Running A Software Business On 5 Hours A Week

Some four years ago, I started Bingo Card Creator, a business which sells software to teachers.  At the time, my big goal for the future was eventually making perhaps $200 a month, so that I could buy more video games without feeling guilty about it.  The business has been successful beyond my wildest expectations and has made it possible to quit my day job at the end of this month.  The amount of time I’ve spent on it has fluctuated: the peak was the week I launched (50 hours in 8 days), a very busy week in the last few years spiked up to as many as 20 hours, and the average over the period is (to my best estimate) about 5 hours.

During the majority of the time I’ve had the business, I’ve also been a Japanese salaryman at a company in Nagoya.  For those of you who are not acquainted with the salaryman lifestyle, I leave the office at 7:30 PM on a very good day, and have an hour and a half of commute both ways.  In our periodic bouts of crunch time, such as the last three months, I end up sleeping at a hotel next to the office (about 25 times this calendar year).

I’m not saying this to brag about my intestinal fortitude — this schedule is heck on your body and life, and absolutely no one should aspire to it.  That said, I snort in the general direction of anyone saying a nine-to-five job is impossible to juggle with a business because “businesses require 100% concentration”.

Here are practical, battle-tested ways for you to improve the efficiency of your business and deal with some of the niggles of partial self-employment.  They’ll hopefully be of use whether you intend to try running it in your spare time or just want to squeeze more results out of the time you’re already spending.  Many of these suggestions are specific to the contours of running a software business on the Internet, which has a lot to recommend it as far as part-time businesses go — take care before trying these willy-nilly with an unrelated industry.  (Part-time pacemaker research is probably not the best idea in the world.)

Time as Asset; Time as Debt

The key resource if you’re running a business by yourself is your time.  Other businesses might worry about money — however, you’ve probably got all your needs and then some covered by your day job salary, and capital expenditures in our business are so low as to be insulting.  (I started my business with $60.  Literally.)  And the key insight about time is that software lets us take the old saying about how “Everyone gets the same 24 hours per day” and break it open like a pinata.

Time can be stored.  One of the great features about currency is that it functions as a store of value: you create some sort of value for someone via your labor, trade that value for currency, and then the currency will retain value even after the physical effect of the labor has faded.  For example, a pumpkin farmer might not be able to conveniently store pumpkins, but if he sells them the currency will (under normal circumstances) not rot.

Most people think, intuitively, time always rots.  You get 24 hours today.  Use them or lose them.  The foundation of most time management advice is about squeezing more and more out of your allotted 24 hours, which has sharply diminishing returns.  Other self-help books exhort you to spend more and more of your 24 hours on the business, which has severely negative effects on the rest of your life (trust the Japanese salaryman!)

Instead of doing either of these, build time assets: things which will save you time in the future.  Code that actually does something useful is a very simple time asset for programmers to understand: you write it once today, then you can execute it tomorrow and every other day, saving you the effort of doing manually whatever it was the code does.  Code is far from the only time asset, though: systems and processes for doing your work more efficiently, marketing which scales disproportionate to your time, documentation which answers customers’ questions before they ask you, all of these things are assets.

The inverse of time assets is time debt.  Most programmers are familiar with technical debt, where poor technical decisions made earlier cause an eventual reckoning where forward progress on the program becomes impossible until the code is rearchitectured.  Technical debt is one programmer-specific form of time debt.  Basically, time debt is anything that you do which will commit you to doing unavoidable work in the future.

Releasing shoddy software, for example, commits you to having to deal with customer complaints about it later.  So don’t do that.  Better yet, rather than a useless bromide like “don’t release bad software”, spend time creating systems and processes which raise the quality of your software — for example, write unit tests so that regressions don’t cause bugs for customers.

However, not all time debt comes from intrinsically negative activities: there are many things that successful businesses do which cause time debt and you probably do not have the luxury of engaging in them.  For example, high touch sales processes incur time debt almost as soon as you put out your shingle: you’re committed to spending many, many hours wining and dining clients, often on a schedule that you cannot conveniently control.  That is generally a poor state of affairs to be in for a part-time entrepreneur, even though there are many wonderful businesses, small and large, created in high-touch industries.

Code Is About 10% Of Your Business.  Maybe Less.

Are you considering starting up a business because you wish to work on wonderfully interesting technical problems all of the time?  Stop now — Google is hiring, go get a job with them.  90% of the results of your business, and somewhere around 90% of the effort, are caused by non-coding activities: dealing with pre-sales inquiries, marketing, SEO, marketing, customer support, marketing, website copywriting, marketing, etc.

Bingo Card Creator has been memorably described as “Hello World attached to a random number generator.”  If anything, that probably overstates its complexity.  Customers do not care, though — they have problems and seek solutions, regardless of whether the solution required thousands of man years of talented engineers (Excel) or one guy working part-time for a week.  (You’ll note that you can make bingo cards in Excel, too.  Well, you could.  Many people can’t.  If I sell to them, I don’t necessarily have to sell to you.)

