Advice for the bootstrapped developer

I participated in a panel for Boulder Startup Week, but previous to the panel, thought I’d be giving a 15 minute presentation.  I was going to talk about rules for the bootstrapped developer.  At The Food Corridor, we recently celebrated one year of having customers.  In celebration of that, here are my seven guidelines:

  1. It will take longer than you think.  For any meaningful value of “it”. expect the process to take longer than planned.  Whether that is acquiring your first customer, building your product, finding help, or anything else, plan for it to take longer than you think.  Heck, this blog post is taking longer than I thought it would.
  2. Know your runway.  It’s important to know your financial runway (both for the company and for yourself).  This is fairly easy to calculate–just find out your burn rate and your money in the bank.  If you are looking at your personal financial runway, don’t forget to allow some buffer for you to find a different job–typically you won’t be able to step from a cratered startup on Friday into a full time job on Monday.  However, more important than financial runway is emotional runway.  Talk about the stress with your spouse (if applicable), think about the other emotional difficulties you may encounter, and plan for some high highs and some low lows.
  3. Extend your runway.  Again, for the financial runway, lower your burn rate as much as you can.  This will mean cutting back on spending and savings.  Make sure the family is on board.  Then you will look to find other sources of money to feed and clothe yourself.  This may include digging into savings, borrowing against assets (HELOCs work for this), borrowing from relatives, pitch competitions (TFC won two), selling assets, taking contract work, having a spouse who earns enough for the household, and/or moonlighting.
  4. Talk to your customer. This was one of the great assets that one of my co-founders brought to the table.  She had deep domain expertise and had many connections to potential customers.  We had numerous customers give us feedback, including via interviews, a month long beta test, regular product advisory councils and surveys.  You will note that this point implies you can find your customer and communicate with them in a cost effective manner.  Find where your customer congregates online.  If you don’t find a place, make one and invite your potential customers to join.
  5. Everything is borked all the time. In a startup, you just don’t have time to do everything correctly.  It can be embarrassing, but if you are building something that solves customer pain, and you’ve found the right early adopters, the customers will stick around.  Just keep improving things.  And accept a certain amount of brokenness.
  6. Know your market. This is related to talking to your customer, as that is one fantastic way to learn about your market.  There are other ways too–market research, online reading, etc.  However, as you build your product, you will surprised by what your market wants.  For instance, we thought our market would want a better UX, but were surprised when someone said our v1 UX was “great”.
  7. Make your own rules. Know that my advice and rules above are based on my experience, with my co-founders, product and skillset, in this time.  You need to do the reading and figure out what your rules are.


Joining The Food Corridor

After I left 8z, I contracted for about a year and a half. It was great fun, moving between projects, meeting a lot of new developers, and learned a lot of new things. I worked on evaluating software products and processes, supporting machine learning systems, large workflow engines, and, most recently, backend systems to stop distracted driving (they’re hiring, btw).

But I saw an email from Angellist early this year about a company looking to build a marketplace for kitchen space. (Aside: if you are interested in the labor market for startup professions, Angellist emails are great–they not only give you the company name and job description, but also typically include equity and salary–very useful information.) I replied, the conversation started, and I did some research on the company. They were pre-revenue, but the founder had been grinding it out for months and had an extensive background in the industry. Was clear they weren’t a fly by night, “we just had an idea for an app and need someone to build it” operation.

After discussions, interviews and reference checks, it became clear that this was a fantastic opportunity to join an early stage startup as a technical co-founder. So, I’m thrilled to announce that I have joined The Food Corridor as CTO/Co-Founder.

Why does this opportunity excite me so?

  • By increasing visibility and availability of shared kitchen space, it can grow the local food system, especially value add producers, across the country
  • There’s a real need for some innovative software and process solutions that we can solve
  • The founding team has the diverse set of skills needed to run a great company
  • I am looking forward to learning about the business side of a software company
  • It’s right at the intersection of two of my passions–food and technology

If you are interested in following along with the TFC journey, there’s a monthly newsletter that will be focused on shared kitchen topics.

As far as the blog, I expect to be heads down and building product, but will occasionally pop up and post.

Here’s to new adventures!


How to maintain motivation when blogging

clock photoAnother year slipped by! They seem to come faster and faster, just as promised by all the old men in the comic strips I read when growing up.

I recently had a couple of conversations about blogging: how to start, why to do it, how to maintain it. I thought I’d capture some of my responses.

After over twelve years of blogging (that’s correct, in 2016 my blog is a teenager!), here are the three reasons that I keep at it.

