Notes from makebook.io

Damir Kotorić
10 min readApr 18, 2018

“Make” is a book written by Pieter Levels, the digital nomad maker sensation of this millennium, talking about how to make a successful product.

“Always start from the problem, not the solution”

I heard this mantra a million times, but I feel more receptive to it from Pieter’s standpoint. If you’re a solo maker you’ll run out of energy for a side project unless you’re solving a problem for yourself.

I still struggle to start with problems because most problems can’t be solved with technology. But, there could be a greater emphasis on the problem solving. Even if you jump into solution mode like me, you can improve the solution by taking a walk and thinking about all the problems your solution will solve. This opens the playing field.

Solve your own damn problems

The book claims that in the future every community will be solving problems for themselves. Women will be solving problems for women. Doctors will build solutions for doctors and so on. No longer will the trend be male, millennial web developers going around fixing problems for people and industries they know nothing about. Instead society will be empowered with technology and everyone will know how to code and solve their own problems.

I’m a fan of this idea but I also think it’s not the only way. There’s also something to be said for people who can empathise with others and who can do proper research to find out the problems of others. As a first successful product I see it making complete sense to focus on one’s own problems (or those of others you are already familiar about). Not having to do research means being able to ship faster, which is crucial if you’re starting out.

Start with tiny niches

People don’t like niches because they’re too small for people’s ego’s.

Guilty as charged.

If you have “just” 1,000 people paying you $83.33/month, that’s $1,000,000 in revenue in one year!

“Just 1,000” is achievable but $83 / month is still steep. But I guess if a product solves a niche itch then it could make sense for people to pay that kind of money.

I’m surprised by how minuscule the niche that the author recommends to go for. Find a pool of 1K — 10K customers. If you have more potential customers your niche is too big and you won’t be able to compete. If you make a product for 1K people, you can then broaden your product to 10K and go from there.

I love this advice since it goes against the survivorship bias of today’s “go big or go home”.

Lone wolf

The lone wolf approach is recommended citing group think and confirmation bias as reasons for not starting with a team. Personally, that works for me. Even “group think free” approaches — like design sprints — suffer from these problems. And you can go much faster on your own.

While working alone in my underwear on the side of my hotel bed with my MacBook and my coffee, I was able to outcompete million-dollar VC-funded teams of 30+ people in an office in San Francisco with Aeron chairs, oakwood meeting desks, $20,000 espresso machines, bean bangs and ping pong tables.

I hope to see more stories like these in the future.

Be toolset ambiguous

Don’t waste your time spending days — like I did—trying to figure out what technology or programming language is “the best”. Just pick one, any.

Only learn what you need when you need it

Instead of spending months learning a programming language, find a project and hack away at it. From personal experience I totally agree on this. It can sometimes be good to find a set of tutorials, or a good site you regularly return to, but best is to do the hacky sticky tape solution first — whatever works. Then, you can do some reading to find out how to do it properly.

This is not good advice on how to become a programmer at a software company, but it’s top advice on how to start side projects and become a maker.

The underdog advantage

Never thought about it this way, but there is a competitive advantage to being an underdog and people these days are starting to wake up to the idea of supporting indie products.

You no longer need to Austin Powers your way through to success, pretending to be big where you’re not! See every marketer ever.

In fact, being small and indie is a selling point. It’s what makes you better than the megacorps of the world, and people want to give money to that.

So unlike Austin, own your smallness! 😁

Zapier as MVP megatool

I also try to not reinvent the wheel whenever possible and use tools like Zapier, IFTTT, Google Forms, Typeform, Stripe etc. to outsource a lot of common things I’d have to spend hours or days custom coding. But Pieter takes it to another level, using Zapier like a backend API.

The “minimum” in MVP

Many people have the wrong idea about the term minimum viable product (or MVP). You can’t just throw something together and call it an MVP and put it up. It needs to actually work.
An email sign up box is not a product, it’s an email sign up box. Don’t launch it. That’s ridiculous. I see it too much and it’s completely useless.

I agree with this to the letter, even though I’ve done this myself quite recently.

Launching on Product Hunt

Make sure to launch at midnight PST (San Francisco time). This gives you the highest amount of exposure on the “Today” section of Product Hunt before it gets moved to the backlog of all product submissions.

Static sites to handle large spikes in traffic

Sucks to make it big on launch day, and then fail because you made it too big. Best to serve static pages, (and in my opinion host them on AWS or similar) so they can handle large spikes in traffic.

For anything that’s dynamic in nature, make it work via AJAX and API calls serving raw data. You need way less power to respond to API calls than to generate entire web pages dynamically.

Promo Channels

Product Hunt for a friendly community where becoming popular means being featured in the press soon after.

Hackernews for hardcore feedback from people who will dismantle your product to pieces if it doesn’t add true value.

Reddit for a mainstream “hive mind” that will collectively crash your server if it’s not ready for high traffic.

Target individuals, not tips@thenextweb.com

Just like when looking for work, the best way into a job interview is by contacting individuals directly instead of going through official channels.

Those email addresses are the industry’s black holes.

When contacting journalists, keep it short

Keep your email to one or two sentences max.

Subject: Food delivery startup for pets

Hi Jody! I made a site that lets you subscribe to food delivery for your pet. Let me know if you need more info :)

https://petsy.com

Be controversial (without being a dick)

If you want to stand out, one easy way to do so is to be controversial. Not being a douchebag — that won’t work. But being cheeky. Cheeky works. It worked with levels.io’s gofuckingdoit.com, it worked for Elon Musk’s space car, Richard Branson built an empire on it.

