Member of the Innovation & Entrepreneurship faculty until 2018
Adjunct Lecturer in Entrepreneurship
Today’s entrepreneurial landscape is irrevocably tied to technology. Every new venture is beholden to it, even those whose deliverables seem thoroughly analog.
“If you’re starting a construction company, you might think it’s just lumber and nails,” says Brian Eng, cofounder and managing partner of Bluebuzzard, a Chicago-based software firm, and an adjunct lecturer of innovation and entrepreneurship at the Kellogg School. “But technology always ends up being a more critical component of the operation than you might think. Incorporating the right technology is critical for any company that wants to scale.”
When we think of technology, many of us immediately think about reaching customers. “You need to have a web presence,” says Jeffrey Cohen, an independent software engineer, entrepreneur, and adjunct lecturer at the Kellogg School. “Any customer-service function requires a social-media presence, like a Twitter account or Facebook page.”
But just as important, of course, is the back-end technology that is essential to day-to-day operations. Cohen and Eng provide tech strategies to give non-tech startups a competitive advantage—without allowing the technology to consume or distract them.
“You would never start a construction company without knowing how to hammer a nail, and you would never start an accounting firm without ever having balanced a checkbook,” Eng says. “But companies are being started by people who graduated business school who don’t know how to write code, nor do they understand how a website is served or how the apps get onto your phone.”
While repairing a server may never be your calling, familiarizing yourself with tech jargon, the industry, and potential issues can help you avoid expensive mistakes. Even something as simple as hiring consultants to oversee web development requires a bit of technological know-how.
“Even if you never intend to write a single line of code,” Cohen says, “when you are outsourcing, you will have a better idea of whether the price a vendor quotes is realistic, or if they are just trying to fleece you.”
Now more than ever before, the simple answer to many tech problems lies in the off-the-shelf products and services available to today’s entrepreneur. Although common sense dictates that an emerging business needs to distinguish itself in order to thrive, don’t let reinventing the wheel—that is, developing your own custom tools—distract you.
“Knowing when to build something in-house versus buying is a complicated decision that requires expertise.” —Cohen
“The tools don’t matter,” Cohen says. “What matters if you are trying to compete is to make sure that you are using them in such a way that you are becoming so much more compelling than the competition.”
While you are focused on being compelling, services like Square can take care of retail-credit-card transactions; Stripe can handle all facets of online payment; Atlas, still in beta, shepherds startups through the process of opening a bank account, obtaining a state business license, and incorporating as a business. There are even products to handle your handles—Buffer, for example, automates digital marketing functions for small companies by batch-processing tweets for release.
Finding products to automate functions frees up resources for companies to dedicate to their core competencies.
“A lot of these services are being commoditized,” Cohen says. “This is an indicator of how the barriers to launching a startup are lower. But just because something is off-the-shelf does not mean it is actually a good idea, and knowing when to build something in-house versus buying is a complicated decision that requires expertise.”
Which brings us to Cohen and Eng’s final recommendation.
When your startup reaches the scaling stage in its development, you will need to hire someone—or a team—dedicated to the company’s tech needs. The person to make these complex decisions might take the form of a technical cofounder, a Chief Technical Officer, or an outside consultant with a firm grip on the company’s priorities.
The simplest way to hook up with the right expert is to mingle; at business incubators, tech-focused entrepreneurs scramble to find technical cofounders with whom they can realize their products. This search, Eng and Cohen emphasize, is as vital to non-tech startups as it is to tech companies.
“Getting paired with the right tech expertise from the outset gives you a chance to succeed; otherwise you’ll waste at least a year and a lot of money if you get the hire wrong,” Cohen says.
Making astute technology choices will keep you free to focus on the core of your business—even if that business is nuts and bolts.