What I Learned Bootstrapping Startups After College

Everyone knows that startups should make things. But somewhere along the way, it seems that we have lost touch with that simple truth. This is my talk given at Fishburners. In this talk, I describe lessons I learned while bootstrapping startups after finishing school. Although abstract, they all stem from a single observation: there is too much bullshit in the startup scene.

This presentation was a fitting end to my yearlong journey at Fishburners community, because I am moving on to a different city pretty soon. I would like to thank the Fishburners community and staffs who made my journey possible. Below is the whole presentation and the full transcript.


speaker Hi everyone, my name is Sung, and I’m going to talk about what I learned bootstrapping startups after I graduated from college.

speaker So that’s me. I moved into Fishburners February last year and so far, I’ve bootstrapped about 4 companies here. I’ve learned a lot of things, and I would like to share them with the Fishburners community.

speaker One thing that I learned is that there is too much bullshit in startup scene.

speaker Startups were supposed to be about making but I don’t think anybody is really making anymore.

speaker So instead of making, we have stuff like coffee meetings with people who have absolutely nothing to offer you.

speaker And instead of making, we have these start-up conferences where so-called ‘start-up coaches’ tell you about things, and you have to sit through their lectures. Every minute you spend here is a minute you’re not spending making and shipping.

speaker Instead of making, we got team meetings where we have to sit through long hours, just to ship one feature. Startups weren’t supposed to be like this.

speaker And finally, we have networking events where you shake hands with random people that you’re never gonna see, just for the sake of meeting people. Again, every minute you spend in network meetings and network events is a minute you’re not spending making.

speaker So we should just stop this.

speaker Also, another thing that bothers me is that we are too sure that we know something, but we actually don’t. So this is Startup School, recently launched by Y Combinator.

speaker It claims to … Well it says it’s gonna encourage startups through the community, which are really good goals. But it claims that it’s gonna teach how to start a startup.

speaker But the truth is, we can’t.

speaker Camus said, “It’s not a matter of explaining. It’s about experiencing and describing.” I think anyone who’s trying to explain how to start a startup or how to do a startup is missing a point.

speaker I think, instead of making, which is the important part, we made up all this, too much stuff outside of making, just to make ourselves feel important.

speaker So this is an octagon, a cage. Somehow this is relevant. So every morning, Monday through Thursday, I get in there to train in mixed martial arts. So the coach will lock the door from outside and say, “Let’s go boys.” And one thing you notice when that happens is that everything else, they are fake. The only thing that’s real is your opponent coming to hurt you and you going to hurt him. So I think we made too much stuff around a startup. And I think we should focus on what’s really important, which is making.

speaker So again, I’m not gonna try to explain my lessons because it’s pointless. All I can do is describe it so that you can either take it or leave it. So these are my startups.

speaker So I graduated in 2014. My undergrad was in economics and mathematics. And I went to school in New York City, so everyone went to big banks like J.P. Morgan and Merrill Lynch and stuff like that. But I didn’t really want that, so I started to teach myself how to code.

speaker So this is the first thing that I made. It’s called wingFind. I made it while I was in college. It’s a social networking website that helps you find wingmen. Because my friends were terrible wingmen, so I made this. About 50 people in New York City used it, so I guess it’s actually a problem.

speaker And I moved to Australia, and I made Coddee. It’s a code reviewing software you can use to review other people’s coding really quickly. I spent about four months working on this, but no one really uses it, so I had to move on.

speaker Then I made Vym. This is when I moved to Fishburners. So Vym is a code presentation software that you can use to review and present your code really quickly. I spent about four months again, but I couldn’t get anybody to use it, so I moved on.

speaker So then I made RemoteBase. RemoteBase is a directory of remote-friendly companies and jobs. So this one actually is the first thing that took off, and it’s used by thousands of people every month.

speaker Then I made RemoteMesh. RemoteMesh is a chat community for remote workers because remote workers get lonely all the time. It’s being used by over 100 people at the moment.

speaker Then I made Flowmad because I was texting a girl I met and I was bombing pretty hard. So this is an app that sends you a practice question for a text every three days. But I couldn’t get anybody to use it, so I’m guessing it’s only me that has a problem.

speaker Then I made Dnote. Dnote is a note-taking app for developers. It’s actually being used by hundreds of developers.

speaker So through making all this, through building and launching all these startups, I learned that we’re not actually making. We’re wasting our time on other stuff that I talked about in the beginning.

