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How to Create a SaaS and Compete with the Big Players as a Solo Founder (mikealche.com)
233 points by hnjobaccount 48 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 75 comments



I hate to be the stereotype of skeptical HN reader but I think this headline oversells the article.

Specifically for me it doesn't speak at all to the differences between starting a SaaS like this as a team of founders versus as a solo founder. As a committed solo founder all I can say is that choosing solo founding is not something to be undertaken lightly!

My startup CV is now roughly an equal length of being on a team of 4 founders and the current solo founder situation so I see the differences all the time. There are a lot of positives to both options but to write an article like this and not blend an awareness of the trade-offs between the two makes it much less interesting.

I've really struggled with being a solo founder despite it being a strong preference and learning to face every aspect of the running the business with a very conscious awareness that you're +1 in certain things and -1 in others is the only way I've found to make it work.

The idea you choose is a big part of this. I've seen thinking about your idea & solo founding preference described on twitter by @warikoo like this:

2x2 matrix

X-axis: Do you have the core skill reqd for the startup? Y-axis: Are you a control freak?

Y,Y: DON'T have a cofounder

Y,N: Could get one, but with complementary skills

N,Y: Hire people, might make them cofounders later

N,N: You have to have one!


If you want to compete with the big players, you have to solve the most important pain point and work upward from that small use base.

My case: I work on https://hanami.run (will soon move to https://mailwip.com due to hanamirb.org conflict) and email forwarding is very competitive. Big and old players are all over the place because at the end of day, setting up email forwarding isn't hard and many open source project did it, heck you can spin up AWS lambda for incoming email in no time.

The pain point is: email will drop sometime, time to time no matter how good an email forwarding service is because they have to scan spam, have false positive, or because of strict DMARC/SPF rule. And I have no tools available to help me out there. So I focus strongly on my maillog features with many level of privacy:

- no log at all: defaut

- only log spam email: give you another chance to read email on our UI

- log meta data

- log meta data + subject

- log whole email

Then, next steps is regex forwarding. Again, I learned this from reddit, forum search of those use base.

Basically I focus on those small features that big player doesn't have.

Then I was able to obtain a very small user base who has issues with big providers. Then I work upward from there to spin out given now that I had a working and good product that people are willing to pay for.

The rest is just iteration.


Hi. Good to see you kicking around. I’m a happy customer that had trouble with those big providers. Lately I haven’t even thought about your service (it’s just working).


Hey,

Thanks for your kind words Codazoda. Much appreciate :-)


> A good ballpark to get started is creating three plans around $47, $97 and $249 each.

just like that. really? no matter what kind of SaaS you're running?


If you're in b2b, yeah those are pretty good ballparks to start in if you have no real idea of what to pick. If you already know what to do, then do that instead.

This is a fairly decent bit of advice if someone's new and has analysis paralysis on pricing.


I think patio11 recommends these tiers for low touch B2B SaaS with 10% discount for annual plans.


I thought the same thing.

Current major players in the market I'm going after offer their products/services for free, and niche players offer their products for $5/month or $20/year.

Charging $47+/month is a nonstarter as customers are price conscious.


You could also take that as a signal it's not a good market to be in?

Depending on how easy it is to find customers, and your goals/options regarding to scale of course.


In this case, serving the market is about scale and no-touch/incredibly-low-touch sales. The companies not charging anything are making money on the backend through data, analytics, and sale of information to 3rd parties. There's definitely money to be made, it just depends on who you are asking for that money from.


Honest question -- are you trying to build a sustainable business on $20/yr per customer? That sounds very ... challenging.


The company operating on the $20/year model offers a very specific feature-product and that's basically the only thing they do. My goal is to have that be one of the features my company offers eventually and do this with a handful of complimentary feature-companies to build something more robust over time, the idea being that I charge something like $10+/month for a set of "premium features".


Could you elaborate?

It seems to me that $20/year could be a good lowest tier price, especially for products targeting individual customers (as opposed to businesses). There are successful solo founder projects in that range (notably pinboard.in, $22/year).


For sure, I agree with this take. My goal is to build a small, lean company that serves one particular market and expand over time.


And all I can think reading this is "lord please bless my free tier and day job"


So what's the SaaS that you created and managed to compete with big players as a solo founder?


