Heather Payne

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.

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