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My Second Year as a Solo Developer (mtlynch.io)
1066 points by mtlynch 22 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 374 comments



Two cents offered because this post really strikes a chord with me, and I also spent some time chasing down rabbit holes early in my software business:

These products do not appear obviously commercializable and multiple years invested into them without materially improving the businesses does not decrease my confidence in that snap judgment. You could probably talk to business owners with problems, launch an (appropriately priced; hundreds to thousands of dollars per year) product against those problems, build contingent on getting 10 commits to buy, and be at +/- $100k in 12 to 18 months. Many people with less technical and writing ability have done this in e.g. the MicroConf community. If you want the best paint-by-numbers approach to it I've seen, c.f. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=otbnC2zE2rw&t=2s

(I'll note that What Got Done is probably a viable boutique SaaS business if you somehow figured out distribution for it, at price points between $50 and $200 per month. My confidence on this approaches total. HNers skeptical because it is technically trivial should probably reflect for a moment on how much time is spent on standups at a company with 20 or 200 engineers, what one hour of their time is worth, and how likely that company is to put an engineer on this project specifically.)

If you run an API-based business in the future: Usage-based billing is a really tricky business model for a solo developer. Note that you can say "Usage-based billing but we have a minimum commitment", and probably should prior to doing speculative integration engineering work. Your minimum commitment should be north of $1,000 per month; practically nobody can integrate with your API for cheaper than a thousand dollars of engineering time, right.

This also counsels aiming at problems amenable to solutions with APIs which are trivially worth $1,000++ a month to many businesses which can hire engineers. Parsing recipe ingredients seems like a very constrained problem space. Consider e.g. parsing W-2s or bank statements or similar; many more businesses naturally care about intake of those documents, getting accurate data from them, and introducing that data into a lucrative business process that they have.

I would encourage you, to the maximum extent compatible with your sanity, to prioritize "Will this get me more customers?" over behind-the-scenes investments like CI/CD which are very appropriate to Google but will under no circumstance show up in next year's report as One Of The Most Important Things I Did This Year.

For similar reasons, I would suggest devoting approximately zero cycles to cost control. You don't have a cost problem and no amount of cost control will bend the curve of your current businesses to sustainability. You have a revenue problem. Your desired state in the medium term will make it economically irrational for you to think for more than a minute about a $50 a month SaaS expense; marketing and sales gets you to that desired state, not cost control.


You could probably talk to business owners with problems, launch an (appropriately priced; hundreds to thousands of dollars per year) product against those problems, build contingent on getting 10 commits to buy

I don't doubt that you're absolutely right, but this bit strikes me as hard. I've struggled to find one business owner with a problem they perceive, let alone 10 with commitments to buying a solution for the same problem.

Ironically, it strikes me that there's a gap here for a business to solve; connecting entrepreneurial devs with business owners aware of problems.


Is the problem that you can’t identify owners, that you can’t successfully get in touch with business owners, that you can’t convince them to talk to you, that you can’t get signal from those conversations, or that you are accurately getting the signal “Actually literally nothing could be better about my life.”

Draw the funnel diagram, with numbers if necessary. Having talked to many devs who believe similar, I think the most actionable advice is likely “Organize your next N weeks to talk to many, many more business owners than your last N weeks.”


Not the OP, but what I have struggled with here is the feeling of being a "solution looking for a problem". It's a step before where you're at. It's not that I can't identify owners, it's that I can't identify _problems_.

I am lacking the domain experience to even have the first conversation, and it feels like paying people to ask "so tell me everything that is wrong with your business" is the wrong way to do it.

I know PG mentions "solve problems you have yourself", but I am not a business owner. I'm a software engineer.

That video you linked earlier - Designing the Ideal Bootstrapped Business - was incredible and feels like the right move once you have that idea. But what about finding that idea?


I hear you.

I was in Software for a couple of years and I only saw software/IT problems. But these problems usually had a variety of solutions and only some glue was required.

Now I've been in the natural stone industry for 4 years and I can't count the number of problems to which the solution is "add more people". So much data entry and data extraction from PDFs <-> ERP/CRM/Other software. 100s of man-hours spent on something that could be done with proper data formats and simple automation.

I personally believe that software engineers are SORELY lacking on all other industries besides software. We need more software engineers venturing out into other industries and identifying and solving problems.


> We need more software engineers venturing out into other industries and identifying and solving problems.

this seems to line up with my experience well. But I don't have a good line of sight for me to actually experience those businesses outside of taking a non-SWE job and going from a well-compensated expert to barely-paid newb. Spending years learning a specific industry in the hopes that I can turn my former skills into a viable business seems like the wrong approach in several axes. I know VC groups (sometimes) have entire departments whose purpose is to understand other industries... it seems counterproductive for individuals to try to and go this route. Thoughts?


Agreed, that's not a pragmatic path. But if starting a business is your goal, and finding a viable idea is your obstacle, I'd argue this is a sure-shot way of FINDING said idea.

Some potential paths can be:

1. SWE @ SW company -> "BA" @ non SW company or whatever term is used for generic-problem-solver in that industry.

2. Part-time hourly work in another industry. This is fairly easy through temp agencies.

3. Apprenticeship in another industry (perhaps in more hands-on industries).

Some are hard to get, others don't pay as well. But to find gold, I'd say some level of hardship is required, and this, in my view, is a bulletproof way of finding that gold.

Whether you're able to dig it out and then able to sell it at a profit, is totally another question.


> Part-time hourly work in another industry. This is fairly easy through temp agencies.

This sounds like a more brilliant idea than #2 in a list in a long thread.

Temp agencies are where businesses turn to when they have a reasonably simple problem and they are willing to pay to solve it.


Totally agree. Software is just starting to scratch the surface of other industries.

Out of curiosity, what's your role in the space you're in now? Are you solving these data extraction problems?


Hey Gary, I'm solving them using 3rd party tools (docparser and evolution.ai) at the moment to offload these types of tasks.

I don't have a fully working solution, just started testing with specific documents (steamship lines notifications) to see if it's a fit.

I think it'll be slow road for each department I want to tackle - logistics, accounting, purchasing, etc. Every department has this issue, and I'm sure products could be built to serve those niches.


There was a post on here a couple of weeks ago that spoke about this. Essential reading for indiehackers imo http://reactionwheel.net/2015/10/the-deployment-age.html


A good way to think of it is that you aren't looking for problems. You're looking for smells.

Most business owners tend to be experts in their specific domain, where they have already used their knowledge and expertise to great advantage. But running a business entails more than just handling the problem domain itself. There's an entire category of tasks and responsibilities under the "business administration" umbrella that the business owner will not be an expert in, and will probably despise dealing with because it takes them away from the fun stuff that is their expertise. That's a good area to focus your gaze on.

For instance, the accounting clerk may be spending 4+ hours every day manually typing invoices into two different systems, but to the business owner this is probably perceived as a normal and expected course of business. The accounting clerk is unlikely to complain about it themselves either, since they are getting paid to do it (remember that Sinclair quote). But to you as a software engineer, double data entry is very obviously a red flag, and if you care enough about it you can do a deep dive and see if it can be eliminated using automation, and present it as a cost-saving solution.

Generally speaking, nobody is going to hand you a written list of their problems on a silver platter, and even if they do, the problems they have identified will be so general and vague (e.g. "we have a lot of inefficiencies in our accounting department") that you won't be able to simply go home and start hacking away at them. So you need to use a methodology to start peeling off the layers of the onion, so to speak. And that always entails follow-up meetings and learning other software systems and familiarizing yourself with various business practices.

At some point, you will come to the realization that you no longer view yourself as a "software engineer". Rather, you are a problem solver, and writing code is simply one of the many skills you possess. That's when you'll know you're on the right track.


Plot the day - talk to a business owner and get a sense of the hours they spend doing different tasks. If there's something they spend X+ hours per day doing - find what they want to achieve and optimise from there.


What solutions would you pay for as a software engineer? What would your boss/team lead pay for? You can't really do it for someone elses domain, you need a motivated partner in that domain for that (my general experience, of course there are exceptions)


> it's that I can't identify _problems_.

Why don't you start from your own problems? I bet you have some of them and you are not alone definitely.


The problem is usually at the start of the funnel. Most solo developers, especially those who have just quit their cushy FAANG jobs, are not positioned to personally know a lot of business owners (especially not outside of tech, where all the low-hanging fruit exist). So simply saying "go meet many business owners" doesn't help, unless you can also explain the how.

To give a counter-example, I did consulting for a decade before going off to do my thing, so I have a lot of personal contacts and I'm familiar with a lot of problems, both general and specific, that businesses struggle with, and turning those into products has been relatively straight-forward. But most solo devs don't have this background, so they need more specific and actionable advice to build their funnel.


> So simply saying "go meet many business owners" doesn't help, unless you can also explain the how.

There are like eight zillion guides to doing this online, and unless you're willing to spam people, it always boils down to: Grind it out. Start making cold pitches, and hustle for as many warm intros as possible.

Learn sales y'all.


but how many of those are interesting to work on, i too have been freelancimg and know some of problems, but when i think about them i dont reality want to work on them more them i have to.


This is the problem I see with a lot of developers - not just those looking to be entrepreneurs.

They want “interesting problems” instead of just trying to create products that someone is willing to pay for.


This is the realization that has led me to prefer working for a big software company over entrepreneurship in the past few years. Unless you find the problem of entrepreneurship interesting in and of itself, it is very unlikely the projects you will be working on as an entrepreneur will be nearly as technically interesting as the kinds of work you'll be doing at a company working on a large scale product. It's unfortunate, entrepreneurship sounds more interesting than being a cog in a big machine, but in practice I think it usually isn't for technically minded people.


Isn’t that the same problem endemic at Google? How many failed messaging platforms for instance has Google had because everyone wanted to work on a new problem instead of iterating on the existing one?

After over two decades, despite all of its attempts, Google has yet to do anything successful that wasn’t advertising based.

No Android doesn’t count. It came out in the Oracle trial that Google had only made $24 billion in profit on Android from its inception until the beginning of the trial. I’m the meantime they pay Apple $8 billion a year to be the default search engine on iOS devices. Apple has madd more in mobile from Google than Google has made from Android.


Hmm, your reply went in a direction I very much didn't expect, though I can see where you're coming from if I squint.

What I called technically interesting is "working on a large scale product", which for you seems to have implied "work on a new problem", but for me it's exactly the opposite. The kinds of large scale projects I find the most technically interesting are long into their growth curve.


While it may not be reasonable as a business owner, I don't think wanting to enjoy your work is nuts. Seems totally reasonable to consider if you have enough options.


Boring is good. Makes it a lot less likely that you’ll have competition. ;)


Agreed. If you have to be working on some exciting, disruptive project, doing solo development work that generates good income by working with run of the mill businesses with run of the mill problems is not going to be a good fit.

Personally, I find boring to be quite exciting - but perhaps not if the only thing you're looking at is the technical solution. Building a small business involves figuring out how to solve the mundane but important thing, but then you get to figure out how to sell it, how much to charge, how to do customer outreach, do support, turn the business into a repeatable process, etc. Building a business out of it is quite challenging and fun and the technical solution is frankly a small part of it.