speaker So I came up with these four things so that we can stick to what’s really important, which is making, and stay away from other things that won’t help us. They are: work alone, be real, let go, and just make. I couldn’t make any acronyms out of it, but I’ll go through them one by one.

speaker First thing is that you have to work alone. So you have to do it yourself when you’re doing your startup

speaker Paul Graham said the biggest mistake that kills startup is single founder. But I think he might be mistaken here, because his advice is only applicable when you’re talking about billion dollar companies. Nobody really goes out and builds a billion dollar company from the ground up. Everybody starts small.

speaker Also, we have to look at the diseconomies of scale. So if you have average cost over output in the long run, there comes a point where increase in output, the average cost of producing an item goes up. I think most startups, when they start, they’re here, Q1. Once you add co-founders into the mix, which causes all these dramas, then your average cost will quickly go up. And I think, most software development projects, as a software developer I have noticed this, we have a very massive diseconomies of scale. So we have to do it ourselves.

speaker Another reason to do it yourself is that you can work quickly if you’re by yourself. So if you want to make this button green, this blue button, and if you have to call some office in Eastern Europe and your project manager’s gonna be like, “Oh I’ll see what I can do in two days,” that’s a really slow feedback, but we want very rapid feedback cycle. That’s a reason to do it yourself.

speaker So to do it yourself, you have to learn to code. There’s no excuse, because I built all these startups and I don’t have a computer science degree. This is where I learned to code. Knowledge is free so we can take computer science classes on Coursera, from Stanford. So that’s how to work alone.

speaker Another thing is you have to be real. This is important, because everything is really fake in startup scenes.

speaker J.D. Salinger said, “How would you know if you weren’t being a phony? You wouldn’t know it.” I think we might be so deep in these whole startup shenanigans that we might not even realize that we are being fake.

speaker First thing is, it’s about you. It’s not about the company that you’re building or your cool startup ideas, it’s about you.

speaker So this guy is Pieter Levels, he’s the founder of NomadList and many other things. It’s really delightful to use his products because he makes them about himself. He’s tells a narrative about why he’s making what he’s making.

speaker This is Courtland, last October he started making a startup called IndieHackers. He works alone, and I have been following his journey since he began. And last month, his startup IndieHackers got acquired by Stripe.

speaker This is Mubashar, one of the most decorated makers on ProductHunt. It’s really a delight to use his product again, because he makes all this stuff, and I know that he’s the person behind all these products. I know that I’m not using some sort of ready-made products built by some agencies.

speaker So they are real. What’s not real are big companies, or startups that are pretending to be big players. So one thing I learned is that we need to be present in our products, we don’t need to hide behind some sort of a wall.

speaker So again, we don’t like fake stuff.

speaker Ads no longer work because everyone’s fed up and everyone’s got AdBlock, so it’s fake.

speaker And faking teams don’t even work. I know that a lot of solo founders contact ‘us’, ‘we’ value feedback kinda stuff, but what are we trying to do by doing this. Really, we are hiding behind fake things.

speaker I think that we might be doing this to our users. This is the allegory of the cave, by Plato. So in this cave, people can only perceive reality by looking through the reflection of the wall, rather than seeing the real deal. So maybe … So this might be our users and we might be doing that. So we are holding our users prisoner by being fake and not being real.

speaker So we have to let go.

speaker One thing we have to notice is that we are not smart-asses.

speaker These people are. So this is Tim Berners-Lee, who invented World Wide Web and Fred Brooks and Donald Knuth who are really important computer scientists in the past decades.

speaker So, as a software engineer this is how I see software development. We made up too much stuff just to make ourselves feel important and smarter, and just to do the simplest thing we have to follow all these patterns, we have to learn all these frameworks and stuff. I’m pretty sure in the near future this whole thing is going to crumble down because everything is really all made up and we are not really focusing on what’s important, which is making.

speaker In Mythical Man-Month which is like a Bible for software developers, it’s been said that “plan to throw one away, because you will, anyhow.” Your first software iteration is never going to be perfect, or the second or the third. So I think we have to let go and always be prepared to throw away our code.

speaker Another thing is that we can’t keep building cars if you want to go anywhere.

speaker This is Jack who’s sitting there. Jack and me, we are planning a sprint (in this picture). So when I was building RemoteBase, I always thought about what could I be building next, what should I focus on next. But Jack said that I can’t keep building cars, I need to start driving sometime.

speaker There’s like a whole startup literature built around the idea of iteration as the solution for everything. Why are we even glorifying iteration?