  • Writing crystallizes the mind. Writing a piece, especially a deep technical piece, clarifies my understanding of the problem (it’s similar to writing an email to the world, in some ways). Sometimes it will turn up items I hadn’t considered, or other questions to search on. It’s easy to hold a fuzzy concept in my mind, but when written down, the holes in my knowledge become more evident.
  • Writing builds credibility. I have received a number of business inquiries from my writing. (I suspect there’d be more if my blog were more focused. The excellent “How to start blogging” course from John Sonmez is worth signing up for.  The number one thing to have a successful blog is subject matter focus. But I have a hard time limiting myself to a single topic. Maybe I’m building credibility as a generalist?) And I’ve had a few people interview me for positions and mention they found this blog. It’s easy to say “I know technology XXX” in an interview or consulting situation, but I have found it to be powerful and credible to say “Ah yes, I’ve seen technology XXX before. I wrote a post about it six months ago. Let me send that to you.”
  • Writing helps others. I have had friends mention that they were looking for solutions for something and stumbled across my blog. In fact, I’ve been looking for solutions to issues myself and stumbled onto a post from my blog, so even my future self thanks me for blogging.  I don’t have many comments (real ones, at least. The spam, oh, the spam), but the ones that are left often thank me for helping them out. And I know I have been helped tremendously by posts written by others, so writing pays this help forward.

Of course, these reasons apply to almost all writing–whether magazine, comments on social networks, twitter, medium, answers on stack overflow or something else.  So why continue to write on “Dan Moore!”?  Well, I did try medium recently, and am relatively active on Twitter, HackerNews and StackOverflow, and slightly less active on other social sites like Reddit and Lobste.rs.  All these platforms are great, but my beef with all of them is the same–you are trading control for audience.  As long as I pay my hosting bill and keep my domain registered, my content will be ever-present.  In addition, my blog can weave all over the place as my available time and interests change.

If you blog, I’d love to hear your reasons for doing so.  If you don’t, would love to hear what is keeping you from doing so.


“Wave a magic wand”

wand photoThat was what a previous boss said when I would ask him about some particularly knotty, unwieldy issue. “What would the end solution look like if you could wave a magic wand and have it happen?”

For instance, when choosing a vendor to revamp the flagship website, don’t think about all the million details that need to be done to ensure this is successful. Don’t think about who has the best process. Certainly don’t think about the technical details of redirects, APIs and integrations. Instead, “wave a magic wand” and envision the end state–what does that look like? Who is using
it? What do they do with it? What do you want to be able to do with the site? What do you want it to look like?

Or if an employee is unhappy in their role, ask them to “wave the magic wand” and talk about what role they’d rather be in. With no constraints you find out what really matters to them (or what they think really matters to them, to be more precise).

When you think about issues through this lens, you focus on the ends, not the means.  It lets you think about the goal and not the obstacles.

Of course, then you have to hunker down, determine if the goal is reachable, and if so, plan how to reach it. I like to think of this as projecting the vector of the ideal solution into the geometric plane of solutions that are possible to you or your organization–the vector may not lie in the plane, but you can get as close as possible.

“Waving a magic wand” elevates your thinking. It is a great way to think about how to solve a problem not using known methods and processes, but rather determining the ideal end goal and working backwards from there to the “hows”.


Gluecon 2015 takeaways

Is it too early to write a takeaway post before a conference is over? I hope not!

I’m definitely not trying to write an exhaustive overview of Gluecon 2015–for that, check out the agenda. For a flavor of the conversations, check out the twitter stream:


Here are some of my longer term takeaways:

  • Better not to try to attend every session. Make time to chat with random folks in the hallway, and to integrate other knowledge. I attended a bitcoin talk, then tried out the API. (I failed at it, but hey, it was fun to try.)
  • Talks on microservices were plentiful. Lots of challenges there, and the benefits were most clearly espoused by Adrian Cockroft: they make complexity explicit. But they aren’t a silver bullet and require a certain level of organizational and business model maturity before it makes sense.
  • Developer hiring is hard, and it will get worse before it gets better. Some solutions propose starting at the elementary school level with with tools like Scratch. I talked to a number of folks looking to hire, and at least one presenter mentioned that as well at the end of his talk. It’s not quite as bad as 2000 because the standards are still high, but I didn’t talk to anyone who said “we have all the developers we need”. Anecdata, indeed.
  • The Denver Boulder area is a small tech community–I had beers last night with two folks that were friends of friends, and both of them knew and were working with former colleagues of mine. Mind that when thinking of burning that bridge.

To conclude, I’m starting to see repeat folks at Gluecon and that’s exciting. It’s great to have such a thought provoking conference which looks at both the forest and the trees of large scale software development.



On failing to enter a partnership

I recently explored a business partnership opportunity that was quite exciting.  I had met the possible partner a few years ago.  He has technical chops (a software developer) and runs a company in a sector I’m very interested in.  He had a SaaS application that had real traction–users, revenue.  It wasn’t profitable, but looked like it could be shortly.  If we could find a way to work together, I could own the technical side of things and let him focus on selling and marketing.

However, it didn’t end up working out.  No blowups, thankfully, just a failure to find an arrangement that worked for both parties.

It was quite the emotional roller coaster ride for me.  A business partnership is like marriage without the sex, and so we were both cautious, but it was very easy to get excited about working together and building a big business.  It was all the more exciting to me because he’d done this before.

