Top Five Questions Founders Ask – Part 4

Kelsey Brennan ·

As a full-service software consultancy, we at Carbon Five get lots of questions from clients past, present, and future. We’re passionate about sharing our industry knowledge, so we sat down with our leadership team and got some advice for aspiring founders and product leaders as part of an ongoing 6-part series. You can see all the interviews here.

Here in part four, we asked Partner and Director of Design David Hendee to talk to us about costs, operations and the big brand.

Should I work with an outside design agency? Do I need a branding firm?

Carbon Five is an action-oriented consultancy. We are passionate about putting product into market, not just having great ideas. The question does come up: how much design do I need to get started with Carbon Five? The real answer is none. You can come with just an idea. On day one, we’ll talk about the people your product solves a problem for, what you think the problem is, and how you think you’re going to solve it. That’s a great starting point for working with us, because we can do both design and the first version of your brand. Our clients work with our in-house designers, but sometimes we’ll partner with outside agencies, which can be great as well.


More important, I think is do you have a team that can solve a problem and has the grit and wherewithal to take the money and actually do something effective with it?

The risk is that the more you elaborate on a great idea, generally, the bigger the estimate we’ll tend to come up with to build it. In the startup world, you want to focus on the smallest increment that you can get to market to provide value, so you can learn the most, and get to market fastest. I’ve seen a few times where people engage in an outside agency and spend a few months ideating and coming up with a complete deck of wireframes and feel like their design is “done.” We do that initial scoping in the prioritization workshop and it comes out super big. Always be prepared to answer the question, “What would the first half of the product look like? What’s half of that? What’s the first feature?”

However, occasionally, a client shows up with or wants a complete set of designs to help with fundraising. Maybe that’s effective, I don’t really know. More important, I think is do you have a team that can solve a problem and has the grit and wherewithal to take the money and actually do something effective with it? It’s important to have expertise in the domain– already be solving the problem for people, and have a team that can do it– whether that’s Carbon Five at the table or your own technical team.

How long is this thing going to take to build? How fast can I get my MVP (Minimum Viable Product) to market?

In terms of speed, there are some ideas that are so ambitious that it will take you a year to get to market. But it’s very unlikely you have one of those. Other than moonshot stuff, most products should probably get done in four months. An MVP is really something small– so small that it’s probably embarrassing. You just want to prove you can solve the problem and create some passionate users.

Maybe you don’t even launch it with the real brand. Masterclass wasn’t called Masterclass when we launched the MVP. It was a placeholder brand and they started driving traffic to it to learn from. We see other clients who just go to market in a very small region. If you have a native app, you can target a small but similar market like New Zealand, so you don’t have to feel like you can’t have a big launch down the road, but you shouldn’t think that the MVP is so big that it has a ton of moving parts.

Again, we provide those workshops as part of intake, so typically our second or third conversation with a client is to do this prioritization workshop so we can give you a sense of like how big is it, and also play a game of how we would roadmap it out, and how we would deliver something small that we could get done in just a couple of months.

Does platform matter? Should I build Android or iOS first? Ruby on Rails, Node.js, or Python?

I think the one thing I can never argue against, despite our preference for Ruby on Rails or Node in-house, is recruiting. So if you think you can recruit talent with PHP, or if you have developers already on staff, I will not talk you out of that. I will say that the Ruby on Rails community specifically has some of the most diverse, nice people. If I were doing a startup, I would pick it, because that’s the kind of culture I like and the kind of people I like to recruit. Picking the one that you get a good feeling from is important.

The other thing that people ask a lot is, “Which mobile platform should I go first on?” It’s not an easy answer. I’d say today– and things change all the time– it’s very rare to have a product idea that actually has to be native from a technical perspective. The services you can access in the browsers on the phone, including location, getting stuff off the devices sensors, photo uploads, and now even push notifications– it’s all gotten a lot better. The native-ish front end frameworks and mobile web is dominating, and it’s so much easier to iterate on your product when you’re doing mobile web that it’s often our recommendation to start mobile web. As far as acquisition channels go, I think it’s more unpredictable in the app stores. It’s much more predictable to go to market on web. The day it comes up, you just don’t know what getting featured by Apple will really do to your business, and if you will be able to take advantage of it fully. It’s like an existential moment, and it’s much more predictable on web.

