those who want to provide it, with entire platforms built around this idea of temporary employment. This is certainly viable and has given individuals more reach than ever before across networking systems.
However, these services tend to have some limitations – each job is isolated and usually cannot guarantee follow-up work with the same company. Workers may not be building themselves up meaningfully – lasting relationships with businesses aren’t guaranteed, interactions with colleagues might be brief, and long term freelancing might be viewed negatively. It can function alongside a career path, but is not necessarily a replacement for it (or at least is more difficult).
Maybe this could be blamed on the status quo and attitudes regarding employment, where extended tenure at the same company connotes loyalty and merit. There’s been some push against this in recent years given the way widespread platforms have enabled job seekers, but the hesitancy remains. Corporations want to hire quality candidates, but favor in-house employees that have proven themselves.
This is where Contra comes in, aiming to improve how freelancers function in the greater context of their industries. Based on their pitch, it does this by first placing a larger emphasis on networking, and then uses this as a way to reframe how we think about freelancing’s efficacy. Contra suggests that professional relationships hold more significance than traditional metrics. After all, referrals are king.
Put another way – people are your best bet to securing continued and new jobs, so let’s turn away from things like how long you’ve been somewhere and instead favor referrals, offering a path to focus on what you’ve done. As co-founder Gajus Kuizinas says, “…We are giving people the tools to describe their proudest career moments, publicly thank the people with whom they’ve worked with, and begin accepting inquiries for future opportunities.”
The hiring process might need a modern refresh
Maybe Contra isn’t saying it in so many words, and perhaps this is a harsh way to think about it, but maybe our current models for evaluating employment are misguided. There’s an emphasis placed on working at the same place for an extended period of time and at prominent companies. Those aren’t bad indicators by any means – there is something to be said for working at well known and established corporations.
But this can be hazy and gloss over what exactly someone did, which can hurt or diminish their contributions. If we focus on the positive, proactive question here of hiring qualified individuals, then what is the best thing to look at? The work.
Nothing is as accurate as looking directly at the results someone has produced – that is what matters. Quality outweighs where you were or how long you were there. Turn the attention away from “this is a series of one-off projects all over the place” and instead zero in on how all of those things best represent someone’s skill set.
This brings up a second problem – how can you best show this when trying to get new gigs? Sometimes a portfolio can’t speak primarily for itself, or legal contracts prevent divulging assets, or someone may not be the best at selling themselves. Even with a killer inventory of projects, there are still hurdles to overcome.
A one-two punch: Looking directly at what matters
Contra has a solution for this – flex those high profile relationships you’ve made. If you’ve got people eagerly talking about what you’ve done, they absolutely will show off your work. And they’ll do it with a level of excitement that will make a solid and lasting impression. After all, they’ve already received the fruits of your labor, and they’ll happily talk it up.
It’s a brilliant approach that puts a bigger emphasis on reinforcing your experience through the use of those around you. Contra’s solution is elegant – let’s allow our users, contributors, makers, and freelancers have access to a platform where they can build out a network of people who can vouch for them, and then actively utilize that social aspect. Keep your resume and portfolio, sure, but use it in tandem with those who will elevate you.
It’s a move toward something more alive.
Contra’s Community Lead explains, “Before joining the Community team at Contra, I was a freelancer who desperately wanted to make new connections with clients and other freelancers. Though — don’t get me wrong, I didn’t just want to network for the sake of networking. I wanted to make relationships with people who I could learn from and be inspired by. When using other freelancing sites, I realized I needed more from these platforms, not a quick one-off project with strangers (I don’t dig transactional interactions).”
It’s like a supercharged LinkedIn – instead of just listing out a bunch of static bullet points and hoping that coworkers drop by for a kind word, Contra’s hope is to take that latter part and make it the central focus. It’s a one-two punch of having a network of willing hype people alongside a portfolio and/or resume. This can include other freelancers, established employees at respected companies, or even well known veterans striking out with new startups.
The benefits don’t stop there – now a freelancer has greater access to mentors and inroads to bigger companies. Contra is providing solutions to things that plague the independent consultant route by creating support during all parts of the networking process – education, securing relationships, building upon past successes, improving a portfolio, and creating a network of reliable, helpful colleagues. It is empowering a freelancer to realize their true potential.
Voice over text
By providing a social backing component to the networking, job hunting, and freelancing process, Contra effectively resolves many of the shortcomings such a career path might adversely afford. It helps build out a way to repeat contracts, levels the playing field by projecting experience and results, and provides ways toward self improvement. It gives voice to someone by building up a support team – there’s safety and strength in numbers.
In a way, this feels like a modern and refreshing take on the freelancing process – something a bit more real and personal in the business world. We are social beings – let’s let others speak for us at times, even when it comes to our professional lives.
In a new world where there are dozens of communities, why shouldn’t there be one more devoted to the job search and hiring process? Contra’s platform may deliver just that to networking as a freelancer. It will be exciting to watch.
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