A lot of would be founders say launch capital is the first hardest and for a lot of them their businesses don’t even require legal registrations: just a hard drive behind some web server. Why buy what you can get free of charge? Here’s how I do:
Get free code & database hosting from Heroku/AppFog
Get free file hosting from Amazon S3
Get free email hosting on Outlook.com or Zoho
Get free email campaigns from MailChimp
Free analytics from Google or MixPanel
Free Ad coupons from LinkedIn & Google
Free guest blog posts duh
Free listing in business directories
Free commenting on other blogs
Free begging for retweets, Facebook shares, LinkedIn shares & emails
Free blog hosting on Tumblr or Blogetery(WordPress)
Pay only for the domain ($15/yr, not more than $2 per month). Although I’ve heard some people make do with free .tk, .co.cc
Same for mobile apps, you need only open a developer account, if it needs a backend of sorts the above apply still. So if you set aside a dollar every week for your ideas, you have $48 thereabout by the year’s end which equates to 3 ideas you can test in the rough per 4 months each year, while the freemium web lasts. You can’t say no to that price.
In case you haven’t noticed, habits are a big deal, becoming increasingly important in technology products and in many cases, a necessity to compete – Ryan Hoover
In Africa where (local?) startup technology hasn’t gone mainstream it seems more critical than in the developed world for technology companies to engrave the methodology of habit startups into their products if they want a shorter “market education” period and a faster market penetration. Ryan Hoover recently touched on the overlooked topic in a blog post. In his argument, he said many of today’s startups are designed to become a habit, re-engaging users without prompt like (think Facebook & your email).
Generally for most companies and their products, the end goal of course is to have your customers frequently use your service and to have it become part of their daily/monthly routine (depending on your intended usage cycle). There are two routes to achieving this, the first and most common being to build your product and teaching your market the “way of your product”. This has a higher barrier to entry and a high cognitive overhead because your customer has to change their current habits and adapt to your product. With entire industries built around that goal of trying to successfully change people’s habits (rehabs being one) it can be a red card before the first whistle for your business if your pockets are not deep enough to buy you the time needed for your product’s cyclic flow to fit into the customer’s subconscious life routine.
The second route to having your product become part of your customer’s life routine is to attach to an existing behavior/habit of theirs. This means making some or all of the parts of your product as a whole fit in and take the place of or aid an existing life routine of your customer. This way, there is a much lower barrier to entry (mentally) for the customer because it just makes sense and feels familiar. This is even more critical in the African context where where most products and technologies are “new” to the customer in one way or another.
Disrupting a market entirely is a good aim but the challenge in Africa is that most markets are just starting out to take shape or maybe even yet to be realized and when you have such a situation you want your product to fit into the customer’s life without them seeing any “revolutionary” consequences. This can be part of your product that gets the customer in initially and then you can go all Iron-man from there on. That’s the philosophy we’ve also taken at our eCommerce startup; instead of approaching businesses & the regular guy with big terms and futuristic visions we use existing habits as a base in our pitches and UX flows, this has allowed us to easily graft into the business’ distribution cycles & the general guy’s daily purchases cycle.
I get this a lot & i’m condensing personal experiences here. It’s a common scenario that when you bootstrap your startup and your veins are still full of the startup-bug’s poison you see a 2-3 month gap before you are ramen profitable and shortly after you enter the envisioned land of profitability. Except that when you’re no longer under the bug’s influence and reality sets in you know you are falling faster than your chute is slowing you (or no chute if not a penny is coming through the door). In my experiences over the years with (my or other’s) startups – either bootstrapped or where you have some 3rd party initial funds- I also missed revenue targets and gazed in horror as the runway ran out before take-off. At one time and many others I tried different strategies and witnessed others doing the same to extend the runway. This is how it worked out.
Get A Job
If your startup is a slow-growth thing (along the lines of a blog’s growth curve?) you can take a job and run it at lunch, after work & on the weekends. Actually this makes it not a startup but more of a lifestyle entrepreneurship project; but if it is a startup in the sense of you want to quickly disrupt and you must quickly grow because it’s a gap you can lose then keeping at a job can be a disaster (although once done building and there’s less work save for marketing you can 9-5), more-so for the solo founder where all the code to-do is on you. I’m not sure how this goes though where the founder isn’t minding the code and you outsourced the work.
