Building new technology is hard. Doing it within the commercial constraints of a startup is even harder. Through our journey at Talkative, a few high-level guiding principles have helped us to maximise resources, and avoid common development errors.
These key themes for effective technology development are broadly applicable for any growing startup company. Hopefully one of these points will help to refine your thinking:
1. Don’t Reinvent The Wheel
As a tech company, it is natural to believe that everything can be improved. However, not everything should be improved.
Idealists will create new solutions to every problem. Pragmatists will allocate resources and innovation towards business critical areas.
There’s nothing wrong with outsourcing at the beginning. You should minimise time to market, and maximise development efforts around areas that are unique to your product or service.
For example, at Talkative we place all our development resource around WebRTC calling and cobrowsing.
We use several paid developer services on non-essential areas. This minimises input into creating services that already exist and function well. It takes too much effort and resource to innovate on every area.
Knowing where not to innovate is just as important as knowing where to innovate.
Key question to ask: Can you use 3rd party components to speed up development?
2. Create For The Market
It is a common trap to blindly build every new feature a customer asks for. It’s important to qualify and question the need for each new feature you build.
Is it truly necessary, or is it just an idea that popped into the customer conversation? Can its function be satisfied by an existing product or service? Can you integrate with an existing service to save development resource? How applicable is this to other companies?
Ensure your offering appeals to your wider target market. Build a modular platform, don’t build one-off applications. The word decision originally meant ‘to cut off’, and every feature you choose to build is an implicit decision to not build another.
Though counter-intuitive, saying no is sometimes the right thing to do.
Key question to ask: Does that feature have a wider application beyond this one customer?
3. Build For Open Standards
There is an app or service for every aspect of business. The need for all these services to act as an effective ecosystem has lead to companies like Zapier, whose sole aim is to provide integration between different services.
B2B ‘App Stores’ are legitimate channels to market for startups who can integrate with existing 3rd party services. Whether its SIP or RESTful web applications, the principle is for tech startups is the same: you have to build for integration into the wider technology landscape.
It is the open, collaborative solutions that win, not the proprietary closed systems. This is of particular importance in the VoIP world, where enterprise customers are using multiple, interdependent systems.
Key question to ask: How will your application fit in with the customer’s workflow?
4. Right People, Right Places, Right Time
“A company is just a bunch of people who come together to create a product or service” – Elon Musk.
An engineering team is made up of human beings, who each have strengths, weaknesses and irrationalities. It is critical to leverage everyone’s strengths by applying them in their most effective areas. Working on the right thing is just as important as doing work right.
Make sure each team member’s workload is sufficiently distinct from everyone else’s. Constantly revise each person’s workload, and try to reduce the overlap between each person’s area of responsibility.
Key question to ask: Is your team working on the right thing, and are their objectives clear?
5. Intersect Value and Uniqueness
Consider a Venn diagram, with one field representing things that customers value, the other representing things you can uniquely provide. You should focus all innovation the intersection of these two circles. A unique offering that nobody wants is an exercise in triviality.
An undifferentiated but valuable offering will be swamped with competition and drive profits to zero. Some level of competition is of course natural, since if you have no competition at all, it could be questioned as to whether your offering has any real value.
Your challenge is maintain the balance between building something valuable and also new/unique within the market.
Key question to ask: Are you creating something that is both useful and differentiated?
6. Strong Opinions, Weakly Held
One school of thought says startups need to be ‘visionary’, where you imagine a brilliant future in your mind, and attempt to bend the world to fit this vision. The other says that all innovation should stem from indeterministic A/B testing, and that you cannot know what the future holds.
The best strategy lies somewhere in between. You should definitely listen to customers, but you should be leading the product direction.
While there are merits to the lean startup methodology of thinking, you should not abdicate all vision. There is a danger that you will end up at a local maxima, the result of Darwinistic, iterative pivoting and testing.
Darwinian evolution works over millions of years, but you likely only have a few months to get product/market fit. It is key to have a strong, defined vision, but how you get there is never a linear, straight path. Marc Andreessen talks about ‘Strong opinions, weakly held’.
Put another way, you should create the future, but closely test assumptions with customers at every step.
Key question to ask: Are you owning and communicating the product vision?
Don’t forget the most important component of all – hard work. Working through the weekends, caffeine and persistence. If creating something new was easy, everyone would do it!