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Ask HN: Is the concept of a one-person software shop still viable?
315 points by jetti on Dec 13, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 161 comments
I've started a software company and want to keep it just me and no employees. In this day and age with the popularity of SaaS and uptime needed is it still a realistic goal of starting and keep running a micro ISV?

I'll add something I wish I had realized several years ago: build a SaaS is not the only path to a product business, and for a solo founder, it's (in my opinion) probably not a very good path.

I spent 5 years trying to get a micro ISV off the ground which made scheduling software for hair salons. It was a terrible idea for a large number of reasons (described in detail here: https://www.jasonswett.net/im-shutting-down-snip-heres-why/) and I never made more than about $430/mo.

My opinion now is that info products are a better way for a solo founder to get started with a product business. The reason is that a SaaS product can take a huge amount of effort (perhaps pre-traction effort, which is risky) to get off the ground whereas an info product business can be started with a tiny "guide" and then expanded outwardly from there, keeping effort in proportion with traction the whole time.

My current business is AngularOnRails.com, an info product business. In its third month of making money, it made $1580, over 3 times what the SaaS made at its peak. Here's a detailed income report: https://www.jasonswett.net/november-2016-angular-on-rails-in...

Hey Jason,

Amy Hoy says the best way for solo founders to start off is with in info product. Just to cut their teeth at marketing and such.

One thing, now that you have got that ball rolling I think you might consider another saas product in the future because you have so much learning about that.

The one good thing about a saas product with good market fit is that you will get years of recurring revenue from the same customers.

With pluggio I had some customers hitting $3.5k over time (and higher).

That is the real power of saas and why it's worth considering in the long run.

Edit: I guess it may be useful to note we have a bunch of articles here - https://blog.nugget.one/ - about how to avoid the kind of issues you spoke about in your blog.

Word. I started my current SaaS with the goal of working 10hrs a week and making 15k a month. I'm getting close to my monthly revenue goal but if I'm not sleeping, I'm working. I don't regret it. I'm enjoying the challenge now but it wasn't what I had thought I was getting myself into. I truly underestimated the gravity of emails and support requests. As a one man shop, it can grind entire days to a halt.

Passive info products do seem to be the easier path to a more leisurely success.

Edit: missed a word

That's pretty impressive actually! Have you considering hiring one or two people (e.g., freelancers) to remotely help with support? Also, a virtual secretary would be immensely helpful I'd imagine.

I have a couple of ideas I've been wanting to work on, but time is quite scarce as a grad student. I guess it's partly because I tend to overthink (and over-design) my ideas, and end up getting overwhelmed before even touching a line of code! What's even worse is that the majority of my ideas are intended for my home country (EST+6 timezone), since I think it's much harder to be successful in an over-saturated market like the US.

For example, one of my ideas is designing an Uber-like service for my home country. The current roadmap (which I haven't started on) is as follows:

1. Design a basic placeholder site with some info on the app/service

2. Run a limited ad campaign to gauge interest and ideally collect emails (Google, FB, local radio, local newspapers)

3. Try to get interested users to fill out a survey

4. If the results from 2) and 3) are promising, start developing a barebones MVP

5. The MVP will target one city, require manual signup for drivers, and only have a simple web client

6. If successful, start hiring local developers, optimizing server-side, and designing an Android app (iOS is a very small market)

Any advice for someone in my position? I'm open to all types of feedback from any HNer - it's always good to get an opinion before working on something like this!

I am not exactly qualified to gauge the viability of your idea but I believe an Uber-like service is pretty ambitious of a venture, especially given the fact that you'd go for it solo. Consider the fact that you need to fill both the demand-side and supply-side, and match them almost in real time for it to be useful. I feel that it's often underestimated how challenging this task is.

I am not sure if a web-client would do the job. From my knowledge, interacting with maps on a mobile browser can be an aggravating experience. If an app doesn't do the job, isn't immediately useful, people discard it without further consideration which makes B2C things tenfold hard.

The surest way I see for it to work is to start as boring-taxi company that has a phone number and a person at the end. Then, slowly move into automated app-like way. I am guessing that's how OlaCabs, India's Uber, got started. Automation is awesome but there are so many points of failure in Uber-like venture that it's better to be safe by doing manual tasks.

Thanks for the feedback. I agree that it is in fact non-trivial to get automated ride sharing working end to end.

Thanks! I'm trying to hire right now. (web audio and/or webrtc devs call me) :)

I've thought about a virtual secretary but I'm not so sure how helpful it would be. They would need pretty specialized knowledge to be able to help much with support requests. I don't have so many meetings that I can't schedule my own.

As far as Uber for your country. Does Uber not exist where you are yet? There was another one in Malaysia called GoTaxi or GrabTaxi that I thought was interesting. It connected you with 'real' taxi drivers for a pre-arranged flat fee for the ride. One guy told me he used it just so he had a record of what taxi he was in incase he got robbed by the driver.

Edit: latent thoughts

No, not yet! There is one service that is doing something similar to Uber, but it's not a good service imo.

That sounds interesting actually. One of my biggest concerns is push back from the local taxi union, so that may be a better way to approach it. I'll definitely look that service up.

Didn't you mix up the goal and the result?

As a fellow (though happy) SaaS owner I'm trying to imagine being in your shoes. My goal is spending my time on something (~a problem) that interests me and hearing that customers benefit from what I offer. I think that is the awesome part of it.

This results in freedom and earning money, among other things. I don't earn as much as you but I care very little as long as I can do the above. Obviously you need to be able to cover your expenses, but that's another story.

I couldn't imagine starting this with the goal of working as little as possible while getting paid as much as possible. I don't know if that is what you are saying, but I hear this sometimes.

Am I getting too philosophical about it?

Perhaps I have. I started this business after learning I was going to be a dad. My broader goals were financial, location, and time independence for my family and I. I suppose I take it for granted that I enjoy the building part. As long as I can use tools that I like, I can get excited about building almost anything. So far the time independence has been elusive but I'm still just getting started. Moved to paid plans just a month ago. I think it will get more manageable as the product and I mature. Also bringing on some dev help is in order.

> I truly underestimated the gravity of emails and support requests. As a one man shop, it can grind entire days to a halt.

Same boat - You can make the most detailed image based walk through FAQ tutorial documentation what have you and you'll still have days filled with customer support.

You'll wake up one morning with multiple emails from billing to product support. The more you grow, the more they come.

PS: You're product hit the nail on the head. I've recommended it to a few podcast clients in the past.

Yeah, its a tough problem because it makes it hard to stay solo. I really like being in full control of everything as long as it stays manageable. Perhaps this is a weakness.

Thank You! I'm relying entirely on word of mouth marketing at the moment so that really helps!

BTW - What's your project?

Why don't you hire out support? Sounds like $15-20/h type of work which you shouldn't be doing if you can gain more value building features or marketing.

Have you considered the cause of the e-mails/support requests and tried to streamline your process or at least provide additional instruction in order to quell the high volume?

My experience has been that support requests can be near zero if you actively work on some kind of automated solution for the highest frequency problems.

I'm trying to work towards this. There are just a ton of problems that can occur since I'm dealing with recording/uploading audio in the browser. Network dropouts, OS audio settings, varied browser capabilities / versions, microphone selection issues, limited hard disk space, browser storage quotas, etc.

My new goal is to have every single error or notification have a built-in link that takes them to a solution article. This seems to be effective so far.

I know support, especially good support, is a hard problem to solve. However have you explored documenting processes in extreme detail in order to outsource that part of the business? The upfront investment would be great, but the returns in time alone would seem worth it.

Certainly worth the time investment when i can get to it. My biggest problem at the moment is that I have no admin interface. I have to dive into the db to make fixes/changes for people. Once I get an admin panel built out I'll be able to bring on help easier. The other issue is that I actually get so much great info about my users needs from the support requests that I cant detach entirely.

For sure. I definitely underestimate the advantages of an admin panel with proper permissions and reporting. Working primarily with an e-commerce platform day-to-day, I do feel the hit of subpar solutions when using rails or similar.

Starting with an info product is a common suggestion (Amy Hoy is one advocate as a sibling comment noted). But in order to be able to offer an info product don't you need to be really knowledgeable about something? If you hadn't your experience with your SaaS would you be in the same position to write (and sell!) your tutorial?

I still battle with my inner dialog about "not being an expert" at anything. This is something I get caught up on but all you really need to be is more knowledgeable than your target audience. So sell something you already know to people who want to know it. There are still people out there that are basically beginners in web development. There are people one or more rungs down the ladder from you. You don't have to sell them some complex guide to intricacies of angular. How many non-technical people want to sell things only? People serve them all the time.

One example I heard recently on a podcast was cssanimation.rocks. Basically his thought process was: I want to teach people something regarding CSS. I can't teach people ALL of CSS in a book (too much work). I like making animations. I'm going to focus on practical animations (forms, list boxes, basically things all sites do). He started posting some useful blog posts that taught people some of the basic concepts and captured emails. Now he has paying subscribers to an email course.

Disclaimer: I fail to do everything I'm telling you to do.

CEO of One Month Rails Mattan Grieffel taught himself to code (mind you his co-founder was teaching others to learn to code at General Assembly.) I think this post from Scott Adams will help you understand how you can be gain more confidence http://dilbertblog.typepad.com/the_dilbert_blog/2007/07/care...

I am quite interested to know how you got into the business of making software for hair salons when you're not a "domain expert in the beauty industry" - did you start out building this for someone else who was involved in this industry, and then decide to give it a go yourself?

There's some great advice in your post about your ill-fated Snip (strong name!) product, anyway!

(I'm not sure I agree about product businesses - I think it depends on the industry and your connexions - but certainly no one should think that going it alone will be easy.)

My wife got a job at a hair salon and their software sucked. I didn't have any exposure prior to that.

I went after the hair stylist market for three months as part of The Foundation. I quickly came to the realization that it was not a good market for the simple reason that the owners of hair saloons like to cut hair. Because of this they are very hard to get on the phone.

One key for any potential SaaS market is to make sure you have a way to reach that market. Make sure they are on email or social media in large numbers.

I too pivoted to information products. Good luck with your course.

Thanks. Yes, it's not enough for there to be a need. You also have to think about how you'll reach prospects. Stylists and salon owners aren't on the computer all day every day and they don't like to take phone calls from salespeople. They're very expensive and/or time-consuming to reach. A solo bootstrapper almost by definition has very little time or money, so salons are a very bad match for the capabilities of solo boostrappers.

Funny, two years ago I built an MVP for the same market/problem with a couple of friends. It helped us understand the problem and was very MVP (3 man weeks of work all in).

We concluded very quickly that the problem is reaching the audience. We did have a strategy, but the impending arrival of babies means that the entire thing was put on ice.

It's tempting to revisit the niche because, at least if our numbers are correct, we have a real chance of being able to reach the niche whilst keeping the CAS manageable.

We have some of the same problem (buyers of our software really want to be out in the kitchen), and have found a lot of leverage building a community of existing owners/managers where they can all share experiences.

So, not sure if there ks a forum for salon owners, but if there's not, that's the first thing I'd look at building. And if there is, well, there's your marketing strategy. (At least a big component of it.)

Info products can be a good source of relatively passive income. How are you marketing your info product?

For myself, I'm writing desktop software for developers which is a market I know and something that really interests me. On top of that, there is no need for continuous uptime

I'm marketing it by writing blog posts, usually long, definitive blog posts that spell out the details of solving problems as opposed to "Top 10 Ways to Wipe Your Ass" or whatever. From there, I get people to subscribe to my email list by offering a free guide as a lead magnet. Most of the sales I've made have been via my email list.

How do you address the piracy / license problems? I'm starting also a desktop version but piracy is main concern.

Thanks for this. It's some really good insight for me. I've had a few ideas bouncing around in my head for SaaS products to serve a few different small business niches where the existing software sucks badly. I think all of those markets would have similar difficulties to the ones you found in salons. On the one hand, it's really frustrating to know that I can build a product which would make peoples' lives and businesses better, but that I'm unlikely to be able to make it financially viable. But on the other hand, I'm grateful to realize this before pouring months or years of my life into it.

Hey Jason thanks for the thoughts on your blog post. Just curious, how long did it take you to write the angular on rails book? And I'm assuming it is a PDF?

Shhh, dont give away the secret sauce. ;)

Truth is that info products are perfect for solo founders as a way to start generating revenue for bootstrapping something else (or simply as additional income). Marketing them is easy. You just have to put samples online, work the SEO, and share it on social (inbound). Building one is also simple. No need for anything fancy. Ive sold info products using a static page and a paypal button.

Absolutely. Info-products, even the really cheesy looking ones with the spammy VSL's (Video Sales Letter) work insanely well.

Depending on your niche you can do some pretty big numbers.

If you are not creating your own info product, what is the viability of a decent monthly income stream from selling an info product that someone else created?

I understand that some people do do this. Affiliate marketing/joint ventures.

how did you go about marketing this, and what in your opinion would be a good way for a tech guy to start learning basics of marketing your product??

Would you recommend against buying a SaaS that is ~$2-3k/MRR?

I don't think I'm really qualified to give a recommendation on something like that. Even if I were, I think there are a lot of factors that would need to go into such a decision. What I might recommend is for you to look up what Rob Walling has to say on build versus buy.

Running solo doing around $750k/year on a desktop app. The market is so huge and so many niches to filll. Make something you can sell for $50-300 with upgrades once in a while and set up a simple shop. It has never been easier to develop desktop software. If I was going to start this route today I'd 100% make an electron app and try to address and already large market that has stagnated or has shitty entrenched players making a ton of margin.

That is some nice revenue. I would assume you have pretty high margins on that as well. How long has your app been released?

I'm going down this route and making dev tools that help replace the sucky entrenched big players. I haven't officially launched a proper version (early access is going on now) but I'm hoping that I'll be able to be as successful as you are.

Most software sold as a license via a microISV has very little overhead/fixed costs. Whatever you sell you keep.

It's been a bit over a decade.

Congrats! You're living the dream. How much time do you spend a week working on this?

It's a full time job, with an extra helping of anxiety.

If you can point me to one of these niches, I'd give you 15% of revenue generated on it

People pay money for productivity software/tools. Look at how many tiny ISVs are making fairly large amounts of money selling Git clients. I think 1Password has like 60 employees now. There are companies much larger than 1 person doing screen capture software and large companies selling remote desktop solutions.


Some people might be put off by how competitive those spaces are. Don't be!


What are your thoughts on various business models?

The traditional "sell once, offer paid upgrades" seems to be better suited for apps with a stable feature set, where you can take a year or two to produce the next major version. However, a more iterative approach to development doesn't work with this model very well.

The recently popular switch to subscriptions (Adobe, Office, 1Password, Jetbrains, YNAB, etc), while obviously every developer's wet dream, may not sit very well with customers, at least if there's no obvious service being offered (like e.g. Dropbox).

I think it depends on your software and your price point. You're never going to sell a $20 app as SAAS without a service component. 1Password probably didn't have a long term path forward selling a stand-alone $65 password manager. Certainly something worth thinking about from the beginning. If you can have a desktop app that integrates with a service and have SAAS pricing you will be truly living the dream.

Interesting. What exactly do you mean 'desktop app that integrates with a service'? Any examples?


May I ask a few questions?

- What category is your app in?

- What is an "electron app"

- How do you distribute? Mac App Store/Windows/Your own site?


not OP, but electon apps: apps based on the Electron framework: https://github.com/electron/electron

Tool. Comment answered next question. Distributed on own site.

How do you sell?

That's one of the annoying (and liberating) things about desktops, they don't have an app-store, so you have to run your own store (without reviews) and people have to trust that you're not going to sell them a virus.

Good SEO, reputation, big market, staying alive long enough that word of mouth starts to mean something.

Steam sells non-game application software now. Mostly content creation stuff so far AFAICT; I don't know how strict their acceptance guidelines are.

There is the Windows 10 Store now. I'm not sure how many people use it and what the niche that is most popular for customers.

Congrats on your success! A few questions...

Why electron over native?

How large in scope is your program?

How large in scope was your program when you first started?

Is it just one program and domain or have you diversified to different areas?

> Why electron over native?

Presumably to go cross-platform with less effort.

Exactly. Windows is a much much larger market in terms of number of devices and Mac is larger in terms of pros that pay for software.

And there is huge value in supporting both. If somebody wants to buy an organization-wide license, they almost certainly have lots of both and if you're being evaluated against a competitor that only supports one platform it is quite the leg up.

> I'd 100% make an electron app

Don't do that... there are quite a lot of cross-platform but native ways to develop fast & slick desktop apps.

What are other options that are truly native? Also, speed isn't always a factor and Electron can get you up and running quick, especially if you already know Nodejs and HTML

The only electron app I can more or less bare is VS Code, yet I don't use it regularly. For others, if I see some desktop app made with electron, I just skip it. The only reason it exist is that web devs do not want to learn right tools for the right job.

You didn't answer what other cross-platform are out there.

> For others, if I see some desktop app made with electron, I just skip it

The Slack desktop app isn't bad, though I'm not sure if you've tried it.

> The only reason it exist is that web devs do not want to learn right tools for the right job.

I disagree. It allows people to get up and running with a cross platform app relatively quick. You could then port most of that to a mobile app since a lot of the platforms (if not all of the major ones) allow one to create an app using HTML and javascript. I'm a desktop developer (the only web stuff I've done is working on a Wordpress page) but I still see value in Electron and plan to use it for a project. You get cross platform plus all of the libraries that nodejs has, which is a ton.

> what other cross-platform are out there

Qt, wxWidgets, Gtk,...

> The Slack desktop app isn't bad, though I'm not sure if you've tried it.

I have to use it for the job. And yes, I think it is bloatware, memory hog with a non-intuitive UI.

99.9% of users have no idea they are inside a web frame. And so what if a good app uses 100-200M of ram these days? That's like one tab in Chrome. Electron has very low idle CPU usage, which I think impacts more users than does the memory. Each of those cross-platform widget toolkits look like shit.

The bigger issue is obviously lazy developers not polishing their electron app, but you can do basically anything with it.

The question is - why? (besides not learning right tools) From app I want intuitive UI/UX, that means I want that raw gray "win95 look" controls, be it button or tree... I don't want some monstrous CSS/HTML crap.

this income is very good. compared with worker in Google and facebook.

I built Jollyturns (https://jollyturns.com), a ski and snowboarding oriented business. I currently have a fairly extensive web site, and two mobile apps, on iOS and Android. I started with the iOS mobile app, I wanted something to show me on a ski resort's map where my friends are, and keep track of my skiing statistics.

I tried finding a partner to work with, but that's pretty much impossible in Silicon Valley where I live. Most good engineers want to work for one of the glamorous companies in the Valley. Oh well...

I've been working on Jollyturns for the past 5 years. It's been a lot of work, but I do it at my own pace since I still want to enjoy myself. The experience is unique. I write all the software myself, and hired few people to help map the ski resorts. I built a bunch of custom tools for the mapping work, so people can map the location of lifts, ski runs, restaurants inside a ski resort. I ended up having mapped all the ski resorts in the world, about 2700 of them.

Being by yourself, you need to be prepared to be a full-stack engineer. I built my own Supermicro servers, and host them in a colocation facility. I found that if you're in it for a long time it's cheaper this way. I run Kubernetes for cluster management, Postgres with PostGIS for database, Redis for caching, nginx for web proxy. Server side is written in a mixture of Python and C++. Web frontend is AngularJS (JavaScript). For iOS I write C, C++ and Objective-C. On Android I use Java.

Writing the code is the easy part. I found marketing to be the hardest. You need to find a way to make the world know what you built, and that's hard!

"Writing the code is the easy part. I found marketing to be the hardest" - This part is the hardest, absolute hardest :-/

It also eats time like crazy and I find switching between development and marketing mindsets frustrating.

Glad to hear this exists. Ive had a few whims to build something similar myself over the years but cellular data was missing or spotty in most resorts so i tabled the idea. How do you get around this problem? Or perhaps coverage at resorts is much better than it was now.

Depending on where you are, cell phone coverage could be between great to totally nonexistent. The mobile apps are built to be able to handle intermittent cell phone coverage. You can see yourself on a ski resort's map at all times, as well as see your own statistics. When you get in a cell phone coverage area the app sends the latest information to my servers, and receives information about your friends. You might get some stale information, but that's still better than nothing. And of course, if you're in a ski resort with great cell phone coverage, your friends location is fresh most of the time.

Very cool. I'll be trying this out this season. Thanks for building it :)

Marketing: interesting. I'm a skier, and I've found most resort workers to be absolutely awesome (chill).

Have you tried to reach out to any of your local resorts with a marketing plan? I'm sure they'd love some integration into your app for trade: you promote them, they promote you.

I haven't done this, but if I was going to, I would target an existing platform that big companies depend on (salesforce, slack, more niche CRM's, etc.) and create a super focused niche plugin that 1) Is not core value prop of the platform, 2) Has little chance of being duplicated by the platform, 3) Has no competition, 4) Solves a real problem companies have.

For example, do research that shows that 7% of companies in industry XYZ use certain CRM. Analyze that industry and see what common use cases and pain points are. Somehow figure out what the CRM is missing for that industry. Validate the idea before building it by reaching out to said companies.

There would be a lot more to it, but basically a plugin for established software a company already uses is much easier and less risk to sell when you are a small shop.

I did exactly that ~10 years ago and made pretty good money with it at $50/install.

My plugin allowed you to put in your hotel when you traveled. Then it showed a list of your current & past customers' offices that were within X miles. Now you can fire off those "btw, I'll be in town in 2 weeks, we should talk about X" emails well in advance.

If I had to do it now, I'd tie into Tripit or Google Calendar to get the most accurate info, pull the data from your CRM, and send you an email with some "last contact" info & links to email them.

Oh.. and I'd make it a monthly charge instead of a one-time purchase.

Absolutely about the recurring revenue. Make it monthly or annual with a steep discount, but auto-renew. When I make mobile apps with advertisements, removing the ads is a yearly fee, not a one-time payment. Otherwise, they get lifetime benefits which does not accurately compensate me for my time, and I need to keep making new sales in perpetuity.

This sounds great, but it doesn't seem easy to pull off. Does it sit well with them and are they willing to pay for something like this? EDIT: wording

I would rather get die-hard users who would pay yearly, than constantly have to game the rankings to be high enough to get more sales. Even if the rankings change, you can get longterm value out of those who do pay, even if annual payments make less total customers.

Yes. If I had just known that 10 years ago. ;)

I think the more important aspect is that the benefits happen regularly. If you close an extra deal a year or lower churn a tiny bit, it's a huge ROI. Which says to me that the price should be non-trivial..

We've just done something similar with our product https://fliprss.com - it integrates with MailChimp and Campaign Monitor to solve a niche problem neither solve. We knew it was a problem for at least one company as our client approached us to see if we a product that would allow them to send automated newsletters with multiple RSS feeds based on individual subscribers preferences.

It's since turned there is a demand for this beyond our one client too thankfully.

I think it's helped that this product is aimed at businesses primarily too. With a higher price point we won't need a mass volume of clients to be profitable reducing demand on customer service requests etc.

Maybe I'm a little too inexperienced to understand how this works - how does your app access Mailchimp without their permission? Are you using their API? Sorry if it's a silly question

Uptime isn't the hardest part about running a solo SaaS shop -- you can solve it by a) bringing an appropriate amount of professionalism to engineering choices and b) choosing to found a business which has appropriate uptime constraints relative to your resources. Don't do analytics or infrastructure software where a 15s blip in your availability causes hundreds of pagers to go off. There exist many things businesses use which have markedly lower uptime than every SaaS a HNer will ship -- remember, businesses are built around most of their vendors having five twos. (That's a joke, but it isn't a joke.)

The harder part about running a solo SaaS company is building revenue takes _a very long time_, particularly if you're new at this. Most of my peers take ~18 months to hit the ~$10k revenue number that lets them durably transition to running the business as the full-time gig.

If you want to run a one-person shop which creates value substantially related to software, but you don't want to bite off the complexity of writing and selling a SaaS app for your first rodeo, I'd recommend a business model like productized consulting (the glide path to shipping a SaaS app!), selling infoproducts, or selling some sort of addon to an existing software ecosystem (WordPress, Shopify, etc).

Totally viable. As a micro ISV you have practically no expenses so the only things you need are a mediocre product and handful of customers and you're already sustainable. Once you get to that point tons of options will present themselves.

Just build something that you know people need (meaning: there are other products in that space) that has a small enough scope so a single person can build it in a month or two. Then charge money for it.

The software market is ludicrously large, and because you don't have marginal costs in a software business you can afford to make a lot of mistakes on the business side of things and still make a profit.

You don't need a great product (plenty of lousy products sell well) and you don't need great business sense (many CEOs don't know what they're doing) and you don't need great marketing (same). For your business to work you have to clear the minimum bar in all three areas, but luckily the bar is set pretty low!

For us peasants not trying to sell anything : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Micro_ISV

Yep, had to Google this, as well.

Not the same thing exactly, but I'm able to run 2 ecommerce sites with non-trivial sales volumes, by myself.

The two biggest things that make this possible:

a) Email support only, no telephone support (sales or post sales). Not everyone likes it, of course, but if you're determined to be a one man band, it's essential.

b) Automation of every single thing you can. For you, it would be a different list, but I had to automate things like refunds, tracking numbers, inventory levels, fraud detection, etc.

Also consider having someone you trust have access to documentation, passwords, accounts, etc...in case of some kind of emergency, etc. If it's making money, it would be a shame not to be able to pass it on to a beneficiary if you were to die unexpectedly.

>Also consider having someone you trust have access to documentation, passwords, accounts, etc...in case of some kind of emergency, etc. If it's making money, it would be a shame not to be able to pass it on to a beneficiary if you were to die unexpectedly.

This is important. Redundancy and automation are your allies, but it is prudent to implement some sort of keyman insurance.

lastpass lets you designate an emergency contact email. they can request access and if you don't reject the request within X time (1 week is default, IIRC), then they get access to all your passwords.

Yes its definitely viable. I started my micro ISV 6 years ago, its been quite successful about $200k/yr. Its very niche. I do no marketing but get regular sales through mainly word of mouth and internet searches. Now some bigger companies have picked up my software and use it in house and OEM it. Took a lot of work to get started and a lot of learning Its difficult for competitors to make something similar in a reasonable amount of time so its got a nice moat around it at the moment. I have no employees and almost no overheads so all revenue is profit. The most useful thing is when other companies build around your product, they provide valuable test / customer feedback which greatly reduces the work load.

Do you mind sharing what space your product is in?

I am currently running as a single founder, no employee, ╬╝ISV.

It's possible, but here's what I have found:

- Partner with resellers who take a commission on sales -- then they can deal with all of the customer management.

- Set realistic goals for uptime, machines go down (it's not if but when), distributed setups are possible and encouraged for larger customers, but they cost more.

p.s. Wanna get a slack channel for solo founders going?

EDIT: I've created a slack group - Email me if you would like an invite!

I'd love to get a slack channel for solo founders. Just forewarning I have never used Slack before but I'd be down to learn.

What kind of software do you sell? Is it desktop, mobile, web?

Also, is your price point rather high? I would imagine something like a $120 product may not benefit from a reseller as it is small deal for them

If you can use this forum, you can use slack.

I'm working on it, and a friend of mine does it successfully.

He builds plugins for the Shopify platform and ended up hiring one developer to do full time onboarding of new clients, support and documentation, but does all product development himself.

I think it's definitely realistic. You gotta just have a mindset where you try and eliminate all bottlenecks and automate as much as possible.

The trick he found for coming up with product ideas was to first do custom development. When enough clients are willing to spend a few thousand for a personal implementation of something, that's when you know you have an opportunity to charge 40$ per month for a SaaS version :)

Taking advantage of the momentum of another platform by building a plugin, skin, or extension is a great way to slingshot a project. There's also some risk involved, because that platform usually has the power to cut you off, legally if not technically.

Balsamiq Mockups is a good example that microISVs are still viable. At least, Peldi (the founder and sole dev initially) started off solo some years ago, was solo for a while, and became successful while still solo. Then got some employees over time due to more growth.


Source: I read about Balsamiq Mockups soon after it was created, used it in some commercial projects as a consultant/freelancer, corresponded some with Peldi, and also got a free copy of Mockups early on, for having released an open source product. He had a scheme of giving a free copy to such people. May still have it.


IIRC, he initially had the idea of doing Mockups as a web app plugin (for JIRA, maybe), and did it, but a lot of people asked for a desktop app, so he did that too, and I remember reading that at least in the early years (maybe now too), the desktop app sold much more. I used the desktop app in my work I mentioned.

Another good example of a successful microISV (I just remembered) is Andy Brice (in the UK), the creator of Perfect Table Plan, a wedding seating planning software. He has been an ISV with that as his desktop app product for over 10 years, IIRC.

First got to know of him via his blog:


and have corresponded with him too on a few occasions.

He has many interesting / useful posts about the ISV business on his blog - on many aspects - from technical (he uses C++ and Qt) to commercial, though more of the latter, IIRC. I've read many, and found them interesting. Just got one today in my email, in fact. It's about how one-day sales helped him boost his sales some. (He tries various marketing / sales experiments now and then.) Another interesting thing is that he reviews or interviews other microISVs and their products sometimes - those posts are interesting too. There was one about a file compare tool which was doing quite well - Beyond Compare.

He also started another desktop product, HyperPlan, much after the first, and I read that it too is doing okay.

Yes, it is absolutely possible. I have been doing this for years focusing on niche SaaS products that are too small for VC funded or big companies to go after. I am currently bringing in $20k/mo from my SaaS stuff (3 different niche products) and additional revenue on top of that with adsense/affiliate stuff.

I ran an advertising agency with employees at one point and grew it to $50k/mo but hated it so stopped and went back to single founder SaaS stuff.

Before the recession hit, I also ran a SaaS product in the Real Estate sector that brought in over $70k/mo at its height. I had a few employees during that time too.

I personally enjoy being a single founder running niche products but it has its downsides. Also, once you reach a certain growth point, it becomes much more difficult to go it alone. At that point, you can either hire employees to help or decide maybe it is best to sell.

Have you sold any of your businesses before? If so, how did you seek out businesses to buy yours?

I haven't but am considering selling one of the products next year. I plan to go through a Broker.

I had a soft offer in the $3 mil range from a big company for that real estate product I mentioned. They reached out to me. I pretty much blew it off because it was in a growth phase and I felt I could grow it more. 6 months later, the real estate market crashed and that product lost 50% of its revenue within a year. In hindsight, I wish I took that offer a little more serious.

Unrelated point, but I would do anything (even put school on hold) just to be able to work with a mentor like you. Being a solo founder for niche Saas products is exactly what I aspire to be, and learning from someone who's been there and done that would be a terrific experience

I will reach out to you at the beginning of the new year. Honestly though if you are interested, I would put you mostly on advertising related stuff. Coding is the easy part, advertising and acquiring users is the hard part. Learning how to advertise a product and acquire users for less than what you are spend is one of the most important pieces of running a SaaS.

Oh wow, that'd be super amazing, and I look forward to that.

I wholeheartedly agree that advertising and acquiring users are the most important pieces, and also one of the hardest. Finding a niche and the market to go after (who do I approach? what do I say? what sort of problems can I solve that hasnt already been done? etc) has been a stumbling block, not to mention the fact that I'm far from technically fluent to spin up a basic prototype to demo.

As such I kinda put that aspiration on hold and decided to hone my craft in CS / programming in general, so that at least I have a solid, technical base to built off on.

Anyhow, I really appreciate your response and am excited to hearing back from you.

these guys do an internship you might be interested in https://empireflippers.com/ (caveat: I don't know anything about them)

You might be interested in http://www.microconf.com/

I went to the conferences when I was a one man startup, and it was helpful.

I've heard many things on Microconf from Mike and Rob on Startups for the Rest of Us. The problem is paying for a ticket as well as airfare to get there. Due to family financial responsibilities my company operates its own accounts and can only spend what it takes in. I'm currently down to a couple hundred dollars and I have monthly expenses that take cuts out of that. Any sort of conference is out of the question.

I am curious, though, what was it about the conference that made it helpful for you?

It was a lot of little things. One big takeaway is that they're big on going vertical not horizontal. Find a niche.

There was some useful stuff on landing page optimization.

patio11 gave a talk that year that was great.

I also found it helpful to talk to other people doing the same thing I was. A solo startup can be kind of isolating.

So it isn't anything you need to do. As I mentioned below this, the book "Start Small, Stay Small" has a lot of the practical stuff, if $25 is more in your budget.

Generally conferences are expensive for someone paying on their own dime. Do they have prices listed anywhere? It looks interesting.

I went in 2012, and it was $500. The tickets sell out, so just sign up for their email list.

Thanks for the info. I just figured out that you have to start "registration" to get the prices which they currently have pegged at $699 plus $59 for a significant other to tag along.


I attended the session on "How to create your own revenue source though conferences: tips and tricks for closing the deal" and the technique of getting information about the buyer before they have a chance to walk away when presented with the cost was one of the main bullets.

So, overall, would you say it's worth the price? Where you able to take the advice and translate that into money? I've never been to a conference before. So I'm having trouble justifying the cost to be honest.

I think your parent was making a joke. But I thought the conference was worth it. That said, one of the two conference organizers has a book that is in the same vein. At the very least, read his book:

Start Small, Stay Small: A Developer's Guide to Launching a Startup https://www.amazon.com/Start-Small-Stay-Developers-Launching...

Thanks for pointing that out to me, I think you're right. I didn't pick up on the sarcasm. I actually thought it was about a technique where you take a fictional product that everyone says is great, and try to sell it as if it actually exists. This is supposed to be a way to find out what people really think. Appreciate the feedback and I will be checking out the book :)

I recently tried to become my own ISV. I produced the first draft of https://conciergeapp.uk/ within 2 weeks after a chat with someone who is in the Facilities Management (FM) section. Initial interest in the market looked good and I had plans to make a modular platform. After some refinement etc, I totally failed to sell it. I tried so hard but it was exhausting. Then I got a regular job, but still.. this does appeal. Wish you luck! The hard part is not the coding.

"The hard part is not the coding" - 100%

saw the website and got one question: who is your market target?

The target market is companies providing facilities management services to residential apartment blocks.

Yes it's possible. I've been doing it for nearly four years now running networking infrastructure software which has even stricter requirements than a typical SaaS business.

It's not easy though. Assuming you have product/market fit (i.e. something that sells):

Reliability is paramount. It is everything to you. If your system breaks, it will stop new development, marketing, support responses, sales calls. Because there is only one of you, you can't afford to spend time fighting fires and answering pages. It does not matter if your software is slow or fast or if it is pretty or ugly or if your userbase is growing or not if you are down.

Reliability is paramount. Invest your time into building systems that do not fail when one component or one machine breaks. Where you can, you should leverage primitives and services from cloud providers that provide the kind of failure guarantees you need. Then assume that your cloud providers will eventually fail on you, so design with that in mind. Take as few dependencies on them as you can handle or make sure you can failover between them.

Reliability is paramount. Every change you deploy could break your systems and cause downtime. You need good testing and monitoring. Run continuous end-to-end testing of all customer-facing functionality that pages you when it fails.

Reliability is a feature if your software is critical to your customer's business. Some will notice when your competitors are down and you aren't. For those that don't notice, educate them. Explain to your customers the investments you've made to keep your service up and running. You can sell it as a differentiator.

After that, support is the next time-sink you need to eliminate. Treat every support request as a bug that can be fixed so it doesn't happen again. Make it extraordinarily easy to contact you and then try to optimize so no one ever contacts you. Invest in your UX. Your UX should try to illuminate the inner workings of your software. Many support requests are simply failures of a customer to understand what your software is doing and why. Customers can't debug black boxes, but they are smart and motivated and if you invest in their understanding, many will solve their own problems before contacting you.

Design your error messages. Your error messages are a more important piece of design than any other messaging from your product. Finally, if you can't solve the support bug with UX, invest in your documentation. Documentation is your last resort because most users will not read it or they will only read portions of it. By the time they get to the docs they're already frustrated, so it needs to be fantastic.

good luck!

> Make it extraordinarily easy to contact you and then try to optimize so no one ever contacts you.

> By the time they get to the docs they're already frustrated, so it needs to be fantastic.

Well said.

http://indiehackers.com has been making the rounds on HN lately and shows that it's definitely possible. But of course, keep in mind these are the success stories.

Yes. I am my boss's only employee, and I only work part-time while studying. Before he hired me, it was just him. We develop software for the real estate industry for property management and trust accounting. We have one major client that we work with directly, and we have a specific version of our software that we only supply to them. We also have a partnership with another company overseas who we license our software to, while they handle client relations and support.

It appears to working out quite well for him, as he is currently on holiday overseas.

sure, i do it. Develop a custom system for a company and then charge a monthly use and/or maint. fee. If the original development was tested well you are essentially getting free money every month.

I have a full time job but one client on the side. I built a system for them that I net $1,250 per month on and do 2 hours of work a month at most. Rackspace takes care of almost all host related items for me.

I have a partner who also makes $1,250 from the same contract. In hind sight I could have easily done the whole project without him and be making $2,500 per month.

Been going for almost 3 years now, probably has a shelf life of another 7 years.

If you can get a few customers like this, you are set. The challenge is of course to get more customers, let me know when you solve that issue, I'm still working on it :)

edit: changed gross to net

What's your Rackspace hosting cost / month? I realize it would vary for different situations, but just curious if you don't mind sharing.

Sure, it's approx $500 per month. We gross $3,500 per month and pay hosting and business insurance as expenses. net is $2,500.

Edit: hosting includes daily backups

How does one know what to build? And even then, how do you approach businesses to sell your product to?

I made Menutail (https://www.menutail.com) which creates nutrition facts labels for food vendors. Up time is definitely important, but if things go wrong, customers are understanding if you communicate honestly with them on what is going on.

The other thing to be careful of is feature creep to ensure it is valuable for your customer base. If one customer complains that they want something which would be super difficult and applicable to only one edge case, I'd take some pause to evaluate the feedback.

The other thing as ovidiup mentioned, marketing is the absolutely hardest. I would even consider it soul draining if you like coding, but it is super necessary. I would recommend reading this book to help think about your sales channel


Do you have a sales channel?

I know a guy who continues to run a one-man software shop for some municipal government functions that are important, but too small for a more general software company.

Key factor for him is that his uncle had been a well-known person, which got him in the door early on.

I think it is doable. I write a few desktop apps (text editor) for OS X, Windows, Linux, iPad and I have a few games in the app store with more coming. Some days I pull my hair out from the stress but overall I am happy writing the products.

Are you making money on any of those products?

The text editor I pulled from being sold a long while back. Now I maintain it and have a new version I am contemplating putting out for sale again.

The games are way better :-)

I had such a project that was making about $15k/mo at its peak -- it was me and my wife, barring a couple of spot contributions from contractors. It depended on data from a sole data source, a Fortune 100 company, which eventually cut us off by sending a C&D threatening to sue under the CFAA, Copyright Act, and various other statutes. They claimed we breached the contract entered automatically by using their site, as their Terms of Service states that "no automated or manual method" (i.e., no method at all) can be used to access their content and their footer states that use of the site constitutes agreement (this is called "browsewrap"). The way we accessed data was much lower-impact than the way our clients accessed the data previously and I'm fully convinced that we saved them tens of thousands in maintenance and bandwidth costs.

No other data source is capable of providing the content we needed. We were forced to shut down.

We knew this was a possible eventuality and our ToS explicitly disclaimed responsibility for it. Our site required users to check both a checkbox and click OK on a dialog box that served only to inform that they used the product at their own risk, nothing was guaranteed, and no refunds of any kind would be furnished. When we shut down, many angry users demanded refunds and issued chargebacks, often after months of successful use, despite the clear and unambiguous language which confronted them several times and required their affirmative assent before they were allowed to purchase anything.

Before we were forced to shut down, other people had caught on to the market and started copying us. We had about a year where we were in it by ourselves. Once serious competitors showed up, they ate our lunch by using a sophisticated spam network to promote their offerings, which were sloppily made by offshore contractors and far worse than our offering in every way, technical and aesthetic.

I refused to engage in similar tactics and felt righteous about it, but it sure cost us a lot of money. They somehow brokered deals with the niche forums that had blacklisted us from day one (or just outspammed their moderation capacity), afraid that we may eventually expand into something that would threaten them directly (which I now plan to do, some day). Perhaps we could've prevented the copycats by acquiring software patents.

These competitors pushed the envelope to the point where it became a visible PR issue and the F100 was forced to respond by C&D'ing every site that operated in the sector I launched and instructing their users to never use anything not distributed directly by the company itself again.

Now, about 16 months post-shutdown, I still get emails from business owners who depended on us begging me to turn the service back on, and saying that their business has been seriously hurt by our absence.

Some of the people in this thread evidently picked much better niches than I did.

I usually don't do this, but couldn't you have the customers set up some sort of proxy to acquire the data from the F100? So give them a piece of software that they run on their local network to grab the data and configure your SaaS to point to the customer's site to get it.

Perhaps you've considered this and it wouldn't work for some reason or another. But I thought I'd offer some unsolicited advice.

I wanted to do this, and in fact thought of doing it before the takedown occurred, but after the takedown, our lawyer advised me that doing so could be construed as conspiracy to violate the CFAA. He thought it could give them incentive to try to field criminal charges (the CFAA defines both criminal and civil penalties, and as one may expect, the F100 is very well-connected and surely could get a federal prosecutor interested), so I didn't pursue it.

As much as I wanted my business to be able to live on, I wanted to stay out of prison more.

The only option would've been to abandon all US assets and essentially go into exile in a state where the law was more friendly and the F100 would have a harder time getting me shut down (and there are very few jurisdictions without a law substantially derived from the CFAA; the wording of the Telecommunications Act in many Commonwealth nations gives marginally more protection). I didn't think that was a very good option for a relatively small business, I wouldn't have been able to afford it at the time anyway, and it would've had meteoric impacts on my family, so I didn't do it.

On top of that, The Pirate Bay and MegaUpload have proven that the long arm of American corporatism knows no borders.

To their credit, however, Sweden did seem to hold out a long time. They had to be threatened with sanctions from the WTO in order to take down TPB. At that point, Sweden ignored their own law and pushed through a sham trial against TPB's proprietors, who went into exile in non-extradition countries, from which they were eventually stopped at border crossings and extradited to serve time in Sweden. Can't hide from Mickey Mouse.

The most ironic part of this is that the world's largest companies regularly violate the same rules with impunity. Google, for example, routinely and flagrantly violates the CFAA and the Copyright Act, going by the standards that are applied to everyone non-Google. However, Google has been sued over this and won, with their use specifically ruled fair, because they're Google -- and that's essentially the reasoning the judges give if you read the decisions, talking about how it's a "transformative use" that has changed the world, etc. etc. Judges have declined to apply the same logic in later rulings (Ticketmaster v. RMG), on the basis that the defendant was not Google.

The moral of the story appears to be break rules and get too big to fail fast, and then you can do whatever you want. If you don't big enough fast enough, you will be destroyed by a large company that's afraid of you.

Was there any possibility of agreeing a license for the data from the Fortune 100?

Our lawyer sent them a proposal. They sat on it for 4 weeks before they said they weren't interested in issuing a license.

Would you be willing to sell the site/code to somebody who is willing to take the risk? A Fortune 100 in the US can't touch a Lithuanian Corporation. :)

I've been varying degrees of open to this over the months. At the moment I don't think I have the time resources to arrange something, but if you want to shoot me an email at my_username @gmail.com, we can keep the communication channel open that way and I'll ping you when/if it changes.

Tarsnap is doing just fine, but he's also doing something unique.

You CAN do it, but get a partner. You need someone to bat ideas around with. Having at least one other person will allow you to go a lot farther with the quality of your ideas.

Nonsense. Ive been flying solo since my teens and dont really want a partner. Some of us work better independently. Im not against a partner if the right person shows uo, but Im not holding my plans until they appear.

I'm going to post a contrarian viewpoint that unless your product is self-contained and it can continue on without you if you are hit by a truck or even acqui-hired for top $, I will avoid you.

Too many pay apps and even games with DLC have gone poof in recent years because of the latter situation or because the cost of maintaining the DLC no longer justified itself.

One cannot build a company with the expectation that everyone will use your product. There are always people who will find a reason not to work with you. You have to aim for the majority, not the exceptions.

If everyone felt like you did, it is a deal-killer. But you need to do enough research to know whether or not that is true before giving it any weight in your decision making processes.

It seems to me solo founders are far more likely to open source the product or do whatever they can to keep it going whereas a big company will drop something as soon as it makes a quarterly loss.

What about with desktop software? Once you buy it you are able to use that version and don't have to rely on the vendor sticking around. Also, how do you go about finding such information about a company if a micro ISV doesn't publicly say they are just a solo venture?

When I purchase enterprise software I call them up and ask how many people work for them. In UK (and sure it translates) I normally pull their accounts from companies house. If not incorporated I'm suspicious. If they are it will help me gauge size

It really depends on the service (if it solves a real problem) and on the niche (if market is rich and people want to pay good money for your solution); as for other ways related: public media content is done and dusted and facilitator gigs are often not worth the hassle.

Pretty much viable. I've experimented with https://worktheme.com. What I realized is, small increments of work over a long time adds up to really surprising results.

Yes absolutely, at least initially. But expect weekends/nights/vacations to be consumed.

Eventually, either due to growth or a desire to have free time again, you'll probably want to bring aboard other persons.


Yes. I know some. You got to pick your battles carefully and really produce though...

More than ever

I do. As advised by others comments, I sell a plugin on a platform that takes 20-30%. It's great because they handle the invoicing to big companies, which removes the hassle of being a referenced provider.

I'm ok on the sysadmin side (backups, Ansible, etc) and uptime. I'm subpaar on the support side, because I can't develop features fast enough and I have a problems prioritizing things that my various customers need and, at the same time, I panic at the idea of telling them that "I don't know" whether I'll deliver their tiny feature in 1 week or in 8 months. Anyway, it's all problems you can solve by being more efficient or professional, just keep in mind that support/bugfixing will creep up as you add features, up to 80% of your time, at which point you'll either have enough money to hire, or notice that the business model doesn't bring enough money.

There is definitely room for us, micro ISV: Do it as long as you like it / enjoy the lifestyle.

Also, "don't talk to corp dev" (cf Paul Graham's essay) unless you want to sell, in which case use an acquisition broker marketplace (cf patio11's essays).

You might want to try something like Pivotal Tracker if you aren't already. Estimating each "task" and then prioritizing them seems to help me see how long it will actually be before I will get to a specific feature. Pivotal is pretty good at estimating your future tasks based on your past tasks.

It's not about estimates, it's that my output isn't enough to be ahead of my customers' requests, so that they wouldn't have to ask for them, or I wouldn't have to provide a workaround until I develop the specific feature.

I used to have the same problem and have since become an expert in saying "No sorry we can't do that" or "we can but it costs this much".

Your clients will eventually thank you because you'll sustain the service longer if it's worthwhile for you.



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