Get-Started-Quick Bootstrapping Tools

Originally posted on Reddit, but here it’ll be easier to find again.

These are links that I’ve bookmarked over the past year or so. General theme: Tools that you can use to quickly bootstrap. In most cases it’s best to prove out your concept before, say, spending $100s on a professional graphic designer. Some are free, others are just low-cost.

I haven’t used all of these services personally, but they all seemed handy enough to save for future reference. Not intended to be a comprehensive list of options.

Design + Visual

Logojoy:

Instantly design custom logos for free. Only pay if you’re 100% happy.

Launchaco Free Online Logo Maker: Basically the same thing as Logojoy but totally free.

Cool Backgrounds:

Cool Backgrounds is a collection of tools to create compelling, colorful images for blogs, social media, and websites. Beyond backgrounds, the images generated can be used as desktop wallpapers or cropped for mobile wallpapers.

Unsplash:

Beautiful, free photos. Gifted by the world’s most generous community of photographers.

I use Unsplash alllll the time because you don’t have to credit the photographers. You can, so I do when it’s feasible, but you have a lot more flexibility than with Creative Commons.

Flickr Creative Commons search with commercial use and modifications allowed: Another one that I use constantly. Make sure to attribute properly according to the license terms.

unDraw Illustrations:

Browse to find the images that fit your needs and click to download. Take advantage of the on-the-fly color image generation to match your brand identity.

LunaPic: Free online photo editor with lots of effects. The website looks archaic, but the results are surprisingly good. YMMV depending on the aesthetic you want.

Websites

Bootstrap Shuffle:

Bootstrap builder for busy developers. Too often developers don’t have time to perfectly implement their designs. That’s why we have built a tool that will help you move faster from building a layout to the refining stage so that you can have time to work on the details.

HTML5 UP:

Spiffy HTML5 site templates that are fully responsive, built on intelligent HTML5 + CSS3, super customizable, and 100% free under the Creative Commons.

(I lightly edited that description into an actual sentence.)

Carrd:

Simple, free, fully responsive one-page sites for pretty much anything.

Tons of templates. Pay up for a custom domain and other features that aren’t in the free version.

PhastPress:

PhastPress uses advanced techniques to manipulate your pages, scripts, stylesheets and images to significantly improve load times. It’s designed to conform to Google PageSpeed Insights recommendations and can improve your site’s score dramatically.

No idea how well this works, but if it does work well, what a great shortcut.

WriteFreely.host:

WriteFreely is a writing-focused blogging platform that’s uniquely simple and distraction-free. Instead of having one website called Medium or Tumblr, anyone can start their own entire community with the WriteFreely software and govern it however they want.

Marketing

“The art of storytelling” course by Pixar: Exactly what it sounds like.

Twitter’s advanced search page: Can be used to find reporters, other people to approach for various reasons, complaints about competitors, chatter from unserved niches, etc.

Stuff:

Create awesome invitations to small and large events. Distribution of invitations and collection of RSVPs made really simple. So no invitations are ignored or forgotten. Totally free. A really simple browser and email platform. Easy to use for both organizers and guests. Works for everyone without the hassle.

thad.cc:

Organize events from email. Add cc@thad.cc to an email. Once the email is sent, we’ll create a private event on thad.cc and send a follow-up email to each address with an invitation. Each participant will receive an email with a special sign-in link to access the event. No sign-up necessary!

“It’s okay that your startup doesn’t have a communications strategy”:

In today’s crowded startup landscape, it’s rarely obvious what will cut through the noise. You’re not just competing with direct competitors for customers, you’re competing with everyone for attention (and all the potential future hires, partnerships and funding rounds that awareness can help drive). Tactics are more amenable to creativity and experimentation, don’t devour massive resources, and come with shorter and simpler feedback loops.

I know it’s a little weird to include an article, but the advice is that good!

Legal

Y Combinator Safe Financing Documents:

Y Combinator introduced the safe (simple agreement for future equity) in late 2013, and since then, it has been used by almost all YC startups and countless non-YC startups as the main instrument for early-stage fundraising.

WilmerHale Document Generator:

Our Document Generator is custom-tailored to offer important legal documents that will enable you to start and grow your company. It is an invaluable resource for entrepreneurs and founders of startups in various stages of growth and is designed to help you navigate the unfamiliar and manage interrelated issues. The Document Generator has been developed with the guidance of our experienced lawyers who have a longstanding tradition of offering strategic advice and an indispensable business perspective.

Security

macOS Security and Privacy Guide:

This guide is targeted to “power users” who wish to adopt enterprise-standard security, but is also suitable for novice users with an interest in improving their privacy and security on a Mac.

