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Joel Spolsky On How To Bootstrap a Business 75

Posted by kdawson
from the got-aeron dept.
Meredith writes "This is a great interview with Joel Spolsky of Fog Creek Software. Joel talks about the negatives of taking money from venture capitalists, and how the entrepreneurs that don't take money become 'super entrepreneurs,' learning how to make something significant out of nothing. This is a very popular interview among tech entrepreneurs and provides really valuable information for startups."
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Joel Spolsky On How To Bootstrap a Business

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  • hell ya (Score:5, Informative)

    by liquidpele (663430) on Sunday February 10, 2008 @11:32PM (#22376010) Journal
    Pretty much anyone in business will tell you - if you want to build an idea to sell off later, get the money from wherever. If you want to build a business, a VC is your last resort - only use them if you *really* need a shit load of money to even start. The negatives just outweigh the positives, especially in this day and age where a lot of businesses can be started with a $500 server and a fast internet connection.
    • by Anonymous Coward
      "The negatives just outweigh the positives, especially in this day and age where a lot of businesses can be started with a $500 server and a fast internet connection."

      Coming to a broadband connection near you. Downloadable hardware. Now what?
    • But you could borrow $5 million for your Web 2.0 site vap.0ur.war3.com change your name to Vicioso Gonzalez and then flee to Mexico.
      • by emag (4640)
        My lawyers will be contacting you and /. with a DMCA Take Down request for disclosing the contents of my new start-up's business plan, as soon as they stop chasing the ambulance that just went past...
  • tradeoff (Score:3, Interesting)

    by brenddie (897982) on Sunday February 10, 2008 @11:46PM (#22376080)
    it depends on your situation. IF you have the time, money, skills and patience you could make it work with less compromises. Most of the time you get to a point where all you want is to finish as soon as possible and start getting some profit. For that to happen you need to make some compromises. Maybe you will end up with less profit as you add more "partners" but the load should be less and you wont go crazy or loose your hair trying to figure out how to get the money to finish
    • Re:tradeoff (Score:5, Insightful)

      by coolGuyZak (844482) on Monday February 11, 2008 @08:44AM (#22378444)

      The main concern with venture capital isn't losing capital, it's losing control. VCs invest large sums of money into a company, they appreciate large returns on that money. The agreements an entrepreneur enters are usually rather draconian. The preferred stock VC's request include limitations such as veto-power on board decisions, "first dibs" on liquidation funds, multiple seats on the board, etc. VC's also hold a "predatory" mindset; often, they wholly replace your executive staff within the first year of acquisition. Their influence can impose "corporate" values on your company, to the detriment of the environment an entrepreneur previously established. For some businesses, VC is the only way to finance a fledgeling business.

      If you're business doesn't need this kind of capital, there are many other options available to you. Loans, angel investors, hedge funds (almost VC for the east coast), family investment, and "winging it". Often, these methods require about the same amount of as attracting VC. The upside: more control. The downside: less capital.

  • Confused (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 11, 2008 @12:00AM (#22376152)
    I am seriously confused. I learned the golden rule as a teenager: He who has the gold, makes the rules.

    If your parents are paying for your food and shelter, you do what they say.
    If you pay for your own food and shelter, you do whatever you want.

    In business, if you get venture capital; the investors have equity in the business.
    If your equity capital comes from your own pocket, you take all the risks and reap all the rewards.

    In politics, public campaign financing lets all viable candidates compete on equal footing with no ulterior motives.
    Without public campaign financing, candidates rely on "donations" (read: bribes), tell you they are interested in alternative energy, yet provide oil companies with record profits and state-sponsored corporate welfare.

    In those famous words: "Show me the money!"
    Why is it that so many people seem ignorant of this basic premise of how every "civilized" human society operates?
    • Re:Confused (Score:5, Insightful)

      by shenanigans (742403) on Monday February 11, 2008 @07:38AM (#22378060)
      I agree. And as a lot of people are now finding out, if you go to the bank to pay for your house, then it's not really your house at all.

