My first experience with developing software was way back at school where I developed my own site from scratch. It was successful in its narrow area, and was an extremely positive experience for me. I got lots of users, lots of great feedback, it gave me a first experience of being hacked and even today people still remember it. But then I moved on.
When I went back to software development, while I was a lot more independent than most, I was in a larger organisation. Soon you’re dealing with all the pressures of a company, your team and your stakeholders. The challenge has moved from it’s a cool idea, let’s try to build it, to the Product Management challenges of finding practical solutions that take account of a wide variety of inputs and the engineering challenges of integrating your experience in a wider tech stack.
I’ve been aware that I’ve become less sharp at the hacky, just-get-it-shipped mentality. Working through some of these challenges with people that I advise with product market fit problems - either in startups or new products in growth companies - has been a great way to start breaking that stagnation. It has also reminded me how really challenging it is to launch successful new products.
Then I’ve also started looking into some of the work done by the great solo founders who aim to always be a team of one. Something that I’ve been exposed to more as I’ve travelled and worked as a nomad, but also just because I have been increasingly tracking people on twitter.
They do some extremely impressive work that really challenges the dogma you will hear elsewhere. They often launch a large number of products in different segments and run them simultaneously, seeing which ones take off.
While not everyone will take on the challenges that they do, there’s lots to learn from them in all our jobs.
Is 1 > n?
The exciting, burning question is: could I do better as a team of one, rather than with full team / company supporting me?
There’s lots of reasons why it might not be the case, not just hard logic, but also around human motivational. I’m not going to try to find a definite answer for now, but it’s a great area to explore.
Exploring around the edges of our domain is where we learn. I often look to larger companies to understand things like scaling tech and teams. But it’s also important to learn from the smaller and the more nimble. There’s a community of solo founders that represent the extreme of this. Within their environment, they have a different set of optimisations that run very counter to what you normally do in large companies.
Solo founders tend to come with a technical background. They do it for the love of the challenge, and their own set of desires and principals that go against a lot of startup or doctrine.
In an era of increasingly easy venture capital investment they shun external investment, bootstrapping to success. This puts some constraints. They will typically have small marketing budgets, and small budgets for hardware and services.
Unlike with venture capital funded startups, they look to reach profitability (before their salary) as soon as possible.
There is a strong overlap with the digital nomad community, in part probably as they both attract more adventurous people, but also because working from lower cost countries can greatly increase your runway.
There’s a variety of motivations behind doing it. Some will want to do it for the challenge. Some to move their work onto their own terms - they can choose the hours. Some because they want to move away from working in teams and a career ladder that pressures you to management roles.
A note on selection bias
My sample is more selective and biased than even an HBR article. The people I will see are more likely to be actively self-marketing / communicating on twitter. I will therefore be biased to observing the ones succeeding (even if only in a small way) and not the graveyard of people who have gone before.
The observations here are not meant to be sure fire lessons, but to make you question your approach.
Some solo founder techniques
Large number of small bets
The traditional dogma is to really focus down on a particular product. You don’t go to a VC and ask for money to launch 10 different companies with only 10 people, or even with 100 people.
However these solo founders are often launching several companies per year. Sometimes up to one a month. They’re fast ways to test the market and the idea is that if you don’t get meaningful traction early on, then you park that project, and maybe kill it.
That does constrain some of the complexity of the software, but also they execute with greater efficiency than you’ll often see in larger companies. They remove collaboration and decision making processes to enable them to just execute. They use known tech stacks and SaaS tools to put together a rich product early on.
Multiple projects running simultaneously
In most companies I’ve worked in you get complaints about context switching, or lack of focus. To some extent these solo founders are embracing it. The aim is not to have just one company that works, but several. This provides some robustness to changes in demand for any one project, as well as providing chances to find a higher growth opportunity.
