As a developer, you are sitting on a goldmine. Do you even realize it? No, seriously, a @#$% goldmine!
Never in modern history has it been so easy to create something from scratch, with little or no capital and a marketing model that is limited only by your imagination.
Think about the biggest websites you visit or use on a regular basis: Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Foursquare, or even Google for that matter -- all of them were created by developers who created something from little more than an idea in their head. Was it easy for them? Heck no. But it could only have been done in today's day and age. So why in the world are you sitting there day after day working for someone else?
Yeah, I am too.
So if there are so many amazing opportunities out there, why aren't more developers out there working for themselves? I think there is a pretty common set of excuses that we tell ourselves. None of them are legit!
Myth #1: I don't have any time
This is a common excuse, but one that makes me laugh every time I hear it. Alright, so how much time do you spend watching TV or playing XBox, Wii, Playstation, etc? Maybe just an hour a day right? What about the time you spend playing around on Facebook or Twitter? (Probably just a few minutes here and there, right?) What do you do every day on your lunch break? There's an hour right there.
My point is: an hour here and an hour there adds up! You have time, its just a matter of what you choose to do with it. If you want to break out on your own, you need to come up with a good idea (one that truly solves a problem) and obsess over it. If you're passionate about your idea, you'll find time. You'll reach a point where it is actually painful to have to work on something other than your idea.
I'm a married 31 year-old guy with three young kids. I work a full-time job and come home to a wonderful wife who, at the end of her day, is at her wits end with the kids. I consider myself a pretty busy guy, yet I am able to consistently find around 20 hours a week (at least) to work on my idea.
As I write this, I am sitting on a comfy chair across the street from my day job in the cafe of a Border's Bookstore. I come here nearly every single day, which on its own adds up to 5 hours of pretty productive work per week. No kids running around, no real distractions, just me, my laptop, and my headphones.
In the evening, when the kids have gone to bed and the dishes are washed, I can generally get a good 3-4 hours of work in before going to bed and starting over the next day. I usually give myself a day or two off during the week to keep my sanity and unwind a bit, but with my 20 or so evening hours during the week plus my 5ish lunch hours, I can get some real work done.
Even if you can't afford to quit your day job to pursue your idea (like me), I think you can find time to work on your idea, if you're really passionate enough about it.
Myth #2: I can't come up with any ideas
If you're like me when I started, you constantly hear people say stuff like "Ideas are a dime a dozen" and "I'm always coming up with new ideas, but I just don't have the time to follow through". Yet you sit there trying to come up with the Next Big Thing (the next Facebook, the next Reddit, etc) and it seems like all the best ideas are taken. You can't come up with anything that you would consider a home run.
Ask any founder of a large website about how it is today versus how they imagined it would be, and I'd bet they'll laugh. The fact is, they hardly ever start out the way they planned. These sites become huge hits because the founders and owners were smart about adapting and creating features that their users love.
So quit trying to hit a home run and focus on simply getting on base!Create something useful. Something people need, and then iterate over and over and over. Start simple and go from there. If you obsess over the end result (a yacht in the Caribbean on a private island), all you'll ever be is a dreamer. Build something, put it out there, get feedback, and adapt.
Here's what I do when I'm trying to come up with a fun new idea to work on:
- Listen to the news (or any talk show for that matter). People love to complain. I see every complaint as a possible idea. My current project, for example, came from a story about the 100th anniversary of the Boy Scouts. I'm a former Boy Scout. I've been a Scout leader. I know their aches and pains, but I had forgotten about them. Listening to the radio and keeping an ear open for opportunities gave me the idea I'm working on now. Its a pretty small niche market, but there is a lot of opportunity there. I get a lot of bad ideas too, but that's ok! Coming up with new ideas is like exercising. The more you keep your ears open for new ideas, the easier it is to come up with new ones and quickly vet them. Find out what people hate, what pains them, and build something that they would be willing to pay for (either directly or through lead-generation, putting up with ads, etc).
- What do you love to do? What are you most passionate about? You had better be passionate about what you're thinking about working on, because it will get really tedious and tempting to move onto something else before too long. Make sure, before you begin, that you are ok with working on this new idea of yours 24/7, because you'll need to in order to get it off the ground. One of my passions is scuba diving. I would love nothing more than to live in a world where all I think about is scuba diving. I've got a few ideas for products in that realm that are simmering on the back burner for now.
- Keep a backlog. Google Docs is your friend. I have a document that I call "App Ideas". When I get a new idea, no matter how trivial or niche it originally feels, I immediately stop what I'm doing and write it down. I've heard of people keeping notepads by their bed for this same reason. I can't tell you how many "EUREKA!" moments I had in the car on my way home, only to have forgotten them by the time the kids were in bed. Its not that they were bad ideas, its that I got distracted. They eventually come back to me, but its frustrating in the meantime. Keeping ideas in a backlog helps you to organize them by legitimacy, add notes and thoughts, and remember them next time you go looking for an idea.
Never start working on a project the same day you came up with it. Let it simmer for a day or two, at least. Make sure that it is worth spending the next few years of your life obsessing over. Don't build it just to see if it people will like it. That will be a complete waste of time. Ask them first. Go read Yes, but who said they'd actually BUY the damn thing? and come back. Go ahead, I'll wait.
Myth #3: I don't have any money Who said anything about money? Unless you have come up with an idea that absolutely needs money to get going, which I think should be relatively rare in this Internet world of the Long Tail, you can get going for free. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Be creative about how you get what you need. Barter, trade, consult. Make it a point to spend as little as possible to get things done until you can actually justifyspending money you don't have on it. Better yet, don't spend money at all until you've got it coming in from actual customers.
