Tales of Technical Cofounder
Jul 15, 2015
Many of us dream of building something big. Something we would deeply care about. Something that would help us prove our craft to ourselves and others. Something that would reach 1000-stars mark on Github or at least end with a huge IPO.
Here’s my take.
I’ve done my fair share of starting and running a company. I remember the enthusiasm of the very early stages and the burnout after many sleepless nights of tireless bootstrapping. I know how important it is to have a great team and how hard it is to build one with very little money available. I learned so much about luck and hard work. After all this, I appreciate my wife more than ever — we went from a couple with full-time jobs to a family of four, all this while I was entertaining the role of a cofounder and working to pay my bills.
I wasn’t alone so I missed many areas of running the business. I did not meet clients. I missed investor presentations. I was the less exposed technical cofounder. The guy who is never in the spotlight because the database just went down, laptop had to be pulled from the bag, and a fix had to be made. Sometimes in the middle of a party.
It was great, but, on the other hand, I am really glad that it is over.
How did this all happen?
My former boss and colleague was asking around if there’s anyone interested in doing a quick weekend project. I enjoyed working with him, so one thing led to another, and here we are, working days and nights, shipping a very compelling MVP in less than 10 days.
That’s how Durszlak was created. That happened in 2010.
Networking is important
Remember that your personal and professional networks are some of your biggest assets. People need other people to make things happen and it is much better to be in the middle of things. One day, you may find yourself looking for a cofounder and it’s better to start with people you know and you can rely on than with strangers. Even if you’re out of luck with your network then there’s always a great chance that you will get other people recommended.
Trust me, I know how hard it is. I am an introvert, and I’d rather spent my time with my family than talk to strangers. Just do it, even if it’s against your nature, it’s time well spent.
Do what you know best!
This is probably the most important lesson for me. Doing what you know best is not as exciting as trying new things, but you want your business to get off the ground as quickly as possible, not applying for Extreme Olympics.
We, developers, really enjoy tinkering with new technologies. Programming languages, frameworks, databases, editors and even browsers. You usually hear from your colleagues — I have this new idea for [X] and I’m going to try [Y] which looks so great! This is a good approach if you plan on having just a pet project. but this might not be the perfect solution if you’re looking to start a business. You want to deliver value not technology, so make sure that you keep your technology stack boring and simple. Being the sole technical person on a project makes your responsible not only for the exciting development. but also you’ll be the first one to get a call that something is going wrong. Would you rather deal with a very popular database with great community (like PostgreSQL or MySQL) or something obscure that promises scaling to millions of users while you’re still struggling to have your first customer pay?
Write tests. It doesn’t really matter if you BDD, TDD, or add a bunch of tests a couple of weeks later. You would be surprised how important this turned out to be. Many times I would have shipped badly broken site if I wasn’t testing most important parts of the application. Users signing in, signing out, performing simple actions — basically anything that builds your value has to be tested. Once you start making money (be it cents, but still) every minute of downtime has its price. If you go down for 30 minutes in your best time of the year this really starts to mean something.
To bootstrap or not to bootstrap?
Having investors’ money to spend is everyone’s dream come true. Grab a new laptop, comfy chair, height-adjustable desk, fancy office. But do you really need this to run your business? Most likely not.
Bootstrap for as long as you can. Start your products, then try signing up some users. Already there? Perhaps a first paying customer comes next. Great, another one! All of a sudden, you’re making enough money to start hiring to grow your business even more. Only then grab this new shiny Macbook Pro and Aeron chair.
Of course, bootstrapping is hard. It will require a lot of sacrifices. Not every business can’t be bootstrapped, but it’s really worth it if it has a chance of working out for your case. If you’re looking to sell your business then you still have a full ownership which means a much better negotiating position. If you want to keep it — well, you are free to decide which way to go, how to invest the money, or maybe treat yourself to a little surprise. Or maybe just shut your company down, sell everything and go for a 2-year long vacation in Bahamas.
One thing I truly regret is not having a bigger team. We were a perfect match for product development. My cofounder has a great grasp of how people could use the site, I took care of technical side of things. We really should have someone business-focused since day one, bringing someone in two years into the business was too late. We have missed so many opportunities to increase profitability, we definitely could have made more money and show better financial data to our investors.
Too bad I don’t have a life
You would think that running your own business and having a day job means that your life will be only about work, work, and then some work?
This doesn’t have to be true.
In the three years of running Durszlak, my wife and I had 2 kids and we’ve traveled quite a lot (yes, you can see a lot with kids!). We moved to a new apartment.
You don’t need to switch your personal life off. You just need to focus, make the most of your time. And keep in my mind that you can always push that code tomorrow, but your kids will never be 2 years old again. You don’t want to miss that.
You don’t need to be 18 to create a business. You can start much later. In fact most likely you are more qualified to do that later in your life. You have already learned a lot. You have a better idea of what to do and what to avoid. You will be more focused, you will have less incentive to catch up with your friends on Facebook, waste time on Twitter or play Angry Birds. You will have something to come back to, whether it is your spouse, kids or your bridge club.
And you don’t necessarily need to be an entrepreneur to benefit from this. My day job has also been different since I have learned to manage my time efficiently. I am more focused, way much more productive and my skills have become better.
Durszlak was a small thing. It eventually grew to be the biggest Polish culinary website, but I think that we could have done better. I did get some exit money, after all we sold it, but this was not a life-altering amount. However, I could easily take a month off and travel so it was well worth it.
What should I do next?
New job? New business?
I was 32 when I was selling Durszlak and I already had a good idea about my strengths and weaknesses. I’ve worked as a consultant, but I definitely prefer working with a product. I would love to run my own business but on the other having a job and being taken care of is what gives me a great sense of comfort since I became a father.
I interviewed at just a bunch companies when I decided to join Castle. Great team, exciting product, a well-defined business model. Something I wanted to work on since I graduated university, some of my research actually was in behavioral analytics. I am super happy where I am, and I enjoy every minute.
Running a company was a great ride. I learned a lot, some technical stuff too, but most of that was about being a boss of one, working with freelancers, dealing with client requests, maintaining scalable and stable systems while having a life.
If you can, you should give it a try, but don’t worry if it doesn’t work for you.