Do some web design
This one mostly needs an initial network to start with & where we were we didn’t have that. Initial network meaning a pool of connections/colleagues at companies close that you can basically use as a start by asking of their companies’ websites are up to scratch or even there; then asking them to maybe broadcast the same to their WhatsApp contacts (starting with your friends & their connections works, trust me-but not when you are eons apart). The schlep of crawling the web, newspapers advertisements and mailing lists that are themselves choke-full of similar ads to yours can cost you some good time. Given my background then when I tried this it didn’t work out well.
Startup MVP Development
The startup industry was more lucrative than the web development industry. You usually need one good client to start with (considering the “startup bubble” those are easy to find) that you bill a mountain & create a most-awesome MVP, handover & move to the next. To get more clients you setup an awesome blog where you talk about your experiences with code & growth hacking. A small team can become quite formidable in this field if they’re creative pretty fast by developing “free apps” or you know, some “give back to the community” kind of things which make you a respectable shop. Attending and winning hackathons and creating awesome pain-solving repos on GitHub. Except that if your startup isn’t to build startups, then building other people’s startups will choke both your startup & your clients’: because that makes for 2x startup work load. It’s doable and can extend your runway but you will see that you halve efficiency on your startup with each new client. But if your startup isn’t running to close a gap that elephants are/can look into sooner than later this will work. I’m not sure but it worked 50/50 for us. It was as much pain as the joy it brought.
Something not code-related
In another try, after a fallout with the above two, we contemplated something that would allow us to code in the fantasy land of our startup steadily while supplementing earnings by doing something that:
- We enjoyed doing
- Were “bearable” good at doing
- Had less “noise” in its industry & a size-able barrier-to-entry to dampen out noise
- Where the price was based on quality/work & not the competition
- It would be easy to prove/show capabilities
- Did not and was not related to code – so that all the hacker chakra gets spent in startup fairly land.
The options that would usually come to mind would include consultancy/social media/SEO -but those have a slow growth curve when you’re not in it for the long haul & there actually isn’t a barrier to entry (flag: lotsa competition).
After going through a lot of the possible options we realized one we had all along: 3D modelling & animation for the creative media industry & architectural visualizations. I never thought I would pick this up professionally any time soon. We’ve been at it for years now but never really bothered to check if there was a market out there locally for it, so we stuck it to home projects. Also our roots in art, film, VFX & animation go back as far my earliest interests on the television and I always kept this hobby close to the chest not wanting to taint it with money & deadlines: the perfect getaway from the noise of wealth.
The only problem was this epiphany came at a time when we were right in the middle of learning and coming to grips with some new tools & concepts; also our skill-sets weren’t and still aren’t clear-cut, we did whatever would float our boat that day/week/month and to go out into market saying we’re capable would require a lot of sharpening on our part. So we (admittedly) let laziness take the reins and set a timeline of 6 months in which we’d narrow our tool-set and perfect our skills for each. But fate wouldn’t let the luxury of laziness cross our path: our first client came walked through the door before we had the placard hoisted.
We got the pie right in the face. If you’re reading more tutorials than you are spending on the actual work don’t do it. Maybe wait until you are good at the intended trade which is a luxury most startups can’t afford because if you look at most startup ideas the team is foraying into a space they see as the future and also has some technical challenges that come with it (which is what creates the opportunity). Even better than investing time in mastering a trade outside of the ones concerned with your startup is to find something you have already perfected but the 10k hour rule makes that a rarity
A few clients later…..
You can see a pattern here, and it’s justified. There isn’t an easy way. If a startup is what it’s going to take you to get to cross the awe$omene$$ border then a side-whatever a much much longer shot from it. Also remember that even if to you it’s a side-whatever, there’s a team going through your hell because to them it’s their startup. Find something that has the best compromise when considering the effort needed, the skills already at hand and the correlation between projected returns vs your-startup hours you must trade for it.
