Half Engineer / Half Business Guy

Starting Your Business And Becoming An Entrepreneur

Tag: Getting Started

You Don’t “Just Need Engineers”

As I’ve spoken to new business-side entrepreneurs recently (even those, like me, with advanced engineering degrees), one of the most frequently asked questions has been: “How do I build an engineering team?”

It’s a very tough question! In this post, I’ll describe my team’s experience.

REMEMBER – YOU’RE BUILDING A TEAM

When my co-founder and I decided to pursue Catapulter, we knew it was going to be a complex technology, so we couldn’t just run out and “find some engineers”. We needed to build a team.

For some perspective on what NOT to do:
http://whartoniteseekscodemonkey.tumblr.com/

Here’s how we did it:

  1. Ask Experts Who We Need
  2. Post Jobs & Network
  3. Interview
  4. Get Lucky (Networking & Perseverance Make Luck Happen)

WHO DO WE NEED, ANYWAY?

The first step was figuring out what the Perfect Team would include.

We had a good idea, but we wanted to defer to those who knew from experience. We reached out to as many people as we could find in the entrepreneurial community, to figure out what types of folks would really make the most sense to round out our team.

We met with developers, startup CEOs, VCs, and even a mathematician at Apple, and after a few meetings, we narrowed it down. Besides the fact that we knew we needed a talented CTO (see here why you need a technical co-founder), we specifically needed a mathematician / algorithm guru, and a CTO who could knock out the front-end, but also work with some heavy data processing on the backend.

JOB POSTING & NETWORKING

Now that we knew who we were looking for, we started networking and posting jobs everywhere we could think of.

The easiest way to find a high-quality co-founder is through someone whose opinion you respect.

We basically set up as many discussions as possible with folks in the entrepreneurial community, particularly developers, to find someone who might be interested. First, we asked friends who they knew, then asked those people who they knew. (Whether or not you find someone, you’ll definitely learn something!)

You may have the “perfect person” in mind…but the best folks usually have plenty of projects to work on. There’s likely going to be quite a bit of luck involved – who’s super-pumped about your idea, who happens to have the right experience, and who’s available.

Another way to find folks is by posting to job boards and email lists.

We received a number of quality applications through both entrepreneurial email lists like the Philly Startup Leaders and school job boards like UPenn’s. (We also got a lot of noise, so be prepared to screen!)

With school job boards, there’s a timing consideration based on when each of the various divisions of the school searches for jobs. It turned out that one specific engineering school was recruiting when we posted our Algorithm Developer position, and we received a huge number of applications from that group.

For tips on job postings / intro emails, check out this post from a Penn CS Major.

One important note: If you’re not a developer yourself, there are going to be some people who tell you you’re just a “business person”, you’re useless, and no engineer should ever talk to you. There are certainly folks for whom that’s true…just don’t let it be you!

INTERVIEWS

We found our first team member (our Lead Algorithm Developer) through a school job listing. He wrote one of the few cover letters we received (about his genuine interest in algorithms!), had excellent routing/networking experience, and was a leader going in. We interviewed a number of folks, but he stood out at the interview. He didn’t overpromise, he told us what he could and couldn’t do, but was confident that he could figure out anything.

And he freaking rules.

From the same job board, we found a few students who were interested in the CTO position. We ended up selecting one particularly energetic student before a final round startup accelerator interview…

GETTING LUCKY, PART I

In our interview, the partners of the accelerator gave us the business, and really pushed to figure out how talented our new teammates were. A few days later, our new CTO called and told us, without explanation, that he was out. Shortly after, the incubator called and told us they liked the idea and the team…except for our CTO.

At the time, we were bummed out. We were so close…but now we were a tech startup without a CTO! We didn’t realize how lucky we were to have another opportunity to find the right person.

In any case, we knew we needed to figure it out, FAST!

GETTING LUCKY, PART II

We hit the phones again, now networking with people we knew who already had great jobs. We knew it would be tough, but we also knew we had a fantastic idea, an awesome algorithm developer, and a real opportunity.

Running out of network, I called up one of my college buddies, a super-talented engineering classmate of mine who already had a fantastic job. There was no chance he’d leave, so I decided to ask if he had any friends who might be interested.

However…by an amazing coincidence, it turned out he had recently built a trip planning website in his spare time! AND he was the jack-of-all-trades type of guy who could knock out the front end but work on the heavy processing in the background. AND he happened to be casually looking to join a startup. Booyah.

