This is a collection of startup tips covering software engineering, infrastructure, PR, conferences, legal and finance. They describe best practices for an early-stage startup. We hope that you will find these tips useful, but also please remember that they are based on subjective experiences and not all of them will be applicable to your company.
These tips originally appeared as separate posts on the BlueBlog, the blog of AdaptiveBlue. [Ed: Alex Iskold is founder and CEO of AdaptiveBlue, as well as being a feature writer for RWW.] Since the posts were quite popular, we decided to share them with the ReadWriteWeb audience during the holiday season.
8 Software Engineering Tips for Startups
Since software is at the heart of every modern startup it needs to be elegant, simple and agile. Instead of having an army of coders it pays to have a handful of smart, passionate engineers who love what they are doing instead. A small, passionate team can generally accomplish more than an army. Even as the company grows you can still accomplish a lot with a small team.
Tip 0: You must have code
Working code proves that a system is possible, and it also proves that the team can build the system. Having working code is a launchpad for your business. After it is ready, the business can happen. In the old days, tech companies were funded based on an idea written on a piece of paper, but those days are long gone. Today, a startup needs to have not only working code, but an assembled system and active users in order to land venture capital money. Software engineering transitioned from the post-funding exercise to the means to being funded.
Tip 1: You must have a technical co-founder
Any startup starts with an idea and just a few people. A lot of startup co-founders these days are techies, passionate about technology and life. It was not always like that. Just a few years back a purely technical founding team would have had a hard time raising money because there was a school of thought that only people with MBA degrees could run a company. Now, having a technical co-founder is a benefit.
Tip 2: Hire A+ engineers who love coding
Until recently, building a large scale system that worked was like black magic. Most software projects languished for years, and had large engineering teams who had little consensus on what needed to be done and how to accomplish it. The resulting systems were buggy, unstable, and hard to maintain and extend. The problem was that there were just too many people who were not that good working on writing software. Startups cannot afford to have less than A+ engineers.
Tip 3: Keep the engineering team small and do not outsource
A team of 2-3 rockstar engineers can build pretty much any system because they are good at what they do, love building software, focus on the goal, and don’t get in each other’s way. A team of 20 so-so engineers will not get very far. The mythical man-month book debunked the notion of scaling by adding more programmers to the project. The truth is that most successful software today is built by just a handful of good engineers. Less is more applies equally to code and to the number of people working on it.
Tip 4: Ask tough questions during the interview
There is nothing worse than being soft during an interview with a prospective employee and hiring the wrong person into the company as a result. This is bad for you, but more importantly bad for the person. In the end you will end up parting ways, but it would be best to just not make this mistake to begin with. So be tough and ask a lot of technical questions during the interview.
Tip 5: Avoid hiring non-technical managers
You do not need these type of people on a small team. If everyone is sharp, knows what they are doing and executes on a task, why do you need a manager? People who try to overlay complex processes on top your objectives are going to slow you down and make you frustrated.
Tip 6: Cultivate an agile culture
Modern startups need to move very quickly. There is no room to plan for 6 months and then execute because someone else will get there first. The new approach is to evolve the system. Of course you are doing planning for the next release, but you are iterating quickly, doing frequent builds, and constantly making changes. Coding becomes sculpting.
Tip 7: Do not re-invent the wheel
5 Infrastructure Tips for Startups
It is much easier to
build web-scale startup these days because of great hosting services like Rackspace, web services from Amazon, and
tracking systems like Google Analytics. In this post we take a closer look at these solutions from the perspective
of a startup.
Tip 1: Use the best hosting provider you can afford
As a startup, you are always looking for ways to keep costs down. One of the first areas that seems to be a good place to trim costs and save money is on web hosting. However, skimping on hosting is a mistake that will cost you a lot of time, which is more valuable than the money you will spend. It is okay to go with a cheaper provider when you are just developing the code, but your production needs to run on a rock solid system.
Tip 2: Use Amazon Web Services
You are still likely to need a regular hosting provider, but you should be aware of an increasingly important alternative – Amazon Web Services. This offering from the e-commerce giant is a must-consider piece of infrastructure for any startup. Specifically, four services make it easier to build large-scale web applications: Simple Storage Service, Elastic Compute Cloud, Simple DB, and Simple Queue Service.
Tip 3: Use Google Analytics in standard and creative ways
Early on, startups need to track things. Tracking results are useful for metrics, which in turn help measure growth and success of the company. Without tracking, it is difficult to determine what is going on. Google Analytics is packed with features, but more importantly it has an API. The reason this is important is because you can actually build your own dashboard that offers a different, customized view of the same information.
Tip 4: Start with defaults, then tune the system
In 99.9% of cases you are better off starting with defaults, and in 99.9% of cases you are not going to end up where you started. The trick is to go from those defaults to custom settings in the proper way. Probably the worst thing you can do is premature tuning. Like premature optimization of source code, this leads to ugliness. Why guess before you even know what is going to happen to the system?