Many solo-preneur types with technical backgrounds are way over-indexed on the technical aspect and want to treat it like their last technical job, but without a boss, which leads to a lot of disappointment and frustration.


To be honest i would not agree. While those challenges like all challenges can be exciting, in the end of the day it will still lack you full engagement because it's something that's boring to you or not interesting.

i'm kinda in that situation now, and got to play all the roles, like how we increased our conversation ratio by 50% with me thinking like a sales person (hint, don't over-complicate your pricing page), and those things can get you exited for some time and the money also, i just don's see it long term. i would rather playing with something that i love to do.


I think maybe owning your own business isn't for you then. Which is fine. Me neither.


That's me in my dad's company rn. I know the tech but not the business and it's something I'm trying to get out of, but don't really know how.


I believe that people tend to forget always one thing: the business owners don't know their problems _worth solving_. This fact is most of the time overlooked.

In my experience business owners tend to talk about problems that are impossible to solve, or problems that are trivial.

Typically, when you actually find problem worth solving, it is not merely a software. You are looking at whole processes that need to be changed. You will change how people work. And when you actually try to present the new solution to the organisation, you will face resistance. People don't like change.

Some could say that it is the business owners responsibility to push the change. But when they give up, they stop paying you.

Anyways, the advice "just find a problem" feels to come from people who either read too many books and never tried, or from people who got lucky the first try.


> when you actually try to present the new solution to the organisation, you will face resistance. People don't like change.

This struggle is real. People also don't understand that software development is a process of continuous optimisation, learning and improvement. They won't accept a good solution only a perfect one.


Michael published an interesting post about his attempt to talk with owners of sheet metal shops: https://mtlynch.io/retrospectives/2020/01/#sheet-metal-resea...


Interesting read. Not sure why the author was surprised that no business owner wanted to trade in their product for a saas.

No one really wants to deal with a saas when a one time purchase is available. Things like free tiers, lockins prevent us from moving until something happens (something always happens from big price increases to service changes or shutdowns changes to terms, etc).

Biggest problems are cost and uncertainity and losing a sense of control.

A saas to a customer is run like a fly by store selling stolen goods out of the back of a truck. Even though this person has been selling at this same spot every friday you know this can't go on forever so when he doesn't show up you are not surprised. When a saas closes down / changes terms / increases prices suddenly you are not surprised.

It works with some industries that have a high rate of change but if you plan on having a stable business you want to avoid saases


I think the approach here is a bit backwards from what the rest of the world has always done to a degree. Software Development is a specialized skillset, not unlike a trade. If we are solving a problem for someone with software, we are essentially like a typical contractor you hire to do something at home. What you're doing here is trying to convert that into a scalable product under the assumption that many other might also have the same problem. This might be true, but as in construction, the product makers aren't selling to the consumer directly but rather the tradesperson.

Every "tech" company is not actually selling tech, but rather is selling something tangible, a product of sorts. Software developers are selling their labor.

If you want to find out the scalable product or solution in a particular business or domain, I think you really need to be a part of that industry or have someone who is.

Otherwise, even if you end up developing a SaaS that satisfies the needs of 100 customers, you won't really ever truly be able to scale. So my suggestion is start talking to friends and family in other industries.


I don't think anyone on Upwork or whatever other job board would complain if they were out there asking for custom work and you showed up with a ready-made product.

Beyond that, every business owner kvetching on Twitter. Problems are everywhere!

Certainly can be very hard to get 10 business owners with the same problem to all line up and pay thousands for your software, but problems are easy to come by.

Edit: filtering for problems solvable by any particular solo developer's skillset in less than 2 years is another challenge.


People on Upwork also expect to pay $200 total instead of per month.


$200?! Can you do $50?


Yeah, this is why I have been working as a data analyst. I've taken on as many vendor management responsibilities as I can and help out with COGS and revenue attribution analysis for finance. I have been collecting ideas while making steady wage, and eventually I'll pull the trigger on something

I have a backlog of like 200+ viable new product / feature ideas that help solve some business problem or improve the efficiency of activities people do with financial transactions involved. Many are too small to be stand alone for sure, but I do not believe million dollar ideas are grown in a silo


Willing to discuss any of your ideas? I feel like everyone has hoarded ideas (including myself) that are never acted upon because we keep telling ourselves "eventually I'll pull the trigger" (including myself)


Not the good ones ;) Most will not make sense without context of private company work anyway

But as an example I also get a lot of fluff ideas for video game mechanics. For multiplayer games, the ability to tag another player for tracking. So you can pull up a menu and see players you've tagged and their recent performance and such or create your own 'achievements' and see what players have accomplished them (with necessary privacy options included of course). The primary use-cases being clan recruitment and pro-player analysis.

Random product idea example: A renting service for size-adjustable tables. So you can test out what table size fits best in your space. counter-height vs standard, square vs skinny, size A in room 1 or size B in room 2, etc. probably too small a market on this idea though since itd only be worth it before expensive table purchases


My experience is that even if you find a business owner with a problem there's a steep climb to build a product and sell it. I'm a developer & my brother is a mortgage broker - I even worked for a few months in his office during the sub-prime bubble :-) I saw first hand many processes that could be improved , even coded a few hack "solutions." In my case, it was just too easy to get a high paying dev job than take on the risks and costs of starting a business. Coincidentally, a recent indiehackers podcast with Dave Sims of Floify (a mortgage broker product) validated what was needed. I recommend listening to this episode - very good info developing a successful product for a domain you don't know:

https://www.indiehackers.com/podcast/136-dave-sims-of-floify


> Ironically, it strikes me that there's a gap here for a business to solve; connecting entrepreneurial devs with business owners aware of problems.

This. Why hasn't this gap been filled yet?


>> Ironically, it strikes me that there's a gap here for a business to solve; connecting entrepreneurial devs with business owners aware of problems.

>This. Why hasn't this gap been filled yet?

It's called Upwork.

No seriously, hear me out. When a business owner has a problem they perceive could be solved with technology, they create a job or they go on job posting sites seeking either an employee or a contractor to try and solve their problem.

Where they get it wrong is that they frequently have unrealistic expectations about what it will cost and how long it will take. They have no idea what skills they should look for and who to trust.

Is there a market mismatch here? Absolutely, but you'll have to find a way above the fray of recruiting sites as that's really the state of the market.


Yeah I’ve tried another similar site and people’s expectations are a bit loony, usually they want to pay the price you would charge a single customer for 1 year as a SaaS for you to develop the entire solution! Maybe non software folks don’t get the difference between say paying Atlassian $1000/month or whatever it is for Jira and paying a dev $1000 to develop a JIRA clone, because it probably seems like the same thing.


You're validating the problem, not the value or the target market. You need all 3, but it's easier to identify problems, then validate whether the defined target would be interested at a given price point.

The freelancer sites are just a starting point, they answer the question of, "what are some things business owners want".


Recent client: "I took a fortran class back in college, so let me know if you need any help."

Therein lies the problem: They know lawyers, doctors, accountants, heck even plumbers are going to be expensive because they are educated / trained and/or they get you out of an identifiable tight spot (the IRS isn't happy, water is coming into the house, I'm having a heart attack, I'm getting sued, etc).

Software developers? Outside the FAANGs technical people are viewed as fungible. Many, many small businesses are grossly undercapitalized such that a business owner might very well be paying that technical person a lot more than they pay themselves. Likewise, technical roles are typically compensated well above many other clerical / field / service / business type roles such that a business owner might not have ever paid so much to any other single employee.


> Outside the FAANGs technical people are viewed as fungible.

Fungible does not mean low-paying. Plumbers are mostly viewed as fungible, however expensive they may be.


Man, this is such a genius idea. Spend a good amount of time manually looking through job requests, then learn how to search for these, then cluster them and quantify the market which leads to total addressable market, then compare competition and figure out a premium offering, then sell at enterprise level with product + services, then gain efficiencies and go wider market, much like HubSpot.

Or something like that!


No. That's bottom feeder stuff generally

I used to have an Upwork account, to try and swing some cash on the side. Most of those jobs are paid far out of proportion to what they are asking people to do. "Facebook but for XYZ", is something I'm pretty sure I've seen there, several times.

I suspect that you can get a lot more leverage visiting your local business organization watering holes...


>No. That's bottom feeder stuff generally

That might be true, but it doesn't negate that there are a lot of business owners there doing exactly what I stated.


Elance? Odesk? There are a fair number of players in the "find a dev to solve a one-off business problem" space. The issue is that this is a market for lemons[1] on both sides - for business owners with problems, it's hard to verify that the entrepreneurial devs can actually implement a solution, and for the entrepreneurial devs it's hard to weed out problem clients.

Someone who solves or even slightly mitigates either of these issues will have a viable business. I know that for the "ensure the dev is competent" side of things there are many consulting companies that live and die by their reputations, but generally these don't usually scale up beyond a certain size, and when they do their reputation deteriorates. I am not aware of any businesses that attempt to solve from the flip side and weed out problem clients (if anyone is aware of such a service, I would be interested).

As if that wasn't enough of a challenge, if you do manage to connect quality devs to quality clients, there's the issue of sufficiently monetizing that relationship: you can charge a finder's fee or similar when you first connect them, but once a client finds a dev they like they will probably stick with that dev. So in that business you can lose business because you match people too poorly (and they leave because you can't help them) and you can lose business because you match people too well (and they leave because they've now found somebody they trust so they don't need your services anymore).

[1] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Market_for_Lemons


I think managed and vetted marketplaces are the way to go. A marketplace where the owner has some level of expertise in order to vet the suppliers, much like Codeable for WordPress or SuperSide for design.


My theory is that there are actually a number of "filters" before this kind of relationship would happen. First, the business owner has to recognize the problem, care about it, allot time to understand it, have the proper motivation (financial and mental), and network with others to solve.

Then on the other side of the scenario, the dev has to be logistically available to working on the project, be capable in both the tech and soft skills needed, care about it, have the proper motivation (financial and mental), and network.

The hypothetical business would solve the networking issue, but not the rest. But I think these relationships are built in a more decentralized way, though chance encounters, mutual friends, and cold connections. Sort of like dating. (Kind of is because this relationship seems like one of cofounders.)

Or I could be completely wrong and there is a stealth startup out there ready to shake things up.


I've had the exact opposite happen, but granted more consulting than dev.

1. Know someone at the company or a key advisor 2. Spend time together 3. Hear "we think we need help but we're not sure where" 4. Respond relatively insightful with 2 or 3 things they could do that are valuable and force rank them 5. Get feedback 6. Price it. Explain value. 7. Deliver

In my eyes if you're helping smaller companies sub say 1000 employees the value you bring is in knowing what to do. And telling them. They need you to understand the universe of options, what you've seen at other places (i.e. experience) and to weigh in on what works. They largely have no idea how to move the boulder otherwise you would not be there.


Because usually when I've tried this, the business owners dont-know-what-they-dont-know so it is difficult to even articulate the problem they face.

This is why I faced finding solve-able problems much easier as a consultant because once you're embedded in an organization you see their problems, and perhaps you can ask the right questions and tease out a possible sale-able solve-able solution.


From the post:

"... I outsourced much of the writing. That cost me more than it should have because I knew nothing about hiring and managing writers, but the experience taught me a lot ..."

