Make your bootstrapped startup work

Note from the author (added 29/9/2010): It seems that some readers found this post a little too opinionated for someone who hasn’t yet launched. I’ve tried to address your legitimate feedback in the comments here and on Hacker News. I’ve also done some toning down on passages below.

Don’t waste your precious pre-launch time like we have has been so well-received that I decided to expand on the topic and bring you a few more tips from the hapless entrepreneurs behind yet-to-be-launched just❤liked.

Get something online fast

It doesn’t matter whether you call it the launch, the beta, the alpha or something else. It’s absolutely critical that you make your app (some version of it), available online as soon as possible, and this is something we didn’t too well. In retrospect it seems that ideally we would have put something up within 1 or 2 weeks after nailing down the principles and definitions between ourselves. I’d be as aggressive as possible about this milestone and hold yourself accountable for missing this first and, in my view, the most important of deadlines before your real launch. We too should have been harsher on ourselves slipping that deadline.

Why do I insist so vehemently on having something online as soon as possible? Well, having something online gives you an entirely new perspective on the app. This may seem totally counterintuitive because development environments often do good enough job of emulating what the online experience will be like.  And yet they are not the real thing, especially if your application is a multi-user one.

Many things (e.g. image pre-loading, web copy and messaging, and analytics) you will never plan for unless you’ve gone through the exercise before, and you would be well-served by giving the task of getting online fast the highest priority possible. The approach is also consistent with “iterate like mad” mantra. You can’t iterate without the first iteration. This actually reminded me of the way mathematical induction works. If you don’t have it proven for N, you can’t prove it for N+1.

Avoid Sophisticated User/Customer Acquisition Schemes

I know how tempting it is to make the alpha, the beta, the theta, etc. exclusive for a select set of users, priming your customer acquisition pipeline and virally spreading the news of your glorious app to the rest of the Internet. Yes, it sounds great, except you are a bootstrapped startup with very limited resources to spare on marketing and promotion. We too got a little carried away entertaining notions of viral growth while we should have focused on getting the app online.

If you are a starry-eye entrepreneur like myself and your user acquisition strategy is based on creating artificial scarcity, STOP!

This is domain of funded startups with connections. Chances are you are not going to be able to pull it off just on your own unless you are incredibly well connected (but then you are probably not bootstrapped). More importantly, if you get carried away with your scarcity generation, you’ll soon find out that you are creating scarcity around vaporware, which is a far worse situation to be in when you are trying to build trust around your name and product.

Keep in mind that scarcity doesn’t need to be generated: it’s inherent in every new product, and it’s the scarcity of user’s attention.  I recommend to just open it up to all. Surely, nobody will come, but solving this problem is much easier when you already whetted it against early adopters and have something to iterate from.

Limit Conceptual Discussions and Long Term Planning

It’s important to agree on the basic principles of the application and to define the important terms that you will be operating with for the duration of the project. This will ensure that all involved operate with the same vocabulary. We’ve been bitten by this couple of times while working on just❤liked. Trust me, redoing things just because you misunderstood your co-founder is not fun.

I don’t believe it’s a wise use of anyone’s time to make plans that stretch beyond  MVP. Sure, you may have a notion of how you want it all to turn out in the end, but it’s best to keep that notion to yourself until it morphs into something else or goes away. Because it most certainly will.

Your primary focus should be on building something crippled and putting it online. Make “crippled” a requirement if you must, just get it done. Anything that distracts you from this task or derails your efforts is counterproductive.  Don’t belabor the evolution of the product until you have the first version and your opinions and speculations about the target market and user acquisition strategy are a little more informed.


12 responses to “Make your bootstrapped startup work

  1. “If you user acquisition strategy is based on creating artificial scarcity, STOP!”

    This is horribly incorrect; perceived scarcity is one of the foremost tools for getting users if you have a consumer facing, free product. Honestly, it works every time (at least it has for me, and everyone I know).

    If you’re planning on not going this route, then you ought to be charging for your product (this also creates the same effect, in a sense). If it’s not one or the other, then why should the user put any value on what you’ve built, if even you don’t? You WILL end up getting precisely the effect that the writer mention:

    “nobody will come”

    • Thanks for your comment, Brad.

      I think I could have worded this argument a little better. What I was really trying to say was this. There are many unknowns that go into launching a product, but one thing is always known and is safe to assume – nobody will come if you don’t launch. I think of this as a safe assumption.

      I think there are plenty of examples where artificial scarcity worked great. But in our situation of extreme uncertainly (never having launched a consumer-facing product before), creating this scarcity around the product is secondary and counterproductive in a sense that it distracts us from building the product.

      Just to give you some context for this, we are just two guys with full time jobs and families working nights and weekends on this idea. We want to get to users first before we attempt to pull off an artificial scarcity thing.

  2. > If you don’t have it proven for N, you can’t prove it for N+1.

    A better use of a mathematical induction analogy would be to say that if you don’t have it proven for the base case, you can’t build your inductive “ladder” to infinity. In induction, you assume N is true and prove for N+1. Having the base case proven is what plants your inductive proof in reality, which goes along nicely with your message here.

  3. I like this article.

    Perhaps we’re in a unique situation, but with Djangy, we have 1200 people waiting for our service to be public. We have released our MVP into private beta and currently have ~130 beta users.

    It’s been invaluable to keep it closed. Our users are finding bugs and we’re fixing them like MAD. If we had opened up to the public instantly, it would’ve been a disaster. But our product is more solid because we kept it under wraps.

    That said, we are iterating like crazy. Daily, even. And I think above all else, this is the key. The rest is just tiny details. If you don’t get something working out there quick, you’re fucked.

  4. I liked your article very much.

    While you are at it, could you also please write something about practical strategies for marketing and publicising the product during its initial days (for eg. put it up on hacker news).. Any other ideas that are free?


    • Vivek, I am actually in the process of writing another article about my blogging experience. It also has some practical tips for doing writing effectively.

      So in a word, blogging is a big part of promotion and marketing, but advertising your product should not be the primary purpose of the blog. It should contain compelling content even if it’s not referring to any product you are building or promoting. At least that’s what I am going for with mine and I’d say it’s working.

      One thing to realize is that just as you are bootstrapping your startup, you should also be bootstrapping your online presence and establishing the right type of social network with peers, competitors, users, potential investors, etc. This, in my view, is just as important as building a product.

      There is no secret sauce. I read a lot about startups, then I started this blog and started tweeting about what I was doing and trying to attract the attention of other people with similar areas of expertise and interest. I use WordPress, Twitter, HN. I also guest post and try to comment on influential blogs. It’s a long and tedious process to tell you the truth, but it will be worth it in the end.

      Getting all these comments, both positive and negative, is a great reward for all the effort.

  5. Pingback: Technology By Day » Make your bootstrapped startup work | one budding entrepreneur's story

  6. This is a great article! Got some inspiration :)

    But I don’t think that “release it just now” works for all products. If you having a great customer base, waiting for release, it is to risky to deliver a “crippled” software, mainly by loosing a reputation (but we often see how Microsoft or IBM doing that :)

    It definately works for “brand-new”, “just starting up” products. Just release it)

    • Thanks for your comment.

      I certainly think that if you have a large number of users waiting for your product, then you are already not in the situation I am describing above. Getting a customer base in the first place is going to be the main challenge for a bootstrapped startup.

  7. Pingback: How I grew my blog by 500% in 8 months (not really) | one budding entrepreneur's story

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