In the fall of 2007, Marco Arment was working as lead developer at Tumblr, the social network and blogging platform, when he noticed that he kept losing the links to interesting stories that he didn't immediately have time to read.
So one evening at home, after a frustrating search for an article he vaguely recalled, Arment spent five hours creating a simple web application that would allow him to quickly and easily save links and follow up on them later. "It didn't need to do that much and there was so much value right there," says Arment. "I put in about an hour a week on it and it took almost no effort because it was so simple."
Arment showed the website to a couple of friends and they loved it. Six months later, when Apple announced it was creating an app store for the iPhone, Arment thought he could expand his idea. He liked reading articles on his subway commute home, but the Manhattan trains lacked an Internet connection. What if he could create an iPhone app that would let people read saved links offline? Arment spent his evenings developing Instapaper to do just that.
Three years later, Instapaper had grown to a million users and, despite the tanking economy, was making Arment enough money to live on even as he maintained his job at Tumblr. Revenue came from sales of the $4.99 app, ads on the website, and a purely optional website subscription fee of $1 a month. "The iPad was a huge boon to the service because it's designed for reading," he says. Instapaper was taking off but at the same time was demanding more of his time, so in September 2010 Arment left his job to run Instapaper full time.
Today, Instapaper is a profitable one-man operation, having garnered 1.8 million users. They include Jared Keller, an associate editor for TheAtlantic.com, who uses the service on his Droid Incredible during his 40-minute commute. "It's as close as I can get to print without lugging around a stack of magazines," says Keller. "It is one of those things I can't live without." And Instapaper is the perfect recession-proof business because the overhead is low and Arment, 29, has no employees to pay or investors to please. "Investors want to see growth and a return on the investment," he said. "It would lead to the kind of job that I don't want right now."
It's a sentiment felt by a growing number of solo entrepreneurs. The notion that companies must solicit investments and keep expanding in order to survive isn't always the goal anymore, especially during tough economic times. Web-based tools have helped level the playing field by lowering overhead costs so that a one-man operation can compete against million dollar corporations and thrive.
A few years back something like Instapaper would have been dismissed by venture capitalists as a mere "feature," not a stand-alone product let alone a profitable business. "But it turns out people will pay for features," says Paul Kedrosky, senior fellow at the Kansas City, Missouri-based Kauffman Foundation, which fosters entrepreneurship. "The tools required to run a company, and how expensive it is to market it, have all declined so dramatically in the last decade that there is a real hope for people who declare themselves one-man organizations to stay this way."