"... no love for Xero ..."

As an entrepreneurial dev who is also a business owner, it sounds like he may have some problems there to solve!

Not sure if those are viable, just pointing it out. The easiest problems to solve are your own or at least ones you encounter yourself. Doing some consulting may help to see problems in business or industries that are not your own.


Yeah, you are right here. It sounds nice to talk with business owners, but you'd be doing it for months to get any valuable insight. Better to build something that you can probably sell and talk with people in the course of selling it, not upfront. You can always pivot a bit once you're in a market.


Frankly, if you can't do this part on your own, you're gonna fail anyway.


That's exactly what I went to solve 6 years ago, didn't work, but the space is probably more mature now


I like this idea and would use it if it existed


Looks like this guy is trying to run a lifestyle business, and his investments pay enough interest that he can coast for a long, long time.

To be quite honest: He's spending all day playing.

That's a position I envy quite a bit.


How many years of work do you have in the tech industry? It seems in the current market (not even assuming SF salaries), and without kids/other dependents, it's fairly easy to reach that point. Just curious, because a lot of people have this mentality that they need to work forever and ever, but it often is just a mindset.

You can easily amass 500k-1M and just coast on 40k/year in expenses for a long time. If it's something you want... a lot of people want kids, or to live in high cost areas, or to accumulate wealth to pass on, or have dependents such as elderly parents, or enjoy money a lot.


> You can easily

With the usual caveat, "if you are working for a big tech company in the bay area".

In London, starting on 30k and rising to 80k after ten years, not so easily.


I wonder if this is a good or bad position to be in to start a life style business.

I’m fortunate enough to be in this situation, where if I go somewhere cheap and keep my expenses down I can sustain myself financially for a long time, maybe indefinitely. And I’ve though about leaving my salaried job to do my own thing many times. I do worry though that the lack of financial pressure will just leave me lazy and “playing around” instead of focusing on building a financially viable business.

Anyone else have experience with this?


I've seen a broad mixture of those scenarios over time, people of various personality types doing it (myself included).

The one thing I'd say, is that it's critical to know whether you have a strong internal drive / self-motivation. If you don't, it can be a dangerous context to put yourself into (dangerous in the financial or time waste sense). If you don't have that internal always-on motivation, it's super important to have a firm plan and object/thing/business idea that you're going to be pursuing before you quit. Start at least drawing up some sort of minimum framework before you quit, laying out what you're going to do, how you'll spend your time, what type of lifestyle businesses you're interested in, plot everything out financially as much as possible and so on. Good advanced planning will save the day and help prevent catastrophy as the road gets challenging. It's a new type of 9 to 5 job, although it's more likely to be a 50-80 hour job getting started. Without financial pressures, you have to either naturally self-motivate strongly so you don't constantly veer off (get lazy, get distracted, get bored, and such), or follow a fairly strict plan that you've laid out for yourself ahead of time to keep yourself sane, productive and making progress.


Right...making $40K in dividends from $1M is very easy.

Harder if you're in a higher cost location but you can definitely live off $60K even in SF if you're single.


Or get used to the money and comfort and camaraderie of a salaried job


I'm not sure I understand this attitude. There is a specific lifestyle he is trying to achieve and the is working towards being successful at reaching it. At what point does it stop being "playing" and become just living? Do you have to be miserable at a 9-5 job to be considered serious by society?


I think the point is that if you can self-fund by living off the investments, you're really effectively retired and not particularly motivated to fix profitability gaps in your new career.

In a sense, it's cool, cuz like, you're helping people in the world out for less than the cost to provide that service. But in terms of recommended reading material for people hoping to replicate the situation without an infinite runway, selection bias is a definite concern.


If the argument is that he already has enough money to retire, wouldn't his continuing to work at Google also be considered "playing around"? Most people probably wouldn't look at it that way, they'd consider him "productive" or "motivated". So why does it matter if he is working at Google or on solo pursuits?

The argument would probably be that he's lucky to be in the position he's in. But presumably he earned the money he has from working at Google. So either dismiss his entire situation by saying that anything he tries to achieve from now on is just "playing around" because he already has enough money, or respect him for trying to continue to improve his life (even if it's from a good place to start).


> So why does it matter if he is working at Google or on solo pursuits?

I don't think it does, but looked at purely through the lense of 'how to be a solo entrepreneur' maybe discount advise from folks who can afford to be wrong for years.

I want to distance myself from the 'you should just work for google' folks. I totally respect the idea that using your savings to build the services you want from society. My position is that by default, postings on HN are viewed as recommendations to others. And yes there are other reasons to write, even if nobody else is reading it. But with zero qualifiers (Show HN, Ask HN, etc), my expectation from HN front page material is that people should read and learn from the material.

Anyone hoping to learn from the post for their own ambitions needs to be able to separate the typical from atypical in the author's post. The author is forthright that he's funding this via savings and I think it's reasonable to think he can afford to do so in perpetuity -- again, great for him; I hope to be in a similar boat some day. But like, last year's post describes a cost cutting strategy of buying a house, and most self employed persons find it challenging to get a mortgage without multiple years proof of income.


I agree. His situation is certainly atypical and his end goal will be easier to reach than it would be for pretty much anyone else. Still respectable in my opinion. Perhaps the parents use of the word “playing” came off as overly dismissive to me. Thanks for the chat!


Make $300K a year for 10 years while keeping expenses low and investing most of that in a bull market makes it pretty easy to do.


> Make $300K A year

You make it sound easy! How do I do that outside of not just SF, but the US?


Move to Seattle?


ah yes, Seattle, the famous city in Taiwan


I misread and thought he meant outside of SF :)

Work for one of the big tech cos outside of US is probably your best bet.


What companies are those? Meaning, employing software engineers and paying 300K per year for roles that are not executive-level.


I'm currently at Indeed Japan and I'm pretty sure I can make ~300k as an IC in 1 promo or >>300k as an IC in 2 promos. Of course, at the corresponding level at Facebook in Menlo Park, I'd make 200k+ more...


> investing most of that in a bull market makes it pretty easy to do.

Bag-holding 101, folks.


> These products do not appear obviously commercializable

It looks to me like some people have a well-developed intuition to distinguish between products in "seems like it would be useful to me" category vs. products that have a good chance of actually being commercialized.

I certainly don't. When reading various indie hacker stories I'll be damned if I can predict with reasonable success which ideas have a good chance of taking off and which don't.


He gives the clue to finding that. Talking to lots of businesses about what they need. We don't pop out of the womb with that sense.


I know I know, I didn't mean to imply that it is some innate ability some are born with and that's the end of it (nor are most intuitions).


Thanks for the Youtube link to that talk, over the past year I've read so many interviews, blog-posts and watched talks about bootstrapping businesses, but this was the most concise, honest and no-nonsense summary I've seen yet. Now I'd be interested in finding someone talk at length about selling to Enterprise customers as a bootstrapped one-man show, Jason Cohen touches on it briefly in the Q&A.


> reflect for a moment on how much time is spent on standups at a company with 20 or 200 engineers, what one hour of their time is worth

> Your minimum commitment should be north of $1,000 per month; practically nobody can integrate with your API for cheaper than a thousand dollars of engineering time, right.

That's my thinking as well, but haven't had much luck getting companies to accept this kind of pricing. Even though it's all inbound interest (no advertising or outreach) and they're sometimes large companies.

Here are the problems I'm aware of:

1. People generally don't think about the cost of standups or meetings or per hour employee cost. That's just not something typically being considered.

2. They've compared with other APIs or use other APIs/SaaS and are used to <$100/mo. So $1k/mo or even $500/mo is a shock and they decline or disappear. Apparently deciding they don't actually need it that bad or going with their 2nd choice.

How do you overcome these? Do you actually point out that the API is cheap compared to employee cost? Help them justify it to themselves and/or their manager?


To be fair, anything more than ~$250/mo probably requires some kind budget approval which will quickly scare away many underlings, and means now you're in the realm of enterprise sales. Now you should probably be charging closer to $10k/mo just to deal with that headache. It's another reason why having 3 tiered pricing can really help, with a 4th tier being "contact us for enterprise solutions". It can allow you to sneak past some of these organizational hurdles, by allowing people to select the price that will cause them the least headache. Joel Spolsky talks about this a lot, how there are holes in the market for pricing due to these frictions.


Yes, very good point. Generally, the higher the pricing, the longer the sales cycle. That can mean months of evals, potential customer hand-holding, pre-sales support, etc. In the end, someone in the decision chain at the prospect decides to go a different way and you've blown months and many dollars on trying to land the client. A small or one-man operation is not going to survive that kind of abuse and make no mistake, some larger customers will take advantage.


> What Got Done

There are several paid SaaS apps and / or Slack bots that do this. It’s a viable niche, but has gotten somewhat crowded in the past few years. Earlyish example: https://iDoneThis.com (worked there 2014/2015)


Seems like a better thing to integrate into existing apps rather than a standalone product


> I would suggest devoting approximately zero cycles to cost control. You don't have a cost problem and no amount of cost control will bend the curve of your current businesses to sustainability.

I strongly disagree with the perspective here. Cost control isn't the core problem for the author, but every dollar matters at this stage. The difference between "we're losing money every month" and "we're break even" and "we're slightly profitable" is huge when talking to parents and other people in the social circle.


Thanks for reading, Patrick! I'm a big fan of your work, and your Indie Hackers interview was one of the big motivators that sent me down the solo developer path.

>You could probably talk to business owners with problems, launch an (appropriately priced; hundreds to thousands of dollars per year) product against those problems, build contingent on getting 10 commits to buy, and be at +/- $100k in 12 to 18 months. Many people with less technical and writing ability have done this in e.g. the MicroConf community. If you want the best paint-by-numbers approach to it I've seen, c.f. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=otbnC2zE2rw&t=2s

Thanks, I'll check out that video!

I hear that advice a lot from people I respect, and I put a lot of effort into that over the past year, but I was never successful.

The biggest problem I ran into was that there's this "disconnect problem." I know I'm a competent developer and can build niche solutions to $10k problems, but I don't know which companies have $10k problems. I can guess at it, but they sometimes don't even realize their $10k problem has a software solution. The companies also don't have incentive to talk to me to explore the possibility if I'm just a developer off the street.

In 2019, I tried to do this with stone quarries[1], sheet metal shops[2], and email copywriters[3], but the first two mostly wouldn't talk to me and the latter didn't seem to have enough opportunity for a niche business.

>I would encourage you, to the maximum extent compatible with your sanity, to prioritize "Will this get me more customers?" over behind-the-scenes investments like CI/CD which are very appropriate to Google but will under no circumstance show up in next year's report as One Of The Most Important Things I Did This Year.

I get a lot of pushback about my love for CI/CD, and it always puzzles me. Is CI/CD seen as difficult or time-consuming? For me, it's such a net positive on my time and mental energy to know that basic functionality works before I push to prod. There have been many times where CI has caught breaking changes that I'd otherwise have to catch by waiting for customers to complain or manually smoke testing my product after every push. And I don't have to do much to set it up - just slap in a Circle CI config.yml and flip a button.

