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Ask HN: Is it possible for a non-programmer to bootstrap a SaaS business alone? (clientgiant.us)
76 points by robwilliams88 on Mar 16, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 71 comments

It's not possible unless you have enough money to pay a good developer salary. I've been a part of one once, and the only reason I dealt with the clueless founders was because they paid me better than a regular coding job.

So yeah, it's possible, if you're rich or can get funding before you've got a product.

I've also been approached by countless guys asking me to work on their startup for free or something like 10% equity. Bitch please. I've been a consultant and run all sides of a business, what could you possibly bring to the table besides a nebulous and nearly worthless idea?

To those guys I've started asking for 60% equity and they usually walk away as if it was an insult.

Let me be clear about it. You can run a business with engineers alone and write software. Even one single engineer can run his own software business. If was running a start-up that makes software with two founders do I want one of them to make 0% of the product?

> To those guys I've started asking for 60% equity and they usually walk away as if it was an insult.

Do you advice the developer to accept the offer for 60% equity ?.

Sure, if you think the idea is worth it


I contracted for a person who built a small but very profitable SaaS app using contractors.

There are some caveats though. The person has a smattering of technical knowledge which prevented him from being completely taken advantage of by contractors. And he was an effective manager (a rarity to be sure). And he knew exactly what he wanted and stayed on top of details of how it was implemented. Although not a necessarily a "programmer" he also knew enough about using Git to review/merge changes. And perhaps most importantly he had the financial backing to complete the project.

I've also worked for other people who didn't have these qualities but figured they'd just hire some people to build some stuff without keeping on top of it or in many cases having a clear vision of what they wanted. Predictably these projects didn't turn out well for them.

But yes, it is possible. I've seen it.

The key here is that he had the financial backing to complete the project. Unclear whether the original poster has enough of a cash runway to keep even a team of 1 at a fulltime salary.

You don't need a full time team or person (the guy I worked for doesn't have that) as long as you can deploy and manage the hosting and have someone you can call if there is an issue.

But no way to get building/operating capital? In general forget about it. Most likely not going to fly.

I'm convinced lots of people do this because I've personally seen at least two. But even more try and spend a bunch of money and fail (seen a lot more than 2 of those). The ones who succeed generally don't hang around HN posting startup related buzzwords though so it's understandable they are presumed not to exist.

> But yes, it is possible. I've seen it.

Citation required. Please post links to the products.

I'm in the process of bootstrapping a SaaS. I'll say it's absolutely possible, or more precisely, it has equal chance as the programmer going it alone has. The simple reason being that the product is only a tiny piece of the puzzle.

I find the opposite question equally as valid. Why is it assumed that a programmer can bootstrap a successful SaaS alone?

To build an application, you need someone who can identify an opportunity (product market fit.... and that's harder than most would assume). Of course even if you have something customers want, you still often need to help them want it... so you need a marketing/sales guy.

Implementation is the last piece of the puzzle. I think these are completely different skill sets, and a successful company 90% of the time needs 2 or more people to pull it off.

The product is still the most important piece that you can't do with out. You might be able to get by without a marketer/sales guy, but without a product you're selling vaporware. All the other jobs can be done (poorly) by the programmer, but the reverse isn't true.

Just look at all those scams on kickstarter, the one thing they're missing is a viable product that an engineer can tell them is impossible.

Only extremely lucky people will get Steve Woz. Not every one is lucky.

What's your product ? . Please post updates. Your story would be a nice use case to watch.

It is freakishly hard to build a successful SAAS if you have funding and a solid team. Doing it alone as a solo non-programmer has got to feel like trying to drink the ocean.

I've never been able to figure out how non-programmers can sift through mounds of freelancers to find a good developer. And, even if they find good developers, I have no idea how they manage to motivate and retain them.

I'd love to read some stories from successful solo non-programmers. If anyone has some links, please share...

Here's one https://www.indiehackers.com/businesses/convertkit ... follow the link to their blog about the "Web app Saas challenge" and they outline the entire process they took.

Wildly successful too ... $600k MRR in just a few years https://convertkit.baremetrics.com/

I don't have a link - but I have my story. I assisted a colleague and friend to launch his SaaS last year. It looks to be very successful. I helped him by providing technical architecture (I did no programming) and by finding a contractor (offshore) to do the development. We used Firebase. He had a designer do the mockups in UXpin. This is hard yes but impossible no. Things have changed for the (much) better in the last two years.

> I've never been able to figure out how non-programmers can sift through mounds of freelancers to find a good developer.

