Bootstrapped Founder #141: Founder Stories are Powerful Assets

The Bootstrapped Founder Newsletter by Arvid Kahl

Dear founder,

Things I Found Interesting This Week

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Now, let's talk about what happened in our community!

Andrew Gazdecki reported that his SaaS marketplace MicroAcquire reached $2 million in ARR this week. Imagine what that means: this one business is empowering thousands of founders to exit towards their financial independence. Amazing.

Also, the indie hackers over at Plausible Analytics have reached $1 million in ARR. What a week for bootstrapped businesses!

But let's also look at the less-than-stellar side of entrepreneurship: what do we do when we're stuck in a rut? In his article The Rut Principle, David Cain writes about how we often stand in our own ways. If you ever feel like you've strayed off the path, this one is for you.

Your founder story is much more valuable than being reduced to a slide in a pitch deck. Your story is a unique and unclonable asset that can turn from a mere list of accomplishments into an opportunity generator through the power of compounding and public expertise-building.

You can listen to this on my podcast, watch the YouTube version, or read it on The Bootstrapped Founder blog as an article.

When you share your story not only after the fact but as it happens, several positive effects kick in:

  • The Expert Effect: incrementally shared learnings create outsized perceived expertise. Your story is the scaffolding for your reputation in the community. Every new insight you share adds a building block to your publicly accessible knowledge. In any community, professional or not, people value and appreciate contributors. Your story, evolving right before their eyes, will be something they will always associate with you when someone asks them about who they should follow to learn from. You’ll become a niche expert just by learning in public. And experts have a much easier time connecting and collaborating with other experts.
  • The Projection Effect: consistency gets noticed and projected onto your future projects. This is where the compounding happens: every little ounce of credibility will feed into an immediate boost for new projects. Have you built a successful business in front of your peers and prospective customers before? You can be sure that for the next one, people will treat you as if it was “an almost guaranteed success,” which will make finding willing partners and beta testers a breeze. Past efforts create future trust.
  • The Asset Appreciation Effect: your story grows daily and facilitates unexpected opportunities over time. When I was running FeedbackPanda, a Software-as-a-Service business for online teachers, I never thought my struggles with stress and anxiety would ever be beneficial. But it turns out that being able to talk about dealing with founder mental health issues got me invited to industry-renowned podcasts and news outlets. Those appearances then became part of my story, which got people talking about my work more, allowing me to turn that into products. I didn’t expect that to happen when I was freaking out over server maintenance issues back in the day. Opportunities sprang from the places where I least expected them.
  • The Role Model Effect: your path becomes a model path for others. Building in public is just as much about teaching as it is about learning. Your audience members —founder peers and potential customers alike— see a journey unfolding in front of them that begs to be imitated. Your pioneering efforts will inspire others to “start their thing,” whatever that may be. Over time, you’ll find that people won’t forget who provided this initial spark: they’ll attribute it to you and your tenacity. In addition to this being free advertising, it will open up communication channels and business opportunities.

With all these positive effects, there are a few risks as well. Like any tangible asset, the virtual asset of your story comes with certain responsibilities and can be damaging when handled improperly. If you build a business empire on questionable practices and are found out eventually, your public traces of ambition turn into evidence of your wrongdoing. But even benign actors run into trouble occasionally: where there is light, there is shadow, and public success attracts the envious and ungrateful voices just as much as it fosters delight and community support.

But the benefits heavily outweigh the risks.

A publicly shared story is a bulwark against irrelevance and a reliable source of fact to point to when questions arise. It’s a monumental trust-building exercise with incredibly powerful outcomes.

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These outcomes are facilitated by the interplay of several underlying synergetic conditions: authenticity, consistency, reciprocity.

The Power of Authenticity

No two founder journeys are alike. While that has all sorts of implications for the applicability of advice —in short: you won’t be able to apply most advice given by entrepreneurs due to its high contextuality and strong survivorship bias— there is something extremely beneficial about this: your story is your moat. While making a copy of your product and its landing page is simple, it’s impossible to “clone” the path you took to get where you are.

All the little anecdotes and experiences you’ll amass throughout your journey will come in handy later.