Have limits on how much you intend to earn from your side hustle and know when to stop. I’ve seen more than enough startup teams running a web design shop as an aside then getting lost in web design for while the startup it’s supposed to aid dies. Someone else comes along and scoops their market and all they are left it are words about how they saw the opportunity first.
You must be wondering what we finally settled on as our preferred method. Well it’s weird mix really and it depends at what phase of a startup we’ll be at:
- Side-startups. Why? The thing with jobs like web design or 3D animation is that to make more you need more clients. The problem? Each client is work, repetitive and mind consuming work. Take 3D animation as an example: you get the script, then create a storyboard, breakdown scenes, sketch scenes and characters, develop the actual scenes and characters, texture, rig, block out the animation, then smooth things out, worry about simulations/effects and lighting, camera work, then post production. Web design has a similar flow. The idea with most startups is to build one product that serves everyone: like how there’s one YouTube for everyone. We settled on that option during turbulent times when you have to ship seriously in-order to take maximum advantage of the market. Tiny little startups that have a revenue ceiling but not much work input either. They can be a bit of work to pull off initially but it’s a suffer now and cruise later thing compared to web development where it’s suffer continua.
- Startup MPV (sites/apps): this one slots in during those phases where you’ve shipped enough code for a quota and you have an easy period during which your only and core focuses are growth/marketing/distribution & customer support. During less turbulent times consultancy gigs are a great way to just earn without paying the initial effort investment of a side startup
Like all things to do with startups not one method works; and for those that do, not every season.
Where lifestyle business means doing something in a similar, twisted, or better way than it’s done everywhere else off- or online (like a shared hosting provider); and startup means disrupting how an industry has been known to operate or creating an entire market altogether.
With all the songs of (deserved) praise to the likes of Jeff Bezos, Jack Dorsey, Aaron Levie, Drew Houston and David Karp many entrepreneurs are now convinced that to be worthy of a National ID document they need to disrupt something otherwise they cannot “change the world” or “live a legacy”. What you will notice is that these ambitions just in themselves are focused on the exterior person and the fictitious “end” person (because it’s the journey), not the interior. The big names we fame are people who in the process of working on their interior self arrived to where they are and the “exterior” person that we on-lookers see. The “exterior” mindset that the wider media has imposed on us has made us to, at a subconscious level, define technology entrepreneurship as being only about disrupting and we have overlooked the other equally important kind of entrepreneurship which is just as rewarding if it meets your interior self’s goals and its name is lifestyle entrepreneurship.
To say lifestyle entrepreneurship is easier than startup entrepreneurship i’d be lying. It may actually be more difficult in that there are chances you have small differentiating factors from competitors but like most other markets it is always too wide and large to have a monopoly. To take a recent example, the NY Times published an article on Brian Lam’s journey as a media entrepreneur. Having taken the lifestyle route he can now focus on his own inner goals and interests which are in this case outside of his profession. If his figures aren’t big enough then you can take Noah Kagan’s businesses AppSumo & Gambit that he grew into multi-million dollar establishments (he teaches how too). There’s also the likes of TechCrunch, Neil Patel and HubSpot. The list goes on and on.
Interior and exterior interests aside, there actually really is an opportunity for business on the lifestyle side of business but be warned the work to be input is no different but usually the legal and logistic challenges you face aren’t the “world is recoiling to change” kind. The key here is to not ignore this other side of business when you are looking at the world through the glass of opportunity.
But no one explains the two better than Corbett Barr who’s founded both kind of businesses in his post here, Startup vs. Lifestyle Business.
So yes, i am asking you to be very selfish. Look to what makes you happy as a person inside and then go the path you need to: startups, lifestyle businesses, heck both. Metro Man found his calling as Music-man, it’s time you find yours.
