How an Indie Hacker achieves a sustainable workload

April 05, 2021 · 10 minutes reading time

Transcript of episode 12

Feeling overloaded

This is Episode Number 12, and it comes an entire month after Episode 11. This is because I ran into a problem. I overloaded myself in my job as an indie hacker in terms of cognitive overload and in terms of how much work to do. I put myself into a situation that was not sustainable.

The symptoms were, for example, when I was building, when I was coding, designing the product, I was feeling a kind of guilt: “You should stop coding and do more marketing, otherwise people won’t hear of you and they won’t recognize the product!”, etc., etc.

When I finally went into marketing, for example, when I created podcasts, I felt the same guilt: “You should be building more! Your existing users are waiting for new features. So, if you do too much marketing, your existing users will miss the next features!”

Trying to get into a rhythm

Then I tried to establish a kind of rhythm; let’s say, one week for building and one week for marketing. And this also totally failed because when the appropriate week came and let’s say it was the marketing week, I felt more like building or let’s say it was the building week, I felt more like marketing. So, I really thought, “Matthias, you’re doing something wrong.”

The Whole Product mindset

And just in time, there came a newsletter by the people from Balsamiq. The Balsamiq people make a tool for user experience work, that you can draw wire frames, etc., with it for user interfaces. And they wrote about a concept called Whole Product.

Whole product is a concept that is not new. It goes originally back to the work of Ted Levitt, a professor at Harvard Business School. He wrote a book called “The Marketing Imagination”, and he coined the “whole product” concept. He said that the core product (the product that people) use is not your entire product.

Your entire product also consists of your reputation, of your marketing, of your messages that go out. What else? It consists of your track record; of the relationships that you have; of your own personality, of the personality of the founder, for example; of the service you give and so on and so on. So, many components that make up the whole product that your customer is buying. So, you shouldn’t think of your core product as the only thing that you sell.

This was really an eye-opener. When I read about this “whole product” concept in the Balsamiq newsletter, the people wrote;

Your software that comes out of your build machine is not the only thing. So, marketing projects that you do are product features. Your next blog post, just another feature, add it to the backlog. Your company website, just a feature…

So, the Balsamiq people wrote;

If you think of marketing activities this way, they won’t feel icky to work on, and you’ll create marketing material which is more successful. Because just like regular product features, it will be customer and UX-driven.

Changing how I think

This really struck a chord within me. I thought, “Yeah, I’m writing blog posts, or I’m recording podcasts, I’m designing my website, I am writing documentation on my product. And I also do growth marketing”.

Recently, I partnered with Michele Hsu, who has been a growth marketer with an experience for many, many years, and she helps me with growth marketing. For example, looking at my homepage, how many people go there, how many people finally make it to the sign up for a free trial, and how many of those free trial users finally convert into paying customers. This doing growth marketing is also part of doing the product features.

Michele said to me: “To me, growth marketing feels more like building than like marketing itself.” So, marketing in the sense of tooting your own horn and displaying yourself in the market. Growth marketing is more like building than like marketing.

So, I thought, “Maybe I made too much difference here. Maybe the dichotomy between building and marketing is an artificial thing (an artificial difference) that I make and that need not be made.”

Taking a break to see what my brain needs

So, what does that mean? First of all, I didn’t know what to think of all this. I stopped podcasting because it was really overloading me with recording – no recording is fun – but with transcription, with editing the podcast and so on, publishing it on my website.

I stopped podcasting for an entire month now, and I thought, “What should I do?” And in terms of this “whole product” thinking, I thought, “How do you approach one single work item that you have to do?” For example, one piece of code that you want to make work, or one page on your website, or one podcast that you create?

And I watch my brain, when I work on one single work item, and my brain almost always does this: it has an idea phase where new ideas come in, I mull them over, I try to find out whether they’re good or bad – this whole ideation phase thing.

Then there’s a kind of preparation step or multiple steps for preparation. I try to get the knowledge that I need, the tools that I need, everything I need to really get the job done.

Then the third step is I go deep into what I have to do. I get me a glass of water or a cup of tea. I take all the preparation material that I have and really get the job done. Let’s say I jump into coding or I jump into web design or into recording the podcast and so on.