>I would suggest devoting approximately zero cycles to cost control. You don't have a cost problem and no amount of cost control will bend the curve of your current businesses to sustainability. You have a revenue problem. Your desired state in the medium term will make it economically irrational for you to think for more than a minute about a $50 a month SaaS expense; marketing and sales gets you to that desired state, not cost control.

Thanks, I agree completely and you succinctly articulated a feeling I've long struggled to put into words.

I often get pushback about spending O(hundreds) of dollars on non-essential expenses, and it always feels like it's missing the forest for the trees.

[1] https://mtlynch.io/retrospectives/2019/05/#an-app-for-rocks

[2] https://mtlynch.io/retrospectives/2020/01/#sheet-metal-resea...

[3] https://mtlynch.io/retrospectives/2019/06/#taking-on-google-...


One thing to consider- you approached everything with the assumption that businesses want a SaaS; the sheet metal post made it sound like you were surprised that the shops didn't want a SaaS. Software Developers like SaaS, because it makes more money and had recurring revenue. However, to a business owner that just sounds like another bill that they don't want. Owners at small to medium companies, in my experience, are very cost-conscious.

For example, I'm currently evaluating warehouse management systems. It appears that everyone in this space runs a SaaS; with ludicrous prices where they want to bill per shipper/ac count. We still plan on being in business in 3 years; and after 3 years we will have paid more than what it would cost to develop this system ourselves. If you are mostly focused on tech it's easy to think that everyone likes the idea of SaaS; but realistically the only people who get excited about that idea are the people cashing the checks every month. I have heard much lamentation and whining about having to 'subscribe' to software instead of just buying it.


In 2019, I tried to do this with stone quarries[1], sheet metal shops[2], and email copywriters[3], but the first two mostly wouldn't talk to me and the latter didn't seem to have enough opportunity for a niche business.

I don't think any of these businesses would pay for What Got Done, but I think there are a zillion businesses very geographically close to you that would.

I note in several of your posts that you live in Western MA. You're two hours by car (assuming you miss traffic!), or three hours by train, from Boston. I can think of ten companies off the top of my head that fit the mold Patrick mentions as potential customers for What Got Done, that would not bat an eye at paying the upper limit of prices mentioned. (My current employer being one of them!)

Happy to help you brainstorm potential customers via email - I'm at (my_hn_username)@gmail dot com.


I don't think any of these businesses would pay for What Got Done, but I think there are a zillion businesses very geographically close to you that would.

Oh, to clarify, I wasn't trying to sell What Got Done to these industries. I was trying to understand their businesses to see what new thing I could create for them.


I was trying to understand their businesses to see what new thing I could create for them.

That's legit.

I guess the core of my original point was that there's a big regional hub of businesses whose operations you do understand (i.e. SW businesses) that's right at your doorstep. (I'm assuming from your other blog posts you don't know a ton about sheet metal bending, whereas you do know enough to be dangerous with software, but I've been wrong before!)


Just a friendly passing comment, but I'm not sure you have the correct take-aways from speaking with business owners.

With the quarry example, you couldn't get them on the phone. How about conferences, meetups, trade shows etc? Furthermore you probably need to search for companies that might _want_ to speak to you: younger owners, companies with less to lose etc.

In the sheet metal example, it sounds like you had already decided what you wanted to build for them before even meeting them (an improved software solution for their shop management apps). Maybe trying to just speak more generally about their processes and difficulties would tease out problems you might not have considered.

I'd return to this approach/phase and give it another go to find a market fit for the ideas before you start doing a line of code.


Thanks for the suggestions!

I think that's sound advice. The strategy I had in mind was courting industries that were physically close to me. I wasn't just calling the businesses, I was showing up at their offices to ask for meetings. My hypothesis was that there are probably plenty of profitable businesses nearby that are disconnected from the tech world, so other software companies aren't approaching them.

To clarify with the sheet metal companies, I didn't go in pitching a replacement to their existing tools. I always opened the conversation by asking them if they had processes that frustrated them, cost them money, or if their existing software failed to meet their needs. But I definitely found it hard sometimes when they asked me what I wanted to build for them and my answer was basically, "I don't know..."

Maybe it's just a matter of picking the right spot on the spectrum. It seems like you want businesses that are niche and disconnected enough from mainstream tech that big players aren't courting them as well. But they can't be so disconnected that they won't talk to you, either.


It's wild how you've done exactly what the priests of entrepreneurship preach, and it hasn't worked for you, and people cannot accept that. You must have done something else! You must have done something wrong!


This is a very valuable point.

I think [0] that a better approach, one that’s more likely to lead to a profitable business, is to flip the strategy around. Instead of “Do customer interviews, sniff out a problem, and build a solution”, it can be more effective to find the customers where they hang out (online is ideal), observe the problems they complain about, and crucially observe what they already pay for.

For one, it avoids the natural bias they’ll have while answering questions (they’ll very likely tell you what you want to hear to try to be “helpful”).

For another, it helps you create something they’ll actually want, and pay for, by fitting in with their existing habits and worldviews.

Going into a conversion with the idea of “I need a problem to build a SaaS for” is only one level better than “I need to validate that they want my idea”. The format of the solution is already pre-decided — which is no good if they don’t already pay for SaaS. That’s an uphill battle you definitely don’t want as a solo founder! “If I could just make them see how great this is...” is a rocky start for a business plan.

Choosing an audience you know and already understand is a big advantage. Picking one you aren’t part of is harder.

You don’t need to be new and unique to be profitable. You don’t need to invent a new kind of product or solve a problem that nobody else has solved. All of that just makes it harder :)

[0] I think this because of Amy Hoy and Alex Hillman and their 30x500 class that teaches this approach. Not my own invention :) I’ve had success with it though, and other have too, so I want to give credit where it’s due. They have a lot of great free material at https://stackingthebricks.com


>> wasn't just calling the businesses, I was showing up at their offices to ask for meetings.

That's tough stuff. I've done the same, and while it feels good when you're able to talk in detail with a business owner, I didn't come away with actionable things usually. There just isn't a good substitute to being embedded in an industry.

Michael, work part-time in a warehouse (as manual labor) handling stone for 3-6 months. Guaranteed you'll come away with more problems than you can solve.


read never split the difference.

measure how often you're talking vs. they are if the split isn't 80% in their favor you're doing it wrong.


>The biggest problem I ran into was that there's this "disconnect problem." I know I'm a competent developer and can build niche solutions to $10k problems, but I don't know which companies have $10k problems. I can guess at it, but they sometimes don't even realize their $10k problem has a software solution. The companies also don't have incentive to talk to me to explore the possibility if I'm just a developer off the street.

They sometimes do realise their $10k problem has a software solution though. You need to be in the pathway for when they go looking to solve it, not go to them.

Advertise in the white pages as doing custom software development. You'll get plenty of businesses contacting you ready to pay money to solve all sorts of problems not currently addressed by off the shelf solutions. Very rarely are they actually willing to pay anywhere near the total cost to build it, but enough to make building it worth it to you if you can get a couple other customers on board.


>>stone quarries

I deal with stone factories/quarries everyday (but mostly in Brazil and India)!

Let me know if you're still interested in this space.


I think your advice is on point.

But my impression of the author was that they are well off already and is just trying to have fun while also possibly earning money down the road. In other words, they are trying to follow their passion.


This is appropriate advice for someone who actually wants to be a solo founder.

Even if he's not explicit about it, every lifestyle decision I'm getting from these blog posts is that OP has effectively F.I.R.E'd and these projects are mostly for fun.


He also has a nest egg from working at a big corporation and successfully playing the stock/crypto market. That helps give him time to play around like this. I don't sense any urgency.


> For similar reasons, I would suggest devoting approximately zero cycles to cost control. You don't have a cost problem and no amount of cost control will bend the curve of your current businesses to sustainability. You have a revenue problem.

I'm curious why you use this wording. It comes of as slightly brash, and to many, suggests that you shouldn't worry about costs. In my experience have to be "penny wise, pound foolish" making reasonable efforts to manage cost.

You can pile on loads of tech debt which matters little at this scale (e.g. your CI/CD example), but when you are small the costs can bite hard. You quickly limit your choices and end up spending time looking for funding, if you don't have some sort of reasonable constraint.


> If you run an API-based business in the future: Usage-based billing is a really tricky business model for a solo developer.

Can you elaborate on this? Is it just because of the inconsistency in revenue or is there some technical challenge I haven't considered?

I'm currently developing a usage-based API SaaS as a solo developer so this in particular really piqued my curiosity.


Inconsistent revenue is one - low price charged per transaction (usually) is another issue. Couple those with small subscription numbers to start with and you can see that it can take a while, if ever, before your SaaS can pay the bills.


I'll note that What Got Done is probably a viable boutique SaaS business if you somehow figured out distribution for it, at price points between $50 and $200 per month. My confidence on this approaches total. HNers skeptical because it is technically trivial should probably reflect for a moment on how much time is spent on standups at a company with 20 or 200 engineers, what one hour of their time is worth, and how likely that company is to put an engineer on this project specifically.

I perceived an almost audible crack from how hard this statement hits it out of the park.


I see a lot of comments criticizing your path and progress. Making remarks like "why didn't you stay at Google".

I applaud your decision, effort, and perseverance. I admire your risk taking and having skin in the game. Trying to make it out on your own.

People forget the journey is not just about the money. It's about learning, growing and bringing your ideas to life. Being an artist, and expressing yourself through products.

Keep on going my friend. There's no doubt you'll get there.


Thanks for reading and the kind words!

I think you and I see it similarly that there's satisfaction in growing and learning even if the money part hasn't fallen into place.


Nice words, similar words were said to me. Now I am broke and semi-unemployable. So onlookers beware.


May I ask why you find yourself semi-unemployable? I'm in kind of a similar position as the OP in that I have a significant nest egg so that even if I spend a few years derping around and failing at a bunch of things, I figure that I just need to stop before that nest egg gets anywhere near dangerously low and go back to looking for freelance or consulting work, even at lower rates, should that become necessary to survive. I'm asking about your situation in case there are other pitfalls I need to be wary of.


I am right now an illegal alien in a country (not the US). My home country monthly wage is 5 dollars or so, so returning is not an option unless I can get a remote job.


Without knowing your situation, if you're a good developer it may be possible to get an H1B visa which would allow you to work as a software developer in the US.


I love to program but I am a career switcher. All my professional experience is in logistics, I have a B.S but not in CS, also I am 41. By all means if you have any tip to get a H1B (I have heard is crazy competitive) let me know.


Why not Upwork? Or investing some time in studying up on digital marketing and building your own products?

It isn't easy but you should be able to clobber $5/hour. Two questions which my customers have never asked me:

- What school did you go to? - What country do you live in / are a citizen of...


Upwork rejected my resume some months ago. I am enhancing my portfolio to give it a shot again in the next weeks. I want to diversify my income so I have thought about producing digital products, but I need food-rent money now so that it is what I am prioritizing. I am also working on my Algorithms/Data Structures skills to try in TopTal, I dont know if you have any experience with them.


[flagged]


"I don't think I've cringed more than 'expressing yourself through products"

Can you rephrase this criticism in a way that meaningfully contributes to the discussion? All I see is your personal judgementalism directed at someone's phrasing.


