Back in 1999, after quitting a job I hated that involved working on products that sucked and with and for (with some exceptions) people I didn't respect, I found myself in the small life boat that was Red Gate, with Simon as co-navigator, a small contracting revenue as a paddle and no hat.
Bob Walsh's slightly mistitled "The Web Startup Guide" is the chart we never had. And it's a damn fine chart, with land, rocks, reefs, currents, winds and pirates clearly marked. Why mistitled? Because it’s suitable for all product-based startups, not just those on the web.
This book, wisely and following its own advice, is targeted very specifically. If you're a software developer, are thinking about setting up (or have just set up) a product-based start-up, and are prepared to work – damn hard – at something you love doing then this book is for you. Equally importantly, if you're more than a few months into your start-up, or if this is your second start-up, or if you aren't a geek, or if you want to set up a consulting business, or if you want to get rich quick, then this book isn't for you.
It is split into ten chapters. The first couple of chapters explore the different types of startups, talk about how to choose a problem to solve and provide a handy checklist for your startup idea. Too often, startups bite off too much they can chew, or not enough worth chewing. Follow the checklist and you'll avoid these, and other, errors. Equally important is the list of ten startup antipatterns ('the me-too! startup' and the 'outsourced startup' to name just two).
Chapter three discusses possible platforms and works through their pros and cons. Should you create a standalone online application, or base it on the Amazon or Google platform? Or use a higher level platform such as salesforce.com? Or maybe a Facebook app would be more suitable? This chapter will help you decide.
Chapter 4 is about the tools and groups you might find useful. As a developer, you'll know some of this already (you use source control, right?), but will learn something new too, whether it's about site analytics, user feedback sites or testing tools. Starting up a business can be lonely, and the online forums and physical meet-ups covered here will prove useful.
Chapter 5 covers main funding options – friends, angels, VCs and incubators (but ignores other options such as government grants, bank loans and joint ventures). It is agnostic about what sort of financing you should get, but, as an earlier chapter pointed out, if you are reading this book you are unlikely to seek, find, or even need VC funding. The assumption that startups must follow the Silicon Valley approach of seed, series A then series B funding is rightly challenged here. This chapter also includes a brief section on payment processing.
Chapter 6 is about social media and the tools you should be using to track what people are saying about your product online, the role of your startup's blog, Twitter, press releases and their more modern equivalents.
Chapter 7 covers the basics of creating a web site that works. Follow the guidelines here – hook people, be credible and have a clear call to action – and you can't go far wrong.
Chapter 8 takes a detour to explain David Allen's Getting Things Done program and its five core principles. If you struggle with time management then you'll benefit from this.
Chapter 9 contains interviews from 'six wise people', and chapter 10 wraps everything up with some more good advice and a final, quick tub thump.
On the whole, this book is outstanding. There is a lot of information here, but its fast-paced, colloquial writing style make it digestible. What's more, the book is well thought-out, balanced, well structured and accurate. It's an excellent combination of fact, anecdote, theory, analysis and practical advice. The interviews alone (Joel Spolsky, Dharmesh Shah, Eric Sink, David Allen and Guy Kawasaki are among the fifty in-depth, thought-provoking interviews in the book) make it worth reading.
There are, however, a handful of cavills.
Firstly, the interviews are included verbatim. It would have been better to edit them – clarity is more important than word-for-word accuracy.
Secondly, the book gets a bit starry eyed about social media. Although traditional print, TV and radio-based advertising might be dying, social media is just one – not the only – tool left in the modern marketer's toolbelt. Furthermore, it's not true that every company must build a community around its product to succeed. Logistically, it's not possible. I happily use hundreds, if not thousands, of products, yet can only – almost by definition – belong to a handful of true communities. When I fly with my favourite airline, or surf with my favourite browser or buy my favourite sausages I do so because of the awesomeness of the product and the marketing, not because I feel a deep need to engage with the Virgin / Firefox / Musks Sausages community.
Thirdly, it's clearly impossible to include absolutely everything relevant to a start-up in a single book, but it's a shame that Bob chose not to talk about sales and talks only minimally about marketing. Finding people who like your product and persuading them to actually buy it is the single biggest issue that your startup, bogged down in the technology, will forget about. On the other hand, there are plenty of other resources that cover that (Jay Conrad Levinson's Guerilla Marketing, Seth Godin's Permission Marketing, Joe Sugarman's Adweek Copywriting Handbook and Jeff Cox's Selling the Wheel are readable starting points).
But these are minor niggles. Overall, this is an excellent, must-have primer for any geek wanting to set up a product-based business. Buy it.
Bob Walsh's "The Web Startup Success Guide" is available on Amazon for a bit under $20.