Picasso's Napkin, Pareto Principle, and Side Projects

Picasso was having a drink in a restaurant – probably a traditional French pavement cafe.

An admirer recognised him and exclaimed “Oh my goodness, are you the famous Pablo Picasso?” the painter nodded modestly, and the admirer went on to ask the famous painter to sign her napkin.

Picassos-Napkin

Picasso was happy to oblige and didn’t seem to mind the interruption at all, in fact he went one step further and added a small sketch.

But as he handed over the drawing he asked for a considerable amount of money in exchange.

The admirer was horrified, “But that only took you five minutes!” she exclaimed.

Picasso leaned over, carefully took the napkin back and said “No, dear lady, that took me a lifetime.”

In almost every line of work, it seems the Pareto Principle holds some amount of truth.

At the end of the day, most of your work will produce no tangible output.

You'll look back and forget 80-90% of what you've done.

It'll be that 10-20% that has the most impact, and people will remember you for.

Here's a small little anecdote in my career, which has so far been filled with bull-shit projects that last months/years, with absolutely nothing to show for it.

This is why/how I built whattime.today, my favorite side project that took the shortest amount of time.

The Problem

During college internship recruiting season, recruiters often send you emails that look like this:

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These emails suck.

Not because they’re moving you on to the next round of interviews. That part is awesome.

It sucks that you have to somehow email them your availability.

So you’ve got to tab back and forth between your Google Calendar and Gmail to form a reasonable response that doesn’t conflict with your schedule.

Sometimes this can take 10-15 minutes (at least for me).

./Screen_Shot_2020-10-26_at_10.10.47_AM.png

This sucks.

This person is not making his/her life easier either.

  • You ever heard of Calendly?
  • It has to be in your time zone?
  • How many times do you really need to find a good fit?
  • How many back-and-forth emails will it take to schedule an interview?

The Solution

So I did a little bit of research. There are many tools out there for this particular scheduling problem, but all of them have at least one of the following flaws:

  • Sending impersonal links
  • Installing extra software/extensions
  • Registering dedicated accounts

It’s too much for such a small task.

I just want to get in, and get out, and craft an easily readable response.

I should be able to simply drag and drop, then copy and paste, to respond. And it should take seconds, not minutes.

So I built whattime.today.

I used Node/React hosted on Google Cloud to hack this thing together over the course of a weekend. You can find the source code here.

HackerNews

It got to the front of HackerNews by complete luck.

The moderator, Daniel, decided to just throw it up for me as a part of their “second-chance” system! You can read more about how it works here.

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The HackerNews community is insane.

They give you so much feedback and attention. And they always offer ways to improve the product. I was frantically updating the site to build features that were getting suggested throughout the day.

./Screen_Shot_2020-10-15_at_11.44.57_AM.png

I ended up with a few thousand hits to the site and in total 75 users who even signed up to use the calendar service even with a sketchy Google unverified OAuth form.

./Screen_Shot_2020-04-30_at_10.44.40_PM.png

I also received feedback through my Google Form.

./Screen_Shot_2020-10-15_at_11.46.53_AM.png

Product Hunt

Then months later I posted on ProductHunt. Didn’t receive too much traction, but definitely boosted the site’s visitor rates.

./Screen_Shot_2020-10-15_at_11.47.51_AM.png

Eventually I also threw in a counter for the number of times people used the app.

Adds good social proof, and I enjoy checking this every once in a while to see it go up.

./Screen_Shot_2020-10-15_at_11.50.37_AM.png

Lessons learned

No, this project was not nearly a “runaway success” by any means. It’s not something I’d further develop in any way.

But still, it opened my eyes to a few things.

  • Scratch your own itch

I’m terrible at coming up with ideas, but beginning with my own problems was the key for this project

  • Launch as fast as possible

Don’t take it from me, take it from Michael Seibel.

  • “If you build it, they will come” is a load of crap fed to us in college

Distribution matters, in ways that most college students don’t understand.

Our homework assignments are turned in to the professor, with

At college, “acquisition channels” are implicit, and marketing is non-existent.

  • It is not that your smallest efforts lead to the greatest results.

Instead, it is the months and years of effort building other random useless crap that lead to my ability to build this so fast and my ability to identify this problem.

Also recently @traf who made over $100,000 from a simple iOS 14 icon pack over a week. Caveat is that it took him years to get to that point.