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Building a Startup in 45 Minutes per Day While Deployed in Iraq (mattmazur.com)
508 points by essayoh on Feb 15, 2016 | hide | past | favorite | 120 comments

Somewhat related: I have this fantasy where I actually make a living working a non-technical job that is relatively simple to do but where I'm able to read and think about what I would build when I get back to the keyboard all day long.

I'd spend the days thinking about building and how you would do it for 90% of the time but only spend 5-10% of my time executing. The rest of the time is thinking, planning, and re-thinking things I've done, imagining the tweaks and enhancements I'd get to pump out when I have the chance.

The best code I write is when I have it all figured out ahead of time, the problem is paged-in, and my fingers are merely transcribing the stream of consciousness. I just need a couple of moments to get it out.

Dissimilarly, I would imagine that, being deployed in Iraq, this guy doesn't have much time to think about his startup when doing his non-technical job (as it IS a demanding one) but imagine being a sniper spending your time hiding in the brush thinking about what you would build when you could build it. I'm romanticizing war now though...

Taleb talks about these types of scenarios in Antifragile, where actually many of his predecessors took jobs with the Lebanese Civil Service in order to put bread on the table, and then were sort of philosophes in their spare time, writing and reading.

Sound like a good read. I really enjoy nassim taleb's other books so I'll definitely give Antifragile a look.

Antifragile is good, but nowhere near as good as his others. Fair warning.

I have to disagree. My biggest complaint (if I could call it that) with his previous book, The Black Swan, was that it lacked practical application of his principles, e.g., he exposes the hidden prevalence of asymmetries but doesn't place them within the broader context of how one should live. Antifragile does just that. His title alone is worth the price of the book. Antifragile describes something that gains from disorder rather than is merely robust to it, and we don't have a word in English to describe this

I think it is his best. If you want the hack, listen to it on tape first before reading it. You'll realize he's quite nuanced in his arguments, and really operating intellectually amongst the greats -- not simple econo-self-help sort of stuff, but really deep thoughts abut heuristics, tradition, human society, evolution, etc.

Second for Antifragile. His earlier books are more approachable, but I found Antifragile fascinating and I think about various principles from the book regularly. One of a handful of books I keep on the bookshelf at my office at all times.

Agree agree agree. He's bidding for the sort of intellectual immortality with Antigragile. The Fat Tony dialogues are really a pleasure, and a throwback to Plato's Dialogues. Really enjoyable, meaty stuff.

That's pretty much the route I'm taking, save for the non-technical part.

I'm writing a SaaS for biomedical data analysis, while completing a graduate degree in Experimental Medicine. I don't anticipate graduating any time soon, but I see it as an opportunity to develop the foundation of a start-up while supporting myself.

It's sort of a way to avoid having to go the fundraising route (at least for now), and can potentially allow me to onboard large clients without even talking to VCs.

I was happy to find that PG wrote about this sort of thing (albeit fairely indirectly):

"Another way to fund a startup is to get a job. The best sort of job is a consulting project in which you can build whatever software you wanted to sell as a startup. Then you can gradually transform yourself from a consulting company into a product company, and have your clients pay your development expenses."


To get a job while doing sideline startup may have legal consequence? your employer may claim what you developed belongs to him.

Only if you signed a contract saying that all the code you write is their property. Even then, in theory it's a potential problem, in practice how would they ever know?

The code I write for my employer, I could re-engineer any of the pieces within a week or so if I needed to. If they told me to stop using it, I could satisfy the demands and not even lose steam.

But it's never going to happen because my employer doesn't think of code as valuable in and of itself except as a vehicle to solve the business problems.

It also depends on the local laws. Where I live it is the other way around. Everything belongs to your employer unless your contract specifies otherwise.

May I ask where? Is it a local or national law?

In the UK for example, s.11(2) of the Copyright, Design and Patents Act 1988 provides as follows:

(2) Where a literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work[, or a film,] is made by an employee in the course of his employment, his employer is the first owner of any copyright in the work subject to any agreement to the contrary.

