I’ve had the opportunity to work with startups and small businesses to develop the web applications that are at the heart of their business. It’s fascinating to see entrepreneurs embrace their passion and carve their own path to a successful business. However, breaking new ground is not without its dangers. Some of the early pitfalls for burgeoning internet-based businesses related to technology that I’ve learned from entrepreneurs are:
• They wait too long to build the application while looking for a technical co-founder
• Determine which programming language and technology stack to use
• Difficulty working with freelance or offshore resources, leading to cost overruns and frustration
• What to do with the application after encoding is complete. Where is it hosted and how is the data backed up?
As common as these may be, an entrepreneur must foresee a path that learns from others and ensures the most expedient path to success. I’ll only touch the first three topics lightly and then dive a little deeper into the last topic where you can host your web application.
If you don’t have a technical co-founder but have a good idea, I advise you to stop looking. Technical co-founders are in demand. If they know what they’re doing, they usually have options. When the next big thing comes along that grabs their attention, it can be difficult for an aspiring startup to hold on to a resource that’s in demand 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 cause. You are better off spending your time researching your idea, finding potential early adopters, and outsourcing the skills needed to prove your idea. And to be clear, you and I both know that you don’t have just one idea. Your job is to pick one and see if it’s really marketable. A good idea doesn’t always make a good deal. You need to find out, and fast. Ideas are cheap so get out there and prove you have more than just a good idea. And if not, move on to your next good idea. People like you create jobs and opportunities. Sitting on a bad idea will only hinder your progress.
Now you are ready to move forward. What technology stack are you using? To use a coined phrase, “don’t sweat the little things”. Too many entrepreneurs take precious months to figure this out. A better strategy is to find a company you’re comfortable working with to develop your code. I don’t care if it’s Java, Ruby on Rails, PHP, etc. Find the path that’s best for you financially and get it to market in no time. Once you start earning income, you’re going to want to reinvest it into future iterations anyway. You can start with some feature upgrades in the next subsequent stages, but plan on completely rebuilding after a year as you gain traction. And who knows, your new tech co-founder might want to control that decision anyway. Don’t limit yourself to a specific technology path by an artificial prescription.
So what about offshore resources?
Freelance and offshore resources are awesome when you are able to properly manage the results. Many entrepreneurs are overwhelmed because they do not understand the technology and cannot recognize when things are not going well. It’s difficult to spot a bad situation when you lack experience. The best thing you can do is find a US based organization that can help you. You are out there. If you make the effort to research your idea, find early adopters, and include feedback, you should be able to find a way to make the idea a reality. Most entrepreneurs I’ve spoken to who have used offshore resources have expressed frustration when they lack the technical background to pull this off. Partnering with a small IT services company can ease 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 error and should be part of your early planning.
First, let me clarify one area of the distinction. I’m referring to a web application in this article, not a website. A website is a collection of mostly static information pages hosted on a server on the public Internet. For such services, I find shared hosting sites to be a cheap alternative. However, this is not appropriate for a web application that uses programming logic to perform tasks and functions to provide a useful service to the end user. For that, an entrepreneur is better off working with a hosted solution. This can be a cloud-based virtual server instance to keep costs down.
But here’s the problem. Many entrepreneurs slap their freshly written code onto a free instance of a service like Amazon Web Services (AWS) and expect everything to run smoothly from there. We recommend a Linux server with an appropriate level of security to include a firewall restricting access to your data. In some cases, a two-tier architecture that separates the web-based front-end from the back-end database may be justified. In most cases, however, a security-aware server implementation is acceptable for an early-stage deployment.
Let’s assume you can do it all. You secure a VPS server running Linux. Provide your code. You are on the internet. What now? Who takes care of the maintenance and feeding of this server? It is important to ensure that you have a plan for the system management functions of the server. I’m a proponent of a person responsible for log checks and backups themselves for the well running system. Since your IT consumption, such as CPU, memory and storage utilization, is growing in parallel with your customer acquisitions, you should strategically plan the expansion of resources. As any entrepreneur knows, running out of cash is a death knell for a budding startup. But as any technical professional knows, having a security breach or user experience that renders your service unusable can be just as fatal. Customers have short-term memories. A failure in the trust area will cause them to take their business elsewhere. And no one wants to gain a bad reputation or be charged with serious negligence.
Yes, finding a technical co-founder can significantly reduce your cost of building your internet based business. If you are lucky enough to succeed on this path, you will have more power. If not, there are ways to reduce your exposure and get your idea off the ground. Be persistent, stay persistent, and be responsible in your information technology service needs. Don’t play with the rumor that an internet-based business can only be built with a prescribed methodology. Partner with another small business that provides IT services to build a win-win situation as you turn your ideas into reality.