Running a Business on 5 Hours a Day

In Patrick McKenzie’s recent post titled Running A Software Business on 5 Hours A Week (which is brilliant by the way), he believes in a different time management philosophy.  Rather than doing what most time management and self-help gurus tell us – giving us ways of being more efficient, squeezing more things into our 24 hour day, or more specifically spending more time on business – McKenzie advocates for the philosophy that you can store up hours by creating systems which do the things you shouldn’t be doing but need to get done.

I’m an advocate for systems building too. We don’t even consciously realize how many systems are at work which were designed to give us “more time” to spend on things we feel are more valuable.  Cars and planes help us get somewhere faster so we can spend more time there “doing” the important things. Drive-thrus let us eat as we travel. Phones, text messages, and the internet let us communicate across the world in an instant, so we don’t even have to take those cars and planes anymore.  These are all systems.  They were designed to help us value our time more.

And yet here we are, spending every waking moment trying to get ahead of the competition and our neighbor.

“Basically, time debt is anything that you do which will commit you to doing unavoidable work in the future.”

We commit our time (both in business and in personal areas of our lives) to doing unavoidable work in the future. Why?

Bingo Card Creator has been memorably described as “Hello World attached to a random number generator.”  If anything, that probably overstates its complexity.  Customers do not care, though — they have problems and seek solutions, regardless of whether the solution required thousands of man years of talented engineers (Excel) or one guy working part-time for a week.

There are complex things which can be solved with 10 lines of code.  Most people, contrary to the unconscious belief of coders, can’t code. So to them, a 10 line solution is a miracle. It’s worth 1000 hours of their time, even if it only took you 10 minutes.  This, friends, is value.  It may not make the most competitively advantageous business.  But, it makes someone’s life better, and that means it’s worth something to them. It might be worth something to more than one person.

So, back to the subject of the post.

Long before you sit down to write code, you should know what your strengths are and what your constraints are.  If you can only afford to spend 10 hours a week and your schedule is inflexible, then anything which requires calling customers in the middle of the day is out.

Great advice. If you know your strengths, you’ll (a) be much happier and (b) be able to complete what you want. Knowing your weaknesses or constraints is also important because it defines what your business will not do. Too many businesses fail because they created time debt by saying “yes” just for that momentary dollar.  Unfortunately, it’s the consequences of accepting the one-time trade of time for money which destroys them down the line.

Just as 37Signals and a whole host of other development companies promote less features, I promote less time-based trades.  If I’m going to trade my time, I expect it to be paid for over and over again in the future. I want residual return on my time.

Patrick also has some great advice for those of us starting software based businesses. Take heed.

[T]hings you would look for in your idea are anything you see yourself using in your Benefits section of the website to entice people to buy it.  (Benefits, not Features.  People don’t buy software because of what it does, they buy it for the positive change it will make in the life.)  If you think “People should buy this because it will make them money, save them time, and get them back to their kids faster”, then you probably have a viable idea.

Another thing I’d look for prior to committing to building anything is a marketing hook — something you can take advantage of to market your product in a time-effective way.  For bingo cards, I knew there were more activities possible than any one company could ever publish, and that gave me hope that I could eventually out-niche the rest of the market.  (This is core idea still drives most of my marketing, four years later.)  Maybe your idea has built-in virality (nice if you can get it — I really envy the Facebook crowd sometimes, although I suppose they probably envy having a customer base which pays money for software), a built-in hook for getting links, or something similar.  If you can’t come up with anything, fix that before you build it.

Nate Ritter lives in the Pacific Northwest (U.S.), popularized the #hashtag and creates web applications for a living. He also does miles and point hacking to enable cheap travel for his family. More here →

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