How does software fall into those categories?

s.3(1) of the same Act defines a literary work as including a computer program so there's your answer in respect of UK law. In other jurisdictions, software will generally attract copyright protection also.

if you indeed "reuse" some of those code, you will be fine most of the times first, however when you become financially successful someday it may come back to you with a lawsuit, it's mostly about the money.

There's a guy in my suburb that runs a local shop. It doesn't have great trade and cant be making much in the way of profit. I also know he is quite wealthy with numerous side ventures and investments. He must just like standing behind that counter, chatting to locals and having a routine no-pressure job. You'd never know he's more than a small store owner unless you were told.

So not sure the point here... but maybe you dont need to find the job, you can create your own fantasy?

Also sounds like a great type of business to have to write off a bunch of equipment and a shop on your taxes.

Out of curiosity, what kind of shop is it?

Not to be difficult but I'll not say. It would be fairly easy to figure out who if someone sleuths my comment history.

My patch for this is long distance running. You'd be amazed by how much thinking you can do when running for 2 hours.

Even just a 1 hour run is amazing for thinking things.

The longest I've done was a 5 hour run ... after running out of things to think about, I was mostly just in pain.

Oh the bugs I solve while running. Biking I worry about cars. Swimming I worry about drowning. Running I am just free.

I have about a 25 minute walk to work, which I, unfortunately, rarely set aside the time to do. But when I do, I swear I get more work and side project stuff done in that time than in hours of staring at a laptop.

Consider learning a new language. With apps on your phone these days, it's perfect for learning while walking/cycling or driving.

Walking the dog does that for me.

This is very similar to what Rich Hickey (creator of Clojure) talks about when he talks about Hammock Driven Development, I recommend watching him talking about it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f84n5oFoZBc

The less the cognitive requirement of your day job, the greater the mental surplus you have to work on something else at the same time.

I wrote my first few video games this way. I'd bring reams of fanfold to high school and then to my job at the very quiet rural gas station back in the 80s.

This is basically what I do. I'm a supervisor for a county government, and spend a lot of my day at a desk waiting for the phone to ring. I'm still learning to code, so it helps to actually do something other than think sometimes.

To this end, because I can't install a programming environment on my work computer, I installed Linux on my 15 year-old Dell and use the secure shell extension for Chrome to connect. Being forced to do everything in a terminal has really sharpened my Emacs skills. I typically spend a good portion of my day secretly hacking away.

>The best code I write is when I have it all figured out ahead of time

I come up with ideas and debug when I step away from the computer. Ass in chair is not a good measure of productivity.

I work like this when I can. Sit still, thinking, sometimes with my eyes shut for at least 20 minutes. I'll be thinking about the best way to solve a problem, then will 'wake up' write a couple of lines of code, and carry on.

Sometimes I'll spend the whole day just thinking about the best way to implement something, and then a couple of hours at the end of the day to actually write the code. I find I'm much more productive this way.

How about fruit picking. I did some of my best thinking when I was picking watermelons in Australia. Plenty of thinking time, lots of exercise and being away from a screen all day means that when you sit down at one it doesn't feel like you have been there all day.

Mail carrier, or maybe police officer. I have the same fantasy. :-)

I always think it would be security guard of an extremely secure and remote facility. Something snowed in where it's warm inside and there is fast internet.

I've heard of a number of famous writers who got their first book done while doing a security-guard job.

I did that for a while. Worked at some industrial park as security. A very productive time in my life. But it got really boring and dangerous when assigned the night shift.

Amazing. That's almost exactly my fantasy scenario. Also: lighthouse keeper, park ranger.

Lighthouse keeper! Brilliant. If monkey brains could do gigabit for me there I'd be in heaven.

I don't think there's any lighthouses left that require a keeper, at least in first world countries.

I think these are fantasies, it seems a little mean to burst them with reality.

