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Business Founders Need a Technical Advisor

I recently wrote a blog post on SoCalCTO about Technical Advisors: Every Web/Mobile Startup Must Have One.  In talking with literally hundreds of startups over the past few years, I’ve come to realize:

Business Founders Need Technical Advisors

Why?  Here are some things that come up:

imageWhat Do You Not Know to Ask?

Are you asking the right questions to make sure that the right things get built.  Take a look at Questions Developers May Have Forgot to Ask a Startup Founder.  If there are questions in there that you’ve not been asked or thought about, then you need some help.

…..DO NOT PASS THIS SPOT WITHOUT READING THE ABOVE LIST OF QUESTIONS….

Are You Using the Right Technology?

Developers (really everyone) has a tendency to use what they know.  Some developers are quite religious about technical choices.  What tends to happen is that without someone looking at technology strategically, you end up ignoring third party products that would get you there faster OR jumping onto technical choices that end up making your life miserable.  Get help so you feel comfortable about your choices.  Make sure you can answer those annoying technical choice questions by your potential investors.

Have You Engaged the Right Way with Developers?

Developers are an interesting breed of people.  They have a tendency to be pretty literal.  They don’t like scope change.  You need to really know to work with them to be successful.  You’ve never led a group of developers?  And now you plan to lead them?  You might want some help.

Please, please, please do not engage an outsourced development team without having a technical advisor review the product specification and the development agreement.  Many (probably most) outsourcing relationships do not end well.  Make sure you are doing the right things up front to avoid big gaps in understanding that leads to significant pain down stream.

And if you are engaging with an internal development team (or person), you still need someone who is making sure that you are building the right things using the right technology.  And you need to protect yourself.  Which leads us to …

Are You Protecting Yourself?

Developers often move around.  If they leave, do you have access to all the passwords?  Do you have the commercial relationship with hosting, domain, etc.?  Access to the source code?  Is the code workable?  Is there anything that your developer has that you would need to move forward?  Please make sure your developer is not going to leave with your keys.

Are You Planning Beyond the MVP or Next Version?

It’s really common for early-stage companies to be focused only on their next version.  This often causes some pretty short-sighted choices around technology and development.  Make sure you have someone thinking a little longer term.

Outsourced CTO and Technical Advisor

As a business founder, the reality is that you will need help with these things.  So how do you get help?  It’s going to come in the form of a Part-Time CTO or a Technical Advisor.  The difference really is amount of time they are engaging and it may vary during the life of a startup.

What a Technical Advisor Does

This person should be adept at addressing the kinds of issues raised above and will help by:

Where To Find a Technical Advisor

You are looking for part-time people in these rolls so you often are finding people who already are employed somewhere else.  In Los Angeles, I have easy access to a bunch of potential technical advisors through the LA CTO Forum.  If you need a strategic advisor, contact me and I will connect you with someone from the group.  Another avenue is looking for CTOs/VP Engineering via LinkedIn.  It’s going to be a numbers game to find the right person that way, but still quite doable.

Compensation

This is going to depend on the specifics of the work.  When advisors need to jump in and spend significant hours on a particular issue, then likely cash compensation is going to be required.  If it stays at a few hours per month, then using something like Founder Institute’s FAST agreement probably makes sense.  Just make sure its clear what the expectations are going into any engagement.

Investors Should Demand a Technical Advisor

I quite often get a call where a founder raised $150K of initial money and has spend $120K on in-house or outsourced development and the software is 90% done.  But they are having a tough time getting it all the way done.  As I mention in Symptoms of a Weak Development Team, the number one reason I get calls relates to an old software engineering adage:

The first 90% of a project takes 90% of the time.  The last 10% takes the other 90%.

In the case of these calls where the initial money has mostly been spent, it can be very tough to recover.  Most often the failure is both a result of the founder not doing the right things and because the developer over-promised and failed to ask the right questions.  Having a strategic and tactical advisor can greatly reduce the chance that this is going to happen.

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Outside Expertise for Your Startup

I recently read a great post by Charlie O’Donnell on the Minimum Viable Team for startups.  He started with the core questions:

You have a million things to get done at your startup, yet you only have a handful of people to do them. How are you ever going to get it done? Who should you hire? What should be the makeup of a founding team? What is the Minimum Viable Team, if you will, for a startup?

After he worked through the core functions:

    1. Engineering
    2. Marketing
    3. Sales
    4. Business development
    5. PR
    6. Design
    7. Product Management
    8. HR
    9. Operations
    10. Finance

he arrived at a three person startup team:

    1. “Outside person”
    2. “Customer experience”
    3. “Builder”

One aspect that Charlie left out except for a brief mention of PR was that this Minimum Viable Team likely needs a lot of support from outside experts.  As a 3 person core team, you simply won’t have expertise or time to address all the core functions yourself.

What do you do?  The answer is that you need to engage outside expertise, but you need to do it in a smart way.

Technology/Engineer – I’ve talked about the need for outside CTO expertise a lot before: Startup CTO or Developer, Startup Founder Developer Gap, Part-Time CTO, Technology Advisor, CTO Founder, Acting CTO.

Finance – The same issues come up around Finance.  Are you setting things up correctly?  Are you engaging correctly with a bookkeeper?  Does your early efforts support proving out your business model?  All of this can be addressed by a Part-Time CFO.

Legal – Of course, you need legal support for corporate formation, employment agreements, etc.  You need to look outside for that.

and the list continues with HR, Marketing, PR, etc.  There are outside experts available.  And there are lots of outside experts who can help from a CEO / business coaching standpoint.  This obviously relates closely to the Startup Specialist Timeline.  We mention Interim CxO – interim CTO, interim CEO, interim CFO, interim CMO, etc.

StartupSpecialistTimeline

In later posts, we will get into how you can effectively engage this kind of expertise when you are early-stage and cash constrained.

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Los Angeles Startup Ecosystem

A robust, vibrant startup ecosystem has always existed in Southern California, but recently it’s reached a whole new level.   What’s often not well represented is the incredible resources through individuals and firms available in all sorts of ways to help entrepreneurs.

This is partly captured by by Represent LA in their map of startups, accelerators, incubators, coworking facilities, investors, service providers and events:

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And this really only partially covers what’s going on.  You can certainly find great coverage and lots of events to give you a sense of this.

Great Coverage

Lots of interesting bloggers and information sources as can be found via Socal Tech Central (sign up for the Daily updates) and certainly the leading source of content is found in Ben Kuo’s SoCalTech.

Tons of Events

There are numerous Los Angeles Startup Events and several great startup calendars:

Network of Experts

What entrepreneurs often need is access to specific resources that can help them with problems they face in their startup.  My experience with my own startups and working with lots of other startups, is that you have all of the same kinds of issues that larger companies have, but you don’t have the people involved who have specialized knowledge and skills.  Having a network is critical to getting help with specific issues.

Really, I started Startup Specialist Network because I constantly needed to find people to help with specific issues.  Going through normal networking channels just took too much time.  Especially, when I’m talking to almost one new startup each day because of my Free Startup CTO Consulting sessions.

The reality is that there’s a robust community of people who regularly work with early-stage companies and can provide the expertise needed.  They engage at different stages in the life of a typical startup:

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What’s great about the Startup Specialist Network is that we have quick access to people who bring expertise in specific areas.  Early-on it might be the need for a consulting CFO, CTO, CMO.  As the startup grows, the problems grow and firms may be engaged to handle larger sets of needs.

The key for an entrepreneur is knowing that they are doing things right without having to spend time solving particular issues.  Obviously, the robust network of experts that exists in Los Angeles makes that significantly easier.

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