Day 2

We're building a startup in 80 days in public. Day 2 was on Jan 11 '22. You can find today's entry at Day 67.

Today's posts:

Startups are all about constraints

You can start a web startup with the money you find between your couch cushions, but good luck trying to start a rocket company that way. Web startups are unique in that they require no upfront investment whatsoever. For all of history you needed to have money to make money. No shortage of corny expressions saying so. But not anymore! The internet is the great equalizer. And the internet is still growing rapidly, which means there is an abundance of opportunity. That’s pretty sweet, too.

However, even web startups face significant constraints. But that’s alright. It just means you have to be a little creative.

Constraint 1: Web Tech

You have to use Javascript and CSS which greatly limits what you can create. Essentially you’re restricted to using a tiny fraction of the computing power on the device and you’re locked into a browser sandbox that is crufty and constantly shifting under your feet. Code you write today might stop working tomorrow or next year, but almost certainly by the next decade. The more you push at the boundaries of what’s possible within the constraints of a browser the more likely your code is to suddenly stop working on one of the major web browsers. Windows and Linux utilities written 20 years ago still run fine on modern machines. On the web everything breaks for no reason. If the web is so bad, then why build a web app at all? Because the web takes care of the distribution problem.

I suppose the silver lining is that many of the web products out there that you’ll end up competing with will be barely functional. The quality bar you have to meet is low on the web, but despite that we still intend to make something that’s rock solid.

Constraint 2: Time

We’re giving ourselves 80 days. That’s not much, when you take into account we also want to document what we do. We risk running out of time if we waste even a couple of weeks going into technical dead ends. We have to ruthlessly cut all non-essential functionality. We have to say no to almost all the thing we want to include. After we cut nearly everything will we be left with something that’s not just a pointless toy? It’s a fine line to walk. If we don’t get the core set of features right nobody will get excited about our product. But if we build too much we’ll have to rush at the expense of quality. Tomorrow we’ll create a rough timeline of how we think we should allocate our 80 days. Err, I mean, 77!

Constraint 3: Audience

Even if you have the technical skills to make something, and the time in which to do it, you still won’t get anywhere if you don’t have a way of reaching your target market. We’re no good at marketing, and we don’t particularly enjoy it. Which means we can only build products that can –at least in part– sell themselves by word of mouth. In addition, we want to make something that we can directly drop people into so they can play with it. The product must largely sell itself, because we’re not going to. This means we’ll have to put a lot of our attention on onboarding. We have to make a great first impression and our app has to feel fresh. When the traffic to your website is only a trickle you have to convert a large percentage of your visitors. We’ll have to compensate for our lack of marketing skills by making a sticky app with good curb appeal. This means we can’t build anything that confuses people or that is too weird.

Constraint 4: Money

I’m adding this constraint for completeness, and because money and time are interchangeable. We could self-fund several years of development before launching anything. That way we could do exploratory programming and we could tackle much more difficult technical challenges. But we’re not giving ourselves a budget here, except for the bare minimum. We’ll need some server space. A MacBook maybe. We won’t spend anything that would put a big dent in your savings. There is no money for ads. We’re not flying to conferences. We’re sticking to the basics.

Our goal with #80daystartup is to show how you can bootstrap from nothing. No money, too little time, no audience. You just have to be very mindful of the constraints you face. Our goals here are intentionally modest, in an effort to show that starting a very simple startup is still totally worthwhile. And if all goes to plan we can show that something that starts as a very modest startup can easily pivot and grow into something far more ambitious. But that’s something for a later update :).

Bad Ideas: What Not To Build

Much has been written about picking startup ideas. Although a good idea won’t be a guarantee for success, of course we want to avoid picking a bad idea which sets us up for failure even before we start.

As part of picking an idea is identifying bad ones, we wrote down some of the points we check our ideas against to see if we’re not too quick to jump onto something which isn’t a good fit. Not everyone will have the same criteria, and in our case it’s mostly about bootstrapped software business, but here goes:

1. It’s not super relevant for us

If we can’t even convince ourselves we’d really want to use this, how would we convince others? How do we come up with improvements and novel solutions, if it’s a problem we don’t want to solve for ourselves? How can we find and interact with our audience if they’re nothing like us?

