Ask HN: How to be independent as a developer?

112 points by pcauthorn 5 days ago

I'd like to 'do my own thing' yet don't know how. I'd like the 'thing' to be entrepreneurial along the lines of: this was hard to do before and now it's easy vs this is brand new/revolutionary.

What's the best way to meet someone who has a problem that needs to be solved? Alternately how do you meet someone with a complimentary skill set that has similar goals? Any intermediate steps I should consider?

rwalling 5 days ago

I have been talking + writing about this topic for about 15 years. It's a bigger topic than one could cover in a HN comment, so here are a few resources I'd recommend:

- If you're looking for free info about this, subscribe to Startups for the Rest of Us (podcast) and/or https://www.youtube.com/microconf. Both have hundreds of hours of audio/video content on starting startups, with an emphasis on being a developer.

- If you're willing to spend $10 on a Kindle book, Start Small, Stay Small: A Developer's Guide to Launching a Startup (Amazon, BN.com, etc) is the book I wrote to answer the exact question you are asking.

This journey is long, but fun. I wish you the best of luck!

  • philbo 5 days ago

    How to be independent as a developer:

    1. Write a book

    2. Promote it to chumps on the internet

    • andygcook 5 days ago

      I’m assuming this comment is sarcastic. However, Rob does a lot more than just write and sell books. He started several SaaS companies, and runs an accelerator for indie SaaS companies called TinySeed. My hunch is that book sales are a tiny fraction of his income/wealth, and he earnestly wrote it to help aspiring entrepreneurs. I’ve read the book and it’s worth reading if you’re interested in starting an indie company.

      • rwalling 5 days ago

        Ha! Yeah, Internet commenters are the best :-) I also took his comment as sarcasm, or just uninformed.

        But you are correct, Andy, I've earned (literally) 100x more money from building/growing software companies than I have from any books I've written. The books, podcast, etc. are a hobby, not the job.

        • archon 5 days ago

          At one point you were talking about the possibility of updating Start Small Stay Small. Just curious if that's still on the table?

          • rwalling 5 days ago

            It is. I'm trying to wrap up the book I'm currently working on, then plan to circle back to updating SSSS next year.

      • throwaway290 4 days ago

        I assume that comment is directly related to the very, very weird parallel world of Lamborghini-leasing fake gurus that promise to teach anyone 'how to easily make millions from dropshipping in 1 month from scratch' and such.

        My immediate reaction was not so cynical since rwalling's comment came across as sincere, fake gurus tend to prey on users of less moderated online properties, and none of those gurus can boast hundreds of hours of informative content even after you pay orders of magnitude more than this for a 'course'.

    • mirror_neuron 5 days ago

      The book seems to be well-received (judging by the comments on Amazon, at least).

      Do you think it’s impossible to write a useful book on this subject? If you don’t think that, is there something about this particular book that makes you think the author is a swindler?

    • jcpst 5 days ago

      I think your comment is funny, but doesn’t really apply to this individual.

      Also, I just bought this book, so I guess I’m one of those chumps :D

    • sys_64738 5 days ago

      3.????

      4. Profit!

      I miss the old days of /.

    • pmcl 5 days ago

      Hahaha....burn!

  • omega3 4 days ago

    Is your book still relevant considering it was released 12 years ago? I typically avoid youtube videos and podcasts as the signal to noise ratio is not great.

  • _benj 5 days ago

    I visit tinyseed/calm fund from time to time to remind me where I want to get. Not there yet but working to it :)

  • ensemblehq 4 days ago

    Thanks for sharing (and writing) the book, Rob. From your experiences, is there a limit to earning potential as a solo developer/small startup? Are there any ways to quantify and qualify product ideas?

  • pcauthorn 5 days ago

    You just earned $9.99 from me! Don't spend it all in one place!

    Many great things to consider in this thread. Many thanks to you and others that put their thoughts down.

bluehatbrit 5 days ago

People have problems, go and meet people. Pick an industry you think you might be interested in exploring and then start attending their meetups and events. Speak to people, ask them what their problems are.