Relentlessly Cut Scope

37Signals had many good ideas in their book Getting Real, but probably the best one is to “Build Less”.  Every line of code you write is time debt: it is another line that has to be debugged, another line that has to be supported, another line that may require a rewrite later, another line that might cause an interaction with a later feature, another line to write documentation for.

Cutting your feature set to the bone is the single best advice I can give you which will get you to actually launching.  Many developers, including myself, nurse visions of eventually releasing an application… but always shelve projects before they reach completion.  First, understand that software is a work in progress at almost every stage of maturity.  There is no magic “completion” day on an engineer’s schedule: “complete” is 100% a marketing decision that the software as it exists is Good Enough.  If you have to cut scope by 50% to get the software out the door, you’re not launching with a 50% product: you’re launching with 100% of the feature set that is implemented, with 100% of (hopefully decent) ideas for expansion in the future.

Pick Your Problem Well

Long before you sit down to write code, you should know what your strengths are and what your constraints are.  If you can only afford to spend 10 hours a week and your schedule is inflexible, then anything which requires calling customers in the middle of the day is out.  Scratch B2B sales for you.  If you have the graphical skills of a molerat, like myself, you probably should not develop for iPhones.  (Minor heresy: while Mac developers are very graphically intensive people who will buy software just to lick it if the UI is good enough, many Mac users are just regular people.  My Mac version has a conversion rate fully twice that of the Window version, and it is not noticeably pretty.)

Some people profess difficulty at finding applications to write.  I have never understood this: talk to people.  People have problems — lots of problems, more than you could enumerate in a hundred lifetimes.  Talk to a carpenter, ask him what about carpentry sucks.  Talk to the receptionist at your dentist’s office — ask her what about her job sucks.  Talk to a teacher — ask her what she spends time that she thinks adds the least value to her day.  (I’ll bet you the answer is “Prep!” or “Paperwork!”)

After you’ve heard problems, find one which is amenable to resolution by software and that people will pay money for solving.  One quick test is to see whether they pay money for solving the problem currently: if people are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on inefficient, semi-manual ways to do something that you could do with Hello World and a random number generator, you may be on to something.  (For example, if you knew nothing about the educational market, you can infer that there are at least several hundred thousand dollars sold of reading vocabulary bingo cards every year, just by seeing those cards stocked in educational stores across the country and doing some quick retail math.  So clearly people are spending money on reading vocabulary bingo.  It isn’t that much a reach to assume they might pay money for software.)

Other things you would look for in your idea are anything you see yourself using in your Benefits section of the website to entice people to buy it.  (Benefits, not Features.  People don’t buy software because of what it does, they buy it for the positive change it will make in the life.)  If you think “People should buy this because it will make them money, save them time, and get them back to their kids faster”, then you probably have a viable idea.

Another thing I’d look for prior to committing to building anything is a marketing hook — something you can take advantage of to market your product in a time-effective way.  For bingo cards, I knew there were more activities possible than any one company could ever publish, and that gave me hope that I could eventually out-niche the rest of the market.  (This is core idea still drives most of my marketing, four years later.)  Maybe your idea has built-in virality (nice if you can get it — I really envy the Facebook crowd sometimes, although I suppose they probably envy having a customer base which pays money for software), a built-in hook for getting links, or something similar.  If you can’t come up with anything, fix that before you build it.

This should go without saying, but talk to your customers prior to building anything.  People love talking about their problems to anyone who will listen to them.  Often they won’t have the first clue about what a solution looks like, but at the very least repeated similar emotional reactions from many people in a market should tell you that the problem is there and real.  After that, it is “just” a matter of marketing.

One note about business longevity: you will likely be involved in this business until you decide to quit.  That means planning for the long term.  Markets which change quickly or where products rot, such as applications for the iPhone (which have a sales window measured in weeks for all but the most popular apps) or games (which have constantly increasing asset quality expectations and strong fad-seeking in mechanics/themes/etc) interact very poorly with the constraints you are under.  I would advise going into those markets only with the utmost caution.

Get Your Day Job Onboard

Don’t do work on your business at your day job.  DO NOT do work on your business at your day job.  Do NOT do work on your business at your day job.  It is morally and professionally inappropriate, it exposes you to legal liability (particularly if your business ends up successful), and it just causes headaches for all concerned.

As long as you follow that one iron law of doing a part time business, all other obstacles are tractable.  Many engineers these days code outside the clock — for example, contributing to OSS projects.  Tell your boss that you have a hobby which involves programming, that it will not affect your performance at work, and that you want to avoid any misunderstandings about who owns the IP.  You can do something culturally appropriate to actually effect that: it might involve a contract, a memorandum of understanding, or even just a promise that there is no problem.

(Aside: I know many Americans consider the last option shockingly irresponsible.  My ability to prevail over my employer — a major multinational — in a lawsuit is effectively nil.  A contract is just a formalization of a promise.  In Japan, the ongoing relationship with my bosses is the part of the agreement that provides security, not the piece of paper.)

One sweetener you can offer any employer: providing you with discretion to continue with your hobby costs the employer nothing, but it will result in you getting practical experience in technologies and techniques you wouldn’t normally get at the day job, and they can then make use of that expertise without having to send you to expensive training or seminars.  I generated conservatively six figures in business for my day job as a result of things I learned from my “wee little hobby.”  Feel free to promise them the moon on that score — all they have to do in return is not object to your hobby.

