Lessons learned from starting a business while working full time.

Aug 19, 2017

I started working on Collate in December of 2016. I was dissatisfied with the note taking apps on the market and wanted a tool that would work for my needs. I had been toying with the idea and finally started writing code over the Christmas holiday. I had a basic prototype built with Electron, bootstrap and jQuery by February, then rebuilt it with Electron, Vue.js and Bulma from scratch because the code base was terrible. Today, Collate is profitable, has a couple hundred users, was featured on Lifehacker and is doing well by my standards. Here are some hard learned lessons from the last 8 months of working on Collate while maintaining a full time job:

  1. Have a tight scope — I made the mistake of saying yes to everything and pretty soon Collate began heading in a direction I wasn’t happy with. Users will ask for features, it’s only natural. It’s extremely easy to bloat the scope of your project if you say yes to everything. Having an extremely tight scope of what your project does and provides is essential to focus the small amount of time you have to devote to the project. I’m working on the next iteration of Collate and it will be extremely pared down.
  2. Use what you know — Use technology you know like the back of your hand. This advice is given a lot and for good reason. If you need to spend time learning a new piece of tech, it’s time away from making your product more stable. I use Wordpress in my day job, so it’s only natural I use it for my product’s site. It’s not sexy but it works.
  3. If you have to learn new tech, experiment and choose what works for you — Other times you might not know how to use the right technology for the job. In these cases experiment and see what works best for your needs. I went with Vue.js for the second iteration of Collate because I was working on a project at work that utilized it. Using it in both places helped both projects immensely.
  4. Charge money — This is one thing I’m glad I got right from the start thanks to advice from Indie Hackers and other startup founders. Charge money from the get-go and get customers comfortable paying for your product. Collate was profitable the second week out of release. The money gives you a cushion to experiment and grow the business. Since I’m working full time, all profits go back into the project to pay for things like servers, lawyers, and third party services I may use.
  5. It’s okay to not respond to emails — Customer service is a very time consuming task. I made the mistake of replying to each and every email in the beginning, usually with long explanations of what I was doing and my plans. With limited time, choose your service requests carefully and try to minimize time spent on it. It doesn’t mean you don’t care, you’re just prioritizing. I got to a point where I would dread opening up my inbox, after I stopped responding to everything, things got a lot more manageable.
  6. Get your legal ducks in a row — If you’re going to collect money for your project, spend a little up front as soon as you can afford to and get all your legal stuff squared away. I started my corporate entity (Collate, LLC) through a corporate filing company in my state. Opened a bank account with the same bank I use for my personal accounts. Then, got my End User License Agreement and Privacy Policy looked at by an attorney I found on Upcounsel.
  7. Think about marketing — You don’t have to be a marketing wiz but consider it while building out the product. At the very minimum, start early by building a email list of people interested in your product. You don’t have to constantly market to your list but its useful to have people to notify when you have something to announce.
  8. Pace yourself — I wish I had learned this lesson sooner. I worked on Collate furiously for the first six months, pumping out feature after feature and release after release. I was putting in close to 40 hours a week on nights and weekends working on Collate after work for a while. I got so burnt out that I had to step away from the project and try working on something else (and even not working on anything!). I’m back on it now, but working on it at a much slower pace. Take the time to decompress each day, get exercise and make sure to sleep.

Side projects while working full time are a lot of work but also very rewarding. The best part for me was building something from scratch that I’m passionate about building, something that I don’t get at my day job. It’s also pretty great to build something and then watch other people get excited about it.