Joel Gascoigne

Startups, life, learning and happiness

I'm Founder & CEO of Buffer. This is where I share lessons I'm learning.

Ways to bootstrap a startup: on the side

Written on 23rd January, 2011
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A short while ago I wrote about one of the ways I think people could bootstrap a startup from zero funds. I called it "working in waves". Of course, there are more ways than one to get a startup off the ground with no funds. Today I want to share with you my thoughts on building a startup “on the side” and I’d love to hear what you think or any experiences you’ve had.

On the side?

One of the issues with working on a startup is that you are very often moving from a world where you are rewarded immediately for your work to a world where the reward is delayed. The problem, therefore, is having funds in order to get by while you build something up.

One way to have enough funds to get by while you build up your startup is to build your startup “on the side”, in other words whilst you are doing other work. I am currently experiencing this first hand and I have realised that doing things in this way also brings about some other benefits, and of course there are a few challenges if you try doing things this way too.

Great reasons to build your startup “on the side”

Constraints make you focus

When you’re doing 40 hours a week of paid work, you really have to make sure that the few hours you spend moving your startup forward that week count. In my experience this is a very good thing. Now that I am working “on the side” I am much more effective per hour than when I had stretches of multiple full days to work on my startup whilst using the “working in waves” method.

Forced patience

Patience is not often a word which is used to describe what is needed in a startup. However, I have come to the realisation that at the early stages of a startup you need to be obsessively working on getting customer feedback. What has worked for me is adjusting something, and then reaching out for more feedback and then analysing the current situation. Working full-time means that without realising it you are forced to wait long enough to get some feedback before you pivot your idea again too soon.

Questioning what’s necessary for version 1

When you have a long runway of full days and weeks to build your startup, it’s easy to think “we need to launch with that” or “it won’t work without this”. When you’re working on your startup full-time, this might add a few weeks onto how quickly you can get your MVP out. Do the same when you’re working “on the side” and it’ll take you months longer. Working “on the side” really forces you to question what needs to be included in that first version.

Challenges when building your startup “on the side”

Potential burnout

In my experience, your todo list for your startup never ends and even when you think up an idea that you think is so small that it can be done in a week, it takes 7 and after you get it out there you have a flood of other thoughts for what to add to it. It’s easy to work long hours and sleep can really suffer. It’s a constant battle.

Am I going too slow?

When you’re working on paid work you’re often thinking about your startup, and you’re often thinking that you need to be working non-stop. Most of the advice out there says we should be. On top of that, let yourself succumb to the myth that you can be killed by your competition and you’re in for a tough ride. In the early days of my latest venture I got around this by making sure I did at least one thing to move my startup forward a little, no matter how small.

What do you think?

I am now happier working on my startup “on the side” than I was when “working in waves”. I certainly don’t doubt the advantages of an accelerator program such as YCombinator but when you’ve made your decision to bootstrap without funding and you don’t yet have a business making you money in a scalable way, I think the best way is to attempt to build up something to ramen profitability as your first venture. That’s what I’m doing, and then maybe after that I will go for the home run.

Do you have an experience of building something on the side, or are you considering doing it? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Photo credit: Chris Rimmer

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