      Everyone is ignorant until taught otherwise. That is why basic financial sense and responsibility should be taught in school, along with a great deal of other things that are missing. Unfortunately, western schools (it's the same here in Europe) are still geared towards creating industry workers in countries that hardly have any industrial production left.
      • by aevans (933829)
        It's really pointless to teach basic financial sense in school. They should really just teach everyone how to become NBA players, so that they'll have enough money to not have to worry about finances.
    • Re:Confused (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Brian Stretch (5304) * on Monday February 11, 2008 @10:32AM (#22379454)
      Without public campaign financing, candidates rely on "donations" (read: bribes), tell you they are interested in alternative energy, yet provide oil companies with record profits and state-sponsored corporate welfare.

      Or we could cut taxes, close down numerous government departments, replace the lobbyist-designed federal tax code with the Flat Tax [hoover.org], and otherwise reduce the amount of loot for "special interests" to fight over. It'd make life easier for small businesses who don't have K Street lobbyists on retainer to protect them from the federal government too.

      Let 'em take all the campaign donations they want, just have full and immediate disclosure on the Internet.
    • by drsquare (530038)

      In politics, public campaign financing lets all viable candidates compete on equal footing with no ulterior motives.
      It also means you're wages are being docked to fund candidates you hate.

      It also gives politicians the power of deciding who's allowed to stand against them.
    • In politics, public campaign financing lets all viable candidates compete on equal footing with no ulterior motives.

      BWAAAAHAHAHAHAHAAAA!
      Seriously, mod this guy up as Funny.

      Big hole in theory #1
      "Who determines who is viable?"

      Big Hole in theory #2:
      In order for your notion to (pretend to) work you have to ban private money being used. All of it.

      Those who have the gold (can make the laws) will decide who can be considered "viable" in your proposed system. It's bad enough now, it'd only get worse. At least now i
  • by Animats (122034) on Monday February 11, 2008 @12:23AM (#22376274) Homepage

    I'd be more impressed if this were from someone who started up a company that grew. This guy has a little software company with one product, and he's had a little company with one product for, what, ten years now?

    For comparison, read The Autodesk File [fourmilab.ch]. Autodesk was started with $60K from the founders, never accepted any venture capital, and had revenue of $1.8 billion last year.

    • by jjohnson (62583) on Monday February 11, 2008 @01:24AM (#22376600) Homepage
      The reason you might want to imitate Spolsky is the nature of his success. He hasn't got a growth company, he's got a massively successful boutique ISV. They've got several products, none of which is particularly hot; but collectively, they sell more than enough, at a high enough price, for him to maintain an office in Manhattan that an architect redesigns every year. He also pays really high salaries and retains all the dot-com benefits so he can hire one or two rockstars (his term) a year, run an internship program, blog, and just generally be the IT celebrity that he wants to be. The company funds largely useless world tours for the launch of his software, which is just a business deductible junket for him. And I bet the code for all his products is *exactly* the way he likes it.

      No one will ever use his name in the same sentence as Torvalds or Jobs or Gates. But he's got a pretty sweet lifestyle, and I bet most here would trade their left nut for it.
      • by Tumbleweed (3706) * on Monday February 11, 2008 @01:51AM (#22376712)
        But he's got a pretty sweet lifestyle, and I bet most here would trade their left nut for it.

        Well...not my *left* one. That one's my favourite, you see. I know you're not supposed to have favourites, but I can't help it.
        • You owe me a mouthful of Mountain Dew Amp and a new keyboard.

          For the record, you're allowed to have a *dominant* one, just like being right handed... I happen to be right nutted.

          You'd better laugh; I'm going to lose a job interview some day over this post when they ask me what tech. sites I frequent!

          • by Tumbleweed (3706) * on Monday February 11, 2008 @02:52AM (#22376936)
            You'd better laugh; I'm going to lose a job interview some day over this post when they ask me what tech. sites I frequent!

            Only if you fill out 'Gazzonyx' on the job app.