You haven't seen the Scott's Tots episode of The Office, have you?

Seriously though, I didn't have that reaction. We each bring our own individual expression to everything we do, that's not sad or cringey at all. The author is looking for a way to use his unique gifts in a way that is satisfying and valuable. The problem he solves and the way he solves it will be unique to him. Or in other words, "expressing himself through his products."


The arts and crafts world is full of people expressing themselves through products. Independent software doesn't have to be different.


The arts is full of people expressing themselves for pay below the poverty line, often not expected or wanted as remuneration for their expression. Treating business as expression and calling it the same thing as actual art is quite oblivious to the reality.


I made the original comment, and I think we see the world in a different way. This is how I see it:

Creating a business is a creative act. It involves logic and rationality as much as intuition and imagination.

I do think it's an expression of yourself, you're packing all you've learned into something that you think will be valuable to other people. Your personality is reflected in your product, so is your voice.

Ultimately it's up to the creator to treat their business however they seem best. If you want to be all about profits, good for you. If you want to explore ideas, try things and enjoy the creative process while slowly building revenue, also good.


> It involves logic and rationality as much as intuition and imagination.

Yes, because this applies to virtually every human endeavor (even though I find tech types have a tendency to discount the former in areas outside their expertise).

The thesis of this old post is the counterpoint: https://idlewords.com/2005/04/dabblers_and_blowhards.htm


Take a look at Jonathan Blow's products. You can see art and software coexisting.


Both kinds of activities, the one that you characterize and the one that the parent comment characterizes, occur in the art world.


That says a lot about you, but is, in itself, not a very useful contribution to the discussion.


Author here. Happy to answer any questions or hear any feedback about this post.

Discussion from my first annual update last year: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19054150


Hey, Michael!

I was following you story since your first post two years ago. I just want to say that to succeed you need to sell something. As a software developers we can scale something (move from 1 to N, in terms of tech), but you need to find initial niche (from 0 to 1). I think that main success (as a business person) that you have is an audience reach that you had (almost every developer feels that things that you are described in your initial post). So why don't you try to play with your audience? Man, 2 years ago, when you posted you story of quitting, I was sitting in Yandex office at Moscow, and a lot of colleagues were talking about you and you story. Isn't that cool? I am not a real entrepreneur, but I really advice you to use your strengths (audience reach, mastery in writing, etc) along with you software development skills to find point of growth. Thanks for sharing and good luck!


Thanks for reading!

>Man, 2 years ago, when you posted you story of quitting, I was sitting in Yandex office at Moscow, and a lot of colleagues were talking about you and you story. Isn't that cool?

Definitely, that is really cool. That was one of the most fun parts of publishing that piece. I didn't expect it to be that interesting to people outside my circle of tech friends, but it was surprising to hear that it resonated with people in different countries and different industries.

>I really advice you to use your strengths (audience reach, mastery in writing, etc) along with you software development skills to find point of growth.

I've thought about this, especially when I first quit, but I could never think of a way to make money from my writing in a way that felt exciting to me. I think I just get more excited about building a product or service, but I do keep searching for ways to use my writing to complement my non-writing businesses.


Just wanted to say I've really enjoyed following your progress. It's awesome to see the changes over time and I really hope I can follow in your footsteps someday. I used to check your blog weekly hoping for a blog update to help pass the long afternoons that dragged on forever at work.

By chance was it you that released the Rooster app? Apologies if it wasn't but I remember reading a blog post about an app that would text you in the morning or something and I could have sworn it was your blog. The post had a link to the app that I clicked on but little did I know that the app had been shut down and the URL was scooped up by a less appropriate website. I was greeted with a very NSFW web page while at work haha.


Pretty cool how you're able to come out in the open with all this stuff like this!

Having checked Zestful's page out, I got a suggestion for you. How about building a client lib ready for developers for at least a few mainstream languages? This should be rather easily achievable if you type in the Swagger specs to your API. That allows you to generate (Swagger codegen) those libs with possibly just minimal tweaking left on your part.


Thanks for reading!

>Having checked Zestful's page out, I got a suggestion for you. How about building a client lib ready for developers for at least a few mainstream languages? This should be rather easily achievable if you type in the Swagger specs to your API. That allows you to generate (Swagger codegen) those libs with possibly just minimal tweaking left on your part.

This is something I've thought about. I'd really like to have a PyPI package that you can just pip install and it parses ingredients using the free tier, then prompts you to enter a license key when you reach the limit.

Zestful's hard for me because I could spend a year pursuing all of the ideas I have for it, but historically, feature ideas I come up with myself haven't attracted new customers. I set a rule for myself to not implement any new features until a paying customer requests it, and customers haven't mentioned wanting language-specific libraries. I talked a bit more about that in my August 2019 retrospective:

https://mtlynch.io/retrospectives/2019/08/#zestful-and-resis...

I haven't looked into Swagger much, so I'll check that out and see if I can create language bindings more easily than I thought.


As someone who has done quite a bit of shopping for various services, having a language-specific library ready to go is a major factor. I doubt that someone already paying you would still need one, though, so it should probably be considered a strictly "customer acquisition" feature.

I understand your rule, but I don't think it should be that strict.


It could also be his competitive advantage over others.

I mean wasn't Stripe known to become so successful exactly because of easiness of use, in other words a good user experience for developers with simple ready-made libraries. Making a new payment gateway is hardly innovative by itself after all.


Right, I don't know if it makes sense business-wise or not. Probably not if no one is voicing out requests about it.

However, writing Swagger API specs for your future projects while you develop them might make you more productive, plus you do get that code generation for free on top of it. Depending on what language you work with, it may come essentially for free or with non-marginal effort.


Thanks for sharing. I really enjoy your writing style by the way.

I'm interested how the "raising prices to avoid feature requests from people who wouldn't become a customer anyway" worked.

I have built something for a friend of mine who is now my first customer. The tool solves a niche problem some of his peers struggle with too.

When building it, I tried to make the data models as generic as possible so that other businesses would be able to use the tool with a minimum of effort from my side.

Of course, I still foresee a lot of feature requests. How do/did you know zestful had the right basic functionality and feature-set for it to be useful to customers?

In other words, how did you separate the must-have features from the nice-to-have ones (knowing that a must-have for a particular person could very well be a nice-to-have for the market)?


Thanks for reading and for the kind words.

To preface, I'm definitely not an expert at this problem, because Zestful still only has a handful of customers, but I can tell you what was helpful for me.

It is really hard to separate the nice-to-haves from the must-haves. Some customers will present their nice-to-haves as if they're must haves because they suspect that if they don't make it sound like a condition of buying, you'll never implement it, but they might buy anyway. Or they'd never buy regardless.

One of the features that I think I correctly took on this year was linking Zestful's ingredients to USDA entries. A lot of customers either explicitly asked for that feature or for something similar. Later large customers cited that feature as something that made them choose Zestful, so I'm glad I added it. I think the signal there was the high proportion of customers asking for it.

I think it is powerful to offer to implement that feature based on pre-payment of X months of service. It might drive away customers who don't feel comfortable letting you hold their money, but if your time continues getting burned by customers who request features and don't follow through, it's a good technique to keep in your back pocket.


Great read with the logical analysis and openness lends well to success and navigating this adventure.

Doing your own products is definitely the way to go for sustainability. Just one big one or a few have to work. Focusing on products is nice as you don't have to work for clients but instead customers more which can be more rewarding and freeing. Having only a big client or a few end up dictating direction and freedom to pursue ideas.

Overall the experience on the business, marketing and promotions side is very helpful in all aspects of life.

I have been freelancing/contracting/product developing for 8 years full-time off of trying it for a year or two and have had to take clients/contracts here and there. This helps while you are building up products where needed. Though it isn't all bad doing contracts it can take time away but also help you, sometimes you learn about new problems and thus solutions that can become products when dealing with clients and unique industry problems. These problems can be hard to find if you aren't going through some of the pain points related to them.

I will say most products do take multiple years to make it so fail quickly and press the gas on momentum and projects that you lean towards or are more interesting. Pay attention mostly to external product user experience and presentation at this stage.

Good luck on your adventure and may your travels be rewarding personally and financially fruitful.


Just starting to have income near the two year mark is what I assume would happen.

Assuming you still need to make income at some point, how long would you go before you decided it was time to go work for someone else? Three years? Four years?

BTW: I'm more interested in how you self-reflect on your entrepreneurial abilities. How do you make decisions around that? How do you prevent yourself from falling in love with your work if it's not going to make money?


Thanks for reading!

>Just starting to have income near the two year mark is what I assume would happen.

Yeah, I'm encouraged by Cory Zue's progress. He's a couple years ahead of me, but I'm sort of matching up with his first few years of income:

http://www.coryzue.com/writing/master-plan/#the-master-plan

>Assuming you still need to make income at some point, how long would you go before you decided it was time to go work for someone else? Three years? Four years?

Good question. At this point, I feel like I could do this indefinitely, even if I roughly broke even. The things that would change are if my life circumstances change and I need the money (e.g., having children, a catastrophic health event for me or someone in my family).

>BTW: I'm more interested in how you self-reflect on your entrepreneurial abilities. How do you make decisions around that? How do you prevent yourself from falling in love with your work if it's not going to make money?

I've found it helpful to set goals and hold myself accountable for achieving them. I do enjoy writing software for software's sake, but a lot of my satisfaction in being a solo dev comes from improving my skills on the business side. Given that, I'm probably not in danger of reaching complacency - failing to earn money would mean I'm not growing in the way that I want, so I wouldn't be satisfied with that.


How's a burger with a bun keto friendly lol. There's a big picture of a bunned burger and no mention of "by the way this specifically refers to just the patty itself."


The article addresses how to handle buns, but that part of the article isn't in the screenshot:

>Most people eat Beyond Burgers with ketchup and a bun, but those are hard to fit into a keto diet, so you might have to get creative. Consider crumbling your Beyond Burger over a salad with fresh tomatoes and a keto-friendly salad dressing. Or try out one of these delicious keto burger recipes.

https://isitketo.org/beyond-burger


Are you targeting to gain revenue from your SaaS and blog alone?

Have you considered consulting or remote dev for 2-3 months a year? - that could easily enable you to hit your targets.


Interesting that as an ex-googler you dont use adwords ?


So 2 years and you earned $18,000? Seems rather bad, you think you can exponentially grow that in the next year or two?


The totals on the first chart are wrong. In 2 years he lost $23k. (Or you could say the "totals" are correct, but calling it "net profit" is wrong.)


Yeah, either way, financially that would never make sense to me.


OP has significant savings. They are their own VC. Think of it in terms of a startup, most of which don't turn profits for years.


Most companies, especially small ones, lose money in their first 2-3 years...


You know, I think there might be something to any publicity is good publicity in this case. It's controversial to do something 99.999 percent of the workforce would not. So, by posting even when there is no great success, he is growing his exposure and making it easier in the future.


Good stuff.

I've seen a bit of negativity about this being a waste of time since you're not making equivalent money to old job. For those people: This isn’t any different from spending time earning a degree by returning to full-time study. And your attempts are growing. The compound interest from these investments in time and effort will help you regardless. Even if you fail on every business at first you'll still get so much experience and momentum you can't help but do better next time. And I doubt any will actually fail: each will have an element that wasn't good enough but still capable of being tweaked to fix it. Even if you don't fix it, you've still learnt something in the attempt.