There's at least one left in the US that requires a keeper by law: http://in.mobile.reuters.com/article/idINN0741330520080526?i... Other than that, there are a bunch of lighthouses that have some sort of guesthouse in them and need someone to run it (usually decent pay but not a quiet job), or volunteer positions to maintain lighthouses around the Great Lakes and possibly elsewhere.

Pretty soon truck driver might fit on that list (at least until they're no longer legally required to be present, as with lighthouse keepers).

Somewhere like the Overlook Hotel?

Store clerk in a small town shop :)

I have a small storage unit at a local suburban self storage facility.

Often when I go there I'm the only customer there, and I've never seen more than 3 other customers present at the same time.

The office is almost continuously manned during business hours (+ weekends), but hardly anyone goes in there. Even when I go to grab stuff from my unit I don't go into the office or talk with the staff - I just pick-up/dump-off my stuff and go.

The guys that work there must have some sort of side project/hobby to prevent them from going insane.

It's the perfect enviornment to program, read, repair watches, do homework, art, etc. The units are always filled, so you just sit there. I got through college working for a storage facilities. I got all my homework done there.

There were times I felt like I was about to loose it though. I had a bad panic attack at a facility in Daily city one Sunday. It weird how being isolated can play with the mind. Even for someone as myself, who is not a people person. You basically sit in a room, and make a run around the facility every hour, or so. If an owner has you doing busy work--leave the job. The wage is not livable, so you should be free to presue your hobbies.

To renters, don't keep your stuff there more than a couple of months. I saw people loose so much money I over junk. If renting, get the manager to get your rental date on the first/last day of the month. The owners make so much money off late fees. I don't think I've ever heard of a owner losing money on a mini-storage.

Police officer will certainly not give you downtime to think.

That really depends on location. In smaller towns, cops often sit in their vehicle at night and do absolutely nothing but wait for an infrequent car to go by. They occasionally drive around doing nothing, going from one place to another to check on pretty much nothing. Tons of downtime to think.

I find it fascinating that we all believe that these jobs require no thought or attention.

Don't you wonder what they think of us?

I've done a lot of engineering work in the manufacturing sector (both directly employed and as a consultant), and I know for a fact that most of the mechanics/machinists/electricians/operators/etc. believe that engineers do absolutely nothing all day.

For the former it really depends on your position. If on foot and on a monotonous route, then maybe if you can handle thinking in 5 minute bursts, anything else, not a chance.

You'd be surprised how much of a workload just sorting and text recognition is.

So just don't code all day. I spend half the day on customer support and marketing where problems swirl around in the background so that when the second half of the day comes around, I'm good to go.

"During the next few weeks I filled notebooks with ideas for programs I was going to write, in some cases setting them down in code. I also strung the oaks and madrones with twelve hundred feet of electrical cord to power the machine."

Glorious! Great story.

...or you could do an Albert Einstein, who worked as a patent officer. He could finish the job in 2 hours and spend the next 6 hours working on his theories.

Yes you just need a job where (a) you can do it in fewer hours and (b) you can do your other thing without being noticed and (c) your other thing is in the public domain / learning based as you don't want to give the IP to your employer and (d) there is no scrutiny about how you spent your time via Jira reports etc. and (e) it is an environment where you can concentrate on the other thing. I think AE's job was such a job but harder to find nowadays but I think government jobs are more likely to have these qualities.

Einstein being the ultimate example

It doesn't work that well. You can think about a problem for like 20 minutes, but then you're going to hit a wall. For most endeavors, you actually need to be sitting there with the relevant tools of thinking / recording to get anywhere.

Source: I used to work in a factory.

Hey all - author and longtime HackerNews user here. It's a nice surprise coming back from an evening away from the computer and finding this at the top of front page. Whatever success I've had with Lean Domain Search is due in large part to what I've learned from this community.

Here's the original HackerNews launch post from 4 years back for context: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3470977.

I'm happy to answer any questions about Lean Domain Search, the deployment, etc.

How did you managed to switch context so cleanly between working about your side project and on your day job? I would imagine that you day job would be quite stressful, and getting 45mins may not be possible every day.

