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November 6, 2023

4 Steps I Took in My First 4 Months to Get Early Traction

Kevon Cheung

Founder & Head Teacher

This past Thursday, my wife & I celebrated our 4th wedding anniversary!

We met over a dating app called Coffee Meets Bagel in 2016. So far, we have under our belt 7 years of dating, 4 years of marriage, 2 daughters, and a strong relationship.

Don't worry! This essay is not about my story with my wife (I'm sure you'll look for that unsubscribe button). It is just that this milestone got me thinking about my progress in life and business.

I've been building this family with Lydia for 7 years, and the work that you're reading from me now has been 3 years. I started both of them having zero idea where they would go. And through small daily actions, I've gained gain clarity on what the next small step should be.

You might be new here in my world, so I want to take this chance to re-introduce my original story of how I started this journey in Nov 2020, the mindset I had, and what small steps I took in the first 4 months to get traction.

My goal here is to tell the story and also give you a few actionable points for your journey.

I have to take you back to Nov 2020.

I left my last role building a SaaS company on Oct 31, 2020. On Nov 1, I woke up not having anything to do. That felt weird. With my 1st daughter arriving in 2 months, I spent quite a lot of time rethinking how I want to design my life, especially how I could apply the concept of "compounding" to my career.

I'm not the type that can do nothing and chill, so I started exploring new paths. I first attempted YouTube in 2018 but I quit after spending 180 hours making 6 videos. Making videos was too hard to tackle, so I thought this time I'd start with writing. I've written some blog posts before, maybe I would like it.

At that point, I had no niche. I also had no friends or network in this so-called "creator space". All I had was maybe 3-4 months of free time to do something fun. I started reading a lot about what other people were doing. ​​This blog post​​ changed my life.

So I thought — "let me start writing whatever I can share!" I wrote blog posts like ​​this​​, ​​this​​, and ​​that​​. But soon, I realized I couldn't get more than 30-40 people to read each of my blog posts. I decided I had to create a "killer piece of content" that would become people's go-to guide for something. That was my goal!

Lesson #1: Show up even when you have no direction

I've been hanging in the community long enough to see that — many people wait until they have a good idea to show up. Once the idea dies, these people disappear. Then they come back with a new idea.

I don't think that works.

If you're into writing, creating, and educating others, you have to practice the craft even without clarity. Chances are you won't be successful on the 1st attempt, but you will be on the 3rd or 4th because your skills keep getting better.

After like 2 months, I still had no niche, but at least I wrote 8 blog posts.

I know it is hard to push to do something when you see no results yet. For example, I'm currently focusing on ​​my YouTube channel​​ (I don't mind a new subscriber, really!). After 1 year, I'm still at 749 subscribers. Yuck!

But the way I see it is that I'm improving my skills in writing scripts, storytelling, editing videos, and more. These skills are so valuable whether my channel is successful or not. Remember I said I attempted YouTube in 2018? It means making videos is in my blood. It is important to me.

Don't just randomly pick skills to work on (fight these shiny objects). Find out what valuable skills (writing, making videos, interviewing, etc.) can have an impact on your life, and start practicing that.

What "killer piece of content" can I create?

I researched many topics like "micro SaaS" "building in public" and "no code" which were all interesting to me. I even looked at data like Google search volume.

Although all the data convinced me that "building in public" was a dead end because no one was talking about it, I decided to trust my own eyes and heart.

I saw many builders on Twitter (now X) talking about it. I only found 4 short articles explaining what it was but no one was guiding others on how to learn it. I also felt this crazy connection with "building in public" because it represents my life principles like transparency, helpfulness, honesty, etc.

So, I gave it a shot. What was there to lose anyway?

I spent the next 2 months working very slowly to understand everything about "building in public". I went to ​​this online forum​​ every day to learn and offer my help based on what I knew. I wasn't saying that I was the expert, I was positioning myself to be a learner and contributor in the community.

Instead of creating content, I started outlining the ​​free Build in Public guide​​ that could be helpful to people who were curious about this topic. "Killer piece of content that would become people's go-to guide for something." Yup! I decided to take it super slow because if I wasn't building this guide in public, that would be the biggest joke of the Internet. Also, I could use this opportunity to experience what it is like to build something in public.

How did the launch of the guide go? Well, ​​this happened.​​

Lesson #2: Use research to strengthen your hypothesis

I still think that I got very lucky with this. So many people take months or years to find their niche, but for me, it took me 3.5 months (Nov 1, 2020 to Feb 15, 2021).

By the way, so many people debate whether you should find your niche, or if you need a niche at all. ​​Here's my opinion.​​

My previous entrepreneurial experience helped me identify this gap in the market. Then I used data to "validate" it (to increase my chance of success). Then I created a small project to further "validate" it. I could say that when 2,100 people read my guide in the first 3 days, I finally validated it.