Speaking of day jobs: if you know entrepreneurship is in your future, you might pick a job which dovetails nicely with it.  Prior to becoming a salaryman I was employed by a local government agency which had stable salaries and a work-day which ended at 4:30 PM.  Hindsight is 20/20, but that would have been perfect for nuturing a small business on the side.  (What did I do with my free time back when I had so much of it?  I played World of Warcraft.  sigh Youth, wasted on the young…)

Avoid Setting Publicly Visible Deadlines

One thing I did not know four years ago was how dangerous it is to promise things to customers.  For example, suppose a customer asks for a feature which is on the release roadmap.  I might, stupidly, commit to the customer that “Yes, this will be available in the next release, which I hope to have ready on next Monday.”  If the day job then has me spend the rest of the week at the hotel, or I have a family emergency, I will miss that deadline and have one ticked-off customer to deal with.  That is 100% avoidable if you simply don’t commit to schedules.  (Also note that committing to a schedule is time debt, by definition.  If you ever say “Yes, I will implement that”, you’ve lost the ability to decide not to implement it if your priorities change.)

One of the most useful things I learned in college was a line from my software engineering professor.  “The only acceptable response to a feature request is: ‘Thank you for your feedback.  I will take it under advisement and consider it for inclusion in a later version of the software.’”  That line actually works.  (There are industries and relationships in which it won’t work — for example, if you’re in a regulated industry and the regulations change, you can’t fob the regulatory authority off with that.  Don’t be in a regulated industry.)

Release schedules are not the only type of deadline out there.  Ongoing relationships with freelancers will occasionally have deadline-like characteristics, too.  For example, if you have a pipeline where you generate requests for work and then the freelancer fills it, if you unexpectedly are unable to do your part, the freelancer will be idle.  Thus, you want a bit of scheduling flexibility with them, a store of To Be Done On A Rainy Day requests queued up, or a rethink of your relationship such that your brain is not required for them to be able to do their job.

Cultivate Relationships With Effective Freelancers

Dealing with outside talent is one of the most important skills of being a part-time entrepreneur.  It lets you work more hours than you have personally available, it lets you use skills that you don’t possess, and especially when combined with software you’ve written you can do truly tremendous things with with a little bit of elbow grease.  Many folks get started with freelancing from posting to sites like Rentacoder (awesome article about which here) or Craigslist.  That is fine — everyone has to start somewhere.  However, you’ll quickly find that there is literally a world of people out there who are willing to work for $1.50 an hour… and would be terrifically overpaid at that price.

My suggestion is that, when you find a freelancer who you click with, hold onto them for dear life.  Pay them whatever it takes to keep them happy.  Additionally, since most clients are just as incompetent as most freelancers, don’t be one of the flakes.

  • Pay freelancers as agreed, promptly.  I jokingly refer to my payment terms as Net 30 (Minutes), and that ends up being true 90% of the time.
  • Provide sufficient direction to complete the task without being overbearing.  (Freelancers with a bit of personal initiative are worth their weight in gold.)
  • Don’t schedule things such that freelancers are ever blocking on you or that you are ever blocking on freelancers.  You have all the time in the world if you get things done well in advance of need.  For example, I just got my St. Patrick’s Day wordpress theme done — for next year.  If I was getting the Easter bingo site cranked out now, any hiccup would mean it missed my window.  (Technically speaking it would already be too late for SEO purposes, but that is a long discussion.)
  • Recurring tasks are a great thing to systemize and outsource.  You can write software to do the painful or boring bits, greatly increasing productivity, and as your freelancers get more experienced at the task you take on less time debt for explanation and review of their work.

Speaking of which, the most successful freelancing relationships are ones where you correct the labor market’s estimation of someone’s value.  (That is the positive way to say “You spend much less on them than you’d pay someone else for the same work and they’re happy to get it because you’re the highest paying offer.”)  Much ink has been spilled about how the globalization of labor makes it possible to get work done by folks in low-wage countries.  To the extent that you identify skilled, reliable workers, this is certainly one way to do things, but it is not the only way.  The current economic malaise has left many folks in high-wage countries either unemployed or underemployed.  In addition, the labor markets have huge structural impediments to correctly valuing the expertise of stay-at-home mothers, retirees, and college students.  All of those are potentially good resources for you.

Understand the Two Types of Time

There are two types of time involved in business: wall clock time and calendar time.

Wall clock time: minutes/hours which you spend actually working.

Calendar time: days/weeks/months/years where time passes so that something can happen.

We expect the world to be very, very fast, because the Internet is very, very fast, but when dealing with non-Internet processes we are frequently reminded of how slow things are.

Paul Graham mentions this as one of the hard things to learn about startups.  I really like his metaphor for how to deal with it: fork a process to deal with it, then get back to whatever you were doing.  For example, while Google rebuilds its index in a matter of minutes these days (this blog post will be indexed within fifteen minutes of me hitting the post button, guaranteed), getting a new site to decent rankings still takes months of calendar time.  That doesn’t mean you stand around waiting for months — you get your site out and aging as fast as humanly possible, and then start working on other things.  Get good at task switching — you’ll be doing it a lot.  (I literally just alt-tabbed to Gmail and squashed a support inquiry.)

