CTO Connection

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Summary

Our guest this week is Courtland Allen; MIT graduate, Y Combinator alum, full-stack web developer, and professional designer.

Show Notes

Our guest this week is Courtland Allen; MIT graduate, Y Combinator alum, full-stack web developer, and professional designer. He’s spent over 8 years building, designing, and marketing web-based products and companies, and is currently running IndieHackers.com.

This episode is for you if you’re into bootstrapped businesses, side projects, and community.

Favorite Quotes
  • I’ve been doing startups ever since graduating from school.
  • The idea behind Indie Hackers is that it’s completely transparent.  Everyone shares their revenue.  They share their strategies for growing and marketing their business.  We built community through transparency.
  • You can go on Techcrunch and you can hear about the Snapchats or Ubers of the world.  But you can’t learn about Joe the Hacker who is running a $2k/ month business.
  • The cultures could not be more different (bootstrapped vs VC backed).  
  • Instead of worrying about raising money from VCs and building a billion dollar company, you could instead focus on your product and solving for a need that your customers will pay money for.
  • A lot of startup founders don’t achieve their goals because the bar is set so astronomically high.  In a VC funded startup, sometimes if you don’t reach that goal, your expected value goes to zero.
  • Indie Hackers community has a lot of people who are making $1k or $2k/mo per side project while working a full-time job.  That’s basically like giving themselves a raise.
  • I wish more people knew you didn’t have to do this crazy all or nothing thing.
  • The tech press is incentivized by what gets the most eyeballs, which is inevitably going to be the craziest most flashy stories with the biggest numbers possible.  The unicorns are what they call them now.  This venture capital narrative is fed to everybody.
  • There are binary outcomes with VC funded companies.  They tend to either fail spectacularly or succeed spectacularly.  They give you advice and resources that push you to those binary outcomes.  I wish people were aware you could build businesses in more of a traditional way, getting revenue from day 1.
  • Having all of our interviews be transparent was an important value from the start.  I wasn’t going to publish any interviews where the founder wasn’t going to be transparent about how they build the business.   I was building Indie Hackers for myself, thinking of the time in which I was trying to build a side business myself.
  • I get inspired by putting myself in the interviewees shoes and seeing the kind of decisions they made to get to where they are.
  • If you want to start a company, start a company in an area you’re interested in or want to learn about.   I need to read books, I need to learn about business, marketing, growth if I want to be able to curate good interviews.
  • ‘I’m a developer, I’m pretty confident in my programming skills.  I’m not a great writer, or marketer, or salesperson.’  But what people don’t realize is that you just need to know the basics.  Learning how to code is a lot harder than learning how to do a lot of these skills at a passable level.
  • One of the things I’ve learned about Marketing is the importance of targeting a niche: A specific group of people who share qualities and characteristics who ideally will use your product.
  • If you target a small specific group of people that you have almost no competition.  You can build features that only they care about.
  • A niche isn’t a group of features your product has.  You need to describe an actual existent group of people.  
  • Having a monopoly is important.  Whatever target market you’re targeting, you want your audience to look at you as the best possible solution to their problems.  Is the market I’m in super humongous?  No, there’s not billions of people in it.  It makes sense to position itself as the one place you can get one specific thing first, then expanding into other markets.
  • I think virtual reality is super cool.  Maybe this time around we won’t hit on VR that works for the masses — portable and affordable, doesn't get us sick.  In the long run, it’s some percentage as good as the matrix.  Its the final frontier for bits taking over the world from Atoms.
  • AI is pretty cool.  What I think is cool about it is not that it’s going to replace what people do, but in many cases, it’ll augment what people do.  It’ll work alongside them in a way that allows new business models to exist.
  • There are a lot of developers on Indie Hackers.  One of the things you get as an engineer is a ton of focus on what it means to be a good engineer.  It’s very difficult when you transition to being an entrepreneur it’s very difficult to draw a line in the sand and say “OK some of this old advice I got only applied to Engineers as a profession”.  When you are a founder and have a business you have to worry about customers, learning from your customers, increasing sales, setting prices, building a sticky product.  You can’t focus as much as you could before on engineering best practices.  I’ve seen a lot of people build products that followed the best engineering principles; extremely well tested and reliable, but make $0.
  • You can’t be a perfectionist engineer if you’re going to be an entrepreneur (unless you’re building a library for other engineers).  You need to focus on the entire business and bring yourself to not obsess over trivial technical details of your product.
  • Be flexible, don’t be tied to using the latest greatest technology.
  • It’s OK to massively screw up.  Almost every startup I’ve worked for has massively screwed up. 
  • Reading is tremendous.  It helps you encounter problems others have had without having to go through that pain first.  But nothing quite sticks like actually having experienced something.
  • If you’re hesitating to do anything, whether it’s launching your own website or starting your own business, there’s no better way to learn than do it and fail.  Be forgiving with yourself and realize that failure is likely but you’ll learn a lot.
  • You need to be patient as much as you are ambitious.

What is CTO Connection?

StartupCTO.io was the original Startup Engineering Leadership Podcast. Now it’s part of CTO Connection - the organizers of the @ctosummit conference series!

Learn from the experiences of successful engineering leaders at fast growth tech startups. Whether you want to learn more about hiring, motivating or managing an engineering team, if you're technical and manage engineers, the CTO Connection podcast is a great resource for learning from your peers!