Book Review: Start Small, Stay Small, A Developer’s Guide to Launching a Startup

I tend to be a sucker for business books, to the point where I created (and later sold) a site to discuss them. Part of the motivation for creating that site was that a lot of them tend to contain one good idea, and an inordinate amount of fluff. 

This book does not – it's good material that could not easily be summarized because it's full of information.  I think it's actually one of the more relevant books I've ever read in that, for my situation, the idea behind it really speaks to me.

I work as a consultant during the days, and I like it a lot.  Rather than working on the same old thing year after year, I get to meet new people, new clients, new situations, and help them out, which is motivating.  However, consulting has its downsides too, in that it doesn't create a great deal of long-term value.  Once you've finished up a project, it's on to the next one, or no money comes in.

I'm also a bit older and more set in my ways: I did my time in the California Bay Area, and I don't relish going back and working like mad on a "Real Startup" with VC backing, crazy hours, and having the thing consume my life.

The idea behind "Start Small, Stay Small" is to find and create really niche products: stuff that will earn you some extra money as a developer, but also niches that are small enough to not really be interesting to larger companies that need a lot of income to justify a forray into a particular market segment.  This, then, becomes your 'competitive advantage': Microsoft, or even 37 Signals, simply isn't going to chase after a market that is worth 20,000 dollars a year.  And yet for someone working on their own, if you manage to set up something that brings in that money, and mostly automate it so that it's not a second job, it's a tidy extra bit of money.  Several projects like that might even be enough to live on, depending on your lifestyle.

With that in mind, the authors, Rob Walling and Mike Taper, delve into the details of how to go about doing so.  The whole thing is done under the assumption that you don't have a lot of time or money to throw at things that don't bring in concrete results in relatively short order.

Various subjects discussed in detail include how to find a niche, how to create a sales web site, how to measure market demand, conversion rates, how to productively outsource less critical portions of your business, and much more.  They also discuss what sorts of numbers to look at for various aspects of the business, and anchor the discussion with real numbers for many things, rather than just giving you a hand-wavy phrase that's not that useful in the real world. 

It's not a 'timeless' book as all the concrete numbers and techniques reference technologies, sites, and the market dynamics of 2011, but after all, that's part of what makes it good.   Other things I didn't like so much were being sold on their for-pay "micropreneur community", and the relatively high price of the book but I think it's worth it given the real advice you get.  If you don't like marketing, and think that products succeed or fail on their merits alone, of course the book will leave you cold, but of course you're wrong about that anyway!

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