Building a Startup in 45 Minutes per day While Deployed to Iraq


You may one day find yourself in a position where you’re eager to work on a startup but limited by the amount of time you can put into it due to a day job, family or other obligations. In this post I would like to share with you all the story behind Lean Domain Search, a domain name generator that I built in about 45 minutes per day during a 5-month deployment to the Middle East. If you’re struggling to find time to put into your startup, I hope this convinces you that you can accomplish a lot over time by putting a small amount of work into it each day.


In the summer of 2011 I was a 26-year-old freshly pinned-on captain in the Air Force serving as a project manager at Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts. I was 4 years into my 5-year service Academy commitment which meant that I had to serve one more year to pay back the Air Force for my education and training.

At the time I also had two moderately successful side projects that I had built on nights and weekends in the years prior: Preceden, a web based timeline maker, and Lean Designs, a drag and drop web design tool.

Everything was going smoothly until my Unit Deployment Manager called me into his office one day and informed me that I had been selected to go on a six month deployment in August.

This presented quite a predicament. As a solo founder, I didn’t have anyone I could turn my two projects over to maintain while I was away. I also had no idea what the internet situation would be like wherever I was headed, but more importantly I didn’t want to be distracted by these projects while I was out there.

I was contacted by the officer whose position I was going to take over when I arrived. He filled me in on some of the details and I eventually learned that there was limited internet access where I was going to live, but it was slow, had a firewall, and I’d probably be moving bases several weeks after I arrived anyway. I asked him if he could check to see if he had access to sites like Heroku (where my sites were hosted) and Github and he confirmed he did, but that still didn’t guarantee I’d have access to make changes to my sites, time to work them, or even internet access for the entire deployment.

I decided to keep the sites running, but to stop working on them several weeks prior to the deployment. That would provide time for any bugs to surface which would allow me to head out on the deployment knowing that the sites were in good shape. I also decided not to work on them at all during the deployment so that they wouldn’t distract me from my job.

A small deployment side project

During the pre-deployment training one of our instructors suggested we pick up a hobby or something else to work on during downtime. For example, some officers use downtime during their deployments to take online classes towards a master’s degree. I wasn’t interested in that, but decided that I would try to work on a small software project when I had time.

Back in 2009 I had another domain search tool called Domain Pigeon. I was just getting started with web development so I couldn’t figure out at the time how to do what I really wanted to do which was to allow users to enter a keyword and pair the keyword with lots of other terms to generate and quickly check the availability of quality domains. Instead, I built Domain Pigeon, a service that simply listed interesting available .com domains:


Domain Piegon, Lean Domain Search’s predecessor, in November 2010

I eventually shut Domain Pigeon down to focus on other projects, but the original idea stuck in the back of my head. By the time my deployment came around, I had a pretty good idea of how to implement it so I decided that would be what I would work on.

My daily schedule

I wound up getting assigned to lead a team that oversaw communications (network, radio, satellite, etc) for the aviation unit that supported special operations forces in Iraq.

We worked 12-hour days every day for the entire deployment including weekends. I need roughly 8-9 hours of sleep to function at full capacity which left me with about 3-4 hours at the end of each day (typically around 6am) to have a meal, exercise, shower, chat with my wife, hang out with my coworkers, unwind and maybe work on my side project. In practice, that usually was about 45 minutes per day. Sometimes more, but often not at all.

Fortunately, there were never any major issues with my other projects during the deployment. A few small bugs surfaced, but nothing that impacted many users. I still had access to my email so I could respond to support requests when I had time. And because I was working on the new domain name generator locally on my laptop, I could work on it without worrying that there would be issues in production.

Piggy-backing on the popular lean startup movement as well as the name for my existing Lean Designs tool, I decided to call the new domain name generator Lean Domain Search.

Due to the drawdown of US forces in Iraq at the end of 2011, I wound up coming home after 5 months instead of six – in January 2012 instead of February 2012 like originally planned. I had two weeks of R&R after I got back, the first of which I spent with my wife on vacation in Maine, the second of which I launched the first version of Lean Domain Search.


Lean Domain Search when it launched in January 2012

I continued working as a project manager at Hanscom Air Force Base until my commitment ended in September 2012. My wife and I then moved back to Florida to be closer to family and I decided to work on Lean Domain Search full time.


Remember I mentioned Domain Pigeon, my original domain name generator? When I launched it in early 2009, Matt Mullenweg, co-founder of WordPress and now CEO of Automattic, saw its launch on HackerNews and shot me an email saying he thought Domain Pigeon was neat and that if it didn’t become a full time job there were a lot of opportunities to work on domains at Automattic.

We chatted briefly on Skype, but I was a second lieutenant at the time and still had over three years left on my Air Force commitment so it didn’t go anywhere.

In early 2013 after I had been working on Lean Domain Search full time for several months, I remembered Matt’s old email about Domain Pigeon. I checked out Automattic and and decided to reach back out to Matt to see if there was still an opportunity. I found his original email and responded to it again, this time 4 years after he sent it. I reminded him who I was, explained that I was working on a new domain name generator, and that I saw an opportunity for it to be put to use on to help users find better domain names. He encouraged me to apply for a developer position which I did and in the end Automattic wound up hiring me and acquiring Lean Domain Search.


