The Bootstrap Jamstack: How Independent Players CompeteDecember 16, 2020
Hey, I’m Franck. 👋
I run a developer-first e-commerce solution, and I try my best to grow a healthy bootstrapped company. It’s called Snipcart, and we’re based in beautiful Québec.
Our product is part of the Jamstack ecosystem. If you don’t know what that is, no worries. There’s a cool intro here.
Some indie companies I look up to in the space are DatoCMS, Fathom analytics and Statamic.
I’m seeing lots of VC-funded businesses shining, but I’d love to see more bootstrappers alongside us.
In this piece, I’ll show how independent players can build, compete, and grow in the Jamstack ecosystem. I’ll include real-life examples from the Snipcart team and other cool products.
Industry funding overview
When building businesses, there are often two commons paths for your success model:
- Bootstrapped companies focus on lifestyle and profitability.
- VC-backed companies focus on growth and valuation.
Let’s take two categories: e-commerce and headless CMS. I had wondered what the ratio of bootstrapped vs. funded was for these. So I took a look:
Funding abounds in this Jamstack category. Snipcart is one of the only e-commerce players that made it past five years without funding.
Here, the ratio appears more balanced. Why? I think e-commerce, as a product category, involves more inherent complexity.
Headless CMS must handle APIs, data storage and retrieval, plugins, permissions, integrations, previews, etc. That’s a lot.
But e-commerce solutions must handle most of the above plus tax management, shipping and fulfillment, emails, payment processing, refunds, security, discounts, multi-currencies, etc.
E-commerce is also closer to the money. The complexity it addresses touches more critical parts of a user’s life than a CMS: security, identity, revenue, etc.
Trying to solve for e-commerce might be harder, pushing teams to untie some knots through funding. What do you think?
I quickly put together this Google Sheet. If you want me to update it, drop a comment, or send me an email. I might spin this into a cuter microsite—not sure yet!
A word on venture capital
Most of us have seen the loud Basecamp/37signals vs. VCs battle unfold over the past decade. It has, for better or worse, painted a very adversarial picture of the startup ecosystem.
The boring reality is that venture capitalists aren’t as evil as some factions of the bootstrapped community claim. They are agents inside a flawed system with weird incentives and dynamics.
Some companies require wide, horizontal adoption across multiple markets—think infrastructure. The more you’re in that position, the more likely you’ll need VC money to succeed. Netlify couldn’t have worked out the way it did without that kind of funding.
The vital distinction peers helped me realize is that the notion of “winning” differs drastically on the VC and bootstrap path. An entrepreneur’s values and ambition will dictate which kind of success they want to achieve. And that’s fine. Here, I’ll just be spreading the gospel that resonates best with me.
Why bring Jamstack & bootstrapping together?
We see indie communities in SaaS popping up all the time: Startups for the rest of us, Indie Hackers, etc. There's a reason for that: some people don't want to build companies inside the VC model's incentive and pressure structure.
Raising money is a rollercoaster of emotions and intensity. It ultimately offers two paths of success: get acquired or go public. Before that, "success" is exiting a round for investors. You have people putting in money just to leave the company as soon as they can. When you put it like that, it does feel odd, right?
The Jamstack ethos is filled with values we also see in the bootstrapped community:
- In Jamstack: freedom from monoliths, giants, incumbents, tools with poor DX.
- In bootstrap: freedom from corporate lifestyle, 9-5, boredom, location.
Keeping things small 🌱
- In Jamstack: no need for big architectures, hefty installs, heavy downloads.
- In bootstrap: no need for hundreds of millions in revenue, hundreds of employees, tens of thousands of customers. No need for excessive spending on vanity marketing.
Price consciousness 💸
- In Jamstack: no need to pay for a bunch of plugins, extravagant hosting, and maintenance. You can also rely on many free open source tools.
- In bootstrap: you gotta eat! Budget is limited, so spending wisely is extra essential.
Performance sensibility 🏎
- In Jamstack: focus on critical user-centric metrics (FCP, TTI, etc.).
- In bootstrap: focus on critical business-centric metrics (profitability, churn, LTV) and human-centric metrics (happiness, sleep, financial comfort, free time, etc.).
How can independent Jamstack players compete?
Cool cool, but I can’t compete with the Netlify, Contentful, Shopify in the space. They raised many millions! Hundreds of people work for them!
Yes, you can. Others have done it. We have done it.
The trick is in how you go about it!
When you’re bootstrapped, your economic incentives are drastically different from VC-funded businesses. They need market shares, steep growth, PR attention, multiple acquisition channels. You only need a small community, one sustainable acquisition channel, and enough customers to breakeven.
Big players will often go after broad problems: Shopify wants to empower the whole world to sell online. Snipcart only wants to help a few hundred devs build better e-commerce stores.
