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One year as a solo dev building open-source data tools without funding

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I quit my job as an engineering manager at Oracle in early June 2021. I had a bit of savings and a few contract opportunities so I decided to see how far I could get building an app I've wanted for years as a manager. I have never built my own app before and I've never built a desktop app before.

Over the last 12 months I've garnered over 4,000 Github stars across 4 tools, 6 libraries, and 5 benchmark repos. I've written 19 blog posts mostly about benchmarking (SQLite in Go, with and without cgo and Speeding up Go's builtin JSON encoder up to 55% for large arrays of objects and explorations of databases (Surveying SQL parser libraries in a few high-level languages and The world of PostgreSQL wire compatibility). 5 of these posts have reached the front page of HN.

A few more stats about DataStation specifically:

I also ended up talking to dozens of investors and interviewing (unsuccessfully) with YCombinator.

In this post I'll share a bit about how I did this, the not very successful process of finding funding, and what happens next. Basically, everything stays open-source, I'm still extremely excited about using and working on DataStation, and I'm actively interviewing. :)

First a little background on the problem. You can skip this part if you just want to read about the process.

Background

Data scientists and product managers have a wealth of tools available to them to analyze data. Tools like Jupyter Notebooks and RStudio for data scientists, Tableau and every BI tool (Looker, Power BI, Google Data Studio, Metabase) and of course, Excel.

But backend developers and operations folk only have monitoring GUIs like Grafana and DataDog, SQL IDEs like DBeaver and DataGrip, and code IDEs or text editors.

Companies have a tendency to vastly simplify analytics because of lack of tooling. One company I was at did analysis based only on data in the SQL database. But not all your data is in SQL. As you scale, SQL databases tend only to store the existence of info (a list of customers for example). The activity of customers is stored in your API logs. How often did they use the API (through the UI or directly)? How has that been trending over time? How is that linked to their contract start/end date info stored in Salesforce? These questions can only be answered by extreme denormalization or joining across databases.

Your logs are in Elasticsearch or Splunk or CloudWatch. Your customer data is in PostgreSQL or SQL Server or MongoDB. Your analytics data is in Snowflake or ClickHouse or BigQuery. Your internal APIs are behind REST interfaces. And then there are the random CSVs and Excel sheets you get from business analysts and product managers you need to integrate.

How do you query this data or join or filter across such disparate sources? The only two solutions today are to put ALL data into a warehouse or to write custom scripts. The problem with warehouses are that they are expensive and that the ETL process for every new database is expensive too. Tons and tons of companies are trying to solve this. You'll get lost among all the vendors trying to capitalize on the “Modern Data Stack”. They're expensive.

If you're forced to write custom scripts you spend a lot of time reading API docs. Some APIs are very complicated. I've written a number of Elasticsearch API clients over the years with varying degrees of success getting pagination and aggregation right on Elasticsearch results.

So I built DataStation. It's a GUI app that just asks you for database/API credentials and allows you to write the query. If you're not happy with the query as is or you want to join data sources, you can create additional workflow steps (called Panels) in your favorite language (SQL, R, Julia, Python, JavaScript, Ruby, etc.) that map and filter data.

Ultimately DataStation produces charts or tables you can export as Markdown, HTML, SVG, CSV, etc.

The first few weeks

I started with a purely in-browser prototype of DataStation with the basics of panel interaction using a Python implementation in JavaScript (Brython) and eval for JavaScript. You could load CSV and JSON files. And you could make HTTP requests so long as CORS headers were set. (Again this was all purely in-browser, no server or desktop component).

It has been open-source since the first proof of concept commit on Monday, June 7 2021.

An early screenshot

The first few weeks were extremely painful. Everything felt so slow. The biggest projects I'd personally published before then were around 100-400 stars and it felt like ages until DataStation reached even 10 stars. I did a Show HN of the in-browser demo on June 11, 2021 that got no upvotes. That same post did a little better on Lobste.rs. And I posted an introductory blog post to HN on June 13, 2021 and that got 3 upvotes.

Getting to 10 followers on Twitter felt similarly embarrassingly long.

A month later I still only had 60 Github stars. But I was content to keep working toward a desktop version of DataStation and my general goal was to blog and record demo videos for Youtube (which I did a few times, like this one on June 14, 2021).

