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A CTO’s perspective on how to survive a startup

Tuesday, 26 August 2014 | By Kerry Esson

Embarking on any new journey is always exciting and, for some, even a little frightening when venturing into unknown territory.


Personally, I wasn’t concerned about a new venture because it wasn’t my first startup, but this is definitely the biggest. It’s always an awesome learning experience and I wanted to share my experiences about what I’ve learnt with other budding CTOs (chief technology officer) and CIOs (chief information officer) to help their tech startup run as smooth as possible.


  1. 1. It gets emotional


A startup is filled with a thousand emotions all waiting to escape. At times they can explode all at once in a flurry of excitement, but more often than not those troublesome emotions tend to rear their ugly head, especially in the early days. We just seem to be faced with challenge after challenge and set back after set back.


  1. 2. It's going to be lean and you have to be nimble


As the chief technology officer or chief information officer of a tech startup you’re going to find out soon enough just how true this really is. Your job is to deliver the best possible solution with the smallest possible resources, at the lowest possible cost in the shortest possible time.


This means we need to rethink how we do things and adjust our priorities to accommodate those challenges. Generally we don’t have the luxury of employing a development team of all-stars, 20-strong. We don’t have 1-2 years of development and we certainly don’t have the funds we need to build the ideal infrastructure to support our amazing product.


  1. 3. It's all about the user. Full stop.


So what do we have? What we have is our drive to succeed against all odds and deliver the best damn solution regardless of set-backs and lack of resources. This doesn’t mean you go and build the Rolls-Royce solution from day one. If you try, the likely result is that you’ll end up failing. Instead you have the opportunity to deliver a quality, working product to the people that matter the most: your users!


There are always further iterations and capital-raising once you get your product to market. You have the power of agile development methodologies at your disposal and an iterative model that ensures quick turnaround with sprints assisting you to get your product to market much quicker than following other methodologies.


As challenging as a startup is, the main driving force behind what you’re developing is the user you intend to give your amazing product to. I’m not talking about the fact that those users are going to pay for your product or make your company dollars.


I’m talking about the fact that if you don’t focus on exactly what your users want, then your product has failed before you even launch it. From day one when I co-founded Tappr my number one focus was the user. So much so in fact that I have adopted an old Google mantra and written it on our design wall so that developers and designers alike see it every day: “Focus on the user and all else will follow.”


In the realm of software development and design there isn’t a single adage that could be truer. For without the user your product is useless. This may sound a little harsh to some but let’s think about it for a second. If you develop something no one likes, no one wants to use or frustrates the hell out of the people that do use it, then what have you developed? Blunt answer: A waste of computing power that delivers zero positive impact to people’s lives.


Not every product is about changing the world for the better (although what a great world we would live in if it was) but every product has its users, so why not focus on what they want and not what you think is best.


With every decision we make, we ask a couple of simple questions:


  • Is this what the user would want?
  • Is this going to benefit the user? and
  • Is this going to make the user’s life easier?


I can tell you from experience that it’s incredibly profound when you start thinking this way and the different solution you end up developing.


  1. 4. Get your team right


Employing quality staff is hard enough in the best of circumstances but employing as a startup is even harder. We don’t always have the funds we need to employ highly experienced people that expect $100k+ salaries and, furthermore, these types of employees aren’t always the best people to bring on board.


When your startup’s running on a shoestring budget, every single dollar you spend counts and employing the wrong person can be costly enough to sink your budding company. Although your project might need a certain expertise in a field you know very little about, employing a specialist is really not the wisest move.


As a general rule you should employ developers that have a solid all-round knowledge of the languages and platforms that you expect will make up your technology stack. Employing these types of people will be invaluable as time progresses because you can shift them to different aspects of the project as needed. This provides you with the ability to employ fewer highly talented staff and deliver a much better product.


  1. 5. Skill share is critical and passion is the lifeblood


You will usually still end up with people that are better or more knowledgeable in certain languages or platforms than others and that’s perfect. They can share their knowledge and expertise with the rest of the team and you end up with a team that grows and learn from one another.


Whatever you do, don’t pigeonhole your staff to only ever focus on a single aspect of your project. You’ll just end up with bored 9-5 staff who are not the sort of people you want in your startup. You need staff who are going to buy in to the startup culture, work the longer hours and be as passionate about what they’re doing as you are.


  1. 6. Don't be afraid to outsource


When you need that specialist skill set or knowledge, look for a consultant that can give you the answers you need and map out what you need to do in that particular area. Generally a consultant is much cheaper than employing a specialist staff member and chances are, in the long term, that staff member’s position will become obsolete.


As a bit of a tip, a consultant will charge you as much as they can for their services, so negotiate to get a price that works well for your budget. From my experience consultants are a much better way to go, and when you couple them with a well-rounded team, magic happens.


  1. 7. Be at one with the cloud


We can build the most powerful, life-changing piece of software or hardware the world has ever seen, but without the infrastructure to support it or its growth, you’ll just end up with a failing product.


The problem with infrastructure is the cost. Data centres, servers, power, internet pipes, bandwidth, switches are all very expensive. The more you intend on expanding, the higher the cost. The biggest piece of advice I can give you is this: throw away your old ideas that you need your own servers sitting in a data centre.


Cloud computing has come a long way in the last five years and players like Amazon Web Services have set the bar as far as technology and usability. Why is someone like Amazon so good for a tech start up? Cost, usability, flexibility, scalability and security.


You can literally spend millions of dollars setting up your own infrastructure. With Amazon, you can have a completely scalable and redundant solution up and running within as little as 15 minutes and for a tenth of the cost per year. Furthermore, the scalability is off the charts. You can grow and shrink your infrastructure as required and, better yet, you only pay for the time you’re actually running the servers.


Kerry Esson is the CTO and director of Tappr. This post originally appeared on the Tappr blog.


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