the item

Start Small, Stay Small
Start Small, Stay Small
2010

the questions

  1. How to run a killer startup

more about the



the consensus

Best book on the market today if you are a programmer wanting to take your skills and turn them into a profitable startup



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the review

"He's one of us" is probably the highest compliment you can pay to an author that's trying to help a community. And I'm happy to pay that compliment to Rob Walling. Rob has put together an excellent book on how to transition from hacker to entrepreneur.

I've read a lot of hacker and startup books over the years. Some, like the SEO book I recently reviewed, got pretty boring at times. Many times we tech people have a tendency to make everything we write into technical manuals. So I've developed a nifty system of estimating the boring-ness of a book: if I'm constantly watching my Kindle's "percent complete" at the bottom of the page, I'm having a difficult time staying with the author.

With "Start Small, Stay Small" I hardly ever looked at that percent complete number. The book read so easily and well that I had to make myself stop reading it -- I was enjoying it as much (probably more, really) than the sci-fi book I was also reading at the same time.

Why? Because the book is targeted directly to me, the guy who knows how to code, maybe has done a little consulting, but is now ready to move on to running his own startup. I don't need lessons in HTML, I don't need discusisons of yet another way to pull data from a database, I can figure out how payment systems and app deployment will work, I'm not going to be the next Google -- I need practical advice on what to do right now. To get started.

That makes it a "beer" book for me. "Beer" books are books where it's as if you are sitting down with the author over a beer to discuss what you're doing. The more conversational the tone, the more practical the advice, and the more the author can anticipate your replies, the better the beer book.

I've read a few beer books over the years, and I've found that the authors are necessarily limited by their own experiences. If you read a book by a guy who sat on the board of BigCorp X, Y, and Z, and saw the soaring success of company A and the dismal flameout of company B, you're going to get stories about that. Nothing wrong with that, but with hacker/startup books in general, that means there is a high degree of selection bias involved: Whatever the author did or didn't do, they kind of make the book theme around that. If you're lucky, your experiences match up to the author's. If not, well, then you try to do the best you can by filling in the blanks on your own.

Rob kept telling me what I was thinking and then arguing against it. In one spot he was telling me to outsource more "I know you're probably not going to do it, but you should at least consider it"

That shows me somebody who has had these conversations before and is anticipating my stubborness. Awesome! And there were several examples like that. He would suggest something, I would think "Oh no, that's not going to work" and then he would explain that yes, he understood my objection but here is why I was wrong and this is how I need to change my thinking in order to be more successful. This is what I would like to see more startup books be like.

Rob's the guy I want to be in three years. He has working and practical methods for finding markets and addressing them, he is able to flip, automate, or scale projects, and he is aware of his own predeliction to micro-manage, get heads-down in the code, and emphasize the wrong things.

And guess what? I do those things too.

For instance, coding isn't that important in a tech startup. Rob estimates it at around 30% of total effort, but the more I read the more I'm thinking it could be as low as 10-15% of the total effort needed. For most of the technical guys I know, that piece of information alone represents a huge mindset change.

Lots more goodies like this. This is not theory: it is a step-by-step book. Rob tells you how to find an idea, how to find a market, how to fit the idea to the market, how to test the market, launch -- it's all in there. Great tips like running Adsense ads early on just to measure traction. Or getting a Virtual Assistant -- how to find one, how to evaluate one, and how to use one. Terifficaly good and practical stuff.

This is a good place to bring up an unusual item that Rob mentions. micro-niche-finder. This market research tool has gotten a couple of positive reviews from hackers I know and respect. It's also appeared on HN a couple of times. Rob recommends it -- but it ain't cheap: the full version runs $100. And fair warning: parts of this web site look like something from a used car lot. Flashing text, long streams of words -- all of the signs that a webpage is trying to high pressure you into buying. Ugh. So be prepared for that. Within the next month I plan on buying the it myself. I'll still use SEOMoz, but from what I can see this tool can do some nifty stuff with market segmentation that I'd like to automate. The tool creators also demo several money-making ways of using the tool that is different from market research that Rob recommends and I plan on looking into those. Plus it has the advantage that it's a one-time charge instead of somebody trying to bleed me each month. I'm excited about buying it and finding new ways of making money.

