This December, Freckle Time Tracking turns 6 years old. OMG! And 30x500 turns 5 years old…after a fashion.

You see, the original 30x500 is dead. And the one before that. And the one before that. And the one before that, too.

We killed them. Slowly. And we’re still killing them, even as I write this. The 30x500 that just wrapped up for 30 students is just about expired.

This winter, we’re launching the culmination of 5 years of teaching designers & developers to make their very first product dollar. We’re making the very first go-at-your-own-pace 30x500 ever.

So it seems like a grand old time to talk about why the product development cycle that “feels right” is so very very wrong…and why you need to be more like one of nature’s strangest parasites.

First, the Before picture:

The “Elementary School” Style of Product Development

You learned your personal appproach to product development before you were even old enough to drive.

When you were a kid, it went something like this:

  1. You work on a class project
  2. …the bell rings…
  3. You work on the next discrete project

So now that you’re wearing the Adult Pants, and building products, the natural inclination is to:

  1. Build Product A!
  2. …time passes…
  3. Put Product A aside, build totally different Product B

Like a hungry bee buzzing from flower to flower.

But when you’re a bootstrapper, you can’t let your business lie fallow, waiting, while you build the next thing. You can’t throw away the natural advantages of what you’ve already done. You can’t switch gears every 45 minutes (or every year).

You can’t afford to be so wasteful

Every thing you work on has to feed your next thing. Every step you take has to move you forward (and your customers too).

And each step also has to work on its own, independently, cuz you aren’t living off the largesse of a venture capital fund.

You can’t be a bee

Individual bees don’t build product empires, my friends. Individual bees are the tool of the empire builders. You need to be the director — the queen bee.

Or the wasp.

So let me tell you a story about Nature, red in tooth and claw.

The Wasp and the Caterpillar

“Imagine being eaten alive — from the inside out!” — PBS and also smart product designers

When you need to come up with novel ways to survive and grow, look to the master: Evolution, and its product, the natural world. And for second, third and fourth products? Look to the parasitoid wasp.

The parasitoid wasp lays its eggs in a live caterpillar.

The eggs hatch into pupae who eat the caterpillar alive… from the inside out. After the wasplettes have eaten their fill, they bite their way out. The (dinner party) host caterpillar expires, naturally.

But what a waste!

That wasteful pupae discards effort — and nutrition — and transportation all in one go. It’s the flitting bee all over again.

(The metaphor is pretty clear, right? Good.)

And in case that’s not creepy enough, just wait — it gets creepier!

Not all parasitoid wasp species are so profligate. The Glyptapanteles wasp knows better than to waste a natural advantage. Its pupae are picky eaters. They don’t gnosh on the vital organs. And so, when the wasplettes blow the joint, the caterpillar is left alive.

Alive to do their bidding.

The caterpillar (what’s left of it) is biochemically hoodwinked into spending its dying breath to guard the baby wasp. And so G-wasps that have caterpillar bodyguards have a much higher survival rate. Their former meal becomes their insurance policy.

Glyptapanteles wasps are nature’s bootstrappers.

The true Bootstrapper’s Multi-Product Development Cycle

So, what can we learn from ol’ Glyppie? Instead of switching focus every time the bell dings — or a product has run its course — plan ahead, shield, and be thrifty:

  1. Use what you’ve already got
  2. Use it creatively — for both sustenance and protection
  3. Build while you grow
  4. Grow from the inside out

Thankfully, since we’re talking ebooks and software and workshops here, we are both the wasp and the caterpillar. And there are no caterpillar guts to contend with.

How we’ve made parasitic product dev work for us

It was in December 2010 that the 30x500 product roadmap began.

It started with a phone call.

I hosted a lil 3-hour teleconference call about business. I told structured bootstrapping stories to a mere 8 attendees, who paid $80 a head.

You’d think that, to me, such a pitiful attendance would be a sign to give up while I was ahead. But you’d be wrong.

The bit of feedback I heard most from our tiny group was “MOAR PLEASE!”

So we set out to deliver moar. I mean, more.

Five years later, we’ve helped hundreds of students gross, in total, around $3 million. (It’s harder to get exact numbers than you might imagine, but we do keep a tally every time a dollar amount is mentioned.) So…$3 million in student results.

And about $1.5 mil for us…not too shabby.

We made it happen by constantly supplanting our own work.

Each new version of the class was began by burrowing into the weakness of the previous one.

Eating it from the the inside out. Absorbing it. Becoming stronger, faster, better — more helpful to our students.

Then exploiting the powerful reputation of all the classes that came before — no matter how different — to carry us forward.

Glyppie would be proud!

Here’s what we didn’t do

We didn’t:

  • start fresh
  • change audiences
  • create a cluster of disparate products
  • change names (except the very first time)
  • change the problem arena
  • change the mission, or the direction, or the purpose
  • change the fundamental product type (it’s still a class/educational product, even if the format changed)

Now, I have made a few of these mistakes in the past…

…and watched our students make them (usually against our advice, but hey, nobody listens all the time). So, I am speaking from experience when I tell you…

Those things in the list above? Those are the Elementary School approach, the flitting bee approach. Those are momentum-killers. Those are the opposite of growing-inside-and-eating-your-way-out.

Those leave you with no protection.

So that’s not what we did with 30x500 over 5 years. No. We did the opposite. We stayed the course.