It feels rude to ask, but I wish people asked this more

You see it a lot in the livestreaming/YouTuber circles too, 5 viewer channels advising 10 viewer channels how to grow

Theory is great but it should really be marked as such. At least give examples of other companies doing this or something if you're acting solely in a research and present findings capacity


In the C++ world there is a dude with funny hair who makes a living by being a C++ expert.

What is his real world C++ experience? Being a C++ expert.


Ipso Facto

wikipedia.org/wiki/Ipso_facto


Here's his portfolio page:

https://www.mikealche.com/portfolio


I looked at that page and then I asked the question to see if it was some other startup not listed on the portfolio page.


Honestly, I think this fails at the first bullet point: "Pick a niche that is already validated". My first bullet would be "Build a product that your existing customer says they need and they can't find." That's how all my SaaS as a solo have come to be.


In a way that is the same point, just in your case you have already existing customers. But if you don't have a look at what other companies customer are doing and optimize for a segment of those can certainly be a good approach IMHO


Sort of but not really. The article is mostly about differentiation. But if there's no existing solution to a customer problem, then you don't have to differentiate.


Before that, how do I find customers and clients?


Start on a job board. Get a freelance gig with your skills. Anything.


arrrghhh this "find a niche" stuff again. what if I am a regular 9-5 engineer in a big company. where the hell am I finding those? By using random idea generator and getting "note taking add-in for excel for amputee ballerinas"? aw jeez, they dont have enough money, I must pivot to broker ballerinas


I thought this was implicit: you find a problem you deal with on a daily basis.

This is probably why there are so many more startups pitching development tools than, for instance, something to make the lives of truckers a little easier.

If you work as a regular engineer, you must come across dozens of daily problems any of which are not properly solved by your current tools. Even simple things like following up consistently, or checking to see if someone responded to an email to a third party etc

Addendum: In response to many comments, I should add that this method is not supposed to guarantee you a good idea, but is a source for ideas to filter, refine, develop or abandon.


"you find a problem you deal with on a daily basis". Nope, not necessarily. Depends on where you work. If you are a cog in a big company, slaving away your 9-5, then no. You would NEVER get an idea that some finance folk would love to get an excel addin where you can click together in a simple GUI a data fetch from API, or whatever.


not if you never go talk to anyonw but your direct team. when i was at a 500 person consulting team i would wander over and chat woth sales, finance, and hr. sales needed updated resumes and better writing and presentation skills. i pushes the engineers ro all do lunch and learns. finance i plumbed some extra metrics for. hr i got some data into excel for, amd figured out how to get our door badge system to accept building badges which saved money and let people carry one badge. all within 4 years of school.

at a game studio of 300 i would wander amd chat with the various non-coder teams and just watch their workflows. for the tech artists a big blocker was gui access to enums in shaders (custom engine). i just set several of them up to compile the engine and taught tyem how to link enums to the editor gui, saved them many weeks of wait time. saw the lighting bake loop would take 1 year to run fully and a local test loop was 8 hours. asked my boss for time and rigged up a cluster of 64 ps4 dev kits and brought that down to 45 minutes, going from less than one local iteration a day to 9, and less than one a year to 3 a week for full bakes (cluster would bake when it wasnt helping am artist).

at super large mega corp i do similar, constantly meeting people for coffee and understanding more than just my cog. Eventually I got good enough at it and a reputation for improving things that I just get pushed/pulled at problem/opportunities areas, but you have to work up to it.

while none of this is doing a startup, if youre not curious, youll never see the myriad of things that could be improved with software, nor will many non tech folks, or really anyone who doesnt think "outside the box" as the olds say. challenge for devs is understanding where that tech is worth it and how to sell it, and not become that angry dev who is just yelling at everyone and politics for not taking every one of their half baked ideas as words from on high.


I think you need to look more closely. There are often problems all around, but they've been "solved." Thing is, very often the solutions suck and are wide open for improvement.

An example from my day to day in a large corporation: we have to enter time weekly: how much time did you spend on project X, Y or in training/meetings/etc. Sure there is software that does this, but it's terrible There are many issues with it that should be trivially solvable.

Now, I will admit that time tracking software is a huge field with lots of strong competition, so this may not be a field you'd want to enter, but it's an example of the problems you would come across during an average workday that are ripe for better solutions.


Maybe this is an indication that you're not the right personality type for this sort of thing.