speaker You have to drive the car to get somewhere. So I think iteration for the sake of iteration is never a solution. It’s just a means, not an end.

speaker Also popular culture has it that passion is a solution for everything. But I think it’s overrated.

speaker This is, again, Flowmad. I made this on my free time and when nobody I used it I just threw it away. If I really put my blood, sweat, and tears into this product, who knows, I would still be working on this dead-end product. I think it’s important to accept your product’s death, when it happens. Passion is overrated.

speaker And software engineers, don’t write tests. Who here is a software engineer? Okay so you might disagree with me but I don’t think it’s necessary to write tests, especially if you’re launching a startup, and are in the beginning stage.

speaker And also “you ain’t gonna need it.”

speaker This picture says a lot of things, a whole bunch of stuff. I mean for your next startup maybe you want to use React or then maybe you want to learn Redux, or maybe GraphQL I dunno, you want to then use Apollo which is a GraphQL implementation. Maybe your startup’s going to be like Facebook one day so let’s throw in NoSQL database like MongoDB blah blah blah.

speaker I mean, come on. You ain’t gonna need it. Every minute you spend deciding which kind of technology to use, or every minute you spend learning new technologies to ship your product, is a minute you’re spending not actually making. So you’re not going to need these stuffs.

speaker So that leaves us with this. Just make.

speaker When you’re making, don’t try to be a hero.

speaker So this is NomadList. Which tells you the best city to live in based on all these categories and actually ranks the city by … it’s own algorithm.

speaker This is what I made, RemoteBase. It’s basically kind of a replica for different audiences. I think we believe we have to create something new, a groundbreaking thing, or need to be an innovator in order to create values for people. But that’s not the case. Please don’t try to be a hero and don’t be afraid to borrow the what works from the others.

speaker Also, solve your own problems.

speaker Because you’re an expert in your own problems. All these products that I built since graduating, I built it for myself. And I knew what to build because it’s built for me. I was the … I didn’t have to run much user testing, because I was the user, I was always there. And again, you can make it personal because it’s about your product and I say it’s important to make things about yourself. But if it’s not your problem, then it’s really hard to make it about yourself.

speaker I think solving random problems no longer works. The idea that you can pick up a random problem, solve the hell out of it, maybe shake a few hands with investors and make a great startup, that conventional wisdom is slowly going extinct.

speaker Also, you’ll be lonely.

speaker This here is Friday Night Pitch. I’ve had an opportunity to pitch my startups many times and I had an honor to win the Friday Night Pitch twice. But as I was hearing all these audiences cheering for my startup, I didn’t really feel happy or joyful. Actually I felt kind of lonely. Because they never clapped for my dead ideas or other people’s dead startups. So what are they clapping for?

speaker So again that brings us back to the cage. When the door’s locked, you are mounted by an opponent a lot bigger than you, and he is pummeling your face, you feel kind of lonely. Because your corner is screaming “come on Sung, get out of there”, but they can’t do anything for me. I’m the only one there and they can’t fight my fight for me. And I’ve sat through desks of Fishburners building my own startups, and have been through situations in the cage, and they feel kind similar. So we see fighters quit the fight, tap out of the fight because of physical pain. But I think they quit because of loneliness.

speaker Henry David Thoreau actually said “beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.” I think if Thoreau was alive today, he wouldn’t be a part of any startups because we made this too much things and everything is kind of fake. Of course we don’t require new clothes because we can wear anything but I don’t think Thoreau’s gonna be happy if he sees all this.

speaker We made up too much shit and we’re not making anymore.

speaker So I think by following these four things, we can stay true to what is really important, which is making and shipping.

speaker I joined the Fishburners startup called Dgraph, and we moved out to Surry Hills. So I’m not based here anymore. I guess every journey has its end and I would like to dedicate mine to these two people who have been very influential over the past years.

speaker First one’s Jack, who’s sitting right there. Jack actually carved out an hour of his time every week just to help me, and I wouldn’t have been able to build RemoteBase without him. So thanks Jack. That’s where you can find him. I’m going to share this slide.

speaker And the other guy is Pieter Levels. I’ve never actually met him. I only know him through his writings and his products. I think he is one of the only guys left out there that is not actually making shit up, or being fake, but actually making. I’ve never met him, but I would like to think him.

speaker So what’s this? This is night sky. I sometimes look up to it. These stars have been there for billions of years. And the World Wide Web is 25 years old. That’s how old I am. Maybe that says something about everything we made up about startups, everything we think is true but really is fake.

speaker Thank you very much.