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Survivorship Bias and Startup Hype

Luck plays a significant role in business success. Not just in the mere fact of success, but in the magnitude of any given company’s triumphs. We tend to overlook this reality because of a mental distortion called survivorship bias. It is a common cognitive failure, and a dangerous one because it obscures the distastefully harsh nature of the world.

We love to fantasize that emulating the habits of extraordinary entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Elon Musk will catapult the most talented imitators to the stars. In reality, there are plenty of would-be titans of industry who simply weren’t in the right place at the right time. Even with a great product, they could have failed to make the crucial personal connection that would have accelerated their endeavor to the next level.

Survivorship bias is best summed up by a sardonic XKCD comic: “Never stop buying lottery tickets, no matter what anyone tells you,” the stick figure proclaims. “I failed again and again, but I never gave up. I took extra jobs and poured the money into tickets. And here I am, proof that if you put in the time, it pays off!”

“The hard part is pinning down the cause of a successful startup,” a pseudonymous commenter on Hacker News wisely noted. “Most people just point at highly visible things,” such as hardworking founders or a friendly office culture. “The problem is that this ignores the 5,000 other startups that did all those same things, but failed.”

Ambitious people with incisive minds may be fewer than schmucks, and certainly multi-billionaire CEOs tend to be both brilliant and driven. Yet there are scads of brilliant, driven people who will never make it onto the cover of a prestigious magazine. Or any magazine.

Consider the mythology around hoodie-wearing college dropouts. Y Combinator founder Paul Graham once joked, “I can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg.” The quip is funny because it mocks a real tendency among venture capitalists: Pattern-matching to a fault.

In the same vein, a stunning proportion of partners at VC firms graduated from a handful of tony universities, as if the seal on a person’s diploma were what indicated investing abilities. (Granted, the incidence of leveraged social connections and postgraduate degrees may amplify that trend.)

Steve Jobs, along with Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, became fantastically successful after quitting school to start a company. “How many people have followed the Jobs model and failed?” Scientific American asked rhetorically in 2014. “Who knows? No one writes books about them and their unsuccessful companies.”

The press inadvertently helps perpetuate survivorship bias. People find famous entrepreneurs fascinating and inspirational, so journalists write about them extensively. The general public is primarily interested in the fates of companies that are household names or close to that status. And of course, reporters themselves are susceptible to survivorship bias just like anyone else. This is reflected in their coverage.

So what’s the antidote? Well, it’s boring: Being careful and thorough. Make sure to look for counterexamples whenever you think you’ve identified a trend or a pattern. Resources do exist, although not always on the first page of Google results.

For example, CB Insights compiled a list of 242 startup postmortems from 2014 through 2017. The analysts wrote, “In the spirit of failure, we dug into the data on startup death and found that 70% of upstart tech companies fail — usually around 20 months after first raising financing (with around $1.3M in total funding closed).”

Most of all, don’t let the headlines rule your worldview. “The press is a lossy and biased compression of events in the actual world, and is singularly consumed with its own rituals, status games, and incentives,” as three-time SaaS founder Patrick McKenzie put it.

Listen to Walter Lippmann, in his 1922 book Public Opinion. “Looking back we can see how indirectly we know the environment in which nevertheless we live,” Lippmann wrote, reflecting on the inaccuracies of tick-tock reporting during World War I. “We can see that the news of it comes to us now fast, now slowly; but that whatever we believe to be a true picture, we treat as if it were the environment itself.”

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PR Advice for Startups From an Actual Reporter

“How I got press coverage for my dinky seed-stage startup” is a common topic in places like /r/Entrepreneur, but it’s pretty rare for a journalist’s perspective to be included. Well, I’m a full-time tech reporter who’s been following and writing about the industry for several years. I don’t claim to be a veteran, but I certainly receive a lot of pitches from or about startups. I would appreciate it if the caliber of those pitches improved!

(I also owe a hat-tip to Sean Byrnes; last week he asked me how I decide which emails to pay attention to and which companies to cover. That’s why this subject is top-of-mind.)

Before we get into the suggestions, one caveat: Unless you have a Trumpian sixth sense for publicity, you will probably get farther by following my advice than you will by following your instincts. However, that doesn’t mean that my preferences generalize to literally all reporters.

Optimal Attitude

You’re not heading into a fair contest.

For one thing, the supply-demand dynamics are against you. Tech journos are inundated with pitches on a daily basis, and we only have so much time. That’s why you should adjust your approach to make our lives more convenient, whereas we can delete three times as many emails as we respond to.

