How to Make Your Startup Tech-Savvy
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Entrepreneurship Innovation Jul 7, 2016

How to Make Your Start­up Tech-Savvy

No mat­ter the indus­try, it is impor­tant for entre­pre­neurs to be able to talk tech.

Even a construction startup needs tech knowledge.

Michael Meier

Based on insights from

Jeffrey Cohen

Brian Eng

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.

Be Con­ver­sant Enough in Techspeak

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.”

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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.”

Find the Right Prod­ucts and Services

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.

Find the Right Experts

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.

Featured Faculty

Jeffrey Cohen

Member of the Innovation & Entrepreneurship faculty until 2018

Brian Eng

Adjunct Lecturer of Innovation & Entrepreneurship

About the Writer

Eugenia Williamson is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

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