That’s what networking gets you. You make your own luck. And now we had a CTO.

GETTING LUCKY, PART III

With the new team, we spent the summer at Betaspring building our alpha product and beginning to test with users. At this point, our database was rapidly expanding, and we wanted an experienced engineering leader to focus on managing the growth of our technology, and our growing data acquisition and storage needs.

Over the summer, we had continued to network and post on job boards, but hadn’t found anyone. We had been interviewing a number of candidates through the normal channels, but none really fit the team

Then one day, while cleaning out my email, I found one that had slipped past…

Well after we had selected a CTO and began at our accelerator, a really talented candidate who fit the bill had sent us an email. He had experience as VP of Tech/Product at other heavy-data startups, where he had guided nascent technologies through rapid growth.

It only took a couple of phone calls and a video chat with the writer of this email, but it was clear he was the man for the job.

PIECE OF CAKE, REALLY…

And like that, we had three killer engineers making up Catapulter’s core team.

The perfect team needed a jack-of-all-trades CTO, an algorithm developer, and an experienced data-processing guru and technology leader, and somehow we got them all.

The main take-away for me: you have to network, and you have to try everything. It took a ton of legwork, but as a result, we built the absolute perfect team.

It was totally worth it.

Quick Tip: How To Get Quality Business Cards Made Quickly

FedEx Office – and many private printers – don’t have thick enough paper to make quality business cards. They’re too thin, bend, and look lame.

Also beware of many digital printers, who pixelize the crap out of your nicely designed card.

My recommendation, after big disappointments by FedEx Office and three other reasonably priced printers on their thickest card stock: overnightprints.com

  1. Spend the extra few $ for the Premium, not Value cards (Value cards are printed digitally, which means more pixelization, vs. Premium cards which are offset printed)
  2. Get gloss on the back of your card – it adds extra thickness to make your card feel like you didn’t print it out at home. However, don’t add gloss on the front, as it’s not typical and looks sort of strange
  3. Look up “overnight prints coupon codes” on Google – you can usually get 30-50% off. They don’t seem to try very hard to prevent this because…
  4. …Overnight Prints has cheap cards that turn out nice, but they destroy you on shipping. You can save a lot of money if you’re willing to wait a couple of weeks. Shipping can be $70 for one set of cards on really short notice, but $10 if you can wait

You Need A Technical Co-Founder

NO, YOU CAN’T JUST OUTSOURCE

If you’re starting a tech company, you need a technical co-founder.

Without one, you won’t be able to build your company. In addition, you won’t be able to raise money, because investors know how important it is to have a technical founder on the team.

There are a long list of reasons, but here I’ll make like an entrepreneur and show you the problem, then give you the solution.

Let me start by addressing the most common issues, usually preceded by:

“Sure I can start a tech company without a tech co-founder, I’ll outsource!”

PROBLEM: OUTSOURCING = MISALIGNED INCENTIVES

While outsourcing a website is possible, the incentives of whoever you’re sending work to is often the opposite of what you want.

Even for the most expensive contractors, their incentives are:

  • Do the least work possible while getting paid
  • Take longer than you want, if it means they can get paid more

Even a great provider has these incentives – they’ll just act on them differently. The best folks do work quickly to earn repeat business, and don’t charge for hours above their estimate. However, until you’ve had experience with someone, it’s hard to know how they’ll treat a job.

At Catapulter, while some of our contractors worked hard to earn repeat business, others did a quick, messy job and then demanded further hourly payments for edits. To be fair, that’s the lowest of the low, but it absolutely happens, particularly when you’re paying bottom of the barrel prices (common for early, low-cash startups).

(See my post on not getting screwed by outsourcing)

SOLUTION: TECHNICAL CO-FOUNDER

Above, I said that some of our contractors did a bad job. If we didn’t have technical co-founders, we wouldn’t even know it!

Fortunately for us, these were quick jobs, and we could afford to lose the $100 we paid. What if we had gone the outsourced route with a 3-month, several thousand dollar job, with no one to look over our contractors’ shoulders? It would have been a tough spot.

The reality is: you need a technical co-founder you trust. Someone who is not trying to make money from you, and wants your company to succeed.

Your Technical Co-Founder Will:

  • Screen and manage
  • Integrate
  • Do it the right way
  • …and, surprise – code!

Screen and Manage

If you’re non-technical, it’s very difficult to manage technical contractors because you don’t know what they’re doing, or how they need to interact with other contractors. Your technical co-founder will understand how the pieces fit together, and make sure that different components can actually integrate.