OP isn't explicit about it but he's effectively F.I.R.E'd. These are projects to keep the mind fresh in what is early retirement. If that weren't the case building an actual business requires a lot more time, energy, resources even as a solo founder than what I'm getting from the blog post.


Or OP could be T.I.R.E.D. :) He’s doing his best to bootstrap his multiple products, but is prioritizing intellectual curiosity, building neat things while not burning out. At least, that’s my view of it.


There's a simpler explanation, and the post actually touches on the point when discussing Is It Keto:

> I abandoned the site in April but came back four months later after realizing that it had grown by itself without me.

As a salaried employee, you aren't actually building anything that accretes value to yourself in that way. You don't show up for work for 4 months and you'll likely be fired. Obviously it never works out forever, but the value you build when striking out on your own has a much longer potency than getting paid in cash and stock.


I just don't understand how you can set up a business and not noticed the increased revenue.


Just some honest feedback.

I have a use for Zestful, and the price is good. But playing around, it seems good at the easy stuff (but I can do the easy stuff myself) it's not so good at the hard stuff.

For example the string "3/4 cup risotto rice, Arborio or Carnaroli"

It identifies the unit and quantity fair enough, and it's right when it says "Risotto rice" is the product. But then it says "Arborio or Carnaroli" is a preparation method. I can totally see WHY it says that. But I'm not sure that's correct.

At your price point though, I might still use it. Ultimatley to parse everything I need to parse it would be a lot cheaper than spending even an hour writing it myself. But that was my first thoughts playing around with it.


Thanks for reading and for testing out Zestful!

>For example the string "3/4 cup risotto rice, Arborio or Carnaroli"

>It identifies the unit and quantity fair enough, and it's right when it says "Risotto rice" is the product. But then it says "Arborio or Carnaroli" is a preparation method. I can totally see WHY it says that. But I'm not sure that's correct.

Yeah, I'm constantly improving the model, but there will always be cases it gets wrong. For most of my customers, that's a mostly fine result, because very few of the clients actually use the preparation note field. Most care only about the quantity, unit, product, and USDA fields.

I'll fix the bad result on the risotto example, but it's definitely a game of whack-a-mole. There are so many variations and corner cases that it'll never be 100%.

>At your price point though, I might still use it. Ultimatley to parse everything I need to parse it would be a lot cheaper than spending even an hour writing it myself. But that was my first thoughts playing around with it.

Haha, maybe I should raise my prices. But seriously, I'd be happy to have you as a customer. If you'd like to chat more about about your use case, shoot me an email at michael@zestfuldata.com.


Aren't you going to make him pre-pay for 3 months and not charge him until the feature is implemented???

Just got to call you out on your own article. lol


Haha, minor bugfixes I can do without pre-payment.


Arborio is a kind, just like Granny Smith, bing, or Key. I wonder if it'd be easier just to have a dictionary of kinds of ingredient and anything else is a preparation.


It's the kind of thing that seems like it's solvable with rules, but once you get into the weeds, there are too many rules and exceptions and exceptions to those exceptions.

In addition to prep notes, there's also text that most clients consider garbage. For example, "2 cups sugar, I use Sweetums brand!" the brand preference is garbage.

And then there are tokens like "pound" that could mean different things in different contexts (e.g., "1 pound flour", "1 chicken breast - pound till flattened", "2 cups pound cake mixture").


Years ago I built a recipe app for a client who wanted it to have a "smart" shopping list feature that could dedupe ingredients from disparate recipes, normalize their quantities and sum them up to friendly totals. I fell waaaay down the parsing rabbit hole battling those exceptions-to-exceptions, what a mess. Reading your examples gave me a flashback!

The app only had a couple of hundred recipes so we wound up just having someone manually translate every ingredient for every recipe into a common structure in a spreadsheet.

Anyhow, thanks so much for these posts, I quit my job a few months ago to work on a few projects of my own and I've really enjoyed reading your updates. Looking forward to more in the future.


Thanks for reading!

Yeah, that's a little like how I fell into Zestful. Very early into my adventure, I made a keto recipe search engine and wanted to handle ingredients properly. It started with regexes then spiraled into machine learning.


> It identifies the unit and quantity fair enough, and it's right when it says "Risotto rice" is the product. But then it says "Arborio or Carnaroli" is a preparation method. I can totally see WHY it says that. But I'm not sure that's correct.

Simple solution: for your 'Preparation' just say 'Preparation or additional options' and the additional preparation can contain swap out products that later you can identify by brand name or common marketing name.

So when it says '"Risotto rice" is the product and the "Arborio or Carnaroli" is a preparation method. Changing that to 'Preparation method and additional options' then later parsing potential products helps it a bit.


Naive question by someone who’s never started a business: when bootstrapping companies while keeping your day job, how do you deal with intellectual property clauses in employment contracts, such that your employer owns the “inventions” you create in your free time, on your own equipment, unrelated to the business area you work in? I know laws vary by state, but I would find it especially disheartening if you spent years of effort and sacrificed your social life only to have your product snatched away from you once it finally became profitable or popular.

My non-lawyer reading of the internet’s opinions suggest that you need to discuss it with your company, or possibly edit your employment contract before signing, but the latter seems a bad suggestion if you’re afraid of not getting a job. I’ve also read that these kinds of clauses can even apply several months after you terminate at your day job, which suggests that you can’t even start on the product until months after you’ve left.

All of that makes me unlikely to try to build a business in tech, since I would never have the capital to take such a long break away from a company, nor to build a product for a long time before it’s profitable without having a day job to support me.


Generally, when an employer owns your "inventions", this only applies to "inventions" created while using the employer's resources. Most employement contracts will make it sound like they own every waking thought, but in most cases when this has been taken to court, the precedent has been set, that it really only applies to inventions or ideas that happen in relation to and using employer's resources.

So this means that an employer can argue they own software that you build:

- On a company-issued computer

- Using contacts you garnered through work

- On company time (this is complicated for salary employees, but definitely applies to time in the office, or standard business hours when you are expected to be working)

- Work collaborated on with other co-workers

Now I should clarify, I am not a lawyer. None of this is legal advice, yada yada...

But generally you can work on side projects and skirt around intellectual property clauses as long as you make sure to distinguish work time and work resources from your personal projects. The biggest thing is to avoid doing it while at work (or when expected to be actively working if you are remote), and avoid using a company computer or piggybacking off company resources (for example making a sub-account in your employer's CI/CD tool to run tests for your software).

So make sure you have seperate accounts for everything, avoid doing it on company time, and use a personal computer (not a work-issued computer) and you should be absolutely fine with working on a side project.


> Most employement contracts will make it sound like they own every waking thought, but in most cases when this has been taken to court, the precedent has been set, that it really only applies to inventions or ideas that happen in relation to and using employer's resources.

A simple example of this that I like to point out to people in tech to help them understand that an employer doesn't inherently own your soul, is picture yourself starting a Pizza Hut franchise (convenience store, or anything equivalent) strictly on your own time and dime entirely outside of work. Does your employer get to own that business, get to take it away from you, just because you work for them 9 to 5? Nope and it sounds particularly absurd when you frame it with something more traditional. Or imagine starting a real-estate renovation business, where you renovate houses in your own spare time; same thing, does IBM get to own your house renovation business just because you pull 9-5 for them? Hell no they don't.

The only serious risk difference re starting tech businesses (vs other traditional businesses) while working in tech is in cases of competitive issues if you start something directly in the employer's wheelhouse. Then you better lawyer up well ahead of time and navigate it very carefully.


But it's really more like starting your own fast food franchise while working on a business team at Pizza Hut. It's an IP issue and could be a conflict of interest.


Agree with what has already been said (dont use company resources like a work laptop, dont work on it during typical work hours, dont build a product that might in any way compete with your employer, etc.) As far as work contract goes, (I am NOT a lawyer, just based on experience), it's worth reading over and seeing what the language is around IP. Most states protect your right to build stuff on your own time (enables innovation, also you aren't the property of your company) making some more draconian contracts unenforceable. But it is always better to be proactive, rather than assuming a court battle will be unlikely because 1) who knows and 2) court is never cheap. If you want to work on something and you are worried about the language in your contract, talk to your employer about the project and getting some form of written exception for it. Side projects generally make for more capable, satisfied employees, so if a company made a massive stink about literally owning anything you make anywhere in your life, I'd be very very wary, as that mindset is a scary sign.


Another important thing to keep in mind is to not use company resources in any capacity - your work laptop, work 3d printer, work time. This actually came up in the first season of silicon valley!


Your intuition is correct, you really should try to make sure your employer is aware of your intent to work on your own IP and you have some written document acknowledging that fact. Many companies have a form you fill out on your first day listing such projects. You owe your employer a duty of loyalty and so your projects cannot compete with them, and it helps to have them review the scope of the project and sign off on that fact. If you don't get this agreement from your employer, you might still technically be fine to work on your own business but you risk a court battle about it.

> I’ve also read that these kinds of clauses can even apply several months after you terminate at your day job, which suggests that you can’t even start on the product until months after you’ve left.

These would be non-compete clauses, illegal in California but legal in many other states. Your employer doesn't own any IP you create once they stop paying you, but if you are bound by a non-compete you'll need to be more careful.


So much this. Don't rely on just not using company time or resources. Be open and honest. Get it in writing. If they won't give it to you, there's no chance of them being ok with it just because it's not on company time or resources. Know the boundaries before committing. Then you and your employer can keep a trustful and productive relationship while you try things out.


My employer (not a tech company but a healthcare provider) has a system whereby I submit a Potential Conflict of Interest document. They review and either give me their blessing to continue work (outside work hours obviously) or further review is to be conducted.


most of the time you just roll the dice. As long as what you're doing is not in the same line of business as your employer, and you part on good terms, most of the time it's fine.


This is actually a good distinction. If your side project is related to your employer's line of work then it is easy for your employer to argue that they own that creation, even if you used a personal computer and did it at night, etc.

So for example if your employer makes inventory management software for coffee shops, and you decide to make an inventory management tool for grocery stores... then your employer will easily own your creation.

On the other hand if you work for a search engine platform (ie Google), and you invent an API tool that parses recipes, and you did it all on your personal laptop and personal time, then you should be fine.


>how do you deal with intellectual property clauses in employment contracts, such that your employer owns the “inventions” you create in your free time, on your own equipment, unrelated to the business area you work in?

By not signing those things, plain and simple. I have never signed an employment contract and I never will.


Does that mean you never worked for a company (in an IP-related job), or actually managed to find companies who hired you without signing a contract? If the latter, what kind of companies do that?


I literally have never once signed an employment contract. I only work in devops/cloud/security consulting firms


Thanks for writing this. It is good to see a perspective where a business is being built up slowly as opposed to the typical "I quit my job and now my side project makes $30k a month two months in" posts we usually see.

Do you ever feel issues with motivation when you don't see growth as quickly as you'd like?


Thanks for reading!

>Do you ever feel issues with motivation when you don't see growth as quickly as you'd like?

