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Category Archives: Startups

Conference presentation: Senior software developer recruiting and community management

Curious about senior recruiting and communities? Here’s a talk I did at Hirepalooza 2015. Here are the Hirepalooza 2015 slides, which might help, given a couple jumps in the video. This is the description from the talk:

Even if you have a limited budget you still need to recruit tech talent. Join Eric Siegfried, CEO of TangoSource as he talks about how to find and hire the most critical technical talent on your team– even when you have close to no budget. From this session you’ll learn how to build and leverage an ecosystem, relate more to senior talent, and raise the level of your team.

 

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Knowing when to fold ‘em, and the price of success.

For those of you who happen to look at other parts of our site, like the portfolio, you may have curious about our personal productivity tool, Todo Zen. It’s a great example of a viable product that was too slow to the market to make an impact, derailed by the success of an incompatible business. So what happened, and what can you learn from our experience?

Todo Zen origin

After trying out our first product that was getting limited traction in a small market, we realized it was time to move on. My cofounder, Federico, suggested that we try creating a task management tool, and introduced me to Kanban. That evening, we went to a restaurant, and wireframed most of what would be in the product with torn up napkins.

Problems with launching the product

The Mac App store was coming in a couple months, and we wanted to try to package a web app that we could launch on multiple platforms. This was our first mistake, since we were beholden to a dev with limited availability, who had some slightly exotic knowledge. This added at least three months of delay to the process, and we gave up first mover advantage in the store. I also was a bit perfectionistic about the design, and a redesign and implementation cost us another 3 months. Clearly we went well beyond MVP to get this out the door.

Service business wins out

While all this development was going on, around a year and a half ago we met our first major service customer at a conference where we were demoing Todo Zen, and saw a new business model that could be scaled. Success in the app store seemed like it would be a lightning strike at that point, and I felt like we were competing for a small segment with a lot of devs who are obsessed with productivity too. Faster cash flow also won out, given a couple years at product attempts that had limited traction.

Conclusion

I think the experience was valuable, as it allowed us to learn what’s involved in making product, and it felt like we experienced almost every single one of the pitfalls involved. If we had to do it over again, I would start by choosing a larger market, and leveraging areas where we have an unfair advantage. From the Oracle of Omaha:

In business, I look for economic castles protected by unbreachable ‘moats’.
-Warren Buffett

Buffet is looking for lasting competitive advantages in his investments. Understanding your team strengths, and where it can uniquely exploit the opportunities in front of it, is a recipe for great success. If there’s a large market that has an opening for a different approach, with very few people capable of executing, the odds will be stacked in your favor. According to the Small Business Administration, around half of businesses fail in their first 5 years. My advice? Take every advantage you can get.

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Finding a technical co-founder: You’re doing it wrong

When you’re trying to create a new product as a non technical person, it might seem easy at first, until you start looking for real technical partners. Either you need to pay more than you can afford, or they simply aren’t interested in what you want. As a potential technical co-founder, there’s often so much work that has to be done before an idea gets validated, it sometimes feels like you’re on your own, with a non technical co-founder just waiting for things to happen.

Creating true partnership is what’s required to if you want to offer your deep gifts to the world. For myself, it took a while to find a real technical partner. Hopefully this post will make your efforts a bit easier.

The incident that made me want to write this article

I was at a tech mixer recently where I was talking to a gent, let’s call him John, who had been looking for a co-founder for months, with no success. His project was technically challenging, leveraging a monetization strategy for a platform that had no track record. John was banging his head against a wall. He didn’t realize the sacrifice that his potential technical co-founders would have to endure for a risky startup. I felt bad for him, and explained most of what I’ve put in this post. I’m hopeful that this effort will help you avoid some of his pain.

A startup is like raising a child

When joining a startup, founders implicitly agree to a multi year commitment to each other. It takes time for ideas to prove out or fail, and there’s a huge opportunity cost. People could take paying gigs instead, or simply do a different startup. The startup is like a baby, that could mature into something great, but there’s a required sunk cost that could be years of work before the magic happens. Because of this, your partner should be someone who you enjoy sharing the journey with.

Technical co-founders early on in a startup really are playing the nurturing role. So much of their time goes into product, whereas it’s sometimes hard to see what a business co-founder brings to the table other than cash. When approaching someone for a possible committed relationship, ideas by themselves are cheap, action is what counts. If you were to approach a potential mate and simply say, “we should get together and have sexy children” that wouldn’t cut it, and neither is a simple business idea.

This doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t form relationships, as successful ones happen all the time. It just means that you have to create the foundations in yourself before approaching someone, expecting a positive outcome

Ways to show value

1. Be authentic. If you want to show that you’d be a good partner, you need to be human and genuinely relate with people, not objectify them by assuming they are there to do things for you. Interact with the WHOLE person by talking with genuine curiousity about their interests and desires.

2. Validate your product idea. If you’re providing business skills for the startup, back it up with action. Take steps towards product market fit, such as getting signed Letters of Intent (LOIs) which show that your product will have revenue on day 1. You could also create a business model canvas, and collect real world data for each section of the canvas.

3. Cocreate an experience. There’s value to be found in most social interactions. Don’t presume an outcome, go with an open mind and a belief that there is some spontaneous positive result that can happen if you have an open mind. You can create with the other person, and meet them where they are to get to a new place. It’s hard to tell if you’ll work well with someone until you actually do so in some way. Startup Weekend is a great shortcut that can help see how people work.

4. Give a gift regardless of expected outcome. In a recent article, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman talks about “giving helpful help” as a means of nurturing new relationships. To be able to do so, you need to know the other person well enough to figure out how you could help them with a reasonable investment of time. In the past, I’ve pointed people to different books, or made introductions. As long as this feels like a personal gift, you’re golden.

5. If needed, bring cash. Just like the technical co-founder who is putting tons of hours in, you need to have skin in the game. Executing the non-technical parts of your business plan is a must, but often this translates to providing funding for enough runway for V1 and possibly a major pivot afterwards.

Genuinely check for a good fit

Just like dating, it helps to know what you’re looking for if you want to avoid wasting time, and create something wonderful. Have a set of criterion, such as values, skillset, and work ethic, which will help you select on a logical level.

So how do you know if your values are compatible? Here’s a shout out to Tony Wright, who shared some key startup values with me. Here’s a paraphrasing:

  • Passion – How passionate do they need to be about the problem space?
  • Risk tolerance – Are they willing to endure the financial hardships of a startup? Do they want to raise funds ASAP to limit risk or maximize ownership?
  • Motivation – Do they want money? Fame? To serve a particular audience? To solve a problem they’ve been enduring?
  • Target – How big do they want to get? Would they be happy with a lifestyle business, an IPO, or something in between?
  • Appreciating skillsets – Do you value each other’s respective disciplines? If not, over time you may resent your co-founder as being dead weight, which is a recipe for disaster.

A lot of these values are about risk. If you’re serious about the same problem, agree on the financial risks, and are going for the same sized goal, you probably are compatible with respect to risk.

Finally, a major benefit of being genuinely selective is that it projects that you value yourself. Most people want to be with someone that knows their own worth. It also helps to listen to your gut, because you’re deciding on a relationship, not solving a mathematical equation.

Build up your network

It helps to have a solid network of friends, not only to have more candidates, but to lay the groundwork for business partnership. I go over an example of this in my blog post about volunteering for a non-profit, Vittana, which ended up turning into business. In general, what you want is a T shaped network, which is wide and sometimes deep, as a catalyst for great ideas and partnerships.

Wrap up

Just like dating, you need to get out there a lot! Ideally spend time in places that you’d enjoy, regardless of outcome, such as a tech gaming night. Building up a group of friends in the startup community takes time, but like anything worthwhile, the time spent pays off in profound, life changing ways.

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Finding quality outsourcers, the story of TangoSource

Does your outsourcing experience resemble the image above? A ton of strangers, randomly trying to find work? And after finally choosing someone from the crowd, having to deal with a lack of accountability, poor work product, and lack of passion. I know, I’ve been there, and I’ve learned many lessons. Hopefully my story will help you save time and anguish.

How is all started:

TangoSource’s 1st product was, drumroll, a social network for tango dancers! After the bliss of the first couple of months, I realized that our market wasn’t big enough, so I included ALL social dancers and created DanceHop, an events 2.0 website. I’ve outsourced the design to Yilei Wang and Ruby on Rails development to a local developer, who I’ll call Ahab.

Ahab repeatedly apologized that it was taking him so long, which should have been a red flag. Fast forward, he quit after 3 months of work and gracefully declined equity. This forced me to look at Working with Rails to find a replacement. I settled on an Argentinian developer, Rodrigo. He started coding, and Ahab said I’d found “a diamond in the rough”. Now being smart, I’d engaged a local Seattle Rails guru a couple hours each week for code review to ensure I’d only keep developers that were improving.

A month in with Rodrigo, it became clear he could only code part-time, so I was back looking for help. This resulted in a string of devs, including an Indian developer, Dibya, who delivered but was a bit expensive; a cheaper Indian developer who didn’t deliver; and two more part-time Ukranian developers Dmitry and Igor who eventually also dropped out.

Finding a true partner:

A month after Rodrigo dropped off, I found my co-founder, Federico Ramallo, on Working With Rails. After a long and enjoyable interview with Federico on Skype, I asked if he was open to taking equity to offset some of his compensation. I’d already seen that his life values were compatible with mine, and our personalities jelled together well. He was open to equity, and after a month trial, with my Seattle Rails guru overseeing the process, we started a professional relationship that turned 2 years old as of September 2011.

Federico eventually moved to Colima, and we set up an office/co-working space there, which has been fantastic for recruiting. At that point, any thought of recruiting outside of our realm of influence was gone. We’ve trained up some great devs, found others, and the investment has been paying dividends in terms of output, and company culture. To wrap up, I’ve included some guidelines that I learned through my hiring experience, which I may go into detail in future posts.

Quick tips for finding great outsourced devs:

  1. Discuss values in the interview to see if you’re on compatible paths
  2. Offer a trial period of 1 month, with increasingly large test tasks
  3. Clearly define what meeting your expectations means
  4. Have an outside observer if you aren’t an expert in the field
  5. Run a daily SCRUM standup meeting, for clear lines of communication and personal connection with your team. Have accomplishments since the last meeting submitted in text before the voice meeting.
  6. Give a bit of a benefit of the doubt, but more than a couple days of poor performance or communication and it’s probably time to move on to the next candidate.
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