I'm not convinced programmers can either, they can just find the ones that think like they do and weed out the worst of the worst.

If they find a good developer who helps them build a product, they are not solo anymore. If they keep pretending they are, then they are just assholes taking advantage of people.

Just learn to program, every minute that you spend futzing around trying to find developers who'll do it for free or little money is one minute further away from you have the development skills to write your own product.

The truth is not every one can write code, i am not being arrogant but it is true.

After reading the comments, no one asked about "which"SaaS business model. Yes it is extremely possible to bootstrap a SaaS business alone depending on which model. Example: help a reporter out that peter shankman grew into a Monster of a SaaS business.

Another example? GroupOn. Was a email newsletter first.

I've seen a group of guys go sign up for Wordpress and were generating $2,000/month themselves for a kickstarter-like concept by using plugins. Not all SaaS businesses require a programmer, especially these days.

Will certain models require a programmer at some point? Maybe. Maybe someone just wants to build 10 SaaS newsletter sites that all generate $1,000/month each... $10kMRR in total with no need to hire a programmer.

It depends entirely on the SAAS. A non-programmer friend of mine paid peanuts to an off-shore programmer to build an über simple slack-clone with Firebase + Angular + Phonegap. He has two paying customers so far. Will this scale? Probably not but if he reaches 20 customers he'll have the money for the rockstars.

This friend is a sales ninja, the tech is not an obstacle for him.

First of all, a Slack clone with Firebase/Angular/Phonegap is not simple in terms of the engineering effort. If he found someone to implement a working system like that for peanuts, then he did not bootstap his startup alone, he did it by taking advantage of the other guy, and the fact that he does not acknowledge the other guy did 90% percent of it and describes it as a 'solo' effort just means that he is an asshole.

Are you willing to pay for my education to become a software engineer, so I can code my own products?

If not, then you're the asshole.

I always tell non-tech people that if you have an idea, and expect a developer to code it for equity, you NEED to bring purchase orders to the table first.

[0] Obviously there are exceptions for instance if you have deep industry experience and contacts(with buying authority) but these people usually also have the money to pay a developer to implement their idea.

If the guy has to 'hire freelancers' to implement the actual product, then 99 out of a 100 cases of this, he is not actually doing it alone. He is just discounting the contributions of core members of his team that are being poorly compensated.

If it were the case that this was normally a group of freelancers making a killing, charging high consulting rates, it would be different. But almost in all cases they are using 'freelance developers' because they cannot afford to pay market rates in the US and can't afford benefits. Even in those other countries, there is a global economy. Those developers might be doing OK, but they are not getting wealthy.

If you try to do it as if the developers are separate and not a core part of the team, that can't work either. Either you acknowledge how critical they are to your business or you just take advantage of them and hope they don't find something better and your business doesn't fall apart.

Perhaps by possible, but probably not advisable. Consider the obvious alternatives:

(1) having a technical cofounder, or

(2) raising money instead of bootstrapping.

Either of these alternatives will take time — to find the cofounder or the funders — but this is nothing compared with how much slower you'll move if you're bootstrapping and don't have a pot of cash to fund development with.

And the better your idea is, the easier it will be to find suitable cofounders or funders. So if you find these two tasks to be difficult, this tends to indicate that the underlying idea is not as strong.

My background: I am a non-technical founder of a software startup that has been mostly bootstrapped and mostly solo. My path was made possible/easier by the fact that I have savings from having been a corporate lawyer, and by my wife's stable/good job. Without both of these things, launching a startup would have been even harder.

I think it's theoretically possible, if you have enough money or are persuasive enough, to bootstrap a SaaS company using some combination of contractors, friends, cofounders and employees. However it's really them that's bootstrapping the company, not you. However, the more likely outcome, and hopefully the one that the author is headed for, is that by building your company you cease to be a non-programmer and become a programmer. The author already seems far enough down that path that I think he's kind of shortchanging himself with the moniker.

There's really no hidden secret here, just build if you don't know how learn. It's the best way to learn and the only way to build. No one knows how to build something before they do it.

I (developer) chatted with a water quality consultant during a plane flight. Consultant mentioned the CRM for his niche business sucked. He asked if I'd be interested in building a CRM for no money upfront, instead making money later (a percentage of his business I could sell, a license fee, profit sharing, whatever). I realized in that moment once the app was built, I wouldn't need him at all, and that I could sell it (let's assume it'd be a valuable product) to all of his competitors. Either he wins, or I win, but there wasn't​ a scenario I could imagine where we both won. I explained that to him, and he was no longer interested in having me build the software for him.