Here’s what went right:

  • We had open conversations about each of our financial needs.
  • He built a budget and business plan.
  • We used Skype for conversations so that non verbal cues were available.
  • We worked together for a month before hand, which gave us some context.
  • We checked references and had our spouses meet.
  • We planned to get together and work face to face.
  • We used Google docs, which was a great way to share spreadsheets and documents about the business.
  • I reached out to a few mentors to get advice.  Every single person said: “write your expectations down”.  Every one.
  • On the advice of one of the mentors, I read the Nolo books about LLCs, partnerships and business buyouts.  These were tremendous.  Not only did they lay out scenarios I had never considered (what if one of the members of the partnership is disabled?  what if you want to bring someone new in?  what if you want to give time rather than money in exchange for equity?  and many many more), they also give you sample agreements.
  • We set deadlines, both for documents and for coming to a final decision.  We stuck to those.
  • We parted amicably.

And here’s what went wrong:

  • We put off explicitly valuing the existing company until late in the game.  Then it became clear we had pretty different numbers in mind.  We should have done this as soon as we were both interested.
  • We didn’t really know each other, the month of working together notwithstanding.  Just as for investing, I am beginning to think that partnerships work best with lines, not points.
  • The budget and business plan were limited in scope (one year out, then some major assumptions about future years).  Hard to make more detailed predictions about the future, especially since the plan called for major new products.
  • I was in a different state than he was.  This would have made finding common service providers (CPA, mediator, etc) difficult.  No real fix for this, other than one of us moving.
  • Valuing an ongoing, non profitable bootstrapped business is really hard, because most of the value of the business is in the future.  I found some articles, but didn’t find much about this particular scenario.
  • We didn’t really nail down whether this was a partnership, a buy in to an existing business or a valued employee relationship.  Each of these have different equity implications.
  • I didn’t sell myself as well as I should have.

All in all a great experience.  I learned a ton.  Of course, I would have been happier if we could have reached agreement, but I understand why we ended up where we did.


Helping a friend gather data and reach prospects with gentle intros

coffee photo

Photo by My Aching Head

I had coffee with a friend the other day, and he shared a business idea. I thought it was an awesome idea–I certainly saw the need in the marketplace and believed he had the skillset and resources to execute on the idea.

He’s still in the exploratory phase, so I offered to send gentle intros to people in my network who I thought would benefit from his idea. (The target market is anyone with a custom web application that makes money, or anyone who builds custom web applications and is looking for a way to provide ongoing support–if that is you, contact me if you would like to learn more.)  I asked him to write a small spiel that he’d feel comfortable with me sharing.  If you are thinking of doing this, make your friend write a spiel for you.  If they can’t write a spiel, chances are they won’t be good at follow up and your intros will be wasted.

Then, I went through my LinkedIn network and put contacts into categories:

  1. this person (or the company for which they work) might want to partner with my friend
  2. this person (or the company for which they work) is a possible client for my friend’s offering
  3. this person might know people who are in categories 1 or 2.
  4. this person (or the company for which they work) is not a good fit for what my friend is working on
  5. who is this person?

And then I sent soft pitch emails to almost everyone in categories 1, 2 and 3.  The content varied based on which category someone was in, but for category 1, the email was something like:

I have a friend who owns a hosting company who is looking to talk to consulting companies about a possible new product he is thinking about offering.  Here is his spiel:

 

[…spiel from friend …]

 

I wasn’t sure if this kind of software maintenance was something that your company wanted to keep inhouse, or if you would be interested in discussing this with him.  I wanted to check before I did intros.    Is this something you think is worth learning more about?

This way, my friends and contacts on LinkedIn don’t get spammed from someone they don’t know.  Instead, they get an informative email from me, asking if they want to learn more.  If they do (and about 10% did), I do mutual introductions, and then the ball is in their court.  (Side note: here’s a great intro email etiquette guide.)

Why did I do this?  Well, there were a couple of reasons.

First and foremost, because I thought it would be a win win for both sides.  My friend gets more data about his offering and how the market will react to it.  My contacts/friends on LinkedIn learn about a new product from a trusted source.

Second, I was able to do some social network housecleaning.  I was able to ‘unlink’ with all people in category #5–it’s always nice to clean up your social graph.

Third, I reached out to people and had some interesting conversations.  Some folks I hadn’t talked to in years.  It’s good to reach out to people, and always better to do so with something of use to them, rather than a plea for work.

This was a fair bit of effort (a couple of hours).  I can’t imagine doing this monthly, but once a quarter seems reasonable, especially if I’m reaching out to a different segment of my network each time.  And I don’t have to do the whole process every time–spiel, linkedin, soft pitch, intro.  I actually like scanning news sites and simply sending interesting articles to old contacts: “Thought you might be interested in this <link> because of XXX and YYY”.  Those are super simple to send, and again, provide value and raise your profile.

Next time you talk to a friend who has a great idea, who can execute on it, and who will follow up with anybody you introduce them to, consider reviewing your social graph for prospects.  Gentle intros can benefit all three of you.




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