How To Go Out On Your Own as a Solo Developer

2 years ago | Shorts
Always wanted to go out on your own as a solo programmer but don't know where to start? I can't help you with the psychological aspects, but I can give you a blueprint and a plan.

Taking control of your career can be life changing - the freedom to work on what you want when you want is intoxicating. In 2004 I was going to give it all up, ready to go back to school so I could earn my commercial captain's license with the goal of driving tugboats in San Francisco Bay.

Luckily, a friend talked me out of it as he needed some help with a project he was working on at PayPal. Thus started my journey as a solo developer... which hasn't always been fun.

Turns out that it's really easy to screw the whole thing up if you don't start with a solid plan. That's why I made this video. I've packaged everything I've learned about running a solo business over the last 15 years into a solid, tightly-edited hour-long video.

Your Business Plan

Here's a template for the business plan exercise:

## Summary
[COMPANY] will launch on [DATE] and will consist of one person: me. It will provide consultancy services to clients of varying size, with the possibility of selling digital good in the next 3 to 5 years.

## Industry Overview
Think about the niche you're going after and why you're going after it. Write that here, try to make it a solid sentence.

## Products and Services
What are you going to sell? Your time? How? Products? What?

## Market Analysis
Something made you pick this market - what was it and why? Did you see a need for valuable [AWS/Azure/GCP] Cloud Consultants? Maybe you thought people could really use your SQL skills. Just write it down here, no matter how small.

## Marketing Plan
You have to let people know at some point what you're doing so you can get money for it. Is your plan Twitter? Blog? Word of mouth? Write it here.

## Financial Plan
It's going to take a while to make money, so what are you going to do in the mean time? If you give yourself a month to get a contract and get paid, that's an investment. Write that down here: "Investing $2500 initially to get going". From that point, how much do you need to survive each month? What's your bankroll (the amount on hand you have to have) amount to?

## Exit Strategy
This is going to end at some point... either with the sale of the company, you purposely folding it because you wanted to work with other people, or maybe your kids take it over. SPELL IT OUT and think about what that might mean. Again: just a few paragraphs here can make a giant difference in your thinking.

Your Business Name

If you've made it this far congratulations. Seriously! So many people I know decide they want to head out on their own but when their dreams are pushed into reality it becomes less fun and a bit of a toil. This is OK.

I've dreamed of running a marathon someday but when I put in the work (running) I immediately decide it's pointless and stupid. I get it, I promise.


How are you feeling right now? Anxious? Excited? Ovewhelmed? All of these are OK to feel and you'll keep feeling them as this process goes on. In fact none of it will go away until a year or so after you see that you can, indeed, make money on your own.

A lot of people don't believe that. The trick is to make yourself believe that about you. So, deep breath and let's pick a business name.


You have to have a domain if you plan on creating a business. Don't spend a ton of time on this. Execute and make it happen, you can change your mind later on. Right now you need to feel the surge you get when you execute, not waiver and prevaricate over every small decision. You won't get to where you want to go if you keep noodling on it so stop that process cold by doing.

So, tell me:

  1. Where's your favorite place in the world, and what word would describe that? Think of street names, place names, businesses and Write it down.
  2. Who's your favorite actor and what did you find inspiring about their role? Write it down.
  3. One of your best friends just threw you a surprise birthday party and a load of people showed up - some you know, some you don't. They're all looking at you with a smile on their face, thinking... what? Write it down.

All of these can be as fun/silly/serious as you want. It's up to you what you want to convey but don't overthink it.

I Can't Think of Anything

Yeah this has happened to me too, so let me share with you how I came up with the names of my last businesses (Red:4 Aerospace and Big Machine).


I had just created a video for Elixir that I thought would do pretty well and the projection was enough that my accountant (who's also a friend) told me I should probably create a business before I sell anything. He charged me some money and was about to set it up when he said "give me 3 business names, ordered by preference".

I had no idea. It had been years since I had to think of any of this. At that very moment people were tweeting about Space-X and the Falcon Heavy rockets and I was like "damn I wish I could work there because that would be FUN" and it kind of hit me all of a sudden... space... rockets... why not....

I knew I wanted the name "Aerospace" in the name because it sounded retro and fun. I chose "Red:4" because The Martian was the big movie at the time and I remember thinking about Red Mars and Mars being the 4th planet from the sun.

Thus was born my company: Red:4 Aerospace. I don't strictly write code for rockets and so on, but who knows?

Big Machine

This one was a bit more ... lazy I guess? I needed a company name that sounded like "I'll get this done for you", which is a thing I had issues with in the past regarding the company name. I joined my buddy doing consulting work in the late 1990s and he came into the office one day and announced that he had registered "Persistent, Inc" as our company and domain. He was the CEO so I guess that was OK but... the name was... well...

