As a technologist with a great idea but no team, getting your startup off the ground requires careful decisions that can affect the growth of the company. I recently spoke with Joe Kinsella, CTO and Founder of CloudHealth Technologies. Before CloudHealth, Joe worked as VP of Engineering at the cloud archiving company Sonian, and previously as a managing director of multiple engineering teams at Dell. He also currently writes about working and innovating in the Boston tech scene for his blog High Tech in the Hub. I asked Joe about the key points of how he leveraged more than 20 years of experience as a deep technologist towards bringing his product from concept to market.
Find your space
One of the biggest challenges as a technologist founder can be trying to find a market space for your product. You may have a great new idea, but the market may be crowded already. Identify an area within your technical expertise where there is room for a disruption, and build the product to fit that space.
For Joe Kinsella, the intersection of systems management and cloud computing lead to a product that seamlessly overlays existing cloud services to act as a single managing asset. Large players in the systems management industry had exploited the mostly uncontested space prior to the rise of the cloud, but their products, catered for specific ecosystems, were not able to keep up with the ensuing change. Rather than developing CloudHealth and searching for its place in the market, Joe found early success by identifying potential disruptions and sculpting the product around that space.
By avoiding saturated markets and creating a product that matches both your own skills and the disruptive spaces, you have primed yourself for growth.
Define the product
Ensuring a fit to the targeted disruption is a difficult task, but it is one that is lightened if external sources of information are utilized. Begin by performing tests of the product over multiple iterations, using feedback from customers to identify the best direction for product development. One of the perils of being a technologist founder is falling in love with the initial product, and a failure to adapt to feedback will lead to stagnation. In Joe’s case, after quickly developing a minimum viable product he utilized a series of hypothesis tests. These tests included feature changes to the product or marketing strategy, such as concierge services and ad campaigns, to develop his product, based on the resulting data and customer feedback.
Assembling a group of advisors is also beneficial, because it leads to a series of conversations and a network of expertise. A network with various experts will lead to a more diverse range of inputs and strategies. As a technologist founder, you may not have the business experience, but with external counsel, you’ll find navigating the straits of a young business to be much easier. Joe, too, relied on input from a group of advisors. He stressed the importance of constant conversation with an outside party and highlighted their use as a tool for developing new products and strategies.
Building a Team and your new role
Once a disruption is targeted and you have started matching your product to it, the time to expand the company will arise. Bringing in the right individuals is a demanding task, and as founder, finding your new role in the company can be challenging. When solving these problems, seek the paths that will allow the company to mostly rapidly adapt to new obstacles in the future. For example, in 2013, CloudHealth had a team of 6 individuals and Joe was faced with the challenge of expanding the company. When hiring engineers, he looked for those who were not only talented and capable of completing their jobs, but more importantly, were able to quickly acquire the skills necessary to respond to new problems. Joe hired a sales team that sold directly into tech companies, specifically targeting the spaces for which the team had the most knowledge.
After bringing in a new team, you will have to make one of the more difficult decisions for technologist founders: whether to serve as CEO and work with a business partner or to hire a CEO. Joe suggested that for founders involved in engineering their product, pursuing their passion --building the product, not running the company-- is the best route. When choosing a new CEO, use the help of you advisors and select for experience and integrity. Joe did just this, bringing in a CEO with the help of his advisor board and VC input, as he assumed the role of CTO.
As the team expands, it may be tempting for a growing company to change the strategy behind product development, but you should maintain the same iterative approach. Joe explains that by implementing product development as a company-wide philosophy, rather than single division, communication between departments is encouraged, and the team is able to adjust more quickly based off customer feedback over each iteration period.
Joe finds his own role of CTO changing in response to company and customer needs. Between acting as a VP of Product Development, Engineering or Operations, respectively, he adapts his own role to what the company needs today. For technologist founders, this role becomes more specialized as the company grows, evolving beyond purely the tech side, and reaching into the specific requirements for operation of the company.
When looking to grow a new company as a technologist founder it is important to take several steps. Come to understand the history of the market you are trying to break into. Learn how the market has developed and where disruptions have occurred in the past. By understanding driving market forces, it will be easier to predict and adapt to changes. Stress entrance to the space as a disruptive force instead of finding a market for your product. Experiments and external feedback are crucial in early product development. As the company grows, bring in new team members that can quickly adapt to new needs and create a business plan that emphasizes rapid response to customer feedback.
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