I’ve been stuck on the idea of creating something larger than myself lately. Something more important than my next paycheque. Something that people love, and that I can be truly proud of. I made a list of all of the web projects I can remember working on, and it’s a dismal showing. The vast majority of the work I’ve done no longer exists.
It’s not that all was for nothing. I’ve learned heaps along the way. It’s just that I have next to nothing to show for years of effort. Further, none of those sites represent my best possible effort. They all fall short for some reason, be it time, money, or direction. Compromise is a huge part of client work, and I’m not one who compromises well. I take my work personally, and having to deliver something that’s less than it could be eats me up inside.
What it really comes down to is control. Counting sites that I’ve built for other people feels like an unfair measure. Of course they’re not up to my ideals, they’re a representation of someone else’s. When I look at that list of sites, it’s impossible not to wonder: if I were in charge, would there have been a measurable impact? There’s not way to split test the past, so I guess I’ll never really know, but I honestly feel that the answer is “yes”.
So now the question becomes how do I gain control, and of what? Clearly, if I want to create something lasting, client work can’t be the way forward. Clients have all of the power in that relationship. You can educate, cajole, reason, or debate, but in the end your work doesn’t belong to you. Similarly, I’d have little hope of making much of a dent working as a part of any large company. Decisions are made, and you’re left as a cog in a machine. The truth of it is that a ship only needs one captain, and everyone else is left cleaning the deck or shovelling coal. The best time to be a part of any big company is before they get big.
So then, I guess that leaves a few options. The obvious choice is to be a part of a boutique development house. I look at companies like Panic, or 37 Signals and can’t help but feel like they’re on to something. A small group of people, who obviously love what they do, and who pour themselves into making products they care about. There’s a clear path to getting there: find people you love working with, take client work to pay the bills, and put every spare second into building something you love. That’s the path I’m on today, and it certainly meets most of my criteria. The only sacrifice here is impact. Boutique developers tend to satisfy niche markets.
What does it take to make an impact though? It usually requires founding a startup, and shooting for the moon. Startup life seems to require a delicate balance of tenacity, smarts, connections, and luck. My real fear with that path is that you still end up indebted, but to investors as opposed to clients. Startups end up being trapped into always expanding, consuming, and “creating shareholder value”. It’s likely the way to maximize your reach, but it would require sacrificing control.
A simpler plan would be finding a way to share everything I’ve learned. I’ve amassed a hoard of experience, but it’s taken me thirty years to get here. I honestly feel like I could condense a lot of what I know, and help people to fast forward their own ambitions. I’m only capable of doing so much, but if I were to share what I know, and find a way to really connect with people, I might help dozens, hundreds, or (dare to dream) thousands of other people. It’s a little humbling to think of the effect someone like Joel Spolsky has had on software developers all around the world.
The key to all of this is finding a way to create something that people love. Whether it’s a simple piece of software that makes somebody’s life easier, a blog where you share everything you know, or The Next Big Thing™, you just need people to need it. That’s the big secret. Permanence comes with indispensability, and that’s what I really want.