Lean Domain Search today

That period from August 2011 when I deployed to June 2013 when I started at Automattic was probably the most intense period of my life. I am extremely grateful that things worked out the way they did. In the end I wound up with a small acquisition, an amazing job at Automattic, a deployment that I’m really proud of, and experiences that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

If you’re considering working on a startup but can’t make the leap to do it full time for whatever reason, remember that even a few hours per week can have a huge impact in the long run.

Stick with it. Amazing things can happen.

Discussion: HackerNews/r/startups, /r/entrepreneur

50 thoughts on “Building a Startup in 45 Minutes per day While Deployed to Iraq

  1. 2 – Building a Startup in 45 Minutes per Day While Deployed to Iraq

  2. Nice. I didn’t know all of that at the time. Although now that I think if it, you must have been working on it while you were out there. You are good at what you do man.

    All I have to show from my deployment are a couple of pirated movies I bought at the on-base bazaar…

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  5. This is a great example of how what may seem impossible is really impossible. I try to enlighten others sometimes when they are just hopeless about reaching their goals and this is actually a very perfect example that you have here. Just every little bit each day can make things happen. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Hi Matt,

    I was excited to read a success story from a fellow USAFA grad. Unfortunately, looking back at it, I wasted my deployment down time, since I didn’t stumble on the idea of entrepreneurship or startups until well after separation. But now that I’m working full time with a family, I’m applying the same lessons to build a platform and business in about an hour a day around my other commitments.

    Good luck to you!

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  11. Very inspiring write up Matt!
    I came to this site while i was playing in Lean Domain Search looking for a website name. Saw the acquisition blurb in the sidebar, and came here.
    I especially liked the UI of LDS. The twittername query is a very nice feature.

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  13. Thanks Matt for sharing your story. Very inspiring. Do you have anymore tips on how you were able to carve out 45 minutes a day from your busy schedule? I’m in a similar boat (albeit nothing like deployment) and any advice would help! I suppose it comes down to prioritization, discipline, developing a routine schedule and being excited for those 45 minutes each day!

    • I suspect that most folks could adjust their schedules to find an extra hour or more each day to work on a side project if they really wanted to. For example, something easy to cut out would be TV. I don’t recommend cutting out things that keep you healthy and sane (eating well, sleeping, exercising, relationships, etc) but I’d take a close look at where your time is going and see if you can shift things around to find the extra time you’re looking for.

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  15. Very interessting article!

    I am in a comparable Situation whereas my brother and me founded a little company which focuses in Browser based games while I am studying mathmatics and Computer science at the same time. It is exhausting to spend so much time on learning, but having all the time my side project or “company” in my mind. Sometimes I am so desperated to have so much work in my head that I just want to give up.

    Maybe I should just follow your advice. “that even a few hours per week can have a huge impact in the long run.”

    Thank you.

    • If you keep at it, you’ll be blown away by how much you accomplish over the long term.

      Think about it like this: 2020 will be here eventually and unless there’s some terrible accident, you will be too. You can either set yourself up so that 2020 (or sooner) will be the year you finally go full time, or you can quit now because it feel like it’s taking too long and not have anything to show for it when 2020 rolls around. Keep going!

  16. Matt, This is an amazing story I enjoyed reading it and decided to share on my blog on startup ecosystem in Albania. I hope your story will motivate and inspire many youngsters.

    Thanks for sharing

  17. Matt, delighted to know about your success. I would like to thank you for creating a product that has served me as well for my domain name dilemmas.

    I would like to know how you planned on what to execute in the 45 Minutes, how you would break long goals into smaller chunks, prioritizing, etc. As without these the 45 minutes or hours daily can be spent wasting energy and time,

    • Great question. Try to figure out what your objective is (launch a product or whatever) and then try to break that into as many small pieces as you can (create a homepage, create a sign up page, and so on). Then cut out everything that’s not absolutely required to launch. Do you really need a support page for v1? Do you need a fancy homepage? Do you need to add such-and-such feature? Once you’ve identified the key tasks you need to achieve, start with the hardest and work your way backwards to the easiest, that way you get the hard tasks knocked out while you’re still really motivated. Once you have the minimal feature set, ship it and go from there.

  18. Great article Matt i have a similar situation. i’m from middel east where i have to spend the next 3 years of my life as an officer in the egyptian army. Military service is compulsory here and i have no choice .
    i was disappointed because i have just graduated in 2015 from computer science faculty and was looking for buliding my own startup, but when i read your article, that encouraged me. again thank you for sharing this article an sorry for my bad English, i’m not a native speaker.

    • You can get A TON done in 3 years. Try to pick some ambitious goal that you can work towards during your service and make progress on it whenever your schedule and motivation allows for it. When it finally comes time for you to head back into civilian life you’ll have paved the way for the next chapter in your life.

    • Very true! It helps me to remember that a marathon consists of repeatedly putting one foot in front of the other. If you keep at it long enough, you’ve completed a marathon.

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