The One Man Startup

Clearly its been a long time since I’ve written anything.  I have yet to finish my series of posts on setting up a cheap website (which I promise I will do, if anyone reading this actually cares), but at some level I just gave up on this blog for about a month.  Right after writing a post about getting over the slump and motivating myself, too.  But now I really want to commit to this.  If anyone has any ideas of things that I could/should write about or anything that they’d like to here, let me know.  I will certainly be writing at least one or two more posts about RightCall as the summer winds to a close, so keep an eye out for those!

Anyways down business (literally).

Empirically it seems to be hard to start a startup with just one founder. Most of the big successes have two or three.

Paul Graham

In Paul Graham’s list of 18 Startup Mistakes, the very first mistake he listed was “1. Single Founder.”  Well I guess I sorta screwed the pooch with that one.  I am sure that this is not always true, and Paul does cede that there are exceptions, but it does seem to be overwhelmingly the case that the best startups are formed in teams.  Even Dropbox, on whose Y Combinator application Drew Houston listed himself as sole founder, was founded by a team for all intents and purposes.

Completely ignoring all of this advice, I obviously went ahead and struck out on my own.  I’ve mentioned this in a past post, but here’s the problem: There’s way too much for one person to do.  Period.

What I didn’t fully consider going in was simply how many different things there were to get done.  There is development, business, marketing, bookkeeping, all of which can be broken down even further so when building RightCall, I had to make a decision.  I reached a fork in the road where I had to choose what sort of startup I wanted to be.  I could go the route of building a business, marketing and conducting extensive research, validating my product and iterating until I had a good sense of what to build, or I could just build it.

The Lean Startup methodology doesn’t work so well if you have to do everything yourself.  Steve Blank recommends getting out of the building and contacting at least 10 people per day per founder until you set up “enough meetings to fill your calendar.”  At the same time you need to build an MVP (it doesn’t need to be great but someone still has to build it).  But guess what happens when your calendar is full of meetings.  You don’t have time to build an MVP.  And the opposite problem is also true.

Now the clear choice is to split your time between the two, maybe alternating days of meetings and dev, but I would argue that this doesn’t work.  In a startup, where speed is everything, you are severely limiting yourself when you divide your time that drastically.

The other possibility, which I would argue is better if you are a developer building a startup as, say, a summer project where you have a limited timeframe.  Just build the damn thing, who gives a crap about the users.  If you are building a startup during your summer break, you are building a project for your resume.  If you are a developer, then what people really want to see is a portfolio.  So just give them a portfolio.  If you build something awesome, no one will care how many users you have.  And if it is truly something awesome, then you will get users organically.

And here is where I failed.  I admit it.  I tried to split the difference.  I attempted to take into account lean methodologies while developing my own software.  Recently (in the last two weeks) I have realized the importance of focusing on development, which I am pleased to say has been going well, as I think is apparent to visitors to the site.  Clearly time is a scarce resource, and I would say that you should put it where you will see the fastest results.

If you are working on a startup longterm (and I mean fully, not as a side project, like I plan on doing with RightCall during the upcoming year), I’m sure that the Lean Methodology will be beneficial.  If you can find a partner, it will be even better.  Just between research and development, you have two full-time (and thats startup full-time, 10am to 10pm) jobs.  And I haven’t even gotten into marketing and social media, which is at least as much work.

So is Paul Graham right?  Probably, much as it pains me to say.  Not that I regret going at it alone and it has been (and I hope will continue to be) a great experience either way, and you never know, maybe something will come of it.


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