7 min read

From the Commit Log #0: Insignificant Bits

In this post From the Commit Log we will be talking about Insignificant Bits (what you are reading right now), what it is, how it’s built and what the future holds.

Who are you?

Hey there, my name is Simón. I usually go with @scast (Github, Twitter) in many places. I am a London-based software engineer trying to build up the website you are currently reading!

What is your project?

My project is Insignificant Bits. It started out one day that I thought I could sell merch (t-shirts) geared for software engineers (like me!). If you are reading this, it means I failed to do that and I have since pivoted to something else.

What tools did you use to build it?

For my first iteration, I went with Shopify to build my store-front. My rationale was that, yes, I could probably use something like WooCommerce or Magento on my own but I would spend more time tinkering and playing with the toys than trying to get something done, so I decided against that. Shopify was alright, too.

I bought a theme on ThemeForest and got down to working. Shopify can sometimes be a bit clunky or slow, but it definitely works. I used Printful to print-on-demand, which has a Shopify integration and also lets you use its API. The Shopify integration worked very well as expected: you don’t even need to leave your store to get it going.

Selecting the name was kinda a thing of trial and error. I was between Insignificant Bits and TuringWear. Given how it has all turned out, I am happy I chose Insignificant Bits! I bought the domain on Namecheap on a whim late at night and called it a day. You can read on the About page where the name comes from.

Designs

Good vs. Bad

For my merch designs, I did it two ways. I hired a unlimited-design agency for a month. There are many of those, but I ended up choosing Penji. It has a very nice customer dashboard based around tasks plus (almost) real time communication in which you ask for revisions. I have mixed feelings about the quality I got from Penji but overall I would hire them again for a similar task. By the end of my month in Penji, I was also doing some of the graphic designs myself. Once I had several designs ready, I added them to Shopify. My workflow was usually:

  1. Brainstorm topics and come up with scenarios or one-liners.
  2. I kept a Trello board for those where I kept my brief for the designers.
  3. I created a few tasks in Penji from my cards in Trello.
  4. I generally applied the final touches myself on Adobe XD.

All in all, I ended up with about 50 designs I was pretty happy with, so now I needed to figure out the hard part for me: selling.

Failing Gracefully

My main struggle was actually getting people on the website. I bought Facebook Ads and Google Ads but I couldn’t reliably get sales. They did convert, and I think I was able to reach the people I wanted to sell to, but they were very expensive to my limited budget. By early January 2020, I decided to go back to the drawing board. I cancelled my Shopify subscription, and decided to think for a while about what I was going to do next.

Starting over

In this second iteration, I decided to change up what I was trying to achieve. Initially, I wanted to sell merch. I figured the selling part (make money!) was largely inconsequential to what I ended up getting out of this. Through Insignificant Bits I realized I was missing a little bit of a creative outlet in my life, and that I was severely burnt out. Looking back at some of the designs I wanted to do, instead of celebrating the tech industry, I was mocking it. In the process I was being so negative that the original message got lost in translation.

However, what I did end up getting from this entire process was that creating can be therapeutic. I feel that’s the primary reason many of us start making stuff. I want to focus in this realization this time around. I want to focus on the technical part of creating and listen to the stories coming from hackers of all kinds, whether they do it as a hobby or as a business.

I am only starting out. I sat down one night, and wrote this in Emacs. I’ve been using Emacs for over 10 years now, and I still discover new ways to create with Emacs every now and then. Once I finished writing this, I needed a way to put it out there and share it. I decided to go simple, and I installed Hugo. After browsing themes for a while, I choose this and customized it a little bit. I recycled my old logo, which was actually made using NameCheap too!

Then I ran:

$ hugo server -D

And I realized I was half way there.

How did you put it live?

I used Render, which I’ve seen @csallen recommend very highly. I had never used it before, but in a matter of minutes I was already live. It’s just a bunch of HTML files so not much is needed.

I created a GitHub repository for this project. I pushed to the repository and I was already there. At that point I decided that I might as well try to record my story in there.

What went right?

Obviously, realizing I was longing for space to create was key this time around. I am less concerned of whether or not I’ll make money with Insignificant Bits, and just want to put it out there.

It’s kind of ironic that I needed (more) space to create. Many of us as software engineers are in many ways blessed with the gift to create every day new things out of nothing. I guess I was looking for the space to create without constraints, and that I did get.

What went wrong?

I wasn’t able to reach the people I wanted to reach. I started trying to sell without actually having someone to sell to. I thought that just having expert knowledge of the profile I wanted to reach would be sufficient to sell. It wasn’t. Specifically:

  1. I didn’t test before pushing. The quintessential mistake in both software engineering and running your own business. I didn’t validate my idea before building. I relied too much on thinking I had “expert” understanding of the people I wanted to reach, but then completely failed to reach them effectively.

  2. I didn’t build an audience before launching. Instead, I focused on my creative work. While I do think I produced some stuff that people want, I didn’t know how to put it in front of them. I relied on ads, which converted but were expensive.

  3. I didn’t tell a story. A lot of what I wanted to convey had a story behind it. I focused on getting designs that I could sell rather than getting the story out.

If you could, what would you do differently?

I would try to realize that I was burning out and instead of doing more, I should try to do less. In a business setting, I would try to get an audience before trying to sell. I read about people like @dvassallo who managed to sell thousands of dollars worth of copies of his book in just a day, and I realize that I did the business part wrong. I should work backwards from selling to product if I ever want a product of mine to succeed.

What more do you want to do?

Eventually, I hope to be interviewing a lot of people on how do they approach creating. I don’t think everything has to have a business purpose, so I want to try to capture as diverse people as I can to put their story out there. For now I am thinking of just doing a blog and put these stories out there, but perhaps move to other formats in time. Newsletter? Podcast? Or maybe a Twitch stream?

Anything else?

Yes! I am still mostly figuring it out as I go, but I am happy to listen to what people want to read about. Please do consider either getting in touch with me via my social media handles (yeah, I do believe GitHub can be social media these days) or by emailing me.