Tech Ahead of Business Fallacy

“Oh, we’re doing great on our end; tech isn’t the bottleneck for us.” Have you said anything along those lines recently? Many startup tech leaders have boasted about this situation in the past. Now, I’d hate to be a bottleneck, but truth be told, in most cases where I witnessed the described situation, things didn’t play out well for the startup eventually.

You might be wondering what the business’s failures got to you. After all, as a CTO/VPE, what can you do? You’re doing your job, right? It’s the business that’s not moving fast enough. Well, yes and no. Unfortunately, you probably cannot fix things with code. Nevertheless, teams in such a position often focus on the wrong things and pick up bad habits that are going to be hard to fix later. So, while the business is improving, you can be utilizing your time better.

Premature Optimization

Whenever I have such a discussion with a founder, I tell them that this precious time must be used wisely. Otherwise, either the business will go belly up, and none of this matters, or things will start getting better, and you’ll realize you wasted an opportunity. Many interpret this as a suggestion to start building up their tech in a way that’ll support the business. After all, why not “get a leg up”? However, if you’re still a nascent company with no clear product-market fit, doing so is often a great waste of effort.

When you’re trying to extrapolate from the little knowledge you currently have to decide on a work plan, you will often end up with a bunch of busy work of little worth. That’s because you’re doing premature optimization, which we all know is the root of all evil. Lacking enough data points, most of your assumptions are likely to be invalidated before the business hits its stride. Thus, spinning up microservices, complex infrastructure schemas, and more because you have the time will likely make it much harder to handle the inevitable changes. Instead, let’s try and find different ways to use your time.

It’ll Always Suck

There are things your team will never look forward to doing and will always be a hassle. Especially cumbersome tasks that require a long time to do, such as different regulatory compliance. However, if you already have some spare time, these might actually be your best bets. For example, if you know you’ll have to get SOC 2 compliance eventually, perhaps you can start working on that right now. It just might make some sales happen faster—which would be a clear win—and it can also be easier to put in place sooner rather than later.

Similarly, there are usually heaps of peripheral features that we know will be needed. Teams often rush to do these things once the first contract is signed “because we promised it.” So, if you know your market well enough to be sure role-based access control will be required within a year no matter what, and you’ve got some extra time, perhaps you can start putting that in place right now.

In the early stages, adding these supportive capabilities sometimes makes more sense than piling on more and more product features in the darkness. That’s because new features for a system no one uses might never get used, making the system more complex forever. One disclaimer I’ll note is that if you’re an integration-heavy product, perhaps cranking out a few more integrations (keeping in mind the 80/20 principle) might be a great “non-feature feature.”

Business Enablement: Tech Capital

Next, in our effort to keep the technology side of a startup ahead of the curve, it’s crucial to recognize the value of tech capital beyond the immediate confines of the product development team. Tech capital refers to the technological assets and capabilities that can be leveraged across the entire organization to drive innovation, efficiency, and growth. For CTOs and VPEs, this means looking beyond the codebase and infrastructure to see how technology can empower sales, marketing, customer support, and even HR.

Consider the data assets your team is building. Are there insights within this data that could inform the marketing team’s strategies or improve customer support’s effectiveness? Tools and platforms developed in-house can often be adapted for internal use, providing powerful analytics or automation capabilities that streamline operations and enhance decision-making across the company.

Moreover, the plethora of new tooling now available, e.g., AI-enabled tools, means that it might be very easy to create small utilities that upgrade and streamline different parts of the job for many in the company. Any improvement to the efficacy of the sales team is likely to pay off more than any single new minor feature that’s developed with no actual users to try it out.

Enabling Product Experimentation and Discovery

For product teams, the ability to rapidly experiment and iterate is a key driver of innovation and market fit. Creating an environment that encourages experimentation without fearing failure is essential. This involves cultural and technical initiatives to reduce the friction of trying new ideas and learning from them.

I’ve recently seen a couple of startups that invested in infrastructure that made it easier to make rough POCs accessible to prospects. That allowed their product leaders to toy with ideas and see their impact on sales calls and user interviews immediately, without needing to implement the whole thing or even design it too much. For research teams, it can feel like a superpower to be able to get an experiment in a user’s hands fast without going through “proper development” before seeing whether it’s even useful.

The added benefit of the above suggestions is that they all help to avoid creating a team that’s too focused on tech for tech’s sake. Once that happens, undoing such a cultural shift can be a real challenge. Create a team worth leading. If you need help doing or coming up with a strategy and roadmap that unlocks your potential, let’s talk.