What I’ve learnt after a year founding a tech company

“I have a killer app idea that is going to take over the market. The app supports researchers with participant recruitment, which is a huge pain point. It’ll be hard, but I’ll validate it with potential customers and then I’ll build it. Lean of course - Build, measure, learn.”

That was my thought process when starting the tech startup Rulo a year ago (named Curio at the time). I thought I had the product idea that could change the world, and with sheer determination and laser focus on product development my co-founders and I could make it happen.

I could not have been more wrong.

It wasn’t that our idea was bad, or that our product development didn’t meet milestones, the issue was my mindset and where I focused my efforts.

What I came to realise is, a startup is not about your idea, product, or technology, it’s all about people!

Coming from engineering, it took me a long time to realise this and I believe it’s one of the key reasons second+ time founders are far more successful.

Looking back, I should have focused my efforts more like this; team first, customers (controversially) second, and product third. Let me explain.

Team comes first

While most will probably say your customer should come first, I disagree. The reason is subtle but important — Your startups number one focus should be on your customer, but you are not your startup, you are leader within your startup. You should focus on developing the best team environment you can, who together can then focus on your customer.

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I’ve seen first hand, the difference between an aligned team, where everyone loves their day to day work and the journey they’re on together, and a team whose goals were mixed, and had members that were uncommitted. The former is close to reaching $100K monthly recurring revenue, the latter is almost dead.

Build the culture you want from day one — even if it’s just you as a sole founder! It is incredibly hard to change behaviour later on. This is not about having bean bags and a table tennis table either (although great). Treat yourself and your team to learning, health and regular achievements. And after that, just have as much fun as possible!

As a side note: I also believe if someone doesn’t fit the culture (and isn’t making efforts to fit) it doesn’t matter if they’re your lead developer, they will bring down your other team members. The right thing to do by everyone is asking them to leave. The product is not as important as the team.

Customers/Market in close second place

A close second is to focus your efforts on those in your target market — your customers.

It’s really easy too! You just have to shut-up and listen to them.

A core human desire is to be understood, as this builds our sense of belonging. When initially talking with customers, you don’t need to try help them or tell about your (probably underwhelming) first solution. You just have to show that you understand them. They will naturally feel a sense of connection and belonging with you and your company and you’ll end up learning a whole lot more about them!

Warning though, to be actively listened to and understood can be so rare that I’ve literally had customers cancel their other meetings to talk on for hours!

When it comes to validating your ideas with customers, the Lean Startup is a great approach, but it’s largely based on trial and error. I’ve more recently found the Jobs-to-be-Done (JTBD) framework can provide a far better, more systematic approach to generating and validating ideas. It can help with framing your user research, identifying holes in the market, pricing, and prioritising user needs. When done right it can also make innovations ridiculously easy to identify.

In short, understand your customers and have them on-board the journey with you. If they’re not, go back and pick them up.

Product/Solution Third

Once you have the right people around you and you understand your customer, start building!

The two most important product development lessons I’ve picked up over the past year are things I had heard and read a thousand times before and yet I still had to fail with before they really sunk in.

Firstly keep the scope of work focused (you’ll never be able to build everything you want), and secondly moving fast is more important than being perfect.

Under the JTBD framework, the product is just something your customer hires to help them get a job done. If it doesn’t help, they will just as easily fire it as their solution and find something else.

This means given limited resources, it’s far more important that you build something that helps a specific customer group achieve a specific job really well rather than a just ok general solution that solves all the problems felt by your target market.

For Rulo that meant helping academic researchers recruit participants for their study, and not trying to solve their problems in report writing and publishing too.

Focus is harder than you think, especially if you and your team are creative and are constantly sharing new ideas. Be critical of the features you invest time into.

Lastly, some of the decisions we made early on that we thought were really important, proved not to be when looking back. React or Angular, AWS or GCP, MySQL or MongoDB — We wasted far too much time deciding on these when we could have been building something and getting feedback.

The reason we all fall into these traps is because they are really important aspects of the product. What we forget however, is that the difference between choices is often small, meaning either choice could suffice.

Even after all the time we spent deciding, we still made mistakes. It simply would have been better starting and changing later if needed.

Thanks for reading! I’m sharing this post as unfortunately this is the end of my journey within Rulo. If only I had known what I do now when I first started things could have been very different. I hope sharing this has triggered some of your own thoughts and will help you and the people around you to grow and have more fun! :)

If you got something out of this post, please share it around.

To follow me with whatever’s next, and to (possibly) get more insights like this one, find me on Twitter @ScottKitchell

Written by

Software Engineer sharing my understandings of why people do the things that they do to stimulate more incredible products.

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