Tip 5: Hire or contract a good system administrator
This is the simplest tip of all. Like programming, business development and accounting system management is a specialty best left to professionals. I know my way around Unix, I even used to be a system administrator 15 years ago, but I am not up to par. When you reach a certain size and scale, you need a dedicated person running the hardware and OS show.
11 PR Tips for Startups
PR is a tough game. When the market is red hot, it’s hard to get noticed because there are a lot of companies competing for air time. When the market is cool it is hard to get people to pay any attention because they are not interested (tired after the hot market). And for startups it’s even tougher to have effective PR because a startup can’t throw a lot of money at the problem. In this post we look at how startups should approach PR.
Tip 1: Hire a PR firm
This may come as a surprise, but you do need a PR firm. An early stage startup can’t always afford one, but that does not mean that it is not necessary. The number one reason you need a PR firm is because of their connections. They know people, because this is what they do – network.
Tip 2: Do not expect PR people to intimately learn your product
This is not their role. They are connectors, they are the bridge between you and the media. They are responsible for putting you in front of the right press. This is their job. It is your job to pitch your product, to explain why it is so awesome and why everyone should be using it.
Tip 3: Get PR people who understand your space
PR companies have specialties, not all of them are right for you. For example, if you are in the consumer Internet space, do not hire a PR firm that specializes in mobile technologies – they’re not the same thing. If you are a consumer Internet company, you need a firm that knows blogosphere inside out, because this is how you reach your early adopter crowd.
Tip 4: Launch your product at a conference
The reason for this is that you are likely to get a lot more media coverage and instant attention than if you launch just any old time. But the conference needs to fit. For launches, you can do one of two things: launch at a specialized conference such as DEMO (which we recommend) or you can launch in a non-startup conference which has a launchpad feature. For example, Web 2.0 events typically present 10-15 startups, as do conferences like Supernova. It does not make sense to launch at a conference that does not have any startup participation because it won’t be the proper context for your launch.
Tip 5: Create demos, videos, pictures, and slides
A newsflash: press releases are dead. We have found them to be completely ineffective. To the point of zero leads. Zero. Instead, you need to prepare a new kind of media. Remember that people are spoiled these days, so they will have high expectations. If you think you can show up and tell them that you got the best new technology, hand wave, and then expect a write up, you are dreaming. You need to prepare. You need to distill your product and the message into something easily digestible, and you need to be very clear.
Tip 6: Do not launch or release big news on Monday or Friday
This may or may not be obvious but there are only 3 days when things get done: Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. These are the best days to launch your product, in that order. Monday could work, but in the afternoon, because in the morning people still can’t believe that the weekend is over. Fridays are really bad for PR – everyone is just waiting for the weekend.
Tip 7: Emailing after an introduction is more effective
One thing you have to understand about A-list bloggers like Michael Arrington, Richard MacManus, Om Malik and their colleagues is that they are getting thousands of emails each day from startups. It is physically impossible for them to process and respond to all that email. You may find that unfair, but this is just a simple fact. So once again, this is where a PR firm or at least a friendly connection via LinkedIn will come in handy. If you are introduced, the chances are far better that you will be heard. (No guarantees that you will be written up.)
Tip 8: Set an embargo and stick with it
This is something that we had to learn over and over again. Everyone wants an exclusive. Each blog that does news, wants to be first with the news. This is just the name of the game. If you do give an exclusive to one, you are running a big danger of not getting coverage in others. The way around this issue is to setup an embargo (meaning they can’t blog about your launch until certain time) and then brief everyone prior to that and give them time to write about you.
Tip 9: Make sure people do not write without a brief from someone in your company
There has been a trend lately of writing based on a press release. While this does get you coverage, it is likely to do more bad than good. It is not just that you want to be heard, you want to be heard correctly. The key to that is to get a chance to tell your story directly to a reporter. A post based on a press release is likely to be wrong and harmful, while a post based on a one-on-one interaction is more likely to get it right.
Tip 10: Understand that major media coverage will not happen overnight
Chasing an article in a major magazine or newspaper like Wired or MIT Technology Review or the New York Times is not worth it. Their reporters will not write a feature until it becomes crystal clear that you are a huge success and are worthy of a feature. Instead of spending efforts on that, you are better off making the product really great and getting people to use it and evangelize it for you. The mainstream media will find you.
Tip 11: Community is the best PR strategy
It is very difficult to achieve continuous PR unless you do it via your own users. A thousand passionate users who have blogs and social network profiles can promote your product and expose you to more people than coverage on top blogs and magazines. For better or worse, news today is cheap. A post stays on the main page of a blog or newspaper site for a few hours and then scrolls out into a black hole. Google occasionally brings an old post to those who seek it, but realistically, news just flies by and no one wants yesterday’s news.
7 Conference Tips for Startups
We have been to quite a few conferences already and more than a few people have asked me which conferences are good. The problem is not that some conferences are bad, it’s just that some conferences may not be the right venue for your startup. In this post we are going to share with you our experiences in the tech conference world.
