Building a Product as a Solo Technical Founder with Safia Abdalla

Safia Abdalla HeadshotBuilding a product is hard. Building a product as the sole technical founder is harder. Safia Abdalla is doing something tremendously difficult, which means there’s a lot we can learn from her experience.

I’ve enjoyed following her on Twitter (@captainsafia) for a while now and am pleased to share this interview with you. Read on to hear Safia share more about her product Zarf, which recently went into beta, how she decides to give technical talks, and her technique for avoiding task paralysis.

Hi! Can you introduce yourself? Who are you and what are you working on?

I’m Safia. I’m the solo technical founder behind Zarf, a content marketplace for written content produced by independent publishers. On Zarf, readers can purchase subscriptions to publications produced by their favorite authors or purchase individual posts by those writers. Zarf aims to provide an equitable and fair platform where writers and readers can both benefit from the written word.

Jason: I’ve mostly written for free, but I’ve also put writing behind an email capture, a paywall through Medium, and charged for courses and workshops. In a world where people create enormous volumes of media for free on platforms like Twitter, Medium, and YouTube, when do you think it makes sense to charge for your writing?

I think it makes sense for creators to charge for their writing in a few cases.

  • When the content took a lot of time, money, or other resources to create.
  • When there are a group of individuals willing to pay for the writing.
  • When there is a sense of exclusivity or privacy that is associated with the content being produced.

Regarding this series of tweets:

What kinds of opinionated product decisions have you made with Zarf and what drove those decisions?

The most opinionated decision that I’ve made with Zarf is the fact that there is no free content on the platform. I think there are plenty of products that allow users to create free content on the Internet. There are also a few products that allow users to create a mix of free and paid content. There are very few products that allow users to create exclusively paid content. This decision allows Zarf to compete in a smaller playing field. It also limits the scope of the product which gives me the ability to build a product that has a depth not breadth. It definitely does present some interesting challenges around ensuring that users have trust about the content they are purchasing before they make the purchase. I’m actively looking into solutions for this problem.

You’ve been an impressively prolific speaker over the last few years across a number of topics and frameworks. In one of your talks on running and software development, you talk about the need to strength-train (which I interpreted to mean, be multidisciplinary). How do you decide to new a new language or framework, and when do you decide you’re ready to speak about it?

I usually decide to use a new language or framework out of either idle curiosity or intentional application. Sometimes I’m looking to explore a new design philosophy or technique and I don’t have hard deadline to meet so I dive into it with a side project. Other times, I require a particular technology because it’s the best tool for the job. In either case, I speak about the topic once I am certain that I can explain it to the version of myself that existed before I learned about the technology and speed up the learning process for that version of myself.

Regarding this tweet:

You promised folks some tips on spreadsheet in the thread =). Can you tell me more about how you use spreadsheets and your productivity system more generally?

I specifically use spreadsheets to manage engagements with beta users, sales leads, and key metrics for the beta. When it comes to managing my productivity it can be a little all over the place sometimes. I keep something in a notebook, others in a file on my Notes app, and others still as GitHub issues. I find that where the task goes largely depends on the situation that I am in when I realized I needed to complete a certain task. I’ve stopped focusing on where my tasks go and focused instead on getting them done regardless of where they originate. This process does have a downside, I find that I often end up with an overwhelming set of tasks. To address this, I usually start by addressing the smallest most trivial issue on the list and build momentum towards the biggest tasks in order to maintain motivation and gratification.

You’ve been involved in a number of programs like CoderDojoChi, ChickTech, PyLadies Chicago, and Women in Computing at Northwestern, which are about making tech more accessible to young people and women. What do you think is missing from the conversation today about diversity and inclusiveness in tech?

I think the conversation needs to focus more sharply on uplifting existing underrepresented minorities in the tech industry in practical ways. Things like fair and equal pay, opportunities for advancement in the workplace, financial investments in early-stage startups founded by URMs, media opportunities, and so on and so forth. The work that needs to be done to push forward inclusivity in tech is not glamorous or large scale. It starts by lending a helping hand, critically examining your own internal biases and how they might affect the decisions you make inside and outside the workplace, and choosing the advancement of others over yourself on occasion. The thing missing from the conversation is a focus on personal responsibility and an understanding the power of the individual in effecting large-scale change.

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Jason Shen

Jason is a tech entrepreneur and advocate for Asian American men. He's written extensively and spoken all over the world about how individuals and organizations develop their competitive advantage. Follow him at @jasonshen.

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