Also, you shouldn’t expect every contractor or even employee to be able to problem solve or think pro-actively. You’ll need to give guidance and feedback constantly, and if you’re not technical, you won’t be able to do this correctly by yourself.

Integrate

If you outsource components, they’ll have to be integrated. Integration takes an immense amount of time, and it’s not something that can be tacked-on to the end of a job. You’ll want someone internal to guide this process (if not do it completely), to make sure it’s done right.

Do It Right

As I mentioned earlier, a contractor is interested in completing the job, and maybe getting repeat business, not making your site as elegant and easy to maintain as possible. Your technical co-founder will want to drive this process, to make sure your site is being built in a scalable, updatable, low maintenance way.

Code!

Building a website is not easy. There are many moving parts, and there’s always something that needs to be fixed, changed or updated. You want someone on your team who you can count on for emergency fixes, to fill in the gaps between contractors, or add that one last little feature before the next release.

AND MOST IMPORTANTLY, THEY’LL STICK IT OUT WITH YOU

If you fully outsource your website, the folks building the website are doing it for a paycheck. If you stop paying the bills, they’ll stop building the site.

If you’re a new startup, you’re probably not loaded with cash. You want to find someone who’s going to stick it out with you when the going gets tough, and continue to move forward if you hit a rough patch.

I’ve Got An Idea For A Startup, Now What?

Many non-technical folks have a big idea, then immediately set off to find engineers and attempt to raise VC funding.

Slow down!

Before that, you should make sure the idea is really worth your time. It’s easy to fall in love with an idea, and you should really try to decide whether your business can accomplish your goals (save the world, pay $100k/year, build an exotic car collection, etc.) before you move forward.

In addition, it’s going to be really hard to raise money without figuring out quite a bit of detail first. Just ask a VC how many Next Big Ideas they see from excited co-founders without backup or any idea how they’re going to execute (hint: the answer is “too many”).

Once you’ve got an idea, your process should go something like this:

Of course, these materials and decisions don’t need to be sharp and finalized before you set off on your entrepreneurial adventure.

However, they’ll help you channel your energies into answering the key questions of your startup, decide whether you should really begin to build this business, and be armed with the information you need to excite your future teammates and investors.

A few pieces of advice that I’ve picked up along the way:

  • It’s going to be way harder and take way longer than you think
  • Now that I’ve adjusted your expectations, take that amount of time and effort and triple it
  • Problems that seem like certain doom for your startup will occur constantly

And if those seem ominous and negative, they shouldn’t. Starting a startup is really hard, and you should know what you’re getting into from the beginning, so you can prepare yourself and not freak out. Freaking out doesn’t help anything.

That said, what is likely driving you to entrepreneurship is passion for your idea, and that is one of the most important assets you have. Be sure to communicate that passion to everyone with whom you discuss your business.

One final tip: This is your business, so don’t act on a single person’s advice (mine included). Get as much advice as you can, synthesize the results, and make your own decisions.

Good luck!

Overwhelmed By WordPress Plugins? Start With These 19 Essentials

When I first set up my self-hosted WordPress blog, I had no idea how many plugins I’d actually need to just get up and running with some standard functionality (e.g. a live twitter feed and RSS sign-up), Google Analytics, and SEO basics.

I started out by finding dozens of “Top WordPress Plugins” posts clogging up search engines, and many of them list cool plugins, but are hardly complete. I’ve tried to gather a well-rounded set of plugins that you should load when you start your blog, to:

  1. Set up killer SEO
  2. Track traffic
  3. Engage readers
  4. Fill in feature gaps

You’ll be able to find more plugins later that are interesting to you, or make your life easier. In fact, many of these plugins are meant to work with very little input, particularly with respect to SEO. More customizable plugins exist, with many more features, though they can also be quite a bit more complex.

Here, I’ve tried to avoid bells and whistles, and just cover what I find to be the most important stuff.

