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How to Stop Tinkering and Become Someone Who Ships

Lessons, advice, and exercises for people with side projects

Jason Shen
Apr 20, 2017 · 11 min read
Photo: Bernard Spragg

Throughout my career as a founder, marketer, and product manager, I’ve always worked on side projects: The Art of Ass-Kicking, Great F*cking Startup Advice, Record Breaking Podcast, The Asian American Man Study.

While books, workshops, and conferences are all valuable, I believe few activities offer greater personal and professional ROI than building interesting things and releasing them to the world.

Despite all the benefits of shipping, I’ve seen many people who totally kicked ass in their day job but struggled to bring that same energy and focus to side projects. It’s not that they didn’t know how to make things. They just didn’t seem to have the structure to succeed when they were working on their own.

The lessons below about shipping come from a very meta side project in which I helped other people ship their side projects, creatively named: Ship Your Side Project.

After three cohorts of the program, I’ve noticed some differences between people who consistently ship and those who mostly just tinker. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and I’m not saying you’ll never ship anything if you don’t do these things, but it might be a good place to start.

1. People Who Ship Make Consistent Progress

People who ship block out time for their work. They’re always thinking about their project, and they try to make progress every day. They make it a priority: waking up earlier or staying up late or squeezing it in between other activities. People who ship would rather skip an episode of Game of Thrones than miss a coding session, and they occasionally turn down a night out with friends to make time for a video editing session. They are fueled by seeing their project grow and flourish over time and get hooked on keeping their momentum going.

People who tinker are easily distracted. They spend too much time on Product Hunt and Hacker News reading about other people’s projects. They get really excited about a new Javascript framework and spend a whole weekend learning all about it, only to abandon it to try building a skill for Alexa.

People who tinker leave projects for weeks or months at a time, and then have to spend hours just figuring out where they left off. They want to skip the less-interesting parts of the project and just focus on the fun parts. They get demoralized because, despite all their passion and all their activity, they don’t have much to show for themselves.

Bet this guy wishes he didn’t put it off until the end.

We live in a world of quick fixes and “learn how to X in 10 days” programs, but deep down, we all recognize that you can’t rush great work. You can’t procrastinate and then try to do it all in one big push.

You need to sit with problems for a long time. Your thoughts and actions build on each other, gathering momentum and allowing opportunities and innovations to emerge. Cramming doesn’t work after you graduate.

Veronica Ray is a Brooklyn-based iOS engineer whose project, Irusu, helps people secure their digital life through their iPhone. In working toward her beta release, Ray developed a habit of getting to the office early and clocking in a solid 30 minutes of quiet, uninterrupted development time every day, and then she put a few more hours in on the weekend for bigger tasks. That consistent effort allowed Ray to make enormous progress on her app in a short amount of time and without getting discouraged or feeling overwhelmed.

Your Turn

Here’s an easy way to start making consistent progress:

  • Tonight, I want you to clear off your desk or kitchen table, and then write on a sticky note one or two important actions you could take on your project.
  • Set your alarm to wake 20 minutes earlier, and commit to jumping right out of bed and working on your project for 20 minutes.
  • Try to keep this up for two days in a row, then a week, then a month.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t finish everything you wanted to do in those 20 minutes. In fact, you can harness the urge to complete the task to your advantage, allowing it to motivate you to return to the project at your next possible opportunity.

Creating consistent progress is not complicated. It just takes some effort to get going. But once you make it a habit, you’ll never look back.

2. People Who Ship Don’t Work in a Vacuum

People who ship make sure to engage with people about their project. They join Meetup groups to learn about new techniques in their craft. They talk to people who might use their product or service and really listen to their users’ needs. They stay engaged with a community of peers and mentors to collaborate and bounce ideas.

People who tinker do it alone. They don’t want to talk about their ideas because they’re afraid others will ridicule them, or worse, “steal” the idea. They create a perfect vision in their mind of what they want to make and won’t show anything to anyone until it’s just right. They are closed off to the world.

