Proof of Work: How Indie Founders Build Defensible Businesses

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I was recently talking to several indie founders about how cloneable their businesses are. Many of them have had to deal with copycats and have since developed methods of either engaging with them or not engaging at all, which is the more common response. They usually keep track of clones and copycats to ensure their property rights aren’t infringed on, but besides that, they’d rather focus on building a sustainable business than chasing copycat ghosts.

These founders trust that even when people clone their products, they have the upper hand. So, what exactly makes their businesses so unique and defensible?

What are their moats? How many moats do we have as indie hackers?

We certainly don’t have a financial moat or have access to massive funding sources. We certainly also don’t have media attention.

I can count on one hand the number of indie hackers I’ve ever seen mentioned in the mainstream media. Louis Pereira, the creator of the tool AudioPen, is one of the few indie hackers I’ve seen on any media outlet, which for the most of us means that we have no PR machine to defend our businesses. So, what makes our businesses defensible?

Experience this article as a podcast, a YouTube show, or as a newsletter:

It turns out it’s not the product. It’s the founder.

Distribution, the way we distribute our work, makes a significant difference and is one of the only ways we can actively and reliably defend our business. And distribution, for indie hackers, starts with their personal brand and presence in the communities of their target audience.

When you’re chasing your first few customers, you have very little to show for. But if you’re known to contribute to an existing community, having left traces of your ambition and curiosity before, people will be much more willing to listen. They’ll listen because they trust you to be honest with them — and that trust is earned through showing up and doing the work.

Distribution is a kind of “proof of work” because the only thing you can’t automate away or fake in software engineering and indie hacking is distribution—reaching people’s minds.

Distribution is not just about putting products on a platform or having them available in an app store. It’s about mindshare. It’s the willingness of other people to choose our product above the competition. And for that, they need to know about it.

As an indie hacker, playing the long game by building authentic relationships with people is crucial. It’s been at the very core of all my efforts over the last few years, and it has paid off handsomely.

The most meaningful things happen when I have a true connection with someone. With every interaction, I aim to build a win-win relationship, benefiting from my association with them just as much as they benefit from their association with me. That’s how I got people on my podcast whom I wouldn’t even have dreamt of talking to a few years ago. But they have agreed to show up on my show because I have showed up all around them for years.

“Proof of work”, taken from the crypto world, means consistently and reliably creating things that other people find useful and offering them for free. Sharing your work is the distribution of your thoughts and ideas, which becomes more valuable over time. By having distribution through real connections with real people, you find amplifiers — the folks who can’t stop talking you up to their friends and peers.

As an indie hacker, you don’t have much money or many resources to put your products in front of people. But by being present in conversations, contributing to communities, and helping people on their own path to success, you create a (very truthful) perception of caring more about their wins over time than your immediate needs. This ultimately enables a recommendation-based distribution of products.

Imagine helping ten people every day. A month or two from now, someone you helped today will have accomplished something because of your support. By helping others, you create the opportunity for eventual reciprocity. You give over the long term, and trickle-down effects happen along the way. The results usually are delayed, but by helping hundreds of people, the potential for one or two of them giving back in a meaningful way is extremely high.

The fact that the people you help today will —at some point in the future— talk kindly about your assistance is significant. They will always mention the person who helped them when they needed it. If every week you find two or three new people who talk about you in every potential situation, in a year, you have an army of 50 to 100 people consistently talking you up to their friends and peers.

I want my content, ideas, and selfless involvement in other people’s work to stand out in public.

I want this to be my proof of work, not just for the products I create but for my work in and for the community. I celebrate and empower other more than I talk about my books or my courses. My focus is on shining a light on other entrepreneurs. I know that eventually, it will be my turn to receive their support.

This is the kind of distribution that unlocks entrepreneurial success.

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