Tip 1: Launch at DEMO
DEMO is a great venue because its sole focus is to launch companies. Despite the fact that you will be one of over sixty participants, you will be given the stage and attention. The show is very intense, as it takes place in only two days. Each company is given exactly 6 minutes. The stage presentations are mixed with pavilion presentations which are a few hours long.
Tip 2: Sponsor/attend a few high impact conferences
ETech, SWSX and Defrag are our top picks so far. Make sure there is a fit between the conference and your product. Check out who else is sponsoring, and get feedback and blog posts from last year’s attendees before signing up.
Tip 3: Rent the best equipment you can afford
Whatever it takes to make your product look good. It simply does not make sense to spend money on the sponsorship and try to save on the equipment. Save on the hotel and airfare instead.
Tip 4: Save money by staying in a hotel near by
You can stay anywhere reasonably close. The only thing you’d be missing is hanging with the people at the bar in the evening. Then again, that could be useful because drunk people talk more.
Tip 5: Don’t grab people to look at your product
Some people do it, I am against it. How would you feel if you were grabbed and pressured into watching a demo?
Tip 6: Don’t tolerate upsells
This is a sensitive topic, but it is a very important one. Unfortunately a lot of people at these events are not there to see you, they are there to use you. Consider people who are looking for a job. It is perfectly reasonable for someone to come over and hand you a resume. It is not reasonable for them to take up a lot of your time or to ask a lot about your company. Get their information quickly and tell them you will be in touch.
Tip 7: Organize PR around the conference
Conferences are a great and maybe rare chance to interact with reporters and bloggers face-to-face. However, it is not a straightforward practice. Reporters are humans and as such, they play games. If you approach them head on they will say no for no particular reason. Somehow you need to make them feel special, which is not easy. It is a good idea to get a press list and contact reporters in advance and arrange appointments. You may get a no over the phone, but they might just come by your booth anyway when they have a free minute. If this sounds like dating, it very much feels that way too.
5 Legal and Finance Tips for Startups
You are unlikely to think about lawyers and accountants when you dream up a piece of software that will change the world. Yet, if you want to build a real company you need to take care of the basics. While not the primary focus of your business, administrative functions are very important because they have impact on your daily life and the long term growth of your business. The main trick is to be aware of what needs to be done and do it quickly and effectively.
Tip 1: Setup a real company
The first step to setting up a business is to declare it to the world. Lots of startups in the garage might think that setting up a company does not make sense until you get the business off the ground. The idea of first writing the code and then incorporating is just plain wrong. First you need to figure out what kind of company are you creating and what is the ownership structure. Setting up a company is cheap and quick and it is an important starting point for your business. What you get in return is: legal protection, alignment of everyone’s expectations, and basic knowledge about how companies work.
Tip 2: Get a Delaware LLC or Inc.
Likely the best way for you to setup a company is to create a Delaware Limited Liability Corporation (LLC) or a full C-Corporation (Inc). Delaware has traditionally been an attractive place for companies to set up shop because of its tax laws. The important difference between an LLC and an Inc is in how they treat taxes and the number of shareholders. The LLC is generally much simpler to maintain and it allows pass through taxes, which is good for companies that have income in the early days. Revenue can be treated as income to shareholders and only taxed once. In an Inc the tax is paid twice, first by the corporation and then again by the employees, as part of their regular withholding.
Tip 3: Don’t save money on a lawyer
A lawyer? Are you kidding me?! Why would we need a lawyer for our brand new startup in a garage? As it turns out, there are a whole bunch of reasons and there is not much wiggle room here. Because a company is a legal entity having a lawyer is essential. For starters here is the list of things and documents that your lawyer should do for you in the first days and months of your business:
- Incorporate your business
- Create articles of incorporation
- Create corporate bylaws and maintain board minutes
- Create a shareholder agreement
- Create employment agreements
- Create a stock options plan
Tip 4: Get an accountant and, more importantly, a bookkeeper
Just like the legal aspects of a startup cannot be ignored, neither can the financial aspects. And unlike the legal stuff, which is mostly a one time deal, finances are ongoing and require continuous attention. To deal with finances you need two kinds of people: accountants and bookkeepers. The accountants are skilled in complexities and intricacies of tax law. They also conducts audits or reviews of the company, typically once a year. Accountants typically do not keep books because they are expensive (kind of like lawyers, maybe a bit cheaper). Instead the books are kept by bookkeepers and so to find a kick ass bookkeeper is another really important thing you need to do when you start a company. You can go either with an individual or with a service. I always prefer an individual became there is an opportunity to develop a relationship and get more personalized service.
Tip 5: Turn boring into learning
You have to take care of legal and financial aspects of the startup, so why not turn it into a learning experience? The legal and financial aspects of your company are important and interesting, and there are a lot of new things and ideas that you will encounter that are likely to impress you. Learning about them will help you in the long run.
One of the reasons for this post is to open up a wider discussion. What works for you?
What software engineering, infrastructure, public relations, conferences, legal and finance tips can you
share with us about your startup? Use the comments below to share your thoughts.