Tuesday, May 9, 2006

from the trenches of my first software startup

I was born and raised an entrepreneur (I'm pretty sure that's how you speel that). During my lifetime my dad never had a single "real job". He has always been a small business owner. From a carpet cleaning business, to a trucking company, to a coffee shop, he was always working on something he could call his own. Every time we get together we end up talking about businesses we'd like to start. If only I had the time. . . Somehow, after seeing him (and my mom) constantly working at least 80 hour weeks, stressed out, and exhausted, I still decided I wanted to start a company.

At the end of high school, and for a while after, I had a computer repair business with a really cute name and no business plan whatsoever. This lasted about six months. It turns out to be real work, and it's quite difficult to find people that are good enough to do that sort of work for very little pay. I'm really very interested in how Best Buy pulls that one off, though I assume they just have a good process and the people don't need to be all that great (no offense geeks -- I owe you guys many hours of my time that has been saved because I didn't have to help out my mother in law with her digital camera).

Ok, back on topic, sort of. A few years prior to my repair business I had fallen in love with computer programming. I wrote little programs to do all sorts of interesting things. Of course, I didn't work on anything that took more than a few weeks of my time and only built things that were interesting to me. Ah, the good old days! I went into the professional world when I turned 18 and started writing code for a living. Wow, what a change. Who knew coding could be so much fun?! "Wow, I get to program against another database and improve business processes! Woohoo!"

Needless to say, the life of a professional internal software developer was not in my cards. Even though I was making way too much money for my age as a "consultant" (that's what the recruiters like to call you, even though you're really just staff augmentation and under a different category on someone's budget), at about age 20 I started getting very restless. Luckily I met some like minded individuals (Jason and Chris) and Winfessor (Coversant's old company name) was born.

For the last few years, in between consulting engagements (we're boot strapped), we've been building the SoapBox products. Of course, we haven't only been building software, we've been building a business. Lucky for me, my role is still primarily building the technology. It continues to be a wonderful, trying, stressful, exciting, sleepless, humbling experience.

Here are some tidbits, in no particular order, that I've picked up along the way, from learning both the easy way and the hard way. It's free (and probably bad) advice from my limited experience aimed at any programmers out there that want to start a company around a software product. I'll probably write some more specifics at some point.

  • Have at least one flagship customer to start with, mainly for promotional purposes, but ideally one that will help fund the project.
  • Work full time on it. Hire others to do your consulting or other revenue generating work so you can focus, or get funding.
  • Don't work so hard. There is always more work to do, even if you work 140 hours/week.
  • Start small (ideally around 6mo development) and iterate from there.
  • Build it like you would an enterprise project - component based, easily maintainable and easily expandable.
  • Hire people to do things you aren't good at or learn to do them. Web site, graphics, brochures, accounting, sales, etc. Writing code is an itty bitty teeny weeny piece of your business.
  • Figure out how to start getting revenues, quickly, and set reasonable goals.
  • Don't look too far out into the future. Have a plan, but don't be scared to change it.
  • Any software you build needs to be extremely easy to use and install. This alone will win many sales in a head to head battle with your competitors (yes, you will have competitors).
  • FOCUS! Do one small thing better than anyone else, and then move on to the next.
  • Don't pretend to be a big company. You have a lot of advantages being the small guy and people willing to work with small companies know it.
  • Do something unique that your market needs.

That's all I've got for now. We're constantly growing and learning. I imagine my advice will evolve as the Coversant experience continues. In the end, the freedom, excitement, and financial possibilities of a startup outweigh the pains, at least for me. I also just realized I use way too many parenthesis when I write (maybe I'll work on that).

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About the Author

Wow, you made it to the bottom! That means we're destined to be life long friends. Follow Me on Twitter.

I am an entrepreneur and hacker. I'm a Cofounder at RealCrowd. Most recently I was CTO at Hive7, a social gaming startup that sold to Playdom and then Disney. These are my stories.

You can find far too much information about me on linkedin: http://linkedin.com/in/jdconley. No, I'm not interested in an amazing Paradox DBA role in the Antarctic with an excellent culture!