A great place to start is finding industries where most people you meet describe themselves as "not technical" or "bad with technology", they're often massively underserved. You'll know you've hit gold when you speak to multiple people across several businesses who all use some behemouth spreadsheet to run one of their core business processes.

  • bombcar 5 days ago

    This is huge - get away from the tech industry and you'll find various amounts of problems to be solved, and if you can generalize it enough, you can get something successful.

    Here's one I thought of and haven't found a solution for yet - a cheap "vendor portal" where vendors can submit invoices. Everything that exists apparently is enterprise and tens of thousands of dollars; which is out of reach of individuals and small businesses.

    • pdimitar 16 hours ago

      What do you mean by "vendors submit invoices", exactly? Not sure I see the value.

  • gonzo41 5 days ago

    Whilst this is great advice, If you got access to one of those mega spreasheets and worked out the business logic you'd be confronted with a few things. 1. Most business run pretty much the same. 2. Most home grown processes captured in spreadsheets are terrible. 3. Most people don't want to change anything about how they are doing things.

    Point 1 makes things easy, 2 and 3 are harder because you have to create and incentive to onboard people onto your product that doesn't exist yet. So actually there's a point 4. You have to do a market scan, and either become an integration expert at some extendable technology or build something new. And then you're developing goes from developing to selling. And then to support.

    It's hard to beat excel.

    • bluehatbrit 5 days ago

      I agree, the process of building a new product and a successful business is really hard. Especially if you're dislodging existing processes in some way. Extensions and other little bits of process automation can be a nice way to help offer clear advantages over those spreadsheets. None of that is foolproof though, and it's still not easy. That said, it can still be a good signal that there's something in the business which could be turned into a useful product or service.

shudza 5 days ago

Let me tell you a little secret... You don't need to be a developer to be an entrepreneur, you are not in advantage to other non-dev entrepreneurs, and you are most probably worse entrepreneur than others.

The better entrepreneurs are the ones with sales, marketing and growth hacking skills, the ones who "fake it till they make it", etc. If you are all that, you are probably a not-so-good dev anyway.

If you wanna be an entrepreneur, learn how to be one, not how to be a better dev. Once you are a good entrepreneur, you'll get funds and hire good devs, that's the only valid way. If you can't get funding, you never had a chance anyway. (unless you are 0.01%)

  • ge96 5 days ago

    I just hope "entrepreneur" is more than just selling courses online/dropshipping/shopify sites.

    I remember one time I got sucked into this blogger guy/persona like a Purple Elephant, and they sounded so welcoming. I hit them up to ask for tips and they're like "yeah sure you got $500?" I had to laugh I was like oh...

  • JonChesterfield 5 days ago

    Raising significant funds based on neither prototype nor personal record sounds impossible. How would one do so?

    • shudza 4 days ago

      I know it does, but people still do it. I guess small budget for bootstraping, no-code, angel investors, and who knows what else, whatever it takes. Don't get me wrong, being a dev certainly helps, but you will probably still need one of those things. The competition is very high in this world.

artemonster 5 days ago

In a couple of minutes someone would start telling you about some unsolved problems in whatever niches where you can offer a solution. Without any slightest hint on how to even get in touch with such „niches“. From my long journey of scraping indiehacker, reddit and IRL stories most found their „niche“ either by pure chance doing something tangent or by directly solving their own personal problems and scaling the solution to broader audiences. Bad news if you are just a regular 9to5 codemonkey with below-average social circle :/

  • ge96 5 days ago

    I had a similar idea regarding scraping but directed at forums where people are asking "is there a way to do this" or "how would I make this?". Then I would make it. I'm not sure though how to gauge if it's worth pursuing maybe frequency of mention/recurrence.

