Dave Stevenson is the man. He is an accomplished entrepreneur with over 13 years in the technology industry. Dave currently runs Stevenson Software, a mobile application publisher. Prior to Stevenson Software, Dave had started and sold three successful internet based businesses. In addition to his entrepreneurial experience, Dave has held leadership positions in various real estate and banking software companies and serves on the board of 8 Pillars, a financial education company. Dave is also active in social media, having been named one of the “50 Tweeters Every Utahn Should Follow” on Twitter.
Today Dave tells us about how to be persistent and become an independent, bootstrapped software developer. A lot of you would no doubt like to do that, no? Then read on…
“Livin’ the Dream”
Two years ago I quit my job and entered the realm of what (pick your favorite) people call the indie developer, bootstrapped entrepreneur, solopreneur, or simply, “livin’ the dream.” A lot of Ramen, fun times, and mistakes later, I’ve learned a few things along the way. If you’ll indulge me for a few minutes, I’d like to share some tips that will help if you have ambitions to “stick it to the man” and go at it alone. Some will be helpful to those already in the trenches, and some will help those that haven’t taken the plunge yet.
Let me be up front before we go much farther. I don’t have grand ambitions to be the next Mark Zuckerburg or build a billion dollar company. I simply want to live a good life, provide for my family, and have the ability to stop and smell the roses along the way. My experiences and tips are for anyone that has the desire to do their own thing and bootstrap a software business with their own time and money. If you’re looking to create the next Instagram by raising a bunch of venture capital, build a consulting agency, or be a contractor trading their time for money, these tips aren’t for you.
Every day you have hundreds of new ideas for businesses you could start. You’ll meet people with good ideas. Your GoDaddy.com account will be littered with good business domains and projects. But stop. You need to focus on one idea and that’s it. The problem will get even worse after you are on your own. You’ll think, “Hey, I don’t have a boss telling me what I can do, so if I want to work on a new project, I can.” Yes, yes you can. But trust me, working on multiple projects is hard, and all of them will suffer because of your lack of focus.
Pick a Niche or Vertical
As a bootstrapper with limited resources, it’s easier to make a product for a specific niche or market vertical (think software for landscape professionals or software for used car sales). It’s easier to identify your customers and reach them. You’ll find your marketing resources will go farther the narrower your target market is. For example, my product is a mobile app for landscape professionals. I know exactly who my customer is and how to reach them. I know what trade and certification organizations they belong to, what conferences they attend, where they hang out on the internet, and who the influential people are. Don’t get my wrong, big, world-changing ideas are great. But the reality is that they are hard. As a small bootstrapper your chances for success for being a world changer are improbable.
Keep it Simple
I asked Paul Mayne, a fellow bootstrapper and creator of Day One, the #1 journaling app for iPhone and iPad, what his top advice for aspiring software entrepreneurs would be. Without hesitation he said, “start simple.” I couldn’t agree more. When working on a new product, continually ask yourself, “whats the one feature this needs?” Strip it down to the bare essentials. Chances are the feature that your Mom thought would be nice to have isn’t necessary for launch. It’s easy to add features after you launch because your customers will let you know what’s missing.
You don’t have the money to advertise. You don’t have the money to hire a great PR person. What you do have is your time and skills. Hustle to guest post, speak at events, and hack trade shows. Be active in community forums, write good content and ask people to distribute it. Hang out on the LinkedIn groups for your niche and pester people for help with your ideas. Be passionate about your work.
Don’t Give Up – It Takes Time
You’ll progress slower than you think. Don’t give up. Odds are that your first product launch will most likely be embarrassing (“what, only 3 people downloaded my app yesterday!?”). Treat everything as a learning experience and make improvements. However, don’t let learning get in the way of launching. You’ll learn more by launching than you will by attending a conference or reading a book. So, don’t be afraid to launch – earning that first dollar will do wonders for your motivation to keep going. Your friends will mock you when you’re excited that you made $10 yesterday. Just keep going. The first version of my iPhone app, Landscaper’s Companion, had just 500 plants and looked like a 5 year old made it. I even charged $9.99 for it. An early reviewer told me that “God would shame me for selling such crap.” Looking back it is pretty embarrassing. But 2 1/2 years later and countless improvements implemented, Landscaper’s Companion is the #1 landscaping app on iPhone and iPad.
Get To It!
Notice I don’t say anything about learning the next great mobile app framework or NoSQL database do-hicky. Learning those are great. But they’re not going to launch the product for you. What will make you launch is using your time and persistence. We all have busy lives, and you will be tempted to take the night off and “make it up tomorrow”. Unfortunately, tomorrow will be just as busy as today. If you haven’t launched yet, try this: spend 15 minutes every day, no matter what, to move your product forward. It can be as simple as tweaking some copy on your website or answering a support email. Reading Techcrunch does not count. Once you do launch, don’t get discouraged. Every great journey starts with one step, and launching counts as a giant leap.