Finally, there is a wrap up step. For each work item that I work on, I do a kind of wrap up. For example, when I have coded something, I refactor until the code looks really, really good. Or I write some documentation into my {indistinct 7:35} that tells me the next time, when I have to do something similar, how I did it this time, so that I save some time for next time.

So, wrap up activities like publishing, like writing documentation, like closing things, checking them in to the source control system, pushing them to the server, etc., etc., like all these wrap up activities.

And finally I thought, “Why should I do marketing as a separate activity, e.g. switching from one week building to one week marketing? It doesn’t really make sense!” Why don’t I put it as the final step after each work item? How about that? And I call that step The Share Step.

At the end of the work item, let’s say of a product feature that I created, or a webpage that I made, or a podcast that I recorded, why don’t I simply share it on social media, for example, with my Twitter audience? So, this would integrate the marketing work simply as a sharing step into the usual workflow. And this feels really, really good.

Establishing a sustainable workflow

To summarize, when I look at the activities that I do, the steps that I do for each item, this now becomes a kind of workflow. I call it The Rabbit Hole Workflow, because it goes deeply into the rabbit hole doing something.

It now has five steps; ideate, prepare, go deep, wrap up and share. Ideate what you want to do, prepare what you want to do, then go deep doing it, wrap it up and share it with the world. Simple five-step workflow. And I can apply this to anything. I can apply this to all the work that I do. Be it more building or marketing focused, it doesn’t matter so much anymore.

This helps me to become a whole person again. I know that I am different roles to different people. For example, to my wife, I’m surely a different person than to my customers. But I also know that I am only one human being, and I’m only one person related to myself. When I talk to myself in my own head, I’m only one person.

Bringing it on a unified Kanban board

So, I thought, “Until now, I managed all my work on several Kanban boards.” For example, I managed the marketing work on a different Kanban board than the coding work. And the public roadmap that you can see on the net for get to your audience is also on a separate Kanban board. The work that I do in my day job, as a consultant for software engineering methods, is also on different Kanban board.

This kind of contradicts the whole person that I’m trying to be. For example, when I finally have some time and I think, “Now, you’ve got to do the next work item”, the first question is, “From which board do I draw this work item?” So, it doesn’t really make sense to have different Kanban boards for the same person.

I thought, “Let’s bring all the work items to one Kanban board with horizontal swim lanes, separating the different projects that I’m running.” For example, in my day job, my indie hacking, my growth marketing, etc. I created one swim lane for each of these projects. Now, I can easily see my entire work that I need to do or that I am currently doing.

I also can now try to use this big Kanban board to avoid the cognitive overload and the overload in terms of the number of work items that I still have to do. So, I thought, “Why not set a set of simple goals for myself?”

Setting new goals that make sense

I first tried a throughput goal. Throughput (in Kanban) is the number of work items per time unit (let’s say per week or per month) that you want to get done or that you really get done. And I thought, “I really want to have one new feature per month for my existing users and for interested new users. And I want to have kind of two podcast’s per month, not four anymore, not a weekly podcast anymore, because this will overload me, but only two podcasts per month episodes.” So, one feature and two episodes.

Then I transformed this throughput goal into a work-in-progress goal, because that’s much easier to manage. When I see the number of work items on my board, I simply make sure that in the “prepare” step of my rabbit hole work flow, I always have one feature and two podcast episodes, so that I can really see: “Oh, yeah, these are the next two things I’m trying to achieve, for example, this month.”

Finally: Good workflow, good goals

I plotted one column on the Kanban board for each of the five steps of the rabbit hole workflow: ideate, prepare, go deep, wrap up and share. And I plotted one horizontal swim lane for each project that I’m doing: my day job, the building, the marketing, the growth marketing, whatever I’m doing to get all these projects forward.

And I’ll be very happy if I get one feature done and two podcasts done each month. And I see all the work on one board, so that I can now really avoid overloading myself cognitively and in terms of my time.

How do you balance your indie hacking?

Let me know how you organize yourself as an indie hacker. An indie hacker is only one person, and it’s really a challenge to switch between all these tasks.

And contact me on Twitter. It’s @gettheaudience where I can be reached. And I’m very curious to hear how you do it.


Outro

Thanks for listening to The Audience Explorer podcast, today.

You can find me on Twitter at @GetTheAudience and you can check out the blog at gettheaudience.com

If you have any questions about this episode, reach out on Twitter or send an email to matthias@gettheaudience.com

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