Tuesday, May 29, 2012

µ-Dev Tenet #1: Zero Maintenance

I was consulting on a project in Athens, living in a furnished apartment. I found a french press in the cupboard. Desperately missing my Tassimo back home, I figured the french press would be my savior. But I had to know how to use it first - how much coffee to put in and for how long?

A quick Google search turned up www.frenchpressinstructions.com as the first search result.

The info there was actually useful. But it boggled my mind that someone had actually registered that domain name to put up that site! I mean, come on, that's just totally absurd!

It's a single-purpose site that visitors will use once and never return. Sure there are banner ads generating some paltry revenue, but this is about as far from high-engagement content as you can get!

But something else occurred to me: It requires zero maintenance from its creator.

Zero maintenance.


That's a big deal.

I've already built my first startup, EssayTagger.com, but now I'm in the operating phase of expanding its offerings and focusing on marketing and growing the business. That is the opposite of zero maintenance. I'm extremely proud of my company, but as someone who excels at building new projects quickly from scratch (EssayTagger was built and launched in under five months), the operations phase feels like an anchor to me; I can't build that next great idea because I'm still nurturing the current one along.

This is something I've discovered about myself over the last 10 months; I'm a builder, not an operator. I suspect many programmers-turned-entrepreneurs will feel the same way.

Which leads me to...

µ-Dev Tenet #1: ZERO MAINTENANCE (or near-zero)
You can't go off and build Company N+1 if Company N is tying you down. A ZERO MAINTENANCE philosophy is a necessity if you want to be free to pursue the next idea.

Understand that ZERO MAINTENANCE is a goal, a design philosophy, a criteria when evaluating your next big idea. But in all likelihood it is not an achievable goal. FrenchPressInstructions.com is truly ZERO MAINTENANCE, but it's also probably only generating a few cents of ad revenue each month. Think of ZERO MAINTENANCE as really being "Absurdly low maintenance that seems like nearly zero maintenance."

My first ZERO MAINTENANCE venture will be described here in detail as I build it out, but it is being conceived as requiring only an intern working 2-3 hours each week to keep it running. As far as I'm concerned that is ZERO MAINTENANCE because I will still free to move on to the next project. We are the builders and the ZERO MAINTENANCE philosophy only applies to our time; if we can offload our ongoing responsibilities to others at a reasonable rate, we consider this a success.

If you have ZERO MAINTENANCE, you probably can't charge for your app or service or whatever it is your company does. As soon as you charge for something, you'll have angry customers, you'll have customer service needs.

You also don't have time to commit to slow growth curves or long marketing campaigns. If it can't grow organically on its own, you'll be spending all your time nurturing it along. That is not ZERO MAINTENANCE!