            And I don't owe you any Mountain Dew Amp or a keyboard. I have diplomatic immunity courtesy of my sub-5-digit Slashdot UID. :)
            • by NateTech (50881)
              I'm surprised we haven't seen people buying/selling low Slash ID's on eBay... with all the amazing perks and what-not. Ha.
              • by Tumbleweed (3706) *
                I'm surprised we haven't seen people buying/selling low Slash ID's on eBay... with all the amazing perks and what-not. Ha.

                Nah, people just don't get rid of these things - they run 'em into the ground.
        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by bladesjester (774793)
          Well...not my *left* one. That one's my favourite, you see. I know you're not supposed to have favourites, but I can't help it.

          You people are all going about it wrong. You shouldn't trade your left nut. You should trade somebody else's left nut. This is a business proposition after all. *grin*
          • by Tumbleweed (3706) *
            You people are all going about it wrong. You shouldn't trade your left nut. You should trade somebody else's left nut. This is a business proposition after all.

            Your proposal is acceptable. Fork over your left nut.
          • That only works if you're an investment nutter...
      • How does that compare with Autodesk's founder, John Walker [fourmilab.ch]? He made millions, retired, lives in Switzerland, and spends his time hacking on whatever he likes, 24/7.

        I suspect he's closer to slashdot's ideal than Spolsky.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by jjohnson (62583)
          Spolsky made enough from Microsoft and Juno that he doesn't need to work. Fog Creek is what he wants to do. I imagine that comes from his non-open-source career--his dream is having his own perfect ISV, rather than contributing to research or open source.
          • by xenocide2 (231786)
            But it's a bit strange -- he's notable for his successes at Microsoft/Juno. Now that he's had a chance to practice what he preaches in his blog, shouldn't Fog Creek be incredibly successful? If not, why does anyone read his blog?
            • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

              by Anonymous Coward
              He used to provide a lot of insightful posting on the software industry. These were not, whatsoever, based on his own insights but rather how Microsoft worked internally. As Microsoft was unique in how well it worked and was still the pinical of the industry, it provided a lot of good information for others to copy. If you read his essays about Microsoft now, they seem like good ideas already widely adopted. But back then, they were true gems.

              However, if you look at Joel's actual achievements, there's not
              • by xenocide2 (231786)
                OK, that explains Joel's fame, but what of the likes of Jeff Atwood? Every post seems to be a proof of finding the truth by deliberately placing incorrect information on the internet.
            • by jjohnson (62583)
              You're still defining success as huge sales and the company that goes along with that. That's not where Spolsky wants to work. He makes tons of money selling some niche products (really, just bug tracking and easy-remote-desktop for consumers). He gets to run his own business, with no interference from VCs. Because profitability is so lopsided for him, he gets to live the executive life of a much larger company (architect designed Manhattan office, junkets to the far east) with fewer than twenty employe
        • by greg1104 (461138)
          I don't know how you can suggest Walker is close to the slashdot ideal considering the man actually works on his diet [fourmilab.ch].

          • by MagicMike (7992)
            Ah, but +1 on the Hacker's Diet, a no-BS diet that actually works

            Goes a long way to dispelling the Unix Guru stereotype when you're actually *not* the guy with the beer gut :-)
      • by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 11, 2008 @02:53AM (#22376942)
        I debated for a good half a minute about whether to AC this. Surely it would be read by a lot more people if I posted under my normal /. account (which has at least a few fans, and my posts are generally modded up), but I think I would feel constrained in some ways about what I could say. Normally I am very open in my slashdot posts, but I'd like to talk about some of the transitions that our company is currently in, and I wouldn't be able to do that openly under my normal nick.

        I'm the CEO of a tech startup (not in IT/IS, however), we've been a legal entity for about 2 years, and the entire project is 3-4 years old. I spent every penny I had to get started, and bootstrapped the rest of our seed money (around $1M) from family. There was a bunch more stuff here about how the project started, but I edited this and cut a lot of fluff out, because I dont think anyone needs to really read it to get the point. We build a few products, products that are technically superior to our competition, and at the same time cheaper.