We are social animals. We grew up in tribes, and most people show up to work at a building with other humans and live with other humans. Why would our side projects be any different?

Of course, no successful endeavor, from writing a book to architecting a skyscraper, was achieved without alone time. But there’s a reason most entrepreneurs, mountaineers, road-trippers, and would-be parents go in twos: We are more capable when we work together.

Don’t go it alone—we can do more together.

Ben Wheeler is a software developer and the father of a 10-year-old daughter. His project, Ignition Sequence, started off as an idea to create an email newsletter for parents who wanted their children to expand their creative and technological horizons. Wheeler became concerned he wouldn’t be able to support a newsletter indefinitely but wasn’t sure how he could evolve the idea. Because of his relationships with parents throughout his neighborhood, Wheeler was able to explore a couple directions with several moms and dads before turning Ignition Sequence into a guide with five specific project ideas that parents can do with their kids.

Your Turn

It’s time for you to find your own mentors, peers, and fans/users.

  • Mentors can serve as guides and advisers. They’ve done work similar to what you’re trying to do, and while they’re usually busy, a few minutes of their time can save you hours, if not days, of work.
  • Peers are people you know, perhaps at your company or through another connection. They can spend more time with your project, give you detailed feedback, maybe even collaborate with you to build part of the work.
  • Fans and users are the people who stand to benefit from your work. They might not exactly understand how your product or service is made, but they can provide valuable insight into what’s valuable and what’s interesting.

Make a list of potential mentors, peers, and fans/users, and set a goal of reaching out to a least one from each category within the next month. Yes, scheduling time with people takes time, but it’ll be worth it. Projects that don’t get exposure to other people once in awhile tend to struggle and die.

3. People Who Ship Set Deadlines

People who ship aren’t afraid to put a stake in the ground about when they plan to launch their project. They understand the human psychology behind concrete dates with concrete deliverables. They try hard to tie those deadlines to external events as much as possible: a contest submission cutoff date, the date of the next Meetup, the day when a press piece comes out. People who ship harness the positive stress that deadlines create to get more done.

People who tinker hate deadlines. They don’t want to be held to a date. They’d rather noodle endlessly on their project, fixing something here, adding something there, rearranging entire sections. They say things like, “It’ll be done when it’s done,” and aren’t sure where they want to be three months from now with their project. People who tinker mistake activity for progress.

If it’s not in the calendar, it’s not real.

As much as we might hate deadlines when we’re up against them, we need deadlines. Public companies need to file their finances quarterly. FedEx packages need to arrive by a certain date. Trains have timetables. Projects, whether at work or personal, need deadlines to drive actions.

Y Combinator, the most successful startup accelerator in the world, understands deadlines.

From its inception in 2005, YC’s program has been 10 weeks of dinners, talks, and working toward Demo Day. This critical deadline took already-motivated founders and cranks them up to 11. No one could sustain that pace forever, but sprinting toward Demo Day meant these entrepreneurs often grew their companies at incredible rates because they knew they’d be pitching Silicon Valley’s top investors. The deadline forced them to get many things in place so they’d be ready to put their best foot forward.

Your Turn

It’s time for you to set yourself a deadline.

  • Think about how much effort you’ve committed over the past month or two.
  • Pick a milestone that’s meaningful, measurable, and achievable.
  • Mark a date on your calendar, and tell two friends, perhaps a mentor or a fan, that you’re committing to delivering on that milestone by that date.

If you’re just getting started with deadlines, maybe start with what you’re going to achieve a week from now. Maybe you’re just committing to a draft of a blog post or refactoring one module of your app. If you’re a bit further along, try a date four to six weeks in the future and a bigger task, like releasing two new videos or getting a working prototype live on the web.

When you embrace deadlines, you’ll find yourself getting far more done. When you achieve your milestones, don’t forget to savor the accomplishment—and then set a new deadline and get back to it.

