This time 2 years ago, Cityposh, my branded games company, wasn’t working out.
Our original vision was to help small businesses market themselves through a captive audience playing our games. Instead of having to pay for that privilege with thousands of 50% off coupons, they’d put up a few prizes.
One Cityposh customer I was most interested in was a solo-entrepreneur-run, teenage-focused online store - jewelry, clothes, stuff teenagers like.
After our promotion ran, I was eager for her feedback. I thought we did a decent job getting traffic and followers. She wasn’t impressed.
I wasn’t sure if she didn’t understand the future impact our “brand advertising” and new Facebook/Twitter followers might have, or if I was naive of the problems her business actually had. I suspected it was me.
My wife and I once took a bus tour around the island of Maui, Hawaii. We saw black-sand beaches, waterfalls, and a beautiful rain forest. There’s actually trees with rainbow bark. It’s like something out of Willy Wonka.
A wonderful tour. But maybe my favorite memory of the tour was simply helping our tour guide, Ewee.
At one stop, Ewee left us to prepare lunch, while we browsed the shop nearby. Instead of shopping, I found Ewee and asked if I could help him set up. Immediately, he had me cleaning picnic tables, washing utensils and serving food to the other guests. After the meal, I helped him cleanup.
I’m on an expensive vacation trying to relax from life’s stress. Instead, I’m helping someone with their job. But while I helped Ewee, I learned about his job and where he grew up. I learned how the tour company operates, what his schedule was like, and how he made our lunch.
Being useful to Ewee taught me things I wouldn’t have learned as an observer.
Cityposh was flailing, and I started looking for a new job. I found a Craigslist ad to help someone with her ecommerce store. I emailed the poster, had a brief phone interview, and got the job. I was immediately cropping and resizing images for her catalog. Or, I’d edit a little HTML to mention a new product on her homepage.
The work wasn’t challenging or fun, and it paid 1/10 what I’d find as a software developer somewhere. So why’d I do it?
I took the job because I wanted to be useful in a way I hadn’t before - to someone selling things online.
While I helped, I realized her biggest challenges were: integrating her blog with her store, uploading quality images of her products, and selling physical goods plus digital goods PLUS event tickets.
I wasn’t anywhere close to solving her problems with Cityposh. I didn’t do the job for very long, but it immediately provided wisdom I needed to stop working on branded games and pursue other avenues.
When many startups fold, the founders go on to really great jobs with successful companies: Facebook, Google, Amazon. But I’m curious if those founders wouldn’t be better served taking poor-paying jobs doing the grunt work for the customers they initially wanted to help.
I’m a fan of lean startup principles, but I don’t think any of the contact I had with Cityposh customers was as insightful as helping with that store.
Don’t be afraid of a job where the ROI doesn’t make sense. Explore Craigslist. Get a part time job getting bossed around by a potential customer. Wait tables. Answer phones.
You’ll be surprised what being useful uncovers.
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