How to Start Things

Sep30

This post was inspired by a talk I gave at 99u Local in Toronto on Sept.15.

These days, everyone has an idea for an app, or a start-up they think should exist. Lots of people want to write books, learn to play guitar or grow their Instagram following. Everyone has ideas all the time for things they want to build or do or somehow make happen.

The thing is, we have enough ideas. We have more than enough dreamers. What we need are people who can execute.

To be honest, original ideas aren’t my strength. I’ve built my career in taking other people’s ideas and executing them flawlessly. And, like anything, the more often you do it, the easier it gets.

Here are some hacks which have helped me stop dreaming and start doing:

1) Hustle, first

I meet with a lot of people who have an idea for an app or a start-up, but are having trouble starting because they’re not technical. They wonder if I can connect them with a developer, or a designer, or even a CTO.

They often hate my advice:

If you’re not technical, don’t start with tech. Start by hustling.

Let me give you an example. A few weeks ago, I was approached by a woman who had an app idea. She wanted to create a sort of social network targeting a niche demographic.

Now, I don’t know if it’s a good idea or not, because I’m not part of the particular demographic she was planning on going after. But what I do know is that it would be unwise (and expensive) to build an app as a first step.

I recommended a hustle-first, low-tech approach. I suggested that she build a landing page about her social network and then as people sign up, invite them to a private Slack group where they could interact by having discussions, sharing photos and videos, etc. This wasn’t all of the functionality that the had envisioned for her social network, but it was some of it. More importantly, it would give her the chance to:

  1. See if she could get people to her landing page, and that it converted to sign ups, and
  2. Determine if people would even download the Slack app for their phone or desktop and give it a try.

If she found that lots of people joined her Slack community, she might be onto something. If they weren’t joining, she could contact them to find out why.

It’s an easy way to test what appetite there might be for her idea.

Securing angel investment to build out an idea or an app also becomes a stronger possibility when you can prove that there’s interest, and show that you’re able to drive users to your product, even if it’s not yet the full version you imagined.

AirBnb is a famous example of a hustle-first, low-tech approach.

Before building a sophisticated website, they created a landing page with a few photos of a room for rent. They co-ordinated over email and probably received payment via Paypal, or even in cash. It wasn’t until months later that they hired a developer to build out a fully functional version of an app.

The best thing about a hustle-first, low-tech approach is that by the time you’re ready to build your first product, you’ll have customers you can learn from and possibly even some cash (from customers or investors) to spend. But best of all, you don’t have to wait for anything or anyone before you can get started.

2) Manufacture deadlines

I procrastinate. To be honest, it’s sort of amazing I get anything done at all. It’s even worse with startup ideas, or side projects or learning new skills, because there’s no boss to give you a deadline. But I’ve figured out a hack that ensures I get things done. I manufacture deadlines for myself all along the way.

Let me give you an example. When I decided to start Ladies Learning Code, I knew it was going to be difficult, but I wanted to make sure I did everything I could to get it off the ground successfully. At a brainstorming session about the idea of Ladies Learning Code on July 6th, 2011, I told the 80 people in the room that our first workshop would be hosted exactly one month from that date, on August 6th. I didn’t have a venue, an instructor, any content, or even a projector screen. But I knew that if I made a public commitment and gave myself a hard deadline, I’d get it done. And I did.

I often share this tip with HackerYou graduates. We host a weekly event at HackerYou called Show and Tell. Every Friday, we stop working at 5 pm, grab a beer or glass of wine, and then enjoy presentations from three bootcamp students on some sort of material that goes beyond the scope of the bootcamp. We usually have one of our Alumni present as well. It’s fun for students to see something they might be able to do six months or a year down the road.

Often, we have Alumni commit to doing a presentation months down the road. They’ll coordinate with us to let us know what they’ll present, and then they have a couple months to actually get it done. It’s an awesome way to ensure the side project they’ve been thinking becomes reality.

Consider manufacturing deadlines in your own life:

  • If you want to run a marathon next year, sign up for a 5K run.
  • If you want to become a better public speaker, connect with a Meet-up group and offer to do a presentation within a month.

The confidence you’ll build through doing will help you continue to execute flawlessly.