Just as important, how are we going to stay motivated and care enough to make it a success when inevitably there will be some roadblocks along the way. Everything feels like an uphill battle if you don’t think an idea is really interesting, matters enough, and is fun to work on. When an idea does fit, working on it feels like going on autopilot.

That rules out going for that “I have an amazing idea!” you read about somewhere else.

2. It doesn’t allow us to run the business we want

Besides the problem space itself, the idea must support running the type of business we want. Can we use the skills we enjoy using to make a difference in this space? What other aspects of running a business do we find important (for example, being able to work remotely, not having to raise capital, and so on).

Likewise, what are things we really hate doing? There are always tasks that aren’t fun, but if the success will depend on us primarily doing exactly those, we’ll likely not do them on autopilot as we should and risk not moving forward fast enough. It’s better to be honest about this beforehand, as now is the time to pick an idea which is fun to work on by design. No use in trying to launch an idea for the enterprise market when you have no interest in sales.

3. There is no part of the product that’s a “first”

Not building something that’s original would violate #1 for us. But even if you enjoy building a “me-too” product, the internet will be too saturated to care. Some things might have worked five years ago but not anymore. It’s easier to be first (some things even just work once).

No product is 100% original in every aspect of course. In fact, if the category of product doesn’t exist at all yet, that’s often a red flag. But something about it needs to really stand out in a fundamental way. Think about how fans of this new idea’s approach would never want to go back. And how your product did it first.

Just like the product, the marketing (or anything related, like business model) needs a first, too. It’s not the web of 20 years ago anymore. There’s more content competing for attention than ever. Ads are dead (prohibitively expensive for many bootstrapped businesses). Established Marketplaces (like App Store or G Suite) are saturated. Provided you execute well, the chances someone buys from a competitor is not because their product is better, it’s because they don’t know you.

It’s more important than ever to stand out, but there are many ways to do so. For example, the first community around X, the first SaaS version of X, the first privacy-first version of X, the first open source version of X, the first freemium version of X, the first premium version of X, the first to use a channel for X. Everyone needs a thing.

4. We don’t know who to charge for it

Even by filtering ideas, we don’t know for certain if it’s really viable. Interviewing potential users, asking friends, getting “leads”.. It’s all nice, but the only validation is validation by credit card.

So whether people will really pay is what we need to test. But we must at least have an idea how to get users to our checkout form. If we either don’t know who the audience is, we don’t know how to find them, or we can’t charge them enough (depending on our $ARR goal), then it’s time to go back to Start and don’t pass Go.

Lastly, and this is related to #3 above, we also want these initial customers to be real fans. The idea must support creating real fans so we get vital feedback and organic growth. Obviously we don’t know yet if our idea will have fans, but it’s just as obvious that certain classes of products will never have fans, but simply users (i.e. don’t start a paper company).

5. The V1 of the idea isn’t simple enough

The only way to truly validate the idea is to charge for it (#4), and that most likely means building a V1. What’s possible depends on resources like knowledge, budget and time of course, so it must be simple enough to fit those constraints.

Another advantage is that a simpler product is often faster to sell than a large integrated solution which requires numerous stakeholders to sign off on. It’s also easier to explain what is and convince first potential fans to try it out. As building and testing a new idea is already difficult enough, keep things as simple as possible.

One category in particular to be wary of is “broad product ideas” with existing competitors. Where a deep product solves one particular problem really well (digs deeper than the competition in one aspect), a broad product is useful because it does many things in an integrated way. For it to be truly unique and better in some way (see #3), its V1 needs to do be either broader than the competition, or at least as broad and deeper. Both outbuilding and outselling complete existing platforms from day 1 is a bad idea when bootstrapping your first business idea.

← Previous day (day 1)Next day (day 3) →

You can follow us on Twitter @jdvhouten and @wcools and look for #80daystartup

Read more

Work/new-life balance
Durable tech
Early user feedback
Spending time to save time
Products want to be platforms
Always be launching
Enjoying the journey
Work-life balance
Recap @ Day 59
Perils of caching
Making sense of contradictions
Trust signals
DIY javascript error logging
Taxes: an automation story
Magical thinking
Start small
High conviction, low conviction
Most deals fail

Post archive