You can incorporate calendar time into your planning, too, and since it is essentially free to you (you’re planning on being here in a week, right?) it is often advantageous to do it.  For example, A/B testing requires lots of calendar time but very little wall-clock time: you spend 15 minutes coding up the test and then have to wait a week or two for results.  That works very, very well in a part-time business.  Often, you can get into a rhythm for feedback loops like that.  Do whatever works for you: for me, Saturday typically sees me end my old tests and start new ones.

Avoid Events, Plan For Processes

There is a temptation to see business as series of disconnected events, but that should probably be avoided.  For example, you might see a dozen emails as a dozen emails, but it is probably just as true that it is six of Email A, 3 of Email B, and three emails with fairly unique issues.  You should probably turn your response to Email A and Email B into some sort of process — address the underlying issue, write your web page copy better, add it to your FAQ, create an auto-text to answer the problem, etc etc.

Similarly, spending your time on things which help your business once is almost always less effective than making improvements which you can keep.  For example, running a sale may boost sales in the short term, but eventually the sale will end and then you cease getting additional advantage from it.  There is a time overhead assorted with running the sale: you have to promote it, create the graphics, code the logic, support customers who missed the sale by 30 minutes but want the price (give it to them, of course), etc etc.  Spend your time on building processes and assets which you get to keep.

Another example: attempting to woo a large blog to post about you may require quite a bit of time in return for one fleeting exposure to a fickle audience.  Instead, spend the time creating a repeatable process for contacting smaller blogs, for example something along the lines of Balsamiq’s very impressive approach.  (Other examples: repeatable piece of linkbait such as the OKCupid’s series on dating also works, or a repeatable method of building linkable content, or a repeatable way of convincing customers to tell their friends about you.)

You can also avoid spending hours on incident response if you spend minutes planning your testing and QA procedures to avoid it.  When they fail — and they will fail — fix the process which permitted the failure to happen, in addition to just responding to the failure.

Document.  Everything.

I’m indebted to my day job for teaching me the importance of proper internal documentation.  As weeks stretch into months stretch into years, no matter how good of a memory you have, you will eventually have things fall through the cracks.  Your business is going to produce:

  • Commit notes.  Thousands of them.
  • Bug reports.
  • Feature requests.
  • Pre-sales inquiries
  • Strategic decisions
  • Statistical analyses

… etc, etc.  The exact method for recording these doesn’t matter — what matters is that you will be able to quickly recall necessary information when you need it.

I tend to have short-term storage and long-term storage.  Short term things, like “What do I need to do this week?”, get written down in a notebook that I carry with me at all times.  (I lock it in the drawer when I get to work, but feel no compunction about sketching things on my train ride.)  Things that actually need to get preserved for later reference go into something with a search box.  This blog actually serves as a major portion of my memory, particularly for strategic direction, but I also have SVN logs (with obsessive-compulsive commit notes… often referencing bugs or A/B tests by number), email archives, and the like.  (One habit I picked up at the day job is sending an email when I make a major decision outlining it and asking for feedback.  Note this works just as well even if you’re the only person you send it to — at least you’ll force yourself to verbalize your rationalizations and you can compare your expectations with the results later.)

There are a million-and-one pieces of software that will assist in doing this.  My day job uses Trac, which has nice SVN integration.  I have heard good things about 37Signals’ stuff for project planning/management and also about Fogbugz for bug tracking.  Use whatever works for you.

Note that quality documentation of processes both prevents operator error and makes it possible for you to delegate the process to someone else.  Also, if you have eventual designs on selling this business, comprehensible and comprehensive documentation is going to be a pre-requisite.

Dealing With The Government

I’ve been pleasantly surprised how little pain I’ve suffered in dealing with the government.  Part of this is because software is such a new industry that we often slide by on regulation — if I ran an actual Italian restaurant instead of the software analogue, I would have to keep health inspectors happy on a regular basis, but there is (thankfully) no one auditing my code quality.  Speak with competent legal advice if you’re not sure, but for the most part the only thing Japan and America want from me is that I pay my taxes on time.

Paying taxes is weeks of hard work really freaking easy.  The typical Italian restaurant has to do lots of bookkeeping involving thousands of sales, most of them involving cash, juggle record-keeping demands for half-dozen employees, and has expenditures ranging from rent to wages to capital improvements to food with a thousand rules about depreciation, etc, to worry about.  By comparison, the typical software business gets half of bookkeeping for free (if you can’t tell me to a penny how much your software business has sold this year with a single SQL query… well, I don’t know whether to deride your intelligence or congratulate you on your evident success), we have absurdly high margins so if you forget to expense a few things it won’t kill you, the number of suppliers we deal with is typically much lower, and the vast majority of what we do is amenable to simple cash accounting.

