The Rush of Shipping

Recently, one of my posts made Hacker News #1. That brought back childhood memories.

The Paidmail Site

When I was thirteen, I launched a hacky Paidmail site. The concept was simple: You signed up to receive ad e-mails. At the end of the month, you got money in proportion to how many e-mails you had received.

How did I build it? I didn’t. I used a crappy PHP project I had found somewhere.

It even included a referral system: If someone signed up through your link, you’d earn 10% of what they earn – forever. The referral system even went five layers deep, seriously. That meant if person 1 signs up through your referral link and person 2 signs up through person 1’s link, you’d be getting a cut of both person 1 and 2’s earnings. Up to person 5. I didn’t think much about it.

My coding skills were bad, but my design skills were worse. I couldn’t even write CSS. I used some crappy HTML template I found somewhere. Remember, this was the 2000s. So basing your “design” on a free HTML template would easily place you in the top 40% of well-designed websites. Good times.

It didn’t even have a domain. Remember, I was thirteen, so I only had one domain which was registered on my father’s name, running on his bank account. Getting another domain would be just as complex. So I created a subdomain on that domain for my Paidmail site. This was quite funny because the root domain was about building websites, totally unrelated to e-mails and earning money.

The Launch

I was active on an online forum, a good old phpBB, on how to make money online. There was a subforum for people announcing their new projects. I created a new thread and launched my Paidmail site.

This was not the first thing I launched. That same community had a now-forgotten point system. Those points were somewhat of a virtual currency. They had an API for transferring them. Based on that, I had coded up a few gambling sites before. Really simple stuff. Like “bet whether the coin flip will be heads or tails”. Unsurprisingly, none of them were a huge success.

After launching my new Paidmail service, I went to bed. The next morning, I went to school. After school, a friend came by. When he left, it occured to me that I had launched this thing last night. I checked the registration count: 68.

Wait, what? 68 people registered in the past 24 hours? I logged into the MySQL DB to check. They were real.

Turns out, the referral system was a good idea – by coincidence. As I learned later, there was this community of people who were really into being the first to register on Paidmail sites to promote them with their referral link.

The following weeks, hundreds of registrations poured in and plateaued at around a thousand.

Those days were spent scrambling: Trying to find people, customers, who were willing to pay for sending ad e-mails to my users. This turned out to be difficult, but I found a few.

Also, figuring out performance issues. Turns out, it’s non-trivial to blast an e-mail to hundreds of people in PHP, on a shared server, in one blocking call, with no way to re-start it if it crashes.

When the first user accounts were close to the minimum payout amount, I tested the payout mechanism. I logged in with my user account and clicked “Payout”. 404. It didn’t exist. That happens if you launch a business based on random PHP files you found on the internet.

More scrambling. I wrote a simple PHP form which would send me an e-mail with details of the user who wanted his money. That was actually some of the first code I’d written, ever. And I already knew it wouldn’t scale, ever. But it would work. For now.

User complaints came pouring in. Some received e-mails twice because PHP crashed during sending them. Fixed. Won’t happen again. Others wanted their money but only got a 404 page. Done. Refresh and find the form.

For every thing I coded, there were users out there who were desperately waiting and immeasurably grateful when they realized that they were heard. Knowing that somewhere else in out there, there was some half-asian guy, sitting behind a CRT screen and solving their problems by writing really bad PHP code. And for me, it was one of the most satisfying times in my life.

The Rush of Shipping.

Knowing that what you’re working on is the right thing, because it’s obvious and it’s obvious that people want it. Shipping something to production which will be used just minutes later. And knowing that it’s yours, you solved their problem and you know it’s right.

Waking up in the morning, firing up the computer to see who signed up last night. Ready to code, knowing exactly what’s next. Because it’s obvious.

I consider myself very fortunate for having experienced this feeling. Because I think most startup founders haven’t. They follow the usual path: They conceive of an idea, get some money, retreat to their cave, build their product for a year, launch, don’t gain any traction and finally retreat into darkness.

At no stage in this process did they have customers waiting for them, hyped, eager to see what’s next. They either didn’t have any customers in the first place or their product was so useless that nobody cared what’s next.

They never experienced The Rush of Shipping.

We allow people to tread on the wrong path for way too long. Developing enterprise applications which are too complex for anyone to ever use. Working 12-hour startup days on products that never ship. Solving problems which are fascinating, but only on a technical level, for the same people who are working on them, and for nobody else.

Developing software is hard. Developing the right thing is even harder. And only a very few of us have experienced how it feels to solve the right problems, for the right customers, with the right technology. The Rush of Shipping.

Every developer should know how this feels.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had that feeling. After the Paidmail episode, I ran the site for a year or so. At some stage, the users noticed they wouldn’t become rich and lost interest in receiving e-mails. Then, the customers lost interest in purchasing e-mails, and finally, I lost interest in everything. I forgot how it felt.

Until recently, 16 years later. I had been writing more frequently and then one of my posts reached Hacker News #1.

I didn’t even notice at first. On my way to bed, I checked HN once more, when I saw something familiar at the top of the list. It was my site.

People poured in. And then, e-mails. Whether there’s an RSS/Atom feed. Uh, no. Whether you can subscribe via e-mail. Um, not really.

And there it was again.

For the RSS/Atom feed, it’s a one-liner for GitHub pages. For newsletters, there’s Mailchimp.

It may not seem like much; but this is not about the size of features nor their complexity. It’s about that feeling that out there, there’s someone, waiting for you to build it. And you know it. That’s The Rush of Shipping.


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