Why do you assume that water quality consultants would buy a software product from you alone? Selling is hard, and a big part of it is knowing your customer, and gaining their trust. This guy would have a much better chance at accomplishing that. He had a lot of value, you just failed to see it. He made the right choice by finding someone else.

The point I was trying to make is that making an MVP water consulting CRM for a single customer isn't very equitable for me. The amount of money I'd earn for the time invested feels like it'd be less than what I'd likely earn as a consultant for anyone paying an hourly rate.

If I decided to build a CRM for the water consultant market, he brings little to the table for me. What I mean I can find a water consultant that isn't him. If I approached him, pitching on the idea for a CRM that would cost 50% less and be 2x more efficient, he'd likely be open to the idea of at least discussing it. If he said no, I'd simply find a different water consultant to talk to. He if said he'd talk, but only if he got to own after I built it, I'd turn him down.

For him to be a viable non-technical cofounder, he'd need to stop being a water consultant, and start being a cofounder. Those are two separate jobs. He didn't​ want to discuss that. He could bring value, maybe. But he wanted to own the majority of something he couldn't buy or build himself, and he wasn't willing to become a founder. I wasn't interested in doing business like that.

I was once tried being the non-technical cofounder. In the end I decided it was easier to learn how to code, and that path was super hard.

"For him to be a viable non-technical cofounder, he'd need to stop being a water consultant, and start being a cofounder. "

This part I completely agree with you. If you're splitting equality (relatively) equally. He should be as committed as you are, if he's not, than you need to be compensated extra for it.

There's a lot of value available by building apps for strangers for free? All I can see is risk. If you can find a way to de-risk that business model, then you'll have your value.

Perhaps you meant potential. But then there's potential in most everything. Every manuscript in a slush pile has a certain amount of potential.

No, I meant Value. He's an expert in the industry, he has connections to potential customers, he presumably has their trust. That's crazy valuable. That takes years to develop, and there's no "hack" to get around it.

I encourage you to try and build those intangible pieces yourself. You'll quickly find it's not trivial in any way.

Sure, value for himself. Value as a business input to a currently non-existent SaaS app? Way less clear.

This is my last remark here, because this chain is getting a bit long. But I'll try my best to clarify myself. Because I really want this to help you in the future, or anyone who might read this. Because I used to have similar opinions as you, and it hurt my progress.

When you're done building the minimum viable product. You're not done, his value is not used up. You've done only a fraction of the work involved with building a company. The real hard work now begins. I've done this a few times, so i'm talking from experience here. Build it, and they will come... is a fallacy.

You'll need him to get in the door. Yeah, getting in the door of customers is hard, even if you have a product they want/need. You'll need him to help you gain their trust (you're not selling steak knives here, you're selling enterprise software!). High value sales means building a relationship, understanding the process of having clear goals with each engagement, demonstrating the value, integrating feedback, etc. You need an expert who understands sales, and the industry. If he's a consultant, presumably he has this.

You MIGHT be able to do this yourself, but even if you eventually succeed you're probably going to fail a lot before you get it. If he already has the skill set, and he already has the network, and he already has the relationships. He's bringing A LOT to the table. This isn't you working for him, this isn't you working for fee. This is adding his complementary skill set to your own, and building a company.

The one last thing I think every engineer who wants to break out and do their own thing should know. You can outsource product development (not saying you should, just saying you can) but you CAN NOT outsource sales. There are consultants who will help you, there are distributors, but none of that can completely replace having your own dedicated sales/marketing staff. They're augmentations. Building a company is not just having a product, it's having a market, it's knowing the market, and it's having a strategy to penetrate the market. The product is just a part of the company.

I recently quit my job to bootstrap a SaaS. I spend 60 hours working on it a week, and 55 of those hours i'm doing something that isn't coding. I REALLY want to just write some code, but that's not the most important part... not right now at least.

My advice is don't underestimate the value an industry expert who knows sales can bring to the table, and try to be realistic about what your skill set is.

This is a timely topic, because I'm currently studying the process the founder of ConvertKit (designer) took to get his SaaS off the ground with just his own $5k.

https://www.indiehackers.com/businesses/convertkit ... follow the link to his blog about the "Web app challenge" and he blogs about the entire process as it happened

Wildly successful too ... $600k MRR in just a few years https://convertkit.baremetrics.com/

I think Nathan Barry (ConvertKit founder) is originally a designer? He might still know how to code. I'm not sure. But his business seems successful enough. There are probably dozens of less well-known examples.