This is also why the philosophy I teach at ​​Build in Public Mastery​​ is very heavy on working with your community to get signals and feedback. I learned ​​the hard way​​ that ideas I imagine in my head are often terrible. The good ideas (what people need) come from listening to people in my target audience.

What kind of research can you do to increase your chance of success? It is not guaranteed, but better than nothing.

When I was working on the Build in Public guide, I didn't have much expectation. I had this experimental mindset. If it worked, great, I could continue to explore the next step. If it failed, I should figure something out.

After the launch, it was clear that people wanted to learn how to "build in public". But I was still making $0. I remember my wife coming to me and saying "Kevon, when are you going to start charging people?"

No, seriously, thanks to her, I started experimenting with paid products. I didn't know that creating content and free projects were so easy compared to selling people something. I needed that push to learn that ASAP. ​​My 1st year retrospective​​ covered all the blood, sweat, and tears.

Lesson #3: Treat it as an experiment

I cannot stress enough about this. I see so many people starting things like they're 200% sure it will work but I just think that kind of mindset actually draws them back. The pressure is too high. But most importantly, having this mindset shuts your door to observe and listen to the market (community).

Looking back, I think it worked out for me because I was constantly focusing on the goal in front of me. I didn't worry about how to make $10k, I was focused on getting 5 beta readers.

I kept talking to people near me to find out what it was that they wanted to learn about "building in public". The "building in public" part is really just the way to help them achieve their goals. So what were their goals?

Through that process of talking to so many people, I realized I was building a community around me!

How can you shift your mindset from being an expert to being a learner? What's the next small experiment you can do?

There's one big misconception about building in public that I'm still trying very hard to share with my audience. Most people see it as "sharing my updates, the ups & downs". They just post something random about their projects. Let's not even talk about how good those posts are. They seem like someone standing on stage giving a presentation and no one in the audience is paying attention.

My philosophy of building in public (it took me 2.5 years to crystalize this) is really about building together with your community so that you have what they want.

So after the successful free Build in Public guide, I went on to build the ​​Making Twitter Friends​​ email course, ​​Build in Public Mastery​​, ​​Find Joy in Chaos​​, ​​Email Course Engine​​, and more. Every single time, once I defined a scope, I made sure to remind myself that my initial idea was not good enough. The key was — what the community wanted to learn in this specific topic.

I asked a ton of questions publicly and privately. I invited early students or readers to get early access and share feedback. I gave credits and discounts to everyone who helped me along the way. I saw them as partners, not customers.

Lesson #4: Build products with your fans

Some people hear this and immediately go "I don't have fans so this is not for me". This is not the right way to think about it. It is related to Lesson #1. They think they need something first (have direction or fans) to do something else (show up or build products).

No, start anyway!

When I was building my 1st project, the free Build in Public guide, I hardly had any fans. The people who helped me finetune the guide — I wouldn't even call them my fans. But once the guide was launched, they raved about it. All of a sudden, "I have some fans!"

Also, the fans you gather in your 1st project are there for your 2nd project. The fans from 1st and 2nd projects are there for your 3rd. Fans accumulate!

I just launched the ​​Build in Public Sprint​​ and the kickoff call was extremely buzzing, but I can tell you that this is accumulated from my 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th projects in the last 3 years. Sorry, no overnight success.

Are you getting feedback from your target audience right now, publicly and privately? If not, why is that? How can you change it?

So there you have it – 4 steps that helped me big times when I first started. They don't sound like techniques that can build you a profitable business, right? Do they feel less important than copywriting, landing page design, or having 10k followers?

That's because these 4 steps are all tapping into your mindset and approach. These are things hard for anyone to teach. But I'm a firm believer that they make or break your success, so this is why I often bring them up.

The absolute key here is building relationships with your fans. You can't treat them as mere target customers. You are better off treating them as partners. You serve them with your knowledge, and they help you back with their mouth (word of mouth).

I never asked for anything back when I helped my students, members, or audience. But I am blown away when they offer to help me.

For example, I run the ​​Building Public Mastery program​​ and hold office hours. 3 weeks ago, a member asked how she could help me back after receiving so much support. Hearing that touched me deeply.

When you have a two-way relationship with your community like this, how can you fail to build products for them? They literally tell you everything they're struggling with. All you need to do is to listen.

I was doing ​​a podcast interview with Benjamin Boman​​ last week and I joked that if my hypothesis on "building in public" didn't work out, I wouldn't be on his show talking about it. Yeah seriously, 3 years ago in Nov 2020, I really had no idea where I would be in Nov 2023.

The one thing I hold onto so firmly has been: I always interact with the community, listen attentively, and never stop asking for feedback.

I hope you enjoy this original story, here's a mini recap:

  • Lesson #1: Show up even when you have no direction
  • Lesson #2: Use research to strengthen your hypothesis
  • Lesson #3: Treat it as an experiment
  • Lesson #4: Build products with your fans
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