For my current project, I splurged and set up a hosted account at DreamHost for my Django needs. I love it, but I consider it a luxury. I could have built it with Google App Engine for free, but heck, for $100 a year I think I can stomach that. I'm planning on using Chargify at a monthly cost of (you guessed it) free until I get enough customers to justify paying for an account.
You don't need money to get started. If you think you do, and especially if you're a first-time entrepreneur, you should probably think twice.
Myth #4: I don't know how to market/design/etc
This is not a good reason to avoid starting a startup, but I must admit that it is probably the biggest reason people do. As a developer, I am terrified of sales. I hate spending any amount of time on the phone. I don't enjoy thinking of new ways to attract more people to my site. I just enjoy building things. If you find yourself nodding your head, you have one of two choices:
- Find a co-founder that is good at what you're not. Focus on what you're good at. If you're a developer, spend all your time listening to your users and building a great product. Sales and marketing are a full-time gig all by themselves. It is extremely difficult to master both worlds. If you have two technical co-founders, you might be able to get by splitting the marketing and sales tasks, but I think you'll find that one of you is better than the other, and will end up spending more time doing it. Now, just because you're the "developer" doesn't mean that you shouldn't be involved in sales or marketing. Although you'll get the most bang for your buck by playing to your strengths, you should also know exactly what is involved in the sales, marketing, or PR side of things. That will prevent you from ever saying to yourself "Man, why can't John ever bring in any real customers? Why do I feel like I'm doing all the work?" When you realize how hard marketing and sales are, you'll appreciate it more. Get your hands dirty! Step up! Conversely, sales or marketing-savvy co-founders should spend some time at least reading through the code. Give them a chance to contribiute a little. At the very least, they might consult with you about a new feature before selling one that doesn't exist if they know how hard and time-consuming your job is as well. Take the magic/black-box aura out of the equation and get your hands dirty! Focus on what you're good at. If you're a developer, spend all your time listening to your users and building a great product. Sales and marketing are a full-time gig all by themselves. It is extremely difficult to master both worlds. If you have two technical co-founders, you might be able to get by splitting the marketing and sales tasks, but I think you'll find that one of you is better than the other, and will end up spending more time doing it.
- Step up and learn how to do it. This will mean that you will need to set aside your code for awhile and learn how to market effectively or essentially become a Sales/PR person. It takes time, so don't give up! The good news is that what works for one company or website will not necessarily work for another. "What", you say? "That sounds like bad news." Look at it this way: The worst you can do is fail. I say that tongue-in-cheek but its true. If you fail at a marketing campaign, so what? TRY again some other way. Add it to your list of failures and move on. Learn what you can from books, forums, websites, how-tos, etc, and then go out and EXPERIMENT. You don't have to have money to experiment either. Be creative and resourceful.You need to learn about what works for your company, not someone else's. Take what lessons you can learn from others and try something.
Myth #5: I need a steady income -- I can't quit my job!
This may be more of a reality than a myth, but it is no reason to continue with the status quo. Do you really want to work for someone else every day, on their terms, for the rest of your life? No? Well that's going to require some sacrifice. Of course, you know that, otherwise you wouldn't be reading this article!
If it is even slightly possible, the best thing you could ever do would be to quit your job and focus 100% of your time on your startup. Doing so forces you to focus on quality and making something people are willing to pay for. The need to pay bills and buy food is an incredible motivator.
If, like me, you have young mouths to feed and quitting just isn't an option, you can still find time -- it will just take longer. "See Myth #1: I don't have any time"
Great startups don't happen overnight. They take time. It can take years to really gain some traction. Don't give up!
Once you have a decent working prototype built, go back to the people who told you it would be a good idea (you did do that in the first place, didn't you?) and get feedback. I have found that this is a great source of encouragement. You'll probably get some haters, but consider that a good thing! If people are passionate about your project, then you may have hit a nerve. Take in their criticism and improve. The last thing you want is a bunch of people telling you something is a great idea, because they don't want to offend you. What you end up with in that situation is a mediocre product that nobody really cares about.
Once you start gaining some traction and real users, consider getting your project funded. Ask friends and family to invest or talk to an Angel Investor. If you can't convince them to fund you, that doesn't necessarily mean your idea sucks, it just means you need to refine it and get more users. If you can get and retain users, then you're obviously onto something. In this world of the Long Tail, you don't have to have a massively funded or mainstream project to make money!
Myth #6: I can't find a partner
One of the biggest reasons startups fail is because of bad partnerships. Infighting or co-founders who are not pulling their fair weight can kill your idea faster than anything else. It is extremely important that you pick a co-founder who is as passionate about your idea as you are.
Don't expect someone to be as passionate about your idea as you are right off the bat. You have had a lot more time to think and dream about it than they have. Criticism and playing "Devil's Advocate" should be welcomed when discussing an idea. Do you really think you speak for everyone? You should actually welcome dissent, as long as it is constructive critisism.
Where can you find a good co-founder? The best place to look is among people you already know. There is a much lower risk of a personality clash if you already know them and their working habits and passions. Because starting a startup is hard work with little payoff initially, you need someone who understands and appreciates this. Take part in communities like Hacker News or Founders Mix to find people that think the way you do.
If you have a community like Gangplank near you, go hang out. Learn from people there and don't be afraid to share your idea with everyone you come in contact with. Don't try to guess whay people want, ASK them! Its silly to walk around afraid to mention your idea to anyone because "they might steal my idea". Ideas are a dime a dozen. If you're afraid that they can execute your idea better than you, then you have bigger problems.
Now, get out there and build something people want!