(Photo by Gregory Travers)
Rory Laitila grew up in a bakery, earned an entrepreneurship degree in college, and when none of his startups worked, he eventually cofounded his own software programming agency, itr8group. (He works out of the coIN Loft.)
“I fell backwards into programming,” he said when he recently addressed a group at the the Horn Program in Entrepreneurship at the University of Delaware. His talk was a part of a new event called Workshop Wednesday, where entrepreneurial experts talk and work with Horn students.
Many of the students in the crowd were developing their own ideas for startups, and Laitila had a message for them: If you’re going into the startup biz, you’re going into the software biz. Or, simply put, just having a great idea won’t be enough. “Everything about your business is about how to build, cultivate and sell software,” he said.
Here are his main pointers for launching a successful startup:
1. You must have a seller and a builder, and you as a founder must be at least one of those.
Selling and building are the two lifelines in a successful startup, Laitila said. “If you can’t sell and you can’t build, you better start learning how to build.”
That means taking some beginner coding classes, perhaps learning HTML or taking mobile development courses. “All this stuff is free online,” he said. “You don’t have to go to a code school. You might need some guidance, but it’s all at your fingertips.”
2. Finding a cofounder is like dating.
Once you’ve identified whether you’re the builder or seller, you need a cofounder who does the other job (if you’re not both). And finding a cofounder is a lot like dating, Laitila said. The best way to find cofounders is to put yourself out there, meet people and see what happens. “Look good, be smart and participate in the community,” he said.
Things to avoid:
- The “sad-dating business guy,” who says he has a great idea, shows up to a tech meetup and asks if you’ll sign his nondisclosure agreement. Those agreements, Laitila said, don’t matter. “You need collaborators — people who share in your vision.”
- People who say, “Come be my rockstar, and I’ll be your sugar daddy.” (Or something gross like that.) Laitila warned against people who ask you to be their rockstar, guru or ninja, because it’s nearly impossible to be an amazing developer in every facet of the technology industry, and expectations won’t meet reality.
- People who say, “This shouldn’t take long, right? It’s just an app.” Laitila said cofounders need to be in it for the long haul because software development is a lengthy process that always takes longer than imagined.
3. Be smart about prototyping.
This is often a big pitfall for potential startups, Laitila said.
He warned against spending a lot of money on wireframes, because they’re not actual prototypes. A prototype, he said, has to function and validate a real product. Founders have some options in this phase: use apps to build mockups, buy software wholesale, or hire developers. In finding developers, founders again have a choice: Either outsource the development, which is generally a cheaper option, or hire partners.
The problem with outsourcing, Laitila said, is that the developers send you a contract and, according to its specifications, will build you what you want and not necessarily what you need. A local agency, he said, should push back on you and collaborate. They’ll tell you if they’ve done something similar in the past that didn’t work and talk about what went wrong. A development partner will also keep the scope small, he said. “Be wary of people who only do requirements and not building,” he said.
4. Launching the prototype goes beyond your big idea.
“The prototype is one device, and the launch is the whole business,” Laitila said. It involves things like customer support, working out bugs, messaging, security and mobile versions. The process is in three phases.
The first is the alpha phase, where you should identify who your customers are and know who’s buying your product. “If you don’t know who’s buying your software by alpha, you are really screwed up,” Laitila said.
Second is beta, a phase you shouldn’t go into if you can’t come up with any customers in alpha, he said. “In beta, you load up your first customers on the system and prove your product works.”
Finally, there’s the official launch, where you’re out on the market and customers are buying your product. “This is the point when it turns into a real business with other concerns at hand than your idea.”
Two things to watch out for in the launch phase:
- Know when to say no. Establish what kinds of customers you’d turn down and who is not your customer. “Be protective of who you are and what your product is supposed to be,” he said.
- Figure out how you’ll handle ongoing development. You should identify who the lead is in maintaining the website or app and adapting to customers’ needs. This person is generally not the same one who built you the prototype.
As a software developer (he’s the builder in his company), Laitila has witnessed time and again how startups can take off. And, if your startup doesn’t work, you can take a leaf out of his book: “You can always do what I do, and start an agency.”
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