I have not written for some time. For the last year, I’ve been freelancing online and fixing old Macs to bootstrap my shareware business. It takes all of my time. Here is a table of the startup process, as I’ve experienced it as a “technical cofounder”:
Stage Effort Timescale ---------------------------------------- Discovery 0% 1 day (hackers know what to do) Prototyping 5% 6 months to one year Customer acquisition 5% 6 months to 2 years Bootstrapping 90% years to decades - Day job 10% - Freelancing 10% - Odd jobs 10% - Beg, steal, borrow 10% - Trade health 10% - Pull all-nighters 10% - Put dreams on hold 10% - Live sub-standardly 10% - Postpone social life 10% Expansion 0% first world problem
For me, the elephant in the room is bootstrapping. It just totally dwarfs every other problem by at least an order of magnitude. I think the reason that 90% of businesses fail in the first year is that they are either unwilling or unable to do what it takes to support themselves while the business gains traction.
This problem is compounded by the fact that our western economic system has no system in place for micro-investing. Nobody today - no rich friend, no group of investors, no bank - is going to give you the $50,000 it takes to live for two years while you build your business.
Even if you manage to get the money like I did (by walking into a bank at the height of the credit bubble in 2005), lenders will want it back when your business fails, like mine almost did in 2007 when my lines of credit tightened before the housing bubble collapsed. This will be extremely high interest debt, so you may find yourself working at a job that makes you miserable for a few years afterwards. It’s like failing twice.
But say you make it through all of this and your business is earning you a few hundred dollars per month and you can make ends meet with a gig or two every few weeks. You can see trends in your business, like if you write another app or do some cross promotion, you can double your income briefly in the short term or raise it gradually in 3-6 months. But somehow you have to keep raising money month after month to afford basic necessities like rent/food/gas to sustain your meager burn rate. This takes all of your time, which prevents you from putting in the work required to grow. Which subsequently causes friction between you and your partner, your significant other, etc. What do you do?
I would love to be able to encourage everyone to quit their job and go on eLance to gain the freedom to do what they really want to do, but unfortunately I can’t. So far I’ve only averaged about minimum wage from the mainstream sites. I have high hopes for the startups coming online though:
This is still an open problem. It falls under the category of “nobody’s solved it because if they did, everyone would be using it!”
It won’t be solved until it’s solved FOR ME.
I’ll know it’s happened because I’ll have gone onto a website like kickstarter and gotten as much money as I needed for my business. I’ll have solved the simpler problems like gaining traction, because I’ll have had the social proof that what I’m doing is desired in the world. I’ll know it’s solved because unlike the last few years, I’ll be doing something besides bootstrapping.
It’s really a lot like dating. I remember when I could never meet girls because I was trying too hard and they saw right through it. I remember thinking that it was like being in the doldrums, surrounded by water but dying of thirst. I went through a period where I decided to hack my behavior. I read the pickup guide and tried dating sites and forced myself to talk to random girls in places like grocery stores. Eventually something clicked and I transitioned to not really worrying about it, and a few months later met my girlfriend.
Fixing dating sites is still an open problem, but I wonder if there’s been a cultural shift in how people interact. A person today has vastly more resources at his or her disposal than someone trying to date in the early 90s before the internet went mainstream. Singles have what they need to better themselves and shift the problem from acquiring a mate, to becoming more desirable and entering into equal partnerships, eventually forming stable relationships and families.
That got me thinking about what’s really going on here. Why is our culture so dead-set on stopping entrepreneurs? Why all the hurdles and closed doors? Why did we have to wait till 2012 to even entertain the idea of government-sanctioned micro-investing?
There are the old arguments about the man trying to keep us down, to provide cheap labor for a transnational corporate machine. Or perhaps not a large enough segment of the population wants to be entrepreneurs, so there is a natural bias against them.
But it goes deeper than that. I remember thinking how silly it was that the drinking age was 21 in college or that recreational drugs were illegal. After all, people were going to war and voting at 18. Surely the notion of a partial adult is illogical.
But think about it from a meta-level for a moment. Why make it so hard for young adults to recreate? What is the cultural goal here? It finally hit me that the struggle is by design. It’s important for young people to socialize with older people and get them to buy beer for them. Doors open in the process. The exciting world of adulthood has leaps of faith at its foundation. We’re training youth to form social networks where they can score drugs or get into parties and eventually meet future lovers or get jobs through friends. We’re training them to eventually be celebrities or executives or even politicians.
In the same way, bootstrapping is a rite of passage where entrepreneurs learn what customers want and how to go from begging for work to mutual exchange of value.
As a hacker living in my parents’ proverbial basement, I did everything I possibly could to avoid this process. I was basically standing against the wall in a high school dance, making excuses as to why the whole thing was ridiculous. I talked like I was the CEO of a major corporation and then went home and played nintendo. I was a loser.
Fixing bootstrapping is still an open problem, but there are shifts happening to make the process less painful. Consider an analogy. When I was in high school, I didn’t know any girls who had computers. Cell phones just weren’t around yet either. If I had seen the year 2012 at that point, with girls tweeting from their smartphones to their friends to come check out parties, I think it would have completely blown my mind. People growing up with the internet must have a hard time imagining the isolation that gen-xers felt growing up. They have new problems that I frankly don’t even have a frame of reference for. And that’s a really good thing.
Instead of finding the magic bullet for bootstrapping, I’ve decided to take a leap of faith. If you are a well-to-do entrepreneur or investor and would like to collaborate, message me on twitter or email me at zsm at inbox dot com. I’ve done a few freelance gigs for iOS but I’ve found the work to be entry level. I’d prefer to collaborate with clients to make game-changing apps and eventually improve the bootstrapping process for everyone. Raising funds is as hard for me as programming is for you. The opposite is also true. Perhaps we can help each other out.