Why devs can’t sell?
So, you're a developer and you want to build something that other people would love and - importantly - pay for.
You want to break free from your 9-5 software job, be your own boss, and maybe even get a little rich. Unfortunately the better you are as a developer, the harder it's going to be for you to become a successful entrepreneur.
Let's talk about why that is, and what you can do about it.
Think about how you approach building a product. You start with an idea, right? I see many people online on Reddit, on IndieHackers, on Twiter looking for an idea for a startup or asking if their idea is a good one. That's where it always seems to start, with an idea in your head.
And then what do you do? You sit down to figure out a solution. Maybe you do it in code, maybe you already know better and you make a sketch of the UI in Figma or on a piece of paper. You're asking yourself: How would that look? What kind of features would it have? What tech you're going to use? How long is the build going to take? You're up in your head, slightly to the left, figuring this thing out - like you would figure out a solution to a technical problem or a bug.
Now if you've been around the block a few times you know you need to do some market research before diving into a solution. So maybe you spend some time on Google to see if someone else built something similar. You're looking to see if your idea is novel, if you can bring something new into the world.
You may have heard it many times before that having competition can be proof that your idea has value, but it's really hard to ignore that deep desire to create something new the world hasn't seen before.
But lets say your cursory market research shows that what you have on your mind is truly original. The next thing you typically do is write some code. You tell yourself you're only going to do a little MVP, just to see how it looks. Just the core idea, just a draft. You think it's only going to take an hour or two but one thing leads to another and you're already days into building your beautiful sandcastle by the time you realize it's actually a little more complicated than you originally thought.
But you can't stop now. You have to get that MVP to some sort of completion before you can show it to people. And it might take a few weeks of even months before you have something you're comfortable with.
Notice how building something comes before talking to people about it. Notice how your mind jumps almost instantly from seeing a problem - to looking for a solution - to actually building one. That's the engineering mindset, a solution-oriented mindset. That highly valued approach in our careers is what causes us to build one failed product after another hoping that one day we'll actually build something people will want to use and pay for.
But hope is not a very good strategy. It's random, it's unpreditable, and the failure rate is too high. We need a better approach. And that better approach starts with spending a lot more time in the problem space before we start thinking about solutions. Because solving the right problem is way more important than building a cool solution.
Incidentally, figuring out the right problems to solve is how entrepreneurs approach thinks.
Entrepreneurs believe that selling comes before building. In fact they believe that selling is core to their business, whereas development can easily be outsourced. They believe that the quality of the product is secondary and how well it meets the needs of the customer is where rubber meets the road. They believe cool technical solutions can sometimes be useful, but are willing to do things manually if it means getting their business off the ground.
When an entrepreneur has an idea, their first move is to talk to people about it, not to build something, and they'll avoid building anything until they see a real need in the market, ideally in the form of presales. They are happy solving a common problem that already has solutions as long as they can find an underserved niche they can target. They aren't looking to be original, but to be effective. They aren't looking for something that everyone in the world will want to use in theory. They are looking for something that a specific group of people will pay for in practice.
All of this is completely natural to someone who wants to start an online business but can't code. Since they don't have the ability to build things quickly, they naturally gravitate spend lots of time exploring problems, to make sure they have the right problem when they do turn to building a solution.
In order to be a successful developer-entrepreneur, you'll need to adopt a similar mindset. You need to abandon the hope of finding the next billion dollar idea inside your head, and instead look for it out there, in the heads of other people. You need to prioritize talking to potential users and customers above building things. You need to find a way to sell something without building it first, ideally without even having a prototype. You need to learn to wave your hands convincingly.
And you can do that. You can actually do it better than non-technical entrepreneurs.
All you need is to do is trust yourself to be able to build anything you come up with.
If you've been doing this for a while, you probably know this already. Whether your happy place is in mobile apps or web frontends or sophisticated backends, you know you can learn any tech stack, any framework and any programming language given a little time and effort. You can solve any algorithmic problem, any performace issue, any scalability requirement. Hell, you might even be able to center a div without looking it up first!
You can trust yourself to build anything, given time.
And now go out and find something worth building, something that will help other people and will set you free. Talk to people, ask them questions, tell them about the magic of having their menial tasks automated and messy workflows suddenly streamlined. Weave a story. Wave your hands. And when they buy it - only then - build it.
And if you don't know how to do this or already have a product you're struggling to find paying customers for it, come join a GrowthLab cohort, where we find product market fit and paying customers for great ideas that just aren't doing very well.
You can read more about it and apply to the next cohort at growthlab.so and you can also follow me @finereli on Twitter where I talk a lot about marketing and sales techniques for hard core developers.