For another thing, reporters are strongly biased in favor of companies or founders that our readers already know about. Especially at general-interest publications. “Popular Entrepreneur Does Thing” will usually generate more reader excitement than “Unknown Entrepreneur Does Thing” and journalists are keenly aware of that. Companies like Google or Facebook could be terrible at PR and they’d still get covered nonstop, because readers love hearing about them.

I’m sure it’s frustrating, but that’s just how the incentives work out. You’ll have a better time if you accept the unfairness and tailor your approach to giving your company the best chance possible.

Necessary Elements

Emails that don’t satisfy these requirements are wayyy more likely to be trashed immediately.

Within the first few sentences, say who you are and what your relationship is to the company. If you’re the founder, I want to know that. If you’re the head of comms, I want to know that. Etc, etc.

Explain the company’s purpose — what it does and what the product is. Be concrete and use plain English! Cliché or baffling jargon is an immediate turnoff. (This step isn’t necessary if your company is well-known, but if that’s the case, why are you even reading this post?)

Don’t pretend that you closely follow my coverage of blah blah blah, unless it’s actually true. Acceptable: “Since you wrote about [whatever topic], I think you might also be interested in covering [similar topic].” Annoying: “I really enjoyed your article about [whatever topic], and [insincere flattery].” C’mon — I am skeptical for a living.

That said, please do look at what I’ve written about before, and don’t pitch me if your company is not even remotely on my beat! It’s a waste of everyone’s time. The automated “spray and pray” approach to PR can work when executed well, but only if you manage to reach journalists who write about your subsegment of the industry.

Sparking Interest

Beyond the basic email etiquette outlined above, here are the criteria I use to evaluate whether a startup is worth more attention:

Does the product sound like it’s useful, and does the company have a business model? Yes on both counts = you pass this round. Yes on product = maybe. No to both = do not pass Go; do not collect $200.

Did the company actually do something? “Hey, my startup exists” is far less compelling than a genuine event. If you want to be in the news, do something newsworthy! Examples:

  • raising money
  • launching a product
  • changing strategy or pivoting
  • hiring a notable person

Side projects and internal initiatives can also qualify.

Will the company share metrics? Revenue is the best one, but hardly anyone discloses that. DAUs, MAUs, number of paid seats or licenses, MRR, burn rate — going on the record with financial details of any kind automatically makes you more interesting to me. Especially if the figure hasn’t been reported before!

Is there external validation? VCs can serve this purpose, as can advisors or notable customers. If Elon Musk called the founder a brilliant person, you will have an easier time getting covered.

6/15/2017 Update

I got the following text from a PR person who introduced me to a relatively early-stage startup:

I’m wrapping up the freelance gig with [company] and wanted to re-engage before I do and see if you wanted to revive this. Any feedback is helpful to them, too. What they’re doing is unique but I honestly struggled to get their name out there.

I responded:

Hey! So, in this case I wanted to write about the company or do a video but didn’t have buy-in from my editors for a dedicated piece.

Also, PR operates on long time-cycles. (You can tell them I said so.) it wouldn’t be surprising if I have a reason to mention [company] in the future. Knowing about the company and how it works means I have someone to tap if I’m going to write about [industry], for example

I probably didn’t do a good enough job distinguishing my enthusiasm about the idea from a guarantee of coverage — I can’t really ever guarantee that, and I’m trying to be more proactive about saying so

Tl;dr you did a fine job, but the stars didn’t align on my end

Hopefully that exchange adds some context about how this works in practice.


That’s it! Let me know if you have any questions. I’m smann@inc.com, me@sonyaellenmann.com (checked much less frequently), and @sonyaellenmann on Twitter.

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How I Find Clients as a Freelancer

I’ve been working as a freelance writer on-and-off over the past four years, and full-time for most of 2016. My career has only just started to flourish — knock on wood — but since last December I’ve learned a lot about finding work. Even more so, I’ve learned about where to find the best work. “Best” means most interesting and most lucrative.

I’m not promising to Unlock! Your Earning Potential!™ or anything like that. If you’re intrigued by the nitty-gritty of freelancing, you’ve probably read versions of my experience before. But if you’re new to this mode of employment, hearing about how I manage could be helpful. Just another data point to tuck away in your brain!

TL;DR

Freelancing is a relationships game, and this holds true across many industries. Here are the two most important things you can do to improve your career in the long-term:

  • Find the people who are getting paid to do the work that you want to do. Make friends with them.
  • Find the people who are hiring other people to perform the work that you want to do. Make friends with them also.

