cft

What I have learned in this tech startup era

Working in a software vendor company.


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Richard Fan

3 years ago | 8 min read

Working in a software vendor company, I have encountered many clients reaching me with their crazy ideas.

And thanks to the tech startup boom in the past several years, many of my clients have come up with ambitious goals, inspired by those successful tech startups.

However, this is also a problem.

Many of the ideas from my clients are based on some existing tech “startups”. In the past few years, I have been partnering with projects like laundry version of Uber, travel version of Instagram, replicate of Casetify, etc.

The companies they are referencing are already big ones. They have a big customer base; they have large R&D teams; they have many employees to support their operations.

But the word “startup” just give my clients the illusion that they can do it quickly.

While dealing with those “startup partners”, I have observed some common issues, which I think are harming tech startup ecosystem, or even harming the people who come up with startup ideas.

1. Focusing too much on current success, not current problems

Many startup ideas start with the question “Why there isn’t any product solving this problem?” It is a good start because we are focusing on solving the problem itself.

However, things always got changed after my clients search on Google to find existing products for reference.

They did that because they want to explain the idea to me, but they were too lazy to draw a storyboard. Instead, they chose to use existing products to present the idea.

Focusing too much on existing products leads to over-expectation

Learning from current success is useful. But in most cases, my clients quickly shift their focus to the features of existing products after my first demo.

Most of the questions I have heard is like “Why I can’t log in with my mobile phone No.? Uber has this function” or “Why can’t we see how many likes this post receive? It can attract more user interaction.

I understand why they have such questions. While researching existing products, my clients discovered many fancy features that attract their eyes. They implicitly added those features to the must-have list of their products.

Shifting from creating new things to copying existing things

At this point, if we don’t pull our partners back on track, the project will likely fail. The feature list will become longer and longer because Uber, Instagram, Facebook are big companies, they have so many resources to roll out new features, and we definitely cannot catch up with them.

As we put more and more efforts into mocking new features, the project will quickly shift from making a new product to copying existing products.

2. Focusing too much on visual presentation

Because of the low-interest rate environment and many success stories of tech startups, many investors were pouring money into this ecosystem in the past few years.

And those easy money also lured outsider to join the party with their crazy idea, hoping that they can also raise funding.

However, as many outsiders come in without technical backgrounds or even the domain knowledge required, they just don’t know what they are doing.

Thus, they turn to visual presentation. Without the knowledge to judge the project, investors or even the project founder tend to use what they can see to decide if the project is viable.

Ignoring the complexity behind

I had a client that we partnered to build a laundry version of Uber. Instead of transporting passengers, they partner with drivers to transport clothes from customers’ home to laundry factories.

Throughout the project, 90% of our meeting time was to discuss the UI, e.g. how to make the button stand out. Other issues of the project, like payment processing, are being discussed in the remaining 10% of the time. We had this 10% not because they had the concern, it’s because we asked them what’s their thought.

To be fair, the project has rolled out successfully. But after the launch, my client realised that the job distribution logic is not as easy as they thought.

As the traffic grows, they need to redesign it. But unfortunately, the budget has already been spent in the initial phase, towards the UI design.

3. Ignoring the operation part

Although my partners always ask me about the development progress of their products, they seldom ask about the admin panel. I understand that issues like security or system scaling may be too difficult for outsiders to understand, I am not surprised if a startup founder doesn’t consider that.

But as a businessman, one would expect there is a place to manage their business, to see their customer reach, or at least, to cancel an invalid transaction.

From my observation, there are 3 main reasons why they ignore the operation part of their business:

1) They just don’t know they have to operate their business

I have met a few clients without much substantial working experience. They came up with an idea, find some investors, and find me to implement the app.

Because they lack the expertise, their impression on a startup is all coming from some app UI.

They know they have to set up a payment gateway when developing a new Uber app, but they don’t realise that there should be a team to resolve disputes between drivers and passengers. It’s not surprising that they never asked for an admin panel (umm… even after the launch).

2) They think it’s easy

Most of my clients fall into this category. They know that after the product launches, they need a way to monitor and control the daily operation. However, they never think of the detail, e.g. how many people will be involved? How should the team separate their roles?

