Managing Technology in a Startup

Earlier this week, I sat on a panel at American University titled "Starting your own Business: Trials and Tribulations". While all of the panelists work in startups, have managed in startups, and have often founded startups, I found myself as the sole technologist in the bunch… speaking to a bunch of MBA grads and budding entrepreneurs.

Update on 27 Apr: I forgot to link to the great pictures taken by the Jobmatchbox team.

Disclaimer: With all due respect, what I describe can easily happen someone without an MBA, I've seen but I'm talking patterns here. 😉

One of the things that often – not always! – drives someone to business school is the desire to start their own company. The flexibility, the power, the excitement, the big idea that they have. No, seriously the *big* idea. Somewhere along the way, the get all the pieces that go into making it happen… they learn about the marketing, the strategy, the presentations, the research, and all the other little bits and pieces.

What's missing is that they don't work closely with a technologist or two and begin to treat the technology as an afterthough. Admittedly, in many businesses, this is appropriate. If you're selling the best hamburger ever or making signs or running a franchise, most of the time, your technology can be an afterthought.

But if you're building a social network, creating a new ad network, building a mobile phone platform or any number of other things, the technology is the core to what you're doing.

That has some major implications. It means:

  • First, you have to consider it from day one. You have to know how it fits with what you're doing. What goes into it, what doesn't, and get an idea of your budget (time, $'s, etc).
  • Next, you need a technologist in the mix to figure out the boundaries. You need to know what is and isn't possible and how to approach the process… more importantly, you need to know how to approach things, schedule things, and what "It's 90% done!" really means. 😉
  • Next, you need a technologist in the mix to filter the candidates. When you don't know what you're doing (fact, not judgement), you need someone who does to find the right people to hire and filter out the posers.
  • Finaly, you don't outsource it. I don't mean offshoring, but that could be included. I mean the people who know your product – because they're building it! – should be part of your organization.

Failure to have a serious tech person involved causes some terrible decisions.

For example, I recently tracked the progress of an angel-funded startup:

  • First, since they lacked any technical background, the sole developer-turned-investor promptly developed the entire application… in ColdFusion.
  • After that caught on fire and sunk into the swamp, they decided to rebuild it in .net… er… Rails… er… PHP. Their "technologist" didn't have any experience in any of them and was therefore open to anything.
  • Next, since they developed their "architecture" (aka PHP), they began recruit for PHP-types. Since none of them had any experience whatsoever in PHP, they hired the first PHP'ers that could pass the single-round phone screen.
  • Finally, they called the ColdFusion version of the application a "reference implementation except for the wrong parts" and didn't bother writing the spec as a result.

Fast forward a few months and inside reports say the team is in shambles, the project is months late, and major portions of it are being rebuilt from the ground up. These issues are not unique to any particular background or skill set… They happen equally easily to anyone who underestimates the technology.

If you ever find yourself – or anyone on your team – saying "don't worry about the technology", immediately stop and worry about it. Don't let those issues get glossed over and definitely check to see there's a plan for figuring them out.