So you want to do a startup – the “F” projects

“F” is for friendly. This type of startup addresses the frequent problem of insufficient domain knowledge (outside of coding and possible “day job”). “Day Job” domain knowledge often run risks of conflict of interest, or if your employment contract is hard-nose, the startup could become claimed (with no remuneration) by your day job employer.


The basis of the “F” project is to be friendly to the local business community. Via local business groups (for example TAG in Whatcom county), you indicate you (or you as a part of a group) are willing to do pro-bono work for smaller business in the area. This is a fine line, the work should not be doing for free what they would likely pay someone to do (like create a web site) – that is bad karma. What you want to do is something that fills a gap.


I will give an example from my experience, when I meet my wife she was production manager for a firm that reproduce by hand figurines, C.Alan Johnson.  There was a dozen employees – all skilled china painters etc. Their market was cruise ships to Alaska.  They had some business problems:

  1. Difficulty knowing what to produce (each figure took time to case, paint and finish)
  2. Not having stock on hand to ship lost sales because the sale season was short.
  3. At the end of year, they had to pay tax on finished inventory.

The ideal solution was to be able to forecast sales on each piece and end the year with almost no finished inventory (because there was a match between production and sales).


I ended-up writing three components that talked to their existing system:

  • An EOQ estimate for figurine batch size
    • factoring in the number of pieces that can be put into a kiln at a time
    • available storage and work space
    • profit per piece
  • A just in time sales forecasting system that
    • did cluster analysis of prior sales
    • generated a weekly (or daily): these are the pieces we should cast today
  • Who get what first when there was a shortage
    • Some customers paid promptly, some did not but had larger sales

The solutions above were cheap solutions with major financial impact.


There are some critical caveats with “F” project lest you end up with a “F*ck-*p”.  (Coding)Developers have this nasty trait of loving to reinvent the wheel.  The business owner should get a seasoned product manager involved – there are at least two people in Skagit/Whatcom county that are willing to do pro-bono or equity-stake work: myself and Andrea Williams.


The roles of the product manager are many, the critical ones are:

  1. Can the need be satisfied with an off-the-shelf product?
    1. Is it just a matter of paying $500 and training?
  2. Resolving what the customer actually needs --
    1. What they say may not be what they mean, or
    2. Difference of vocabulary between developers and business owner result in a major language problem
  3. Writing up a specification in “developer speak”
  4. Monitoring the work to make sure it’s on schedule and as intended
  5. Resolve issues raised by developer (often a lack of domain knowledge).
  6. Determine if there is a potential (at least niche) market for the product.
  7. Be the decision making knowledgeable-authority (you need one).

The Startup Model

The model is this:

  • The startup team works for free, a flat fee (on successful completion – satisfaction guaranteed) or greatly reduced hourly rate.
  • Regardless of the remuneration – the startup team retains all rights to the software produced.
  • The business receives a non-expiring, non-transferable  license to the software.

You have a user to give the product a recommendation, you have acquired domain knowledge and had an extended experience learning the “customer’s language”.


If you are an experienced product manager, a developer or whatever --- and are interested in this approach, please email me or post a comment indicating your interest. TAG is interested in building up a resource list. A team consisting of one product manager and two developers (think paired-coding as in Agile practices) is likely the critical mass to have a reasonable chance of success.  Ideally, the product manager should be reasonable coder so they can also serve as a code reviewer.


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