Edit: recent article by GrooveHQ (non-technical) founder that may be relevant: https://www.groovehq.com/blog/non-technical-founder

Erm, let's say I saw it recently.

Developers are more than code monkeys to order around, they can tell you how feasible your ideas are. If you hire efficiently, they also come with market-relevant experience.

So while you probably could do this in your bedroom, alone-alone, chances are you'll end up with an insecure, unstable, broken hacky mutant that costs too much to run and includes things people don't actually want.

But I would say that. I'm the guy you should hire :)

While possible, it doesn't seem advisable. If you could bootstrap a successful SaaS as a solo nonprogrammer, you probably didn't need to.

Sure if you have enough money to pay people to do the work. Architects don't build houses by themselves most of the time :)

This is optimal if your goal is to focus entirely on sales and raising, as this effectively lets you sell while building the product, which is really hard to do when bootstrapping everything yourself.

Good luck!

No, that's idiotic. You will hardly understand what you're selling. Learn what you're doing.

Hey Rob, it is certainly possible for you to bootstrap a successful SaaS. Without money to pay a developer, though, your best bet would be to learn to code yourself enough to put out a product to test the waters. Once that gains some traction, partnerships and funding would be easier to come by. That path would probably eat up 3-9 months given the bulk of your spare time and energy.

Why do you think you want to build a SaaS product though? It seems to me like you're already putting out content pretty regularly. I would recommend moving it off medium to a domain you control and start getting some emails for your list. You can still publish there, but link back to your own site. With an email list, your readers can turn into your customers. As a designer, you can then start building products like books, courses, podcasts, guides you name it which will let you take advantage of the skills you have already. Check out Design for Hackers, for example. Why not use the edge you built up instead of starting at a disadvantage?

As a founder of 6 figure MRR SaaS, it is possible if you can hire good developers overseas for less. That said it is really useful if you know a little code or have someone who can vet good coders for you. Take your time with hiring.

I'm someone who is a non-coder, can you please recommend some books/blogs on how to build a successful SaaS business?

Of course it is. If you know the problem space very well and are able to conceive and sell a good solution, the code behind it matters very little.

Sure its possible, but coworking spaces are full of people trying it and I cannot think of a single example where it has worked.

Analogy; Can a non-programmer manage programmers?

Are you kidding. All the people who can not program become managers. Its the truth. Exceptional are the Big-4 companies.


Anything is possible if you just dollow your freams!

I'm a developer and have helped bootstrap a couple of SaaS. The problem is that in most partnerships like this, the other person can usually only offer ideas or something very minimal with regards to the success of the business.

I usually end up just doing everything myself. Unless you offer something besides just the idea (money, contacts, industry experience). The partnership will not work.

I've had to quit a few startups over the years myself because my co-founder ended up only offering some ideas. This starts to become a perceived manager->employee relationship (since as the developer, you are doing the majority of the work) and because the idea is their only contribution, it's a problem when it needs to be changed.

This also smacks of someone that loves the romanticized idea of running a startup, but isn't willing to actually put the work into it.

Now, I will only go into business with other people that have at least a couple of years of business experience.

Similar experience here.

If the other person in the proposed partnership cannot demonstrate equivalent-value skills and equivalent previous success in critical-to-the-business areas where I'm weak (or uninterested) like sales, marketing, biz-dev, enterprise sales, acquiring VC - then my answer is almost certainly going to be "Sure, $8k/month is my usual rate - discounts of 20% for 3 month or longer block bookings. When would youy like me to start?"

If the other person refers to themselves as "An ideas guy!", my rates double, and require 50% up front.

Software development is serious time consuming and often difficult work. Do not ask me to do it for less than market rate without making it very clear that you are going to work just as hard with equivalent skill and experience to make the idea succeed.

I've been interested in running my own business since I was 20 (I'm 37 now). When I was in my early 20s, I was the developer in a partnership. My partner was the 'ideas' guy and was going to finance anything we needed to launch the site. I figured because my friend and business partner was already running his own company, it would make for a better co-founder.

I worked on our idea for 3 months and finished it. At the end of the 3 months, he told me that he needed to concentrate on things that made him money and he just wasn't interested in pursuing any new ideas. Since I was poor and still living with my parents, I wasn't able to do anything with my code except use it on interviews when looking for a new job. Another company came out with almost the same idea a few years later and made millions.

