Starting up: The £4k Startup


My “office” next to the bins

A version of this post first appeared on FastCoLabs entitled “How This Journalist-Turned-Coder Built His Startup For $6,000”

Over the last few months, I’ve been writing about my startup adventures. First, on why I decided to leave the Guardian, learn to code, and do this in the first place. Then on the crude intricacies of chasing rich people around London. I left you at the bit when I decided to stop chasing money and focus on finishing the thing. I was gonna get it to the cliff, and over it, myself.

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

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

In the meantime, I’ve been doing some maths. All told, I’ve spent under £4k on the whole thing. Here’s how:

The product: £890

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 learnt how to code on evening courses last year after leaving the Guardian, and gradually fell in love with it – I genuinely now find writing code more creative than writing words. Between the General Assembly course, 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.


Sometimes code makes you angry

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 got a very good fallback if it all fails, which it won’t, obviously. But if … I won’t just have the “experience” of building a business, in a spiritual I’ve-really-found-my-calling kind of way, I’ve got tangible new skills. I’ve gone from being a shit 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 code commissions like this one and this one.

But 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 dude 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 nous across the site. Nothing too major, but a noticeable upgrade. It looks hot, and it works.


Front end dev Tim Parker up in my code

Legals: £1300

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 website has free sample templates you can use – just Google “businesslink + [disclaimer/privacy policy/etc]” and you’ll find them. 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 shitloads for someone to change “from today” to “henceforth accordingly”, but hey ho. I’ve salvaged some of the stuff I wrote for human-readable deeds over the top of the licenses.

Branding: £1250

Again, I thought I could do this myself. I’d made a logo, had a pretty good idea of an overall design principle and colours, and used to equate “branding expertise” with snake oil. I still think that, a bit. But I also realised the damage that shitty branding can have on a product, and 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.


My logo. I like it so much I sixed it.

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.

The domain: £330

Choosing a name for your business is incredibly annoying. 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 –,, and (want them? £20 each. Ok, for you, £18)– before deciding they were rubbish the next day. I abused the Domain Scout app on an almost minute-by-minute basis. At one stage I think it told me I’d “already searched for that domain 13 times”.


Stupid bollocks in my journal

I was determined to get a .com. I know this is old-fashioned, but it’s also what everyone assumes. Especially when they are looking for something. I settled on Picfair, which was already taken, but available on SEDO for $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’ve spent on this whole thing, but hey.

Testing: £200

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. Invaluable, and maddening – I had a total of 73 bugs to fix and tweaks to implement. But I think – THINK – It’s just about ok now. I’m gonna regret saying that.

So… totting up:

The product                              £890

The domain                               £330

Legals                                      £1300

Branding                                  £1250

Testing                                       £200

Total                                                 £3970

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

And also, more importantly, this is the final blog I’m gonna write before releasing the thing into the wild, so, with my recently-learned legalese: I hereby reserve the right to be a total perma-shill, shameless promotion-obsessed pain in the arse once it’s launched. You’ve been warned.

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