Morale over a project lifecycle

I wish more was talked about how completely hard on the individual building a product or starting a company is. We often hear of the successes and, even when we know better, think of them as overnight. The community kind of blurs over the failures with “our incredible journey” posts. Though there has been a lot of good discussion about mental health in the industry over the last couple years, this is not one of those posts.

This is a post about the different mental states I have experienced when building a product out of nothing. This comes from a couple years of experience building projects, both with teams and alone, that I was extremely excited about but were very short lived for one reason or another. For some the company ran out of money, others traction just wasn’t there. There are probably some lessons in here but really I just want to document it and say “THIS IS A THING! THIS IS REALLY HOW IT GOES!” for my own sanity.

I am going to change the world

Mental states are one of those weird things that no matter how much you know and how many times you have gone through them before you can never be prepared for when they hit. I think this is probably why medication, among other things, is such a practical way of treating depression. You just need to continue with the ritual to hopefully avoid the negative mental state, you don’t need to have any experience or understanding about that mental state for them to be effective.

Every single project I have started on starts with the inception of the idea, and then imagining all of the possibilities it can unfold. Even though I know that this is never how a project actually plays out, I imagine everyone using it and everyone being stoked. Even though I know you need to make decisions along the way that enable some use cases and close off others, I can’t help but imagine all of the uses for this amorphous product that will manage to enable everyone to do everything.

While this is not my favorite part of the project and I try to get through it as quickly as possible (somehow imagining this will minimize the trouble down the road) it is definitely the easiest one to exist in. Some people get completely lost in this phase and they will raise entire venture rounds in this phase. It is easy to sympathize with them.

I am building, it is going

This phase is uneventful other than the fact that it is a transition between the up and the down. As you build the product and start focusing on the actual problems at hand, you gain a better understanding of what the end result will be. Sacrifices and trade-offs get made by necessity. Luckily there is still enough ambiguity and enough tiny victories that you are able to maintain some of the initial euphoria. You also feel the reality creeping in.

This phase is the most productive for everyone. There is just so much to do that you can wake up every day and say “I am going to work on the project today” and any way that manifests is helpful to the final result.

Personally this is the point I like the most because it feels the most like creating something out of nothing. But what that something will be is still ambiguous so you don't need to get down in the details of if it will actually work.

Valley of Death

There comes a point where the project is basically almost there. You have a prototype that you yourself can use, but it doesn’t have all of the bells and whistles. You can't really give it to anyone else because it still crashes in the majority of use cases but you as the creator know the combination code to make it work successfully. This thing is now a reality. You know largely how it will act once it is in peoples hands. You know what all of the screens look like and can imagine the scenarios it will be great in and the scenarios it will completely fail in.

The only way to get out of this valley is to get the product in other people's hands. You know that but there is still a lot of work to be done before that can happen.

Something I have heard Sara Chipps say when talking to people is “we are in the last 10% which turns out to be 95% of the work.” This is a good way of articulating how sisyphean this phase can feel . I personally often get so caught up in the details that I no longer can imagine why anyone would ever use this thing. How could I have ever imagined anything different.

When building OneShot with Jason Goldman (one of a small number of friends I can express the true depths of my negativity to) he would just keep saying “we are so close, I mean, even if no one uses it it just doesn’t make any sense to give up now.” Jason is truly one of the best PM’s I have ever known and this is the most helpful advice I have heard about this phase. You keep moving forward because you need to because you are just so close. But giving up hope of anyone ever using the product at least gives you some release.

I have seen some people thrive in lists during this phase. These are also helpful. It helps to see exactly how little conceptually is left before you can just launch the thing and then decide it won’t work. Other great PMs I know create lists for their team constantly in this phase. No need to finish one before the other, they just try to keep people above water by helping them conceptualize what is left. I have always appreciated this as well.

Other people will jump back to the euphoric stage and start planning the next iteration here. This is by far the worst way to deal with the Valley of Death. Feel free to use this article as a reference to anyone on your team that does this.

But my only advice to you is figure out whatever you need to do (even if it is just taking some days to spend all day with your cat in your bed) to make it possible for you to move things forward.

Release/turns out this stuff is hard

Eventually, I promise you, you make it through. You have a workable product you can start sending people. Thank God. You get to see the payoff of your work. And turns out while not everyone in the world is instantly using your product, you were wrong before and at least some people enjoy it.

This phase is bittersweet though because it is never as good as you imagined in euphoria. You are now squarely in reality. You realize here truly how hard this whole process will be. You remember that Twitter started essentially with group texting alone and while you can still see that in their product it has obviously evolved to be so much more. You imagine the first time Reggie sent an ephemeral image to someone and can’t help but think he must have felt like “I guess this is cool?”

Anyways, keep building. You are so close at this point you might as well finish it.