Let's put it this way: one of my clients asked (cheekily) one day if our name indicated that we'd keep trying until we got it right. Yeah... not a good thing. Everyone asked how to spell it!

So I wanted a name for my new company that would be easy to hear and easier to say. I thought of the essence of what I was trying to do and I said "I want to write code like some kind of ... big machine" and there it was.

Pick Something, Let's Register It

This might take you a few minutes, so come up with 5 names and see how they feel. Shoot for easy to spell and easy to say because next we need to register that name. I got lucky with Big Machine and Red:4 - both of the ".io" TLDs were available - but these days there are so many TLDs that it really shouldn't matter.

Head over to Google Domains and start looking. Check TLDs like ".io" and ".dev", the latter being really popular with solo contractors out there. If you plan on staying solo that's fine - but I would urge you to think about more options that could come your way... like creating some kind of app that you might want to sell.

Street names, place names, fictional characters - just pick something and let's MOVE. We have a lot of work to do and you really can't get much worse than the name Google, and look how that turned out!

Coming Up With a Marketing Plan (Yeah, I Hate it Too)

Here's the simple truth: if you're not willing to spend time on marketing, just stop now. I need to be right up front with you on this: you can't make money unless you tell people you can work for that money.

The reason this is so painful is that it just sucks to go to Thought Leader's website and be subjected to a zillion popups with pictures of them everywhere, crossing their arms in the "proud of myself" stance. Barf!

But listen: you don't need to do that. You just need to figure out how you're going to tell people about what you do so that your sould doesn't whither away. I mean... if you want to put pictures of yourself on your website crossing your arms... go for it. The people that do that kind of thing do it because it works. They hate stupid pop up menus too! But they get customers...


The first thing we need to do is to identify who your market is. For instance: I wrote a book about Computer Science principles but for people without Computer Science degrees. That's a pretty well-defined niche and a very well-defined market. I like writing and I like trying to take complex things and see if I can explain them in a straightforward way. If you put those two things together, I have identified my market and also my outreach.

As hard as it might sound, think about what you're good at. When I started out on my own, I knew I was good at three things:

That's the what. Now to the who. 90% of the people I worked with previously were Fortune 500 companies: big telecoms, Silicon Valley giants including Google and PayPal. I felt comfortable in that world, so it's natural that I should target those people as my market.


Now comes the hard part: how do you let your who know about your what? Believe it or not, there are some very obvious ways... but before I get there...

Do You Want Out

So many people I know have decided to "make a fresh break" and start again by going out on their own. I did this once and it was a disaster! When Ruby on Rails came out I decided I wanted to be a Ruby person, so told my friends I was looking for a Ruby job - specifically Ruby on Rails.

I finally got a call from an acquantance and long story short: it was a total disaster. I didn't understand the world I was entering (mobile startup) and also what they expected of me. I knew Rails pretty well, but not the point I should have - so let's just say that's the last time I did that.

A month later I returned to what I knew how to do: enterprise development using .NET. I ended up getting a contract with the largest payment gateway in the .NET space, designing and building their .NET SDK. It was very good money and I executed happily, which helped me slowly change my focus over time.

If you want out of what you're doing now, you have to have expertise in where you want to go. Otherwise your increased risk of failure will blow this whole thing up!

Word of Mouth

It's always going to be your best bet. So right now I want you to pop open your Trello board (or Airtable or whatever you decided to use) and write down the names of some people you can call. These are potential leads and you need to create cards to help you:

  1. Remember to call them
  2. Track what was said during the call (or email/text) and then "score" the lead in terms of a getting work
  3. Remember to thank them later on

These people can be friends, old bosses, family (if you're OK with that) and people you might meet at a conference or event of some kind. I know... random strangers? Really? Well..

Get Over It

Do you do good work? Do you write code that you think people should pay you for? Great! Let people know this. We'll get to marketing in more detail later on, but you're going to need to get over your hesitance to engage with people.

There's a fine line between being inquiring and being obnoxious. The worst thing you can be is neither and let this whole thing fail. I'll give you some strategies later on, for now I want you to think about who you could reach out to and how. Pop that into your CRM.

Networking and Events

If you don't go to any meetups you need to start now, if only to get yourself out there to see what other people are up to and how they market themselves. You can find these things anywhere, but heading over to is your best bet. Find an event that suits you and just drop in to say hello.

Everyone is there to network, and that's what you're trying to do. So write down a few meetups in your marketing plan, and include them in your overall market approach in terms of defining your niche.

For instance: do you find yourself wanting to go to the MongoDB meetups more than anything else? Great! There's a possible market for you.

Still Here? Get Writing!

OK, enough babbling, hopefully you see the thing I'm trying to get you to do: Identify what your services are and who can use them.

Just start writing... make stuff up if you have to. The point is that words, when they flow, tend to stitch themselves together. You just have to start with the first sentence...

I love doing X and it would be a dream if I could do it for Y...

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