Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Ramping up product development for Startups

A couple of days ago I participated in a panel moderated by Sean Murphy at the Startup Epicenter in Mountain View on Scaling up Product Development. Also on the panel was a VC and two serial entrepreneurs, and we talked about how to scale up from the original founders and gurus to a full-fledged engineering team.

Key concerns from the audience were how do I maintain my culture, and how do I compete for the best talent against guys like Google and Yahoo? The answer from the panel was pretty unanimous - before you start hiring, draft up a one-pager that captures your goal, your values, and your vision, and hire people that fit that mold. Sounds simple, but it's hard to do when things heat up. If you've taken a bit of time to write down your values and culture, you'll be able to verbalize that to prospective hires and to your network. You will start to attract people who want to work in that environment. From personal experience, when we figured this out at Macadamian, we were able to scale up faster. Word got around to the development community around Ottawa that when we say we want to build software the right way, we actually meant it. We're using the same approach in Cluj, Romania, to attract talent in a competitive market.

Some of other takeaways:
  • Someone has to be wearing the product management hat from day one, whether that's one of the founders who has a talent for talking with customers and understanding their needs, or someone you bring in early on.
  • Once you get beyond 5 developers, what should be your next hire? The panel agreed, QA. Get someone on staff who lives and breathes software testing.
  • If you don't need the domain knowledge long-term, outsource it.
  • Resist the temptation to hire a specialist in some particular technology because that's what you need today. You'll be turning on a dime, so hire people that are flexible, and are great engineers. Hire for raw mental horsepower.

Special thanks to Peter O'Blenis at TrialStat and Terry Cass at Thirdbrigade, who have both successfully scaled up world-class product teams and lived to tell about it, for spending a few minutes with me before the panel so I could learn from their experiences.

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