It’s a common misconception that successful startups are born out of a single-minded focus and an all-consuming passion. We tell the story of founders who “make the leap” and give up everything – sell their house, move into a small apartment, work out of a garage – and end up believing that it’s 100% in or else there’s no hope for building a successful company. In reality, many of the most successful startups were started as side projects by founders who were full-time students or had day jobs.
Take Airbnb, for example – it was founded by three friends who were struggling to pay rent in San Francisco. They started renting out air mattresses in their apartment to local conference attendees, and the idea eventually grew into a billion-dollar company.
Even take Slack as another example, started as an internal tool for a gaming company called Tiny Speck. The founders realized that their tool could be useful for other companies, and Slack was born.
You might be surprised that Google falls into this pattern as well. Google, as one of the largest technology companies in the world, was started as a research project by Larry Page and Sergey Brin while they were PhD students at Stanford.
The point is that so many of the successful startups you know and love weren’t created as full-time endeavors. They were born out of a need or a passion that founders pursued in their evenings and weekends, often while working full-time jobs.
This contrarian view is important for traditional venture capitalists to consider, because it challenges the conventional wisdom that founders are only good if they have full commitment. That becomes true later, but if we didn’t have the explorers who were willing to build in their evenings, then we wouldn’t have a lot of the innovative companies that we have today. We tend to look for startup founders with single-minded focus and a team that is 100% committed to building a product. But the reality is that many successful startups start out as side gigs.
I’m really excited to look for startups that don’t fit the mold of a traditional full-time company. With trends like “The Great Betrayal” and full-time work looking less attractive, I’m willing to bet that we’ll see a huge wave of part-time entrepreneurs, some of whom will merely dabble, others becoming solopreneurs, but also some will build the the next biggest companies. You never know where the next billion-dollar idea may come from.
30 software legends that started part-time
There’s a much, much longer list that isn’t captured on the Internet, but for starters, here’s a list of 30 software companies that you’ve probably heard of that were started as side projects:
- Microsoft: Bill Gates and Paul Allen started Microsoft while they were still in high school, and continued to work on the company as a part-time venture while attending college.
- Amazon: Jeff Bezos started Amazon as an online bookseller while working as a senior vice president at a hedge fund.
- Google: Larry Page and Sergey Brin started working on the search engine that would become Google while they were Ph.D. students at Stanford University.
- Slack: Stewart Butterfield and his team started working on the team communication tool while they were still working on a different project, and continued to work on Slack as a side project until it became a full-time venture.
- Dell: Michael Dell started building personal computers in his college dorm room as a part-time venture before eventually quitting school to start Dell Inc. full-time.
- Apple – Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak created the first Apple computer in Jobs’ parents’ garage while working full-time jobs.
- Airbnb – Founders Brian Chesky, Nathan Blecharczyk, and Joe Gebbia started renting out air mattresses in their apartment to conference attendees as a way to make extra money.
- WhatsApp – Co-founders Jan Koum and Brian Acton created WhatsApp while working as engineers at Yahoo.
- Dropbox – Drew Houston started developing the first version of Dropbox while working full-time at a startup called Accolade.
- Evernote – Phil Libin, Stepan Pachikov, and Dave Engberg started Evernote as a part-time project while working at other companies.
- Hootsuite – Ryan Holmes started Hootsuite as a side project while running a digital agency.
- Wunderlist – Christian Reber started developing Wunderlist while working full-time as a designer.
- Twitter – Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone, and Evan Williams created Twitter while working on another startup called Odeo.
- Atlassian – Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar started Atlassian while studying at the University of New South Wales.
- WordPress – Matt Mullenweg started developing WordPress as a side project while working as a consultant.
- Trello – Joel Spolsky and Michael Pryor created Trello as a way to manage their own projects more efficiently.
- MailChimp – Ben Chestnut started MailChimp as a side project while running a web design company.
- Salesforce: Marc Benioff started Salesforce as a part-time venture while he was still working as an executive at Oracle.
- Hubspot: Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah started Hubspot as a part-time venture while they were still professors at MIT.
- Asana: Justin Rosenstein and Dustin Moskovitz started Asana as a part-time project while they were still working at Facebook.
- Freshdesk: Girish Mathrubootham started Freshdesk as a part-time project while he was still working as a product manager at Zoho.
- Basecamp: Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson started Basecamp as a part-time venture while they were still working as consultants.
- Airtable: Howie Liu, Andrew Ofstad, and Emmett Nicholas started Airtable as a part-time project while they were still working at various tech companies.
- Canva: Melanie Perkins, Cliff Obrecht, and Cameron Adams started Canva as a part-time project while they were still students.
- Pipedrive: Timo Rein and Davide De Guzman started Pipedrive as a part-time venture while they were still working as consultants.
- Heroku – James Lindenbaum, Adam Wiggins, and Orion Henry started Heroku as a part-time project while working at different companies.
- Typeform: Robert Finn and David Okuniev started Typeform as a part-time project while they were still working as designers.
- Adobe – John Warnock and Chuck Geschke started Adobe as a part-time project while working at Xerox.
- Red Hat – Bob Young and Marc Ewing started Red Hat as a part-time project while working at Cornell University.
- Grammarly – Alex Shevchenko and Max Lytvyn started Grammarly as a part-time project while studying at UC Berkeley.