Jiva Technology

8 things I’ve learnt about starting a technology business

Lists are popular all year round, but especially so nearing Christmas, so I thought it was a good time to reflect on some of the obvious and not so obvious things that I’ve picked up from my involvement with start-up companies over the past ten years.

1. People are very important.
It’s a truism that, ‘getting the right people on the bus’ is important for all companies, but large companies will almost certainly have a bunch of makeweights. In a start-up, they can be deadly – you are literally better off not hiring than bad hiring. You want people who can argue constructively, be relied upon to get on with things, they need honesty (particularly about their limitations) and integrity; be open communicators, good at spotting problems and suggesting workarounds. Preferably low ego and almost willfully happy to accept ambiguity. The sort of people that would have made good early settlers.

2. Acquire the ability to raise money.
This is a skill you need to have or acquire in abundance, particularly if you want to base your company outside of the USA. To my mind, one of the biggest competitive advantage inherent in the US economy is the way that it almost runs like a giant American Idol/X Factor for start ups. Money and expertise are constantly recycled in a way that seemingly doesn’t happen in Europe. It’s a big challenge for the economies of Europe and one that I hope gets resolved soon.

3. Problems come in batches.
And those batches keep coming. If you are likely to bend under the pressure, start-ups just aren’t for you. Period.

4. Adopt a Barbel Strategy with Problems.
Start-ups are all about solving problems, ranging from the original high level concept down through to the nitty gritty details of the final customer solution. You can’t sweat every single problem that comes up or you’d never get your product or service out the door. I view the range of problems like a Barbel and give more weight to the two ends: make sure you work through your original concept incredibly thoroughly so that it’s not just your fantasy and then develop a healthy obsession about the minutiae of the final solution.

5. Luck.
Make sure you have plenty of it. Once you become rich and famous, you can claim it was down to brilliant strategy and faultless execution, but in the meantime, there were 234 million websites created last year, so on the basis of probability, some of those are going to get it really right.

6. Stick to solving a problem.
Find a real problem. Solve it. All other things being equal, you will have created something of value. Trying to follow fashion or surf a ‘hot new wave’ is a fool’s errand.

7. Having done it before really helps.
I never understood why people used to say it was a good thing to have a few failed start-ups under your belt. Now I do – you know the points where it starts to get tricky… and you’re prepared.

8. You’re flying a glider, not a 747.
Boeing built a lot of great technology to let you fly along a beautiful Great Circle to your exact destination as decided before you took off. A glider pilot has to tack backwards and forwards, finding thermals to gain height before they head in the right direction. They may never get to where they were heading. The view’s probably better though. Start-ups are gliders, big corporates are 747’s.

forget football

Business is a much more interesting game.

It’s more competitive, the tactics are more sophisticated and if you keep losing, your team is put to death, rather than relegated. Building a successful company takes guts and determination from the early team. It creates jobs and pays the taxes that create the high quality communities that we want to live in; that we want our children to live in.

Ideas have moods

I stole this from one of my favourite books, The Art of the Idea.

Before you start questioning my logic and ask why I think simple nouns can or should start to exhibit emotions, I should make myself clearer. In my experience, most ideas are born half baked. It’s a rare and wonderful thing if an idea comes out fully formed, tested and with an execution plan neatly hanging off the back. Ideas are fragile things that need to be nurtured, to bounce off other ideas to make them better. So they need to be born into an environment where the prevailing attitude is, ‘interesting, tell me more’. Where the mood is right for ideas to take hold and grow. Maybe accompanied by a few smiles and a few questions about the idea.

If it’s a real idea, it will carry change with it and change can be difficult for some people. Or maybe all people, depending on the change. I just thought I’d share that.

Why should I love you?

We’ve reached a critical point in the development of our company. I like to think of it as the, ‘nowhere to hide stage’. Tutorhub has been in the kitchen for close to two years and after wrestling with the significant engineering difficulties of producing a genuine real time web app, we’re ready to serve it up. Gulp. Time to find some users. And not just any users, but users that like it so much, they want to tell their friends and get them on it too. Double gulp.

A couple of weeks back, I listened to Alex Hunter pose an interesting and challenging question to anyone looking to build a new product or service on the web. ‘Why should I love you’, he asked. Why indeed. Because our chances of hitting the spot straight away are pretty slight, which means the coming months will see furious activity as we finesse the product. ‘Hey, we’re in the sales and marketing phase’ just doesn’t describe the process we’re going through right now. We’re not selling things or marketing to people in the hope they might buy something. We’re nipping and tucking the product to produce something that really solves a fundamental educational problem. Something we can all love.

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