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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

Startup helps freelancers find trusted partners for overflow work

(BUSINESS NEWS) Covailnt is a service for freelancers that takes the mystery out of collaborating, helping us all to focus on what’s in front of us.

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Trying to balance work and networking can be a huge pain even as a traditional worker; for freelancers, maintaining both categories is often downright impossible. If you’re struggling to make meaningful partnerships in the freelancing world, Covailnt may have a solution for you.

Covailnt takes the mystery out of freelancing, which—unlike romance—could do with a bit less guesswork. The service is best described as a combination of a workflow app and a social network, but its core function is to serve as a database of freelancers. Each person who signs up for Covailnt fills out a profile which includes skills, availability, location, and a portfolio; as a Covailnt user, you can use this information to determine whether you want to work with the person.

The ability to review a freelancer’s highlight reel without having to initiate a conversation is sure to be a time-saver, and you get to avoid the awkward follow-up conversation to boot.

Time efficiency is clearly a strong influence on Covailnt’s platform: each freelancer’s surface-level profile prioritizes the preview window to display their level of business, using metrics from “Not Working” all the way through “Slammed”. Having this information front-and-center makes it easy to differentiate between who in your network might be available for overflow work and who you shouldn’t contact for the time being.

Covailnt also makes it easy to find compatible people with whom to collaborate. In what always seems to be the case when a group project emerges, your go-to collaborator might be too busy to handle a joint effort, and not everyone has the time to troll through the classifieds in search of a temporary partner. Searching for a like-minded, similarly skilled freelancer via Covailnt can significantly cut down on the time you spend looking and help you prioritize the work itself.

Beyond its site-level features, the coolest part of this service is that it allows you to build a network of talented people with whom you share interests, goals, and workstyles. Once you’ve established such a network, you may find your work queue filling up with things you actually care about, enabling you to push some of your less enjoyable work to someone in your network who will give it the care it deserves.

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Business Entrepreneur

What’s the difference between an accelerator and an incubator program?

(ENTREPRENEUR) When considering your options for growing your startup, do you know how an accelerator differs from an incubator? The differences are bigger than many realize…

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There are now more options than ever when it comes to applying to as well as choosing the best startup accelerator or incubator.

For those of you who may be new to the startup world (welcome!), I’ve compiled some helpful information to determine the difference between an accelerator and incubator, and which one might be best for your company.

Yes, all programs tout value to burgenoning businesses such as business plan assistance, introduction to other founders and mentors, and most importantly, guidance on fundraising to VCs and angels. But what’s the difference? Here’s the lowdown:

Incubators:

Incubators are built specifically for founders that are at the initial stages of starting their companies and don’t have set program timelines.

Unlike accelerators, incubators operate on a less structured time schedule with less programming and resources, and it’s not uncommon for a company in an incubator program to last for several months or even years.

Incubators typically offer their portfolio companies free office space, business plan advice, and mentorship.

The incubator may offer assistance in introducing your company to potential investors, but it’s not always the main purpose of the program (whereas the majority of accelerators have “demo days” where founders specifically pitch to potential investors).

Incubators are especially popular in local economies and can be run by organizations like non-profits, civic organizations, co-working spaces, and universities. Since incubators have less of a time requirement and offer less resources, you’ll only need to commit to a small amount of equity, often around 1%.

Accelerators:

Accelerators are more focused, time-intensive structured programs for companies with a proof of concept/minimum viable product (MVP) and market validation.

Accelerators do just that: accelerate company growth for startups with proven potential to exit (either eventually sell or go public). Because of this, accelerator interview processes are typically extensive and competitive.

Most programs can last anywhere from 10 weeks to 3-4 months. With many top accelerators, you’ll be expected to move to the city where it’s hosted and spend 40+ hours a week minimum in their dedicated coworking space, and several accelerators offer housing stipends to make the move easier.

These programs typically conclude with a demo day to pitch your product to a variety of community leaders, angel, and institutional investors.

Many accelerators are industry-agnostic, but some specialize in specific industries such as The Brandery or Comcast LIFT Labs.

Accelerators offer exclusive access to investors, web hosting credits, other perks, and special access to program mentors as well as program alumni.

Because of this, the equity required is often somewhere in the range from 3% to 6%.

Y Combinator, one of the most prestigious accelerators in Silicon Valley, invests $150,000 in each startup in addition to its program for a 7% equity stake.

