When I worked at Facebook we had a concept called “Fail Harder.” In Facebook culture it’s better to get something out and test it and see if the idea even works than to refine an idea until it’s perfect and then finally, after you ship, find out that it sucks and no one wants it.
“Fail Harder” means don’t be fooled by your own hubris, don’t pour a ton of engineering into a project when you don’t even know if anyone will use it. Instead throw things against the wall and see if they stick, throw them away when they don’t, and keep grinding away at them in the rare cases that they are a success.
You think Facebook was explosive success from start to finish? Not at all. Easily four of five ideas Facebook tries fall flat on their face. One in five explodes. Facebook succeeds because it embraces failing.
We, as humans, are remarkably bad at predicting the future. Embrace that. Your half baked shitty solution is going to be a pain to maintain but it’s going to be better than a fully baked solution that no one needs.
“Persistence isn’t using the same tactics over and over. That’s just annoying. Persistence is having the same goal over and over.” - Seth Godin
At the beginning of this blog I had an idea. I loved Maciej Cegłowski’s writing. I loved great images. I thought I could try my ass off to emulate that content and probably make enough, say $20,000/year, to pay for myself to travel and tell stories indefinitely.
I’ve failed a dozen times, I’ve at times been intensely discouraged, but I’ve also made almost $2,000 in my first year as a writer and a photographer. It’s not enough to support myself full time but it’s a solid start.
My past year as a full time blogger has been a remarkable shitstorm of failure, but my God have I learned a lot. I’ve tried tons of ideas, failed at 8⁄10 of them, and immediately moved on.
- I thought that a photography blog could fund itself by selling prints. I sold five. I also learned that I have basically no interest in taking photos that someone would want to frame on their wall.
- I thought that non-clickbait writing could do well on social media. It doesn’t.
- I thought that affiliate income could scale from $150 per month to $1,000 per month. Nothing in the world can make that shit grow, I’ve tried everything.
- Even though the idea seemed insane, I figured maybe someone would want to donate to support this blog. In an hour I put up a donation form and this year it earned over $700.
- I thought most of my income for the year would come from a holiday print sale. I even made it donate half of the profits to the best charity in the world. It failed so hard. I sold five prints and made about $65 (but we also donated $65).
- I put up a paywall and a day later realized it was a horribly flawed idea. No one wants to pay for something they can read just by resetting their browser cookies. I pulled it immediately.
- I created what I thought was great stuff and saw it get no response. I saw massive response for creations I thought were mediocre.
- Finally, I thought that a paid mailing list was a vague idea that only my close friends would pay for. It now pays almost all of my rent. While some of the subscribers are relatively wealthy friends, the majority are more distant connections. Most surprisingly, only four of the subscribers are people I talk to every few days. My cohort of 20 close friends really doesn’t want to pay me to write, but a ton of people I talk with less often, and a bunch of people I’ve never met, do want to pay and love it.
My biggest lesson from all of this is that you should not, by any means, listen to what people tell you that they want. Follow the money. If I had $20 for every person who said they love my pictures and want to buy one I would be living off of print sales. If I had $5 from everyone who said they were just about to subscribe to The Signal I’d have twice my readership.
People, myself included, don’t know what they want to pay for until you show it to them. Finding the right market takes trial and error.
As the year closes I have been wondering: Would I be happier if I had just taken this time off to travel and not written a thing about it, not published photos, and never tried to make money? Would I be happier if I took this chance to totally withdraw from the world and explore myself?
Definitely not. I’m not the kind of person who can sit quietly and enjoy life. I like to tell stories and I like to create things. I need to a project to work on. The human experience needs to be shared.
I’ve also realized that I like to fail. I’ll keep failing. I get enough of a rush from one success to justify a dozen failures.