Improving SEOThese plugins will help you get found in search engines

  1. All In One SEO Pack – This creates a new box in each post page for you to put the Title, Description and Keywords you want crawled by search engines. You may want to have a separate title for search engines (e.g. in the form of a question someone would type into Google like “How do I XYZ?”) while you want to have a pithy, interesting title on the actual post to draw someone in. Also, search engines will otherwise just take the first few sentences of the post as a description, while you can optimize much better for SEO by doing so manually
  2. Google XML Sitemaps – This helps major search engines better index your blog
  3. Efficient Related Posts – It’s important to have more links to other places in your site, to keep folks on your site longer. This puts context-based related posts at the bottom of each post
  4. W3 Total Cache – One of the things that can help your blog out with SEO is making sure it’s as quick to load as possible. Caching plugins like this one can decrease loading time significantly
  5. SEO Smart Links – Automatically links keywords and phrases between posts in your blog, based on context
  6. SEO Friendly Images – Automatically adds alt and title attributes to your images
  7. Redirection – When you change something like a post name or permalink formatting, this plug-in will keep track of your changes and automatically redirect the links you’ve already created, on your site and others. (This will happen more than you expect when you’re tweaking for SEO)
  8. Broken Link Checker – Not many things are more lame than links to nowhere (hurts SEO as well). This plugin checks your site and emails you if a link breaks

Tracking AnalyticsYou need to track how people use your blog to understand how to improve it

  1. Google Analyticator – You’ll need a way to setup your blog with Google Analytics. If it’s good enough for Google to give a shout-out, it’s good enough for me. It’s also really simple – just pop in your Google Analytics ID and that’s basically it. You can also exclude authors from being counted as visitors

Getting others to shareOne important way your blog gets traffic is by engaging others and encouraging them to follow you and share with friends

  1. Sexy Bookmarks – By Shareaholic, an excellent way to let folks share via any one of dozens of social networks or email. Looks great
  2. Subscribe Widget – If not already included in your theme, add RSS, twitter, etc. subscription buttons as a widget
  3. Feedburner FeedSmith – Your WordPress theme may not be optimized to show up well as an RSS feed. Once you sign up for a FeedBurner feed (which optimizes posts to be read as RSS), this plugin will redirect your “www.yourblogname.com/feed” link to FeedBurner. (Download it on Google’s site)
  4. Disqus – Becoming the standard for comments. Used on many major blogs like TechCrunch, Chris Dixon, Fred Wilson, etc.

Why wasn’t this a default feature? – There are a number of plugins that you really shouldn’t have to load yourself…but you do!

  1. WordPress Database Backup – Backup is not an option. Use this simple plugin to download or email yourself backup files on a (very) regular basis. Accounts do get hacked, and hosting services can go down
  2. Image Widget – If this doesn’t come with your theme, you’ll want it to add picture links in the sidebar, like a linked company logo
  3. WordPress Importer – You’ll need this if you’re moving your blog from a free “yourblog.wordpress.com” blog to a self-hosted wordpress blog
  4. AmberPanther Favicon for WordPress – If you don’t want an ugly default Favicon (the little picture in the web browser tab next to your site name) get this to personalize yours
  5. Wickett Twitter Widget – A clean, simple widget to post your Twitter feed. I find many competing Twitter widgets are over-designed (don’t expect bells and whistles here)
  6. WP Mobile Detector – If your WordPress theme isn’t mobile-ready, this plugin auto-detects a mobile device and provides simple mobile theme

Happy blogging!

Should I Apply To An Incubator / Startup Accelerator?

I spent a summer at the Betaspring startup accelerator / incubator in Providence, RI, and it was basically the Best Summer Job Ever. More importantly, it immersed my team (Catapulter.com) in the entrepreneurial community and got us smart on startups incredibly quickly.

In short, an incubator or startup accelerator is a program where, upon acceptance, you join a class of other startups in a common office space and receive mentorship, legal advice, and if you’re lucky, a little bit of cash to get you started.

The main difference between an incubator and accelerator is that an accelerator is usually more time-sensitive, sort of like a “startup bootcamp” for a few months to help you figure out whether your company has legs or if you should “fail fast” and move onto the next opportunity.

(An accelerator is basically a type of incubator, so I’ll use the term incubator throughout this post.)

Please note: one of your founders must be technical. We were accepted to Betaspring in large part because my business partner and I had two great developers as co-founders. It would be very difficult to get into an incubator as a business-only team – because while you’re thinking about your business and creating your strategy, you should also be actually building it. Incubators aren’t pouring all their resources into you just to get some PowerPoint decks. (My post on why you can’t just outsource a tech business.)

What you get from an incubator:

  1. An ecosystem of entrepreneurs
  2. Mentorship across industries and disciplines
  3. Experienced leaders to guide your business
  4. A head start on fundraising

An Ecosystem of Entrepreneurs

One of the most important pieces of advice I’ve ever been given is:

“In entrepreneurship, if you don’t know, ask.”

