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Putting the Tech Back into Social Web

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This article was originally part of the fifth installment to my smartup series. As I believe the message best fits in its own article bucket, I’ve placed it here instead.

I want to address an odd trend–although it’s not yet clear if this actually is a trend. Over the past several months, I’ve heard similar statements from several unrelated Internet startups—the notion that they are not tech startups.

Instead of thinking of themselves as tech startups, they believe they have a higher-calling, claiming to be some flavor of socially-focused company. This may be the result of more and more non-tech-oriented business people forming Internet-based startups, but whatever the cause, in my opinion, it must be nipped in the bud.

Now if I had heard that sentiment from two unrelated parties, I would not think much about it. But hearing that statement from several unrelated parties has made me pause and think.

If it Quacks Like a Duck

Were Facebook and Twitter tech startups? Of course. Were they also social startups? Yes to that question as well. At the early stages of your smartup, don’t get too bogged down in mission semantics. Whatever label you wish to slap onto your smartup, whatever moniker gives you that warm fuzzy feeling, if you are building a platform that requires the Web-based or Mobile-based Internet–especially one that requires a big-data approach–then your smartup by its very nature is a tech-dependent company at its rock-bottom core.

As smartups are Internet-obligate endeavors, they must be firmly grounded in a tech core. But smartups are greater than the sum of their technologies.

Since smartups can often be classified as Social Web startups as well, the reliance on Internet technologies is even greater. What does this mean? It’s essential that your smartup’s engine properly models, captures, facilities, and manages vast amounts of social interaction. That’s accomplished in large part via your chosen and developed technologies.

This is one of the key differentiators between a startup and a smartup. Whereas a startup might not transcend its technology, a smartup recognizes that it is a tech startup plus a Social Web Engine. Social is built into the smartup stack. But even so, a smartup cannot divorce itself from the primacy of its foundational technology.

An Internet startup is tech at its core. Your smartup is also tech at its core. However else you fancy seeing it, and irregardless of how you envision its future, all other facets of your smartup are either layers on top of or pieces integrated into the core tech platform.

This is the message of this article. Without its defining core technologies, your smartup cannot be anymore than vaporware or an ephemeral dream. Without its defining core technologies, your smartup cannot become an engine of social change.

The Rise of the Data Civilization

In the conclusion of Stephen Wolfram’s excellent article entitled Advance of the Data Civilization: A Timeline, he states that the “systematization of data and knowledge provides core infrastructure for the world.” Technologies have evolved over time, increasing the rate of collection, processing, and dissemination of that data to help turn them into knowledge.

To our globally-connected and insatiably data-hungry community, in my view, the Internet is perhaps the most relevant class of innovation. The Internet is becoming not only the preferred repository of most of our data but also the accelerator of the systematization of data and knowledge that Wolfram discusses. Our civilization is more dependent on data today than ever before—and that dependence will continue to increase.

As humanity races toward the Internet of Things, data–and lots of it (big data)–will be a fundamental supporting sublayer to our everyday lives. The Internet is becoming the platform on which our society, culture, and economy depends. The Internet is an essential partner in much of our current and future innovations. Don’t discount the importance of the Internet and its underlying technologies. Technology is at the core of our society’s future and your smartup’s success.

Technology as Platform, Engine, and Change Agent

All Internet-obligate companies have some type of a vision and mission, usually backed by a set of closely-held ideals that flavor their implementation of that vision. Whatever that vision may be, the fundamental foundation of any smartup is its technological platform. But as you’ll discover in the Layer’s of the Smartup Stack article, the platform does encompass more than just core code technology.

The technological platform though is at the center of, the innermost layer of, the smartup stack. Why is this the case? Because technology is the enabler of the wonderful and fantastic vision your smartup has for the world. Your smartup plans to leverage the power, reach, and socially-transmutational forces of the Internet. To do so requires that you envelope your vision with those technologies that can help bring your vision to fruition.

Whereas it is fabulous that you want to change the world, your Internet-obligate company mandates a technological base. Make sure that base is as strong as it can be. Architect it properly and build it correctly from the start.

Don’t let some branding game cloud your judgement about the key components to your smartup’s future. Remember that your company is at the startup stage. It is not at the growth to maturity stage. You are building the foundation of your vision—a vision that should indisputably be much greater than its technological underpinnings and will be if you do it right. But in order to get to that next stage, you need to come to terms with the seeds of your humble beginnings. There will be plenty of time to expand your focus, to embrace your greater ideals.

A Story About Placing Too Low a Value on Tech

In its earliest stages, a smartup needs technical vision, leadership, and a strong, core smartup engineering team. This cannot be achieved via consultants or outside help. The expertise must be internal to your smartup.

