James Van Dyne

Starting is Hard

Photo by Alice Lucchin. Used under Creative Commons (https://www.flickr.com/photos/tsukimi/)

When I first arrived in Japan as an exchange student we had a field trip to Asakusa, the oldest geisha district in Tokyo. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just a trip to visit the oldest temple and go geisha spotting. We had a mission: to interview three people and ask them three questions.

Arriving in Asakusa you’re immediately taken back by the size of the giant lantern and the rush of people walking up and down the shopping arcade.

I had taken two years of Japanese by this point and had spent the past month staying at Yumi’s (my then girlfriend, now wife) house with her family where nobody besides her spoke any English. I was confident in my ability to complete the assignment in no time flat.

I walked up and down the arcade and towards Sensou-ji, looking for the right person to interrupt. Every time I thought I found the right person, I’d sheepishly decide that they weren’t the person to ask for one reason or another. Each time my confidence fell a little bit.

Finally, after 10 minutes of walking up and down the shopping arcade in front of Sensou-ji, I worked up all of my courage and blurted out my carefully crafted introduction sentence.

They looked back at me with a blank stare. “I’m sorry, I’m not Japanese, I’m Korean.” My confidence in my Japanese ability now felt like the plummeting stock market in October 1929.

A minor pep-talk later and I was back on the hunt. Instead of looking for someone nice, I decided to look for someone that was probably not a tourist and hopefully increase my chances of actually speaking in Japanese to a Japanese stranger.

Then I saw them — two construction workers walking hurriedly along the promenade. They must be Japanese, I thought. Without thinking I blurt out sumimasen (excuse me) and they stop and look right at me.

Rather than continue eloquently into my introduction my mind went blank and I started to panic. What have I done? I’ve stopped people and now I have to talk to them.

A deep breath and I read my sentence and to start the conversation. I was able to ask them about their cool pants (which sadly I didn’t get a photograph of) and explain that I was nervous because it was my first time speaking Japanese with strangers.

While I don’t remember my questions nor their answers, I do remember that once we started, the rest got a whole lot easier.

Starting a new app always gives me the same feeling I had that day in Asakusa. I have a grand vision of where I want to end up, but no idea on the first step to take. The blank screen gives me so many choices that I end up paralyzed.

Do I start with features? Maybe screens? Wireframes? A spec? Top-down or bottom-up?

All the tools that I’ve used to help me build software have never helped with this first step problem. They promise to help manage the app, but leave me to make the first move. I’m left walking up and down the promenade in Asakusa wondering what to do.

We started building kwoosh to improve our own development process and to help use with our product design. One way we’re doing this is by giving you that initial push.

Where possible we are removing the friction of first steps and making them for you. We pre-fill values for you with sensible defaults and grab data from around the web.

With these values pre-filled you never start with a blank state. The ball is already rolling, removing the tiny decisions that add unnecessary friction.

We are documenting designing and building Kwoosh. Follow the Building Kwoosh publication to see our work in progress to launch and beyond. I’d love to meet you on twitter.

This isn’t a masterpiece

Credit: Calgary Reviews (https://www.flickr.com/photos/calgaryreviews/)

Building your own products is hard. There are thousands of tiny decisions that need to be made and nobody else to make them for you. To make matters worse, no answer is EVER 100% correct.

So we make the best decision that we can.

And sometimes the decisions we thought were right, were wrong. So we take a step back.

We tell ourselves that next time, we’ll make a better decision. We decide not to do anything until we’re certain. But nothing ever is.

We paralyze ourselves with this fear. Fear that decision will be wrong. Fear that our effort will be wasted.

But by doing this we miss out on a big part of the process. We forget that learning what doesn’t work is just as important as learning what does.

“It needs to be perfect before we can show anyone”, we tell ourselves, “This is our masterpiece.”

But we shouldn’t think of this as our perfect masterpiece because then our work will never see the light of day. Exposing our work to criticism and different perspectives is the only way we can complete the creative process and improve our product.

Stop aiming for perfection and ship.

P.S. It would be great to meet you on Twitter. Or checkout what we’re building at Kwoosh

I met Jason Fried last night

I met Jason Fried last night. Except it was Skype call. Before I was boarding an ANA Flight to Japan. Where my seat was in a garage sale style over-stuffed sofa. Without a Seat belt. Did I mention this was a dream?

He asked me, “Are you focusing on what’s most important to you? Or are you focusing on what’s most important to your customer?” And I didn’t have an answer.

As makers, it’s natural for us to create. Given a choice we’d rather be building and making things than not. Our making is often constrained by one factor or another: time, money, tools, or passing interests.

However, these constraints aren’t bad. They lead to creativity. We figure out how to accomplish our goals within our constraints.