Controversial may not be the right word because it implies doing grandiose offensive things for the sake of them. But that’s not the point. The point is to err on the side of fun.

Don’t just add features. Tell a story.

Funny thing is that we actually do this with our friends and family. We tell them what our side projects mean to us personally, or why we use a Telegram instead of a Whatsapp. We get passionate and emotional.

Why not do the same when talking to users. As a DuckDuckGo user I want to know how this new feature close DuckDuckGo in on Google. Or as an aspiring digital nomad I want to hear how a digital nomad with a vision freed himself from a world of corporate drudgery.

Dynamically generated shareable images for every page on your site

Each city page has its own social media meta tag image thingy that makes it so much nicer looking when people share the link on social media.

This is a great idea and a todo for my own http://botcraft.io/

The way Pieter does it is pretty clever. He creates a custom page where he “draws the image”. Then he uses https://www.url2png.com/ to generate the social media image.

1,000 visits usually means $1-$10

Sites that get 1,000,0000 visits/month often make $1 to $10 million per year if monetized well. Sites that get 100,000 visits/month often make $100k to $1M per year similarly. It’s a very very rough rule but 1,000 visits usually means $1-$10 (if they monetize properly).

Native ads are the way to go

Meaning instead of you plugging-and-playing a Google ad space on your site selling viagra or whatever, you as the author of the site decide on the product and design the ad accordingly. It’s also less likely to get ad-blocked because it’s not such a typical crappy ad you’re showing, but useful complementary content.

Low-cost and premium

See how Android took 80% of the smartphone market with a low-cost product while Apple took the other 20% of the market with a premium product. Apple makes more money with only 20% of the market than Android smartphones with 80% of the market. Crazy? Yes! The point is, in most markets, there’s room for both a low-cost and a premium product.

Another todo for http://botcraft.io. Currently it’s a low-end of the market product. $5 per photo. But I think there’s a market there for massive 10,000 pixel images that will be printed on large spaces like these:

Grow the pie

Somehow I completely missed this one when thinking about side projects I could create. It often goes like “I have a great idea! What if I do an app where people can get together to help the community? An app that turns photos into AI art?” Then a while later I get disappointed that “Simpson’s did it!”

But who cares if someone already did it? It takes a mental shift to move from a scarcity mindset where there’s a pie and someone already has control of it 😞, to one where there’s a pie, someone owns most of it, but you can grow the pie so you can get your part of it 😃.

Paying not to break the law

I recommend if you’re doing over $50,000/year revenue to pay up to $5,000 for a good accountant that understands technology, business and startups.

I would copy/paste the whole chapter here on accounting if I could. Great advice about finding a good accountant by emailing about 25 of them and asking them to fill out a survey where you test their basic “business in the 21st century” aptitude.

Avoid hiring, build robots

Much agreed. Once you decide to hire a few people full-time it’s like having a few drinks. Before you know it you’re intoxicated on hiring and you’ve got yourself a company of hundreds of staff and pressure to keep growing. If you’re going to hire it’s better to be super careful and slow to hire, like a Basecamp for example.

Or, you embrace the robots.

The level to where the author takes automation is impressive. Here’s one example:

Find cities that are popular on Nomad List in certain days, then find a good Foursquare bar in the hip district and automatically organize meetups for them on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday and promote these meetups on Twitter, Facebook and Slack 1 month before, 14 days before and a day before.

Wow! This just opens the horizon to what’s possible. I’m already thinking about how I can monitor trending Instagram photos and turn them into AI artwork paintings for my side project. Then, have the bots promote it themselves. “Hi I’m a bot from botcraft.io and here’s a Van Gogh style painting I did of this trending photo on the Internet.”

There are still tasks that the author requires “humans” for, but he tries to keep those to a minimum.

You’re laughing about how I talk like humans as just modules in your business. But anyone who portrays they’re not is lying. If the goal of your business is revenue, then a human equals a robot. You put energy/money in it, and it gives work as output. Easy.

Finally someone to tell it like it is.

Passive income is a myth

For 99% of makers there’s no point at which they just hang up their boots once they’ve made enough money. More likely you’ll work your ass off for 3 years to then enjoy a 3 year wave where you can not work much. But eventually that income will fizzle out unless you keep creating.

The exception being that people that sell their products for large sums of money.

So what most people experience is more like a compressed income than a passive income. It’s a subtle but noticeable difference.

Ethereum companies on the horizon

After a successfully automated company, a maker can take the next step which would be to completely automate the company using blockchain technology. The author doesn’t get into how this might work but it’s an interesting idea. It’s called a Decentralised Autonomous Organisation.

It’s an interesting alternative to the “build and sell” ethos of Silicon Valley.

Final thoughts: A great read for anyone setting out to be a maker

Having read MAKE I think it’s a worthy read. Like with all things the author does, it’s highly opinionated and cutting through business fluff, and industry dogma. It’s a proudly unorthodox approach, which fits well with my style.

I think the book skips a few important things as well. It doesn’t talk much about design, and I’d like to learn more about the behind-the-scenes accountingy stuff that a maker has to worry about.

Another thing I’d like to see is some spelling and grammar checking. I think I’ve taken more care to write correct sentences in this blog post than the author has in the book. I understand that pedantically rewriting a sentence to communicate its full poetic essence goes against shipping things early, but surely the author could’ve run the book through a service like https://www.grammarly.com or hired a copywriter on Upwork.

Otherwise a great book for makers, and I look forward to further additions to it. It’s written like a highlight of a bigger book, and it’s valuable to be able to go behind the mind of on an expert in the field.

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Damir Kotorić

Freelance UX/UI designer with a founder’s mindset, technical acumen and Fortune 500 expertise.