What I learned working on a solo startup

A year and a half ago I attempted to start a company and I failed. The product never got built. I made several mistakes, and over time recognized them as the reasons for not getting to a launch, the first thing you need for a successful product.

After a year and a half of working in the software industry, which provided technical learning and cash, I'm giving it another shot. This time, with some different thinking.

1. Redefine success

Defining the success of an idea in terms of # of users/amount of profits is a valid and critical part of the startup's longterm success. However, there is a success to be achieved before you even get the first real user. That is, just launching a working (but not perfect) product in a short period of time (I'm giving myself 4 weeks to build & launch).

You build the rocket. Whether or not it takes off, you can still look at the fact that you built it as an achievement. It's something that you've learned from and shows off your skills. Maybe the idea isn't viable after all, but the things that are learned building it are valuable for the next idea. Looking at things this way, there is a guaranteed success for the creator, whether or not the idea itself succeeds. The only failure is not launching at all.

2. Clarify the idea

The first time, I had a vague idea of what I wanted to build. I thought I would figure it out when I started working on the project. However, this takes focused effort and time before you dive in to building the product. In the simplest terms, come up with the elevator pitch before you dive in.

"If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough" - Albert Einstein

Make sure you understand your idea, explore it, sketch it, know your audience, and do your homework. Not everything has to be planned out 100%, but the purpose and outline of the project should be clear before diving in.

3. Work from coffee shops in an energetic city

Last time, I was living at home with my parents. I tried to work from home, to save money and have a good desk setup. This ultimately proved to be highly unproductive. At home, I get distracted, lonely, lazy, and these feelings just compound themselves upon each other. During this time I made various attempts to work from coworking spaces, and briefly, coffee shops with sporadic success.

Now, I've moved into a city with the right balance of energy and affordability for me (Somerville, MA). There, I found that I am most productive when working from coffee shops during the day. I enjoy the diversity of going to different cafés around town, and working for 3-4 hours at a time from a spot. I take breaks for lunch or when I need to stretch, shift to a different spot in the café, or even just bike over to another coffee shop halfway through the day. I have 2 or 3 favorite cafés that I pick from in the beginning of the day.

This works for me, and I only found this through experimentation and accidental discovery. I even wanted to work from a coworking space again, because everything I've read online says that they are the most productive. It works for plenty of people. However, I eventually had to listen to myself and recognize what had or had not worked instead of trying to cling to an idea of a perfect workplace.

4. Sleep, eat well, exercise

Somehow, you read the stories about Bill Gates spending 100+ hours, or countless others working insane hours, and think that you need to do as they did to succeed. Perhaps you do, but health needs to come first. I eventually burnt out when I neglected that.

The goal is to have more focused and productive hours. I've noticed I'm more awake if I get good sleep, and I get good sleep when I exercise and eat relatively healthily. Now, I'm following a bodyweight fitness routine at home, which not only saves me time and money from going to the gym, but also makes it easier to stick to the plan. When your room is your gym, you have no excuse.

5. Launch in a month

I've been greatly inspired by Pieter Levels (levels.io)'s determination to launch 12 startups in 12 months. He makes a point of giving himself only a month to launch, to set a deadline and push himself to complete a working--if imperfect--product.

Since iteration is the real opportunity to move the product towards perfection, the launch itself should be done with haste, so that you can start getting feedback and building the correct product for your audience.

6. Don't get stuck; Procrastinate smartly

It's been 2 weeks since I've been working full time on my idea, and I often find myself frustrated or stuck after working on a problem for a couple days. Even if I have a particular problem well defined, I start experiencing a fog of war feeling from other parts of the overall project.

Working on stuff solo, I've come to recognize this as a natural outcome of not having someone handing you designs, requirements, etc every day. I always need to have a clear overall direction, only then I feel comfortable spending time working on the implementation of something specific.

Every few days I shift roles from programmer to designer to "clear the fog", and feel more confident in my implementation strategy. I always want to make sure I'm not wasting time working on something which is not necessary for launch.

7. Write

I'm writing this blog post not only to share what I've learnt, but also to make my thoughts and strategy clearer to myself. I used to think of note-taking or journaling as an attempt for permanence, a way to look back and reminisce, a way to have a record. For me, note-taking has become an invaluable tool to clarify and organize thoughts in the moment, regardless of any future value. It is simply a medium with which to calm my mind and achieve focus.

8. Have fun with it :)

Creating your own idea is one of the most fun and rewarding things, and you don't have to go all crazy-eyed in the process! Listen to music, read books, have dinner with friends, bike, and do whatever else to keep in a good mood and diversified in life. It'll make each day enjoyable and easier to put in the hours of work. Don't forget that.

Shridhar Gupta

I make web apps.

Brooklyn, New York