DIY Everything

by Adii Pienaar, Founder of WooThemes

Back in latter stages of 2007, I designed and developed the product that eventually led to the creation of WooThemes in 2008. I also released it and was responsible for marketing the product. When customer support e-mails came in, I answered those. And if the server went down, I pretended to by the SysAdmin who was there to save the day. I was responsible for everything.

That mindset continued to be a big part of my and my co-founders’ daily workflow at WooThemes in the first couple of years. When I was joined by my co-founders in creating WooThemes, our combined skill sets didn’t cover 100% of the spectrum of “recommended startup skills needed in any startup.” We covered just enough of it, though (through our DIY-mindset), to give us enough of a runway to eventually hire team members that contribute those skill sets.

In the early days, we also didn’t have the budget or the access to local talent to fill these skill gaps easily. We could’ve hired international, remote team members right away, but that would’ve obviously have had a hefty price tag attached to it.

DIY’ing was thus about surviving.

Doing everything ourselves had a couple of significant benefits though, and some of these lessons learnt still fuels our work and strategy today:

1. You’re in the trenches. Answering customer support emails when the helpdesk is overflowing is always a great way of knowing exactly what’s happening in your startup. In the trenches, it’s not about your strategy or how you can execute on that; it’s only the cold hard truths that you are creating.

2. You learn new skills. Being challenged to take on tasks that you don’t know how to do means you learn new things. Beyond that though, this develops an ethos of learning, which is a great attribute to have. If you can learn something new every day and you can apply it to your startup, you’ll contribute to small, incremental improvements in your startup.

3. You save money. Initially our time as founders didn’t have a clear, quantifiable value attached to it. For example, today I can say that my time is worth $100 / hour, and there’s an opportunity cost involved if I don’t optimize it. So when we did everything in our startup, we were only spending our own time and saving on actual money, which we could spend better elsewhere.

We obviously don’t do everything anymore, and, as our team has grown, we’ve found experts with specialized skill sets to handle specific tasks. The DIY mindset remains though, and sometimes it’s better for me — as CEO — to take on a small task, instead of delegating it (or worse, hiring someone new to take it on).

My father-in-law, who is a senior attorney and owns a cattle farm, always says that “If it’s not brain surgery, we’ll do it ourselves” whenever something needs to be done on the farm.

In the early days, DIY’ing everything is one of your biggest assets in a startup, and it’ll lengthen your runway (to pursue profit and sustainability) significantly. Just do it yourself.

Adii Pienaar is an entrepreneur, husband and very new father, based in South Africa; the combination of these roles results in an epic & challenging journey. Unlike the bios of most “serial” entrepreneurs, Adii is (at the time of this going to press) a one-hit wonder with his role as co-founder & CEO of WooThemes. That status isn’t for a lack of trying either; it’s just that the other attempts lost more money than they made…