  • manmal 5 days ago

    You could start helping out people or organizations for free. It’s a great way to get to know people and find niches to build for.

sshine 5 days ago

I transitioned into being an independent contractor this year:

I found another job, and quit my previous, and as part of negotiating contract, I said that I wanted to invoice rather than receive a salary. I had a good reason, but mostly, I just insisted that this was best for me. Secondly, asking for the contract to not require you to be in a specific physical location.

If you want money for work, in some way, you have to do someone else's thing, too.

If you want to do your own thing, that comes with risk. But you can use a portion of your time allocated to that risk while getting paid for doing someone else's doing some other part of the time. Make sure your contract does not prohibit you from working on other things, or at least other things not in the same domain.

lampshades 5 days ago

> What's the best way to meet someone who has a problem that needs to be solved?

As cliche as it is, you’re the someone that you need to solve problems for. I’ve thought about taking low paying jobs in random industries just to find itches to scratch, but haven’t pulled the trigger on that.

In regards to the other stuff, if you want to be entrepreneurial, stop thinking of yourself as a developer. Maybe check out the book “The E-Myth”.

gwbas1c 5 days ago

> I'd like to 'do my own thing' yet don't know how. I'd like the 'thing' to be entrepreneurial along the lines of: this was hard to do before and now it's easy vs this is brand new/revolutionary.

If you're going to be a solo developer-entrepreneur, assume that you're going to spend 1/3rd of your time coding, 1/3rd of your time finding customers, and 1/3rd of your time interacting with your customers. Also assume that you'll be too busy to write complicated / interesting / creative software.

What I suggest is that you instead focus on getting real good at choosing who you work with: This can either be who you partner with in a startup, who you work for in a small company, or who you choose as a client. Remember, "entrepreneurial" can mean working in young business unit in a larger company, or joining a company that's so small that you need to jump out of your developer role from time to time.

> Alternately how do you meet someone with a complimentary skill set that has similar goals?

What I do is, when I look for a job, I favor early stage startups where I can work directly with the founders. It often takes legwork to find these jobs, but my most recent one I found on the monthly "Who's Hiring" thread on Hacker News.

  • sillycube 5 days ago

    I think you miss the time to think about the direction. But it is the most important task compare with others. Your time allocation only focuses on execution. If one is heading to a wrong direction, it just accelerates the failure.

    • gwbas1c 5 days ago

      My time allocation is very general; the point is that a developer-entrepreneur will spend most of their time doing things other than coding.

      (And I could argue that "finding customers" encompasses "the time to think about the direction". But I'm a shitty solo developer-entrepreneur, who's mostly trying to steer people like me in the right direction, which is to figure out how to find the right people to work with.)

ilaksh 5 days ago

The key for me to being my own boss has unfortunately just been being willing to be poor. Because my own startups or other people's self funded startups that I end up working on when I have to take a contract quickly because I am too broke usually don't make much money.

One way to meet lots of people who have problems to be solved is on Upwork. Of course most of those are not opportunities to be co-founders and actually could easily bankrupt you due to the slave-labour type atmosphere there. But some of them are real opportunities for sure if you can avoid that.

My current startup (which again I am just _barely_ scraping by) is built on a less popular cryptocurrency called Algorand (actually afraid to mention it, that one or cryptocurrency in general seems to be hated here). I did a project for someone from Upwork (self funded startup, subsistence level pay) and then just started hanging out in Discords and such.

I directly asked the community what sort of new tool they thought they needed. The few responses seemed to be "we have good tools already, don't need". So then I kept hanging around and found out that most of them were hiring a programmer for every art project. Even though the programming task was mainly just running the same script.

So I built a web application and then had many people (who I thought I had already asked if they needed a tool) come on my Discord server and tell me how much my tool had been needed.

But I think it boils down to picking up some hobby or business as if it was your actual job and then trying to make tools to facilitate it. In general the users for some reason can't or won't give you useful advice about what to build. Although actually they may be able to tell you what problems they are having if you can get them to talk. But don't listen to their solutions just their problems.

ronyfadel 5 days ago

Do you have problems that need to be solved? Do you have the skills to solve them?

