I chuckled when I read this in a recent blog post by Gabriel Weinberg of DuckDuckGo fame, "Things take time. We've been live now for about 3 years. They don't need to take that long of course, but don't expect results over night."
Things take time indeed. Three years? I've been at this for over 10 years now. Are we even a "startup?" At this point, I've got to own up to the fact that FASO is a going concern that happens to be entering a "startup like" phase later in life. Maybe we're not truly a startup, in the sense of being new and not-yet-profitable (we're old and profitable), but the challenges and growth we face today have changed us from a lifestyle business into a "startup."
The missive below outlines how FASO went from a sideline, almost hobby, project to the full-blown "startup" we are today. Our path was very different from what you normally read about in the current angel/VC fueled environment. Perhaps our story will give hope to other "weekend warriors" who don't have the luxury of quitting their job, moving to the valley, and working on their startup full time.
Starting sometime in mid-2000, our growth looks like this
(remember this was a part-time project for the first 5 years):
(all figures are mid-year numbers to coincide with number of full years since launch)
|Year||Number of Paying Users|
|2001||early coding, first few customers|
|[started full time]|
5,637 active users*
4,608 paying users +
1,029 active free users
A Short History of My Long Startup
I had an early background in computers, but had taken a 16-year detour to follow a career in one of my other passions: the visual arts. During that 16 years, I ran, and later, owned an art gallery. I was able to use some of my early hacker skills while in the gallery business and had cobbled together a nice, dynamic functional website to showcase art for the gallery. This was back when such things were still a novelty, at least for smaller concerns. However, by the time the idea for FASO started to percolate in my mind, my coding skills were, to understate the issue, rusty. Nevertheless, I laid down the first code that eventually became our web application in February 2001, at 32 years old - already ancient for a tech startup founder. Joel said that good software takes 10 years, but Joel's a great programmer. I'm not nearly as good as him, plus, FASO was part-time for the first five years, so I'm going to allow us a few more years on achieving "good" status with our software.
I "started" FASO, not because I was seriously planning a startup but because I wanted to solve a friend's problem. My friend, an artist, wanted a nice website to display his art and so he asked me for help. "Make Something People Want" is what Paul Graham says. And I inadvertantly stumbled onto that. My friend had a problem that he wanted solved, so I decided to build the solution that had been percolating in my mind.
Turns out a few other artists wanted the same solution. After a few months, I had given my solution away to a few more artists. In fact, I had to give it away: I had no idea how to easily collect money online anyway. One day, I ended up on the phone with a guy who, of all things, ran a credit card gateway and, as luck would have it, he had an ASP library. So I set up an account with him and was able to accept credit cards! Honestly, this was all a bit simpler in those days because it predated PCI. [not that we weren't careful anyway - we were. Today, we process payments via Briantree Payment Solutions' excellent api which handles all the difficult compliance stuff for you.]
Probably six months after setting up my friend's site, I landed my first cash-paying customer (she's still a customer), even though I still had no signup process. I didn't even have a front-end website (other than a page where the users could log in). I would simply meet an artist, in real life, sell them on the idea and then go manually add their record to the database, after which point they could log in.
For the first 5 years, while I ran this thing as a part-time "nights and weekend" project, it was pretty stress-free, I just hacked on it when I had time. Once I went full time, I spent the next couple of years learning how to do things properly, refactoring code, migrating onto more serious platforms, etc. I thought I could just build a nice little lifestyle business. The idea was wasn't to build a startup and "exit." The idea was to make a great living doing something I loved.
However, once we reached a certain point, I looked up and realized that we were now a startup.
Becoming a "Real" Startup
As your customer load grows, as you face scaling decisions, as you attract competitors, all of the "normal" things you read about startup life start to happen. Serious competitors, especially, change the game. Like Paul Graham said, "your competitors decide how hard you work. And they pretty much all make the same decision: as hard as you possibly can." So much for my lifestyle business. That's OK, I still love what I do. Startups are fun.
So now, after 10 years, I find myself running a "startup" and working harder than I ever did at the beginning. But I always did tend to do things a little backwards.
How to Follow the Slow, Safe Road
I suspect many people want to start a startup, but already have obligations: a mortgage, a family, etc. Risking it all is fine when you're in college, but, if you can't risk it all and move to the valley, then perhaps there is another path.
I think the trick to starting slow is to pick the right industry or niche. You can't compete slowly with Facebook, Twitter, Google, or even Y-Combinator startups. They're just going to move way too fast. However, I still think our long road to success can be followed by others, as long as you solve a real problem (especially if it's currently unsolved or poorly solved) for real users who are willing to pay. Look in niches outside of tech for those (Please don't build another URL shortener, Twitter client, or, for pete's sake, a photo-sharing app).
It helps tremendously to have experience in your niche's industry. I see would be founders on HN saying that it seems like most of the good ideas have been done. That's because they're not looking outside of the narrow world of tech. Really, how many bug trackers does the world need? Look somewhere else. Go get a job in another industry that interests you. You'll be amazed at how many problems are unsolved. Watch how we solve problems in tech, and then ask how you can mimic those solutions specifically for your nich. Don't worry about losing too much time , starting a few years later isn't the end of the world and may just give you a huge competitive advantage.
For example, at 32, I had run or owned an art gallery for 12 years. That's a huge competitive advantage in terms of knowledge, experience, and industry contacts that can't easily be duplicated by our competitors. So, yeah, while it took us several years to stand on our own two legs - our extended search for our MVP - we now have several advantages. Including the fact that VC's don't own 80% of the company. They own 0%. I own 100% (I've had one offer to purchase it. The offer was a lot of money......but not enough :-)).
"Things take time" Gabriel said. He wasn't kidding. We're the poster boys for that motto. Fortunately for Gabriel, he's much further along at 3 years than we are at 10. Kudos to him.
The best part of this story for future startup founders is that, in my first 10 years, I made all kinds of technical and marketing mistakes....and then I learned how to correct them. I walked through the minefield and found quite a few of the mines. Over the coming posts, I'll show you how to avoid some of them. Some posts may be particularly useful to single founders, since I'm a single founder. I sincerely hope you'll find something I have to share worthwhile in your own startup journey.
With any luck, you'll get there in a lot less time than a decade. But even if it takes that long, don't worry, it's a fun ride.
FASO Founder, Software Craftsman, Art Fanatic
PS - If you have a comment, please respond on Hacker News. Thanks.
* We just started tracking "active users", so I don't have earlier figures that include the free accounts. We count active users with the following formula: Active Users = All Paid Users + Free Users who have logged in during last 90 days. The Free plans were added within the past 2 years, mainly so non-customers could enter our art contest.
 The valley's tech press seems to glorify young founders. Don't feel like you're getting "left behind" if you want to take a job in another industry and solve problems outside of tech. In the real world, people in their 30s and 40s are actually still considered young. Especially if you stay healthy (a topic for another post). And, as I've pointed out, you will have big competitive advantages if you are already a key player with a reputation and contacts in your chosen niche.