Make: Bootstrapper's Handbook

RECOMMENDED if you're looking to bootstrap a project/small business

Make: Bootstrapper's Handbook

Pieter Levels

Finished 21/04/22

As the title suggests, a book of practical advice for bootstrapping a project/small business. If you’re like me and have done things of this nature (or at least hang out in spaces with people who have) there’s a lot in here you’ve heard before, but it’s worth it for the bits you haven’t. If you’re not, it’s even more worth it.

The thrust of the book is the idea that, whatever you’re doing, you should execute first, or get executing as quickly as possible. The sooner you start doing something, the sooner you’ll be able to get feedback, adjust and improve. This is a principle worth applying to almost everything in life (that doesn’t carry a risk of permanent damage). There’s also, pleasingly, a great deal of emphasis throughout on doing things “ethically”, i.e. not covering your product with obnoxious ads but selected, unobtrusive ones, avoiding dark patterns (not the terminology used but it’s what he’s getting at) and generally respecting the user/customer.

The practical tips are great—it’s genuinely really useful to see e.g. the kind of promotional strategies Levels think are worthwhile and have succeeded for him. He doesn’t soft-soap things he thinks aren’t worth it, and often provides numerical breakdowns/estimates of what you can expect in traffic using various sources (Hacker News, Reddit etc).

The point is also made several times that you’ll sometimes find yourself able to outmanoeuvre VC-funded operations that spend way too much on the wrong thing. I remember former schoolmate of mine Jack Ellis of Fathom Analytics talking about how he had a strength/lifting app side-project that he dedicated less effort to than he could’ve done because there were a few VC-funded apps in the same kind of business. They all ended up crashing and burning; once the money for ads dried up they couldn’t sustain the growth the money-men wanted. (At which point, presumably, you swoop in, Pinboard-style, and buy up their mailing list etc at a knock-down price.)

The book is subdivided into seven sections:

Idea: The best ideas for the kinds of bootstrap businesses you’re looking at come from solving problems you have yourself. I think this is useful from an ‘idea-generation’ point of view but depends whether you’re coming to the book with an idea or coming to the book with bootstrapping a project as a goal in itself.

Build: In keeping with the ‘execute-first’ principle, a lot of this boils down to ‘use the best tool for where you are now’. Whatever language you know, use that. If you don’t, there are no-code solutions that should be able to get you most of the way, and you can Google the rest. Focus less on the specific tool, and more on getting something going and ‘out there’.

Launch: As someone who is quite promotion-averse, probably the most useful section. Sensible advice about where things should be promoted; obviously a focus on tech stuff, but again, general principles (find the sites that are drivers of traffic, like Hacker News, develop relationships with specific journalists rather than just emailing the tips line black hole, etc). The idea of ‘launching multiple times’—e.g. when you’ve introduced new features—is a good one that hadn’t really occurred to me in that way. My one issue with this section is that Levels did a ‘12 startups in 12 months’ project which got him a lot of attention, a writeup in WIRED, etc, which (it seems) got him loads of eyeballs, contacts etc that aren’t available to everyone in the same way. Doesn’t invalidate the rest of it, obviously, but it’s worth bearing in mind.

Grow: Ads aren’t worth it, “growth hacking” isn’t worth it, don’t hire people, focus on organic growh, make things shareable, put Intercom or whatever on your site to solicit feedback. This seems to be the most tricky section, in some ways, as it’s one where there are fewer reliable do-x-get-y processes—even in the previous section, getting press attention may be tricky but it generally will achieve the output you’re looking for if you’re able to get it. Building in public is something that might be worth trying; making an API seems quite high risk/high reward.

Monetise: Fine discussion of possible methods of monetisation, quite a funny bit about how he basically fell into monetising several of his products in an attempt to do something else. Most of this I’ve heard elsewhere. Fair play for the (honest) acknowledgement that a lot of subscription revenue is folk signing up and forgetting.

Automate: This is where I’d appreciate a little more detail as to the nitty-gritty of how things work, but this isn’t really the kind of book to do a huge amount of extensive code samples. I think a lot of my projects are in some ways less amenable to automation in the ways the author is talking about but at least thinking in this way is very worthwhile. The general principle is pure automation > getting a competent contractor who can handle things without your intervention > doing things yourself.

Exit: This is the bit I was least interested in initially but it’s a decent guide, albeit One Man’s View™️ of why and how various people might want to acquire you, and mostly why you might not want that.

Note: this book is continuously updated; notes here are from the version that existed in April 2022. Things may have changed since; buy the book for yourself and see.