The Creator’s Dilemma

with over 30 active side projects, it’s safe to say i’m a maker.

i enjoy ideating –> developing –> launching –> iterating new products.

sometimes they make money, sometimes they just make a point. whatever the reason, i’m fulfilled by these labors of love.

what they don’t tell you

aspiring entrepreneurs and artists often say things like “i need to raise $$ to hire a team to build the thing.”

veteran entrepreneurs and artists rebut with “learn to ____ and you can do it all yourself for free.”

after a couple years in the tech industry, unable to execute my own ideas, i finally took the veteran advice and learned to code in Thailand.

but what i’ve realized after 2 years of building side projects since then, is that full-stack makers are disadvantaged – hobbled [ironically] by their dynamic skill-set.

here’s why.

ignorance is bliss

as a full stack developer, musician, construction worker… we’re tasked with both creating and distributing our work.

this is a high-risk, high-reward scenario, and nothing is more satisfying than growing something you’ve built yourself.

yet most solopreneurs fail.

not necessarily in a crash-and-burn wipeout, but at achieving ambitious levels of success; we settle for moderate growth. moderate branding. moderate service.

how is this possible? isn’t the point of becoming a full-stack maker to realize your vision to its greatest potential?

well yes, but it doesn’t actually work that way because separation of talent is good for business.

the team experience

1 guy and 1 gal pair up and start a startup: a social network for pets.

for political correctness, let’s suppose the gal is a kickass engineer and the guy is a great marketer. they are equally talented at what they do, and helpless at what the other person does. (hint: this is the formula for great co-founder teams.)

fast forward 3 months and version 1 of Dogger, the beta platform geared solely towards dog owners, is complete. our CTO tells the CMO, “do your thing!”

being a data-driven marketer, our CMO creates a few SMART goals:

  • 10,000 app downloads in 3 months
  • write 50 blog posts about pet social networking for SEO
  • subscribe at least 500 users to the ad-free Pro plan

within 2 days, ads are live and our marketer is carefully measuring traffic, referrals, usability, bounce rates, and the customer helpdesk. user metrics are growing, but not at the pace he anticipated.

at this moment, the marketer faces a decision:

  • a) do i change my marketing, or
  • b) ask our CTO to change the product?

pending his pride and attitude, he could choose either. but the marketer will most likely choose Option A and implement new campaigns to boost numbers.

let’s hit pause.

the solo experience

suppose Georgie, a trans marketer/developer in another universe, has the same idea.

he/she begins building, completes version 1 in 3 months, establishes marketing goals, and launches campaigns.

at the same moment of reckoning, when growth is not as accelerated as “they” hoped, Georgie is faced with the same decision:

  • a) do i change my marketing, or
  • b) ask our CTO to change the product?

in this case, the full stack maker is most likely to choose Option B.

back to our team.

the value of peer pressure

when a non-technical marketer isn’t achieving the results they want, it’s usually futile to blame it on the product or developer team.

in most startups the marketer would actually be laughed at, or fired, as they’re paid less than the developer and, in simple terms, outnumbered.

this is partially due to developer self-righteousness, but also because it’s easier to change marketing strategy on-a-dime than refactor a product.

in any case, the marketer goes back to the proverbial drawing board and creates a new message for their audience.

when our team faces this dilemma, they may realize the following:

  • truth: dogs don’t know how to type or speak English
  • idea: what if we gear our platform towards dog owners?
  • solution: scrap our headline, “Meet other dogs,” replace with “Find the cutest dogs”

with this new strategy, growth explodes, team prospers.

here’s our creator’s process:

  • truth: dogs don’t know how to type or speak English
  • idea: what if we train pets to communicate with humans?
  • solution: scrap our product and launch Rosetta Stone: Canine Edition

maker fails.

putting it all together

contrived examples aside, non-technical marketers have to “deal with the cards they’ve been dealt,” while full-stack makers can defer blame to anything.

additionally, marketer-only roles afford finding truth faster than the “anything is possible” maker, who may fumble dozens of iterations and waste ample resources before finally giving up an idea.

in other words, more skills == more excuses.

i wrote years ago that growth stage companies need Minutemen, not Renaissance men. this is especially true for full-stack creators who’ve reached a plateau.

ergo, the Creator’s Dilemma:

  • do i learn to do all the things, or
  • should i embrace ambiguity and ignorance, to
  • get to the Truth faster, and fully realize my ideas?

i’ve personally dealt with this for the entirety of 2017, as i kick off more ambitious projects that stretch each of my skills beyond their comfort zone.

am i too quick to abandon? hasty in my iterations? do i skip introspection?

if you’re a Creator, considering seeking outside help for your next project. if you’re not, you may have a leg up on us all.

game on.

4 Comments

  1. conrad November 12, 2017 at 11:32 am

    Great stuff Ryan. I’d argue the more skills you have the better – as long as you realize you’re biased in the way you described. On the flip side, a larger skillset will expand your ability to solve a problem and bring on the right team.

    Rather than a skills mindset, an alternative way to think about this is to chose (1) a problem space you care about and even (2) a specific type of customer to serve. These types of restraints can put guardrails up to help focus you and anyone you bring to work with you.

    Then, as you start to understand everything about your domain and customer, your iterations not only get better, but they’re all moving in the same direction.

    Reply
    1. Ryan Kulp November 13, 2017 at 12:24 am

      @Conrad well put, can’t argue with that.

      what i do argue, however, is that most full-stack folks don’t* operate this way.

      just think of how/why full-stack makers are created… usually by willpower to prove wrong someone on either side of the product/growth equation who said they “couldn’t do it.”

      so makers aren’t typically living in the rational mindset you describe, where they know just-enough to be dangerous or recruit great talent.

      no, they’re on a self-righteous-but-insecure wavelength, trailblazing self-sufficiency at all costs.

      Reply
  2. Felix November 16, 2017 at 11:09 am

    there’s probably an inflection point where it’s helpful to have at least some understanding of other skill sets (ie. a technical founder can give more useful directions to the developers than a non-technical founder can). but agree that, in general, you are a more valuable asset on a team when you can ownership of a specific area of expertise.

    Reply
    1. Ryan Kulp November 16, 2017 at 11:36 am

      ah yes, an inverted bell curve, a la Gladwell’s Outliers.

      Reply

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