Desktop

It took me around a month to go from the in-browser demo to a desktop app using Electron. The July 2021 blog post announcing the first desktop release got 3 upvotes on Lobsters and none on Hacker News.

First desktop release

I picked Electron because I wanted a cross-platform app built on HTML/CSS/JavaScript. I wanted the bulk of DataStation functionality to be available as a desktop app and as a typical web app. I also wanted to be able to keep the in-browser mode around as a demo environment for folks hesitant to download a random app. That in-browser app is still around and supported today, though I kind of wish it wasn't since it means more code to maintain and test.

Like I said I haven't built a desktop app before and this was a fairly easy way to get started. The smallest I was able to get my release zips was around 100MB. But that has grown as I've added more builtin libraries to DataStation.

I built the releases manually on my Mac machine and Windows machine and uploaded them directly to the Github release UI. When I added Linux binaries I built those within a VM on my Mac and uploaded them directly too.

I was releasing about once a week at that time. So by the end of July after a few manual build/uploads and lots of bugs I added a scripted release process in Github Actions that both built and uploaded the zip files. And I added end-to-end tests for the Electron app on all supported platforms.

Enter VCs

By September DataStation had about 200 stars on Github and somehow folks at VCs started noticing it. The first came in the end of September. It was one of the bigger VCs which was both cool and scary. I threw together a terrible deck (I had no idea what I was doing). We chatted for 15/20 minutes and he said it was too early but he'd like to stay in touch.

That same sort of interaction happened repeatedly for a couple more VCs. I don't know for sure where they found DataStation but undoubtedly because I posted screenshots and demos on Twitter or shared blog posts on Hacker News.

When I spoke with VCs it felt like I was speaking with aliens. It's not that they made no sense it's that I couldn't understand what they wanted or how they wanted things presented. And they didn't understand the problem I was trying to solve or where I was headed. Most of them didn't know Kibana, one of the most similar SaaS products.

I don't blame them of course. It was a combination of 1) me not explaining well and 2) not focusing on talking to the right VCs who understand the space. Or maybe the idea is not something that should be VC funded.

After months of learning (but ultimately getting nowhere) talking to these inbound VCs, and receiving no responses from outbound VCs, I got frustrated and decided to stop talking to VCs for a while and just focus on DataStation usability, stability and documentation.

dsq

One thing DataStation allows you to do is run SQL on any kind of data. In December 2021 I realized this would be extremely useful as a CLI app. The panel evaluation code in DataStation was written in Go so I exposed it as a library and wrote a ~200 line wrapper around it.

That wrapper is a CLI that allows the user to specify data files and a SQL query.

$ dsq testdata/userdata.parquet 'select count(*) from {}' | jq
[
  {
    "count(*)": 1000
  }
]

Just like DataStation you can join multiple different data sources (with different original data formats).

$ dsq testdata/join/users.csv testdata/join/ages.json \
  "select u.name, a.age from {0} u join {1} a on u.id = a.id"
[{"age":88,"name":"Ted"},
{"age":56,"name":"Marjory"},
{"age":33,"name":"Micah"}]

I wrote a blog post describing dsq which hit the front of HN. The dsq repo blew up, bringing DataStation along with it. Within a month dsq hit 1,000 Github stars and DataStation went from ~600 to ~1,000 stars during that time.

DataStation and dsq star history

Documentation

Until around November (about 5 months) there was no documentation for DataStation at all. There were demo videos and a few release blog posts with screenshots. I often heard from users that they opened the app and didn't understand what to do and didn't go back. That made sense! There was no onboarding in the app either.

But I didn't want to work on documentation because I was still focused on building the basic features I felt were needed and improving stability and performance. There were some infrequent but particularly bad bugs in the project storage layer that I wanted to work through before I built out high-level tutorials that I knew would invite more users.

In November 2021 I created the datastation-documentation repo and started adding docs for panels.

And by January 2022 I was comfortable with the state of stability so I started writing tutorials for connecting to databases. And I was determined to do them well.

Every tutorial that can use Docker shows you the steps for how to set up Docker and add test data to it. It shows with GIFs how to connect to the database in DataStation and how to use DataStation to query and work with data from the database. For example, check out the Google Sheets + SQL: Querying Google Sheets with DataStation tutorial.