Posts on why Africa’s startups & development scene is not moving at all have been making rounds on the internet and most of the reasons cited were valid but made by people who have “crossed the chasm” in some ways and are now sitting on the other side of success. (Un)fortunately the greater part of my acquaintances are the hipster incumbent entrepreneurs and they have a mindset that would be comic if it weren’t disturbing. If i were to add anything to the lists describing why our startups are failing it’d be “The founders think they are special. They are worryingly confident that the universe will serve them success on a platter”
There’s now a whole industry around Entrepreneurship & Motivating publishing. The movie industry has also caught onto the buzz around entrepreneurship. Has anyone watched “The Darkest Hour“? The ill-limbed aliens joined the script but what glued the cast was the lead roles’ startup. Maybe it’s because entrepreneurship taps into everyone’s dream life: a huge office where you potato all day while the bank account magically inflates. Forget sex sells, entrepreneurship sells. The social dynamics around entrepreneurship have changed significantly and the bar has been raised sky-high because once anyone says they are an entrepreneur to anyone the names “Mark Zuckerberg” spring to their minds, and then your name (ugly picture). With publications such as Young Fabulous & Self-Employed young people are now being drawn into startups for the wrong reasons and that has unforgiving repercussions. The constant bombardment of success stories, motivational quotes, freedom (wonder where they get that because founders work pitifully harder around the clock even when they are not physically working) and money that comes with entrepreneurship there’s now a new generation of entrepreneurs that are – for lack of a better word - deluded. Even those who at heart are entrepreneurs can fall for this masshipnotism around startups. The problem with the overnight success illusion that comes with the hypnosis is that after a shot at it and failing it is not always easy to collect yourself, accumulate capital (Venture Capital’s still a dream) and hop onto another roller-coaster when the last one threw you off at the first bend. Read here a recent example.
Let’s delve a moment into this new age entrepreneur’s mind.
They love startup porn. They feel a connection to these successful people. They believe they are special, they see flaws everywhere and are convinced they can do it better than everyone else who’s tried. They are thankful when they are walking in the street, that they are not like the guy selling vegetables by the corner. They will be self-made successes.
Nothin’ to it
This collective delusion means they are not afraid of competition no-matter how small. They look at their competitor’ efforts and chuckle: i’ll do a better job than them when i finally move. They don’t realize that “out there” off the seat of delusion things are very difficult (almost impossible) and you move one foot in front of the other. Even those “startups” they look up to. Go to Archive.org and see for yourself. Or here about Twitter’s early days. It has taken years to get where they all are today because when you’re building a pyramid, it really is one block on top of another and the bigger it gets the more difficult it is to put a block atop another.
They also believe the customers will love them and their products straight away and will send competitor’s products out of the window.(The beaten path)
Most of our developers believe they too are “special” and this has also affected the rate at which regional technology products are evolving because of this ego. I remember one going:
“Ha! The only thing standing between me and doing that also is a blog post. Just that i don’t have time to spare now but there’s nothing to it”.
It’s not to do with a lack of programming know-how that developers aren’t able to create killer features for the startups they found/work for. A very contemporary example is Stripe. Quoting it’s 22 year old co-founder in a recent interview:
We lived in a very small and rural area, but one advantage to learning something like programming is that there are enough websites online and people in chat rooms for people not in the “in” place to pick up the skill.
So rule that excuse out.
Everyone is special in their own way but the kind of special that the next generation of entrepreneurs has embraced is the wrong one. If we were that special then we wouldn’t have the need to go “higher”.
You’re not special and will probably fail (definitely fail) at this rate, you can’t do everything, you don’t know everything. Your competition with their ugly looking product and snail-speed “progress”: are actually moving at lightning speed. Join the race and see. you want to break the balance of the universe by crossing that chasm and expect the universe to fight back. Think of equilibrium reactions in chemistry, that is exactly how the universe fights back. When it does so successfully this is what you read on TechCrunch. You can have the perfect solution to a real nagging problem but fail to at finding a product/market fit.
I remember some colleagues chuckling at Buffer’s monthly revenue ($70k) and they couldn’t understand why such a meager figure made so much noise. (I’ll leave you to be judge on this one)
I hope not
I hope you didn’t read this and your special alternate self came and said “He’s probably telling the un-special ones to clear way for me the special one”. Next time you see an “unspecial person”, however you define them, and next time you see a “wacky product moving slow” or a “fail” know that that’s how life actually is
The smart folks at Mozilla know and are trying to beat Google Chrome’s speed. Nokia is aware that Android is gnawing away more developers from them. The engineering failures that cause airplane crashes are not because the engineers are dull when they make the airplanes in the first place (I can barely make a paper one). In the real world, beyond your delusion, you’ll see it takes a lot of hard work and collaboration to get anything done. It’s not the “mindset” or “conviction” that wins the battle and the war, it what leads you in battle and urges you on when you know you’re clearly lost because you’re in the war for the love of it. Need i mention proper combat training before you go in?
