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Starting with special – how to actually finish your projects

(ENTREPRENEUR) Whether your project is an app or an art installation, there are innumerable speed bumps you can either hit or avoid – let’s discuss.

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creative project start with special

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.

Conclusion

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 ‘mail@techromantic.io’ if you’re looking for a conversation around your latest project.

And remember, Start With Special.

Sarim Q, known as the tech.romantic, is a professional & creative coach for the tech, art, and entrepreneurial spaces. He shares personal strategy with ambitious readers, giving advice on productivity, networking, marketing/branding, technology, and startup strategy. After working with global consulting firms, startups, and running his own digital agency, he now offers his professional approach to personal pursuits. He is the Co-Founder of Socio, an experimental new social education platform, where you learn secrets of self, how to gracefully navigate social groups, and the process of building a legacy of your own.

Business Entrepreneur

What is multi-level marketing (MLM)? Why do people join?

(BUSINESS ENTREPRENEUR) MLMs may sell your favorite products, and seem like an easy cash grab, but those are signs of potential seedy practices. Look closer.

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MLMs structure

Even if you don’t know what the acronym MLM stands for, chances are high that you’ve stumbled across one. Maybe a friend keeps inviting you to join their makeup products group on Facebook, or an acquaintance keeps posting about their new wellness product on Instagram, or – heaven forbid – someone invites you over for a “tupperware party.” They might come in different forms and with different products, but make no mistake: MLMs are everywhere.

As such, it’s really worth understanding what an MLM is so you can make informed decisions.

First things first: MLM stands for “multi-level marketing.” Essentially, these businesses depend on a workforce paid in commissions and benefits to sell their products. In many cases, these sales people are also encouraged to invite friends and family to also start selling the products. Companies will often provide additional pay and/or perks to those with a lot of salesmen under them.

If it sounds like an MLM could be a pyramid scheme, you’re not wrong. Some MLMs are pyramid schemes and there have been plenty of companies to be shut down for that very reason. But many MLMs are sneaky; they skirt that legality by doing things like selling actual products.

Just because an MLM is, strictly speaking, legal, doesn’t mean it’s a good investment for you. Unsuspecting individuals who join MLMs often discover things like hidden fees, poor infrastructure and a (purposeful?) lack of communication from the company. When it comes to MLMs not working out, at best you’ve just annoyed all your friends. At worst? It could leave you bankrupt.

So, why do people join MLMs? Well, it depends. Some people legitimately like the product they’re peddling. Others, like stay at home parents, are looking for a flexible way to make money, which MLMs can potentially provide. It also helps that most people are introduced to MLMs through friends or family; you’re way more likely to trust someone you know over a random online ad.

These are all perfectly fine reasons for joining, but before you join any MLM, it’s really worth doing your homework. The last thing anyone wants is to be slapped with hidden fees or saddled with expensive products that are impossible to unload. Sites like MLM Truth and LaConte Consulting are good places to start, though it’s also worth looking for reviews (both good and bad) to see what other people are saying.

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Business Entrepreneur

Client difficulties? Protect yourself with an exit strategy clause

(BUSINESS ENTREPRENEUR)You want to keep around that one client that pays your bills but when they are difficult make sure you can run away from a gig gone wrong.

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Client exit strategy

I am not a lawyer. Do not take legal advice from a news story.

BUT

Over at Hongkiat, Veronica Howes has a great piece about the rights that every designer should give themselves when it comes time to make a contract. It’s not just good advice for designers, though. Anyone at the mercy of the client revision deserves to know these tips.

Many of them are about making sure that the rights to your work are secured. That’s important! Work-for-hire has always been treacherous territory. But in the gig economy, when more people than ever are doing contract work, holding on to your intellectual property is important, if you can swing it.

But just as important? Knowing when to walk away — and having the freedom to do so. Having an exit strategy is important to everyone who has ever had a bad client experience, trust us on this one.

There are plenty of reasons you might need to do this. Creative differences, a work environment you weren’t expecting, or even just an unreasonable number of revisions. Obviously, you never *want* to lose work, and you never want to leave a client unsatisfied. But sometimes walking away is better emotionally and financially than finishing the gig.

Writing in a “kill fee” can help you do this safely. A kill fee is a guarantee that you still receive some compensation for the work that you did, even if that work wasn’t completed. It’s an exit strategy. If you sink a year into a project for a client and then they decide to move in a different direction, the kill fee makes sure that you didn’t just waste a year of your life. It’s an important safety tool for anyone freelancing.

The standard phrasing to include in the contract is: “Termination. Either party may terminate the contract at any time through written request. The Company shall upon termination pay Consultant all unpaid amounts due for Services completed prior to notice of termination.”

And it is worth talking about the specifics of the kill fee. Some may charge for hours already worked regardless of who terminates the contract, others may choose to keep a retainer, and so forth. Think that through and include it in your contract.

Now, let’s talk about revisions. Half the time, the reason you’d want an escape clause is that the work wasn’t scoped correctly in the first place. You need to be very clear about the expectations of the amount of work that’s going to go into a job.

Let’s say you quote someone a flat fee of $100 for a tiny project, because you expect it to take you an hour or two. But suddenly, there are 12 people at the client’s office arguing over what the project should actually be, on a conceptual level, and you’re caught in the crossfire while they re-imagine the project you’ve already finished. The worst-case scenario here is that you’re stuck doing dozens of revisions, and each minute you spend, your hourly rate just dwindles down to nothing.