When you want to make your product presentation more personal, you have a reservoir of “reasons why” — every business has an origin story about why it got started. The more anecdotes you share, the more credible and relatable you’ll make your “creation myth.”

A unique journey is a credible journey. People don’t want a bland and generic tale of great success; they expect a journey with ups and downs, problems, mistakes, and surprising twists. That’s how we relate the founder experience to our own crooked and imperfect stories.

We know how many trials and tribulations we had to go through in our own past, and if we see them resembled in the journey of someone else, we start trusting them more.

The best way to create a trust-generating engine is to leave a trail of evidence — public evidence of your ambition.

The Power of Consistency

Time travels forward relentlessly. Every day, we have a choice: do we show up and work on our legacy, or do we shrink away from the responsibility and distract ourselves?

Those who keep showing up are gathering so much momentum that they have an unbeatable head start. Entrepreneurship is tough: not only does it involve a lot of risks, but it also requires discipline and self-motivation. Being consistent takes a lot of effort when every day is full of challenges and unknown unknowns.

But consistency gets rewarded, and a founder journey built in public rests on a foundation of consistent effort. When you share your story as it unfolds, you have to do it in real-time. Every day, new opportunities to share something arise. If you take them and publicly teach your learnings, experiences, and experiments, you’ll quickly build a habit of sharing small fragments of your founder experience.

You’ll learn that even the most mundane things —starting to write an article, getting into some coding work, or doing your monthly bookkeeping— can be very interesting and insightful to your audience. That’s a good thing: most business journeys are overwhelmingly dull, with a few exciting events sprinkled throughout. Don’t shy away from the less exciting stuff: it reflects a reality that many of your followers have no access to. You’d be doing them a disservice by only highlighting the fun moments.

Once you understand the potential scope of what you can share, you can choose to become prolific. And that consistent work leaves traces.

The Power of Reciprocity

When you share your struggles and problem-solving experiments in public, you teach while you learn. Anyone who follows you on the journey can absorb your learnings into their entrepreneurial toolbox. Just following one founder for several months can produce more understanding than a dense entrepreneurship course. There is value in the context that building in public provides: not only do you learn what works and what doesn’t but also why specific experiments went the way they did and when it makes sense to attempt them.

That’s a lot of free learning, and that won’t go unnoticed.

Most humans only have a limited capacity for taking free things without giving something back. Eventually, they feel obligated to return at least a small token of their appreciation.

This is the “eventual reciprocity” effect: at some point, your followers will make an effort to “get even.” This can take many shapes: they might become a trial customer, ask you for a consulting session, or flat out buy the thing you offer because they trust it will deliver what you promised.

The more you give freely, the faster you’ll reach this moment of voluntary reciprocity. Now, there will be some people who never give back, but they are a vanishingly small minority. Most people have developed this social mechanism and are ready to reward you for your hard work.

Founder Story Asset Maintenance

A founder journey, being the unique thing it is, needs to be maintained to remain useful. Personally, I have found that these actions have helped me make sustained use of my story in a diverse range of ways:

  • Be honest. You’ll stand out from the ocean of copy-edited stories out there. Share the good and the bad —including the really bad stuff— and don’t censor yourself because you’d make yourself vulnerable. That’s the point: vulnerability invites trust much faster than it invites abuse. Your community will be there for you if you give them a chance.
  • Publish regularly. Consistency doesn’t mean writing an entire blog post every single day without fail. That’s machine-like precision, and we don’t expect this from human beings. But producing content on a schedule is a good thing. If your followers see you publish reliably often, they will come to expect —and crave— your updates. An engaged audience is a valuable audience. Fight your tendency to become complacent and build up a publishing routine.
  • Allow for reciprocation outlets. If people eventually reciprocate, give them a chance to channel their support into ways that benefit you and are aligned with your brand. If you don’t want to sell them something, ask people publicly to recommend you to their favorite podcast hosts or suggest that they give you a rating and a review on a particular website. People love to help, and if they know how to do it right, they’ll jump at the opportunity.

Treating your founder journey as an asset that keeps generating opportunities for you will do just that. If you neglect or belittle your accomplishments, they won’t help you on your path to entrepreneurial success.

You choose your own path.

Make sure you share it with those who will lift you up.

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