Stories about Software


Check Out This One Weird Trick for Entrepreneurial Success

Alright, I did it.

I finally created a blog post title so tongue-in-cheek that it came back around the other side of the screen, like in PacMan, and is actually kind of true.  Hear me out.

What I want to do here is offer one simple tactic — seriously, just one, and it is simple — to help you as a moonlighter, freelancer, or prospective business owner.

(Brief editorial aside.  Thanks for your patience with the lack of content here.  My wife and I had our first baby a month ago, and he came several weeks early, so it’s been a bit of an adventure.  But everybody is happy, healthy, tired, and working our way toward whatever normal life looks like from here forward.)

Info Product Marketing is A Desolate Space Wasteland

I don’t know if I’ve said this explicitly on the blog yet or not, but I have a hypothesis that info products aren’t really a viable standalone business.

They seem tantalizingly viable to side hustlers, but sustained success remains eternally out of reach.  You’ve just got to grind until, well… forever.  In that sense, they’re ironically identical to the very job they claim to replace with “money while you sleep.”

Because of this, info products and their beast masters have a marketing lifecycle that resembles a star:

  1.  They wink powerfully into existence with a fusion explosion of creativity and enthusiasm.
  2. During a stable period of hope, they burn their own fuel sustainably for a time.
  3. They burn through their reserves and bloat out into red giants, in an impressive display that actually represents their death throes.
  4. They leave behind a sad, dark husk that drifts unnoticed through the universe.

Due the sheer expanded volume of (3), this is the stage during which you’re most likely to encounter them.  This is the stage for the grinder’s grinder, going on an absolute blitz of guest blog posts, podcast appearances, and short-lived presences on community sites like DZone, dev.to, etc.

What you’ll encounter in this situation is someone on a veritable bender of “don’t miss out on this opportunity to learn the 12 secrets to earning a promotion from C++ Software Engineer III to C++ Software Engineer IV!”

If you give it a little thought, you’ll realize something.

They’re not actually solving any kind of problem that you have, or that anyone has, for that matter.  Instead, they’re just balling up whatever they’ve happened to do in the last few years, and desperately hawking it for $899 the steep, can-you-believe-it discount price of $199, ZOMG!!!!!

I Found the Worst Podcast Episode

This dynamic is nothing new to me.  It has bemused me for quite some time.

But the inspiration for this post came over the weekend, when I blundered into the absolute worst episode of a podcast I’ve ever heard.  In fact, I feel fairly confident in saying that it’s the worst podcast episode ever created.

I’m not going to link to it, or tip my hand as to what it was.  I’m not looking for drama.  But I’ll give you the gist, anonymized slightly.

The guest was basically using the entire episode as a sales pitch.  And the funnel toward which he was trying to drive people was an info product around how to succeed in business.  And his 8-steps-to-success “value bomb” includes, and I’m not kidding, steps like:

  • Work hard.
  • Have persistence.
  • Be optimistic.

I could go on, but the internet is already a dumb enough place without any more of these steps.

As I was jogging at the gym, listening to this in the sort of spaced-out mindset of exercising, something occurred to me.

This ostensible value delivery was so utterly and completely opposite to what I’ve done myself as a freelancer, indie consultant, and entrepreneur.  I’ll get to what I’ve done here in a moment, but let me first talk about this opposite, and what it involves.

Unlike the “how to go from SE III to SEIV” entrepreneur, this guy couldn’t even be bothered to ball up anything he’d done.  It was just a miscellaneous mishmash of stuff he’d read somewhere, synthesized and probably plagiarized.  It was the epitome of navel-gazing, treating buyers as marks, and generally viewing the hustle as unlocking a cheat code to easy money.

Volunteer Work and the Long Game

I have not taken this approach.  Perhaps, at times, to my own detriment in the short term.

Let me give a very specific example to elaborate.  If you head over to my LinkedIn profile and scroll down, you’ll see this:

For 4 years, even during periods of 100% travel, I’d head down to Merchandise Mart in Chicago once per month.  I’d go into the startup incubator 1871, and I’d sit there for 2 hours with a Diet Mountain Dew and talk to startup founders.

Basically, I donated my time, in half hour increments, to being their rental CTO.  They’d ask me about all kinds of stuff — usually about hiring engineers or remediating bad offshore contracts, but really lots of different things.  And I’d do my best to answer, no matter how curvy the curveballs they threw.

But when I think about it, my volunteering in this capacity goes way beyond startup office hours.  I have an entire post category and YouTube playlist dedicated to answering reader questions.  I also, believe it or not, try to answer everyone that writes to me about Developer Hegemony or this blog and my Youtube channel in general.

I’ve spent literally thousands of hours answering people’s questions, for no compensation.

Oh, and that, I would argue, is the key to my success, such as it is.

The One Weird Trick: Free Consulting, One Hour Per Week

In that moment on the treadmill, this is what became clear to me.  I was listening to a guy who, in thinking about other people in a commercial context, thinks “how can I get them to give me money with the least amount of effort.”  And my ongoing thinking was always, “how would I solve these people’s problems?”