That's how I started. Plus, looking at my own problems gives me extra motivation to fix them.

  • throwaway743 5 days ago

    I'm currently on this path, been developing/designing for the last year and a half, and will be launching my product relatively soon.

    The issue I've been facing lately is self doubt. There's definitely a market, it solves a problem for that market and myself, and the product has shaped up to be something that I can be proud of and share/help with others. But there's this nagging contrasting feeling that's hard to describe, that could very well be fear of the unknown.

    What's your experience been like developing a product that solves a problem ypu faced? What was your journey leading up to its release? How'd things work out after release?

    • ronyfadel 5 days ago

      A year and a half is too long to launch an MVP. If you can't do it within 3-4 months tops, you shouldn't do it (again, I'm talking about an MVP).

      Self doubt creeps in when you work on something, perfecting it, but never shipping. The voice of doubt grows louder and louder because now there's more at stake.

      For myself, the products that worked were the ones I shipped within < 1 month, and got a lot of user feedback and kept making the products better and better throughout the years.

avgDev 5 days ago

I guess I can chime in here.

I met my current boss in school. We did a project together. I later learned he was a VP of a midsize company. I asked if he needed an intern to build some stuff, he agreed.

I have been building stuff for them for 5 years now as a full stack individual contributor. I am well compensated. I work whenever I want, some times more some times less. I definitely have to focus on keeping my skills sharp, and go out of my way to learn new things.

I have plenty of other offers but none compelling enough for me to leave this setup.

How can you get in a position like this? Network. You need to meet people who hold high positions, show them what you can do and build trust.

You could also look at things that may affect YOU. A lot of non-tech things could use a dev. You could develop something and offer it cheaply to first few individual/companies and test it out.

dboreham 5 days ago

Work as a contractor/consultant for a while. You'll run into problems that are not already well solved.

  • EddySchauHai 5 days ago

    This. I worked 3 or 4 contracts back to back in the blockchain space as a test engineer which all involved setting up local chains as a test environment to spin up/down in CI and local testing. There is 100% a product there of allowing people to run cloud-hosted private chains including multiple chains and bridges which isn't really solved yet. I looked at building this as a product but moved away from the field :)

whiddershins 5 days ago

At risk of stating the obvious, Paul Graham has written extensively on the subject of finding startup ideas.

http://www.paulgraham.com/startupideas.html

What you are describing should actually be easier, because you wouldn’t necessarily need it to be able to scale.

poulsbohemian 5 days ago

I'm guessing "do my own thing" looks something like:

-- Control my own schedule

-- Control my financial success

So maybe you think you'll become an entrepreneur. As a developer, apart from any other skills, one really only knows how to make things for other developers. So then you think maybe you either need to find a bright idea or you need to partner with someone with a bright idea. One of these involves giving up control, and the other one involves becoming something you aren't at the moment, IE: an expert in something else.

So maybe you think you'll contract / be a consultant. But that also involves giving up control and can devolve into being an employee by a different name.

You might even come to the conclusion at some point that you really like developing things... but not for other people. At which point you have to ask yourself whether software is really the career for you.

So to go back to your original question: There are two ways to be independent as a developer:

-- Be a hobbyist who builds things for themself.

-- Be an entrepreneur with a product that you control yourself.

rglover 5 days ago

> What's the best way to meet someone who has a problem that needs to be solved?

What problems do you have? Solve those first (even if it doesn't lead to success, that prevents you from spinning your tires).

> Alternately how do you meet someone with a complimentary skill set that has similar goals?

Assume that you won't, start down the path of solving your chosen problem and if someone appears who's thinking aligns, pursue a partnership if it makes sense.

> Any intermediate steps I should consider?