        When we had recently began to engineer the first product, I started to talk publicly on the Internet about what I was up to, and asked for feedback. People responded positively. Although some of the other companies out there are more hype and marketing related, and it was difficult to compete for attention when we had zero marketing budget, we were able to get good feedback from serious users. Some people I knew in the industry introduced me to executives at some of the more serious players that would eventually be corporate clients. Some of them dismissed us entirely, I think both because I don't look like a CEO, and because we aimed to do things that were very complicated, and to do them reasonably. One time in an introduction meeting, I actually had the CEO of one of the potential clients/partners spend about 85% of the meeting talking directly to our lead engineer (who is about twice my age) instead of to me, because I guess he didn't listen well when we were introduced, and had assumed I was the engineer and "the gray-haired guy" was actually the CEO, haha.

        The greatest reward of bootstrapping, for me, has been the ability to run the company I want to. For me, that means making tools for other techies, and making them accessable to techies. I'm not really a CEO, I'm a techie. I've probably made some less than optimal decisions as a CEO-- We could have priced our product at double what the competition sold their crippled ones for, and it would have made more net profit, but I didn't want to cater to just the most affluent segment. I didn't want to cripple my products just to slowly dole out a "new" version of the same old tech each year with less embedded crippling. I wanted to make a really robust, useful product, get it in the hands of guys like me, and use the profits to make it better and better.

        So as you point out, Spolsky enjoys the same type of company I do-- I could make more money by changing our business model, but I wouldn't be as happy. I wanted to run an office where people didn't have to conform to some arbitrary dress code that had no bearing on their job performance, or leave their pets stuck at home alone all day. Life should be about enjoying yourself, and I feel very fortunate to be in an industry where I do enjoy myself, and no longer be in a position where I have an idiot CEO above me, who doesn't really HEAR what I'm saying, and with whom I have to wrestle to do my job properly. I try to listen to our engineers, designers, programmers, and *NOT* be the archetype of the idiot CEO that we've all had to deal with before. Our competitors.. most of the people in the industry know those CEOs by name. Most people in this industry probably couldn't tell you my name (although most of them know our products!). The downside (if you want to call it that) of being a niceguy techie CEO is that most people don't take you seriously as a CEO-- I don't inspire Jobs/Gates/Trump style excitement with the various fanboys of m
        • Just posting to draw attention to the parent post. Mods, mod it up as I dont have any mod points right now!
        • Mod parent up, please, very interesting post!
        • by Ravenscall (12240)
          You talk of dreading going after venture capital. Then why do it? Yes, R&D is expensive, but are you profitable. I think if you are profitable, and you keep turning your profit back into R&D, you will be able to go to market on your own, albeit maybe not as fast. I have no idea what industry you are in, but if your products are superior, then I don't think you have to be run under by your competition. It is YOUR company. If you dread bringing in the vulture capital, then don't do it. Find alt
        • by eison (56778) <pkteison@@@hotmail...com> on Monday February 11, 2008 @01:39PM (#22381536) Homepage
          Summary of your post:
          Companies with a better image have more people using their software. You spend no money on marketing and enjoy a collegiate atmosphere. Your next step is to get a better image. You're going to get VC and scrap the collegiate atmosphere to do it.

          So:
          Why do you need the VC to have a marketing budget and a better image? Why not just spend some money on marketing and have somebody (yourself in a suit, an imported gray hair, whatever why should it matter who your customers think is in charge if it makes them happy?) present a polished look to the world so that you can get more customers and write more software?

          Nothing particularly magical about the VC money. They might have connections, and can probably recommend a respectable looking gray haired new CEO, but you can find those things without them too.
        • by aevans (933829)
          You're right, you should have told us more about who you are. Then we might be we willing to take some of what you say seriously. That's the difference between you and Joel. Whether he's done it right or not, he puts his name and his product on the line when he talks.
        • Good post. Why not just sell out, then start another company with your "sell out" bucks? The hardest thing for a creative person to do is to let go of the creation, once it starts a life of its own, and be able to walk away without regrets to create something else. Does the company you leave behind really need you in the driver's seat, or CTO chair, that badly? Or are you so ingrained in the culture you cannot step aside? Can you divorce yourself from something you really enjoy so it can grow beyond wh
      • by drsquare (530038)
        Even with all that, it just makes him a successful businessman, not an entrepeneur.
        • by jjohnson (62583)
          A businessman runs a business. An entrepreneur creates one. He created his from scratch, with a partner. The scale isn't relevent.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      I guess that was a good troll, because it made it to +5, but it seems kind of weak to me.

