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Bootstrapping: 10 Tips

By Martin on .

Bootstrapping, in the context of entrepreneurship, means starting a business without external investors.

Harfang Apps is such a company. It is a few months old and Regis, its first app has been available for just a few weeks as of this writing. It follows that this is not a success story type of article (nor is it a failure one!) - it is too early to make such a judgement call. Instead, this is a recollection of tips, pitfalls, decisions, educated guesses and mistakes that were made along the way.

In software development, it can be surprisingly inexpensive to bootstrap a company given how little up-front investment is required besides a computer with a compiler (assuming you have the crucial development and project management experience).

The most expensive investment by far is time. Some may choose to bootstrap a business part-time, while working on ${DAYJOB} to keep a steady stream of revenue, or vice-versa, freelancing part-time while bootstrapping. For Harfang Apps I went all-in, so this is the process that I’ll be describing here.

  1. Save for at least a year.

    From a previous experience of a leave of absence of 6 months from an old job, I knew that months went by at an incredible pace when you’re experimenting and exploring uncharted territories. Aim for at least a year of leeway (easier said than done, of course, which is probably why many people will go for the part-time solution I mentioned above, though it has its own downsides).

  2. Have a plan.

    This goes hand-in-hand with the previous point. Months go by so fast, you have to have more than a general idea of what you want to do. Not in minute detail, but enough that you can measure your progress and know if you’re still on schedule. Running out of time/money with nothing to show for is the worst possible outcome (well, let’s not over-dramatize here - it’s a less than ideal outcome). Also, have rough targets in your plan - month 2: this should be done, month 4: this other thing, etc.

  3. Reduce your expenses.

    The best way to optimize your savings is to reduce expenses. Obviously this is very personal, YMMV, but for me there were many small improvements and a big one: moving into a smaller, cheaper place. Otherwise, I saved on things like cutting cable TV, a better phone contract, a better internet contract, etc. When you start shopping for those services, it’s almost hard not to find a company willing to charge you less to get you. Also - and very importantly - keep a budget. Every week - it’s booked in my calendar - I religiously update my budget and make sure everything’s under control.

  4. Prioritize regularly.

    As you move along in your bird’s-eye view of a plan, make finer-grained plans. It doesn’t have to be the big time-consuming document with this or that formal planning process - I had a TODO file where each line was a task, and as things got done, I deleted lines, and when I discovered new things that needed to be done, I added some. This was committed with the code in source control. Know what core value you are providing with your app, and prioritize whatever gets you closer to that goal. Ruthlessly put aside everything else and remember that v1.0.0 is not the end, it’s the beginning. Repeat periodically. At the beginning of each week, I highlighted the tasks that I wanted to get done for that week.

  5. Prototype, then throw away.

    In every non-trivial software development, there will be things you are not as comfortable or familiar with. Identify those things early, build prototypes to try things out and get a feel for how it must be done. Throw it away and rewrite it cleanly once you know what you are doing.

  6. Be aware of your weaknesses.

    An extension of the previous point, there is more to building an app business than coding. Know yourself, with honesty and modesty. I’m not a designer so I ran a design contest online for the company’s logo and the app icon, saved a ton of time and got what I feel are great professional designs in return. Same goes for the legal part of starting a business - I hired a lawyer to help me out with the incorporation and to clear up some legal questions that I had. It sounds expensive but it really isn’t that much (at least here in Canada), especially if you consider the risks and implications of doing it wrong.

  7. Educate yourself.

    I outsourced the design and legal stuff, but that doesn’t mean I ignored it otherwise. My bedtime stories were about the responsabilities and obligations of a corporation and similar exciting reads. Beware, it can get you fast asleep though. Marketing is another area that I needed (and still need) to learn about, but thankfully I have an expert nearby in my significant other.

  8. Reserve time for other things.

    Keeping a healthy work-life balance is always a priority, but it gets even harder when your passion level and personal involvement in a project reach new highs. Often I would think about bugs before going to sleep and would sometimes dream about that stuff. The beast wants to control you! As I have two kids and a life partner, for me that translated into a strict rule of spending evenings and week-ends with them, although I occasionally allowed myself to work on this again later at night.

  9. Don’t underestimate the non-coding things.

    You’re not “done” just because the app is “done”. Depending on the type of app, you may need a website for documentation and support, a landing page for marketing, an email provider with your company’s domain, screenshots, screencasts, beta tests, social media accounts, etc. Make sure to take this into account in your planning. For many months I only had an individual account on the Apple App Store, thinking that I would simply “switch it” to a company account when I was ready to launch. It turns out the process is relatively involved, you need a D-U-N-S Number for your company and you can’t use a DBA (Doing Business As…) name, it has to be your legal company name (which is why Regis is made by 9360-4528 Québec Inc., the legal entity of Harfang Apps, on the App Store). I had to wait a few more weeks to launch because I wasn’t aware that I needed that DUNS number.

  10. Focus.

    This may be the most important one. It encompasses almost everything else, and it was a real test for me. In the past, my interest in my personal projects often waned when I felt I had a good-enough understanding of something I wanted to learn or try out. That’s when the latest shiny thing on Hacker News or Github Explore (or that other exciting feature in your plan that is absolutely not a priority) can catch you off-guard and derail you off course. Focus on the task at hand. Take a break or a few days off if you need to, to renew your energy and commitment, but stay focused.

That worked for me. It allowed me to go from a non-existing company to an existing one with a quality product launched and available on the Mac App Store, and even if that was it, if it turned out to fail as a business, I’d still be extremely proud of that. Whether it ends up being a sustainable business, and how I try to steer it into one, will surely be inspiration for future posts. But there are no recipes, and although I believe those 10 points are solid advice, that’s all they are.

Best of luck in your own adventures! If you liked that article, follow us on Twitter so you don’t miss new ones, and if you’re a Redis user, check-out our powerful Redis client for the Mac!