Why software engineers fail at building online businesses

I enjoy being a software developer. I can open my laptop, write some lines of code, and turn my ideas into reality. I feel that I can do anything I want, without much involvement from outsiders.

That’s why I’ve been trying to build online businesses, just like a big chunk of software engineers. I built countless apps/projects hoping I can profit from them, or maybe, turn them into a cash cow.

None of them worked as you have guessed. So even if I can turn ideas into reality, there was something missing from the equation. Maybe it was marketing? Sales? Or maybe the idea itself isn’t good?

I believe marketing and sales can help you if you have some traction first. Want to move from 100 customers to 1000? Definitely marketing. If you struggle to get your first 10 customers, I don’t think marketing or sales will help. So I decided to give my ideas a second thought.

This is when I tried something new. I changed how I select ideas to work on, and how I treat my software engineering knowledge. Both these changes helped me launch a product that made money before even launching. After launch, it made more than all my past projects, combined.

Here’s the full story on what I changed:

The problem with us, software engineers, is the process we use to come up with online businesses is fundamentally wrong. From the beginning, we are starting with the wrong approach. Let me explain.

This is how software engineers approach starting an online business:

  1. I build software at my current company full time
  2. Oh wow, people are paying for this software
  3. What! I can build it on my own and sell it directly to customers
  4. Let’s do that. I’ll build an app for something

This is how I used to come up with ideas to work on, and it didn’t work ALL THE TIME. The problem with this logic is the idea of building something comes first. Then trying to find customers (what they call “market-fit” nowadays), comes afterward.

You probably heard multiple times that this is wrong, and that, you should start first with the customer. So I’ll just save you from hearing it another time. But there is something else I wanted to add.

A few months ago, I made a promise that I’ll not start a project before learning more about customers. It wasn’t easy as we do this more as a hobby than a full-time job. So I was in a continuous struggle until I controlled my impulses.

I stopped myself from starting apps multiple times. I noted them in a note and moved to something else. I stopped myself from touching code until it was really necessary for a project… And I started thinking like an entrepreneur instead.

This is how entrepreneurs think:

  1. Looks like people are having a problem with this. Is this a problem worth solving for money? I should probably learn more about it.
  2. After learning, I see that people are already paying for this… Interesting
  3. I’m a software engineer, can I use my knowledge here to help me make a better solution for customers? If no, how can I make a better solution then?
  4. Okay, let’s help those people.

Being a software engineer is only an advantage in your entrepreneur journey. Even if you’re a software engineer, you may end up not using your knowledge for a specific project, and you should be okay with that.

If you see that people in your area are struggling to find a company to clean their windows, that’s a business idea. Will you use your software engineering skills in this? Probably not. Or at least, not the way you hope. But is this still a business? Yes, there is a need, and people are ready to pay for it.

Here’s my example, or how I used this process to make money before even launching:

Before starting the work on the Make it Legal ebook, I started writing on remote.ma, a blog for people working remotely from Morocco. One of the topics I wrote about is the legal stuff when working remotely. Things like creating your company, taxation, and stuff like that.

Those articles ended up being the most visited ones in the blog. A lot of the readers started reaching out to ask for details… This is when the idea of “Is this a problem worth solving?” started to pop up.

I continued listening to my visitors and I started taking notes of the questions I heard multiple times. People were already paying for accountants or are ready to pay to learn more about this. And what makes it harder for them, is there is no online information to help.

At that time, I knew I could sell an ebook about this. I created a landing page, shared it on my blog, and started getting pre-orders. I started writing it a month after announcing it with a few pre-orders already in.

Part of the questions I got is about the calculation. It’s hard for people to keep track of percentages, the different taxes, what comes first, and all those crazy tax details. I wanted something where you can put some inputs (salary, expenses…) and get the taxes and everything sorted out for you. So I started thinking about possible solutions.

I asked the question: “I’m a software engineer, can I use my knowledge here to help me make a better solution?”. Well, I could build an app for it, that’s what software engineers do, right?

On the other hand, my entrepreneur mind advised me to go with an Excel sheet. It has a lower barrier to entry and customers don’t need one extra app. Is building an app here will make a better solution? No. Is it a superior user experience? No. Does an Excel sheet provide the value I’m expecting? Yes. Is it better than the competition? Yes.

So I ended up not using my software engineer advantage in this project. And even without that, I still have an online business. And better, it took me less time to finish than building an app, while providing the same output.

“My software engineer mind would tell me to write an app for it. My entrepreneur mind advised me to go with an Excel file.”

At the end of my story, if you want to build an online business as a software engineer, here are two things to take with you from this post:

  1. Stop thinking like a software engineer, then an entrepreneur. Start thinking like an entrepreneur, then a software engineer
  2. Accept the fact that you may not use your software engineering skills in your online business

The ability to make software and sell it online doesn’t make you an entrepreneur. It’s just an advantage.

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