6 lessons from a technical founder
Let me share my story and the lessons I learned from failing to bring my product to the standard of quality needed to sell it
A couple of days ago, I made the tough decision to plan a complete rewrite of the Savoir app, which was originally built with the Phoenix (Elixir) framework. I was faced with many issues whenever I needed to change the code. Increasingly difficult bugs to fix, a high difficulty in learning the more advanced parts of Elixir needed to power some features, unmaintained third-party libraries that needed to connect to some of our providers, and increasingly complex and costly infrastructure, to name a few. Elixir is an amazing language, and the Phoenix framework even more so, but it's not the right tool for Savoir.
After weeks of struggle, I decided to aim for a rewrite. I was faced with a cobbled together infrastructure that came with high costs to host and update, plus high difficulty in scaling it. Elixir was a blast to work with and it taught me many lessons, but it is time to say goodbye. I'm very positive about the whole experience and I believe it is the right choice. At the end of the day, I am a technical founder. I want to write code, and I am sure I'm not the only founder who’s more hyped about their technical decisions than their business decisions.
Rather than dwell on the story, I decided to dedicate this post to sharing my lessons with the community. Here are 6 lessons, in no particular order, for technical founders like myself. Do you have any lessons or experiences you'd like to share? Drop them in the comments I'd love to read them!
1. Don't get too excited by tech
I had completed a functional programming course a few months prior and I was hyped for writing functional code with anything other than Lisp. I was in the mood for learning a new language at the time and the only "project" I had in mind was Savoir. To tell you how deep I went in my search for a “new shiny tool to use”, the other languages I was considering were Zig and Crystal.
I was bored of the tech I was using everyday and decided to go with what hyped me at the time. I built a product I wanted to sell with a technology I barely knew and a stack I barely grasped. It could have worked out, but the result I ended up with teaches me I should have gone with "the boring choice". Of course a new startup project should be fun, but building something for others means having to make tough choices for the sake of your prospective users. Building a product is a balance between making decisions for you and making decisions for your users, and I focused far too much into the "me" camp.
2. Play to your strengths
Many "startup starting guides" or "startup in zero steps" guides recommend using no-code or zero setup frameworks to build your product. They recommend getting started as fast as possible, acquiring users, then thinking about the technical implications of your choices down the road. These are really good tips. In fact, I strongly recommend looking at frameworks like getzero to get started as fast as possible if you're a more technically oriented person. What most of these guides/frameworks omit is that you should probably already be proficient in the platform they recommend before you even start. Building an entire product on Bubble is more than possible, but in my case, I am a very technical person. My strength lies in building backends, APIs and DevOps workflows.
I think founders, especially solo founders like me, should focus on where they excel and use the tools that make them productive. I tried Bubble before settling on the rewrite, and as amazing as it is, it was clear that I would be faster building an entire backend from scratch in Golang than with Bubble. Creating a product alone is incredibly tough, creating it with technology that doesn’t make you productive, even more so. We have never had so many options for building products, making it harder to choose between all of them. My recommendation– choose what you know.
3. Build for your market
When people come to me for tips on where to start with their business projects, my first piece of advice is to do your market research. When I started, I underestimated the value of knowing my market: of knowing who I am selling my product to and what they might want. For technical founders especially, I think good market research is one of the most powerful tools you will have when building your product. I didn't have that, and I ended up building features that were of no interest to my market: I had poorly defined my "minimum viable product" and that led to feature bloat. For example, one "hidden" feature of Savoir is its ability to load the security report from a GitHub organization (where it lists security issues from dependencies in multiple repositories) and generate a documentation website from it. Definitely useful for many people, but when I compared it to recent market research, I realized it had no selling point. My prospective users wouldn't need it.
I often see articles recommending that founders "define their minimum viable product early". This rings very true in my case, even more so when I consider that I did define what "minimum" meant for Savoir. But I did it with faulty data, which led to a faulty definition. A product should be built for the market you will be selling to.
4. Don't plan like you're Spotify
The first thing I did when I started building Savoir was not to write code, but to plan my sprints with a tool called Codetree. I highly recommend them by the way, if you're looking for a good GitHub powered project management tool. I planned my entire feature set through epics, and I would break things down into smaller issues on a bi-weekly basis. I personally really like working in more structured environments. There's something with this level of tracking that makes me feel like I’m part of something. Except that my team at Savoir was just me, and it would be just me for two whole years. In addition to paying for a tool I simply didn't need, it took hours of my limited time to plan my work rather than execute it.
Was this a waste of time? Not completely, I have traces of everything I did and I can track the upcoming work very well given how well laid out my plan is. But it's also true that I didn't need epics, milestones, weekly reports of my throughput, multiple projects, alerts when things weren't being shipped – you name it. And that's only the surface of everything I was doing in my planning sessions. It's my personal belief that people should plan even when alone if that's what makes them productive, you should play to your strengths after all, but it's also important to remember where your project is. Savoir wasn't at a stage where this planning would be useful in any way, and it was my role to know that and act accordingly.
5. Know your limits
A constant in all these lessons is that I like doing research before jumping on a project. I read a lot of articles and guides on how to run a company as a solo founder. I participated in an accelerator program and reached out to many mentor groups in my area. All good things, but it also led to all those people telling me things like "learn visual design" and "use a CRM", or even "learn how to manage your company's finances yourself". I took these tips to heart and tried to do everything myself, and I see too many founders doing the same thing. We all have limits, and it's very likely that technical founders like me can't manage an entire business, design a landing page, run the business, and hire people by themselves while building their product.
It's important to know where your limits are. There's help everywhere, a lot of it free. Use it. If people recommend using a CRM, it’s because it's a very valuable tool to invest in early in order to track your deals. I also think it's not to force you to learn it all by yourself, but rather as a way to add the word to your vocabulary. Many CRMs also offer support and “courses” to get started in sales. In my case, I had to learn the hard way; if these tips were too hard to follow up on by myself, it was a good sign that I was reaching my limits.
6. Get help
This brings me to my last lesson. I strongly believe that a founder's job is not to work 80 hours a week in order to get their vision to market. Rather, I think a founder is someone with an idea and the ability to deliver it. Delivering it doesn't mean you have to do it all yourself, however. As a technical person, I had the chance to grow in an environment with a strong ownership culture. If I was in charge of a feature, I owned getting it out the door. Too often, I would take this to mean that my job was to do everything and get it shipped myself. Yet, ownership means you own getting it out, not necessarily doing it yourself. Your team is there to help you and, in the context of a new startup, your network is your team.
I always hear the phrase "your network is everything" when talking to other founders. It’s very true, but it's also true that you don't need to start with a strong network. Part of building a business is building that network. Like code, it can be built from scratch. Nothing happens in a vacuum and everyone has relied on others to get things done, even if they might not want to admit it. I learned the hard way how much harder it is to start without a network, but I also learned how many people are willing to help. I am a very introverted person and it took all I had to reach out to others, but once I did, I never looked back.
I sincerely hope these lessons from my own startup story will help you in your own project. Please share your own lessons in the comments below, but also comment if you have questions or if you disagree with mine. I'm looking forward to our discussions!
Also, be on the lookout for future posts on the rewrite. I’ll have many things to share.
If what we are building looks interesting to you, please check our features and register for exclusive beta access on our website at savoir.dev. Feel free to also send me a message at email@example.com, I'll be glad to answer any questions you have or give you a preview.
Savoir is the french word for Knowledge, pronounced sɑvwɑɹ.