Note: This article is based on a phone interview and was restructured into the format below by the Uploadcare editorial team.
My name is Will Smith, and I’m a solo founder. In 2020, I launched a CV assessment web service in two months without hiring a development team. Here’s my story.
I started projects as a solo entrepreneur in college. There were several businesses—some of them are already closed, and some are still running. In 2015, I moved to San Francisco, where a lot of startup activity was concentrated. I decided to take a break from entrepreneurship and try to find a job in a startup.
That was the first time in years I’d had to search for a job, so I had to dust off a resume that hadn’t seen the light of day since college. I was at a San Francisco Business Bootcamp at the time, and there was a career counselor. She helped me polish both my resume and LinkedIn profile.
Still, I wanted more feedback. I wanted to be able to do a mock interview so I could work on how I presented myself and how I told my story. The counselor couldn’t spare me much time as she had 12 more people to consult. But I realized that it was really helpful to talk to an expert; somebody who could provide you with that level of feedback.
Anyway, I got a great job, but that thought about resume reviews was always in the back of my mind. I couldn’t shake the sense that job seekers are flying blind when they position themselves to employers. And I knew that feedback from a hiring professional was something I would pay for.
That’s why, in 2018, when I stopped working at the last startup, I came back to the idea and launched a resume review marketplace called Polished. It’s a website where job seekers can choose a hiring expert who’s experienced in a specific industry and order a resume review. The expert records a 10-15 minute video review and sends it over to the client. With this review, job seekers can polish their resumes and get more job interviews.
In this article, I’ll share the insights I learned while launching this business. I will tell you the whole story: how to validate your idea, what it’s like to be a solo founder, how I failed with my first iteration, how I chose a tech stack for my project, and more.
It's conventional wisdom in startup entrepreneurial circles that you shouldn’t build something before knowing that people will buy it. Of course, no one wants to spend a year of their life and then learn that people don't need the product they’re building.
So, to validate my idea, I looked at the market: I talked to many job seekers, recruiters, career coaches, and resume writers. I did tons of research on the web to see what the marketplaces looked like and what other offerings there were.
One of the things that I learned during my research was that many career coaches offer free resume reviews. They usually do it to generate leads. When I found that out, I thought: "Why would anyone pay for a resume review if there are so many people who can do it for free?” I talked to a number of people about this point and understood one important thing:
💡 People usually tend to assume that if something costs money, it's probably going to be of higher quality. And if it's free, it's probably just not worth that much. This helped me to dispel my doubts and keep going.
So, here’s my biggest tip to entrepreneurs who plan to start their own business: just make sure you validate your idea as much as possible to confirm people will pay for it.
To validate my idea, I needed to talk to a bunch of different people. First, I talked to people within my network, but that wasn’t enough.
💡 Then I came up with a little growth hack: I decided to find people for my research on Upwork. I just put up a job offer with the title "Seek professional recruiters for a 20-minute phone survey."
In the job description, I wrote something like this: "I'm doing research for a potential product and I want to understand certain things about the recruiting industry. I'm going to ask you questions about your work.”
In three days, I talked to 10 career coaches and 5 university career counselors using this approach, which gave me lots of insights. Now I use this tactic to validate most of my ideas.
Validating your idea is essential, but it can be tricky because you don’t know when to stop researching and start doing. There’s an expression, “analysis paralysis,” which means that you just analyze, analyze, analyze, analyze, and can’t make a decision. That’s exactly what happened to me. When I was deciding on pursuing this idea, I read countless resources and talked to countless people, just trying to eliminate any possible risk.
When you’re building a product that’s already been on the market for a while, you know for sure that people need it and are ready to pay for it. Your job as an entrepreneur is simply to enhance the product or find a way to make it cheaper. Offer something slightly better than the competition, and people will buy it.
💡 If you're doing something new, you're never going to eliminate all the risks, you just need to launch it. At some point, you have to take some risks and just hope that it's going to work.
I think I spent more time just trying to convince myself that this would 100% work, which was impossible, and I lost a few months doing that.
I was launching Polished as a solo founder without any investors. When it came time to choose a tech stack, I was looking for something cost-effective.
The first iteration of this project was built on WordPress. I hired a WordPress developer to implement it for me. The developer was great, but I just didn't like WordPress because it felt outdated.
💡Plus I didn’t have control over my app. I didn't know WordPress, so every time I needed something changed, I had to go to this developer, pay $25-$50 and wait a few days. That was the biggest problem for me.
I wanted to be able to make changes to my website and move fast. That’s why I threw everything away and went back to square one.
I had a little experience in software development years ago, so I feel comfortable with code. That said, writing a marketplace from scratch would’ve taken me too much time and money. That’s why this time I decided to build the platform using only no-code and low-code tools.