Setting up an exit strategy with appropriate expectations ahead of time (in writing) can really save you here. Allot for one major revision of the work and some touch-ups, or maybe three rounds of revisions. Do whatever’s appropriate for your field and the scope of the work. But be sure that the expectations are clear, and have it in writing, and be sure you’ve got that escape hatch at the ready if things go past it.

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Business Entrepreneur

6 simple self-care tips to keep any busy entrepreneur sane

(ENTREPRENEUR) We don’t all have time for yoga and long baths, but self-care can keep us sane and able to keep doing what we love for work – here’s how.

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entrepreneur self-care

It’s no secret that Americans are stressed. A recent study shows 3 out of 4 Americans experienced a symptom of extreme stress in the past month. Throw entrepreneurship into the mix, and you’re primed for a breakdown, or burnout at the very least. The good news? It doesn’t have to be this way.

This is why self-care is important.

The term “self-care” is nowadays often associated with skincare routines and Netflix, but in reality, it’s much more than that: It’s valuing yourself and your health enough to graciously set boundaries and say no. That way, you bring the best version of yourself to your job and relationships day after day.

I’ve started several companies, sold two, and recently started a new gig as VP of Growth & Ops for Steadfast Media (hi, guys!) while running Honey & Vinegar, so it’s safe to say I’ve been one tired woman. There were times I was tired, frustrated, and honestly burnt out. At one point, I took a sabbatical for several months at the urging of several mentors, family members, and my career coach. Burnout is real, but I’ve learned ways to cultivate self-care in my professional life that allows me to have a somewhat balanced life.

(Side note: I understand there are situations out of one’s control that can contribute to burnout, including ailing family members, parenting, disabilities, etc. This article is not focused necessarily on these, rather preventing your professional life becoming your entire life. That way, you can focus on the truly important things.)

Here’s what I’ve learned about self-care thus far (mostly the hard way):

1. Set strict boundaries & turn off notifications.

The best advice I ever received was a one-off realization from my brother: gate it, don’t date it.

Meaning that if you have emails, Slack, or Trello on your phone, don’t make it available to where you check it at all times of day and night. Force a gate between you and the app. Put the app in another folder to where you don’t check it 24/7. Don’t let the notifications own you, or straight up disable them.

If you’re the boss, you get to set the standards. Check Slack and emails during certain times, and be as specific as possible when setting those times. If there’s a true emergency, have employees then call or text. Set those boundaries and stick to them. Encourage your employees to stick to them with one another, too.

2. Have friends and a life outside of your industry.

I can’t emphasize this enough, and this is also why I’ve only lived in cities that emphasize one industry. (DC and LA people, I don’t know how you do it! Props to you.)

This allows you to create a life beyond just your professional life.

When it seems like the sky is falling — i.e. you don’t get that round of funding, or that one client flips out, it’s important to have people around you who are a) grounded b) can give you perspective. Compatriots in your respective industry are helpful for support and sounding boards, but it’s easy to b

When an acquisition deal for a past company fell through, I felt like my world was over. I was devastated. My darling friends, one in healthcare and another in real estate, took me to Chuy’s happy hour and gave me perspective. Relationships like these are game-changers.

3. Schedule time for yourself.

Set time aside for yourself, but get real: What does this mean practically in your day to day, week to week life? For me, I purposefully make sure to keep one night a week, ideally two, to rest at home with my husband.

Also, plan that damn vacation! It doesn’t have to be a lavish European vacation, but set aside time where you are intentionally not checking your phone or emails.

When I took my first actual vacation (and not working remotely) in years, It was life-changing. Be intentional to take more than two days to think, journal, set aside goals not just professionally, but what you want you life to look like that following quarter. You, your company, and the people will be a lot better for it, I promise.

4. Cultivate healthy habits that are enjoyable.

Don’t let the hustle culture get to you. Hard work is important, but so is exercise, eating healthy, and maintaining mental health. In other words, some legit self-care.

Some good thoughts from VC Harry Stebbings.

Set routines of things you love to do that also maintain your well-being. I love going to the gym and putting my phone on Do Not Disturb for 30 minutes, but that’s not for everyone. Take your dog on a walk, put on a playlist to cook a good meal, go to that yoga class. Or just go on a walk with a friend. You do you, boo.

This could be you.

5. Train other people to do your job.

You may think you’re the only person that can do a number of things at your job. If you want your company to ever scale, you need, I repeat, need to take those tedious tasks off your list, and even some larger projects off your hands.

I know it’s so hard to relinquish control, but *gasp* there might be people that can do parts of your job better than you. So let them!

Does this mean you need to hire a virtual assistant, a COO, find another co-founder, or just hire that dang accountant? Do it.

Your business is only going to succeed if you’re performing as the best version of yourself, not a stressed-out shell of yourself. If you need to micromanage everything, your business won’t succeed or be sustainable long-term. Don’t let your stress about doing everything stunt your company or personal growth. If you needed a sign, this is it.

6. Practice self-awareness.

There is nothing more valuable than the gift of self-awareness.

Listen to your body and what it’s telling you. Does it need water? Does it need sleep? Start a habit of journaling and seeing what areas where you’re running on empty. More than that — do what your body tells you. Drink that water, my friend!

The takeaway:

All in all, life is more than work and who we are is more important than what we do. Take time for self-care, and you’ll have a healthier mind and body.

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