These multiple businesses might be in different stages of getting traction, and growth can take time. To some extent they’re patient. Even small sales are considered a win. A lot of growth curves look exponential, and sales is done with minimal paid marketing and an amount of word of mouth plus promotion on social media, so reducing cost of customer acquisition.
Shipping over analysis
I’m not saying that they’re not doing some basic consideration of their market, but the philosophy is to not create detailed business cases, trying to estimate TAM, CAC and other acronyms. It’s to test a hypothesis that there is some demand quickly by building.
Lots of work marketing
Most of these people come from engineering background, and so would naturally be inclined towards the development over marketing, but in practice spend a lot of time promoting their products.
Many will find this challenging - especially the ones I struggle to observe. The best out execute teams of people at larger companies.
B2B SaaS for SMEs
Typically they’re not targeting enterprise customers, at least not initially. They’re often targeting a market of small companies, consultants and so on, or individual purchasers. This tends to mean that the purchasing decision is simple - someone just puts in their credit card. If it’s someone from a larger company, they’re probably not going through formal purchasing companies.
So you’re typically looking at $10-$50 per month subscriptions, although it will all vary a lot.
As a solo entrepreneur, you don’t want to do sales as it doesn’t scale, and takes up a lot of time.
Unafraid of mature markets
In some areas people are leveraging new technologies to build solutions that haven’t been possible before. Right this moment there’s many companies using the new AI tools (large language models like GPT3 or image generation tools like Stable Diffusion) to create products that don’t exist in the market yet. They’re often taking the hard work of the AI companies and then customising that to a specific use case.
However, often they’re not doing something amazingly disruptively different. Sometimes they’re even competing in very mature markets. Sometimes they’re servicing a niche
Simple tech stack
Speed of execution is key. Even if the engineer has experience doing complex projects, they will look for simple solutions to get things out quicker. This can include no code tools, or SaaS products that take out a lot of the complexity.
There’s less consideration about what might be “best” long term, or what might scale best, and more on just getting something shipped, and trying to keep monthly costs low. So using familiar tech stack over the the exciting new language or framework.
Levels.io, one of the most famous in the community, is also famous for having a very simple traditional tech stack of PHP and a single server (VPS e.g. from Linode) or with webserver and database on on the same box. He avoids unit tests. I can totally see why this makes sense.
Others are using Heroku like cloud tools that simplify their workflows.
With a lot of websites you can actually handle very high traffic levels easily and cheaply by using CDN caching and static sites, plus some external services (which do scale elastically). Then you maybe have a much smaller set of APIs and an underlying database that you need to worry about.
Remote first, global first
It’s rare to see products that are limited by geography. Typically they are SaaS products that could be used in almost any country.
Having said that, they probably launch them in English and don’t work on translations.
Build and leverage your audience
These hackers are active on twitter, blogging etc. They’ll use a variety of techniques.
Often building largely in the open, showing their sales figures and their ups and downs. Mentioning even small feature improvements. Discussing technical aspects, not just what the user wants.
This enables them to build a sympathetic audience of early adopters that will either purchase the product or recommend it onto other people. It also gives them a network to get feedback and ideas from (to some extent replacing a team in a company).
It could also be seen as a means of cross-selling. Sell one product, get someone onto your community, then sell them the next product for a very low cost of customer acquisition.
It’s not uncommon to see people with 10k-100k followers on twitter, and that’s just one of the platforms they’re operating on.
The down side of some of this approach is that it does increase the likelihood that someone will just copy your idea.
Charge for content
A lot of people are doing a mix of software and content. Content - blogs, courses, videos, books etc - are starting to monetise well. The aim is not to get a million people consuming the content making pennies per view, but to get say 1000 people spending $5 per month, which is nice, but extremely nice if you make it to 10,000 people at $10 per month.
Typically they’re about things like how to build an audience, develop a type of product, do some specific SEO skill etc.
The bonus of doing this work is that you also have built your personal brand and your audience and so it improves the probability of success of all your future projects.