Software developers shouldn’t start software companies
6 min read
Many software developers have a dream of starting a software company. Whether it be the thought of writing code for your own project or the holy grail of recurring revenue.
Back in 2018, I quit my job to do just that. I wanted to build a SaaS company that would allow me the freedom to do what I wanted with my time while earning recurring revenue.
At the time, I thought I was being clever. I knew not to try and come up with an original idea, and instead tried to build a better version of something that was already out there.
My target market was recruiting. At my previous job, I had built out a recruiting pipeline using JIRA, and I saw there seemed to be a market for decent software that didn’t cost hundreds per user per month. On top of that, recruiters, earn a lot for each candidate they managed to get hired, so at least my target market had the money to spend.
So naturally, I put my head down for 6 months and built out a complete MVP of the software. GrowRecruit was born. I was quite pleased with the overall design and with a bit of cold outreach, I managed to get a few people to try it out.
Unfortunately, the build it and they will come mentality never works.
The problem was, I suck at marketing, at least the traditional form anyway. I am not a salesperson, I much prefer being helpful to being a slimy salesman.
However, beyond hiring software developers, I didn’t know much about recruiting or the needs of recruiters. Worse than that, I didn’t care either. I wasn’t passionate about recruiting and couldn’t bring myself to spend months writing content for recruiters.
I had failed at rule number one, which is to have a market to sell to first. It doesn’t matter how good your product is if you don’t have a market to sell to.
The quality fallacy
Imagine 2 food truck businesses. One sells gourmet burgers with brioche buns and sweet potato fries. The other sells greasy, burnt patties and soggy fries.
One food truck is sitting outside a school on Wednesday morning; the other is sitting outside a football stadium just as a match finishes.
You don’t need to be a genius to work out which one will sell more burgers. The quality in this case doesn’t matter. What matters is having a starving crowd (preferably drunk, so they don’t taste how bad your burgers are).
Having a market to sell to is more important than the quality of your product.
There is a great book called Start Small, Stay Small: A Developer’s Guide to Launching a Startup which describes the importance of having a market.
In the book, they describe the order as:
Market, Marketing, Aesthetic, Function
First, you need a market to sell to, like a starving crowd of drunk football fans.
Then you need to work on marketing, making sure that people know you are there.
Sitting outside a stadium with the smell of burgers wafting through the air will do nicely.
The last two are aesthetic (your brioche bun) and function (struggling for a burger equivalent here).
Aesthetics over Functionality
As software developers, we tend to overestimate the importance of function when developing software. Surely the software with the most features wins?
This is never the case, though. Yes, your software needs to meet the needs of the customer, but it doesn’t need to meet the needs of every customer.
Apple does this very well. Your iPhone will do a lot less than the corresponding Android phone. You will often have to wait several years for a particular feature to appear on an iPhone after it has come out on Android.
However, Apple is crushing the competition when you consider the first 3 “Market, Marketing and Aesthetic”.
They have a large market to sell to, their adverts are second to none, and all their products look amazing.
Quality is important, but it isn’t as important as market and marketing.
Should you start a startup?
If you are hell-bent on starting a software company, then I recommend you find a co-founder who can handle the marketing for you.
If you want to do it all by yourself, then pick an industry that you are genuinely interested in and wouldn’t mind spending time writing about.
I recently read Derek Sivers book “Anything You Want”. Derek started a company called CD Baby to help independent artists to sell their own music. As a musician, Derek didn’t need to find the motivation to work on the product, as he was scratching his own itch. His target market was people like himself and his musician friends.
Derek grew CD Baby into a multimillion-dollar company before selling it. To start with, however, everything was very scrappy and time-consuming. He didn’t try to make everything look nice or have many features, but it didn’t matter as he had a market and his marketing was mostly word of mouth.
If you want to start a startup, so you have more time for what you enjoy, then be very careful. Many software developers who start startups end up just creating another full-time job for themselves.
❤️ Picks of the Week
📚 Book - Anything You Want by Derek Sivers. This is a short book on how Derek built a company based on his own rules. As mentioned above, you don't need to start a billion dollar SaaS company to be happy and successful. In many cases, it is going to have the opposite effect.
🎧 Podcast - The Art of Sabbaticals. I have mentioned before I am on my own creative sabbatical at the moment. In this episode of The Pathless Path, Paul talks to a couple of people who are also on a sabbatical from the corporate world.
👨💻 Latest from me
🎬 YouTube - What a load of CRUD. The Create, Read, Update, Delete model is everywhere in software. If you can get your head around CRUD then it makes it easier to design your own software.
📝 Article - Snake Case vs Camel Case vs Pascal Case vs Kebab Case. I often get mixed up between these and have to quickly refresh my memory on which is which. I had a bit of fun when writing this article, so it is worth a read if you want a laugh (at least I found it funny).
📝 Article - What motivates us? A look at the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and how it impacts our capacity to enjoy the work that we are doing.
📝 Article - The biggest regret in my software engineering career. I don't regret much about becoming a software developer, but there is one trap that many developers get stuck in that I want to help others avoid.
💬 Quote of the Week
Some people think self-employment is risky, but the real risk lies in deriving your security from an external source
From The Art of Non-Conformity by Chris Guillebeau. Resurfaced with Readwise.
This post is from my weekly newsletter The Curious Engineer where I share my insights as an engineer turned entrepreneur and the lessons I am learning along the way.