Additionally, your local government almost certainly has a bureau devoted to promoting small businesses.  They are happy to give you pamphlets explaining your legal responsibilities — in fact, sometimes it seems the only thing they do is create ten thousand varieties of pamphlets.  Your local tax office will also fall over backwards telling you how quick and easy it is to pay them more money.

Incorporation?  Incorporate when you have a good reason to.  (I still don’t, but I might do it after I go full-time, largely for purposes of dealing with Immigration.)  If you’re selling B2C software, your number one defense against getting sued is promptly refunding any customer who complains, and that pretty decisively moots the LLC’s (oft-exaggerated) ability to limit your personal liability.  You’ll be personally liable for debts from the business, but since the business is fundable out of your personal petty cash that isn’t the worst thing in the world.  If sales collapsed tomorrow I’d be on the hook for my credit card bill, which runs about $1,200 a month — not a financial catastrophe for an employed professional, particularly when the business generates far more than that in profits well in advance of the bill being due.  Sole proprietorship — i.e. merely declaring “I have a business” — is the most common form of business organization, by far.

Ask Someone Else About Health Insurance

I’m only putting this here to mention I have no useful information, because I live in a country with national insurance.   That isn’t a veiled political statement — I am not really emotionally attached to either model, I just don’t have useful experience here.  (My impression is that young single businessmen around my age are probably well-served with getting cheap catastrophic coverage.)

Keep A Routine, When Appropriate

Through sickness, health, and mind-numbing tedium, I’ve woken up every day for the last four years, checked email, gone through the day, checked email, and gone to sleep.  This is the single best guarantee that I would deliver on the promised level of service to customers — almost all questions answered within 24 hours.  There have been many, many weeks where this is literally all I’ve done for the business.

I try to keep creative work — such as writing, coding, or thinking up new tacts for marketing — to a bit of a routine, too, with flexibility to account for days where I’m not mentally capable of pushing forward.  For example, generally I do planning for the week at dinner on Monday and have four hour block to the business on Saturday.  If on Saturday it turns out that I can’t make forward progress on the business, I clock out and go enjoy life.

Routines aren’t limited to the business, either.  They help me incorporate my other priorities — family, friends, church, gym, hobbies — into a schedule that would otherwise descend into total anarchy.  (If you want to see what happens to the things that I don’t prioritize when the day job starts knocking, well, suffice it to say that I was cleaning today and removed 13 pizza boxes from my kitchen table.  I hope to put both cleaning and cooking back in the rotation after separating from the day job.)

Seek The Advice Of Folks You Trust.  Disregard Some Of It.

One of the major things which pushed me to (a small measure) of success these last four years has been advice from the communities at the Business of Software boards and Hacker News and the writings of folks like Joel Spolsky, Paul Graham, and the 37Signals team.  Much of the advice I received has been invaluable.  I disagree quite strongly with some of it.  When reading advice from me or anyone else, keep in mind that it is a product of particular circumstances and may not be appropriate for your business.  And always, always, always trust the data over me if the data says I’m wrong.  (That’s the easy part.  The hard part is trusting the data when it is overruling you.)

I’m thinking of making this first in a series.  If you have topics you’d like me to cover in more detail, please, let me know in the comments.

63 Responses to “Running A Software Business On 5 Hours A Week”

  1. Rohit Menon March 20, 2010 at 11:10 am #

    Hey Patrick,

    This is an awesome article. I really liked it, more so because I could relate to it. Me and my friend, have been working on a startup, where I am fighting hard to work on it with my day job.

    You have really mentioned some good stuff.

    Thanks !

  2. Mike Kramlich March 20, 2010 at 11:30 am #

    great post, thank you! Useful info and helps me stay inspired.

  3. Dave March 20, 2010 at 12:09 pm #

    These are GREAT tidbits. I’d be interested in seeing more about your documentation as it relates to current development. I’m currently working on a site (www.thathigh.com) where I need to push bugfixes IMMEDIATELY that are fairly hackish. Then “TODO: refactor this” gets pushed into the code and onto our ticketing system.

    There never seems to be time to go and refactor that hackish part. I’m running it myself, so I need to do marketing, research, SEO, graphic design, etc. There aren’t enough hours in the day.

    Is this just the startup atmosphere? Do you have any tips / will you be writing about this in the future?

    Good luck with your business, it’s great to see someone becoming independent from “the man”. it’s my goal!

    Dave
    Founder, ThatHigh.com

  4. Tim March 20, 2010 at 12:33 pm #

    Hi Patrick,

    So much information here. Thanks for it all. You’re posts inspire me as I seem to have plenty of ideas similar to your Bingo Card Creator. But I only really know HTML and mid-level CSS, so I wonder how feasible it would be for someone like me to get something like this going. You mention rentacoder and such but I’m sure building the core of it yourself and being able to maintain it mainly by yourself would be invaluable. Basically I’m wondering what other technologies I would need to know in order to get my idea up and running. I’d really like to do the coding myself and I have the time to learn. I guess what I’m asking for is some kind of roadmap with skills I’d need to follow it (though that seems like a lot to ask for!). Anything would be much appreciated.

    Tim

  5. Rafael Imas March 20, 2010 at 12:34 pm #

    Thanks for the post, it was really helpful.

