The Pre-Sale Trap

If you’re not careful, running a banana stand can feel like an endless bootstrap. Which works about as well as running a nation in a constant state of emergency. Or a body on nothing but caffeine and adrenaline.

Emergency states normalize emergency measures. Like the “pre-sale”.

A pre-sale is when you sell a product that technically doesn’t exist yet. Or maybe it’s partially complete. This is the model that Kickstarter made ubiquitous.

As many successful Kickstarter campaigns prove, it is possible to do pre-sale well. But it’s also easy to let survivor bias lull you into a false sense of optimism about pre-sales. And as many Kickstarter veterans will tell you, even “succeeding” can turn into a traumatic, burnout-inducing experience.

A lot of the hustle porn literature talks up pre-sales as a panacea. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps! Prove your market segment before you commit any effort! Fund your future work so you can quit your job and finally write that book about keeping honey badgers as housepets!

Look, pre-sales work for some people. But in my experience, they are a lot dicier than the hustle bros would have you believe.

Life is a complex and scary place, full of unexpected… excitement. In my experience, taking people’s money in exchange for future products is a bit like poking a sleeping bear. “Hey!” you are shouting at the universe. “Look at me! I am taking a biiiiig risk! Mortgaging my future labor for money up-front! It’s a good thing my life is uncomplicated and I have lots of free time! It sure would suck to have some kind of unexpected family health issue crop up! Or a complicated divorce! Or a global pandemic!”

I stand before you as a cautionary tale. I have a number of exciting new content projects I would love to be working on. But I’m not working on any of them right now.

Partly, that’s because I am putting time into shoring up the infrastructure of my banana stand, working on partnerships, technical underpinnings, marketing automations, and whatnot. But it’s also because I am, at the time I’m writing this, making good on promised work that goes back—I wish I was kidding—eight years.

Ugh, I don’t want to do this, but let’s make this concrete. The current stack of promised work-in-progress (WIP) I am paying down, as far as I can remember:

  • The Rake Field Manual: An “easy” book project I tossed out for pre-sale in 2014. Now reincarnated as A Course About Project Automation. Projected completion date: unknown, but I’ve at last I’ve given myself a framework to work in where site automation work naturally leads into adding new content to this project. I consider this to be about as on-track a status as is likely for this project.
  • The Capacitor Sessions: a series of recorded pairing sessions between me and Betsy Haibel, promised as part of Master the Object-Oriented Mindset (MOOM). The video for these has been “in the can” since at least 2018, but editing it turned out to be a huge project. As of late 2021 I have a new video editor, who is adding new 20-minute videos to the MOOM course every week or so. Status: on-track.
  • Robust Ruby: a course I pre-sold in July 2019. As an extracted course from the RubyTapas series, most of the content already existed. But I also promised some bonus material in the form of recorded collaborations with a Rails performance expert. Almost three years later, I finally have the first of those sessions scheduled for recording ????.

This is a pretty painful and embarrassing list to write, but I think it’s important to be transparent. It’s easy to promise something you “know” you can deliver. But then life happens. And sometimes the “easiest” projects turn out to be uninspiring—or your inspiration moves on to new ideas—and suddenly they aren’t so easy.

To quote Admiral Ackbar: it’s a trap!

Or, maybe it isn’t. Look, I know plenty of people who do great with pre-sales. Maybe you are one of them. This cautionary sign isn’t for everyone. But I think it’s important to temper the enthusiasm about pre-sales so often seen in the hustle press.

How to mitigate the danger of pre-sales? Here are a few ideas:

  • Know thyself. Some of this comes down to understanding and accepting your own work style. After over a decade of running my banana stand, I know some of my limitations. I’m far less eager to launch pre-sales now.
  • Sell a workshop instead of pre-selling a course/book. This is a strategy I’m really liking lately. Do you know enough about a topic to teach it to people? Instead of planning out a whole course and pre-selling it, schedule a workshop, maybe 2-6 days long (spread over a couple of weeks). Cap attendance at a manageable number, like a dozen people. Showing up for a workshop for two weeks is a much more manageable commitment than building out a whole course or book. And what’s more, the live interaction will give you invaluable insights into what your audience is most interested or confused about.
  • Make pre-sales conditional. Don’t take people’s money until you hit a specified funding level. Calculate what it will take to enable you to work full-time on the project. Then double that number.
  • Mind those extras. A lot of marketing advice out there hammers on the importance of having a long bullet-list of “bonuses” to make a book or course feel like a great value. And, I mean yeah, they say this because it works. But it’s way too easy to promise yourself into a unexpected amount of labor with your extras. Especially if the extras involve coordinating with other people. Try to promise bonus materials that are low effort for you and your work style.
  • Limit your WIP: Only one unfinished project at a time. No big exciting announcements until the last project is wrapped up.
  • Manage expectations of completion: “completeness” is overrated. Especially in the tech field, where things move so fast. One of my big shifts in creating Graceful.Dev has been that I think of it and talk about it as a garden of living courses. No completion promised or expected, just perpetual growth and grooming.

Finally, let’s talk emergency management: Being brutally honest with you, most of my pre-sales have been launched while staring down terrifying family financial crunches. I’m not going to tell you not to have financial shortfalls. But be aware that a pre-sale launched in response to an emergency can easily turn into a “now you have two problems” situation.

If you already have the audience to successfully launch a pre-sale in response to a crisis, consider simply asking for money instead. I know, I know, it’s not the American way, but it turns out that if you are out there doing good work in the world, a lot of people are gonna be willing to support you just for being you. It feels a lot better to delight donors with surprise goodies than to disappoint customers with delayed products. This is one reason I have a Patreon in addition to my “banana stand” content businesses.

Running a banana stand shouldn’t feel like a death march. It shouldn’t make you feel guilty every time you reflect on your catalog of “unfinished” work. That kind of stress is what real jobs are for.

So, I hope you take a lesson from my mistakes and temper the urge to pre-sell. Cheers.

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