3) The 10,000 Hours Rule

Starting projects sucks: it’s a lot of effort up front and it often takes a long time before anyone notices. There are no overnight successes.

It’s been said that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert. But even if you don’t have the goal of becoming a world-class writer/business person/singer/etc., it will still take time to become proficient. Maybe it’s 100 hours, or 500. Maybe it’s 1000 hours. The key is to not give up before you hit that point.

Taking courses or buying lessons can help you get through the dip. That’s why they get people results.

For example, I started learning guitar at the beginning of July. I’ve practiced most days of the week for about three months now…and finally, just a couple weeks ago, practicing guitar became fun. Signing up for guitar lessons helped me to keep at it, even on the days I really didn’t want to. And that’s how I got here, three months later.

As you’re starting, think about what you’re going to do once the initial excitement wears off and all you have left is the work. A course, series of lessons or a tutor can be a good way to help you get through those tough days. Meeting up with a partner who has the same goal as you can be another great way to get through the dip.

If you’d like to check out a book that changed my entire outlook on talent and hard work, grab a copy of The Talent Code. We actually send this book to all HackerYou students before they start our bootcamp, because I find it is exactly what they need to get them in the mindset for learning.

There’s no such thing as a perfect idea, so it’s time to stop waiting for one to come along. Pick the one you’re most excited about today, and just start. Put in six months or a year of consistent effort, and then see where you are. No idea is good until it’s in play. I suspect you’ll be surprised by what can happen when you start doing.

How to turn your WordPress site into a Windows 8 app – for free!

Apr01

As part of Ladies Learning Code‘s partnership with Microsoft this year, we’re working on helping beginners to launch apps in the Windows 8 app store. Part 1 of our effort involved workshops in Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa on Windows 8 app design and/or development. The team at Nascent (one of our silver-level sponsors) did an incredible job of developing the content for those workshops (as well as an awesome to-do list app) and leading both a design and development workshop in Toronto. Thanks as well to Kharis O’Connell (@rmtwrkr) for leading our App Design workshop in Vancouver, and to Barbara Spanton (@_b_a_r_b_) for leading it in Ottawa.

Part 2 of our plan involves a cool tool developed by IdeaNotion that makes it easy for anyone – even beginners – to turn their WordPress site into a Windows 8 app. It’s called IdeaPress, and you can access it on any laptop, running any operating system that has an up-t0-date browser. We’re taking things one step further by offering to publish apps using Ladies Learning Code’s Windows store developer account (which costs $99 annually) using a Windows 8 device that we’ve borrowed from Microsoft. We’re aiming to help 50 beginners publish apps in the Windows 8 app store by April 5th. If you’d like one of them to be yours (and we hope you do!), please follow the simple steps below.

1. Make sure your website is compatible with IdeaPress

IdeaPress works with WordPress – both self-hosted WordPress.org as well as WordPress.com sites will work! If you have a self-hosted WordPress site (aka. WordPress.org), there’s just one tiny extra step that you need to do…

2. If you have a self-hosted WordPress site (aka. WordPress.org), you need to install the JSON API plugin.

Log in to the admin dashboard of your website and click on “Plugins” on the left menu bar. Click “Add new” at the top of the page. In the search bar, type “JSON API” and click “Search Plugins”. The JSON API plugin we’re looking for should be the first result (it’s the one by Dan Phiffer). Under the title, click “Install Now”. Activate it. If you don’t see an option to activate it, go to “Plugins” and then “Installed Plugins” and activate the JSON API plugin from there. Finally, go to “Settings” on the left menu bar. Click on “JSON API” and activate “Core”, “Response” and “Post” by clicking “Activate” under each word.

(If you have a WordPress.com site, you don’t have to do this step! Also, if you’d like to have me do the rest of these steps for you, I’m happy to! Just send me an email and let me know the URL of your WordPress site, and I’ll go right ahead and create an app for you!)

3. Go to IdeaPress.meClick “Get Started” on the homepage, and enter the address of your WordPress site as well as your email address. If you have a self-hosted WordPress site (WordPress.org) and you have the JSON API plugin installed, it will move you on to the next step.If you are converting a WordPress.com site, it will ask for one more piece of information – your Client ID and your Application Secret. To get those, follow these instructions (instructions coming soon!)