  6. Logan Frederick March 20, 2010 at 1:16 pm #

    Thanks for the educational post. Do you have any knowledge, experience, or thoughts on the challenges of running a startup/building a product in an already competitive market?

  7. Keray March 20, 2010 at 2:00 pm #

    This is inspiring and encouraging. How would you manage a
    busy schedule like yours with the needs/wishes of your family (spouse, kids, etc). Personally, I find it difficult to have a full time job, part time business, and a have a family. Any advice?

  8. Alex Cican March 20, 2010 at 3:10 pm #

    Great post Patrick!
    really honest conclusions and thoughts without bullshitting around the subject. I’d like the idea of a series, but one suggestion; if you could make the posts slightly smaller. Possibly divide them into two posts. 5000 words to digest in one chunk is too much!

    I’d like to know more about the development story of your company. From the early days, when you would spend 2-3 hours, to its release and after as well!

    I’m currently finishing my Software Engineering degree and I’m thinking of working for my own, but I’m more in the web stuff rather than software stuff… I’ve been doing freelance work for 2 years, and I’m thinking of quitting, ’cause the obstacles encountered are too many, so I’m searching for some inspiration to keep me going!

    Anyway, this was a longer comment than expected!

    Regards,
    Alex

  9. joseph turian March 20, 2010 at 4:05 pm #

    Great post. Can you follow up with an in the trenches piece about SEO? You seem to have specific concrete and actionable advice.

  10. Tom Leys March 20, 2010 at 4:57 pm #

    Thanks so much for taking the time to write up your ideas.

    Life is pretty full on for me with Gridspy, for the same reasons. Unfortunately I’ve picked a business with a great deal of technical development required before we get a return. At least it has been a great deal of fun.

    I think the beauty of your “random generator hooked to hello world” really is in the marketing, website and the attention to detail with the customers. You might not have a fancy algorithm but you have a solid idea on how you add value above and beyond the basic card generation.

    I’m looking forward to hearing more about your transition into full-time startup mode. Do you plan to move elsewhere once you have total freedom to live anywhere?

  11. Giles Bowkett March 20, 2010 at 5:13 pm #

    OK, look, I have to ask. You’re obviously intelligent and resourceful. Why in the hell would you choose to be a salaryman? Up until discovering you, my entire model of such obvious fail was that it only happened to people who never realized other options exist. But you completely break that model. You must be aware that other options exist. You weren’t born into the society and you aren’t blind to its cultural assumptions; you come from the outside. Please accept my apologies, because I just realized that I’m asking you if you’re insane or masochistic, and I really don’t think a third answer exists, but I have to ask: What in the hell were you thinking? And do you still think it today?

    Great blog post, of course, it’s just overshadowed by what to me is this completely incomprehensible paradox: an intelligent, capable person who chose becoming a salaryman without any peer pressure or ignorance of alternatives.

  12. Anthony March 20, 2010 at 5:18 pm #

    Great post, very useful. I would like to see a follow-up on SEO.

  13. Alex Cornwell March 20, 2010 at 5:49 pm #

    How many hours as a salaryman do you spend drinking with your coworkers in Japan?

  14. Patrick March 20, 2010 at 6:28 pm #

    Giles: I really wanted to learn Japanese and didn’t want to become an English teacher or go to grad school. They put a roof over my head, food on my table, clothes on my back, and a letter in my hand for immigration.

    Alex: I never drink. Most of my engineering coworkers go straight home to their wives and kids after work. The salesmen are a bit more of the stereotypical salarymen on that score.

  15. Jason March 20, 2010 at 7:28 pm #

    So is the bingo enterprise a full time job now?

    Is it your only income focus?

    How many hours do you put in currently?

  16. Ned Dwyer March 20, 2010 at 7:44 pm #

    Thank you!

    I’ve been going through a bit of a rough patch on my current startup project and you’ve sparked a couple of ideas for what I should be working on next.

    Ned

  17. Dennis Gorelik March 20, 2010 at 7:54 pm #

    Patrick,
    Why Japan?
    Are you serious about immigration there?

  18. Phil March 20, 2010 at 11:24 pm #

    Brilliant! Bookmarking just to re-read every day as a reminder :)

  19. Jorge Vargas March 20, 2010 at 11:42 pm #

    I have to say I’m extremely happy for you even thought you don’t know me and probably never will. I have been following your business on and off for some time and even though I have zero interest in Bingo, I’m very interested in your way of doing things. It’s great that your side business is big enough now that you can be full time into it. I’m sure it will grow even more from now.

    As for the post this is just great stuff, I’ll sure be showing this to my potential partners to see of we can finally get our software in shape :) Thank you for finding the time to write about this.

  20. Andre March 21, 2010 at 12:45 am #

    Patrick,

    Really great post! Read it twice.
    Being in a somewhat similar situation as you, I think that time management is the most difficult issue I face with my business and personal live.

    Thanks!

  21. Patrick March 21, 2010 at 12:56 am #

    >> So is the bingo enterprise a full time job now?

    It will be as of April 1st.

    >> Is it your only income focus?

    I also plan on creating more products and doing a bit of consulting.

