What does it cost to start a company?
Everyone and your mom is speaking about how easy and cheap it is to launch a company in 2011. We fell into that trap and launched one. This article describes our experience in the field – was it easy and/or was it cheap? Read on to find out – in the following 1600 words or so we will describe more or less chronologically the steps we took and how much these cost.
We develop software, so the first thing we needed was a source code repository. After hesitating for 20 minutes we had a Bitbucket account set up and a Mercurial repository created. Cost – $0.00. Nice start!
For the first month it was actually all we needed, besides a whiteboard and a lot of coffee. Sleepless nights of pure hacking and nobody to disturb you – great!
As the software matured and the team got bigger we started facing other challenges. Like the challenge of not fitting product backlog onto the whiteboard anymore. So – next stop – issue tracker. We had some doubts whether to use Fogbugz or JIRA for the job, but it kind-of sorted out itself when we took a look at the pricing sections. Fogbugz lost by a mile – it charges 25$ per developer per month, JIRA only required us to pay 10$ for the whole team per month. We started using JIRA hosted by Atlassian itself. Or JIRA on demand as they like to call it. As we paid for a year in advance, the bill was $120.00 in total.
Next challenge – online presence. Thank god for Facebook and Twitter for their free-of-charge plans, but we needed a content site as well. We shortlisted two options – WordPress and Edicy. WordPress was free, Edicy was not. So the choice was clear – we chose Edicy. For two not-so-obvious reasons. First – we had already used WordPress before and Edicy felt cooler. Second – Edicy is being developed by the guys next door. And we kinda like them. So we picked Edicy to host our http://www.plumbr.eu site. Another $144 spent for one year hosting services. Total cost so far: $264.00. To trace what our visitors are doing on the site we added Google Analytics. Gosh its nice to see how good articles like this drive visitors to your site. Even nicer is to see how many of you guys actually download our software – keep it going – we are here to get rid of your memory leaks, remember! And the best story – Google Analytics is free. Too good to be true. But its still free.
Now we had the site but we had to register a domain to publish it. An old friend Godaddy (and we thought we chose a weird name to a company) came to help us – in 20 minutes we had a domain and DNS updates already pinpointing to our brand new site. And our wallet shrank again by $14.99. Total cost bubbled up to 278.99$.
Then the site was up and running. Next stop? Apparently, its not enough to have good content, people have to be able to share and discover the articles we were about to publish. So we integrated Disqus with our Edicy platform. Another 10 minutes and $0.00. Hopefully Facebook and Twitter will manage to bear the load of the traffic we are going to generate.
Even though sharing is caring, we had to be able to face product-related questions online. Result – three hours arguing whether we need something like StackExhcange or an old-fashioned forum solution. The old school won that round. 30 minutes later we had embedded Nabble into our site. Looks nice, eh? And it was free. With ads though. And as we kind-of did not like the idea of competitors having a possibility to advertise their products on our own website we paid $5.00 to get rid of the ads for a while. The total cost after that – $283.99.
Then our marketroids jumped in with their requirements. And things turned ugly – advertising and contact harvesting. We held our ground for several weeks but then had to surrender after the droids offered to quit in return. So – if you see a Google Ad about Plumbr, please do not click on it. Or we will be a few dimes poorer. $20.00 have already flown to Sergei’s and Larry’s pockets anyway. For marketing campaigns we were also forced to create a MailChimp account and for transactional e-mails we started using Postmarkapp. Corresponding costs so far – $9.00 to chimpansees and $3.00 to Postmark. Total cost changed to $315.99.
After all this dirty marketing stuff, we finally managed to dive into some development-related activities again. Which also required further tools from the infrastructure side. Say hello to our build server / continuous integration environment – Jenkins. Even though we originally considered CloudBees as well, somehow for reasons nobody seems to remember we went the old-fashioned way and decided to install Jenkins by ourselves. Maybe we chose Jenkins because it was free as opposed to CloudBees? As our next calculations show, it actually wasn’t.