In most cases, they dedicate a few people to handle all the things of the operation. But those people are usually less involved and don’t understand the business.

They can’t contribute much to the team on how the daily operation should look like. Though my clients just imagine that things will go smoothly after the launch.

3) They want to sell the business quickly

I don’t know if they fit the word “startup”, but few of my clients came over to me with their ideas and told me to implement the mobile apps for them. They didn’t care about the detail, not even the app UI. Their biggest concern was to launch the app quickly and let as many users registered as they can.

I later find out that they actually want to sell their products entirely to investors. As I have mentioned, there are many tech startup investors without knowledge.

To them, the most important gauge of a product is the customer reach. It’s not a surprise that my clients just want to know how many customers have been registered; they want to show this figure to their potential investors.

This is the only operation they would consider. After selling the product, it’s no longer their business at all.

Impacts on the tech ecosystem

At first, I didn’t think this kind of “startup projects” matter a lot. I was just paid by investors to implement a new idea. However, as more and more unplanned projects fail, I felt frustrated. And I am sure many people in the tech world also have the same feeling.

Easy money leads to lower standards

As a software engineer, I always want my products to be in good shape. Although I am not very experienced, I would try to learn from mistakes, find out solutions from others, chasing the latest technologies.

I did so in my first few projects. But later on, I realised that my clients didn’t care about security, reliability, scalability, they just want to make the products attractive.

Then, I realised that even though the product is a mess: it’s hard to scale; it’s insecure; it’s easy to crash, the problems won’t emerge as the project will fail before that. It’s attractive for some people because we can write shit code and get paid.

Finally, I felt like I was addicted to those toxic projects. I tried to get away from them and re-learn the best practises and technologies from some big companies and open source communities.

But I think there are many people like me still addicted to those easy money.

Draining talents from real tech companies

It’s harmful because it draws talent into all these companies (low quality cybersecurity startups). We don’t have this much talent in cybersecurity.

We really need to concentrate that all into a handful of companies that can really survive and create really good products.

It’s how Richard Clarke, former National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counter-terrorism, commented on venture capital pouring cash into thousands of cybersecurity startups. It’s what’s happening in our tech startup world.

Even if a company hire very experienced software engineers, and those engineers insist on the highest standards. Without a solid business plan and a good leader with clear visions, those efforts paid by the talents will be wasted when the company collapse.

How I deal with “Startup projects” now

I am not an angel investor. I cannot improve the ecosystem that much. But as a software engineer, I can avoid wasting my partners’ or my efforts to deal with a failing project.

  • Know the ultimate goal first. Don’t expect that all people want the product to be successful. A handful of investors just want to make a prototype and sell it to another investor. It can be easily spotted out if my partners don’t care about the operation part. They would say they trust my expertise and don’t want to involve in the early stage. In this case, I would simply walk away.
  • Notice my partners about hiring people in later stages. This is to distinguish if my partners underestimate the effort needed to run a business. Although many successful startups started with a few people, there is always a point that they need to hire more people to scale. If my partners never talked about that, or if they don’t have a rough idea on which part would be the bottleneck that needs more people. They may be overconfident on their ability or underestimate the complexity of a business.
  • Using existing solutions to deal with side-features. To develop software, there are many standard features that we can easily find on Google, e.g. user authentication, map, user location. If it is not our primary business, just use existing solutions. Sometimes, it’s challenging to convince my partners to use third-party solutions. They may have concerns about spending, branding, etc. I need to remind them it’s not our primary focus, don’t waste time on that.

Finally, it’s all about ownership

After talking so much, I can say the sense of ownership is what distinguish a successful startup from another.

If that’s the money attracting you to start a company, you won’t have a sense of ownership. Instead, you want to sell the business as quickly as possible, before the problem emerge.

In this case, the project is going to fail because no one cares about its future.

But owning too much is also a problem. Many startups want to be perfect in the first stage, and they tend to compare their products with existing ones.

In this case, they will fail too because they own too much, over what they can handle. It’s easy to become a company copying others.

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Richard Fan

AWS DeepRacer League Finalist | AWS Community Builder | Cloud Engineer


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