November 7, 2022
After 4+ years at Amazon as a Software Development Manager (felt more like 10, in terms of the experience), I quit my job in June 2021 to take a year-long sabbatical as I figure out what I want to do next. This was a once-in-a-lifetime thing for me since I was lucky enough to ride the Amazon stock gains over the past few years, so I don’t expect to have this opportunity again.
I’ve been wanting to start my own business since I was 10 or 11 years old after watching my dad (also a software developer) start his and eventually succeed. I’m now in my 40s and haven’t succeeded yet, so this was my chance to go all-in.
Since June, I’ve actually built a few products (not just Bluebird) as I test the waters. I know a year isn’t nearly enough time to get something off the ground enough to replace my previous salary, but my hope is to at least get something going during my “sabbatical” that I can continue to work on, even if I have to go back to work somewhere.
Bluebird was actually just a fun weekend experiment that people really seem to like. It definitely has potential but will take some time and marketing to get it going. I’m not sure I’m the right person for that type of app (it’s more B2C), so I’m actually in the process of selling it to someone who can take it, run with it, and make it awesome.
I also built minimal, which is a text-only blog, focusing on a super-simple writing experience without all the cruft and distractions. That’s really just a fun side-project for me since I enjoy writing.
At the same time, I started to build a super simple invoicing app for freelancers (being one myself for many years, on the side), but I put that aside for now after finding a better opportunity (for me).
What am I working on now? In September I went to Microconf Local (Portland) and I came out of that realizing that I was going to continue running around in circles unless I found a full-time co-founder that saw the world the same way I did. I had the urge to reach out to an old friend of mine (a Marketing and Sales guy) who had been running a business of his own without a tech partner for a while and needed some major help. He had figured out a solid business model and had some initial paying customers, but had been outsourcing all of the tech work and it was falling apart. He and I did a sort of Test Drive in October, and I decided to step in full time (unpaid, but we’ll get there) as a partner. That company is essentially a Google Ads/Lead Generation agency for Real Estate Investors that we’re going to work to turn into a SaaS over the next year or so. I’m super excited to see where that goes and will be sharing my progress on Twitter and the Podcast (Indie Dads)
I watched my dad start his software company (frontend reservation systems for hotels) when I was 10 (30+ years ago), and have been hooked on the idea of being an entrepreneur ever since. I’ve built so many things that I literally have pages of repos on my private Github account. That’s the problem though -- it’s easy to build.
The hard part is getting people to use and pay for it. The first dollar I made on the internet was a dating app back in my college days. I had hardly any users (all of them were free), and I felt so guilty when the first person actually paid for a “premium” account that I refunded him. So I guess that counts, but it was a net-zero. Since those days, I’ve built a variety of Wordpress plugins, Amazon affiliate sites, dozens of things for paying freelance clients, and a ton of different “SaaS” concepts, but nothing has taken off.
That has been partly due to the limited time I have (a dad with 5 kids at home), and partly because I just love building new things but am not great at marketing or sticking with things when it gets tough. For me, that’s why having a solid business partner is a game-changer.
The Podcast (Indie Dads) is purely an act of love to share my experiences (with my co-host, Malcolm Jack) and to try to help people in a similar boat as me (being a parent and aspiring entrepreneur). If we had just one listener, I’d still do it.
The podcast began when Malcolm reached out on Twitter, and introduced himself as someone trying to build an app in the same exact space as me at the time (invoicing for freelancers). While some might say “That’s crazy! You’re competitors!”, I’ve actually found that the Indie community is incredibly supportive and fun to talk to, even if you are competitors. Our chats turned into a friendship and we gave the podcast a shot.
The positive reception we got was surprising and exciting. There are so many parents in similar positions as we are who felt under-represented, and we’ve been recording ever since. It’s been super fun.
My current project (called GeoFlip) has paying clients, so that’s nice! We have people we can talk to to iterate on and improve our product instead of just guessing. Nothing beats real users. Right now, it’s enough to pay the bills, but not pay ourselves (yet). We’re making great progress every week though, so there’s light at the end of the tunnel! My hope is that we’ll be able to pay ourselves by Q2 2022.
The trick is that GeoFlip is an agency model, so we get paid for a professional service (Google Ads marketing and lead generation), rather than a SaaS that works while we sleep. The challenge over the next year will be to find a way to transition our agency to a self-service SaaS, since that’s the kind of company we really want to run.