You see, the pains you solve with your product can be much more specific than bigger companies.
I've got a parallel for you. If you're familiar with SEO (Search Engine Optimization), the term "long-tails" will ring a bell. When trying to drive organic traffic to their site, people often target very high volume keywords right away. Think "headless CMS". But the competition is super strong for such head terms. Big sites with high authority are battling on these SERPs (Search Engine Results Page).
On the other hand, countless keywords are embodying narrower search intents out there. They have lower search volumes, true. But they are much easier to rank for, PLUS they come with more precise needs to solve—"how to read JSON files inside my Svelte app".
Leveraging radical transparency
Bootstrappers can’t hide behind corporate structures and policies. They are the business.
It may feel scary at first, but you can turn this into an advantage using transparency and humility. People like to do business with people! That fact hasn’t changed in centuries.
So embrace your smallness and personality inside your brand. Tell us your life story on your about page. Share the struggles of building your business publicly. Be warm and kind when dealing with customers. Tell jokes. Sometimes, being the only is better than being the best.
All of that will foster proximity with your customers, which in turn will increase loyalty and word-of-mouth.
Building an audience first
If you’re intent on creating a business to solve a problem, chances are you know a thing or two about said problem. You can share that knowledge and experience before you even start building.
Cushioning initial risks by launching inside an agency
If you’re already working inside a web dev/design agency, there are cool opportunities to consider.
One I like: leveraging a client case to build—and pay for—your MVP. That's how we got started with Snipcart. We were upfront with the client about it: we'd make them a custom solution to circumvent their e-commerce challenges but would also re-use some of that code to build something ourselves. We gave them a discount and free usage + priority support for life.
TakeShape, the headless CMS, followed a similar path early on.
Doing initial product work inside the agency also lets you move faster, without administrative red tape. Once traction kicks in and product-market fit is on the horizon, you can slowly branch out. Your “side product” can then become its own company.
Picking a fight (if you’re a fighter)
Ugh, fights. Feels like they’re all over the Internet these days. We’ve sure had our fair share of it with the recent WordPress vs. Jamstack one, hehe.
Still, if you feel like you’ve got that kind of energy, it’s a good way to help grow a bootstrapped business.
First step is often choosing a nemesis: legacy solutions, category giants, specific competitors, or industry trends. You pick your Goliath, put on your David shoes, and start slingin’!
The recent Basecamp/Hey vs. Apple fight is a good example here.
Folks at Fathom analytics have also done a great job at fighting for a cause: privacy. It appeals to potential customers’ strong values, enabling the creation of more solid bonds between business and audience.
When you target the bigger guy, you can use their clout and traction (and their known pains) to fuel your growth:
X is great but s*cks at THIS. We do THIS much better—try us!
That’s another popular one in the Jamstack space.
You’ll see many CMS offering a free, open-source version of their software. They build community and traction around this, then offer a paid, hosted version, for instance. Ghost has done that.
Other things you can sell around your free offering: support, integrations, plugins, related products.
You can also invite the community to support you with sponsorships and donations. It can, for sure, absorb some of the early expenses you'll face when building your bootstrapped product!
Many tools and frameworks aren’t “Jamstack-ready” yet.
There's an opportunity to go first here. You can build Jamstack-specific products (plugins, APIs, integrations, frameworks, etc.) around or on top of existing tools:
- Gridsome lets you create better Jamstack sites with Vue.js
- JungleJS helps you build static sites with Svelte
- Udesly lets you convert your Webflow site to Jamstack
- Strattic enables static generation of WordPress sites
Betting on integrations
I’ve been diving into the Jobs-to-be-done framework recently. A useful concept that stuck with me is knowing where your product ends and another one begins.
That mental model is useful when bootstrapping. Ask yourself: what platform do people love except for X, or but they don’t do Y. These are opportunities for you to broadcast to an existing user base that your product can start there.
On the flip side, you can also ask yourself: what tools do X better than my product? If you find compelling answers to this question, you might want to start integrating more tightly with these! Integrations let you profit from overlaps in audiences, plus they augment your feature set.
In many cases, they also let you offload customer acquisition to existing marketplaces (think themes or plugin repos).
Meet successful independent Jamstack players
I hope that profiling these awesome companies will inspire many others. Something these businesses all share:
- They’re all players in the Jamstack space (and others)
- They’re all profitable
- They’re all bootstrapped
Let’s see which ways they chose to compete.
- 5 people team—comparable products hire 100+ people.
- over 1M ARR
- over 1500 paid customers worldwide
- Vercel chose DatoCMS to manage content for Next.js conf.
- Radical transparency: product journey retrospectives and proximity w/ agency clients.