4. People Who Ship Aren’t Afraid to Promote Their Work

People who ship make sure to share what they’ve done with the world. They believe in their project’s merits and know that it offers value and enjoyment to the people who experience it. They aren’t embarrassed to bring up their work at parties or on social media, and they promote their work in online and in-person venues. They know that no project is for everybody, but every project is just right for somebody. People who ship know that marketing is part of the job.

People who tinker think marketing is a dirty word. They’d rather pretend that everybody would celebrate their work, if only the world understood what it was all about. Tinkerers either don’t understand how or aren’t willing to package their work in an accessible and appealing way. Rather than learn the essential elements of design and copywriting, they expect people to just “get it” and become frustrated when their project fails to gain traction. People who tinker would rather be jealous of the cool stuff they see others make than do the hard, uncomfortable work of promoting their own projects.

Here’s a guy who is proud to show off his work.

The world is filled with busy, distracted people who are mostly focused on themselves. Our brains were evolved to look for novelty, value social recognition and connection, and take a liking to things that feel familiar.

The job of marketing is not to trick people into doing things they would rather not do, but to communicate the unique value of your project to people who might find it interesting. This is harder than it sounds. But over time, naming products, writing descriptions, creating visual assets, pitching media, and getting attention gets easier and becomes less strange.

My partner on Ship Your Side Project, Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya, is a creative director and design strategist with several side projects of her own, including Beyond Curie, an illustration series celebrating women who have made important advances in STEM fields. Amanda used to think it took special connections or extraordinary ability to get press coverage. But over time, she’s learned that “blowing up” mostly takes hustle, a bunch of cold emails, and a reporter who’s looking for a good story.

After sleuthing the web, Amanda found a writer named Katharine Schwab, who had previously covered another “design + science” project, and cold emailed her about Beyond Curie. That led to an article on FastCoDesign titled “12 Powerful Posters of Female Scientists That Every Classroom Needs,” which led to another article on Global Citizen, which led to promotion on social media by AIGA, which helped her Kickstarter get 3, 200 percent funded. Not bad for an introvert with fewer than 500 followers to her name.

Your Turn

Every great project needs three fundamental marketing assets. The first is a compelling name, the second is descriptive tagline, and the third is some kind of visual graphic that can be shared on websites or social media.

  • Name: Most names are forgettable, but with a little effort, you can develop a name that immediately communicates something positive about your project. Great names tend to be short (ideally one or two words), evocative without being overly descriptive, and easy to say and spell. Brainstorm a list with at least 30 names, have friends help you whittle it down to 10, filter out names that already exist or where the URL is difficult to obtain, and go with your gut. I’ve written more about names here.
  • Descriptive tagline: This is the phrase or sentence that follows your name when you explain the project to others. For Ship Your Side Project, it was “the program that takes you from idea to launched in just six weeks.” For Great F*cking Startup Advice, it was “strongly worded suggestions for startup founders.” For Beyond Curie, it was “celebrating badass ladies in STEM.” These statements don’t have to tell you everything, but they need to say enough to help the person decide whether to learn more. For lots more examples of descriptive taglines, see the products on Product Hunt.
  • Visual graphic: I’ll admit, this is the hardest one for me to do well, but in the world of feeds, you need a visual (and, ideally, video/animation) that goes along with the words you’re saying. These can then be attached to your posts on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, and other websites can embed the graphic when covering your project. One helpful tool to consider is Canva, an online tool that can help you put together all kinds of visual graphics.

We’ve just scratched the surface of what it means to ship, and there’s so much more to learn and do. So I’ll end by sharing one last thing about people who ship: They take action. They know that they won’t get it right the first time, but they know they’ll figure it out along the way. They aren’t paralyzed by indecision.

Now it’s your turn. You don’t need all the answers. You already have what it takes. You just need the courage to get started and keep going.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Thanks to Coach Tony

Jason Shen

Written by

Serial entrepreneur & Asian American advocate. Co-Founder and CEO of Midgame.gg - esports analytics co. TED, Etsy, Stanford, Y Combinator alum. BOS ✈ SF ✈ NYC.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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