It doesn’t matter whether you network online or in person, but nurturing solid connections with individual human beings is vital. In fact, “networking” is just a smarmy word for befriending fellow industry participants. Making public contributions to the community will also help expand the mouth of your funnel.

Yes, the unfortunate reality is that building relationships takes time. There is no shortcut that I’m aware of, unless your parents have relevant connections. It’s taken me years to get where I am, and like I said, I’m only just getting the hang of things. However, both aptitude and chance will affect your results. YMMV!

Ways to Meet Clients

Remember, I’m not a veteran freelancer. That said, these three methods do reflect four years of experience. The list descends in order of quality, from most preferred to least preferred. That also happens to be the order from most time-consuming to least time-consuming.

1) Via Friends or Referrals

I became a contributor at Mattermark quite serendipitously. Alex Wilhelm and I had followed each other on Twitter for a while and exchanged a handful of messages. Then he got hired as Mattermark editor-in-chief. On a whim, I sent him a DM along the lines of, “Are you looking for pitches at Mattermark?” The answer was yes.

For me, Mattermark is a perfect gig. I get paid fairly to write about a subject that fascinates me. I have thoughtful editors and I’m able to accrue clips for my portfolio. Writing about startups and venture capital also allows me to conduct interviews that widen my circle of acquaintances.

Desirable jobs like writing for Mattermark come about either because someone I know wants my services, or someone I know suggests me to a person or company in search of a writer. Often these leads literally come through Twitter, because I spend a lot of time talking to people on that service. A subreddit, niche forum, or IRL meetup could work just as well. Sometimes I initiate contact and sometimes the prospective client asks about my availability.

Making friends in order to find clients can take months or years to pay off. It’s speculative and unpredictable, but luckily the process is intrinsically rewarding.

I view every new person I befriend as a possible source of work, and try to comport myself accordingly (with mixed success). Someone won’t hire me or refer me unless they feel good about my work ethic, analysis skills, and integrity.

2) At Random

Sometimes people contact me out of the blue. The projects they bring to the table can be delightful or baffling. Sometimes these prospective clients accept my rates without batting an eye, and sometimes they ghost when I start talking numbers.

I am not sure how to optimize for this other than having an online presence and constantly self-promoting. Although it’s a bit mysterious, I do like getting work via surprise email. It seems to be a result of personal marketing that I’ve already done and would keep doing anyway.

For example, a Dutch tech consultancy reached out and asked me to help internationalize their website. If I remember correctly, they found me via a blog post about product communication that I shared on Hacker News.

3) By Applying Willy-Nilly

I do this less now, but I used to get one-off jobs all the time by applying to Craigslist listings. Other sites like Indeed and Glassdoor can also be fruitful, but people tend to look for full-timers on those platforms, rather than freelancers. Besides, Craigslist is unmatched in terms of posting volume, and their simple, utilitarian interface is a blessing.

The key here is to have a general cover letter that you can adjust as needed. The amount of time you spend customizing your initial contact with the prospective client should be directly proportional to how much you want the job.

Applying to a random Craigslist ad is how I got my first professional freelancing gig, managing social media for Creeklife. I’ve landed numerous other gigs this way, ranging from soulless #content writing to sociopolitical essays.

Conclusion

That’s it. Those are the three ways that I’ve found my clients. As you can tell, I vastly prefer the first method. Four years in, I feel like networking is finally starting to pay off for me. Thank goodness that my personality prompted me to do lots of arguing and chitchatting in the first place! (I know that not everyone is able to spend years doing speculative emotional labor. I’m not sure how to change that.)

It’s not easy. Anyone who tries to sell you a simple step-by-step guide to being a successful freelancer is oversimplifying. Maybe you noticed that the guidance in this blog post is pretty overarching and vague. I didn’t even cover how to differentiate yourself from the competition! And how do you go about making friends, anyway?!

Well, them’s the breaks. You have to muddle along yourself. Seek out information proactively. Anyone who’s not comfortable doing that isn’t suited to freelancing.

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Innovation: Yeah, Maybe a Bit Overrated

“Crack cocaine […] was a highly innovative product in the 1980s, which involved a great deal of entrepreneurship (called ‘dealing’) and generated lots of revenue. Innovation! Entrepreneurship! Perhaps this point is cynical, but it draws our attention to a perverse reality: contemporary discourse treats innovation as a positive value in itself, when it is not.”

From an Aeon article by Andrew Russell, in which he argues that maintenance is more important than innovation. For the most part I think this is a pointless dichotomy, and Russell’s assertion that Clayton Christensen’s work has been “discredited” is bizarre (see Ben Thompson’s extension of disruption theory), but Russell does make a few good points. Such as the above-quoted one.

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