To be a successful smartup, you cannot settle for substandard design or mediocre construction, thinking that you can always retrofit, remodel, or augment your technological platform later. Although you can find stories of companies who did just that, they are the exception and not the norm. They should not be deemed as the virtuous model—unless your goals are slanted toward quick profits and you place a lower value on your user community, or have little desire to create a symbiotic ecosystem.

To defend this point, I’ll share with you the story of my brother. As a successful sales executive with a number of large telecom-focused companies, he shifted his sights to working with Internet startups. In his last two positions, the startups he was helping placed too low of a value on the importance of technology. One of them used off-shore, overseas help, the other used in-country contract help. The end results were the same.

Within a year or two of joining, both of these startups were in trouble primarily as a result of their failure to understand the fundamental importance of having high-quality, in-house technical expertise. The first startup was a failure as the quality of the product did not meet the requirements of the vision and the time to execute was too slow. The second was also a failure, even though they contracted local, in-country help from those who were considered experts in their field.

The reasons for failure might seem different in each of the above scenarios, but the heart of the problem is simple. Neither of the startups had an internal technical founder. Neither of the startups had a high-value, internal engineering team.

Why is this important? Only an internal, skilled technical team can fully appreciate the startup’s vision. Only an internal, skilled technical team can fully understand which technologies need to be leveraged. A technical founder also has a broader understanding of the business climate, and is fully aligned with the company’s vision, having helped craft it from the start. Outside technical help will never have the passion, drive, determination, motivation, and vested interest–both emotionally and financially–in seeing a startup’s vision to fruition.

Another crucial reason to have a technical founder? With technology advancing at an accelerating rate, it’s not practical to think that hiring outside consultants to keep you abreast of the constantly-changing competitive landscape with respect to your technology will ever be effective. You need someone internal to your team whose job it is to not only understand this changing competitive landscape, but also be able to adeptly leverage new innovations to forward your vision.

If your approach to building your company’s tech platform is to contract out-of-company services–via cheap overseas code-cutting sweatshops, in-country consulting companies, or work-for-hire programmers–then you fail to comprehend the intrinsic value that technology plays in your success. Your approach is flawed and living in the past. It is a Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 attitude.

This approach, while often viewed by non-tech founders as an innovative, out-of-the-box solution to tight budgetary constraints, can often be a myopic, closed-minded attitude that is penny wise and pound foolish. The return on investment received by leveraging a seemingly less expensive technological approach upfront is often many orders of magnitude lower than that gained via properly utilizing higher-quality, in-house technical expertise.

The let’s-use-cheap-programming-sources attitude is analogous to eating white bread versus wholegrain organic bread. Whereas consuming white bread may seem prudent as it costs you a lot less up front, you may end up paying for that mistake many times over down the road. It can literally be a fatal error in consumptive judgement.

A smartup realizes that it needs to invest its resources wisely. Although a calorie is a calorie–and a dollar is a dollar–the form in which you choose to ingest your calories is essential to good health. Don’t setup your smartup for an early demise by allowing it to ingest poor-quality platform design and code execution.

Choose the Wheat, Skip the White

As my bother’s story reveals, startups that seek to economize on tech investment upfront are in for a nasty surprise. His story with these two startups is not unique. The odds of that are statistically insignificant. His experience is a powerful lesson and a salient warning. You get what you pay for.

Investing in talent is like investing in the stock market. If you make investment decisions primarily based on the face value (market value) of a given equity, you’ll miss great opportunities. What you pay up front is not what matters. What you get in return for any investment should be your primary consideration and concern.

Whereas it is fabulous that you want to change the world, your Internet-obligate company mandates a technological base. Make sure that base is as strong as it can be. Architect it properly and build it correctly from the start.

Remember this one point if you fail to process anything else from this story. Programmers are a dime a dozen, good programmers cost more, but finding the talent capable of executing a bold, visionary idea is difficult. A smartup developer can never be outsourced.

I implore you, at your smartup’s inception, do not relegate technology to a lesser position. Building a smartup requires focusing on the proper priorities in the proper sequence. While there will come a time when it is prudent to shift more focus to higher-level layers within the smartup stack, the technological platform has the highest priority in stage one.

Conclusion

It is clear that technology is integral to all Social Web platforms. As smartups are Internet-obligate endeavors, they must be firmly grounded in a tech core. But smartups are greater than the sum of their technologies. The fifth installment of my smartup series lays out the greater ecosystem vision that all startups should strive to embrace. Please read, Building the Social Web: the Layers of the Smartup Stack.

Outside Resources

Here’s a great article by Steve Blank, The Startup Team. The composition of your founding startup team is instrumental to your success — or lack thereof. Technology must be represented on that founding team or you may be in for an unpleasant surprise.

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