Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on Seattle 2.0, and imported to GeekWire as part of our acquisition of Seattle 2.0 and its archival content. For more background, see this post.

By Steve Murch

[Editor's Note: This week we are running several guest posts by people who are boostrapping (or did bootstrap) their businesses. Today's post is by Steve Murch. Read previous posts Vivek Bhaskaran and  Hillel Cooperman]

BigOven.com
, the social network about food, started out as a hobby. I love to cook. I wanted a better way to organize and plan our own family meals, and thought there was a pretty big opportunity emerging at the intersection of social networking and the food/cooking/nutrition category.  After growing a startup (VacationSpot.com) and selling it to Expedia.com in 2000, by 2002 I wanted to take a little break from work.  But I quickly found that I was writing little programs for mobile devices here and there, and I wanted a larger project as a way to force myself to stay current on technology. 

BigOven’s been an internally-funded business, and for its first four years, was a solo effort.  This year, I’ve been adding additional talent to the project from around the world.  It’s now a virtual company with a handful of contract employees, but more importantly, about half a million home cooks around the world.

Why did I bootstrap the business, and why did I stay solo for so long?  I suppose I’ve always been curious about what it’d be like to try to do an entire startup, at least the earliest stages, on my own.  I wanted to test my own abilities across both the business and technical spectrum.  What would it be like to have virtually unlimited creative freedom on a technical project, but sharply limited resources?  Could I build something that would provide a useful application for some significant number of real people?  Could I build something that could have network effects and gain accelerating value as time went on?  The consumer cooking category is also a fairly crowded space, and I thought it’d be appropriate to keep the risk profile fairly low until a solid presence emerged in the category worthy of scaling up.

I funded the business with $20,000, and have never needed more.  (Looking back at the bank account, I think the lowest it ever got was around $8,000, so technically it probably could have been started for $12,000.)  Then again, I didn’t pay for office space, or pay myself any salary.  I shipped a desktop recipe organizer for Windows in 2004, and it not only paid the bills but helped feed the user-generated content, and the site began to expand.  By 2005, BigOven turned cashflow positive, and I’ve generally scaled my expenses as revenues increase.  There are several revenue streams – BigOven.com has advertising, and there is optional desktop software (BigOven for Windows) that is sold for $29.95.  There are also several revenue-share style partnership deals, allowing hardcover printed cookbooks, sale of kitchen appliances, etc.

I think there have been a few critical components to BigOven’s bootstrapped success.  First, I really focused on the community — building a robust set of infrastructure to help it contribute content, get invested in the site, and self-manage good behavior.  Second, there’s been an obsessive focus on Search Engine Optimization (SEO) from the get-go.  Third, bringing in professional design this year vastly improved the site, and finally, the shipment of the iPhone App helped us really get to the next level of usage and awareness.   

I did postpone several things far too long, mostly around being prepared to scale-up.  First, I should have started out with the software in an Internet-ready version control system (e.g., “Subversion”) from Day 1, not just putting the code on a development PC here with backups here and there.  While it was safe and manageable for an individual to function this way, moving to a version-control system has allowed rapid scaling of the virtual development team.  More importantly, they can be located anywhere around the world, and I can hire-in expertise in a very focused way.  BigOven.com itself should also have been better scaled out to a larger number of database servers sooner (recipe searching is highly seasonal), and I also should have deployed my own ad platform sooner, rather than just relying upon Google AdSense for ads.   

Advice for would-be bootstrappers?  I can’t add a great deal to theexcellent list that Adam Doppelt of UrbanSpoon put together last month, but if I had one guideline, I’d urge you to pick a category you’re really passionate about, and not just for the potential financial returnsExtrinsic rewards like fortune or fame may or may not come your way.  So why not reward yourself every day by getting a chance to deeply explore a field you’re passionate about? 

Steve Murch is founder & CEO of BigOven.com .  BigOven is a social network about food that helps you become a better cook.  Now serving between 2-4 million unique users each month, it hosts over 170,000+ recipes, tens of thousands of photos and ratings, and welcomes about 1,000 new registered users each day.  BigOven offers a leading iPhone app and award-winning recipe organization software for Windows .  BigOven was picked as App of the Week by Apple Inc. in November 2008 and its Windows recipe software has won the Best Recipe Software by TopTenReviews for the last two years running.

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