We evolved; we didn’t “disrupt.”

We moved from a group coaching call -> structured but long-winded and highly personal multi-month email course -> live, limited length bootcamp experience, with less personal engagement -> 100% turn-key product (coming right up!).

At each step 30x500 became less work for us, and way more effective for our students.

Here’s how we did it.

We’ve never before put out such a detailed roadmap of 30x500. Here it is. Use it to inspire yourself to supplant your product from the inside out.

Dec 2010: The teleconf call. I told 3 hours of bootstrapping stories (designed to create insight, but still… stories); not much in the way of actionability. Just 8 attendees/$640 total.

Jan 2010: Year of Hustle. After the teleconf attendees crying “MOAR,” Alex and I put our heads together to figure out how to give it to them. The result was a detailed outline of 12 weeks of lessons and homework. We pre-sold and rolled it out, live, working to our outlines. (Note: I don’t recommend this. It hurt.) 50 attendees at $450/$22,500.

Sounds like a lot but we split it and each spent hundreds of hours. On paper, a loss. But to a clever Glyppie? A major boon. A fat, juicy caterpillar to poke with our product ovipositor

Fall 2010: 30×500, the first. Alex dropped out due to overcommitment, so I was left to wrap up the previous class. There were many places where the class was imperfect and students got stuck. I coached them, but I also took note of where, why, and how. When it came time for the next class, I literally flipped the order of lessons on their head. (I cut a few out/added a couple, too.) Sales Safari was born. The research focus had always been there, but now I made it paramount. Much better class, better marketing, testimonials, new name — 50 students at $650 a head. $32,500.

I ran another class, just like that one…except I could never leave it alone. I don’t remember what changes I made for the next couple classes or when, exactly, from here.

But the constant creative destruction went in this order:

30×500, Later improvements:

  • More exercises.
  • A 3-hour onboarding bootcamp, to get people on the same page, to give them an overview of the system, to get them excited.
  • Alex rejoined me. Now we could double down.
  • An application process — and we truly denied 20%+ of applications.
  • Turned early lessons into free marketing material, to create better students before class.
  • A 4-week pre-class on habits, to help students learn to stick to it.
  • Expanded the 3-hour onboarding to two half-days (8 hours total).

Then, at the height of 75 students @ $2450/ea — we rested, for a little bit.

Everything we did helped our students execute more, faster, better.

The restructuring, the onboarding, the application, the educational marketing, the habits class — those helped a lot.

But by the end of 2012, there were no more incremental improvements to make to the basic format: onboarding, email lessons, workbooks, exercises, weekly chat.

So we stopped the old class. Fin.

2013: It was time to bite our way out…

To get bigger — to get better — we had to question the most basic assumptions. And it turned out we needed to destroy them. To, in Glyppie parlance, eat them aaaaaall up (and shit out what wasn’t useful any more).

Thus the 30×500 Bootcamp was born:

A live 2-day workshop, with short, tight video lessons broken up by tons of live exercises and hot seats. Atomic exercises, broken into little component parts, for true skill building.

Many of the systems were there, the ones that we’d developed over 3 years of teaching. Many of the lecture-y lessons fell away. We stopped teaching everything that wasn’t directly helping our students to execute their first product. The systems that stood the test of time? They got even more systematic. Do this. Then do this. Here’s how you can tell if you did it right.

Alex and I killed the old 30×500. But we kept the name: 30×500 Bootcamp.

We got the corpse to protect us.

Then it became just… 30×500.

And now we’re about to do it again.

2014: Time to metamorphose

The 30×500 Bootcamp was only ever meant to be a stepping stone. Yes, we spent 1.5 years on a stepping stone — a stepping stone that helped more students produce more awesome products and more sales than ever before. That’s how Alex and I roll.

Our ultimate goal, though, has always been to create a 30×500 product. One that you can just buy, then use to go at your own pace.

We could have tried to create in a vacuum.

But believe me — it’s horrible. Really terrible. And unlikely to work for the student. This, the working in a vacuum, is the source of the worst writer’s block and the shittiest products. (It’s no coincidence that the core of 30×500’s lessons are designed to teach you how to work with data, not guesswork.)

So, we skipped that shit-show and did it the right way.

We created a space where we could get paid to observe people interacting with our future product: The bootcamp.

We’ve learned a shitton. We’ve learned what works & what doesn’t; we’ve gotten to the point where no student question surprises us, because we’ve seen it before. We’ve helped our students ship more, faster. They got live feedback, and we did too.

Now we’re ready to take it asynchronous.

So, the 30×500 Bootcamp was created by baby product larvae eating the old 30×500 from the inside out.

But the 30×500 Bootcamp, too, had the egg of a future product inside it: 30×500 The Product.

And it’s about to break out. Again.

And inside this new 30×500, there’s a whole clutch of baby product eggs — regular books, task-specific products and workshops.

Freaky deaky, weird, and gross…

…but that’s nature for you. That’s the way to grow, survive, and thrive, in a challenging environment. That’s how to fit into the ecosystem that exists. That’s a law of nature.

It takes time, but it eliminates risk.

Wasp on, my friend. Wasp on.

You want more.

I know you do. More lessons on how to do this bootstrapping thing — the counterintuitive, sometimes messy and ugly truths that separate the success stories from the failures?

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