Here’s the list of tools I used:
- Webflow — to design the website.
- Zapier — to connect all the apps and move data around.
- Memberstack — to allow users to log in and submit reviews.
- Uploadcare — for uploading video files and sending them back and forth.
- Airtable — for data storage.
Webflow, Airtable and Zapier are the most common tools in the no-code world. They have no competition in terms of being functional, easy to use, and no-code friendly, so it was an obvious choice.
Then I found Memberstack, and it just did what I needed it to do. And, of course, when I faced the challenge of receiving large video files, I needed an uploading app that would accept the files easily and that I could implement quickly by myself. That’s how I chose Uploadcare. Read more about Uploadcare + Polished collaboration →
💡 When using tools that don't permit code, there’s a big risk of bumping into limitations over time, for example when you need certain functionality that’s missing and there’s no way to add it manually. When choosing my tech stack, I wanted it to be no-code friendly but still flexible.
I wanted my tools to be easy to implement and run, but if I ever needed some advanced functionality, I wanted to be able to access it, even at the code level.
💡 I believe that no-code is most powerful in the hands of people who are already quite technical and simply want to accelerate their work.
Somebody who wasn't technical at all still would’ve been able to build an app with no-code and low-code tools. It's not rocket science; anyone could do it. But it would've taken much more effort and putting themselves outside their comfort zone to accomplish it.
Today’s market is incredibly crowded and competitive, so it’s challenging to break through the noise and get any attention at all. And the hardest part is that there’s no silver bullet when it comes to marketing. There's no playbook that you just follow. Every business is different. Every customer segment is different. You just can’t predict what approach will work.
I implemented several marketing activities that helped me get off the ground. For example, I tried running a social media contest on Facebook.
I asked people to take part in a survey to win a prize. In that survey, I asked people some questions about job seeking; for example, if they were looking for a job now or planning to look for a job in the next six months. If they answered yes, I offered them the opportunity to receive some tips by email. Eventually, some of those people converted into customers.
Also, I started to use SEO to drive traffic to my website, but it’s a very long process: it can take 12 to 18 months to really start seeing good results, so I can’t talk about the impact quite yet.
It’s taken me a couple of months to get my first clients. I didn’t do a big splashy launch: the site went live, but it wasn't a big marketing push. It's been gradual slow growth. Today we provide about 10 reviews per week, and I keep working on creating my marketing strategy.
When you run a business alone, I'd say the emotions are more extreme. If you have a co-founder, you can share your ups and downs and support each other, but when you’re solo, you have to deal with it alone.
Also, if you have a co-founder you can discuss an idea with them and if you both agree it’s a good one, you’re ready to implement it. When you’re a solo founder, there are more doubts because nobody's working on this with you, so nobody can validate your idea as a member of your inner circle.
I listened to a podcast called Indie Hackers, and one of the themes that comes up a lot in this community is managing your emotions. A big part of this game is just learning to manage your own emotions and not being swept away by doubt. I struggled with that too.
Before I launched Polished as a solo entrepreneur, I had run businesses with one business partner and with three co-founders.
💡 Analyzing this experience, I would say that ideally, if you can find a co-founder, do it.
This is a big philosophical debate in the tech startup world, and some people even believe that you shouldn't even start a business if you can't find a co-founder.
I wouldn't go that far, obviously. I didn't find a co-founder and I’m doing it anyway, but I do think that it's ideal if you have a co-founder. You'll just move a lot faster. If I had somebody else sharing the work with me, I'd probably be much further along.
1. Move faster and don't analyze to death. Research is important, but there’s no way to eliminate all risks. At some point, you just need to trust your instincts and start doing. I think that I'm still looking for the right balance of instinct and analysis, and I still have room for improvement here.
2. Pay attention to marketing. Many products might be great, but they just die because owners don't promote them right. Today, many new products are made by technical people. Programmers know how to build something, but they don't know how to market it. The marketing and distribution of the product are actually more important than the quality of the product itself. The skill that I want to acquire at the next stage of my career is marketing, because I think that's really where a product either lives or dies.
3. Don't overestimate how quickly it will go. No-code can be a little oversold. Almost anyone can learn a no-code tool, but even with no-code tools, as powerful as they are, there’s still going to be a learning curve.
4. Use Upwork as a source of expertise. If you have an idea and you’re wondering, for example, how difficult it would be to build it with a no-code tool, put up a job on Upwork and say, "I would like to speak with somebody technical who's built stuff in no-code. I have an idea and I want you to tell me how difficult it would be." For $200 or $300, you can talk to five experts and get a cross-section of opinions from people who have done something like it. Don’t fantasize about your ideas for years. Using Upwork, you can validate all your ideas and quickly figure out if they’re even viable. That will push you to the next step.