Early stage startups value efficiency above everything else. Businesses need to evolve quickly and flexibly in the face of an uncertain future, and they need the right tools to succeed. This often causes them to look beyond prepackaged apps. Okta’s 2019 Businesses @ Work report found that 76 percent of the company’s Office 365 customers used additional apps that served the same purpose as ones built into the Microsoft offering. And Expensify’s 2019 Spend Trends report showed that employees sought out the best collaboration tools if their IT team didn’t provide them.
Prematurely optimizing for scale or features is a startup sin that can harm a business in the long run. “Good enough” technology can save you time when technical platform decisions are needed in hours rather than weeks. Community advice on public and official forums provides faster insight than less timely responses from large enterprises, and early adopters can attract the most unique and progressive engineering talent while future-proofing their businesses. Still, it’s vital to prioritize tech that integrates with existing tools and complements other vendor and open-source packages — and that means planning before partnering with vendors.
A tech leader’s first job is to say “yes” to the changing needs of his or her business. Tech should never be a roadblock to progress; it should be an enabler instead of a distraction. If an opportunity to increase traffic tenfold presents itself, then there needs to be a plan for scaling up. If a company needs 30 more developers, then communication and agile tools must be ready to accommodate them. Changes within a business are inevitable, but the technology landscape is also changing. Services will evolve or disappear, and tech upgrades will require downtime. Tech leaders need to adjust to these changes, and they need to work with vendors that understand the evolving environment. There are three things to consider when choosing those partners.
1. Prioritize developers’s happiness.
The output of its core developers drives a startup’s overall velocity in the early stages, and a happy developer is a productive one. A study by the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick found happy workers outperform their peers by 12 percent, and some studies put the effect of happiness even higher. To ensure developer happiness, choose tools that deliver a great developer experience, a good console, clear APIs, excellent documentation and a thriving user community that can offer support. Automate developer chores like testing and deployment, and invest more money in tools and cloud computing.
Twice in my startup career, I’ve had to “break a tie” on two technology options. The first was in 2004; a lead developer was so enthusiastic about the newly released Ruby on Rails framework that he rewrote the project over the weekend. His enthusiasm sold me, and the team’s excitement overcame the inefficiencies of a less mature project. I followed the same principle years later when choosing between Angular and Ember.js.
Developer happiness is crucial to startup success, so put it at the heart of the vendor decision-making process.
2. Don’t reinvent anything.
Undifferentiated heavy lifting is a waste of time. “Swiss Army knife” tools that try to solve every problem in one neat package will often be second-best in everything. It’s better to prioritize solutions that suit specific needs and use modular tools, frameworks and open-source libraries that provide flexibility when technical needs evolve.
Look at other companies that have faced and solved technical problems at a similar scale. Most startups do well with platform-as-a-service offerings like Google App Engine or Heroku, which do a great job of offloading common development tasks and allow for seamless scalability. But as a project increases in costs and complexity, it’s common to migrate to a platform that offers greater flexibility and control.
I supported a startup last year that worked on machine-learning models. Despite already having in-house experts, the company chose to build with TensorFlow, a flexible open-source framework, instead of its own solution. As it scaled, the startup leveraged TensorFlow’s broad ecosystem of tools. When the startup’s data sets became huge, it paid extra for Google’s dedicated TPU solution that cut its model training time by more than 90 percent.
Build the key differentiating tech that powers your innovation. Leverage open-source tools that accelerate your business, and pay for vendors that manage things like cloud hosting, continuous integration and deployment, email and SMS management and system monitoring and alerting.
3. Employ ‘possibility-driven development.’
Test-driven and behavior-driven development are both established concepts, but possibility-driven development is another great way to achieve startup success. Top restaurateurs spend countless hours studying new ingredients, educating themselves on cutting-edge techniques and dining at other top restaurants for inspiration. Developers should adopt the same approach, i.e. explore amazing user experiences and new technology trends, keeping tabs on great startups and vendors that enter the tools space. Dissect amazing apps and web user experiences to understand how they work. Don’t chase every shiny object, but think about the opportunities that new technology products and services could offer. If a new technology could boost efficiency or help achieve product-market fit, then embrace it.
Choosing a technology vendor is a lot like picking a partner: The right fit is essential. Developers need to be happy, tools need to serve a purpose and a future together needs to create possibilities. Keep these three things in mind to choose the best tech solutions and vendors for your needs.