The main problem was that he had no skin in the game. I had poured my life into our idea and thought about it every day. He put nothing/very little into it and was easily able to move onto something new because he wasn't losing anything. Everyone needs to take the same amount of risk in a business partnership. This is usually either time or money.

A few years later he continued on with his door-to-door computer repair company and wanted to hire me for $10/hour as a technician. At that point, I was making a salary and had a great position as a junior software developer and pretty much laughed in his face.

Our personal relationship never really recovered. We were good friends before this and at this point, and I haven't talked to him for 10+ years.

> If the other person refers to themselves as "An ideas guy!", my rates double, and require 50% up front.

This is logical from a developer standpoint, but has it ever worked. Has any one ever paid 50% upfront.

Not in my case, but if you just say no, they think you don't have faith in their amazing idea. If they refuse to put their money where their mouth is, they realize they don't faith in their amazing idea.

sometimes a sticker price is not about being paid, but it's about clearing out you are rejecting an offer before even the negotiation becomes a waste of time

Yeah in a startup or small business I think every founder needs to do work. You can't have people who only essentially generate work for others. There are so many things that need doing when you're small that aren't directly related to development but still need to be done: applying for grants, tax concessions, marketing, building communities, competitive analysis, market research, payroll, accounting.

But this is the fundamental point of the article. It's very difficult to do marketing, communities, competitive analysis market research payroll and accounting when you have no money and no product. So what can non-technical co-founder bring to bootstrapping a SaaS platform with just ideas? May not be possible.

>But this is the fundamental point of the article. It's very difficult to do marketing, communities, competitive analysis market research payroll and accounting when you have no money and no product. So what can non-technical co-founder bring to bootstrapping a SaaS platform with just ideas? May not be possible.

You hustle? You sit there and think what is the literal next step, then you try that thing, reevaluate, and repeat. Then keep doing it until you're rich, broke, or dead. There is always something you can be doing.

For some reason the image of a mouse in a cage running on a wheel with a person shouting at it popped into my head here; it reads like the transcript of YouTube motivational videos that on the surface has substance, but are actually hollow.

Doing something is a strict superset of doing something valuable, the key is to bring value, which the quoted comment was addressing.

That period of time where a MVP is in development is prime time for a nontechnical partner to be out there talking to potential customers, putting together marketing materials, building an email list. Even without a working product you'll learn a lot and be able to hit the ground running later on.

Waiting until the product is 'ready' to get the wheels turning on sales and marketing can lose you valuable early insights and make it take longer to see if your product fits the market.

I agree it may not be possible! I think you need money, or you need to convince someone of the value of what you are building and get them to help you for equity. That's a super hard sell though.

> You can't have people who only essentially generate work for others.

This 100% true and an almost unavoidable occurrence when non-technical and technical individuals attempt to start something together. I'd say it's extremely important that if a non-technical individual is coming to a technical one to build literally everything they dream up, said non-technical individual absolutely must be doing an equivalent amount of work in other areas of the company. Sending emails and taking calls/meetings only gets you so far and will eventually be perceived as "0-net" tasks by the technical individual if they don't result in anything.


Also, non-programmers don't understand how much work goes into building applications.

Never go into sea with someone that doesn't has any experience and just an idea. You will hate it and waste a lot of time.

Zuckeberg did it right? Atleast till it was viable? JUST DO IT.

Zuckerberg was a programmer.

Also Facebook is not SaaS (at least not the way most people think of it).

F those people that tell you it's not possible. I barely knew how to code and I started a SaaS business. I worked my ass off to become an adequate coder and sell the product to customers. It's been three hard years and now it's starting to pay off. If you have a solution to a problem, one that people will pay for. You have a business. Keep pushing. You can do anything if you're willing to work hard for it. Take help when you can get it. Learn everything you can. Enjoy the journey.

You're saying it's possible, but isn't your anecdote saying the opposite? That is, you may have started out as a non-programmer, but by the time things are going well, you have become one. In your own words: you've "become an adequate coder". It seems to me that the author of the post is hoping to avoid that: he wants to succeed and remain a weak coder. Or am I misreading what he wrote?

> I barely knew how to code

So you started out already knowing some programmer and thus were not a non-programmer at any point in your SAAS, so you didn't do it either.

> I worked my ass off to become an adequate coder

Then you agree, it's not possible without being a coder.

Since you became a programmer, you haven't proven that "it" is possible. "It" being "a non-programmer to bootstrap a SaaS."

If you're trying to motivate the OP to learn programming, then that's another thing.

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