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3 Important Lessons I Learned From Working in a Digital Startup

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It’s been just over 2 years.  I must admit it definitely feels longer than that. So much has happened within that timeframe, in an environment where a day feels like a month. I mean, what could possibly make someone want to leave a safe, stable job building teams and solutions within the Enterprise to start from scratch?  Glad you asked.

The glory certainly exists in start-up land and the feeling of contribution is immense when things are going well. The highs are superb. But with the highs come the ‘waking up at 3am in a cold sweat’, the ‘constant obsession to make things better’ and the ‘all rational thought would indicate this should work well, but analytics is clearly telling a different story’ moments, which can test even the strongest of characters.

As CTO of an automotive start-up, Autoguru, I thought I’d share some key learnings at which the experienced amongst us can have a laugh and say “I’ve been there before!” And to those (less?) fortunate newcomers to the startup world, hopefully you’ll learn a little something from these words of wisdom.

Here are 3 things I learned from working in a Digital Startup:

Lesson 1: Don’t build what’s already been built

Need a way to track customers effectively and ensure the right offers are sent to them at the right time? Don’t build it.  There are countless CRM (Customer Relationship Management) systems out there you can integrate with.

Does your solution need to scale massively, have millisecond response times and be fault tolerant down to a micro-service level with monitoring to the nth degree?  Again, there are a myriad of options available in AWS, Azure and Google Cloud that will provide these features without your development teams ever having to break into a sweat.

Do you have an existing product that’s inflexible and refuses to play nicely with other systems?  Ok, so this is where you should consider other options, and if there’s no ‘off the shelf’ product available it’s time to consider an API platform or custom build.  

This was precisely the scenario with our call centre application at AutoGuru, and by replacing it with the Twilio platform we were able to tightly integrate all our communication touch points into back end systems and create a framework where we control the roadmap for improved customer interaction.

The key point is we’ve never been in such a fortunate position where AI, Chatbots, advanced analytics, CRM, CMS, (the list goes on), are all available and at our fingertips for a fraction of the cost compared to just a few years ago.

Development teams should be intent on building your product.  That thing that differentiates you from your competitors. Your secret sauce. Your delighter. That’s where your focus should be.

You can save a lot of time and effort in finding the right products, so if you want to check out what other successful tech companies are using, check out StackShare.

“Don’t reinvent the wheel, just realign it.” – Anthony J. D’Angelo

Lesson 2: You don’t have 6 months, see what you can build in 2

Your product is new, unproven and there are a thousand ideas floating around to improve it and make it better, faster, more user friendly. When it comes to larger ideas that perhaps take your company in a new direction or into a completely new marketplace or partnership, it can be easy to sink a lot of resources and time into these kinds of initiatives.

Time is something you don’t have.  And if you do, you’re amongst a tiny percentage of very lucky startups! Smart people possess an uncanny ability to look into the future and foresee every variation and edge case for what may or may not happen when a feature or product is built.

The difficult part is rationalising the probability of these various outcomes eventuating, so you’re essentially not wasting energy (in many cases) on improbable events.

If you give a product team 6 months to build a product they will take 6 months as they fill time with small probability edge cases – the ‘what if’s’ for want of a better term.  

Taking the same product and seeing what can be built in 2 months will focus everyone’s energy on the core of what’s being built and how it can best serve a customer. The edge cases will most likely come, but at least you’ll already have a product in market!

Lesson 3: Shortcuts will come back to bite you…eventually

It may seem contradictory to Lesson 2, but there are some shortcuts you will most certainly come to regret in the long run.  Here are a few standouts I think it’s only right to mention:

  • Failing to have effective analytics
    Analytics is sometimes the poor cousin of a feature but if you can’t measure you can’t learn.
  • Automation is key
    Code deployments?  – Automate
    Server environments? – Automate
    Unit/Integration test? –  Automate
    Ok, you get the picture.  It may take longer initially but you’ll save time in the future by making these investments.
  • Failing to Prioritise
    All team members are super busy and working hard.  Congratulations!  However, by not investing the time in continual, harsh, cold blooded prioritisation using methods such as MoSCoW or ICE it could all be in vain.  A handy comparison of prioritisation methods is available here.

Fortunately, I learnt some of these lessons prior to working at AutoGuru, however, in a startup environment it’s wise to keep referring back to base principles, as every day counts.

What are your experiences in Digital Startups? Please leave your thoughts below!

Image courtesy of Twenty20.com

Barry Pryce is a technology leader with experience in enabling Digital Transformation across several industry sectors including banking, telecommunications and media. A specialist in Agile, cloud computing and customer centric application delivery, Barry is currently focused on bringing best of breed digital experiences to the Automotive industry, as CTO at AutoGuru. In previous roles, Barry has helped with the digital transformation of RACQ and achieved Australian digital media firsts including MasterChef and Formula 1 Live Streaming. Barry loves surfing (ex Interceltic games – Scottish Surf Squad), fishing, and obsessing over his veggie patch. But that’s another story.

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