Ok you got me
Developers build things. That is why it has that name. With the media hitting us from all sides the subconscious bottom line message becomes “You can build things, so start a company”; which is a great thing if entrepreneurship is what you want where programming is 15% of the job. The rest is sales, begging, negotiating, (s)weeping and marketing.
Just because you build apps doesn’t mean you have to build a company. Read GitHub’s Ben article on that topic here.
But if entrepreneurship is your thing in the absence of all the media’s noise: Great! Wonder how to get startup ideas? start a million dollar business in a weekend? test ideas quickly? Then change your mindset first, move relentlessly and enjoy each phase of your years-long overnight success because when you look back at life, good things always happen.
PS: During the QAs no interviewers were injured. Just thanked actually
The Hub has launched Culture Shift is a 6-month ideation and support program for innovators from the creative, commercial and digital sectors. Its overall objective is to develop and realise practical solutions for sustainable impact. Starting off with a 3-day Innovation Weekend on March 23rd to 25th, Culture Shift provides:
R50,000 seed funding and mentoring by seasoned entrepreneurs and investors. During the Innovation Weekend, 35 participants will go through the following intensive process:
• Friday 23rd March (from 2pm): Ideation Day | local needs analysis, idea generation and team formation
• Saturday 24th: Hack Day | concept development and prototyping solutions
• Sunday 25th: Pitching Day | pitch to investors and awards Awardees will subsequently benefit from a 6-month ‘Mentoring & Fruition’ support program designed by the Hub Johannesburg, consisting of mentoring, building investor relations and opening opportunities through relevant networks.
Culture Shift is an international initiative and will concurrently take place in Johannesburg, Nairobi and Lagos.
What’s in it for you?
• Connect with inspiring like-minded people
• Access to an Ideas Lab with impactful innovations
• An opening to access seed funding and business mentoring
• Access to a high-energy, collaborative and funInnovation Weekend!
Who should participate?
• Technologists, such as web and mobile app-developers
• Social entrepreneurs and institutional changemakers
• Creatives from the arts, design and cultural sectors.
As a participant you share the following characteristics:
• You have a deep passion for your work
• You are excellent at what you do
• You are committed to making a positive impact on society
Johannesburg: Apply Here
Zing, a mobile instant messaging client from South Africa have recently launched. The service was developed by Blazing Chili. Check out the video below, the video below. If you have ever played the game little big planet, you would think this was a promotion of an LBP game/level. They seem to have taken quite a bit of inspiration from LBP, even the voice over sounds like the guy who does LBP.
Impressively, zing have launched on the following platforms:
- Java Basic (feature phones, i.e Nokia S40)
- Java Advanced
Zing changes thing up a bit on a tradditional MIM, by adding a few additional features such as a gamification features (Points etc). It also adds content delivery, in a concept called “Zones”, i.e users can subscribe to content about subject x. I think of it as way for brands/news organisations to distribute content via mobile.
While RIM may be loosing ground internationally, it is one of the biggest platforms in South Africa and other emerging markets, one of the main drivers in ZA has been BBM.
The difficulty with MIM, is achieving consistency and reliability with millions of users, not many company’s can claim to this. Last year Live Profile went viral, with millions of users signing up in a short period of time, however the platform could not scale. I tried it out for about a week, attempted to use it, but had to delete the app. The number one issue with LiveProfile, you never knew if your message was actually delivered. Sometime’s it took several hours before a message reached it’s destination.
Mxit and what’s app are quite reliable, it remains to be seen if Zing will be as well. The gaming elements are interesting, and if well thought out could result in people sticking around just long enough to ensure some amount of success (see foursquare)