- Agency launch: LeanPanda in Italy birthed what became DatoCMS.
- Betting on integrations: impressive marketplace of integrations.
While researching this post, I spoke with founder Stefano Verna. Interesting tidbits from our conversation:
For us, going bootstrap means being able to give your own definition of success, enjoy the journey, guarantee your customers a long life for your product and focus on a minimal and self-sustaining lifestyle and business.
Today DatoCMS is made up of 5 people. We are a perfectly oiled machine that produces an absurd amount of value. It is literally impossible for us to believe that products that are absolutely comparable to ours have teams of +100 people. All I can think of is "there must be some inefficiency somewhere" :)
[…] for those who have a technical team like us, I would suggest working hard on third-party integrations, so that you can lean on the shoulders of the giants and let them do marketing and customer acquisition for you.
We have 1,600 customers all over the world, big names using us, stable and regular growth of 6% month-over-month, $1M ARR, we release a new, big feature per month. Just a few weeks ago Vercel chose us instead of the other 65 VC-based competitors for its 60,000 registrants Next.js Conf.
- 2 people team
- 580.8% revenue growth in last year
- over 1,000,000,000 page views tracked
- Radical transparency: the founders (Paul and Jack) are ultra-transparent on their blog, podcast, social media, and customer support.
- Audience first: Paul Jarvis had already written Company of One. Jack Ellis had already been teaching Laravel.
- Pick a fight: they arguably have The Big G has a nemesis, and wave the flag of privacy and open web super high.
Interesting tidbits from my email exchanges with the founders:
We built it slowly and iteratively, so at the start we spent less time as it was making less money. Now, we are full-time because it makes ample revenue (enough to pay us both a salary and more) - so if we got, say a few million bucks investment, we'd have no use for it.
[…] we have to consider everything from new features to pricing to infrastructure and ensure the maintenance costs of our growth doesn't make it harder to manage in the way we like.
And, we are careful/thoughtful with new features so we don't overwhelm our support channel.
- Radical transparency: one of the founders shares their journey on this podcast. Definitely embracing the “not the best but the only” w/ brand and positioning!
- Open source: The core product is free and open source. The Pro version is paid.
- Going first: Statamic was a flat-file pioneer.
- Betting on integrations: Huge marketplace.
Interesting tidbits from my email exchanges with Jack McDade:
Bootstrapping let us build the product I wanted, solve the pain points I (and others) had, and do it organically. It certainly is a slower way to grow, but that’s not a bad thing.
Everything simply took longer. But it also gave us the ability to use the product differently and grow it more organically than if we hired a big team and fired up a few sprints. We could do things that didn’t scale, get to know customers closely, and build something that would last a long time.
Statamic is used by Der Spiegel, one of the largest media and online publishing companies in Germany. It runs their largest sites. That’s a pretty big win for a small and scrappy bootstrapped company. Also in similar company: OpenTable, Asana, and Freshbooks.
- 9 people team
- 1M ARR
- over 2300 paid customers
- Long-tails: focus on smaller audience (devs, no enterprise). Only solving parts of e-commerce problem—not all of it.
- Radical transparency: blog posts, honest, no-BS customer support, interviews
- Agency launch: client project for MVP. We used à la carte agency resources that we later refunded.
- Going first: we were arguably the firsts to market stack-agnostic e-commerce directly to developers.
☝️ Tooting our own horn here, but I believe there are things to be learned from our journey to 1M ARR. The one lesson that hits home, especially as we scale a bit, is this:
Saying no—and yes—to the right things is hard.
All of the above are examples, not models. You need to scan your reality and come up with growth models that resonate with it. Occasionally, I mentor startups. I often advise leveraging their constraints. If you’re not a fighter, don’t pick a fight. If you don’t have an agency close to you, don’t go out of your way to find one. You get the idea.
The Bootstrap Jamstack - Video
The Jamstack community is one of the more dynamic and positive ones I’ve seen. I’m thankful to be a part of it.
If you, too, want to join in the fun, I urge you to. You can start by entering a Slack, a group, or by learning more. If you, too, fall in love with the ecosystem, then come back to this post and maybe start to build a new independent product. I’ll be there to help in any way I can.
I’d like to offer fellow bootstrappers some heuristics I have come to embrace:
- Most markets aren’t winner-take-all. Solve a problem differently, or different parts, and you’ll generate real value.
- Success models are inspiration, not recipes. Lean on your strengths and into your constraints. You’ll create your own authentic growth model.
- Millions in funding aren’t a pre-requisite to succeed in the Jamstack. Sustainable businesses can be built slowly, grown organically.
If any of you are interested in creating a community for the bootstrap Jamstack, let me know. I have ideas (and domain names 😅).
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments or on Twitter.