The Part-Time Startup

Image: Ray Hennessy, Unsplash

Tell any VC you are working on a startup part-time and they will dismiss you on the spot. Yes, unlike any other creative endeavour, building tech products on the side amounts to nothing less than heresy. Want people to take you seriously? Quit your day job, shut down your social life and sit in front of a computer screen for the next five years.

As harsh as it sounds, it rings true. Tech startups just don’t happen overnight. Unless you are willing to do 80-hour workweeks, you don’t stand a chance. Either you won’t build a product worth paying for or somebody else will beat you to it. Provided you had figured out what your customers really want in the first place anyway.

But what if it wasn't always this way? What if a part-time startup could succeed?

Bad timing

For the past six months I’ve been living and breathing this question. Not out of curiosity, though—out of necessity. You see, a hackathon project I’ve started with a group of friends suddenly took off. In a space of six months our user-base grew from zero to two hundred thousand people. No AdWords, no HackerNews, no Product Hunt, no Oprah, no nothin’. We had stumbled upon a gem and had no idea what to do next.

The timing was far from perfect. From homes under construction and monthly mortgagee payments, long-term freelance gigs and ongoing client commitments, to raising a family and being in the middle of moving half way around the world, we had a lot on our plates already. We just didn’t have the financial nor the mental bandwidth to put more than 12–16 hours a week into the project, tops.

Against this backdrop we had to face the reality: either we pack our bags and get on with our lives or we keep going, betting this part-time startup will eventually pan out.

“If we do it, we better do it properly”, I told the rest of the guys, “anything else than full commitment and we’ll be wasting our time.” After years of working on bootstrapped, under-resourced projects I had no appetite for another suicide mission.

Above anything else, though, I did not want to give up. I did not want to endlessly play out the various “what if” scenarios in my head. And so, against my better judgement, we decided to give this part-time startup a go.

Very soon it became apparent what we were up against. Developing, testing, de-bugging and ultimately shipping the simplest of features took weeks, not days. Tending to even the most mundane technical glitches frequently put this work on hold, causing further delays. Teamwork suffered too, as we were struggling to cope with the mounting pressures of our work and home lives. We were royally screwed, if you’d asked me.

More time to think

It wasn’t all bad news, though. As it turned out, the limited time we had for the startup made for a handy constraint too.

It started with setting priorities. Pressed against the wall, we were forced to think twice about every decision we were about to make. There could be no “nice to haves”, window dressing or any other gimmicks. Only concrete solutions to genuine problems. We just could not afford to work on anything but the absolute vital aspects of the product.

Ideation got a boost too. The breaks we had to take between working on the project inadvertently gave our ideas additional room to grow, develop and mature. Over time previously invisible flaws became apparent, errors of judgment exposed while better solutions came to light. Had we not been forced to wait before committing anything to code we’d almost certainly get stuck cleaning up the mess later on.

It reminded me again of John Cleese’s legendary talk on creativity. In it Cleese shares his insights into how his original ideas during his Monty Python years came to be. The key to his process, he says, was to take more time with an idea than appears to be necessary:

(…) Although I was sorely tempted to take the easy way out, and finish by 5 o’clock, I just couldn’t. I’d sit there with the problem for another hour-and-a-quarter, and by sticking at it would, in the end, almost always come up with something more original.

While we haven’t spent more time actively engaged with the project like John Cleese has, the compulsory “passive-thinking time” has probably been just as valuable. We’ve all been aware of the power of setting a problem aside and returning to it the next morning or next week. Except in this particular case we had no choice—we had to do it.

The delays in development also allowed more customer feedback to trickle in. As tickets sat in the backlog for weeks at a time, emails from our users would come in, giving us snippets of insight into how they used the product. On multiple occasions these messages informed key product decisions, preventing us from building the wrong thing altogether and saving us weeks of work in the process. We spent less time doing and more time building.

Taking your time

As I’m thinking about all of this the old tale “The Tortoise and the Hare” comes to mind. In this classical story a slow-moving tortoise challenges an arrogant hare to a race and wins. Wins not by getting buff like a half-shell version of Rocky Balboa, but by keeping a steady pace and a resolve to keep marching forward.

I can’t help but think that when it comes to startups, it pays to be that tortoise. To take your time, be patient and stay the course, not run the fastest you possibly can. To persevere even when everyone around you believes otherwise. Even when you believe otherwise.

It’s still too early to tell whether our part-time startup does actually pan out. But despite the overwhelming odds against us, despite all the drama in our lives, despite our own doubts we’ll keep moving forward. Ultimately, that’s how you get to the finish line. Even if it takes a while longer than you had hoped for.

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Product designer and occasional writer 🇪🇺🇺🇸

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Piotr Bakker

Piotr Bakker

Product designer and occasional writer 🇪🇺🇺🇸

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