    >> How many hours do you put in currently?

    This month? Hmm, on the order of 12 hours this month? I have been getting killed by the day job, as noted previously. I don’t know how much I’ll be working per week after April, but I think 20 is a nice number to try on for size.

  22. Neil Edwards March 21, 2010 at 1:08 am #

    Patrick,
    Another great article, thanks. I’m doing the ‘working on it during my free time’ thing and the ideas of writing software to make things easier in the long run are great.

    Great blog, thanks for sharing all this.

    Have a quick check of your easter bingo site by the way, the link to Adobe Acrobat doesn’t work and neither does the ‘home’ link from the ‘about’ page.

  23. Ali March 21, 2010 at 4:47 am #

    Hi Patrick

    Great post! I’ve enjoyed reading about your startup for some time. On one hand I’m green with envy and on the other I’m trying to learn as much as possible from your informative, well written posts.

    I lived in Japan for two years and became a pretty good speaker, but couldn’t read/write at all. I’m currently studying up in the UK (using RTK) and would like to move back and essentially, do what you’re doing (i.e. work at a Japanese company while working on my own projects). Do you have any advice for learning Japanese specific to whats required for a programming job?

    Thanks,

    Ali

  24. Bobby Jones March 21, 2010 at 5:42 am #

    Really great article. Would it be suitable to talk about the amount of money that you generate from the site?

  25. shamc March 21, 2010 at 6:05 am #

    good one!!:-)

  26. Stephen Veit March 21, 2010 at 6:12 am #

    Patrick,

    This is awesome advice. I am going to create a startup in my “spare” time. I am going to create a web application that satisfies some niches need. I will follow your advice on finding what problem to work on. I also like your idea of using freelancers. I guess I need to learn how to break off pieces of work that can be done as tasks by freelancers. I will bookmark this post and use it as a blueprint for my startup. Thanks for sharing your expertise in such detail.

  27. Dan March 21, 2010 at 6:24 am #

    Just two words: thank you :)

  28. Jack March 21, 2010 at 7:23 am #

    I find it odd that your article has no sharing links in or around it.
    No Twitter/Facebook/Digg links so I can share it with my peeps??
    Neither in your article, nor on MicroISV !!

  29. Patrick March 21, 2010 at 7:34 am #

    Bobby: I’ve published most business statistics for the last four years. See http://www.bingocardcreator.com/stats

  30. Bobby Jones March 21, 2010 at 10:43 am #

    @patrick, thank you for sharing this information, it is difficult for most people to be so open, but when someone does, its is invaluable to so many people in this community.

  31. David B. March 21, 2010 at 12:50 pm #

    Thanks for the wonderful post. I’m a freelancer that has dabbled in creating software, and this post have given me a lot of ideas and inspiration. Bookmarked :)

  32. Jason March 21, 2010 at 2:36 pm #

    Are the advertising expenses around AdWords?

    Or are you targeting teachers in a more specific way?

  33. Doug Sjoquist March 21, 2010 at 4:24 pm #

    Thank you Patrick for the insights.

    I am working on my first product to sell, hopefully within the next few months. I am a self-employed consultant, but most of what you say applies to me — I have enough income for my needs, but it does not seem like there is enough time to work on my product based business. I will be bookmarking this blog post and revisiting it more than once.

    Doug

  34. Agustin Schapira March 21, 2010 at 6:43 pm #

    Excellent post. Thanks for sharing your valuable experiences –I have a lot to learn from what you’ve written here.

    I was pleasantly surprised by the importance you assign to documenting everything. For that, I strongly recommend using two wonderful tools by Atlassian (http://www.atlassian.com/): JIRA –for keeping track of every task you work on and all the information about it–, and Confluence –for a higher-level repository of all the knowledge you create and acquire throughout the years.

    Their extremely generous starter kit is enough for most micro-ISVs: $10 for fully-features, unlimited licenses –you really can’t beat that.

    BTW, I am in no way associated with Atlassian: I just find the products to be extremely useful, and want to share that with others.

  35. Sachin March 21, 2010 at 9:50 pm #

    THANK YOU for this MILLION DOLLAR advice…I will keep these things in mind……

  36. John March 22, 2010 at 7:30 am #

    I absolutely love this article.

  37. Elizabeth March 22, 2010 at 9:41 am #

    I read a lot of blogs about entrepreneurship + consumer internet over the years, and, this has got to be one of the most insightful and best posts I’ve ever read. Thanks, Patrick

  38. Damien March 22, 2010 at 4:11 pm #

    Thanks Patrick – great article!

    I am part of a team on the verge of getting an idea out to market and it is great to hear about the success stories for a change.

    The advice you have provided is definitely worth its weight in gold!

    Damo

  39. Brian March 22, 2010 at 11:32 pm #

    Great post, very inspiring to those of with an entrepreneurial spirit.

    What I’d love to hear more about from you is getting over that initial hump; traction; etc. I’ve produced a number of projects over the years, but can never seem to get over that initial hump of getting anyone to care bout them. How do you move the needle off zero?

  40. Tom March 23, 2010 at 8:05 am #

    Digital Media Minute post of the day. There are so many lessons in your story! “Benefits not features” is a profound distinction… Nice job.