There are also routes outside your main 9-5 at BigCo. In fact, your employment agreement with BigCo probably is written so that you don't want to get an idea for an internal product!

Try meeting people not in your field. Yes, it will take effort. Yes, it will be uncomfortable. Because of those challenges, fewer people have explored that space - so there are still fertile grounds for new products.


Most problems we all face on daily basis are completely trivial and those which aren't are often solved by someone. Which is something people often overlook and end up making products which no one really needs. Here's an example - I broke the remote for my AC earlier this year but I managed to salvage the codes and program a wifi-enabled ESP32 to communicate with the AC over wifi remotely, I made a crazy stupid UI for my phone so I can control it remotely(though I spend 90% of my time at home). Sounds like a brilliant product, doesn't it? Is there a market for it? I haven't bothered to check but my bet is that there might be 3000 people worldwide that would consider getting one, out of which maybe 50 would end up buying it. So no, this probably won't break the front page of Amazon to put it lightly.


That's actually a good idea.

Was the original remote app enabled? If not, now you have a potential product for those people who would rather use an app than the manual remote. Are spare remotes hard to get or expensive? There's another market that might want to buy from you, especially if the AC unit that is old or obsolete.

Spare parts/retrofits with new features is big business. There's a good chance that if you dug into this particular problem you'd find that it could be profitable. Not quit-you-day-job profitable, but at least enough to bring in a few extra $k per month.


I never said it wasn't a good idea. Almost 6 months later it serves me perfectly well. There was no original app. The AC itself was here when I moved in, it's an obscure manufacturer no one has ever heard about and I recon it's been here since the building was built around 2007. All I could find out about it was that it was made in South Africa and that's it. Infrared communication is incredibly simple on those devices and it's a matter of two hours to reverse engineer them(no shifting, rotations or any of that fancy stuff). All in all it cost me around 20 bucks and ~day to get it to work+the crazy stupid ui running off an actix webserver. But if I had the option to buy a remote control which works with it, I would have gladly done that instead(tried several universal remotes, none of which worked).

My point was that this does solve my problem but it's an incredibly niche problem for an even smaller niche market. The owners of this AC from the same unknown manufacturer, that either can't find a spare remote or want to make it wifi enabled. It's insanely specific, isn't it? Let's not fool ourselves, writing the software is the easy part and fairly inexpensive when you can do it yourself, get a cheap stm32 board and flash it. Manufacturing on the other hand is a whole different ball game and honestly I can't justify the work of developing, manufacturing, distributing and dealing with taxes at the end of each month, all for 300 bucks tops(I'm probably far too optimistic).

edit: esp32, not stm32(I'm mostly playing with stm32 lately).


Understood. We all do what we're comfortable with.

> an incredibly niche problem for an even smaller niche market

These are my favorite because no one "big" wants to get into them. I make a device that converts signals from heavy machinery that uses a specific type of almost-obsolete sensor to let it use a modern control that you can buy off the shelf. A friend of mine used to have a nice side business (was full time for a while) selling a replacement timer for a specific type of industrial printer.

I like markets like that. The biggest problem I'd see in your case is that it's a consumer item, not industrial. Most customers just don't want to spend a whole lot unless they have to.


>> Most problems we all face on daily basis are completely trivial and those which aren't are often solved by someone.

Resptfully disagree. There are a lot of non-trivial problems that do not have good solutions. If you look for niche manifestations of hard problems, you can both find something with appropriate scope AND a good value proposition. You also don't need to solve problems, just make them better/easier.


I genuinely can't remember the last time(or if there ever was such an event) I saw something new and thought "Hey this solves/helps with X, I gotta have it". Software is easy when this is all you do so when I have a problem I can solve with code, I go on and do it. Manufacturing, you are either a large corporation(apple, samsung, etc.) or you are a black swan. Most simply fail.


1) >>> you find a problem you deal with on a daily basis. <<<

Agree with this. As they say - necessity is the mother of invention. A lot of the episodes I listened to on the Podcast - How I built this with Guy Raz - were about people getting frustrated with a problem they faced on a daily basis and deciding to fix it (usually starting quite small).

