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Startups and Small Businesses

I have had the chance to work with startups and small businesses to develop the web applications that are at the heart of their business. It is fascinating to see entrepreneurs embrace their passion and forge their own pathway to a successful business. However, cutting a new path is not without its perils.

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Some of the pitfalls early on for emerging Internet based businesses as it pertains to the technology I have learned from entrepreneurs include:

• Waiting too long to build the application while they search for a technical co-founder
• Determining what programming language and technology stack to use
• Difficulty in working with freelance or offshore resources causing cost overruns and frustration
• What to do with the application once the coding is done. Where to host it and how to secure the data.
As common as these can be, an entrepreneur must forecast a path that learns from others and ensures the most expedient path to success. I am going to only touch lightly on the first three topics, then dig a little deeper into the final topic of where to host your web application.
If you do not have a technical co-founder, but you have a good idea, my advice is to stop looking. Technical co-founders are in demand. If they know what they are doing, then they typically have options. When the next big thing comes along that captures their attention it may be hard for an emerging startup to hold onto an in demand resource anyway. My advice is to get some traction and let the technical co-founders come to you. And they will.

People want to be part of a good thing. Your time is better spent researching your idea, finding potential early adopters and outsourcing the skills necessary to prove your idea. And to be clear, you and I both know you don’t just have one idea. Your job is to pick one and see if it is really marketable. A good idea does not always make a good business. That is what you need to find out, and fast. Ideas are cheap – so get out and prove you have more than just a good idea. And if you don’t, move on to your next good idea. People like you create jobs and opportunity. Sitting on a bad idea is only going to hinder your progress.

Now you are ready to move forward, what technology stack do you use? To use a coined phrase, “Don’t sweat the small stuff”. Too many entrepreneurs take precious months trying to figure this out. A better strategy is to find a company you feel comfortable working with to develop your code. I don’t care if it is Java, Ruby on Rails, PHP, etc. Find the best route for you financially and can be done in the least amount of time to get you to market.

Once you start bringing in some revenue, you are going to want to reinvest it into future iterations anyway. You may start out with some feature enhancements in the next subsequent phases, but plan on rebuilding completely after a year if you are making traction. And who knows, your new technical co-founder may want to control this decision anyway. Don’t constrain yourself by an artificial requirement of a certain technology path.

So what about offshore resources?
Freelance and offshore resources are fantastic when you are capable of properly managing the outcomes. Many entrepreneurs find themselves over their head because they do not understand the technology and are unable to recognize when things are going in a bad direction. It is difficult to recognize a bad situation when you lack the experience. The best thing you can do is find a US based organization who can help you. They are out there. If you go through the effort of researching your idea, finding early adopters, and incorporating feedback, you should be able to find a way to get the idea built. Most entrepreneurs I have talked with that have used offshore resources have expressed frustration if they lack the technical background to manage that. Partnering with a small IT service business can alleviate that frustration and help you achieve your goals.
The most overlooked component of developing an Internet based business is what to do with the application once the coding is done. This is a critical mistake and should be part of your early planning.
Let me first clear up one area of distinction. I am referring to a web application in this article versus a website. A website is a set of what amounts to primarily static informational pages hosted on a server in the public Internet. For such services, I find shared hosting sites an inexpensive alternative. However, this is not suitable for a web application that uses programming logic to perform tasks and functions to deliver a service of benefit to the end user. For this, an entrepreneur is better served working with a hosted solution. This can be a cloud based virtual server instance to keep costs down.
But herein lays the problem. Many entrepreneurs are guilty of slapping their freshly written code on a free instance of a service like Amazon Web Services (AWS) and expecting all things smooth from then on. We recommend a Linux Server with a reasonable level of security, to include a firewall restricting access to your data. In some cases, a two tier architecture separating the web based front end from the back end database may be warranted. However, in most cases for an early stage deployment a security conscious server implementation is acceptable.
Let’s say you manage to do all of this. You secure a VPS server running Linux. Deploy your code. You are on the Internet. Now what? Who is doing the care and feeding of this server? It is important to ensure you have a plan for system administration functions of the server. I am an advocate of having a person responsible for log reviews and backups even for the well running system.

As your information technology consumption such as CPU, memory and storage utilization grows in parallel with your customer acquisitions, you should be strategically planning the expansion of resources. As every entrepreneur knows, a death blow to an emerging startup is to run out of money. But as every technical professional knows, it can be just as fatal to have a security breach or user experience that makes your service unusable. Customers have short term memories. One mistake in the trust arena will have them take their business elsewhere. And no one wants to develop a bad reputation or be subject to lawsuits in more serious acts of negligence.

Yes, finding a technical co-founder can greatly reduce your costs to establishing your Internet based business. If you are lucky enough to be successful in that route, more power to you. If not, there are ways to reduce your exposure and get your idea to market. Be tenacious, be persistent and be responsible with your Information Technology service needs. Don’t play into the rumor that an Internet based business can only be built one way using one prescribed methodology. Partner with another small business offering IT services to establish a win-win as you make your ideas into a reality.


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