And unlike other business communities I’ve been in, entrepreneurs truly feel a duty to help other entrepreneurs.

When you join an incubator, the first thing you notice is that you’re surrounded by a number of other startups who are at the same time both very similar to, and very different than you.

Most will be in a similar, early stage of development (give or take a year), be extremely bright and possess the entrepreneurial spark. However, as you get to know each member of the teams around you, you’ll realize that they come from very different places, and can provide an immense amount of advice.

At Betaspring, most of the teams were composed of super-talented coders or experienced entrepreneurs. As my role shifted from writing a business plan to hiring contractors, engineering project management and digging into the logic of our routing algorithms, there was always someone who had been there before to help me out.

In addition, while one of our co-founders was a telecom routing/algorithm animal, he hadn’t spent as much time developing for the web. Any time he had a question on web-ifying his work, folks who had already worked through the problems he was facing were only a thin, not-very-sound-proof wall away.

Finally, when the going gets tough (which it does, constantly), you have dozens of people to vent to, who understand, and can help you get through it.

Mentorship

Though you’re already surrounded by folks with experience, incubators go one step further, and bring in even more 1) successful entrepreneurs and 2) experts in the fields entrepreneurs need to know about.

While I thought being around other Betaspring startups was awesome already, our mentors really turned it up. From investors to marketing experts to CEOs across industries, we had the opportunity to learn from them in group sessions, and then speak informally as they hung around the office to chat with teams.

After the initial meetings, teams met regularly with their favorite mentors. We still keep in touch with many of our favorite mentors, and as our business moves forward, I know we’ll reach out to more.

If they’re doing it right, the leaders of an incubator pick out a brilliant cross section of the entrepreneurial community, and it is an absolute gold mine of knowledge, mentorship and friendship. (Fortunately, we learned this from experience.)

Guidance

And the leaders of the incubator…face it, there are occasionally nice things about having a boss!

Besides the fact that they are often experienced, successful entrepreneurs and investors, the partners of an incubator keep you on track and push you. When you’re making all the decisions for the first time, sometimes you’d like a little guidance, you’d like validation when you’re doing the right thing, and you need a kick in the butt when you’re being an idiot.

Our partners did all of those things. Engineering-heavy teams tend to spend too much time on the product, and business-heavy teams tend to spend too much time planning strategically. It’s always great to get an outside opinion, especially from folks who personally chose you because they like your team and your business, who are up-to-date on what you’re working on and your vision, and who have a vested interest (their brand and money) in you.

Raising Money

Once you’ve gone through a few months at an incubator you’ll know whether your business is worth pursuing or not. If you’ve decided to move forward, you have a leg up on your less-experienced, less-well-connected peers.

  1. You get the stamp of approval of having been guided by a selective and value-adding accelerator program
  2. The mentors and experts you’ve spoken to all summer know your business well and may be potential angels, or know angels who may be interested
  3. There are multiple opportunities for Open Houses and Demo Days to directly pitch to investors, a large number of whom are excited to screen so much potential in one room at one time
  4. Your mentors, peers and partners will help you plan your future fundraising, figure out who to approach, and push you to execute

The Downside

The biggest downside my team noticed is that, because there is such a variety of experience, in some cases you’ll find yourself listening to a mentor speak on a topic you already know inside and out (maybe even better than them!). But because startups are all so unique, there was almost always an interesting angle or anecdote to learn from. If not, you had just learned about your mentor and his/her business, and had a starting point for future conversation on something completely different.

You may also consider it a downside that you do sort of have a boss, in the partners of the incubator, and that’s just what many people are starting their own business to avoid. As I mentioned above, I felt that this was outweighed by the benefits and guidance they provided. It’s always good to have other strong voices and different opinions in the room, and at the end of the day, you’re still the owner and leader of your company.

SO, SHOULD YOU?

Obviously, this is a personal decision.

If you’ve already sold a few companies, you may feel that an incubator / accelerator is not for you. At the same time, the constant mentorship, connection-making across industries, and co-working with like-minded entrepreneurs who are willing to stop and give you a hand, make it pretty tough to believe you won’t learn anything.

If you’re new to entrepreneurship, I highly recommend it.

Personally, though I’d had some entrepreneurial experience in the past, my summer at Betaspring was like adding rocket boosters to my entrepreneurial career. Really immensely huge rocket boosters.

Where to find an incubator


View U.S. Seed Stage Tech Accelerators in a larger map

A few interesting resources: