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How to start a startup without ruining your life (superhi.com)
511 points by Adamola on Jan 31, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 111 comments

I did the life-ruining one as my previous startup. Then I did one that only turned out to be a nice business. The good project and the disaster both took about 3 years to build but the good project was always making money since week 1 cause it had to sustain me as I'd overextended myself in every way just trying to sustain the disaster.

After about 3 years trying and failing to make the good project earn a lot more money I wanted to do an exciting new startup. Having almost hit 6 digits that third year meant I couldn't just ignore the good project and let it atrophy but I didn't want to pursue an exciting new startup being anchored to the good project all the time. I decided to sell it.

With that decision all of the remaining work became about transitioning from 'code on my computer' to 'coherent and pleasant part time job for someone else to do well'. I replaced bash scripts and w/e other random crap with a web interface and gutted my code and dependencies so that the person they find on craigslist to add something in 2 years won't drown.

Now I'm completely free to work on my new startup and make something like a good salary while I do, someone else takes care of the nice business in 5 hours a week. Probably half of HN could pull that off with a side project or two. This is where patio11 and someone from feinternational.com described the difference between the good project and the nice business -


How did you sell your side business? Just thinking aloud if I wanted to buy one

check out feinternational.com (OP mentioned them as well). I've been subscribed to their "Buyers list" for over a year and I've seen many nice saas businesses listed.

Interesting, the multiples are 3-4x profit on that site. Is that pretty standard for SaaS?

From what I can tell, yes - at least for businesses that aren't experiencing high growth rates. FE has written an excellent article on the subject:


It's the last quarter's numbers annualized to a year so if there's been a spike in the last quarter that isn't seen in prior financials that's a point for negotiating the price. And it's also based on discretionary income so that "profit" is not necessarily the actual profit the business took in. A lot of expenses are considered discretionary but probably have a positive ROI.

So while 3-4x is normal (really 3-5x depending on the industry) the numbers on FEI tend to be a tad high but not unreasonably so.

Would you recommend looking any where else?

Why not hire a VA for the 5 hours/week to run the less exciting business?

Lump sum from the sale. Or not interested in retaining the mental baggage of owning the business.

Currently paying someone to do the work and waiting and building a bit of evidence that it can now be successful without me before testing a sale.

"Zero owner involvement" is generally a big selling point, particularly if the prospective buyer does have the time and can presumably speed up growth. Best of luck selling!

You mean niche rather than Nice?

I think "niche business" would convey the same meaning as "nice business" here :P

At least I'm interpreting "nice business" as in "oh, it's just a nice business, not anything life-changing"

Yeah I took it to mean a 'lifestyle business'

Just a comment on the expected salaries for developers in London:

- A junior developer at £20k is probably going to do you more harm than good

- £30 - £40k for a junior developer is more reasonable, where £30k would be fresh from red-brick uni (if lucky) or a couple years industry experience

- A senior developer asking less than £50k is probably not super confident (could be various reasons e.g. failing to get other jobs, not super experienced) or experienced with startups

- Good senior developers experienced with startups are more likely to be on a minimum of £60k and anywhere up to £80/90k

Also it's a little more nuanced than this. A first hire developer might (perhaps reasonably) expect to be a CTO or Tech Lead assuming further hires - this is one of the reasons some developers consider working in startups as it's a potential fast track to gain management-like experience. If you're hiring a junior developer, this probably isn't the best idea and it should be made clear to them this isn't the case. In hiring a senior developer it should at the very least be discussed - the outcome of this may potentially be an expectation of higher salary (either immediately or upon company growth). It's not unheard of for small startups (seed / series A) to pay £100k+ for CTOs.

Is this a guideline for startups only? I work as the only dev in a small design company but have no frame of reference for salary expectations as I've never worked with other developers and transitioned into it from a design role. I earn slightly more than the other employees (designers) but that's still under £30k. I would consider myself more experienced than a junior.

If you wanna send me your CV (rik@superhi.com), I can give you a rough idea of what salary you should be expecting.

Can I send you my resume as well? I've worked for small companies or startups most of my life in a not so strong region for developers, so I really have no idea what I actually should be asking for my salary, and I know I'm probably underselling myself.

Yeh, of course! I'll give you a rough idea if you let me know your location in the email too :)

I was speaking mostly in the context of startups. For instance, more established companies have greater resources to hire more junior devs at a lower salary point and train them up. They also usually have a higher ceiling for top end salaries (team leads, various flavours of management, architects or niche skills depending on sector).

Hard to say what you should be expecting as i'm not sure how long you've been developing. If you can demonstrate your ability (i.e. pass technical interviews) and have about a years experience or more I would imagine you could get £30k or more fairly easily, startup or not.

What kind of dev tools and languages are you using? Hacking php for WordPress?

Some of the highest salaries in London for software engineers are for senior developers at Ecommerce companies built on Magento or building Wordpress websites for agencies.

The idea that PHP developers don't get paid much is erroneous, on average they probably do, but the peaks are just the same. I currently earn £70k "hacking" php in Magento and I'm based in Manchester where the cost of living is far lower.

Currently my time is split between JS (node and vue, vuex, webpack for frontend work) and PHP (Laravel), occasionally some Python. Primarily work for clients building single page applications. And yes I use version control and keep up to date with modern specs. Haven't touched WordPress in about 5 years thankfully.

Having crunched the numbers in London a couple of times, I think these are pretty much spot on. One thing I will say is that there is a pretty large variance. It depends a lot in what sector you're working. Outside of London is quite a bit cheaper (surprisingly so) and I often wonder how people hire anyone.

I work a lot in the UK. And NL and DE as well. I do not like talking about salaries, how much someone makes. But fresh out of uni I was above your senior numbers and besides being overly confident I did not do much more. My senior friends in the UK and NL and DE also make far more than you suggest. I think you are right that you need to be confident; without that you get abused. And I guess that is when labels like introvert get tossed around; if you do not ask or if you think you are not worth it...

Edit; Forgot to add the context; gross salaries per yet. In EU talking about net salaries make no sense at all so I assumed that.

Yep, totally agree. Didn't want to get too in-depth with that, otherwise the article would have been a lot, lot longer.

I started a company (actually several companies by now) because I knew that my life literally depended on it. I had a job out of school at a big firm and I absolutely hated it. The idea of getting up at 6:30 am every morning, wasting precious time sitting in rush hour traffic, dealing with people at an office I don't necessarily want to see, much less work with on a daily basis, sitting in a cubicle working on something that just helps get someone else rich, was just terrifying to me. I have a few people in my extended family who have committed suicide and I knew that if I continued on this path I would definitely, 100% be one of those people. I know others can, and some may even enjoy it, but I simply cannot enjoy a life like that. So I started a company and fought like I was going to war to save my own life, and it worked. I worked really hard for about 5 years and now I have enough money that I never have to worry about getting stuck in one of those dead end jobs I feared at the start of my career. So, if you're thinking of starting a company, be ready to go up against some competitors (depending on industry) who will fight you to the death - if corporate life doesn't bother you so much, perhaps you should stay there.

What did you end up starting as your first success and how did you decide to start it?

Business is war. This article sets the tone: https://medium.com/@lanec/what-to-expect-as-a-new-ceo-9489df...

Hey everyone, I wrote this guide, if anyone has any questions about it, I'm happy to answer and I'd love to hear your thoughts on the article!

No questions, but thanks for writing it and sharing that knowledge.

Thank you :)

opposite question as the other poster: what do you do if you have a great idea (naturally everyone thinks their own ideas are great) but don't have the entrepreneurial spirit ? I've been working on a project for a couple years, still have about 25% of the work to go for it to be MVP, but I'd really like to find a business partner/investor. I'm afraid to reach out though because I dont know how to protect myself from being screwed.

Sometimes you just gotta give it a go. I'm not saying quit your job and do it full time, but if someone is going to steal your idea, then they're going to steal your idea tomorrow or in a years time.

Everything is a risk, but you don't want to get to 90 and think "damn it, I should have done that business".

The worst thing that might happen is you might run out of cash, give it up and get another job. Or someone will rip you off (be it a biz partner, investor or rival) and you give it up and get another job. It's stressful and not fun, but you're not going to die if your startup fails.

> if someone is going to steal your idea

Just to clarify, I (gladly) fell out of love with my idea and dont so much worry about people "stealing" it. I'm more worried about a business partner building an "escape hatch" in the partnership contract and screwing me out of ownership/stake. Not sure if that changes your answer or not.

I recently bought on a partner for my business. It was definitely the best thing I could have done. He's an absolute champ and has the same hunger for success as me. Our skills are complimentary and our little business is slowly but surely growing.

Of course protect yourself. Have a contract. Never go with a vague contract and then hope for the best. Have everything in writing. Ownership stake, expectations an escape hatch for either of you in case of a falling out etc. For us there was a clause stating that the contract could be nullified by either party within the first 90 days for any reason.

I had worked on my side business for 3.5 years at the point I partnered up. My partner first spent 2 months working away and we didn't formalise the agreement. We were making sure that we were going to work well together.

I finally said that we can't go on like this and we really need to formalise his ownership etc. We discussed figures and arrived at an arrangement that worked for us both.

In the end, for me it came down to this: own 100% of 0 or X% of a real business.

Once that clicked for me, bringing on and trusting a partner was an easy choice.

Yes I agree with this. I think if you're going to offer equity too, offer equity that vests over a longer period of time (3-4 years) might help keep them connected and give them a reason to stay with the business too. Make them work for ownership of the business.

This is why you have an attorney.

I have experience with startup marketing and definitely have the "entrepreneurial spirit". I can offer guidance+actual work help on the business side (as long as it can all be performed remotely), expecting no equity or even payment from the start. When I prove my value, i.e. earn you real money, we discuss compensation (most probable payment in cash, not equity).

I assume the risk of not succeeding to grow your business and the risk of succeeding but you deciding to dismiss my work and not compensating me. No contracts, only verbal agreements to start off.

I've done this kind of deal twice before with moderate success in both. If you are interested, email me (on my profile) with more details about your product.

Not OP but I found that pursuit of a Patent can be a protection avenue that opens up opportunities for business partnership/investment long-term. Granted it does take personal capital in the US, as it's not exactly cheap, but it's a functional approach in some avenues. Hope this helps.

What would you say to those who have an entrepreneurial spirit but struggle with idea generation?

Also, don't call yourself an "entrepreneur" - it's a bit like being calling yourself "hilarious" or "handsome" - it's what other people call you, rather than a job title.

Interesting! I like this logic.

However... what should one call oneself?

Depends! CEO is fine, business development is good too.

Is it even legal to call yourself CEO if you aren't a C-Corp? A basement LLC with a CEO always makes me laugh. How about Owner or Founder?

Of course it's legal, but the "C" stands for "Chief" which has a pretty strong implication that there are non-Chief Executives in the company.

If you're not at a position to have full-time employees whose sole job is to manager managers, it's unlikely "CEO" really fits.

CEO of a LLC is legal if you're in sole control of the company but yeh, owner/founder is fine too. I used to call myself Founder when the company was just me.

Look for problems. It's hard to sit and think of ideas, even if you do, most of the ideas will change on contact with potential customers.

Look at what you're strong at and what you enjoy. If you're seeing customers struggle with other businesses solutions, then there might be a way to solve that problem in a better way.

Being a good listener helps - get the feedback loop going as quickly as possible. Don't take anything personally if a customer doesn't like what you're doing. They could be right. Iterate on the initial idea. Don't spend too long building the first version of anything as it'll probably look different in a year.

I think this is good advice. It's better to see first-hand pain points that businesses experience as opposed to looking for an "idea" i.e. dreaming of a solution and then trying to find a matching problem that it solves.

If you start up with an "Uber for X"-tier idea, you may spend half your time educating people that they could use your solution.

On the other hand, it is difficult to watch a non-techie business worker perform their daily tasks for a few hours without seeing something that could be improved. A macro here, some workflow automation there, etc. Find a theme and you may be able to build something that solves a lot of problems.

As an entrepreneur you should look for gaps or things that could be improved first.

Team up with someone who has a good idea but struggles with implementation.

This, but make sure they have enough skills to be useful in the long term!

Just, well done. Good article. :)

Yeah, thanks for sharing!

I love the section about the first idea is probably not going to be the last idea. I've seen startups come in with a very set idea of how the product was going to work, only to find that the way it was going to work wasn't really what customers were looking for.

Rather than defining how a product should work, startups should define their mission and adapt their product to both accomplish their mission and meet the needs/demands of the customer.

I've been involved in a few startups and this is what I've learned:

1. Iteration is key and should be welcomed. 2. Validation, as noted, is incredibly important. 3. Continuing to validate iterations ultimately leads to a successful company.

Absolutely! Couldn't agree more with this. Most often thing I see is teams holding onto a solution to a problem that 1) no-one has, or 2) a few people have but no-one cares about. Sometimes they also over engineer the early iterations to a level of complexity that even prospective users won't "get it". Starting small, doing the research & interview legwork to define the problem, then design the smallest version of one possible product solution to it, iterate, review continuously...

Gotta tell you, that "giving a shit" scale isn't true in my case. I work for an agency and we give much more of a shit about our client than the client's internal devs do... about the code, about the business, you name it...

This. I've seen agencies that look like they're 11s on the give-a-shit scale. Usually it's interactive creative design agencies that are both small enough and young enough to really care about their reputation.

That said, using an agency to build your startup probably isn't the best idea for so many reasons.

Yes, I'd agree with this. The agency comment was more aimed at the medium- to large-sized agencies rather than small, young ones (I kinda see them more as freelancers when it's an agency of 2-7).

Also it's a big variance of caring, some big agencies do care a lot but they're rare and hard to find. Some staff turn up late and are hungover every other morning. It's a wide range but I was trying to average it out!

How to start a startup without ruining your life 1. Never accumulate personal debt in the process of starting up 2. Sleep, Exercise and eat well 3. Never forget 1 and 2

The rest are beyond your control by a large degree. Try your level best. And Yea, occasionally read through such advices.

After having failed at my first startup, and having partially succeeded in second, I couldn't agree more on those two points.

The debt accrued on my first startup still haunts me. And I really wish, I slept more and worked out more during the period. It is really a simple advice, to sleep and to work out. But when you are a sinking ship, you could hardly follow it.

How do you start a startup if you're at least a few years from getting out of existing debt? Is it even remotely feasible? I've been having urges to give it a try but I'd be starting in the hole, which seems like a really bad idea.

I try to work on things in my off time but it's difficult finding the time after working all day.

Always have a back-up plan so I'd clear out your debts first.

> 80% won't give you critical feedback, because humans like to avoid conflict and are polite

Haha. I wish!

"Your app sucks".

"Why is this not free?"

"Can I do X? Why can't I do X?"

"You changed Y and I hate it"

80% won't give you feedback, period. Because they've another 10 tabs open and you've haven't intrigued them enough to warrant anymore of their precious time and attention.

This was aimed at the idea validation stage. You shouldn't have built anything at this point as you're too busy talking to customers face-to-face, trying to hone the idea down.

I'd love for someone to write about howto meet people who you'd want to join up with you as a cofounder. I know I wouldn't be able to do any of my high in the sky plans by myself but I don't know many people who'd be up to taking the plundge.

It may not appeal but I took up ultramarathons a couple of years ago. On the multi-day ones (e.g. Marathon des Sables) you meet some terrific people with the kind of insanely driven mentality that chewing glass and staring into the abyss demands. They've also typically got a bit of personal runway - so can bare financial risk of a startup.

That has to be the most fascinating piece of startup advice I have ever read.

Alternatively, you can identify the same set of people without actually running the ultra by looking for people who descend stairs backwards.

Not sure if this was your intention, but your comment came off as somewhat snarky - a theme best reserved for reddit.

It was not advice - but an observation offered as a data-point. You can indeed meet people that run ultra-marathons without running one by going to meetups, fb group events, etc.

FWIW I thought it was a genuine comment. That's really specific, interesting advice in finding the sort of people who'd make good co-founders.

Indeed my comment was genuine. FWIW, I also recently ran my first ultra.

Yeah, Rik's totally right. As a technical person you control the proverbial board. Go out, meet (great, non-crazy) people...talk about your ideas. Have in mind the type or skill set of the co-founder you want though, early stage everyone needs to bring hard skills, IMHO.

Looking at your profile, as a technical person you'll be a lot more in-demand than someone non-technical. Go to meetups and talk about your ideas online, people will naturally come out of the woodwork the more you talk about your high-in-the-sky plans.

Here's an idea for someone to build up. Make a dating site for founders and cofounders. That would do really well in SV. Probably could even run in real life speed dating.

That's not exactly my field of interest but I'd sign up for something like that when I get out of college and need to finally get to building things.

There are already a bunch of these actually. I think cofounderslab is the most well known but there are a bunch of others.

If I was to set you homework, it'd be to talk to 10 founders on your idea. See if they think it'd be useful. Talk to founders in SV and other cities (and other countries).

Do the research before building anything, otherwise you could be wasting your energy on something people don't want.

Probably already been done, but free idea?

An internet "dating site" for startup co-founders to meet on (you could have the whole shebang - ratings, chat, profiles).

Maybe something like LinkedIn meets Match.com, with a sprinkle of YC thrown in?

Actually, email matching might be suitable for this problem. I did a project for matching flatmates a while ago. [1] Was trying to leverage a user's facebook connections etc. to create better matches (e.g. 2nd degree connections). If anyone is interested in taking it over/working on it let me know. [1] http://www.flatmate.io/

There are a few of these out there. https://cofounderslab.com is one. When they first came out I lived in Chicago and used their site a few times. Totally reminded me of Match meets LinkedIn.

(note: I have no affiliation with them)

Validating your idea. That is one of the best but most overlooked advise. Validate, validate again.

Yep, totally agree. A lot of founders don't do this as they're too attached to the idea or too worried about criticism. It's a tough learning process to get over the negative feedback.

This seems quite hyped advice in SV recently, but validation can be difficult for certain classes of businesses. For example, I recently spoke to a US startup founder who had failed in what is roughly our segment, burning $300k. His advice: validate, validate, validate! In our area, however, it is essentially impossible to do so without similar to launch expenses, so we are just running with a regular development trajectory (in a far cheaper and higher demand market with other positive attributes) and the broad assumption that people want to eat food - http://8-food.com/

Everything can be iterated. The degree to which this iteration can be accomplished is really highly dependent on the complexity of your product, but, in terms of iteration complexity (and highly simplified, dropping lots of intermediate points, etc):

Polished product > Happy path demo > Mockups (mechanical, digital, etc) > User stories > Deck

At the very least iterate on things like the user stories to make sure your customers can see your product fitting in to their day to day life. Without any form of iteration, you're leaving the most important thing -- product market fit -- somewhat to chance.

You're right, but as with anything the management-level questions are (1) risk versus reward; (2) (finite) resource invested versus value derived (versus other options for those resources).

In our case, we can iterate easily based upon real market information post-launch. It's literally illegal to do market research otherwise, so we can't really get a foot in the door hyper-analyzing potential segments ahead of schedule.

"It’s always easier to work with your friends rather than searching for someone to be your co-founder. You trust them and you have faith in their abilities. However, startups will strain even the most solid of relationships."

Not only that, they could ruin your relationship with your friends forever. Friends are friends, business partners are business partners. Been there, done that.

Not that many comments. Here is what I would like to say, I love how you structured SuperHi as a both online course and 1-1 mentorship. That way people get best of both worlds. To me that says you care about what you are doing and your customers. This is important and will enable this business to be viable long term.

Thank you! Yeh, we've been consistently asking customers what works for them over the two or so years we've been running. We found that a lot of people get stuck very quickly with the free online courses that are out there, and they wanted to create sites from scratch rather than learning about HTML, CSS and Javascript – it's a very slight difference, practical vs theory.

We've found that the 1:1 help informs the course material too - if we get the same request topics in the 1:1 help, it's obvious we're missing something from the course material, so we add it in.

Almost all such articles miss the most crucial self assessment piece- if you are married/in a relationship make sure you and your partner have a good understanding of the potential stress that you are about to take on. It can make all the difference in making shitty days tolerable or even more terrible.

It’s better to try and fail than never try at all. Sums it up. Thanks for the great article.

Not really. Failing is bad. It's better to not try at all if you're going to fail, unless you can learn something that makes you succeed in the future. Otherwise, trying will mean missed opportunity costs.

It is difficult to know whether you are going to fail, but easy to know whether you are going to try. Nobody sets out to fail.

Such an amazing response to this thread! Thanks everyone. Rik (the author) made the original article into an ebook as a result of all this great conversation. It's on Product Hunt books also now, should you wish to check it out: https://www.producthunt.com/posts/how-to-start-a-startup-wit... :)

Great article, thank you! As a developer I often dream about having a startup. I don't want anything large or fancy but a nice little SaaS app that can generate some income. I'm absolutely terrible at marketing and I can never seem to come up with a good idea / product. Do you have any suggestions as to where I can get inspiration for products or find markets that need something?

The title of the piece is slightly misleading. It's really more like: Roundup of startup advice based on one person's journey. There's decent advice, but it's not really structured to support the title, which would seem to require a few counterexamples of ruin.

"Roundup of startup advice based on one person's journey" wasn't a catchy enough title.

I should have linked to http://autopsy.io/ - a good place to read about why startups failed from the founders.

Not to be a geography troll, but... I'm sure the rest of the article is great.

> SuperHi has online courses which means we have students from California to Australia, all due to the internet.

Lol, sounds like a whole lot of fish to me, amirite?

  sounds like a whole lot of fish to me, amirite?
Courses, like fish, tend to congregate in schools.

Haha, eastwards rather than westwards.

I can't reiterate the incentive vs caring point he makes enough. Agencies exist to satisfy a requirement, collect a check, and run. Engage them warily for dev/design.

"Niché"? Someone should edit that misguided bit of pedantry out.


No matter what sort of thing you're replying to, you should know better than to post like this on Hacker News.

We detached this subthread from https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13535072 and marked it off-topic.

Fair play, my bad. I was a bit bemused that tschellenbach just dissed my startup's name in a dickish way without being critical. Apologises.

Perhaps this is the point where you talk about your name origin (which is cool) rather than setting yourself up to be perceived as one of those dickhead founders?

The name origin comes from information superhi...ghway. I was watching this Youtube video at the time and thought it was cool: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V8cnP-RtRHU

In another comment in the thread, I was talking about the brand name testing we did with customers and also with the awesome team at Koto (http://studiokoto.co/)

Probably not the best response for a CEO to be making on an online forum. This is not the message you should be sending to potential clients and employees.

Wow, that's a very cogent and intelligent response.

What does the superhi...way have to do with online learning specifically? Even if you paid a consultant to tell you otherwise, it's still not the greatest name ..

A lot of brand names have vague or no references to what they do – Apple, Nike, Google, Heroku – we had a few other initial names that were like "Craft" and "Tailor" but didn't really work for us. We tried the more obvious ones and our customers didn't like them.

I'm still happy with the name two years later though and still love our branding. With the name we could use it in a few ways to make it more about learning... "learn the SuperHi way", "SuperHi school", etc.

We're also a bootstrapped company, so zero investment available for spending $$$ on a domain name. In the end, we went with what felt right for us and what our customers liked.

Hahaha! Ok I can dig that, "learn the SuperHi way" is actually pretty clever. Thanks for explaining your reasoning.


It'd make for a great marijuana startup company though ;)

We'll pivot into that if everything fails and my mother doesn't complain.

If starting a startup is in your mind, I strongly this series of videos from Sam Altman (@sama) from YCombinator: http://startupclass.samaltman.com/

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