Start Small, Stay Small by Rob Walling

Start Small, Stay Small by Rob Walling

I wish that I had found this book nine years ago. It taught me a great deal about choosing the right product to build and the advantages of targeting small niches. The author makes compelling points about the importance of marketing and small founders’ common pitfall of treating it as an afterthought.

Unfortunately, much of the content aged poorly. Published in 2010, Walling intentionally kept the book pragmatic, recommending specific tools and strategies that were popular at the time. Reading it in 2019, many of the services he recommends are either irrelevant or dead. It would be nice to see an updated edition, which Walling has suggested is a possibility.


What I Liked

  • Pragmatic approach to developing product ideas and marketing
  • Does an excellent job of highlighting the many advantages of small niches

What I Disliked

  • Much of it feels dated in 2019
    • It’s meant to be specific and practical, but that means many of the websites it mentions are no longer acive or relevant. For example, it refers to MySpace as the second most relevant social networking site.
    • Examples of elegant web design in 2010 look very hokey and amateurish now.
  • Many of the author’s example businesses feel low-quality.
    • e.g., a site that drop-ships beach towels
    • There’s nothing wrong with creating sites just because they’ll make a little money, but the strategy of building a product to the bare minimum of functionality and then collecting revenue didn’t really resonate with me.
  • Advice about outsourcing didn’t match my experience
    • I felt like the author exaggerates how much time you save from freelance developers / virtual assistants.
    • The book doesn’t address how difficult and time-consuming it is to spin up a new freelancer and teach them the work.
    • At one point, the book suggests you can pay $3k to have an overseas developer create an entire web application (“200 hours @ $15/hr for a Senior PHP Developer”).
      • This felt extremely unrealistic. I feel like a more plausible wage for a real senior-level PHP developer is at least $70/hr.

Key Takeaways

  • A product needs a market before it can succeed.
    • “Without a market, a software application is just a project.”
    • “Build a project after you’ve verified there is a market.”
  • You can’t consume information and produce a product at the same time.
    • Increase your productivity by taking “information diets” - limited abstentions from consuming news media or books.
  • Aim to earn at least $50 for every hour you invest in your startup.
    • Once you achieve that, find ways to increase this to $75 or $100/hr.
  • “Market comes first, marketing second, aesthetic third, and functionality a distant fourth.”
  • “Market First Approach” - Find people to buy your product before deciding what to build.
  • Niche markets are critical for bootstrapped founders.
    • Example: A bootstrapped company can’t compete with well-funded giants who make general-purpose accounting software. But they can compete if they build accounting software that caters specifically to web designers.
    • It’s better to capture 100% of a 5,000-person niche than to capture only 10% of a 50,000-person niche.
      • It’s easier and more cost-effective to advertise to the smaller niche because they probably visit the same websites, read the same magazines, and talk amongst themselves.
    • You usually don’t have to worry about large competitors swooping in to crush you because the money in small niches is too small to attract their interest.
  • Successful marketing tactics depend entirely on your target market
    • Twitter might be a great way to reach web designers, but it’s a poor way to reach pool cleaners.
  • It’s not so sinful to ship hacky code when you’re a founder.
    • Most developers learn as employees that if they ship hacky code, it will be difficult to get buy-in from management to go back and fix the code later, so they never want to ship hacky code.
    • As a founder, you can just go back and fix hacky code when it’s sensible to do so.
  • For most repetitive tasks, it’s better to hire a low-cost virtual assistant to do it manually and then automate it when the work volume warrants it.

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