To install Jenkins, we needed a machine. Here, Amazon Web Services came to the rescue. It’s still amazing how quickly you can get an EC2 instance running. With Jenkins on top of it. Why can’t all the software be installed like this (java -jar jenkins.war)? Soon we discovered that we needed some more machines, as our software has to support Linux, Windows and Mac operating systems, so we added another EC2 Windows machine. For some peculiar reason there are no Mac boxes available in AWS, so for Mac OS X builds we resurrected an old MacBook Pro, which now serves as a Mac build server. Jeff Bezos, if you are reading this – you better start supporting Mac as well. This ancient Mac is humming as crazy whenever it needs to build something. Anyhow, considering we got this old MB Pro for free, we have paid $760.30for our two reserved EC2 instances, small EBS storage and some data transfer in the first three months. At the current rate, we seem to spend approximately $100.00/month in the foreseeable future. With those bills in place our costs skyrocketed to $1 076.29. Investors started calling in worrying about our cash-flow. So much about a free build server then.
Creation of all the mentioned infrastructure produced some documentation along the way. Not surprisingly – also did the product development. As digging through emails and Skype chats for all the info was getting messy, we saw the need for online collaboration environment. Google Apps was there to help, so we set up a corporate account. What we didn’t recognize at first was the fact that it was free for up to 10 users, so we accidentally paid for the first month, and are hoping now for the $10.00 not to drag us under. Accident or not – the total cost rose to $1 086.29.
Two months down the road we suddenly discovered that we actually needed to found a company. Ouch. But – as we live in the nerd heaven called Estonia, we managed to create the company online in 20 minutes. Still, creating a company tends to be associated with legalese in the form of digitally signed contracts (again – Estonia is cool, eh?). So we made another weird move guessing that Google Docs cannot handle random content type, and started using Dropbox for anything else besides documents and spreadsheets. Luckily this move didn’t add anything to our start-up infra bill.
Last but not least – we are currently working on building a payment infrastructure and a licensing model. This required some custom Java code written in Play Framework, some SQL magic in a MySQL server and an Apache HTTP Server for virtual hosts. As it’s still work in progress, we haven’t really created a new EC2 instance yet, but in the end it will not be a big burden on our balance sheet anyway – either you guys will not pay anything to us and we can go with a free EC2 micro instance or you will try to drown us in cash and we will have to switch to a High-Memory Quadruple Extra Large Instance. Either way – we win. And kudos to the team naming instances in Amazon. If you are out there reading this article – let us know and we’ll buy you a beer next time we have a chance to meet!
What we didn’t cover in this article were development tools, such as IDE, build scripts, testing tools, etc. We thought this to be a subject for another article. But I can shed some light on the cost side of those tools: Nothing. Nil. Nix. Nada. Null. Or $0.00 if you prefer the accountant’s way.
Conclusions. Let’s wrap everything up in a summary table:
|Source code repository||Mercurial (on Bitbucket)||0|
|Issue tracker||Atlassian Jira||120 (for a year)|
|Web site||Edicy||144 (for a year)|
|Social media presence||Facebook, Twitter||0|
|Web tracking and analytics||Google Adwords||0|
|DNS||GoDaddy||14.99 (for 2 years)|
|Web advertising||Google Ads||20 (just the beginning)|
|Registration and personal reminder e-mail relay||Postmarkapp||3 (the first few thousand e-mails)|
|Build server / CI||Jenkins||0|
|Servers for CI, stats upload etc||Amazon Web Services||760.3 (half a year)|
|Document storage, e-mails, collaboration||Google Apps||10 (paid before we downgraded to the free plan)|
|Payment and license infrastructure||Play, Apache HTTP server, Mysql||0|
Was it all easy? Compared to 2001 – maybe. But it’s actually quite amazing how many different things you need when starting a brand new company. The list goes from build servers to marketing tools and beyond – only listing and budgeting of all the tools alone might be an issue, especially for young entrepreneurs.
Was it cheap? Considering that so far the total amount spent is $1 086.29 – definitely. The budget for 2012 also does not seem too crazy – we expect to get away with less than $200.00/month, unless someone makes a Slashdot or Reddit bomb out of this article and we end up paying a ton of cash for outgoing traffic. So please, do not do this.
Go download Plumbr instead and forget Java memory leaks for good!