A little less than a year ago, I started thinking about a project to help amputees become more active. The initial vision involved a web application. That meant development time. Hosting. Backups. And all of the other services necessary to build and maintain a high-quality application and codebase. Ten years ago, that would have felt like a daunting first step, but these days, it feels like a few weeks of effort. As a side project, finding a few weeks of free time would be challenging, but not impossible.

Knowing all too well how all of that works and how the cost of doing it correctly begins to add up, I knew I couldn’t personally foot the bill indefinitely, and I knew I didn’t want other amputees to have to pay anything. Clearly this had to be a non-profit, and right away.

So then I went down the path of researching non-profits so we could cross all of our t’s and dot all of those i’s. Turns out that with non-profits, there’s a mind-boggling amount of overhead. You need a board. You need board meetings. You need paperwork. And I fell down the rabbit hole. I was so heads down learning about non-profits and thinking about operations, I lost sight of the goals.

All of that is the right solution to the problem I’d ultimately like to help amputees with, but it’s the wrong way to start. And it’s embrassing that it took me this long to see what was happening. I spent time focused on efforts to support the cause rather than the cause itself.

With a for-profit business, it’s easy to stay focused on building something people will pay for. You make money and the money grows the business. It’s a simple feedback loop. In that context, revenue is the goal. With a non-profit, I got scared thinking about it like a business that needs revenue to sustain itself but without a revenue stream to do so. So I got caught up thinking about how it could fund itself, but with a non-profit, revenue isn’t the goal. Impact is.

All along something never felt quite right, but I couldn’t put a finger on it. In a way, Adaptable has made progress, but it hasn’t even come close to making an impact. And as long as I’m focused on how it can be sustainable, it won’t make an impact. The catch is that there’s two ways to make something financially sustainable. Get the money to cover the costs. Or just spend less–or nothing at all.

So I stepped back to reframe it all and see if there was something meaningful that could be done where it wouldn’t need financial sustainability. There’s countless free (or very affordable) tools and services available these days. So why not create something that has zero overhead but starts helping amputees almost immediately? That was the first step to finding the right approach.

The second step is that, as a developer trying to keep costs down, there’s always temptation to build and/or host my own tools in the name of saving money. But if I’m writing code or configuring servers, that’s a distracting level of indirection. That is, it’s not any different than time spent researching non-profits. It’s progress without impact. It’s preparation almost to the point of procrastination.

So, with the constraints of low costs and no writing code, what can somebody do? A whole hell of a lot as it turns out. And the bonus is that in addition to focusing on impact, everything still aligns with laying a foundation for the longer-term vision. But instead of laying an operational foundation, it lays an impactful foundation for learning where to steer the ship.

I still hope to formalize it all and create a non-profit structure to protect and sustain the vision. And I still want to build the application and the tools to help solve specific problems, but that doesn’t have to happen right now. In fact, it definitely shouldn’t be the first step. We’ll work towards that, but there’s an easier way to start for now.