Earning while building
6 Lessons learned from bootstrapping
6 min read
In the first year of starting Interseller, I went 35k into credit card debt. I used up all my savings including my 401k. I didn’t take a salary for an entire year and only began paying myself after raising our first and only round from Expa.
5 years after starting, we sold it to Greenhouse, resulting in a great outcome for everyone involved: founders, employees, investors, and even the acquirer. A rare result for startups.
I wouldn’t recommend burning through all your savings and going into debt to build a startup to anyone.
Knowing what I know now, there’s a much better way to bootstrap your startup, especially as a technical co-founder.
The path I wish I had available to me is the company I am building today; GottaGoFast.com, founding engineers working for startups that want to ship great products. We work with engineers that have created and shipped great products, and who have built or are building their own companies. We plug them in on a fractional basis to companies that need their help.
As a CTO and builder, working with a team and collaborating with others is critical, and would have given me the personal runway to do more. Below is the story that led me to discover this new path of earning while building.
My story of starting and pivoting
I’ve always loved building and shipping products. After 5 years of working in seed stage companies, I finally took the leap to start my own company with my co-founder Steven Lu.
We charged in trying to solve a simple problem that we’ve seen as engineers. In 2 months, we built and launched a simple tool for monitoring endpoints called Perf. We spent about a month trying to find customers and quickly realized that there really wasn’t a product market fit. In our attempts to find customers while being on a tight budget we built a sales tool to find email addresses and send email campaigns.
The tool we built to help ourselves find customers for our product was so helpful to us and others, we soon found that spending more time on it made sense. This new tool became Interseller, and friends and our network started using it to grow too. Two months after launching Perf we pivoted and launched Interseller on Product Hunt.
Lesson 1: Don’t build just to build. Solve a big problem and don’t be afraid to pivot to solve a problem your own company is facing. Some of the world’s biggest companies started out as something completely different. Slack used to be a gaming company. Segment used to be a classroom lecture tool.
For the next 6 months, we worked tirelessly to take our quick MVP to a fully fleshed product.
During that time we weren’t earning enough to pay ourselves anything, but MRR was growing steadily. In order to pay rent and keep food on the table, we did freelance work. We also used this money to hire our amazing designer Oli Lisher to create our brand and website. Oli also created the branding for Gotta Go Fast!
Lesson 2: Have a cartoon animal mascot. 🚀🐢🐻 It may not give you product market fit, but people will remember it :)
It was great to do some freelance work to earn money without committing to a full-time job. The issue that we encountered though was when we did freelance work, the work on Interseller came to a full stop.
We also encountered all the traditional issues with freelancing: scope creep on projects, not defining milestones well enough, and chasing down invoices. The projects we wound up working on always exploded in scope usually becoming twice as much work as expected.
When doing hourly freelancing work. I’ve always found myself being nickel-and-dimed on the hours or rate, and when working hourly the jobs were always small requiring more time finding clients and setting up contracts.
During my time building Interseller and trying to get freelance work involved either a small 10 - 15 hour job or a project that turns into a full month of work that didn’t allow me to work on my company. Not until starting Gotta Go Fast did I realize monthly fractional work was exactly what I needed. The value of having someone else deal with the freelancer slog is priceless
You can still build your company without years of personal runway saved up or going into unreasonable debt. If you’re a proven engineer that is making the leap to start their own business, there are hundreds of companies that would love to have you on their team on a fractional basis sharing your knowledge. You can help them build their dream company while working on your own.
Lesson 3: Do steady fractional freelance work to focus on building. Don’t waste time on contracts, negotiations, or sourcing.
10 months after bootstrapping and raising our round, I was able to pay myself about half of what I would make at a well-funded startup. The benefit was that I no longer had to worry about paying rent or picking up freelance work. The downside was that I wish I was making a higher salary.
The most valuable thing gained from Expa was the advice of the partners. Specifically from Eric Friedman, my now friend and partner of Gotta Go Fast, who said over and over to raise our price. When we joined we were charging $15 a month, he told us to charge $200, we found that number absurd. Interseller now charges $200 / month. It took us a year to slowly get there.
I’ve always struggled to know my value, and how to value what I built. It’s something I believe most engineers aren’t great at.
Lesson 4: You’re worth way more than you think. There are very few people in this world that have built a product and sold it to customers. Most people dream of being able to do it one day. You can help them realize their dream by sharing all the lessons you’ve experienced as a founder.
At the start of Interseller, I would work up to 100 hours a week. Looking back on it now and doing the math, with my founder's salary and the number of hours I worked I was making minimum wage. Almost all founders at the early stage that raise venture capital or from friends and family are making minimum wage or less. Prior to raising with Expa, my hourly rate would have been less than $1
Lesson 5: Burnout is real. Having a work-life balance is important. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and your mental health is important. I went through many ups and downs. You need to make time for friends and family and not make your entire life your company.
Interseller didn’t take much money to run, it was more about just putting in product/engineering time, customer support, and sales calls. If I had to do it all over again, I would have done fractional work for a company while building Interseller. That would give us the budget to hire a customer success manager and sales person much earlier. Much like how he hired our amazing designer with money that we made while freelancing.
This is what we’re doing now at Gotta Go Fast. We have a dozen founding engineers working with companies while building their own businesses.
Lesson 6: Don’t let your personal runway limit you from building your company. Give yourself time to keep building, find product market fit, and then jump in 100% when you’re ready. GottaGoFast provides personal runway coupled with excellence in engineering to give you confidence.
If you’re an engineer building your own company and want to learn more about Gotta Go Fast, apply here.
If you’re a company that would love to have the entrepreneurial focus of a founding CTO level up your product and team contact us here.
Anything else, send us a note at email@example.com