Hidden Costs and Learning How To Program

Late last year I had a personal dilemma. I did not like what I was doing or what I had to do in order to be “successful”.

I was working on building a 7 figure business but in order to do that I would have to scale what I was doing. I felt like I was helping pollute the environment and support bad labor practices because there was no way for me to really know if the products I bought and resold had clean, ethical supply chains.

A fellow startup founder, Jean Ng, recommended me the book, Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman by Yvon Chouinard. It is now my go-to book for business advice.

One major lesson/idea from the book is that rapid growth is not good. My scrappy business education had been based on Silicon Valley’s ideas of viral growth but Chouinard wrote about only growing when necessary. The lessons that Chouinard shares in that book have changed my understanding of what it means to be a good leader or an ethical businesswoman.

When I share my anxieties about the future, many people say that I shouldn’t have these worries because they are not my problem. The things I worry about are the evident or unforeseen impacts that my actions will have on my immediate environment, global environment, and the future. As a business owner, even though I might not be very wealthy or have a lot of power, I feel that I should exercise the tiny bit of power I do have properly.

So what kind of consequences do I worry about? I worry about:

I think once you “wake up” you have a choice. You can choose to forget and stick your head back in the sand like an ostrich or under the blanket and hide, or you can live in it. Hiding won’t keep the monster back but at least by recognizing your power- you can choose to do whatever tiny things you can to keep the monster back as long as possible and buy time for a solution.

When I learned about plastic, I started recycling A LOT more. I was blown away by the amount of plastic my boyfriend and I consumed on a weekly basis once we started collecting it to recycle. Thinking about how behind our country is when it comes to recycling is stupid. We really need to fix that.

I used to spend hundreds of dollars on clothes a year. Now I probably spend less than a hundred. I only buy things I need and love and I learned how to sew to repair wear and tear. I love any excuse to whip out my needle and thread even though my stitches are terrible. In fact, I’m really excited that if I wanted to- I could recycle clothes by sewing and turning them into something new!

So anyway, my values and my business goal to build an Amazon business where I was gunning to sell 7 figures worth of products a year to American consumers did not align.

And then a lightning bolt hit me. I was worried about the problems that come with manufacturing a physical product (supply chain, pollution, consumerism) but if it was a virtual product, I could avoid all of that (supposedly). And maybe someday, I could build virtual products to tackle those very issues.

I didn’t know how to program. I knew a little Javascript. I had failed to get into the Grace Hopper bootcamp last year because I did not study enough- and I also failed to get into the Recurse Center last month too because my application was terrible, it was a joke.

But I ran some numbers and realized that I might be able to build an 8 figure business if I built a virtual product, a software tool for Amazon sellers.

I figured that whether or not I succeeded, I could start out by learning how to program tools for my own business. Use the additional processing power to fund myself as I continued learning, and then see if I shared my tools, if they could gain traction. If I succeeded, I would finally be a technical co-founder. If I failed, I would be considerably farther than I was before, and I could use my new skills to continue to follow my passion.

So what’s my progress so far?

I’m really close. I learned Python, wrote code to interact with Amazon APIs, built a SQL database, and found a crude way to create a formula to correlate Amazon’s sales rank with monthly sales (is curve-fitting and linear regression considered machine learning?)

In the beginning it was hard. I hated every minute of it. I felt stupid and dumb. I stared at the computer screen for hours. Googled. I hated feeling stupid. 

A couple things helped. First was an article I found about the different stages of learning programming and its analogy of the “desert of despair”. It helped me realize that this was normal and the typical process. That I wasn’t stupid and that it was just a matter of learning how to debug, google, read StackOverflow, and GitHub.

The more people I talked to about how hard it was to learn programming, the better I felt when they shared similar experiences. I wasn’t alone. Asking my first StackOverflow question blew my mind. I had been struggling with this for a few weeks and someone solved it within 15 minutes. Being able to ask the right questions to the right people and get help when I needed it was critical.

Another major thing that helped was determination. I told myself that I was going to program my own MVP even if it killed me. Now I no longer worried about whether I was smart or good enough to do this or not. Now when I had a problem I didn’t think, “I think I might be too stupid to figure this out”, I thought, “Okay how can I figure this out?”.

The answer was pretty simple.
How to figure out a programming problem:

  • Stare at it and try to figure it out on my own.
  • Google furiously.
  • Ask someone for help.

In fact, I think that’s just how you problem solve in any situation. It’s not unique to programming.

I still have fears. What if building this Amazon software is a lot harder than I think? What new problems will I encounter? How long can I avoid building a team? What if the Amazon software I build just makes the world a worse place by making whatever problems I was scared of adding to more efficient?

Whether for good or bad, I don’t think about those questions or my fears. I only think about the pressing problem at hand- how do I solve the next problem in my Amazon software project? How do I build this or do this?

Thinking and worrying about the other questions won’t help me today. I will cross those bridges when I get to it.

Last year I built a 6-figure Amazon business and I was gunning for a 7-figure Amazon business. Today I want to see if I can build an 8-figure Amazon business of a different kind. If I can achieve that, I will work on taking what I learned and applying it to problems I want to solve like supply chains, recycling, or social rights issues.

Baby steps, patience, and determination.

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