Great question - I think the more well-defined your next task is, the easier it's going to be for you to context switch because you don't have to take time to figure out what to work on next. One thing to experiment with is when you're done working for the day, jot down a note of specifically what you want to work on the next time you sit down at your computer. The clearer it is and the less amount of problem solving it requires, the easier it's going to be for you to get back into the flow.

Thanks for the great answer. Is that how it panned out for you? Love to hear your experience about this.

Typically, I would find it difficult for get into the zone to get work done within 45min period.

Huge congrats to you for being pulling this off in such difficult circumstances.

I suspect that if you had a hard limit of 45 minutes after which time you could no longer work on your task, you'd adapt and find yourself able to get in the zone much more quickly.

It also becomes easier the more you do it. I've been doing side projects for many years.

I guess that phrase "adapt or die" is apt here. Thanks for the answers.

To the downvoter, this is a genuine question as I am truly interested to get an insight on how to easily switch the mind between projects.

Single downvotes don't really mean much - the voting buttons are hard to hit on mobile, and it could have been someone trying to vote you up. Don't take it too much to heart.

Hey Matt, so you launched the site 4 years ago and very top comment on that old HN thread was: .."There are no margins in the domain industry.".. So, years passed by :) how much income the site generates monthly?

At the time of the acquisition the site made money in two ways:

1. Affiliate sales: when you click on a domain and register it through GoDaddy, Namecheap, etc, I get a % of the purchase price.

2. Premium accounts: Lean Domain Search only showed the top 150 results for free. You could pay $79 once for two months of access or $199/year for access to all 5,000 results.

Each was bringing in around $1,000-$1,500/month with the premium accounts growing quickly.

After the acquisition, we made the site free but left the affiliate links in place. The site has grown a lot since then [1] but the affiliate revenue still brings in the same $1,000 - $1,500/month because GoDaddy (the main driver of affiliate revenue) made some changes to its affiliate program that led to lower payouts.

[1] http://mattmazur.com/2015/07/03/lean-domain-search-at-3%C2%B...

Thank you for your service!

Well done...the UI looks great...

And thanks for your service...!

To the downvoter...you do realize that the article includes several screenshots of his work...?

His work looks clean to me...I'll leave it at that...

> thanks for your service

People are probably downvoting for this. These type of comments are more suited for reddit etc.

P.S. I didn't downvote you BTW

I have friends in military who really hate this. Because they consider themselves just doing a job like anyone else. And the fact its mostly used by politicians for political point scoring.

Thanks for the great write up. I found it to be both interesting and inspirational.

Now that you are working full time as a developer, how much time do you spend on your side projects usually?

I really liked the quality of your tool. The best I have used.

The title should probably read "Doing a Side Project Website in 45 Minutes per Day While Deployed in Iraq," or "How to test the market for viability of an idea in 45 minutes per day," etc. Maybe "startup" has become meaningless...

I don't mean to diminish the accomplishments of the author, Lean Domain Search is a nice tool he built, and may even be a good way to test a market. Doing so while distracted by military service / a full time job certainly shows impressive drive/willpower. However, to build a company that might (someday) involve more than a 1 man show requires more than 45 minutes per day of attention, especially if other people's livelihoods are(/will be) dependent on you.

Since he was an officer (where you are generally treated much, much better than an enlisted person)and in the Air Force, and only spending 5 months in Iraq, I can believe he did all of this. Though certainly not representative of the average solider/marine who was deployed to Iraq.

Actually given the 80/20 support-to-operator ratio throughout the wars, I would say this is actually quite representative of what most people's experience in the recent wars.

This. OP described his duties as 12 hour shifts. This guy was a fobbit. Now there are fobbits who work their ass off and do great, important work. I loved them. I was one once. None of them describe their work as a 12-hour shift. OP also quickly put his service in the context of marking time until his commitment was complete. "Just when I thought I was out... they pulled me back in!"

Thanks for your service. And a sincere !Congratulations! on your success. But the title is link-bait which exploits the experience of those who had it much tougher than you. Stay in your lane.

