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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The Two Week Slump

As far as I can tell, this is something that everyone experiences.  When you first have an idea, you are so excited.  You have the motivation and energy to work on it constantly and initially you make rapid progress, but eventually this ‘honeymoon period’ has to come to an end.  For me it took about 2 weeks.

In fairness, I have had some personal issues in the last week that kept me from working as much or writing blog posts, but I find that the motivation simply is not there in the way that it was a week ago.  Although it is still early and I don’t know what will happen into the future, I wanted to report my findings.

Reasons for the slump:

  1. Hard work.
    If you’ve ever heard someone say that starting a company is a lot of work, they’re right.  As a CS major at Princeton University, I came into this with the impression that I understood how to do hard work (20 hour theory problem sets), but a startup isn’t like that.  You are never done with your work because there is no right answer and therefore work follows you around constantly.  There is also a huge amount of trial and error because you can’t just look up the answer.
  2. Too much work.
    If you’ve never heard this before, investors tend to dismiss startups with only a single founder.  I ignored this warning sign and struck out on my own.  While I am not going to give up and start again, I promise you that next time I won’t be so naive.  There is simply too much at a startup for one person to do.  In the past few weeks I have been trying to balance all of these things: planning, market research, social media, product planning, product development, accounting, legal, etc.  Its a lot to manage and at this point I don’t have the money to hire people, so you need a co-founder who is invested enough in your vision that they will be happy to work for equity.
  3. No results.
    This shouldn’t be a surprise, but its hard to get any results when you don’t have a product.  While this may seem trivially obvious, it does lead to a severe lack of motivation.  When you see clearly the fruits of your labor, it is easier to see light on the road ahead.
  4. Gritty details.
    As part of the product development process, there are simply things that are a pain in the ass that suck but you have to do them.  While you can avoid these initially by getting other things done, you must face them eventually.  If you have any tendency towards procrastination, these are the little things that trip you up and keep you from getting things done.  Whether it is making that one phone call or writing content for that one page on your site, this can create a substantial mental block.

The obvious question now is: where do I go from here?

I am in the middle of this now, so there is no way I can give an informed answer, so instead I will look at what steps I am planning to take based on my research, and at some point I hope to do a follow up on this post to see how all of these different techniques worked.

  1. Surrounding myself by motivated people.
    Currently, I am working in a co-working space called Tigerlabs where there are many other startups.  This is invaluable because other peoples’ success is helpful at inspiring my own.
  2. Keeping a strict schedule.
    I find that this is extremely important for me to get work done.  If I don’t make myself get to the office by a certain time, I’ll never get nearly as much done because it is so easy to procrastinate.
  3. Setting goals.
    When I don’t know what to work on, I get lazy.  I’ll do lots of little tasks that aren’t necessarily relevant to my ultimate goal.  A couple tools that I find helpful for this are PivotalTracker/Trello (project management) and Producteev (to-do list).  This can also involve setting deadlines, which may be helpful.
  4. Motivational reading.
    It may just be me, but I find that other peoples’ success stories are quite motivational and inspire me to keep working.  I like startup blogs (I don’t have any favorites) and my two favorite motivational books are The 4 Hour Work Week and The Millionaire Fastlane, both of which are both inspirational and have some useful information.
  5. Staying healthy.
    I know that I feel better and more productive if I stay in shape, so I try to make a routine of going to the gym every day before work.

Hopefully with time and making use of these strategies, I will be able to overcome this slump and move forwards.

Starting a Startup

So it has now been 2 and a half weeks and things seem to be settling down a little bit.  There are massive amounts of things to do on a development end and I’m starting to try and reach out through social media and what have you, but in many ways things are starting to level out.  For the most part I think (I hope) that all of the legal stuff is out of the way, so now I can focus on the fun part! Also, I am excited to announce that RightCall.co is officially live (WOO!) and even though a lot of the pages are not done and many of the graphics need to be changed to actually reflect RightCall (they’re currently the graphics that were included in the template I’m using), you can start taking a look around and you can SIGN UP to be one of the very first users!  I’m also thinking about hooking up some of my friends and first users with special deals (ie free usage), so keep an eye out for that. Finally, I want to talk a little bit about what things are actually necessary when making a startup (like what the hell was I actually working on the last few weeks?).

  1. Research.  The most important thing was to do things as right as possible the first time and avoid making costly mistakes.  Not being at all versed in all things legal, I spent about a week researching before spending any money.  Maybe I made the right decisions or maybe I didn’t, but hopefully any mistakes I made won’t cost me too much.
  2. Naming.  I already wrote an entire post on this so I won’t rehash it, but you can’t start a business without a name (not exactly true because sole-proprietorships can be run under your name) and it would be a major (read expensive) hassle to change it later.
  3. Registering a business.  In NJ, at least, theres a bunch of paperwork to file to actually create a business and unfortunately its not super cheap ($125 to register a Limited Liability Company (LLC)).  I thought long and hard about the differences between a sole-proprietorship and an LLC, debating back and forth as to which one was better given my situation, or if it was even necessary this early in the game. For those who don’t know, there are two main differences.  Essentially, an LLC allows for multiple owners (or ‘members’) and is treated as a unique legal entity, whereas a sole-proprietorship cannot have multiple owners and is legally considered as part of the owner.  This means that it is hard for the company to scale and the owner is offered no legal protection, being liable for every liability of the company. Ultimately I registered an LLC, because I decided that this would make life much easier down the road and would also make filing tax returns easier.  Along with that I had to draw up an Operating Agreement, for which I used a free trial of LawDepot‘s template, which was extremely helpful and intuitive.
  4. Banking and taxes.  Once I registered RightCall LLC, I had to register for an EIN and make a business bank account.  Getting the EIN proved relatively painless through the IRS website.  As far as banking, PNC offers free banking for small businesses, making it the obvious choice.  This step seemed to be important, especially as an LLC, because separating personal and business expenses makes filing taxes exponentially easier (so I’ve been told).

I guess long story short, make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into before you spend any money.  It would suck to find yourself having spent a lot of money only to realize that you registered for the wrong thing or that your idea is worthless.  So be smart.

The ever elusive name

If you were to ask me what unexpected challenges I faced in the first week of starting a company, I would have to say that it was hands down coming up with a name.  There are many important attributes to the perfect name.  It has to be catchy, easy to spell, and preferably give people a sense of your purpose.  But more important than anything else, it has to be unique.  This turns out to be surprisingly difficult short of making up words.

Some Background: The project that I am working on is a company that helps cellphone users find wireless plans.

I toyed with so many different possibilities and scoured the internet for advice, but the first 4 days yielded nothing.  Everything I could think of just didn’t have any ring to it.  As a point of reference, the name that I started with was Find My Plan.  I even registered a domain for it, but soon realized that this was missing any flow.  It was descriptive, but that was about it.

I moved on to listing keywords.  I had all sorts of things from recommendations to service but there was no way that I could combine these to make something that works (and believe me I tried).  I even looked around at names of other companies to see which ones stood out to me as good names, like Pinterest and PayPal, but that took me no further.  Even when I thought I had found something that might work, it inevitably turned out to be in use by another company.

Finally I reached a turning point.  After 4 days of searching, I decided to try using a thesaurus.  This turned out to be the key to the puzzle.  In one day, I came up with a whole host of ideas, from Two Cents to Smart Talk.  As I started to look, many of the names were already in use, but I finally found one that was perfect: RightCall.  It combines the perfect catchiness with relevance, and of course it enables slogans such as “Looking for a wireless plan? Be sure to make the RightCall.”

Long story short, don’t underestimate the difficulty/importance of choosing a name!