Having spent my seven year design and development career building websites and mobile sites, I had the opportunity last year to work for several startups building web applications. To my surprise it was a very welcome change.
There were two main ones. Kazoup are building a great application that scans a company’s infrastructure data and turns into viable statistics with built-in data management solutions and cloud storage services. The second was Marvel App, a clever application which provides free prototyping for digital designers by syncing their Dropbox account to create interactive prototypes from .psd, .jpg and .png files. On both occasions I was involved with front-end development and building the admin interface from designs provided by @Mutlu82.
After spending the previous few years working for various fast-paced London agencies, hearing the words “it’s more important to get this right than getting it done by a deadline” was breath of fresh air and something I soon realised is said quite a lot in ‘startup land’.
I had always wanted the opportunity to work for a startup, but I had no idea how big the change of culture would be. The biggest difference I noticed: large agencies have ridiculous budgets and with unrealistic deadlines, usually powered by the account manager up-selling and over promising cutting edge features without speaking to anyone technical first. Startups are the opposite – unrealistic budgets but no looming deadlines other than occasional soft-launches or the investment running out. It appears mis-managing or loosing a multi-million pound client is far more stressful than running out of money. I’m sure it’s not, but when you’re on the floor of an agency whose project is running weeks or months behind, it certainly feels that way.
Whichever world you happen to be in, you’re building a digital product – but the similarities end there. For a start-up, you are thinking ahead in ways you never understood and this is because you are forced to. No longer are you building a marketing website with a pre-determined spec list and, if we’re honest, an unofficial and unspoken life span which usually sees neglect or termination at the end of a campaign. Instead, startups are always working around ‘The Sweet Spot’. This consists of two parts: i) get a minimal viable product (MVP) out to the public as soon as possible for testing and feedback. And ii), a roadmap of future features which have to be thought about now but not implemented immediately. This is the most taxing part of the process – the Sweet Spot is constantly in use and constantly in your thought process. Inevitably, the groundwork for future features will have to be laid down and developed in the early stage, or you run the risk of creating a ton of extra work and possibly having to rebuild some of the original application. But you don’t want to spend too much time building these features now because you need a solid MVP. Getting the balance right in the early stage is crucial and making sure you remain floating in the Sweet Spot is essential.
You’ve probably picked up by now that I’m comparing two very different entities: the large agency owned by an even bigger agency and probably about to brought out by a group servicing every major brand under the sun; and three mates in a cafe on Old Street who have a little spare time and even less spare cash.
The dawning realisation came to me towards the end of last year. It wasn’t that the biggest difference was time and money, it was that money and innovation were inextricably linked. The less money there is to play with, the more you saw innovation and some very clever thinking on top of that.
When I first moved to London I used to spend time working on my CV and making it look attractive to recruitment agencies so they would land me contracts in the top digital agencies. Great! Big brands, huge budgets and building sites everyone will use, what’s not to love about that? Although the dream came true, it was soon smashed when I began at my first startup. Now I found myself building a very specific product that only a specialist group of people I know would find useful, all on very tight purse strings. But the rewards are overwhelming. I see why people get the startup buzz and I understand why people want to do it.
Waking up in the morning and knowing the product you’re building isn’t trying to sell sugar coated chocolate cereal to children by getting them to “engage” through some Facebook game built by 37 contractors is a great start. Instead, I’ve been in situations where a startup has been down to their last few thousand pounds but need to finish a killer feature so they can demonstrate it to their investors before they tell them they need more money. This makes a team much more finely tuned, passionate and willing to try every trick in the book to get it built. No longer does the luxury of picking up a phone to summon several specialist contractors exist; you have to figure it out yourself, learn quickly and keep it lean.
There are so many new technologies appearing on what seems to be a weekly basis to help make mobile websites become “more app like”, frameworks that could practically build a landing page with 14 lines of code, and libraries that make using a web based application feel (and on some occasions actually perform) quicker than its native desktop counterpart. They have all sprung up from tiny, eager startups who need to move quickly, with no money, while making something easy to use and slick looking, posted online for everyone else in the same situation to use.
It seems the lure of big budgets and a large brand can be off-set by lack of innovation.