No more original side projects.

I had a thought tonight while out for a walk. If I wanted to open a takeaway shop, I’d start keeping track of the ones that looked like they were going well, and basically copy the execution model.

A coffee shop, a burger shop, or a bakery. Maybe a sushi store. There’d be no real ultra unique secret sauce typically, and I sure as hell wouldn’t spend years of my life waiting for the right type of takeaway shop to appear in my mind.

I’m not sure why I’ve spent years coming up with an original idea for a side project, executing it quickly, trying to work out a sales ‘message’, and doing the slow grind to find users. It’s just buying lottery tickets and hoping for the best.

First unique idea: an app builder for ecommerce stores.

I built “WooToApp”, an app builder for ecommerce stores. It didn’t exist at the end of the market that I wanted to target.

There were HUGE technical limitations and problems, and I felt like I was really innovating when architecting secure payments, secure orders, and a true drag and drop mobile app store builder for ecommerce stores.

I spent so long fucking around and working on techniques. Writing a piece of code and finding issues and re-writing.

Some technical limitations I just didn’t have enough time to reliably overcome. How can a user sign up instantly and have the app on their phone? I spent, I think, hundreds of hours on this.

I never killed it off. Just stopped iterating one day and it slowly died itself, never returning a dollar.

Second unique idea – dropshipping facilitation

I built “Elvenda” with my brother in law, a dropshipping enabler. Supplier signs up and adds their product catalog. Dropshipper signs up and imports products. Happy days, we can take a clip!

Except for all the problems that we had to discover, etch out solutions and execute ourselves. With no revenue or help, and no time.

What happens if fake products get shipped? How do returns happen? What platforms should we support? What formats can you import from? How the hell do we sell the idea to a “real” supplier?

We haven’t killed this off, and likely won’t. There’s just so much to do.

Uncool ideas – copying shit that is working

In 2016, I did some integration work for a brand new payment gateway called “AfterPay”. It didn’t support my clients store platform. The PDF they supplied as API docs was pretty rough and incomplete.

I quoted 12 hours to integrate AfterPay in this guys store and busted my ass. His sales increased overnight. Within a few weeks, 30% of his orders were using this new payment method, and his average order value was far higher. It was stupid expensive too, he was paying 5.5% + 30c on transactions.

The PDF documentation was so bad that by the time the integration was finished, I’d reverse engineered half of the API with postman. I got it.

I decided there’s nothing to it, and took 2 weeks off from contracting and wrote an almost exact clone of everything I could see. All it did was charge the end customer with Stripe on a cron job, and send me an email telling me how much to pay the merchant the next day.

I approached a client and also a friend with ecommerce stores and asked them to add my payment gateway, “PayItLater”.

Within weeks, the gateway was turning over so much money that my wife and I were out of cash. It was the most stressful 6 months of my life, but the nasty 2 week clone was working.

It works like this: A customer of the ecommerce store paid with ‘PayItLater’ for their $100 purchase. We paid the ecommerce store $94.20 ($100 – 5.5% – 30c), and basically hoped like hell that we’d recover the $100 from the customers credit card. The payment comes out in 4 payments over the next 8 weeks – it’s an addictive model, and .. Everybody knows about AfterPay now. They didn’t then.

Some guesswork modeling suggested 2% of people would be bad actors. I did some modeling on late fees and return customers as well that I don’t remember. We didn’t have any machine learning, historical data, AI or identity verification like AfterPay did. I just assumed everyone was a good actor, and banned their mobile number if they weren’t.

Since my phone was full of transactions every morning, I added a postcode to the transaction email. If we had more than 2 bad actors from a postcode the whole area would get banned. “Sorry, PayItLater is unavailable right now”.

As an aside, I remember a “Fuck Warrnambool” comment in the codebase – people in rural Victoria were somehow ripping me off.

We had no money, and our best guess was that PayItLater was making money. At any point in time if we added up the money that was out with merchants (that we were waiting to collect from their customers), deducted 2% for bad actors, it looked like it was creeping upwards ever so slowly.

I had $20,000 of my family’s money in PayItLater, and I’ve never been so stressed in all my life. I finally gave in one day – I couldn’t afford to grow it (I had $0 in real terms in the bank!) and had no idea how to take on money. I wasn’t having any luck with family and friends, and really didn’t even know how to ask.

In January 2017, we flicked the switch and turned off PayItLater. Customers could not check out with it anymore. The $20,000 we’d invested in PayItLater 6 months earlier slowly dripped back in and we ended up with $30,000. I sold the codebase to somebody who is still operating the business.

Where was I with the uncool business concept?

PayItLater worked, and was working. There was absolutely 0 original ideas and insight. I reverse engineered the plugin, had a best guess at how the backend worked, made the same or similar flows and went and got a customer.

There was no tricky decisions. No architecting flows. No guessing how to handle refunds. Not sure? Check AfterPay. Need a merchant agreement? Check AfterPay. What do I need to tell customers when a transaction is successful? Check AfterPay.

Why punish ourselves coming up with original ideas?

I don’t want to build Tesla or Uber, carving out a unique piece of history and making a huge dent on the world. I want Friday lunch at the beach and sleep ins on Monday.

I’m not doing original ideas anymore. You want to start a takeaway shop? You buy a coffee machine, a cash register, get a coke fridge and find a supplier of muffins.

You don’t scour the world looking for original ideas or try to come up with a meat free hamburger in your spare time. Nobody would buy it.

Next time, I’m picking something with a revenue model, that clearly makes money, that people have heard about, that is overpriced.

I’ll chop it down, make it cheap, easy to sign in and use, and easy for me to sell.

It’s not going to be technically interesting, ground-breaking, and there’s going to be no complex decisions involved.

I’m finding the boring profitable downtown coffee shop of SaaS tools and opening another one down the road.

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