2) >>> This is probably why there are so many more startups pitching development tools than, for instance, something to make the lives of truckers a little easier. <<<

This makes sense if you're a developer or work in software. Eg, I'm a Product person who built tools on the side to scratch my itch. My platform was Google App Engine (GAE). When the GAE GUI was deprecated, I realized that I really found a GUI much more convenient and so built - https://nocommandline.com and in the process fixed stuff I didn't like about the old GUI.

I think the trick here is to set right expectation i.e. recognize that not every idea is going to be a Unicorn or a big business. It could remain 'just a side project' or turn out to be something that just brings you extra income (pay your rent, weekly gas bill, etc).


Here’s a midly annoying problem I’m currently facing with Slack. Getting annoyed of jumping between DM’s and channels where I end up losing track of a channel I may have needed open or was going through. I feel like having tabs in slack would fix this? Not sure if it makes sense for the app to have this feature but something I’ve been thinking about.


I cling to using Chrome's support for shortcuts-as-apps: go to whateverteam.slack.com, hamburger menu -> "More tools" -> "Create shortcut..." -> "[X] open as window". At least on Mac, it creates a .app in "$HOME/Applications/Chrome Apps" that works like any other app: it shows up in the cmd-tab switcher, you can open it with spotlight, etc.

The best part (and the part relevant to your comment) is that this just opens a Chrome window and you can open (cmd-N) as many windows into the same slack team as you want, and it behaves like you expect a Mac app to behave: cmd-tab goes between teams and cmd-backtick goes between windows of a single team.

I gather that there are some Mac apps or extensions or something that let you gather windows of _any_ app into tabs, so you could likely use one of those here to get tabs instead of windows.

Supposedly Chrome is getting rid of support for Chrome Apps, I think that's what these things are called (?). If so, I'm going to be impacted when it finally goes away.


Slack has a history button. It's not perfect but it does the basics of what you describe https://www.howtogeek.com/668154/how-to-quickly-access-your-...


I encourage people to move to email. I know people hate it, but I'm serious.

Threading suddenly works in a non-stupid way, search suddenly works, and you can manage your own windows.


We're working on task management + email, I kept your comment [1] from awhile ago. I don't see any way to contact you in your profile, are you interested in trying an alpha? Email me at garrett at twobird.com

[1] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=23693582


I have the same problem and honestly just a 'recently used channel' history would solve it easily.


pg has an excellent essay on how to fine niches or startup ideas in general.

My thumbrule: 1. Pick a market that already has money-making companies. If you can beat them by price & quality, even after considering the first-mover advantage - go for it.

2. [From pg's essay] Just experiene more in life, with different people facing different kinds of problems from different sectors. That's a sure shot way to eventually run into a market with less competition.


Can you link the essay? Or even expand on what is pg?



pg == one of the founders of YC.

http://www.paulgraham.com/articles.html


I used to be a "9-5 engineer in a big company". But I always loved playing with robots. It took me years to a) learn how to build robots (started as a self-taught weekend hobby), and b) find companies that want to buy robots I can make. Now my niche is making and selling robots to companies. (My specific niche is shoebox-sized robots for testing/automating touchscreen devices.) The "niche eureka moment" was when I realized the "hardware testing with robots" niche was very similar to my existing "software test automation" 9-5 big company job skill set (modulo electronics+mechanical skills).

Unfortunately, my discovery and learning process also involved a good amount of luck and trying to describe it feels a lot like step #2 in the "How to draw an owl" meme. At some point, luck and hard work is involved, and there is no obvious playbook for your next step.

However, if there is a chiton of money to be made in Excel add-ins for amputee ballerinas, and you know how to make add-ins, and you know how to find and talk to amputee ballerinas, it might not be a bad career move, though...


> what if I am a…

Why does advice have to apply to every scenario ?

What if you are a paraguayan field worker and this is not actionable for you ?

Anyways, I’d suggest you talk to others around you and see if you spot the pain points in their day


>Anyways, I’d suggest you talk to others around you and see if you spot the pain points in their day

This is not a predictable tactic that would yield a viable SaaS idea, this is a gamble "go dive into the ocean, maybe you will find treasure"


If there IS no predictable tactic, and anything is going to depend on the skills, connections, and approach you bring to the job, then saying 'go dive in the ocean' will at least help someone find treasure, compared to saying nothing, or something so vague no one could be sure if it even applied?

It's up to the recipient if they find it useful or not.


This tactic is exactly how I found our idea.