However, these constraints aren’t bad. They lead to creativity. We figure out how to accomplish our goals within our constraints.

But we often yearn for a world without these constraints.

“If this is what I can do without any time, tools, and money — imagine what I could accomplish if I focused on all of my creativity and had zero constraints?”, we think to ourselves.

“If I could just use my creativity to create a product that people would like enough that I could survive on it, I will be able to focus all of my energy on making and remove constraints from my creativity and my making will be endless and fun!”

What many makers fail to realize is that selling your product, while it may remove time and money constraints, adds another constraint. Yes, we are able to make whatever we want with the time that we have. However, we must now weigh what we’re building with what our customer wants.

Are you working on adding a new feature to your SaaS that you find intellectually challenging to build? Or are you fixing that workflow that trips your customers up?

Are you working on what’s most important to you? Or are you working on what’s most important to your customer?

If you’re trying to survive off your creations and creativity — the latter will always reap more rewards. And as makers we should strive so the most important work we want to focus on is the work that our customer finds most important.

And then I woke up and wrote down this message from fairy customer-service angel before it got lost to the ether.

P.S. It would be great to meet you on Twitter. Or checkout what we’re building at Kwoosh

Products Aren’t Projects

Sagrada Familia is a cathedral that’s currently under construction in Barcelona. Like most cathedrals it’s taken a very long time to build – 133 years and counting. Once construction is finally complete in 2026, 144 years after it began, the construction will be complete, but the work will not be far from over.

The priests will need to write and deliver mass, week after week. These sermons will need to connect with attendees and be made relevant to their lives so they will continue coming. The church will need to plan, host, and market events, solidifying it’s place in the community. Each week they will need to collect donations. The building will need to be repaired.

All of this is work that must happen to keep the church operating after completing construction. None of this comes to mind when we think of a church. We don’t see the planning and todo lists that result in the activities of the church. From the outside looking it, it’s all automatic.


As product builders we observe the world around us and other businesses seem to “just get” sales. There are no systems and people keep coming to buy week after week happen as a matter of course.

This isn’t the case. Finishing the building is just the first step.

After working very hard on our product – we launch. Usually to crickets. We wonder why the sales don’t come pouring and and continue pouring in. After all, the other guys don’t seem to do anything. It just happens. So we drop the product and make a new one.

However, this is a flawed approach. We must exert continuous effort if we want them to be successful.

Your product is like a church. If you want it to be healthy and vibrant for the years to come, it’s going to take a sustained investment of time.

We need to communicate with our customers or potential customers – let them know who we are and what we’re about. We need to support our  existing customers so they continue coming back, or even better, tell their friends. We need to continue to update our product, so it’s relevant in the current market. We also need to collect money on a regular basis, so our operations can continue.

Building a product is easy. Everything that goes on around the product to maintain it is difficult. By avoiding the difficult part of our product we often declare our products hopeless prematurely and get stuck in a vicious cycle.

Break the cycle. Do the hard work.

Artifacts of our work

During the Edo-era, Japan isolated itself from the rest of the world.  All resources were precious. Re-use and recycling were the norm. Not because they loved and cherished nature, though that may have played a role with their Shinto backgrounds, but out of necessity. With limited contact with the outside world, Japan had to be self-sufficient. As a result, communities worked together to make sure that nothing went to waste.

Umbrellas were made of bamboo and paper. Once they started showing wear and tear they were refurbished. The bamboo was repaired and new oil paper was attached. The old paper was sold as packaging material.

Starch extracted from rice was used to repair ceramics. Human waste (night soil) was bought by farmers and used as fertilizer in their fields.

This kind of reuse of by-products was a part of life in the Edo period and the effects still reverberate in modern Japan. Letting excess go to waste even has its own word in Japanese: “mottainai”.

While we aren’t usually concerned about letting excess go to waste, mottainai is uttered on a regular basis in Japan.


I’m helping bootstrapping a product to manage software products called Kwoosh. Kwoosh will make make product management easier and more efficient for small agencies and developers.

Building this product made me realize how much of the work involved isn’t writing code. Phone calls, mock ups, chat history, design: all of this lost in time or hidden in a folder. Valuable artifacts just thrown away.

All of these discarded artifacts of work can be reused and re-purposed, so as to not be so mottainai. What if we tried to save them? Could we make something valuable out of ‘trash’?

Phone calls discussing product design and decisions can be turned into podcasts. Libraries written to help us power Kwoosh can be open sourced . Mock ups shared to illustrate how we do product development. Core ideas and philosophy from all of these artifacts can be broken into articles helping us solidify and codify our values.

What artifacts are you generating from your work and how can you reuse it?

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