Gant Software Systems

Book Review: Start Small, Stay Small

A Developer's Guide To Launching A Startup

Every so often, a book comes along that exceeds my expectations (not going to bury the lede here, this book absolutely gets a 5 star review). This one is certainly in that category. Start Small, Stay Small is an excellent guide to getting a product-based business going as a software developer. From the outset, Rob Walling doesn’t make the assumption that you have a large amount of money from investors or that you are playing the start-up lottery. This book is about building a sustainable business one step at a time, usually while working a full time job.

I usually get through books in a fairly short time-frame. I read the first four books of Game of Thrones in a little over two weeks. At 212 pages, one would think that this would be a fast read. If you are reading it correctly, it really isn’t. It took me several weeks to read this book end-to-end, simply because I had to stop so often and update my marketing plan or my to-do list with something actionable that I got from reading this. This book is absolutely jam-packed with actionable steps that you can (and should) take in order to maximize your chances of success. He immediately gets into the mindset differences between the typical developer and those of the successful entrepreneur. There really is a steep and terrible learning curve (if you have to figure it out yourself) between the two disciplines. I’ve had a considerable number of breakthroughs myself, and the learning curve wouldn’t have been as difficult had I read this book earlier than I did.

Next, he gets into how to find a niche (and why that’s important) in which to develop a product. The focus here is on building something small enough that you can actually develop a product in a reasonable time-frame. The goal here is not to construct the next Facebook, but rather to develop a small application that you can use to generate enough revenue to be able to quit your day job. Towards that end, he gives extensive advice aimed at helping you select a niche that has enough potential customers in it that you can make a living, without being so big that it is already crowded by very large competition that you don’t want to try to take on while starting up. This particular section of the book really clarified a lot of things for me in regards to which of my ideas I should pursue and which ones I should discard (or at least hold off on). It also clarified ways to improve idea generation for a particular niche (in other words, how to come up with ideas that a customer actually wants, versus what you THINK they want). This, too, was an eye-opener and sent me back to the drawing board.

Next, he gets into actually getting a product together. This is where he discusses the types of products that one might want to build, as well as the relative advantages and disadvantages of each. While I’m still pretty sold on the SaaS (Software as a Service) model, some of the others are interesting to consider. He also gives a lot of good tips for figuring out exactly what to build and how you should approach the process (it’s very different as a solo developer than it is as a corporate developer). He also discusses the merits of building the software yourself, versus outsourcing the work. I have to admit that there are more cases where outsourcing makes sense. This section, once again, sent me back to the drawing board on some of my ideas. He follows up with determining how appropriately price your product, including some good advice regarding pricing tiers and how to determine whether your pricing structure is actually working well.

Following that, he gets into the meat of how to build a working sales website. This part was particularly dense for me and I have dozens of actionable things to do, simply to improve my main business website, following reading this. I’m somewhat lucky here that I didn’t have an extensive marketing plan for any of the several ideas I’ve got in mind for applications and information products, or I would be doing extensive rework. There’s a lot of good stuff in here and it’s clear that Rob is a pro at putting all this together.

Next, he gets into the reasons why you might want to get a virtual assistant as you are starting up a business. While I’ve outsourced some work (getting some marketing copy written, building graphics assets, and heavy excel work), I’ve not really looked into getting an assistant. Rob makes a compelling case for it, but I’m not quite far enough along yet to need the help on a regular basis. That said, I do plan to follow some of his advice to start moving in that direction. There’s a lot of good material here that is equally applicable to both standard outsourcing on a task basis as well as hiring an assistant. I really wish I had encountered this book before I had started, as I wouldn’t have necessarily made different decisions, but it would have made the whole thing much less intimidating.

Finally, he discusses what you should do after launch. While I enjoyed this part of the book, I kept wanting to put the thing down and go DO this stuff so I can experience the post-launch stage. I would love to be at the point where I decide whether to grow a product or to launch another one. There’s a lot of practical advice here, but I’m not quite ready to use it. It makes me really look forward to getting into the Micropreneur Academy, whenever the next cohort goes in.

So, suffice it to say, I heartily recommend this book. If there is only book I can recommend for an entrepreneur with a software development background, this is the one. This is definitely five stars.