4. General Info

Give your app a name and a description. It’s worth spending some extra time on your description, because an unclear description that doesn’t clearly explain the value of the app will be rejected by the Windows 8 App store. Here are a few examples of descriptions that were accepted by the app store:

For Wesbos.com:

“Welcome, friends. You have reached the personal blog & portfolio of Wes Bos. I’m a designer, developer and entrepreneur from Toronto, Canada. Please take a look at my work gallery, read my blog or get in touch!”

For Hackeryou.com:

“HackerYou, based in Toronto, Canada, offers the city’s best part-time courses for people who want to learn to code. The recipe? Hands-on, project-based learning from industry-leading professionals. Small classes and a 10:1 ratio (or better!) of students to instructors. And a learning environment that’s social and collaborative. Make this year the year you finally learn to code – HackerYou can help get you there.

App features:

  • Check out upcoming courses
  • View upcoming workshops
  • Inquire about corporate training
  • Learn about the team behind HackerYou
  • Meet HackerYou’s advisors”

Make a note of your app description in a Word document or draft email – you’ll need it again later!

5. Content Configuration

Now is your chance to customize how your app looks. First, start by choosing which pages should be included in the app. For best results, choose pages with lots of content, as well as a unique image. I recommend avoiding including your “Home” page, if you have one, unless your homepage has content that is significantly different from what’s on your about page.You’ll also select which categories to include, and whether or not you’d like to include recent posts. I usually include all categories and recent posts.

6. Theme Configuration

Now is your chance to change the layout and colours of your app, and add images. This is where you can make your app look really polished. You’ll need a few different images – click here to download a file that includes blank files for each of the images you’ll need. You can use a program like Pixlr to add your logo, etc. to them.

  • Background image: 1366px by 768px (I usually just upload an image that’s completely white.)
  • Title image: 300px by 80px (This should be your logo – it goes on the top left-hand corner of your app)
  • Default article image: 252px by 168px (this image will appear anytime one of your posts or pages doesn’t have a photo)
  • Logo: 150px by 150px (kind of like an app icon)
  • Wide logo: 310px by 150px
  • Splash screen: 620px by 300 px
  • Screenshot: Later, you’ll also need a screenshot of your app which should be 1366px by 768px. You can create one by simply pasting your Splash Screen image onto an image that is 1366px by 768px. This mimics what the splash screen of your app looks like when someone first opens it.

7. Accept the terms of use and generate app package

Be sure to select “Generate App Package” from the options on the left side of the screen. In order to have Ladies Learning Code publish your app, you’ll need to enter the following information:

Privacy policy: If you have one of your own, you can modify it to be suitable for your app. Otherwise, just use the general one that we created for all apps published by Ladies Learning Code. Here’s the link: http://ladieslearningcode.com/privacy-policy

Identity Name: This has to be in the format of “MyCompany.OurAwesomeApp”. So, if Ladies Learning Code is going to publish your app, and you named it “Coolest App” (back in Step 4), your Identity Name would be “LadiesLearningCode.Coolest App”.

Publisher Name: If we’re going to submit your app for you, the Publisher Name should say “Ladies Learning Code”.

Publisher ID: Enter the following: CN=0332249A-B178-470E-8455-17DC36E0D37E

Terms of use and privacy policy: Tick the box if you accept!

Click “submit” to generate your app. It will be emailed to you.

8. Get Your App Published

Shortly, you’ll receive an email from IdeaPress that includes a download link. Forward that email to me at heather [at] ladieslearningcode.com and include the following:

a) Your app description (just paste it into the body of the email). If you forgot to make a note of your app description in Step 4, you can log in to IdeaPress, open your app from the dashboard and use the arrows to navigate to the app name and description page.

b) Your 1366 by 768 px screenshot (attach it to the email).

Once I receive your email, I’ll submit your app to the store and let you know when it’s live! Thanks for helping us reach our goal of 50 apps in the Windows 8 app store!

If you have any questions about the steps involved in turning your WordPress site into a Windows 8 app, feel free to get in touch with me at heather [at] ladieslearningcode.com. And if you have a WordPress-based website, please help us to reach out goal of helping 50 beginners publish apps in the Windows 8 app store by April 5th!