      One product? Offhand, I can name three [fogcreek.com] separate [fogcreek.com] products [copilot.com] which FogCreek ships.

      Doubly so because you're comparing it to AutoDesk, which has ... well, there's AutoCAD. I don't know any others. According to the Wikipedia, the first non-AutoCAD product of mention is Revit, which they bought in 2002, after the company was 20 years old.

      FogCreek is only 8 years old. Even AutoDesk wasn't paying $133 million for other compan
      • Re: (Score:1, Troll)

        by belmolis (702863)

        Yes, three products, but what good are they? They don't run on Linux!

      • by edwdig (47888)
        Doubly so because you're comparing it to AutoDesk, which has ... well, there's AutoCAD. I don't know any others.

        I'm sure you've at least heard of 3D Studio, right? They had 3D Studio in the DOS days, which was replaced by 3D Studio Max for NT.

        They also had AutoDesk Animator, a 2D animation package. I think that died off in the late 90's though.
    • I'd be more impressed if this were from someone who started up a company that grew.

      He seems to be happy. Beat that.

    • You must not have read much of what he's written about his business over the years. Way back in 2000, he posted a perfectly good explanation [joelonsoftware.com] of why his business wasn't going to try to grow really quickly. A year later, he posted another article [joelonsoftware.com] explaining why trying to grow quickly is such a monumentally stupid gamble (if you're the developer and not the VC).

      Your example of Autodesk is pretty stupid. Autodesk was started in 1982, which was 26 years ago. They were a very early player in the market for CAD so
      • by aevans (933829)
        Wrong. Autodesk was a very early player in the PC market. They were going to create a form builder application, then a general graphical library, then stumbled onto CAD. AutoDesk was a perfect example of a flexible company that followed market demand instead of pigheadedly trying to sell their "product."
        • The point is that they started producing CAD software long before CAD was a common concept and household term. They got in on a developing market. That isn't always possible these days, and it isn't something anybody sane should count on being able to do.
  • Where is the text of the interview?
  • by crow5599 (994334) on Monday February 11, 2008 @02:24AM (#22376834)
    Randomly, this interview took place over two years ago. The originating page: http://www.venturevoice.com/2005/11/vv_show_20_joel_spolsky_of_fog.html [venturevoice.com]
  • Transcript? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by djcapelis (587616) on Monday February 11, 2008 @02:38AM (#22376880) Homepage
    I'm really disliking this trend of posting interviews in a video format. Just because you can doesn't mean you should... come on folks.

    Anyways, anyone know if this thing has a text version or transcript of some sort with it? :-\
    • by finnw (415539)

      I'm really disliking this trend of posting interviews in a video format. Just because you can doesn't mean you should... come on folks.

      Anyways, anyone know if this thing has a text version or transcript of some sort with it? :-\
      There's an interview with Joel Spolsky in "Founders At Work" by Jessica Livingston with some quite similar content.
    • It's a video without even the video. Why not just stream an MP3? Nothing to see here, move along.
    • But wait! A transcript could never describe the awesomeness of an interview narrated by Homestar. NOW I see the genius!

      /bet Strongbad's jealous

    • I agree, who has time to WATCH stuff, I mean when you could read it.
      I find a video less engaging, and mosty a negative experience, it would probably spawn a seperate browser window which will then spawn a codec download, which will then spawn a reboot required, and - where was I?

      AIK
    • by epine (68316)
      I agree. Video is even slower than reading a 40 page article at Toms Hardware, sliced up to contain one paragraph of text and 17 bar charts on each page.
  • That's easy to say if you had Microsoft stock options to cash in in the min 1990s

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