Right now, I’m in a really fortunate place that I realize isn’t available to most people. I’m able to live off of my savings for a year while I give this startup of mine a chance. That said, I’ve been working on side projects for the past 20 years trying to make it. It’s really hard, especially when the only time you have is after work and after you spend time with the family (the real top priority). Sometimes I just feel so tired that I don’t do anything for days at a time.
The first thing is to realize that it is totally possible to bootstrap a startup while working full time and having a family, but it takes way longer. While daydreaming of quitting your job is fun, you have to come to terms with the fact that it’s going to take longer than you ever thought it would. This can actually become a super-power and unfair advantage if you play it right. Knowing that things will take longer helps you have patience and long-term thinking mindset. It also forces you to prioritize ruthlessly. You simply can’t afford to do things that won’t move the needle.
For me, the podcast is just fun. If you’re considering starting one for marketing purposes, you have to just realize that it’s going to take a long time to build an audience. It’s a lot like SEO.
Originally, it was based on the tech, which was a mistake. I would start with the fun tech that I wanted to build something around and then search for a use case. That’s a recipe for failure. It’s fun, but it just doesn’t get you, customers.
The key to finding good ideas is just listening. Technically-minded people tend to build something way too quickly. They hear about a problem someone is having, they find a cool domain name, and they start coding. Or worse, they build something they think is cool and that people would want once they see it, only to find out that nobody does.
I’m a huge fan of Arvid Kahl’s Embedded Entrepreneur approach. Embed yourself in whatever community you want to serve, and listen. Just participate, observe, and listen. Don’t pitch or try to sell, and definitely don’t build the first thing you come up with. Listen for a while and you’ll start to notice themes. It might feel like a slow start, but it will save you months or years of your time by building the thing people actually crave (and will pay for).
When I have a hard time focusing or getting started after a long day, I’ve found that the Pomodoro technique really gets me in flow, fast. I use an app called “Be Focused Pro” to track my time. Usually, by the 3rd round, I’m on a roll, and time flies.
I’m not sure it would qualify as a tool, but when it comes to focusing, nothing beats a solid pair of headphones. I love my Bose QC15. They just let me tune out the world and get in the zone quickly. If you’re looking for some good background music to zone out to while you get in the zone, I’ve been enjoying Lofi Club lately.
"I heard about Bryan and IndieDads a few months ago. Great concept for a show. I sent this to them when I first heard about them but my question is when are they going to start bringing on guests to the podcast? Haha. That would be my suggestion of how to get continued engagement on the podcast and grow their audience. I’m guessing that’s not the hope for the question though… in that case, my question would be: Can a founder truly be a good founder if they’re not a good dad first? And what's your number one piece of advice for all the founder dads out there"
We actually would love to have guests! So far, nobody has reached out and we haven’t done much to reach out either. We’re planning on changing that in January though.
Regarding your question: “Can a founder truly be a good founder if they’re not a good dad first?”, the answer is… yes. You can be an awesome founder and an awful dad, unfortunately. Just like you can be a great business person and an awful parent.
But that’s not what we want. I believe that the reason most parents try to start something on the side is that they actually want to be better parents. They want more time, location, and financial independence, and a startup can give you that (in theory). The really hard part about this is that the initial phase of a startup can suck up all of your extra time, which makes it kind of counterintuitive and counter-productive. So the thing to keep in mind here is to make sure you play the long game and keep your priorities straight. Will your startup fail if you don’t work on it tonight because your kid wants to play a few extra games of checkers? No. Will your kid remember that you were never there because you hopped on the computer right after dinner every night? Yes. You have to find a balance and realize that it’s going to take time. The shortcut to this may be getting funding so that you can do it as a day job (instead of bootstrapping it on the side), but if you’re not careful, that’s just trading one boss (your current day job) for another (your investors)
If you have to choose, spend the extra time you have now with your kids. Pretty soon, they’ll no longer think you’re cool and will want to spend time with their friends instead. You’ll never get that time back. Entrepreneurship and side projects will always be there.
I see that you’re bullish on no-code, which I appreciate… but I think a lot of the engineering types tend to brush no-code aside too easily. In fact, I worry that many are missing the boat (and the opportunities that no-code brings). What would you say to people who dismiss no-code as hype? Why should we be paying more attention to it than we are?