2013-07-01

How This Journalist-Turned-Coder Built His Startup For $6,000

Thinking about quitting your job to work on your amazing startup idea? Former Guardian producer Benji Lanyado did just that, and in the leanest way possible. Here's how he kept costs down until launch day, and how you can too.



A year ago, I decided to leave my job as a multimedia journalist at the Guardian, learn to code, and build a startup on my own. I tried chasing rich people around London for a while, but ultimately decided to stop going after money and focus on finishing the thing. I was going to get it to the cliff, and over it, myself.

It's at the cliff. I have a product. For the last two weeks, ten of my friends have been trying to break it. In wanky startup parlance, this was my “alpha” stage. This post marks the beginning of the “public beta.” Then it'll probably sell to NASA for eleventy billion and I won't talk to you any more.

My "office" next to the trash cans.

Here it is: picfair.com (not much to see, drop your email in for a beta pass)

In the meantime, I've been doing some maths. It turns out that all told, I spent just under £4k ($6040) on the whole thing. Here's how I did it.

Product: £890 ($1355)

I started writing the code in February, beginning with the core structure in Ruby on Rails, and the basic front end stuff (HTML/CSS/Javascript/jQuery). I learned how to code by taking evening courses last year after leaving the Guardian, and gradually fell in love with it. I now genuinely find writing code more creative than writing words. Between General Assembly courses, Stack Overflow (it's like Quora for code), and the never-ending generosity of my tutor Rik Lomas from Steer, I've been able to get over every technical hurdle I've come across, albeit very slowly, and painfully.

There have been plenty of times I've hit a wall and thought, 'fuck it, I'll throw some money at this,' but then decided against it. By writing the code myself, I've developed a very good fallback career if it all fails (it won't, obviously). But if it does, I won't just have the experience of building a business in a spiritual I've-really-found-my-calling kind of way -- I'll have learned tangible new skills. I've gone from being a terrible developer to being an average-to-ok one, and I've already made the money back that I paid for the courses several times over through freelance projects.

Front-end developer Tim Parker up in my code.

For launching a new product, average-to-ok isn't good enough, so I paid two experienced “code consultants” to pillage my site after I'd done all I thought I needed to. A Ruby expert went through it looking for security holes and superfluous code, and, inexplicably, found nothing too horrific. A front-end developer did likewise, sprinkling his significantly-better-than-mine CSS across the site. Nothing too major, but a noticeable upgrade. It looks hot, and it works.

Legal: £1300 ($1980)

The basic stuff you need for a website-–global copyright notices, privacy policy, basic Ts&Cs and disclaimer-–you don't have to pay for, you can write them yourself. They're all pretty much the same. The gov.uk website has free sample templates you can use [Ed. note--the U.S. government does not seem to have a similar repository, but there are plenty of free templates available online]. A few tweaks and you've got your own.

However, my website involves the transferral of digital property, requiring a seller to grant a license to a buyer. This is a minefield, involving all sorts of scope stipulations and indemnification clauses. Mistakenly, I thought I could do this myself--I spent a week rifling the web for similar licenses, chopping them up and re-wording them to suit my specific transaction. I finished them and triumphantly showed them to a lawyer friend--“Look – I'm a lawyer now!”

They stank. So I found a solicitor to do them properly. A minor victory: my stinky legals were still better than nothing, so the instruction was a “revision” rather than a full draft from scratch, saving me about £400. The £1,300 still kind of pains me, because I feel a bit like I'm paying a ton for someone to change “from today” to “henceforth accordingly.” I'm determined to salvage some of the stuff I wrote in a human-readable deed over the top of the licenses, much like these magnificent Codepen terms (take a look at "Impermissible Acts").

Branding: £1250 ($1900)

Again, I thought I could do this myself. I'd made a logo, had a pretty good idea of an overall design principle and color scheme, and used to equate “branding expertise” with snake oil. I still think that a little bit. But I also realize the damage that bad branding can have on a product, and I was worried that my logo and overall style was veering towards the shitty, careless end of the spectrum. So I found a very good guy who put together a logo and a top-level style guide for me –- something for me to work from.

It was very much worth it. Together with the front end “code consultant,” this top-and-tailed my design build. The branding guy sent me on my way, and the code consultant cleaned up any mess after I'd finished.

Domain Name: £330 ($500)

Choosing a name for your business is incredibly annoying, but I was determined to get a .com address. I know this is old-fashioned, but it's also what everyone assumes, especially when they are looking for a particular service. I spent days talking gibberish to myself. I've got pages and pages of nonsense in my journal -- portmanteaus, words that end in “r,” quirky territorial domain endings (.ie, .io, .ck etc). I even registered three of them in piques of certainty –- mirapic.com, picpacket.com, and picrise.com (want them? £20 each. Ok, for you, £18) -– before deciding they were rubbish the next day.

I eventually settled on a name which was already taken, but available online $1,000. I got it down to $500. This still slayed me. $500 for a word. But I was set on it, and it's great. Easily the stupidest money I spent on this whole thing, but names are important.

Testing: £200 ($305)

Two weeks ago, I finished the site, and unleashed 10 friends on it, challenging them to try to break it in return for dinner. They all broke it, pretty much. They all had plenty of suggestions, too, both invaluable, and maddening. I had a total of 73 bugs to fix and tweaks to implement. But I think it's just about ok now (I'm going to regret saying that).

Total

Here's how it ultimately broke down:

Product: £890 ($1355)
Legal: £1300 ($1980)
Branding: £1250 ($1900)
Domain Name: £330 ($500)
Testing: £200 ($305)
Total: £3970 ($6040)

Disclaimer

I realize, of course, that there has been a significant “opportunity cost” in building PicFair. Dedicating the majority of my time to it for the last four months has meant that I've lost out on freelance commissions and some paid work. But despite operating at a minor loss, I've gotten by. I haven't missed rent or starved to death.

Most importantly, with my recently-learned legalese: I hereby reserve the right to be a total perma-shill and a shamelessly promotion-obsessed pain in the arse once it's launched. You have been warned.

[Image: benjiuk / Picfair]






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9 Comments

  • Test

    this is a freaking joke.  you spent $6K on crap.  you lack creativity for giving into the domain squatters.  you're a moron.

  • Barbara

    As an old movie buff I love the site name because Pickfair was the name of Douglas Fairbanks' and Mary Pickford's estate in Beverly Hills. Did you know about that when you chose the name? 

  • Adilparwez

    Great post and quite inspiring. Would you mind sharing where you went for coding courses.

  • Matty J

    Great article, I've recently done the same thing myself, followed my passions. I guess I would add it's important you have a nest egg to survive on so you are free to create and not just surviving and remember things always take twice as long or cost twice as much.

  • David Albee

    Excellent post; thanks so much for the step-by-step (great to see the attendant costs, but it's also invaluable for the process itself). 

    "I hereby reserve the right to be a total perma-shill and a shamelessly promotion-obsessed pain in the arse once it's launched."

    Go for it; you deserve it! Good luck!

  • Dom Eden

    Good on you! Full of admiration for your hard work and determination. You'll go far with that attitude.

  • Gustavo Gonnet

    super well done! and thanks for this post explaining your process...
    good luck!