I would be very surprised if anyone tells you it was an easier project than expected.
For me, I suspect I would have thought twice about starting if I had realised what it was going to involve, the late nights and long hours, the missed time with the family, the financial pressure and uncertainty. Looking back, of course, the thought of still working for someone else fills me with horror – I just left the firm that acquired my first business in part because I prefer having some level of control over my own destiny.
It sounds like you have a self-funded product business that you are trying to establish. I found that the ability to generate revenue through consulting helped us get through the first few years of building out the product and getting our first few customers onboard. (We were building enterprise software with mid-sized pricing and accompanying sales cycles, so it took a bit of time to get established). However you have to accept that consulting work is often distracts you from advancing the product – although sometimes relevant consulting can give you great insights you wouldn’t get if you were holed up in your offices.
Having said that it was tough, I can offer some personal insights to minimising the pain:
If possible, operate with a recurring revenue model. We sold our software by subscription; rather than a large up-front fee, we went for a smaller annual charge (making the first year or two tougher of course, but generating a healthy revenue stream once we had a good few customers onboard).
We lost countless hours sleep by not having the basics in place (see for example The Joel Test - to that list I would add unit & automated testing wherever possible).
Aside from the lack of software engineering discipline, we also suffered by growing our staff as fast as our sales grew, meaning that we were always under financial pressure when sales dropped – better to try and keep some financial reserves for such inevitabilities.
Never underestimate the value of having a focus/strategic direction and sticking to it. This doesn’t mean ignoring obvious signals from the market to adapt, but rather you need to avoid getting drawn into stuff that doesn’t support your core strategic direction (this tends to happen because of 2 above). We made this mistake a lot.
Although it took us seven years from start to acquisition, and there are things I would do differently now, much of the time was great – we had a superb team and enjoyed a lot of laughs along the way. Assuming you have got something worthwhile to offer, I for one would encourage you to stick at it!