Stay in your lane isn’t helping the situation. Also, while fobbit is funny internally and helps maintain the operator focused hierarchy, calling these names on the outside is distasteful. We need to be supporting each other in our travails in the civilian world and not turning our service into a pissing contest. He didn’t make up his service or lie about the unit he was apart of. If he exaggerated anything, it was building a niche site more than a startup.

I applaud the OP for getting shit done while on deployment and having the courage to talk about it. And if he wants to get a little bit more attention by using the Iraq word, than by all means do it, because he was “deployed to Iraq.” The military beat into us not to self promote and not to bullshit. Both are somewhat a hindrance on the outside, especially in entrepreneurship. Good on the OP for trying to both build things and promote them.

Meh. I did my time in Iraq. I had hard tours. The guy deployed like anyone else, stating as such is not exploiting anything. Get over the POG/Boot/Leg mindset.

The title is 100% accurate (unless you want to split hairs on the definition of "startup"), so what's the problem?

The point is that he built something in less than an hour a day during his free time.

Those of us in the military community are, and try to be, very precise about inferring proper context because it's a matter of honor and dignity in life and death.

Those of us in the military community have a saying: "Lighten up, Francis."

As for me, when I read the title, I immediately assumed that the author was stationed at a base in Iraq and worked on his project during his down time. Upon reading the article, this assumption turned out to be correct.

I knew I recognized that name somewhere. Matt had a bunch of really interesting articles a while back about building poker bots to play online.


Didn't know that he was active duty in the military at the time, though...

I think that response from online poker was not unexpected. :-)

That begs the question, can we define once and for all what is the difference between startup and side/pet projects?

There was no mention about revenues or even users. I found the story very inspiring but the terms need to be clarified else startup is going to be used very loosely. We might as well all call ourselves founders/ceo's/entrepreneurs in which case.

> Begs the question

Begging the question is an informal logical fallacy (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Begging_the_question). You mean this raises the question.

> what is the difference between startup and side/pet projects

It's a very large and fluid boundary. Lots of startups take less time than "side" projects, lots of side projects turn into incorporated startups, etc. If in doubt, just say you're working on a project.

> We might as well all call ourselves founders/ceo's/entrepreneurs

Lots of people do that. I would suggest not so much focusing on your title, but rather focusing on your work, and bringing it to the point at which you can proudly call yourself by whatever title you deserve.

> Begging the question is an informal logical fallacy

Usage dictates meaning. More people use and understand 'begs the question' in the GP's context than in the logical fallacy context. Few members of the public could even tell you what an 'informal logical fallacy' is (even the idea of it without that specific label).

Edit: your own wikipedia link even points out this same point, at the end in the Modern Usage section.

I'm pretty sure the only place you're allowed to call out this use of "begging the question" is when responding to someone who is objecting to some other form of linguistic drift, so it was OK in this case.

One of our students at Bloc was on active duty in Qatar while learning Ruby on Rails from us. It's interesting to see the new lifestyles and opportunities that are created when accessibility is unlocked by the Internet.

I ran into a lot of NG/RC people (especially, but even some full time active duty people) in Iraq/Afghanistan 2004-2010 who were doing a pretty good job keeping businesses running back home. (I was selling Internet access, and while a lot of people were worried about $25/mo, if you ran a business you'd often be happy spending $500/mo to ensure you had good access -- this was before NIPR, base-wide wifi, etc.)

Great product, btw -- I've seen it on here before I think. And thank you for you service.

Fantastic post! Well done Matt.

I'm in a similar situation where I'm working full time whilst trying to finish off a game in my spare time.

I find what helps is to have a clear goal for each work session. Even if it's tiny like 'fix this bug' or 'update this text', you finish working and feel like you've made progress. Too many times in the past I've just started working, lost focus and ended up trying to look at several things on the game and finishing none of them.

I learned to program on a warship heading to Iraq in 2003. From a book, with no internet. It's amazing what constraint's will do for you - I'm not sure I'd achieve that feat now in the presence of constant distraction!