  41. Goutham March 23, 2010 at 11:15 am #

    Thanks a ton for sharing your personal experiences in the informative article. I was able to pick up a whole load of advice which I’m sure will be useful for me in the long run.

    Thanks,
    Goutham

  42. Alex Genadinik March 23, 2010 at 12:59 pm #

    Truly great article. Really enjoyed reading it. Agree with just about everything after building a business myself. Keep up the good work and good luck with your business!

  43. Kapil March 24, 2010 at 12:33 am #

    Thanks Patrick for sharing your experience and tips.

    I am running my own business for last couple of years and I agree with the points you mentioned in the article.

    Keep up the good work and All the best :-)

    Cheers,
    Kapil

  44. nik March 24, 2010 at 9:49 pm #

    Awesome article.. you make running a start up sound like a science more than an art..

  45. ew March 25, 2010 at 6:38 am #

    nice article – keep this going and you will surely end up with the nice side effect of a book you can publish just like Spolsky et al

  46. Matt April 3, 2010 at 3:16 am #

    Thanks for this – really appreciate it and keep it up!

  47. Vladimir Tsukur April 3, 2010 at 9:42 am #

    Thank you for the article! Our team is running the startup and found some ideas really useful.

  48. DT April 11, 2010 at 8:26 am #

    Nice article, it is applicable to our industry too!

  49. Steve Finikiotis April 11, 2010 at 10:18 am #

    Well said. These principles are applicable to any industry or business, software development or otherwise. I’m sharing them with my team. All the best to you…

  50. Jordan Feldstein April 11, 2010 at 10:19 am #

    This was a wonderful article, thanks!

    It feels like you have a lot of influence from the 37signals model, and I really like the application of time as an asset / debt. I’ll be back.

  51. Krib April 11, 2010 at 3:04 pm #

    Hi Patrick,

    Thank you so much for posting this. I am planning to launch a web application myself, and your words are really inspiring.

    I have a request for your next post. I am wondering if you have tips on how to market a web app in the very beginning. I mean, when the app is ready and you are about to launch, what are the good ways to reach out for customers when nobody knows that you exist? Of course, it depends a lot on what kind of application is being launched, but I am sure that there are common principles and ideas in there.

    Anyway, I’ll be waiting for your next post!

  52. Eric April 11, 2010 at 4:30 pm #

    Thank you so much for sharing this! So many great insights. I hope you can share more of what you have learned in the future, I will be listening.

  53. Mike McFarlane April 17, 2010 at 4:10 am #

    Hi, I love real world advice, always lots to learn and there is a lot to learn here, even for someone in an unrelated industry, in my case, photography. I added a link from one of my how to start a business articles as I think a lot of your knowledge and advice is just as relevant to other startups. You obviously deserve all your success.
    Mike

  54. Ray Bennett June 9, 2010 at 6:02 pm #

    Your insights are not common. With the extra time you accrue after leaving the day job, it might be worthwhile to contact the O’Reilly folks (just email Tim directly) and suggest you write a book for them.

    Great article. Thanks for sharing your extraordinary wisdom.

  55. john brughman August 28, 2010 at 9:55 am #

    Code Is About 10% Of Your Business. Maybe Less. can’t be more agree with that.
    sales and promotion is the key of business

  56. Bala Ganesh August 28, 2010 at 6:40 pm #

    Hello Patrick,

    Thanks alot for your post. It was educational and inspiring.

    I am a civil engineer who has been in the consulting business for a couple of years now. I have a pretty good idea about the sort of problems I would like to see being solved in my line of work. However I am not a programmer but recently started teaching myself programmming. I have a very steep learning curve and I guess it will take me a year or two minimum before i can develop a proper windows based application that I can market.

    I set up my business as a sole proprietorship about a week ago, with the objective of developing software to meet the specific needs of my industry. Now all I have to do is to develop a product line!!! Staying motivated will be the biggest hurdle. Need to develop a strong vision that I can do it then never lose sight of the end goal even for a minute. Developing a business while holding a full time job is not easy but it can be done, you are proof of it.

    Thank you.

  57. pandora bracelet September 28, 2010 at 6:28 pm #

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  58. Smart Company Software February 5, 2011 at 3:43 am #

    As always, great post Patrick. It resonates with me quite well.

  59. Tom Gallard July 15, 2011 at 3:13 am #

    I agree- it is important to relentlessly try and drive efficiency in your interactions with customers. I consider it a failure on my part each time someone has to email me because something’s not clear. The more time you can free up from the day-to-day operation of the business, the more you can focus on doing the fun stuff like building the next version

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  61. Change driving test December 27, 2011 at 3:25 pm #

    Great article, it has opened my eyes to so very much. I can only hope I use the methods and ideas you have out lined in it, to great effect. Keep me posted.

    Cheers
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    [...] Some four years ago, I started Bingo Card Creator, a business which sells software to teachers.  At the time, my big goal for the future was eventually making perhaps $200 a month, so that I could buy more video games without feeling guilty about it.  The business has been successful beyond my wildest expectations and [...] Original post [...]

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