I quit my job with $15K in savings to start my company. To survive in NYC AND build my company, I had to radically cut back on my expenses (I’m talking ramen multiple meals per day, and sneaking flasks into bars).
I also had to get as much stuff for my startup for free. Luckily most of it was actually free (i.e. EC2 hosting, Dropbox, Google Analytics). However, some of the software and tools I desperately needed were quite expensive, and I didn’t have much cash in the bank. In those cases I had to get “creative.”
Here’s how I got what I needed for my startup.
This is a no-brainer. I was a novice to building a web startup, and I had to learn fast. There are tons of excellent books and videos out there, and nearly all of them exist on Bittorrent sites. I downloaded and learned from:
- Steve Blank’s Four Steps to the Epiphany
- Jessica Livingston’s Founders at Work
And I found the most success with these Bittorrent sites:
- Pirate Bay
- Demonoid (before they got shut down)
These are public trackers, so there’s always a risk when using them. There are private trackers out there with invite-only registration, but for me they were more trouble than they were worth to figure out how to get invites.
Bittorrent sites are lousy with design and development software. I downloaded, amongst others:
- Adobe Creative Suite (for Photoshop and Illustrator)
- Coda (my favorite coding app)
- Screenflow (excellent screencasting software)
Adobe software was the toughest nut to crack by far; it as a ton of anti-pirating provisions built in, so it was super annoying and time-consuming to crack them, but I eventually prevailed. It was the effort; I desperately needed them to create our first mockups, and didn’t have thousands of dollars to throw around.
I needed stock photos for our landing page, but I couldn’t find high-quality pictures that didn’t have a big X-shaped watermark across it. So I found this clever little hack to remove them:
Odesk and Elance
Not technically free, but insanely cheap if you use it well. I don’t recommend it for coding or design - in my opinion you should either learn to do it yourself or find a cofounder. I used Odesk for a variety of data entry and other rote tasks.
I tried a bunch of different workers in various countries, but found the Philippines to be most reliable: they were insanely cheap (sometimes $2-3/hr) and spoke pretty good English.
Copying other products
This is maybe the most useful hack out there, and it’s technically not illegal (to an extent).
Come across an especially slick signup form UI? Copy it, and use the same design in yours. See an HTML button you like? Fire up Firebug, and copy the code wholesale.
Copying from other products not only gives you potentially valuable ideas to use in your own product, but also saves a bunch of time, which is by far the most valuable resource for the startup.
With very little design/coding experience, I was able to throw together a relatively nice-looking product, relatively quickly.
What’s more, this isn’t even that unethical. Cross-pollination happens all the time on the web; even big sites get inspiration from other sites and adopt new conventions. In fact, it’s the very reason conventions exist!
(I discuss this further in my Design for Hackers talk: http://www.slideshare.net/sk2185/design-for-hackers)
Since we got funding, I’ve stopped pirating. All my software is legit and paid for; not only that, I’ve bought additional copies for our team and recommended it to others.
I don’t advocate pirating when you don’t have to, and I hate to take away money from good companies; but when you have to, you have to. Hopefully when your company hits it big, you’ll find a way to give back to the ecosystem.