How to build a great tech product

Are you an entrepreneur with a non-tech background, looking to build a technology product and considering where to start? How do you go about navigating the modern tech landscape so that you that ship a quality MVP as quickly as possible?

Or are you a techie, working for a tech startup, thinking about decisions you have to make: how to choose the right architecture, technology stack, tools and the processes for the job at hand?

The challenges and pitfalls and numerous – from assembling the right team, prioritising the right things at the right time, to finding the right balance between development velocity and the quality of the end product.

This was the agenda for the latest Manchester Digital Startup Stories breakfast event, hosted and sponsored by thestartupfactory.tech with a panel of Manchester based tech leaders and entrepreneurs who have faced these challenges. They shared their ‘medals and scars’ experience, advice and opinions on the best (and not so great) practices to employ when building a tech-based product or company.

The panel comprised the following folks, with Aleksa Vukotic @AleksaVukotic (CTO, the startupfactory.tech) hosting and keeping order – after some giggles about smart speakers and voice interaction:

·     Jan Machacek: Innovation Lead, Disney Streaming Services @honzam399

·     Anna Dick: CTO, HiringHub @Dixi_chick

·     Jamil Khalil: Founder & CEO, Wakelet @J4jammy

·     Nick Blow: VP Engineering, Wakelet Nick Blow (@nick) – Wakelet

·     Elliot Hesp: Co-Founder, Invertase @elliothesp

·     Eric Carter: Head of Engineering, thestartupfactory.tech https://thestartupfactory.tech/about/eric-carter

The discussion was pacey and wide ranging, not without differing opinions – not least of which was the precise tone of pink in the choice shirts of members of the audience – cerise, amaranth, carnation, magenta, flamingo, fuchsia or salmon? More of this later.

With the world obsessed with tech, apps, data, innovation and disruption, many entrepreneurs are trying to develop ideas and service, and many tech folk are seeking to build the next big thing. Often, it is overwhelming, and to help overcome this, the panel talked through the ten steps of how to build a great tech product.

1.     Clearly define your vision for your product and goals

Architect your thinking on paper first, get your ideas down, and focus on the problem to be solved and your customer needs, not your choice of tech stack. From this, don’t build your specification from sitting your side of the problem, build it on user stories and use workflow.

Keep in mind that product development is a trade off and balancing act between pushing new limits and making compromises with tech. As with life, you can’t have everything.

2.     Keep an MVP mindset along the way

You need to know if there is a future for your product before you scale to build it. Understand the problem-solution fit, before pressing on for product-market fit.

Decide what jobs you need to do to build your MVP, but make it scalable from the start. Make it small, so you can make changes quickly. Crack on, build something you can get out there quickly. Get stuff in the hands of the users.

3.     Produce prototypes

Everyone on the panel recounted their experience of witnessing countless products being developed, and never once was the first version the final version. This is always the case when developing something new and non-trivial. You need to plan on it taking multiple revisions to get your product ready for market.

4.     When to release?

Release often, firstly to a beta/test group, and make a story of what you’re building. Ensure you have monitoring and measuring in place – Anna talked about having a ‘feature toggle by user type’.

Wakelet use videos to promote new releases – or, as Invertase do, live stream your updates to create real, authentic engagement. This gives both insight and context. Early releases are all about learning and iteration, not revenues.

5.     When to sell?

‘Sell it before you’ve built it’ was the cry, identify potential customers needs – does this solve a problem? Tell stories, use your network, sketch out the future roadmap and sell the future story, but remember every target audience is different.

Anna made the point that Hiring Hub isn’t just about the Platform, it’s about working with the user community on both sides of the marketplace for continuous improvement, and it’s not just the tech but the end-to-end customer service that impacts.

6.     When to kill?

There’s a tough balance here, but user feedback is the beacon. There are 150+ items in the Google Graveyard – apps, services and hardware, from Google+ killed off just two weeks ago to Google Goggles and Google Nexus.

Jamil (wearing a shirt without a hint of pink) cautioned on getting rid of stuff too soon – hold the vision, make small bets, keep the belief and keep going. Keep talking to your users, and also give your own team time to enjoy the product to get it to the next level.

7.     How do you stop others stealing your idea?

Don’t fear that one of the tech behemoths will come along and steal your idea, they have lots of ants nibbling and biting them, their strategies are to acquire not steal. Jamil gave us a good anecdote: be like Russell Crowe in The Gladiator – win the crowd, focus on building a community that is tribal about your product.

Elliot (possibly pink socks) discussed Invertase’s work with Google on Firebase and Facebook with React Native, you can collaborate with the big dogs using Open Source, they will work with you. Anyone can have an idea, it’s all about the execution.

8.     How do you build a tech team?

All the panel agreed this was a huge challenge. The emphasis was recruit for behaviours. Be a founder who is generous with your time for the team, recruit for the long-term culture, but hire for the next milestone. Build your own team, hire people who care and own the vision, then they will own the mistakes they will make.

As a founder, sit in the tech team, be ambitious but demanding: ‘show me something that works next week’. This builds resilience into the product and the team.

9.     Keep it simple

Jan (sporting a subtle light pink shirt) encouraged a tech strategy that ensures you can quickly ship and test in the real world, flexible enough so you can pivot if required and all without sacrificing quality and scalability once you become the next tech sensation. Nick talked about being prepared to throw everything away and start again from scratch if stuff wasn’t working because you’ve gone too deep too early.

Focus on getting to the next milestone, using proven tools was also a common theme, experimentation is cool, but you need to build something that works. Avoid doing stuff that you don’t need to do – Nick gave the example of choosing AWS DynamoDB ahead of Apache Cassandra – seemingly a compromise, but common sense when considering the on-cost of DevOps staff required to support the jobs to be done.

10.    What’s the future hold?

Andy Gray from BlockRocket.tech http://www.blockrocket.tech/ looked fetching in his deep cerise shirt, which due favourable comment from many (although perhaps could have seen the iron a little more), threw the Merlin question about the future tech to think about. Everyone was pragmatic, focus on risk and runaway, milestones and releasing often, but also gave a few thoughts about the future tech to consider:

·     Elliot – cross platform technology, such as Flutter https://flutter.dev/ and Dart Dev tools.

·     Jan – a push on privacy from users to control use of their data.

·      Nick – from a Dystopian perspective, Article 13 of the EU Copyright Directive and its impact on online content sharing services; on a more positive note, progressive web apps.

A useful session with some valuable insights from the panel. Don’t hesitate to get in touch with any of the folks, I’m sure they’ll be happy to share their product and tech experience with you – thanks to them for being generous with their time – @wakelet @invertaseio @realTSFtech and @HiringHub

And finally, Pink, the dominant shirt colour on the day. Pink isn’t a colour, it’s an attitude, although some thought it was just red’s weaker cousin. We had one panel member slinking out of the session pretending to be the Pink Panther. You had to be there, obviously.

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