How to Start Things


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.

Defining the role of a teacher


(From Seth Godin’s “Stop Stealing Dreams“)

It used to be simple: the teacher was the cop, the lecturer, the source of answers, and the gatekeeper to resources. All rolled into one.

A teacher might be the person who is capable of delivering information. A teacher can be your best source of finding out how to do something or why something works.

A teacher can also serve to create a social contract or environment where people will change their posture, do their best work, and stretch in new directions. We’ve all been in environments where competition, social status, or the direct connection with another human being has changed us.

The Internet is making the role of content gatekeeper unimportant. Redundant. Even wasteful.

If there’s information that can be written down, widespread digital access now means that just about anyone can look it up. We don’t need a human being standing next to us to lecture us on how to find the square root of a number or sharpen an axe.

(Worth stopping for a second and reconsidering the revolutionary nature of that last sentence.)

What we do need is someone to persuade us that we want to learn those things, and someone to push us or encourage us or create a space where we want to learn to do them better.

If all the teacher is going to do is read her pre-written notes from a PowerPoint slide to a lecture hall of thirty or three hundred, perhaps she should stay home. Not only is this a horrible disrespect to the student, it’s a complete waste of the heart and soul of the talented teacher. Teaching is no longer about delivering facts that are unavailable in any other format.

[Note from Heather: This post from Seth Godin makes me think about what we’re doing at Ladies Learning Code. Somehow, we’ve made almost 1000 women (and men) into passionate learners – for a day, at least – about a topic they otherwise might not explore. Sure, we use slides. But there’s something about the experience that puts Ladies Learning Code workshops in a new category. This isn’t school.

I find it pretty interesting to note that most of our Lead Instructors and Mentors are in a teaching role for the first time ever when they join us at a Ladies Learning Code workshop. And no one on the Ladies Learning Code team has a background in education. The funny thing about that is that it might be why what we’re doing works.]

Toronto “Ladies Learning Code” Call-To-Action


Oh dear. What have I gotten myself into?

I go to LA. I attend this awesome “Intro to Python” workshop with the PyLadies. I come home and I write a blog post about it, with a teeny-tiny little paragraph at the bottom suggesting that we get something like this going in Toronto, Canada.

Well, it’s a testament to the strength and character of the Python community – the word spread.

Toronto wants a “Ladies Learning Code” group, too!

As of today, I’ve received almost a dozen emails from ladies interested in getting involved (@melissacrnic and @NicoleRashotte were early cheerleaders!) and others interested in helping us get started. People have already offered us space, sponsorship, and help with promotion – plus, I’ve also been contacted by a few people who want to volunteer and share their knowledge!

I think we’ve tapped into an unmet need in the Toronto community.

Continue reading

So, Who Won Startup Weekend Toronto?


(Yes, I’m going to tell you who won. But I’m not going to let it ruin this post, for those of you who haven’t heard the news yet.)

I wrote another blog post this morning (well, I aimed for morning…it actually came out in the afternoon) about Startup Weekend Toronto and the progress the teams had made by then. Check it out below!

SPOILER ALERT: Want to know who won? Click here to see who came in third place, here for second, and click here to see who won the grand prize!

Check out the post below – if you have a chance, I highly recommend visiting the websites and landing pages of the other teams that competed. Many of them will continue to work together post-Startup Weekend, so you should sign up now for beta access!

Let me know what you think of the post in the comments section below.

PROGRESS UPDATE @ Startup Weekend Toronto

Written by Heather Payne (@heatherpayne)

Hey everyone! It’s about 1 pm on the third and final day of Startup Weekend Toronto – and the energy here is awesome!

Didn’t make it out to Startup Weekend Toronto? Curious about the progress of our teams after reading this post? Or, maybe you’re at Startup Weekend but are drowning in code and haven’t had the time to take a look around and see what everyone else is up to. Not a problem – we’ve compiled a #SWToronto Progress Update! Check it out below.

In no particular order…

Continue reading

Review of PyLadies “Intro to Python” Workshop


As those of you who follow me on Twitter may know, I was in LA on a work assignment for most of the past month. It was a busy few weeks, but I took time out on Sunday, May 15th to do something really cool. I attended the PyLadies’ first-ever “Intro to Python” workshop. And it was great.

How I Discovered the “Intro to Python” Workshop

I’m not from LA, and I don’t know anyone in the city. Further, I’m not a part of the tech community (though I’m a definite wannabe) – so how did I even hear about an event like this? Thank goodness for blogs. I added Women 2.0 to my reader a little while ago, and it was their “Community Events”sidebar that alerted me to the Intro to Python workshop in LA – conveniently scheduled for a time I was in town!  After discovering the event, it took me about four days to decide to actually register. First, I wasn’t sure how I would get there (it was in Pasadena, and I was staying in Westwood), and then I had to get over my fear that this was something I wouldn’t be good at.  At one point, it was looking like I might have to take public transportation, so I emailed Audrey Roy (one of the lead organizers) to get her advice. She replied to me with such a wonderfully helpful and caring email that the decision was made – I was going to the workshop. I’d find a way!

Continue reading