Good question. For me, the more dominant feeling is frustration when I do something that I expect will bring growth, and then there's no measurable effect. That happened over and over again with Is It Keto. It was especially tough because the site's growth depends so heavily on Google, and there seems to be a lag time of weeks or months before Google reacts to certain changes or decides certain pages are worth putting at the #1 slot for related queries. It was tough to make a site change or publish a new post and think, "Okay, I guess I'll just wait 6-8 weeks to see what Google thinks of this."


I read your previous post about Zestful, and this years update, and I just don't understand who would buy this as a hosted API. To me, it sounds like this should be a library, not an API. For every use case that I can think of, having a library would be 100x better than an API.

In my experience, APIs are generally slow, unreliable, and tend to change without notice.

I don't understand what advantage an API has, except making it easier for the developer to charge based on usage.

Do people really buy APIs like this? Am I missing something?


Software as a service is the solution the market has arrived at for making money from software when piracy is mostly trivial and commonplace. A rentier pricing model means an entreprenur need not negotiate the value of their product up-front; they can continuously adjust price to match demand. Recurring revenue is easier to budget around than inconsistent lump-sum sales.

Finally, an API over a library means the maintainer of said API has an opportunity to harvest data about usage. Perhaps they use this to motivate new features, or perhaps they can monetize this data on the side.

I seriously doubt these decisions have any connection to technical requirements; it's all business.


Thanks for reading!

The big advantages for the customer of a managed API are:

* No costs of installing or upgrading

* It's language independent

I agree that it's lower risk to rely on a library that you have locally, but none of my customers have ever requested that. I do offer a self-hosted plan, and a few customers have inquired about that, but they lose interest when I tell them it costs 10% more than a managed plan.

All of Zestful's commercial competitors are managed APIs as well, so I don't think customers view a locally-installed library as critical.


Zestful uses machine learning, so there could be a fair amount of storage, CPU, and memory requirements that make using a hosted API preferable to a local library. Also, if you read Michael's posts on https://whatgotdone.com you'll see that he is frequently improving the model. With a hosted API, customers benefit from improved accuracy immediately without having to update anything.


"Without having to update anything" seems a bit disingenuous - does this software even work offline, without having to ask for some data from an online server, just to load the front page?


Supporting the business model is a legitimate consideration, amiwrong?


I agree with you entirely, but how would you build a business around a library? It's one of the side effects of the (amazing) open source ecosystem we have these days that installing some kind of paid-for package isn't really that easy. Nor is preventing widespread pirating/reverse engineering of your library if it is successful.

Although it's wildly inefficient, a SAAS offering solves those problems.


I bought this library a few years ago: https://www.libxl.com/purchase.html

I don't know how profitable the business is, but if the problem is popular enough it should be possible to make money?

Also, when you are selling to businesses, piracy isn't that big of an issue.


If you're netting at best a few grand a year and need to survive on savings anyway, why not just drop the business pretense and work for free on stuff you actually find interesting? A popular open-source project could yield more long-term value for one's career than an unprofitable or barely profitable "lifestyle business".


Thanks for reading!

The plan is for my income to increase over time. The benefit of launching businesses is that each time, I learn skills to increase my chances of success in the next attempt.


> A popular open-source project could yield more long-term value for one's career than an unprofitable or barely profitable "lifestyle business".

Only as a launchpad for another job or consulting gigs, no? What if he wants to work solo?


Sorry to say but this proves that for someone who actually has to work for a living ie earn money, corporate life is absolutely the correct choice. Even for Mr Lynch these experiments in charity wouldn’t be possible without the nest egg from google (which he acknowledged). To go from net 100k+ to below zero and still be unprofitable after two years is a financial disaster.


> Sorry to say but this proves that for someone who actually has to work for a living ie earn money, corporate life is absolutely the correct choice.

Not really. This just proves that corporate life isn't the most profitable option for the OP. You just can't make sweeping statements like this based on a single anecdote.

I'll offer this to other "corporate" folk out there. I was self-employed since late 2010 until I recently (last month) joined a mid-stage startup. During my last year of self-employment I took home ~$400k in cash, and lots more in early-stage stock, and worked maybe 15-20 hours per week. There are very few corporate jobs that would even come close to that balance of take-home pay and work-life balance.


I'll offer a counter example in that the startup I joined failed miserably and I ended up losing out on a LOT of income.

I am now working for a decent 6-figure income and EXTREMELY happy with the stability and 40-50 hour work weeks...in comparison to the ABSOLUTE GRIND I went through trying to help that startup get off the ground - this is a godsend.

Your scenario is VERY UNLIKELY IMO.


I've seen that happen so many times, and it sucks. I'm sorry you went through that experience. :(

My first job was at a startup that crashed and burned, and what I took from that experience was that the only financially responsible way to work with startups as an engineer is to work on a lot of them to spread out the risk, or be a founder. There's just no other way unless you're comfortable with a ton of risk.

Like I said in my post above, this "success" didn't come overnight; I spent many years grinding with the business development, upping my development skills, and putting myself out there. It was not easy.


Most people work at startups because they can't get a job at google if they do they leave. Those who work at google at somepoint feel they need to be closer to the product/customer/action many leave and create a startup (because they have the google brand and can raise money). Those startups hire developers who can't get into google.

You are at a certain point in the cycle. At somepoint you may move to creating your own startup (maybe not because you had a negative experience earlier).

It's just the circle of life.


Stability until you get canned.


That's anywhere...at least I have a reliable check until I don't...and I have reasonable hours.

Didn't have either of those before.

Also, if I get canned, I can find another job...there is a LOT of work out there for what I do...


WHAT is WITH the RANDOM CAPITALISATION?


Hint : it's not random.


It's called emphasis.


That's pretty incredible. What made you want to join the mid stage startup? Also did most of your income come from consulting type work or product revenue?


Thanks!

TBH, I just got bored. All of the inefficient aspect of my work got slowly eliminated over the years due to process improvements, which meant that only the most unpleasant, manual aspects were left over (read: legal, negotiation, business development, etc.).

80% of my income was consulting related. I tried to branch off into making a SaaS and "failed" (which I'm still kind of excited about but have no time to pursue), but I did succeed in making an App Store portfolio which brings in decent profit.


> iled" (which I'm still kind of excited about but have no time to pursue), but I did succeed in making an App Store portfolio which brings in decent profit.

can you share what you did consult on? To me consulting is very mysterious as it's a very generic term but I'm always amazed by people earning 250K-500K due to "consulting". Is it easy to do or more like being in the right place/right time/right skillset?


> can you share what you did consult on? To me consulting is very mysterious as it's a very generic term but I'm always amazed by people earning 250K-500K due to "consulting"

Totally. I'm a generalist software engineer with a specialty in early stage startup tech. In addition to actually writing the code, setting up infrastructure (AWS and all that), and anything explicitly code or "DevOps" related, I also helped clients understand the development process, advised them on product, worked with designers, etc.

I agree that consulting is kind of a nebulous term, but if you ask me, it's essentially shorthand for "solving problems that people have that they can't (or don't want to) solve themselves". The problems that clients came to me with were all related to getting a startup off the ground from the technical side.


How did you end up on consulting? Did you have prior experience bootstrapping previous startups where you were a full-time employee? Then you leveraged that experience? Devops is pretty recent so I'm assuming you have <10 years experience?


I graduated college in 2009, and right afterwards I worked at a startup. Then I joined an agency doing web work for the entertainment industry. That got boring pretty quickly, so after a year of that, I left and started an "incubator" with some friends. At that company, we built out MVPs and convinced friends working corporate jobs to quit and become operators. It was a cool business model but not great for cashflow, so I split off.

Slowly but surely, I found a niche in working with smart, non-technical founders who want to start startups. Turns out that most good programmers willfully ignore that market (for good reason, it's really hard to separate the wheat from the chaff).

I've been programming in some way or another since the mid-90s, not old hat by any measure, but AWS and the "cloud" was hardly present when I really started getting my hands dirty with web programming during the early/mid-2000s.


> I'm always amazed by people earning 250K-500K due to "consulting"

I knew people making that in the mid-1990's in the IT end of biotech in California and also Switzerland. I would assume that something similar to "computer people" salary increases has happened to consulting rates too, on the higher end.

Never made anything near that myself consulting, but even when I was doing that kind of work (around 2000-ish) I knew people who were differently motivated than I was, in San Francisco, making more than those numbers and working less than I did.

The trick was they worked on the business first, whereas I was always working on the product first (which wasn't even my product, of course). So for instance I might spend all night coding in order to make something shine (hello startups!) and be wiped out from it the next day, but these other type of people would see that as a massive anti-pattern and route around it contractually.

For instance I knew one consultant who only flew business class - it was in her contract - and billed every hour from taxi pick-up to drop-off if not more whenever she had to go to a meeting outside driving distance. She read documentation on the flights.

Of course I ended up working for one such person for a while, because the sort of heads-down nerdy coder with no stomach to fight about money is ideal for farming out some of your more time-consuming work. :-)


Ah interesting. Thanks for sharing!


> During my last year of self-employment I took home ~$400k in cash, and lots more in early-stage stock

You've lost me here. Are those ealry-stage stock of yourself, giving you were self-employed? Or you made side jobs with cash+stock payments?


> You've lost me here. Are those ealry-stage stock of yourself, giving you were self-employed? Or you made side jobs with cash+stock payments?

Clarified here: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=22202222


I believe clients compensated them with stock.


how did you get early stage stock being self employed?


Most of my consulting work was with early-stage startups. I would ofter offer a fixed cash cap (say, $50k) at an hourly rate, and any work beyond that would accrue towards a SAFE. Less risk for the founder, gave me incentive to finish the bulk of the work within the cap, but also didn't punish me if I didn't.


Very interesting idea. Thanks for sharing.


what was your hourly rate on consulting?


$300 / hour.


neat


Consultants can be granted Non-Qualified Stock Options (NSO).


It's hard starting a business and most people (90%) don't earn anymore than an employee.

None the less some of us just aren't cut out for the corporate life. I'd pick poverty over the lack of autonomy, petit politics and meaningless work any day.


Yeah the focus on exclusively money baffles me. Like cool you get to buy a bigger house and go on some nicer vacations. Depending on the big co, they own you. I can't say I'm not working as an employee right now but every time I've been "broke" and free to do whatever project and take on work as I see fit I've been probably 50-70% happier when you factor in stress from shakier income.

That said I understand risk tolerances and it not being everyone's cup of tea but saying everyone should be a corporate employee ignores an entire set of priorities people tend to have besides stability and money.


On the flip side, working for yourself means the job never ends. As an employee you can do 8 hours at work, 16 hours for yourself. You can drop a project and pick it up the next day. The client is pissed? You're still making your salary. It's up to management to staff correctly, not up to you to kill yourself overworking for a salary and no overtime.

When it's just you, and your entire livelihood depends on sucking up to big fish to get that one payday that will float you for the next few months while you find another big fish, the boundaries between work and home dissolve. You feel a constant stress to get projects done and you even lay awake at night terrified of what happens if your next big fish doesn't materialize. Your performance in any one task decreases because you have to wear every hat. You're a good programmer, but are you a good businessman? Advertiser? Hustler? Lawyer? Can you afford a team? Will do you everything yourself?

