This is the jist of a 4 minute talk I’m giving about AirPair at SFNewTech tomorrow.
To be honest, I claim my blog is about user acquisition, but don’t write about it enough because we’re still busy staying way ahead of our competitors. But I think the time has come and I’m comfortable sharing the story of how we kickstarted things. Tomorrow night will be the first time I speak publicly about it.
Startup Bootstrapping Lesson 1 - Start with Cash Flow
My Dad is kind of an old-school, wise and successful guy. He’s got a mantra, that maybe is a bit of a lost art here in the bay area, that he frequently reminds me of:
"Jonathon. Happiness is a positive cash flow"
For whatever reasons, over the first 9 years of my startup career, the message didn’t quite sink in. I built products that didn’t get used and products that got so much traction, they grew into global communities where people met and even got married … But no matter how popular or useful people found my ideas - Bootstrapping lesson 1, is they were un-sustainable because they had no positive cash flow. If you want to bootstrap, you need to know and prove you can make money from the beginning.
When I started AirPair, I was so painfully aware of my past. I knew AirPair had to have a business model baked in from day 1… and it did.
Startup Bootstrapping Lesson 2 - Do Things Manually
So, what’s AirPair? Well, this is one view of AirPair
Here you can see hundreds of entrepreneurs connecting with expert code mentors for help staying un-stuck, learning new frameworks, and getting guidance on making sound technical decisions.
But AirPair didn’t look that sexy on day 1. On day 1 there was no website, or even a landing page. But my gut told me, people would pay to connect over video for 1-2 hours of software help.
The first successful MVP consisted of:
- [Email] Getting a description of the problem from the customer
- [Email] Researching and cold contacting experts in socket.io
- [Email] Negotiating back and forth on available times
- [GoogleCalendar] Sending a calendar invite to confirm the appointment time
- [GoogleHangouts] Inviting the customer and expert to the the actual call
- [PayPal] Collecting from the customer and paying out to the expert.
Here’s the original session :) - I wish I’d had a shave, LOL.
Bootstrapping Lesson #2 comes from years of coding features that never got used, and is one that has served us incredibly well as AirPair has grown at each step of our evolution: ”Always do something manually before building custom software to increase efficiencies”. There is just no point improving the efficiency of something that does not sell, no matter how good a solution you implement, your ROI is still 0.
Startup Bootstrapping Lesson 3 - Scale Lean, Avoid Coding
Coding 24/7 might be OK if you are venture backed, but if you are bootstrapping you need inbound leads and converting customers. Every minute you’re coding is one you’re not hustling.
Armed with the initial success, but still stuck in a full time day job, I had to figure out if we could build a real business around connecting tech folks. So, I came up with the second iteration. A static HTML page, 2 Google forms and a press release from TechCrunch.
I suppose I’ve already shown you what the product is from the customer’s perspective, but a bird’s eye view of the “idea” is more clearly represented in this screenshot of the original static HTML landing page:
AirPair is simply a really nicely branded two-sided marketplace, where entrepreneurs and companies can get instant access to top quality engineering expertise. I still have the original customer Google form and the expert Google form, where we collected 71 requests for help, 120 developers wanting to be experts. From these leads, I processed 15 paying customers before writing a single line of code. That’s when I decided it was time to quit my job and build the first version of our site in node.
Startup Bootstrapping Lesson 4 - To Be Continued
There are definitely great stories and lessons learned between April and now that will be worth sharing in the coming months. Our product is a little bit more developed than that second MVP, but you’d be surprised how similar it still feels. We still have not taken any angel or VC money. We’ve now had 5 straight months of 40+% month on month growth. We’re a team of 4, just covering our rent and eating instant noodles. This past week were also accepted into YC.