Overall, incubators and accelerators can offer extensive value for founders, but make sure to research carefully when choosing a program. Next up, we’ll talk about choosing the best accelerator for your company and founding team, so stay tuned!

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Business Entrepreneur

Entrepreneurs: You’re unemployable in your own company, must define your role

(ENTREPRENEURS) Once you’ve built a successful business, it’s time to reexamine your role and determine where you fit in best.

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In my experience, most entrepreneurs are “accidental entrepreneurs.” They happened to be good at something, or they had a unique one-time opportunity to provide a product or service to the market. Then years later, they wake up one day and realize that they’re running a big business.

As an entrepreneur, one of the unintended consequences of building a business is that you become essentially unemployable within your own organization. After living the life of freedom, flexibility and responsibility of being a business owner, it’s difficult to go back to a “nine-to-five” job. This is why many entrepreneurs don’t enjoy staying with their businesses after they’ve sold to other organizations. Within months, they are frustrated that they’re no longer in control and the new owners are (in their opinion) making poor choices.

I see many situations where entrepreneurs are bad employees in their own organization. In fact, they may be the worst team members in the organization by having inconsistent schedules or poor communication skills and/or by inserting themselves into areas that aren’t useful. They can also have too much freedom and flexibility. And while most entrepreneurs insist on clearly defined roles, expectations and goals for all of their employees, they don’t always take the time to define their own roles, expectations and goals.

So why do entrepreneurs become bad employees?

I believe that it’s because they don’t have someone holding them accountable. Think about it: Who do they report to? They’re the owners. Part of the definition of “owner” is being accountable for everything but not accountable to anyone. Having a board of directors, a peer group or a business coach can provide some accountability for them, but another solution is to clarify their roles in the company and then abide by those definitions.

If you find yourself “unemployable” in your business, it’s time to define your role. It starts with outlining your main focus. Do you concentrate more on day-to-day execution or strategic, long-term decisions? Do you consider yourself an owner-operator or an investor?

Most entrepreneurs start as an owner-operator and put in countless hours of sweat equity doing whatever needs to be done to build the business. But over time they reinvest earnings in the business and hire a management team so they can step back and take on a more strategic role. Sometimes it’s not clear when the entrepreneur makes that transition, which can lead to challenges for the entire team.

Focus: Strategic Overview

If your main role is in dealing with long-term, strategic decisions, then it’s important for you to communicate that to the team. Clearly delegate tactical roles and responsibilities to the leadership team.

I’ve seen many instances where owners do more harm than good by haphazardly injecting themselves into tactical decisions that should be handled by the leadership team. Instead of jumping in when they see something they disagree with, I encourage owners to actively “coach” their leadership team to be better leaders. The approach of micromanaging every decision of others will frustrate everyone and lead to an underperforming organization.

I have one client that decided his role was to build strategic relationships and work on a new service offering. He was confident that his leadership team could handle the day-to-day operations of the business. Over time he discovered that being in the office every day was actually a distraction for him and his team. So, he moved his office out of the building.

To maintain his ownership responsibilities to the company, he scheduled one afternoon a week to physically be in the office. Team members knew they could schedule time with him during that weekly window when he temporarily set up office space in a conference room. Not having a permanent office in the building also sent a message to the team that he was not responsible for day-to-day decisions. Sometimes not having an office in the building is better than the team seeing the owner’s office empty on a regular basis.

Focus: Day-to-Day Execution

If you decide that your role is in the day-to-day execution of the business, then clearly define your role in the same way you would define any other team member role. Are you in charge of marketing? Sales? Finance? Operations? Technology? R&D? Or, some combination of multiple roles? Take the time to outline your responsibilities and communicate them to the team.

Just as you define your role, also define what you are NOT going to do and who is responsible for those areas. After all, sectioning off some tactical work does not abdicate you from long-term decision-making. You must set aside time to make the long-term, strategic decisions of the company.

Being an entrepreneur sounds glamorous to those that haven’t done it, but ultimately, the owner is accountable for everything that happens in their organization. It can be quite sobering. And while some entrepreneurs have a delusional belief that they can do everything in a company, it’s not a path to long-term success.

All entrepreneurs have to decide what their role should be in their organization – even if it means that they’re contributing to their “unemployable” status.

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