Of course you won't strike gold on the first person you talk to. Be smart about it, talk to people who work in an industry you would like to serve (doctors, lawyers, marketers, mechanics, etc.) and figure out the inefficiencies in their day to day life. It's not as hard as you've made it out to be.


There is no predictability in starting a business. If we could easily predict the idea for the next big unicorn everyone would be going in on it.

Starting a business is a gamble. If you don’t have some risk tolerance, starting a startup is not the right path.


There is no "predictable tactic" for being a successful entrepreneur.


Are you expecting a predictable formula for starting a successful business?


There are some folks selling some, only $499.95 up front, hah.


By going to product hunt and making exact copy of something.

By lurking on HN and making a copy of one of "Show HN".

Just pick something that seems interesting for you.

Spend 2-3 years building it and marketing and if it works well you have it. If it does not work, start over again.

Unless you want a sure money making product - then stick to your 9-5 job that is money making product you have for sure.

Which is also like "find people that want something and build it for them" because that will be your next 9-5 job then.


You listen to people around you either in the same or different industry. Finding an idea is a lot more about listening then it is you coming up with something.

Most of my projects have come from just listening to friends or families on their pain points (either in their jobs or life), evaluating the market around those problems and then taking action if it's a good idea.


Then maybe you shouldn't do a startup? Not everyone can and should do a startup, lack of a good idea is probably a good reason.


yeah, the "find a niche" advice falls flat without an addendum entitled "how to find a niche". I think fundamentally it comes from talking to people rather than theorising in a bubble, but unless you're already talking to people it's tricky to know how to begin.


pg has an excellent essay on how to fine niches or startup ideas in general.

My thumbrule: 1. Pick a market that already has money-making companies. If you can beat them by price & quality, even after considering the first-mover advantage - go for it.

2. [From pg's essay] Just experiene more in life, with different people facing different kinds of problems from different sectors. That's a sure shot way to eventually run into a market with less competition.


>find a niche

i don't believe it have to be a niche. lets look at Zoom, its in a saturated market with a lot of established products that already have all the Zoom's functions built in but hide under complex UI that no one know how it work or its there.


How big is the risk of some competitor just copying with business with 10x the engineers and taking your customers?


They typically move more slowly - have more layers of design by committee than you will. They’ve already built a large ship that requires movement, you’re in a speedboat. Sure, they can crush you, if you move at the same speed and in the same direction - use your agility to move.


You're small enough that they don't care. If you grow big, then they buy your or copy your business and when that happens you'll have earned a lot of money, hopefully.


low? lets use Zoom as an example. its competitors already doing exactly what Zoom does and yet they lost customers given they were in the market much much longer than Zoom.


For every company that will buy from them, there's a company that won't buy from them for 'religious' reasons. Deals are complicated, it's not always an 'engineering' decision.


10+ engineers is also 3 designers, 2 online marketeer, 2 managers, etc. They would need so much more revenue than a solo dev.


that's exactly what we did and doing very well. After trying lots of stuff in the last 12 years and actively participating in the indie communities, that's the easiest way to make it work.

Find a popular product, pick a growing niche that product serves not so well (you can see that in reviews, twitter, etc) and build a specialized version of that product with a friendly and modern UI. When serving different niches, usually products require different configurations for each and get quite heavy and confusing. You can fix that by specializing on one niche.


"Solo Founder" seems like a proxy that just acknowledges that Software Development is now a Profession.

We don't refer to Doctors, Lawyers, and Accountants as "Solo Doctors", etc...

They are simply people who have studied their area of expertise for years, are disciplined and principled in their approach, likely carry some form of E&O insurance to warrant their work, and are perfectly capable forming their own legal entity and opening their own "office".

Broadly speaking, these professionals belong to networks of other professionals, who occasionally collaborate on projects.

Reading the article in this context then, focusing on a niche makes perfect sense for any Professional.


There's a difference between working a job and being an entrepreneur. The solo founder vs partnership debate comes up in every profession you mentioned, e.g. when starting your own law practice or medical clinic from scratch. Particularly for lawyers the standard advice is to at minimum have a group of partners with complementary skills (deep technical knowledge of laws, experience in a courtroom, ability to schmooze clients), not very different from what you'd hear from a tech VC.


I find it amusing that this article has reached the front page with quite a positive vote count yet just about every comment I've read is quite negative about it.




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