Our current client Stitch Fix did web and mobile-web first, and then went back for the native app. They’re deep in their funding rounds, I think they’re in series C. The same with Good Eggs and Thumbtack. It’s a maturity thing that they’ve gotten to and they iterated a ton on the mobile-web side, found their fit, and then they’re ready to add the channel. For Stitch Fix, we helped them add this new acquisition channel and build a nicer engagement and retention mechanic for folks that get their fixes– the box of clothes. That pattern seems to make the most sense for most businesses.

How can I hire and retain great developers?

That’s something we have a lot of experience with — both for us and our clients. The way we do it is multifaceted– in this market you have to shake all the trees. You want to fill the pipeline with a broad, diverse set of folks, and we help vet because sometimes it’s hard for those from a non-technical background to know what a good first hire is. The techniques we use to hire our own employees are the same we recommend to our clients.

I recommend picking a technical topic and hosting a Meetup. Hosting the meetup does a few things; it creates inbound leads of people– maybe senior developers who want to try new technology– and it does outreach to the community and shows that you’re going to create a safe place for developers to work.

Also, if you pick a technology you want to use in your platform, you’re attracting talent. For example, we had a client last year, Super, pick Golang for their technology stack. As experienced consultants, our first thoughts were, “Well, not the most popular choice for platform, and probably not the fastest way to get your product built” but on second thought that’s pretty savvy from a recruiting perspective. It’s a smaller pool for sure, but you’re also competing with less companies, and you’re on the leading edge so in a way it’s easier to attract talent.

As far as recruiting, we have a Rails-specific recruiting service that we use that has been quite good. We usually hook our clients up with one or two great options that we think work well. Use sites like Craigslist or Hired and do the typical reaching out on LinkedIn to your network. Try all the things.

When clients are working with us, their first hire is often a relatively junior technical hire, which is great, because then you have a broader, more diverse pool to draw from, and it’s easier to hire with more upside. We also have helped vet CTOs, because that’s an important step for a business to take, but often not necessarily the first, unless it’s for fundraising.

For us, retention means spending resources on professional development and diversity and committing to making the environment a place where the employees are happy. You first have to identify employee interest, and find some kind of mechanism to identify those interests. We have internal working groups that meet every Friday, and there’s also an internal conference that we run twice a year that is very helpful for getting out what the employees are interested in. Then, you have the ability to move your organization toward those interests.

How much money should I raise for software development costs?

It’s a million. It’s always a million. Unless your business has a two-sided marketplace, and then the answer is $2 million. (laughs) No, it depends– and we’re by no means experts at fundraising.

Carbon Five is focused on delivering the digital part of services, and so there are a lot of things that are outside of our purview. Our average projects cost from our end around $400K, I think. Don may have said that too. It’s a range, of course.

Product development is usually a big part of the costs of running your business, but thinking of it as a set of hard costs is the wrong way to look at it. Instead, think of it as a runway to get your product to market and have some time to pivot or iterate and improve it. Thinking about a staffing plan that gets you to market and leaves you time is very important. And then there are often other costs, like if it’s a two-sided marketplace, or if you’re building a physical or digital good. Our client Masterclass has a bunch of other costs associated with content creation and legal that we don’t have much insights into, and those can be bigger lifts for a business like that.

But we’re really good at estimating how much we think it will take you to get your smallest version of your product to market, and we provide what is essentially a free workshop as part of onboarding new clients– our prioritization workshop– that helps us come up with that estimate.

The good for us is that the list of features that go MVP is a flexible container. During that prioritization workshop, we take your vision, map it out and then work with you to prioritize it into a release plan. Then we look at the very first release and give you an estimate for that, and you have a lot of clarity around that. You have less clarity as time runs on, but the fact is, once you get that first release out, new things will come up, your business will react to them, and we’ll all have more clarity then. The first day of your startup is the point of most uncertainty, and you’re only going to have more certainty down the road. Just being honest about that and trying to find a plan for the first couple of months and focusing on that and how you’ll get something small onto the market is what we advocate, and what we deliver.

We still have two more interviews coming up in the next two weeks. In the meantime you can follow Dave here.