I am pretty sure the DataStation tutorials are one of the best places on the internet for understanding how to set up a working Docker container for every major database and get test data into it. I will be referring back to those docs for years. And they're only going to cover more databases.

Community

I wanted to build not just a product (or products) but also a community. I started on this (a Discord) a little late though, November 2021 I think. And rather than focusing specifically on data as a community I decided to focus on software internals in general. I probably wouldn't pick a tangent community like this in the future but it's a topic I'm interested in in the long-run and it has attracted a fun group of people. Over 800 to date actually.

In January 2022 I started a virtual Meetup on the same topic, software internals, that has happened to feature a number of data hackers. It reached 300 members recently. With 10-30 showing up for each time.

One funny bit about virtual meetups is that randos join and cause havoc like blasting music or impersonating another user by name and badmouthing people in chat. I tried a few different things but ultimately it looks like I'm going to go the speakeasy route of a word-of-mouth password.

Basically, don't put a Zoom link with a password in the link on Meetup.com. Find some other way to give people the password. This is annoying for public meetups that are just getting started but I guess it is what it is.

Contributors

DataStation is a pretty complex app compared to ones I built in the past. While I wanted contributors because of what it implies (that your app is useful and people want to improve it) I wasn't sure how on earth I'd support them.

dsq turned out to be the easiest way to onboard contributors. It's a CLI that doesn't require cross-platform desktop testing (which is much harder than just cross-platform CLI testing). It doesn't require changing code in multiple places (the UI and the backend, at least). And it is written in Go.

I started getting contributors this year, developers who noticed issues in dsq and submitted patches to DataStation (since its where the core of dsq functionality is).

I had been marking issues as "Good first issue" in Github issues since the beginning of the project but I never got any takers. So I decided to try a new route earlier this year, creating a GOOD_FIRST_PROJECTS.md and sharing it on relevant threads on HN and Reddit about how to get started contributing to OSS.

This has been surprisingly effective. Since writing that guide and sharing on relevant HN/Reddit threads I've had a few serious contributors. One of them submitting 6 pull requests between DataStation and dsq. Another submitting two pull requests to dsq.

Just folks who want to get some practice with OSS and coding in a real project; volunteers.

YC and the front of HN

In May I interviewed with YCombinator. I stressed out a lot about the interview but it ended up being extremely friendly and positive. I pitched building a SaaS offering where teams can work on projects together and have hosted dashboards and recurring exports.

Later that day they told me no with a great email. They weren't a fan of me being a solo founder and they felt the usage wasn't high enough.

Lots of successful founders have failed YC interviews so it doesn't really bother me. It was a neat experience and maybe I'll do better next time!

Unrelatedly, I decided to submit DataStation on HN as a Show HN and it reached the front page. :)

Fun parts, hard parts and a supportive spouse

The most fun parts were solving a problem I've had for years, digging into database internals, optimizing Go code, working on a desktop app, and building a community of like-minded hackers. It's been awesome to see people use and share DataStation and dsq, report bugs, and contribute code or suggestions.

The hard parts were the initial slowness of building a community and project and user group from nothing. Every single time I reached a milestone it immediately felt like the new normal and wasn't good enough.

I missed working on a team, the entire time. The Discord and Meetup groups helped eventually. And there's also a great reward of successfully working with paying customers. Not (yet) having a product I sold, I got no such reward.

Credit where due, I would not have been able to go this long without my extremely supportive wife. While we agreed for me to take some time off I thought she'd be asking me to go back to work after a few months. Instead she continued to push me to keep working on DataStation even when I got frustrated or depressed.

What's next

Without funding I'm ready to head back to full-time employment. I am excited to keep working on DataStation/dsq, both of which are completely open-source, and I hope to introduce DataStation as an analytics and reporting tool wherever I land.

I'm particularly interested in ending up at a database or analytics company. So if you're a database or analytics company hiring managers or developers, feel free to message me!

Otherwise, join the community on Discord or Meetup.com and stick around for more updates on DataStation/dsq open source!

DataStation today

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With questions, criticism or ideas, email or Tweet me.

Also, check out DataStation and dsq.