Read "Do the Work" and "The War of Art" by Steven Pressfield. Those two (short) books have done wonders.

yieldcrv 5 days ago

One of the pain points of reality is that entrepreneurs are tasked (or self-tasked out of necessity) with both finding a problem and masquerading any procedurally generated idea as the solution

It should really be different people/organizations that we can judge independently, what we are currently doing is very inefficient and only somewhat works simply because there are so many entrprenuers and so much capital and money, but it could be more efficient if the more correct entrepreneur was evaluated earlier instead of just the more connected entrepreneur

abrichr 5 days ago

> What's the best way to meet someone who has a problem that needs to be solved?

Industry events, co-working spaces, LinkedIn, social gatherings of all sorts

> Alternately how do you meet someone with a complimentary skill set that has similar goals?

startupschool.org has a cofounder matching platform you might useful.

> Any intermediate steps I should consider?

Consulting can be a good starting point since you learn how to run a business, while simultaneously generating some revenue and exposing yourself to real business problems.

Also check out The Mom Test and the lectures on startupschool.org about finding a good idea.

  • ge96 5 days ago

    > Industry events, co-working spaces

    Will add be careful of networking events from something like Meetup. Last time I did one I thought I made a friend but it was an MLM pitch ha.

spfzero 5 days ago

You might try getting into sales or pre-sales support. These roles expose you to the sales side of business, which is important on its own, but more, it will allow you to meet and observe lots of salespeople.

Many will have the ambition necessary to consider partnering up with you, and some of those will also be dedicated and honest. Maybe most, even, and maybe you'll find one of those who you really like as well.

The pre-sales part is important. Post-sales support will not expose you to the right kind of interactions with the salespeople, and will not allow you to develop your own sense of what makes something an opportunity vs. a waste of time.

You can keep up on your software skills part-time, because you'll be learning a bunch of other important skills full-time. You'll also find out what kinds of problems customers are trying to solve, and what's actually important to them.

Expect to spend a few years doing this. The combination of the ability to deliver software that solves a real problem, along with the ability to explain its features and benefits in a way that really connects with the customer's problem, is solid gold stuff. Add in a sales partner that can go out and dig up candidate opportunities, and you can see the potential.

is_true 5 days ago

I've doing my own thing since I'm 14.

I've done a few things, but the most important is why do you want to do your own thing.

I run a couple of services, I categorize them in: Projects that I can work on whenever I want and projects that my require my attention whenever something goes wrong.

I mostly aim for the former, as I like to have free time to explore ideas. But I have one of the latter because it is really good at paying the bills.

Mochila 4 days ago

Hi pcauthorn, I would recommend to read some of paul graham's work "Do thing's that don't scale", as well as begin reading/watching some great information on entrepreneur published on yCombinator youtube channel. The best way to meet someone who has problem that needs to be solved is to get experience in that field and interact with people who are currently working in that area. For example, if you are interested in working in applications for food service, try working in bars/restaurants around your area and find out what the pain-points are for these restaurants.

In regards with meeting someone currently I am participating in yCombinator StartUpSchool program, where they allow you to meet other founders/hackers with similar skills and goals.

rmnclmnt 5 days ago

> What's the best way to meet someone who has a problem that needs to be solved?

Either:

-Use your experience as an employee: you might have already seen some enterprise pain points, and you have contacts!

- Go freelance and work for clients: you will discover a lot of pain points that need to be solved with real customer waiting for a solution!

> Alternately how do you meet someone with a complimentary skill set that has similar goals? Any intermediate steps I should consider?

Lots of opportunities: meetups, conferences, local groups, coworkers, etc.

readonthegoapp 14 hours ago

you can always just look for complaints -- online or in real life -- people complaining about whatever represents 'problems' that you might be interested in solving.

i read a lot of anarchist stuff many moons ago and it seems to instill a pretty strong sense of -- "well this thing is bleeped up, and someone should fix it, hey maybe we should fix it, hey if i can't find anyone to help maybe i should just fix it" mentality.

now, it's never _worked_ for me in terms of - i've never had a successful business - but i have no shortage of the bazillion things i'm trying to fix -- problems that need solving, imo.

stoic_citium 5 days ago

I think you should solve your own problem first