This is also not the only project Matt was working on while deployed because I remember talking to him via email about some other pretty ambitious stuff. Kudos to Matt for really taking away the excuse of not being able to try something on the side even when you're fully employed.

Lean Domain Search is a fantastic site and is my go to for generating ideas for domain names. Thanks for your service and for building a great site!

This is an awesome post. I'm also a huge fan of lean domain search and use it all the time when starting a new project. So hats off man!


I used LeanDomainSearch many, many times and this proves that a single guy with so little time can accomplish great things.

I had the opportunity to meet Matt at MicroConf in 2013--hell of a guy. We hit it off since we were both active duty at the time and had similar stories. He's one of the most well-rounded guys I know in terms of dev and product chops.

The tool he built (Lean Domain Search) is great for finding hidden gems if you're looking for a new name for a project with the .com available.

It's inspiring to be able to start something from anywhere and in any situation, but I would reconsider how easy is to follow up with that and how much time you have to put in.

Even the author of 4 hour work week in the end had to work an incredible amount of hours between marketing and networking. Getting to the point of break even is not a piece of cake.

A more objective title would have been how a side-project led to an acquihire at Automatic.

It is still an inspirational story somewhat similar to path taken by patio11.

Are there any side projects which actually have turned into sustainable lifestyle businesses or better?

At first, I misread that as "building a startup in 45 minutes, per day"

Holy flying fuck. I bought several domains using leandomain search. It is the best. I bought them during hackathons, and earned a prize for both.

You were shooting bad guys, I was typing code for hackathons. Guess we both won?

This links to a blank page for me.

Wow. Referring to Nassim Taleb just by his last name? Has he really attained that level of status? He doesn't deserve it IMO, especially around here, with his fearmongering about GMOs and his debate style on twitter.

We detached this subthread from https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=11107209 and marked it off-topic.

If you dislike him that much, call him NNT. It's a fun way of trivializing what he says.

I actually think Taleb some very important things to say. Or at least, he seems to be the loudest and most popular of the folks who are talking about epistemology, and it's an important topic. I think it's reasonable to call him Taleb, without specifying a first name, because there's no other Taleb that makes sense in this context (no other Talebs that have authored a book called "Antifragile"). You didn't experience any confusion, did you?

Taleb is an important living person. Whether or not you agree with him or even like the guy, you oughta admit that his reputation is significant. Seems like you knew who was being referred to, didn't you?

Using last names for authors when the context is sufficient to resolve identity is a very common practice that has nothing to do with status.

> fearmongering about GMOs

He has a perfectly legitimate argument against GMOs. If you don't agree with his argument that's one thing. But this sort of argumentation style, the same type of ad-homniem attack employed to discredit people by labeling them conspiracy theorists when the don't go with some status quo usually corporatist agenda, must stop. It's lazy and dumb.

Actual quote from Taleb:

> If a GMO-imbecile ask you for "a citation", answer: "Pls provide a citation about requirement for a citation for a logical argument."

He finally deleted the idiot tweet in question, but it's preserved here: http://web.archive.org/web/20150924032003/https:/twitter.com... Note also the responses citing his own university's instructions on how to cite stuff for a logical argument.

So you are saying that Taleb engages in the same sort of behavior that I am talking about? Great. He needs to stop as well.

I'm completely with yoi about his GMO stance and debate style, but (1) being write or wrong is not correlated to being famous or not (Hitler), and (2) he was right about many other things, and deserves respect for that.

I hope that work wasn't done on government hardware.

He probably brought his own laptop (I always did on the deployments I went on) and he probably had access to commercial internet access depending on where he was.

Yep, that's correct: I had my own laptop and commercial internet access through most of the deployment.

unlikely -- the websites he would have needed to use to build it are usually blocked!

On the civilian side I was once almost driven to tears trying to get someone to unblock StackOverflow because it was a "social" site, though I found most of the whitelisting guys to be much more reasonable.

He explains, in the article, checking this with the person he replaced before he went on his deployment. He specifically mentions GitHub and Heroku.

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