Karl Hughes

Karl Hughes

How Startups Know When They've Got the Technology Right

I wrote this post back in September of 2012. I had just started my first full-time job at a startup in Chicago, and I was naively and desperately trying to build a product that would change the college new industry.

It’s fun to sit back and read some of these posts from 4-5 years ago because I hear versions of myself in young founders and engineers who I speak to today. I don’t stand by my work habits or measure of productivity (5000 lines of code is a stupid way to prove you’ve been doing something and working 60+ hours per week is unsustainable), but I don’t disagree with my thesis statement:

You know you have the technology right when you stop working and the technology keeps getting results.

Running a startup tech company usually involves taking a lot of (hopefully calculated) risks, and doing a lot of work without any immediate sign of progress. That’s just the way it is. There’s a reason most technology companies fail; it isn’t an easy business.  After a month working full time with Uloop, I’ve written somewhere around 5000 lines of (at least decent) code, and have yet to see big results from my work.

Now, I’ll admit, the product I’m developing isn’t finished, but logging 60-80 hour weeks without seeing a significant change in my metrics for success is a bit unnerving. Still, the small voice in the back of my head keeps telling me, “you’ll know when you’ve got it right.”

The whole point of building software or researching a new technology is that in the end, the product will do more work than you could have done in the same period of time. Sometimes, the payoff is quick, and sometimes it takes a long time. Either way, there’s a simple way to know how you’re doing: You know you have the technology right when you stop working and the technology keeps getting results.

So what do I do until I get there?

I believe that the key for any technology company is to keep innovating. The moment innovation stops is the moment that you die. Big companies don’t innovate; they buy innovation by buying out smaller companies. The thing that sets a startup apart is their continued risk-taking on technology.

A comfortable startup is a dying startup (or maybe one that just got sold). Entrepreneurs must be adaptable, but sometimes, they have to be thick-skulled. Just as Thomas Edison’s light bulb wasn’t successfully created on the first go around, it’s unlikely that your tech-based company will get it right first time around. Regardless of which specific course your company takes, the key is always to keep an eye on the technology. You know it’s right when it keeps working long after you’ve shut your laptop.

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