It's hot – heat wave hot! Clients aren't pushing too hard at the moment and we've been tidying up some loose ends on the never-ending list of tasks that accompanies any fledgling company. While things are calm I thought I'd share a few thoughts on how things have been going for us.
Coolgarif Tech has been up and running for just over 6 months and its been a fascinating journey so far. This post is to record a few of the details (something to show the grandkids), while at the same time perhaps providing a few insights for any of you considering making the same leap of faith into startup land.
It all started last summer of series of informal Sunday afternoon coding sessions in various pubs around London. James and I were noodling around in our spare time with a data visualisation for the summer's football transfer market. We never quite got around to finishing it (its on the to-do list) but there was enough there to know that we could work together, respected each other's opinions and experience, and had a pretty good rapport. As it turned out those Sunday sessions were laying the foundation for starting the company.
James is a veteran of the software world with a long list of war stories over 15 years in the game. He has built lots of bespoke websites for companies all over the UK, implemented lots of projects on tight timeframes, been involved with a few startups and even held down a few proper jobs along the way.
By the time we started hanging out I was pretty much a developer newbie (thankfully I'm a hell of a lot better these days). It was 6 months since I'd walked out on my old life as a derivatives trader in Canary Wharf. I had managed to secure a place on a part-time MSc in software engineering in Oxford and I spent an unholy amount of hours on my own learning Java and Python in various co-working spaces around London. I was pretty desperate to spend time doing some real coding on a real project with a real pro.
Once we got started in January 2013 we first set out the core philosophy of the company is to work on interesting things, with interesting people while using cutting edge technologies.
From a strategic perspective we were keen to avoid having to raise money so bootstrapping was a far more attractive and flexible route for us to go down. Luckily there were enough savings to keep us afloat until we started to bring in some paying work and so we started to work our contacts to look for interesting engineering problems to solve. Particularly around data!
We managed to land our first piece of work by effectively building a data visualisation dashboard for the online travel sector for free. I had been working with the client a little the previous summer and while there I could see they were struggling with one aspect of their data. So James and I put our heads together and proposed a zero-cost solution to the client , something they would never have looked at solving themselves. It was a bit of a long shot but once they had it live they pretty quickly saw the benefits and from our perspective it was an excellent learning experience. We learned how to work together, to solve a customer's specific issue, how to implement it and educate the client how to maximise their value from it. From there we were up and running, and in a much stronger position to face the market.
That project took about 2 months to design, develop and deliver to the customer. We weren't really doing any business development at the time, just long days of coding and debugging in a basement co-working space in Waterloo. As it was my first proper project as a software developer it was a pretty steep learning curve for me, but luckily James has plenty of project execution experience, which kept me on the right track and ensured we delivered a great solution.
Next, we went about breathing some life into the Coolgarif Tech brand and casually looking for another project though our network of contacts. We invested some time building our own website; we did some blogging about various technical topics that we'd been noodling on; ran a logo competition on 99designs, which was great fun; attended a bunch of events and even got invited to speak at an Escape the City event. We also hosted a Table Crowd event for people looking to start their own companies. It was a great event and we are probably going to try having one each quarter in future.
These were important startup experiences for us and helped to solidify the meaning of the brand in our minds. Sitting down for one pot of tea after another, patiently explaining who we are and what we do forced us to clarify the message and the business proposition. Its definitely still a work in progress but its come a long way these past months.
Eventually by the end of the spring our various business development efforts had paid off and we suddenly had a veritable flood (well 3 or 4) very interesting projects that will keep us busy for the foreseeable future.
We are also on the verge of launching our first "product", although it's really more of a service, called API-Insights, before the end of the month. This is really exciting for us as we attempt to grow the company and the develop the brand over the remainder of this year.
Well, lots in fact.
We know that we want to be a project company but mostly so that we can work with interesting clients and develop cutting-edge enterprise technology solutions.
We have also learned that selling time is hard, hard to scale, hard to price and whatnot. So we also want to have a base-load of recurring revenue that takes the pressure off keeping the project pipeline full.
We learned that doing nice things for people is a good thing (it kind of feels obvious when you write it down). This is important! Help people out, be kind, answer emails and share your time when you can. Sure, be tough when there is a commercial discussion to be had but where we can we'll make introductions to people, offer advice, pass on honest criticism.
We learned that it's not feasible to work 12 hours a day 7 days a week for long periods of time. You have to take a break. Writing software is a creative endeavour and your brain needs space to achieve this. My personal trick was writing an email to myself last thing every Friday afternoon with a list of what I'd achieved that week. That way I wouldn't feel too guilty about taking some time off over the weekend. It's not always possible where deadlines are involved but generally it's a good rule to thumb to follow.
Oh and the last thing I'm going to share is that it's going to take me at least another 5 years to get to a competent level as a software engineer. Don't get me wrong, I write code pretty much every day of the week and most weekends and my learning curve has been near vertical for the past 6 months, its just that I'm starting late in life and its going to take a while to get to a level where I can hold my own with the guys and girls who have been doing this their whole lives.
Must admit though, we're both loving the challenge of making this company into something special!