Tuesday, May 13, 2008

CTO Series - Out of the Goo

At the outset a company needs a huge amount of energy from a very small set of people to have any sort of chance of making it through the first year. My companies have been fairly complicated software affairs and so much of the energy input has been in the initial product buildout to sufficiently demonstrate the idea. So, in those early heady days of whiteboard brainstorming, myth making, protean moneyless, nothing-else-exists, insomniac haze, everything draws your attention. Servers need to be built. There is no data center so the servers sit half tilted on the desk next to you humming away. Source control needs to be set up. The beginnings of an architecture need to be laid down. You set up the company's email and website. There is no marketing, no sales department, no one booking your flights. You beg and borrow from friend's time to help with various aspects. You push friends and family to the limits of their patience. And you code like crazy, pulling all nighters when you're on a roll and some thorny problem is nearly within your grasp. You're in every aspect of the product, pushing each just far enough along to get that primal system to crawl up out of the digital goo limping into reality.

Key take-aways:
  • The early days of startups can get you distracted in a thousand directions so build a plan
  • The plan should be optimized to get you into discussions with *real* customers as soon as possible to validate the value
  • Don't fall in love with your plan, it will change, perhaps daily some weeks
  • Build top 10 lists. There's a hell of a lot to accomplish. Figure out what matters most to the plan and create a top 10 list.
  • In the list take on the hard problems yourself, delegate the easy ones
  • Lead by example. Push people but don't expect them to work harder than you do.
  • Have someone tend to the business. Incorporation, setting up health insurance, getting office space, chairs, and printers, and a checking account are not where you add value
  • Communicate. Constantly elaborate on the vision to any one who will listen and primarily anyone in your startup. This will help you in the evangelism phase later. Things that seem like really great ideas in your head sometimes fail the test when you have to communicate them out loud. This forces you to think through the problem in greater detail.
  • Don't get distracted. Don't look at your email when you're focusing on the product. If someone has a question that doesn't need to be addressed right away tell them you'll get back to them. Let people know when it's ok or not ok to come ask you questions. Wear a set of headphones when you don't want to be interrupted even if you're not listening to anything. Most people won't bother you if you have headphones on (same as on a flight).

Once this is accomplished the road show begins and you spend a lot more time talking to people than writing code. In order for your company to survive you must raise money, either by selling some form of the product, or taking in venture capital. This slows you down to a crawl but gives a lot of perspective on the value of your creation and gives you time to digest the market and what might be important. It also preps you for the next stage in the company's development, R&D growth. Rest here on the bank for a just a moment. There's a lot more evolution coming.

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