But back to the book. I can only give the book two dings. First, there's only one opinion, the author's. It's not like those books where you get twenty stories of how folks made it. I love those books, but I always find them lacking in depth and interactivity. I'd like to know more in-depth how these nuts-and-bolts things are done. So this weakness is also a strength. We trade breadth for depth.

My second ding is that, for me, I had to read other books to get into a mindset where I was ready to hear what Walling had to say. It's so good and distilled that, for some, it's just too much all at once. There are a lot of sacred cows punctured in this book, and it's a great thing they are. I just wonder if I could have read this book five years ago and it would have had the same impact. I'm afraid it would have just washed over me. Some things you have to learn the hard way, probably.

All-in-all, this is the book I would pay for and give to a lot of my friends who think they want to be entrepreneurs -- and I know several of them. Seems like every coder I know who has read about "iFart" is ready to strike it rich on the net. But we all need to realize it's not a simple 1-2-3 journey. I've been reading startup books for years and Walling gave me a dozen new things to do. He does a great job of dispelling a lot of the myths and providing encouragement in the right area. It's like having a dozen heart-to-heart talks with a coder who already made it. Highly recommended. Easily in my top-ten list of startup books. Probably top three, simply because the book is so targeted towards me. In fact, if I had to pick one book to give my programmer friends just getting started, this is it.

   

the buzz

Nothing to see here, please move along
Nothing to see here, please move along
Nothing to see here, please move along
Nothing to see here, please move along
Nothing to see here, please move along
Nothing to see here, please move along
Nothing to see here, please move along


Start Small, Stay Small is a step-by-step guide to launching a self-funded startup. If you're a desktop, mobile or web developer, this book is your blueprint to getting your startup off the ground with no outside investment.

This book intentionally avoids topics restricted to venture-backed startups such as: honing your investment pitch, securing funding, and figuring out how to use the piles of cash investors keep placing in your lap.

This book assumes:

  • You don't have $6M of investor funds sitting in your bank account
  • You're not going to relocate to the handful of startup hubs in the world
  • You're not going to work 70 hour weeks for low pay with the hope of someday making millions from stock options

There's nothing wrong with pursuing venture funding and attempting to grow fast like Amazon, Google, Twitter, and Facebook. It just so happened that most people are not in a place to do this.

  

the video


What is this?

A while back I wrote an article on my blog listing all the books that hackers recommended to each other from the site HackerNews. The purpose was to provide a place to list book recommendations so that people didn't have to type in the same list over and over again. (HN gets several requests for book recommendations a week. I also get at least a couple each month). It was very well received, and many posters and commenters either asked that I make a site or sent me an email asking me to do so.

How is this any different from the list on the blog?

This list has more books. This list is sortable both by what question you have and your skill level. In addition, once you sort the list, you can save the link with your sort and send it to somebody else. So, for instance, when somebody wants a book for noobs learning to program, you can make a link for that and then reuse it

How did you collect these books?

Initially the list came from Googling HackerNews.com "best book" and taking the books from the first few pages returned. Later, I added all the books that were mentioned "You left that out!" when Jacques posted the link. While adding those books, I came across a Stack Overflow link where programmers were asked to list their favorite tech books, so I included those too.

If I ask you to put a book on here, will you?

It depends.

These books were all gathered by finding places where hackers hang out and are suggesting books to other hackers and other hackers agree with them by voting up their suggestion. If I can find an example of this for your book, I'm happy to include it.

How are the books ranked?

I did the best I could with ranking. I am sure there are many things you do not agree with. It would be possible to add voting and personal ranking -- that would make the system much better. Heck, you could rank the books yourself and use it as a customized book list to show to people who want your advice. I'd like to do that, but if I've learned anything is to not let your featureset get ahead of the users. This first version will test the waters to see what kind of interest the community might have.