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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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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Ambiguity = Opportunity

Venkatesh Rao wrote an essay for his Breaking Smart newsletter about uncertainty versus ambiguity:

“High uncertainty tolerance requires you to develop analytical skills. High ambiguity tolerance requires you to develop insight skills. […] The risk of uncertainty wrangling is being wrong. The risk of ambiguity wrangling is seeing something where there is nothing, or vice versa.”

If we roll with Rao’s implied definitions, uncertainty is being unsure about facts, whereas ambiguity is being unsure about interpretation. (This is perhaps beside the point, but I’m not sure the distinction between the words “uncertainty” and “ambiguity” is actually so clear-cut.)

My guess is that most of Rao’s readers work in tech and probably a high proportion of them are aspiring startup founders (I’m not excluding myself from either of those categories). I can easily see how this uncertainty and ambiguity matrix applies to either investing or entrepreneurship.

Let’s say you’re examining a market. You don’t know how many people have XYZ characteristic. That’s an uncertainty problem. Or maybe you do know how many people have XYZ characteristic, but you don’t know what to do about it. That’s an ambiguity problem.

Rao’s proposed solution is free-form intellectual play — he encourages, “it’s not wasted effort because there is no concept of waste in true play.”

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The Barnacles Forum Is Worth Your Time

Barnacles is a clone of the Hacker News clone Lobsters, but Barnacles is aimed at bootstrapping entrepreneurs instead of general software devs. It’s a lot like Hacker News, actually, but maintained for small-scale internet businesspeople instead of enterprise employees. Barnacles is pretty low-volume compared to a place like /r/Entrepreneur, but that means it’s more thoughtful. So far I’m enjoying interacting with the frequent contributors, and the links that rise to the top usually feature concrete techniques that you can readapt to your own business.

Barnacles on a rock. Photo by Quinn Dombrowski.
Photo by Quinn Dombrowski.

Most social venues yield what you put in. My personal Twitter account is enjoyable as well as promotional because Twitter is a platform that perfectly fits how I want to interact with strangers (through ironic jokes). I spend a lot of time on there, quoting the articles I read and commenting on other people’s thoughts. I do that on Facebook too, but it’s more of an afterthought. Barnacles provides something in between — I can post a link without extensive commentary, but if it’s not valuable, I’m not using the forum correctly.

I also self-promote via Barnacles. For instance, I’ll post a link to this article. When you make sure to post links to useful articles and generally provide value to others, they don’t mind a little bit of self-promotion.

“If you’re truly talented, then your work becomes your way of doing good in the world; if you’re not, it’s a self-indulgence, even an embarrassment.” — Kathryn Chetkovich

I think a lot more people are “truly talented” than we typically acknowledge. Marketing is still hard, but when we band together, we build up our collective knowledge and do a better job.

“Software is a completely new type of good in that it is both infinitely differentiable yet infinitely copyable; this means that any piece of software is both completely unique yet has unlimited supply, leading to a theoretical price of $0.” — Ben Thompson

Barnacles is a place where new entrepreneurs collaborate on raising that theoretical price from zero to something more tolerable like $100 per download or $15 per month. Even though software is trivial to copy in a technical sense, it’s very possible to convince customers to pay a premium if you deliver value that they need. Sell convenience!

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