Why some developers become successful founders and others don’t

Starting a Business

What’s the most common denominator amongst dev shop founders and freelance developers alike?

They’re hoping that one day, they’ll launch a successful product.

Not saying that there aren’t some dev shops out there that haven’t launched incredible products, tons have, it’s just that most of the time those products belong to their clients.

What if we told you that Michael Pryor, the founder of Trello, had this exact dilemma? Trying time and again to launch a successful product – and having multiple successes.

Michael Pryor met his Trello Co-founder, Joel Spolsky working at Juno, and both decided to quit and start their own software consulting company, Fog Creek in 2000. They built a lot of software, including products of their own, one of which was Trello.

We caught up with Michael a few years back on our podcast, Founder Chats. He had much to say on the subjects of repeated failure, learning about business, and going from developer to successful SaaS founder.

So what advantages do some developers have that give them a leg up in launching a sustainable, profitable product?

Successful developers-turned-founders don’t ignore marketing

Ask any marketer, and they’ll tell you about a time when an engineer told them that good SaaS products don’t need marketing. Build it, and they will come – this isn’t true because:

Without a market, you have no product.

You need a market first. Maybe you need a beta product to test whether there’s a market or not, but you’re not going to do much market testing without marketing knowledge.

Marketing is essential.

In fact, there are skilled marketers out there who can sell nothing. They sell nothing of real value anyways – but still, they sell it, and then they buy yachts with their earnings.

When people tell you marketing doesn’t work, remind them that people are successfully selling this stuff:

My point here is that if marketers can sell worthless stuff, then marketing can absolutely sell your valuable product.

So, don’t get burned by the mantra, “build it, and they will come.” Instead, know that there’s got to be product/market fit.

You also need to understand some business basics

How to interact with people – If you’re going to have clients/customers, then you need to be able to communicate effectively. You’re going to negotiate deals. And you should familiarize yourself with customer success.

What it means to be a registered business – Get an accountant from day 1, you’ll be so happy you did. They can help you choose which entity to register as, and they can also help you keep track of your financial state

How to be productive when you’re running a business – It’s one thing to be responsible for building a product, it’s another thing to be responsible for building a product, building a pipeline of business, managing customer relationships, managing business operations, managing other humans, etc. Avoid burnout like the plague and brush up on productivity.

How to gain business and marketing knowledge

Michael built many products through his development consultancy, Fog Creek. Working on all those different products helped him learn the ins and outs of managing a business.

How can you develop your business and marketing chops besides tackling tons of projects?

Branch out – Join some networking groups on Meetup, ask your connections for referrals to people who are good at the skills you want to learn. Ask for help.

Read books – Reading is my personal favorite, and we’ve learned from talking to many successful founders that reading books is a top priority for most of them. Check out BookAuthority’s list of books for startup founders.

Take a course – The web is not short of courses these days. You can find plenty of free webinars on how to use content to grow your business, or how to launch a successful Facebook Ad campaign, how to build an email list, etc.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket – Joel built a large community around content, but the partners didn’t have any other marketing methods under their belt. Michael told us, “In hindsight, it [content] was the right marketing at the right time, but it also prevented us from doing traditional marketing.”

Successful founders are not afraid to figure things out as they go

Michael said it best when he told us, “there’s no book you could read,” referring to the lessons he had to learn to grow Fog Creek and Trello.

He’s right. If you’re going to innovate, there is no book you could read, because what you want to do has yet to be done. So why be afraid to jump in?

Michael dove head first into ventures. For example, when he decided to build Trello, he didn’t know if it would be successful or not, but he went for it anyways, without the fear of failure. He and Joel also dove into FogBugz, their first piece of software, a bug detection tool. Michael told us that it didn’t take off, but over time, they were able to improve, and Joel was able to improve his content marketing skills and grow a large community around the product (which helped in a major way with the launch of Trello).

Michael and Joel also weathered the 2008 market crash with their consultancy, Fog Creek – “We started from scratch…we crawled our way back.”

He failed multiple times. This rings true for many of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs. They’ve failed more times than anyone else.

How can you stop being afraid to fail?

Fail at lots of tiny things. Fail at making pancakes without burn marks. Fail at keeping an indoor plant that your mom gave you alive. Snowball your way to caring less about larger failures. Michael told us about how he went out into the middle of the ocean by himself to learn how to fish tuna – unsuccessful at first, but he learned! Start small.

Read books. Accepting failure is another thing you can learn by reading. Read the  NY Times bestseller, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck.

Be naive. As Michael told us, think to yourself, “it can’t be that hard!”

Stop caring what other people think. Michael laughed when he told us when he and Joel decided to accept credit card payments over the internet for one of their earlier products. When they visited the bank to explain, people looked at them like they were crazy, and they left the bank with a physical credit card reader. The bank told them they had to have the reader to open the account, saying something like, “You can accept payments over the internet now, but most of your payments will probably come from the machine.” People are going to look at you like you’re crazy, it’s a good thing, don’t fret about what they think.

Great founders find genuine problems to solve

Michael’s time with Fog Creek exposed him to unique problems faced by different industries. For example, they built a dashboard for a company’s HR department and then realized that same concept might benefit HR departments in other companies. Instead of guessing whether or not a product would work, Michael learned from his environment and noted genuine problems that businesses were facing.

Ask yourself these questions to determine if your product idea solves a genuine problem. (These are the first steps of product/market fit).

Where are people talking about these/this problem? Are there Reddit threads, blog comments, social media groups where people are talking about the problem you’re trying to solve? Go to these places, read what people are saying.

Am I solving my own problem? Many of the founders we’ve spoken with built their products to solve their own problems. If you’ve got a significant pain, chances are, there are others with that same pain.

• Will my product really solve the problem? This one is tricky. You might think that you’ve solved a market’s problem, but you need to keep listening to your customers. Problems evolve because technology evolves. Keep listening to feedback, keep optimizing.

If you’re on the journey to successful startup founder, it may be an uphill battle, but with the right tools in your kit, it’s a much easier climb. Fail shamelessly, brush up on business skills, and maybe go deep-sea tuna fishing on a whim.

What skills do you think are essential for developers-turned-successful founders?

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