It’s a stark difference.

But I’m not saying that I’m a saint.

I actually find this consulting to be interesting to me, like doing crossword puzzles.  And I also view it as both market research and banking pennies in heaven.  When you help people, they remember you fondly and are disproportionately likely to later do favors for you, given the chance.

Understanding the Value of My Activity

Before I elaborate on the weird trick, let’s look at how all of those office hours and reader question answers have paid off for me.

Have they led to direct business?

I’m honestly not sure on that front.  I feel like, probably, but I don’t recall.

But whether or not they directly lined my pockets, do you know what they did?  They provided me with thousands of hours of practice being a consultant.  And I don’t mean calling yourself a consultant when you write code for someone else.  I mean actual, no labor, honest-to-goodness consulting.

Doing all of this was almost like getting an MBA in consulting (if that’s even a thing).

Oh, and just as a slight side bonus, do you know what else it did, for those of you looking for niche ideas?  Spending thousands of hours listening to people gave me thousands of hours of market research, where I came to understand people’s business problems.

Block Off An Hour Per Week for Free Consulting

So here’s the “weird trick.”

Carve out an hour on your calendar each week, and leave it open to anyone who wants to book your time, for any reason.  Any.  One.

And when they call in, do your best to help them with whatever they want help with.  No profit motive, no agenda, no nothing.  Just you burning an hour helping however you can.

That’s it.  That’s my one weird trick for success in moonlighting, consulting, freelancing, and entrepreneurship.

It’ll Help You With Sales, Too

One thing that will surprise you when you start doing this is how hard it is to get anyone to actually take you up on this.  Why?

Well, because of people like Goofball with his 8 point plan to bullshit.  Because people have come to associate “free” with horrific catches and MLM-esque info products.  So you’re getting ready to offer a free hour of your valuable time, and people will ignore you.

You’re going to have to work to get them to believe that you have no agenda.  And, do you know what?  That’ll actually make you fairly good at sales and marketing.

And That’ll Make You Good at Business

With enough practice at this one simple thing, you’ll get good at the following:

  1. Convincing people that you’re worth talking to and not trying to scam them.
  2. Positioning your expertise as valuable.
  3. Giving advice and gearing up to sell your brain instead of your hands.
  4. Understanding niches and what the market wants.

My hypothesis is that when you’re good at those 4 things, it’s basically impossible to fail in business.

And, do you know what else?  You will, almost by definition, never be like or come off as that huckster with the 8 point plan.

Do you think that guy has ever had a call in his life where someone was like, “hey, bro, do you think I should, like, work hard?  Wow, that’s a game-changer, thanks for your time!”

Will This Work? Your Absolute No-Money-Back Guarantee

“But Erik,” I hear you asking, “is this too good to be true?  Will following your one step plan lead to success!?”

My God, I have absolutely no idea.  I mean, maybe.  Try it and see.

So many info product vendors, coaches, consultants, advisors and other people occupying the large amount of gray area in between hucksters and helpers promise all kinds of results from their programs or business templates or whatever.

And that’s really the problem.

It inappropriately gamifies business success, but worse, it flips the focus onto you, rather than the people you’re helping.  If you just do this kind of outreach or learn that kind of skill, or, work hard or whatever, you will succeed.  But you don’t matter to your business success — all that matters is who you help.

So I offer this suggestion with absolutely no friggin’ guarantee of anything at all.  You might never get anyone interested, and it might never go anywhere.

But my hypothesis is that if you just start helping people, and you make helping them a habit over months or years, you will realize meteoric success over the long haul.

Give it a shot, if you think it makes sense.  Tell me how it goes down the line.  And, if it goes well, you can always feel free to thank me years from now with $899 can-you-believe-it, limited-time-only, $199, ZOMG!!!!!!

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Ewald Horn
3 years ago

Brilliant! I’ve learned so much through volunteering, especially as a mentor to up and coming developers. It’s not easy to put a monetary value to it, but I believe the experience and practice has been priceless. It takes a long time, but eventually, people start seeing you as approachable and willing to help, things that never hurt.

Also, congratulations on the family expansion. Enjoy the adventure!

Gareth Cottrell
Gareth Cottrell
3 years ago

Thanks for the post (as always).
More importantly – congratulations to you and your wife on your new addition – glad all are happy and healthy – priceless. Much love.

3 years ago

Congratulations!!! Now you can rebrand to Dadtech.

Erik Dietrich
Erik Dietrich
3 years ago
Reply to  Ivan

That actually made me chuckle out loud 🙂 I must be settling into this dad thing.

Joshua Beck
Joshua Beck
3 years ago

This is like a minimum viable product, a relatively cheap thing that lets you learn about your customers. If no one wants your advice when it’s free, why would they be willing to pay for it?

Joshua Beck
Joshua Beck
3 years ago

The part about info products reminds me of someone on Twitter who complained that people weren’t willing to buy their $97 React course, but were willing to pay thousands of dollars for a BA in English. This person brags about being well paid too. Somehow I don’t think the promise of “money in your sleep” came through.