If you're still a kid, don't have debts, don't own property, don't have a family, don't have any roots, the risk/reward and excitement of this chaotic and generally financially ruinous lifestyle could be good or even make you happy.

But for many people, the stress of putting your family, your investments, your retirement and ultimately your future on the line is one of the most unhappy things possible.

I don't think there is anything wrong with doing your 8 hours to make a living, and then taking the next 8 hours to enrich your life -- not for profit, but for health. Exercise, learning and growing, cooking and entertaining, starting a family, investing in life and happiness outside of coding... it's just notoriously difficult to do these things as an entrepreneur, and all the "big successes" as a rule (with exceptions) are "16 hour workers", as in, 100% of useful waking hours spent on the job.


I wish this idea would die. It doesn't need to be like that. It is possible to take a more relaxed approach to your own business just as you might as an employee.

Sure some people overwork but that isn't unique to running a business, you will find those people in big companies as well.

Also my experience was that having a family, owning a property and being rooted in my location gave me the support I needed to succeed.


Honestly that just sounds like someone terrible at managing risk and money! As a self employed individual coming up on 10 years now the first year or two was rough, but if you build up a safety net and properly manage money there are no sleepless nights worrying about the next big fish.

It also takes a while to realize that working more than 8/hrs a day is not sustainable. You'll be less productive in the long term. So really even as a self employed individual it's better to work less than a full time job imho.


Lots and lots of self employed people are not "working" 24h/day.Where does this myth come from? Is it corporate propaganda?


It's coming from inside the house!

https://twitter.com/elonmusk/status/1067175527180513280

"No one ever changed the world at 40 hours a week"

"80 hours minimum, with peaks at 100 hours"

A 100 hour week would be 16.6 hours for 6 days and 1 day off, or 14.25 hour days with no days off

The idea that entrepreneurs need to work more than 40 hours a week to be successful is as old as our industry, and I'd go so far as to say that those casually working a schedule that looks more like a salaried position are probably "consultants" and aren't really entrepreneurs trying to build something or change something


That's probably true of a certain sort of startup - writing a bushel of code for a web thingy for instance.

But I've worked at many startups and ok 50 hours would be common. As they say, one pregnancy takes one person 9 months. You can't do it in 4.5 with two people (or by working harder).


Who said anything about changing the world? I think most people would prefer a "lifestyle" business where they can set their hours and scale the business based on that.


It's funny how Musk himself disproves that claim. He runs 3 companies simultaneously, yet clearly he can't dedicate 80hrs/week for each.


Well that depends on if Elon is a believer in Time Cube Theory which says due to 4 corner Earth there are 4 simultaneous days each rotation.


People have changed the world over a tweet. If changing the world is all you want to do, plant a tree. The world will be changed for the better.


making cash for "the good" life not same as changing the world.


self employed != SV-style entrepreneur


" I'd pick poverty over the lack of autonomy, petit politics and meaningless work any day."

Would you also put your kids in poverty? It's not a simple when you think beyond yourself.


I haven't made the choice to have children and so it doesn't apply to me. That is your decision and that class of problem doesn't apply to everyone.


Well if you do, know that the $3k/mo saas that took 2 years to build isn't going to put that kid through college but will allow you to be a present and engaged parent to your child for the precious few years before they go to school.


College can be free. Three 3k/mo saases would.


I wouldn't know... I didn't go...


You haven't gone yet? There are great free universities online if you are still interested.


Which ones would you recommend? The ones I've seen so far looked like extended bootcamps. Which I guess is fine if you're looking for CS knowledge. But lutise of that, any recommendations?


He said he has no kids. It's not the right path for everyone.


I have kids although they are grown up now. You might be confusing me with the OP.


Ah was referring to OP


my mistake, what's the proper etiquette here? edit my original comment?


Keeps thing as-is is okay I think. Don't fret over it


No worries :D


> lack of autonomy, petit politics and meaningless work

This isn't a given. Plenty of (particularly large) companies will inflict this on you, but it's also very possible to work at a company and have autonomy and do meaningful work.


I think the odds of having that sort of autonomy in a corporate job are lower than being a successful “lifestyle” business owner. It’s exceptionally rare to find it in the corporate world, where stability, process, and politics are the primary focus of work to deliver the company’s product/service.


What if the poverty was really, REALLY bad? As in soul crushing, no way out, maybe-kill-yourself, type of poverty? I doubt you’d make that switch so easily.


What sort of question is this? Do you think anyone would pick "soul-crushing maybe-kill-yourself poverty" over working at Google?

We are talking about programmers here. Unless there are unique circumstances that sort of poverty is off the table.


>Do you think anyone would pick "soul-crushing maybe-kill-yourself poverty" over working at Google?

I've done this before and I would do it again. I wish I had something profound to add but I don't. Working in a corporate environment is just incredibly grating.


Is being poor also not incredibly grating?


It is. But consider that if your poverty happens because an org shuffle at Google got you fired, the ultimate source of your woes is the same.

Also "being poor" is generally not the fault of the poor person. Accepting a job however, is the fault of the employed person.


Yes it is but at least you don't have to pretend like one does in a corporate environment.


That's really another question, I have a lot of sympathy for people in that situation but it isn't what we are talking about here.


I don’t think you understand what poverty is, if you are choosing poverty over “lack of autonomy in the workplace”.

Poverty doesn’t liberate you, it restricts you, and not just in the workplace, but in your entire life. Want to go on a trip or eat fancy food? Too bad you can’t, because you don’t have money and you’re broke poor. Want to get a great career? Too bad, you got to work at fast food joint because you can’t afford the education. Want kids? Nope you can’t afford it so keep it in your pants, and women don’t want to get serious with some broke dude anyway.

There is no way you’d choose poverty. There is little advantage to being poor in society that punishes being poor.


As I said, "I have a lot of sympathy for people in that situation but it isn't what we are talking about here."


I think the correct lesson is a little different.

First, if you do rake in corporate money, and don't spend it all, you'll have a nest egg which gives you so much more choice in how you live the rest of your life.

Second, if you don't have a nest egg - yeah you can't just gamble that you'll build software-as-a-service and instantly be making enough money to live. As he said, people assumed he'd use freelance to make up the difference. He didn't, but it is an option. Now freelance/contracting can be nearly as corporate as a full-time office job, and it isn't as stable an income, but it can pay really well.

For many software engineers three months of full-time contracting could pay for a year's worth of expenses. (Assuming you make choices that align with that goal.) This would let you spend a great deal more time focusing on your business goals, and give you some freedom to fail some of the time.


It seems OP is perfectly happy creating small sites and products. One can earn perfectly good money from consulting or contracting, but OP chose not to.


Nah, but it's hard to launch a successfull product; if it wasn't, everyone would be doing it.

I'm doing contracting work for multiple different customers, long-term project, and I generate 100-200k of revenue on a yearly basis from that. That leaves me with slightly higher salary than if I'd work for a boss, but I have tonnes, and tonnes more freedom and time for my kids. It's just not possible to scale that past 300k/yr, because there's only so much time you can sell.

Once you have a product, you can scale it through the roof, since a digital product, if set up well, has negligible costs, will allow you to earn way more, but only if you find something that people want bad enough to pay for and a large enough group to pay for it. Loads and loads of people have the skills required to build a product, but not a lot have the right idea and marketing to go along with it to make it a success.


Wait, why do you think "it's just not possible to scale that past 300k/yr"? I have at least one counter-example ;-)

In general, the way it's worked for me is if I have multiple potential new gigs, I ask for more money. When the next gig comes along, that's my new baseline. Over the last 6 years that's helped moved the hourly rate to a number I wouldn't have asked for upfront. I hate to say no to customers too, so sometimes end up working 60-70 hour weeks in bursts. It's worth it though, because when things get quiet, I can go snowboarding for a week without asking a boss for permission...


Good for you :)

My hourly rate is €85 currently, which is a lot for the small to medium size businesses I work for. Hiking up that rate would meen I would have to work for larger companies, which I don’t want to.

I work from my own office, and get to spend loads of time with my family; if I’d start to work for bigger companies, I’d have to work on-site and loose a lot of time in transit and make it a lot more difficult to dictate the working hours on a day to day basis.


While I generally agree with you that products can scale much higher than consulting income-wise, when you say it's impossible to scale what you're doing past 300k/year due to time constraints...why not charge more for your time? If you have more people asking you to do work for them than you have time for, I'd think that clients would be willing to pay more in order to make it onto your schedule.


how many customers per year? and how do you deal with insurance?


Around 10 customers. I have recently gotten a liability because a client demanded it, didn’t have any before.


If you have the savings then why not? There is probably not a better time in history than to check out from being a corporate drone, assuming you have the savings. The stock index returned 30% last year...a $1M nest egg returned $300K in a year. I don't know what his savings looks like but I assume most of it is invested and wasn't included in these numbers.


The returns in 2019 were exceptionally good. There’s little reason to assume 2020 will be as good.

With everything going on this year: Brexit, US elections, impeachment, corona virus, etc... it’s entirely possible this years returns could be negative.


Sure, I mean it doesn't sound like his plan was to live off his investment income, but it certainly has been possible.

My point is that when you get to the point where your savings is high enough your money works for you at a level that makes it possible to live off of alone.

If the S&P is looking flat then you could rollover some of it to a high dividend REIT that pays 10-15% too.


>If the S&P is looking flat then you could rollover some of it to a high dividend REIT that pays 10-15% too.

You know the business cycle is peaking when people think you can easily throw their money into some investment paying 15%...no problem!

Can you explain how a public investment - any public investment - can continuously generate those kinds of returns without taking on massive amounts of risk?


It’s called a REIT. The dividend is rental income for real estate developers.

Let me guess...you thought 2013 was the top?


I know what a REIT is. Maybe you could explain how rental income is spinning off 15% cash a year? Do you think real estate is a magic industry that returns 15% annually, unabated? Why are these friendly real-estate developers sharing that money with you?


That is just how REITs are structured. They are investment vehicles designed to pay out dividends to their investors that come from rental income.


He talks about that a bit - most of his money was invested in a simple S&P 500 index fund, with some dabbling in crypocurrencies (which worked out in his case.)


Ok - so his investment income last year was potentially as a high working full time at Google.


Right - the vast majority of people even in tech need to buy their children shoes and put food on the family table and those things are going to be very hard without a stable corporate income.


And yet, losing money for the first 2-3 years is AFAIK typical for new companies (especially those with 1-2 employees).


It's not always about the money. It's about the happiness.

If it doesn't work out, it's not like he lost the knowledge, he can still easily get a job anywhere. Probably even a bump from the startup experience.


The other choice is to not focus 100% on products, but rather, consult and work on your products on the side, and dial back the consulting as your products attain viability.


Totally agree, would never do what OP has done, I like my job and what I do plus I get paid well.


good for you?

for most of history everyone worked for themselves. one could argue the modern day corporate structure is completely unnatural and doesn't fit (most) everyone.


Everything we do as humans is "unnatural" and what really doesn't fit for "most" everyone is earning near nothing for 2 straight years.


This person is F.I.R.E’d. These are fun projects. He didn’t suggest this was appropriate for anyone but himself


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