Building a start-up? You need to think about your platform foundations

You’ve built your prototype, you’ve proven product market fit, the beta is out and there’s some buzz. What next?

Many start-ups will continue to add more and more features to attract new customers, but they are often building on a foundation that was put together rapidly to achieve their early purpose and may not be a fit for long-term scale, efficiency and operability.

Heed the lessons learned by others. CB Insights recently conducted post-mortems into more than 110 failed start-ups and landed on the top 12 reasons why they folded. They run the gamut, from running out of capital (38pc of victims) to burnout and failing to pivot. And while all 12 reasons are different, I can’t help but see a common thread running through them: rushing.

How could you not? You’ve got an amazing, original idea, and you need to bring it to market quickly. Rushing is ingrained in start-up culture.

But there is an alternative – one that even in 2022 too few start-ups consider: investing early in the underlying cloud platform.

Many software start-ups today are operating in the cloud, and without early focus on the foundational and enabling aspects, they can easily be afflicted with security holes and IP breaches.

Innovation can also start to stifle because of early compromises made to achieve time-to-market over quality. It is at this stage that start-ups should take a solid focus on their cloud platform as an enabling device to solve some of these common pitfalls.

Shifting the mindset at this critical stage and focusing on platforms as a product enables start-ups to get the underlying building blocks of a cloud platform in place. This can generate huge economies of scale, as well as commoditising and automating core concerns such as security and compliance, delivery pipeline and improving developer experience.

‘Without this approach, you are leading your business down a path where mounting technical and architectural debt are likely to cause you pain when you least need it’

If you take one thing away from reading this article, please make it this: all software companies from the day they are founded need to be thinking about the platform, the underlying cloud services and architecture they are building on, how they operate at pace, with automation, with guard rails, and with effective delivery pipelines.

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They also need to invest in developer experience – there is no good reason why a developer shouldn’t be able to go from idea to safely productionised pipeline in under 60 minutes. If your underlying platform doesn’t allow for that, you are hampering innovation.

Yes, often your chief priority will be delivering a working prototype to investors, even if put together with masking tape, egg cartons and all-night code sprints. But that should never be your only focus, no matter how close you are to that Series A pitch meeting.

If you invest appropriately in your platform and treat it as any other product, there is no reason why any of the above shouldn’t be possible while still chasing that market share and hockey stick slope that will see you funded.

The terrible irony is that without this approach, you are leading your business down a path where mounting technical and architectural debt are likely to cause you pain when you least need it. It says a lot that most of the more disruptive and common problems in software development arise from underinvestment in your platform.

Shift Left your thinking – and hiring

So many start-ups focus on product market fit, and in that compromise neglect to ask themselves crucial questions. What processes can be automated to save time for the precious staff we haven’t hired yet but soon will? What is painful in getting value to your customers? What are our go-to-market software risks that we are delaying addressing?

If you answer these ASAP, you are moving quality earlier into product thinking. This is the essence of Shift Left, a practice in the development world that pushes many of the aspects of quality such as testing, security and compliance earlier into the pipeline, where cost of identification and remediation are lower than if issues made it out to customers.

Shifting your thinking left to bring elements like security and testing into your pipelines automatically also requires a rethink in your hiring strategy, however. As you grow, a dedicated platform team will prove invaluable, and empower your software engineers to operate safely at scale and pace.

Another key benefit of focusing on your platform with a dedicated team is repeatability – and the efficiency that comes with it. You’re gaining a single, consolidated approach of how to scale up the whole operation, rather than individual teams solving the same challenges multiple times across the company.

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The platform team’s role is pivotal in any tech start-up scaling quickly, and it becomes even more important in larger organisations with more people and more siloed teams.

This need will only grow alongside your business

Let’s take an example of how this works.

At Healx, we use artificial intelligence to discover new treatments for rare diseases. As we expand, our key ambition is to find more treatments for more conditions. But how do you go from looking at one condition at a time to 200? You can’t just scale up staff exponentially, because that’s incredibly expensive.

What if one of those human-intensive steps doesn’t require human intervention but can be automated? What if there is a wait time between steps because there is no effective pathway to sequence workflows so it requires someone to trigger a next step? What if validation of a step takes many hours, but ultimately follows the same process each time and could be automated?

This is where an effective platform team can work with key people to optimise and improve these elements to reduce human toil, increase automation and improve flow.

Time and again, we see excellent ideas and talented people fail because what should be critical inception and development stages are compromised by delivery date pressures and quality compromises that often dismiss the future and that are often self-imposed.

Investing in your platform as early as possible may feel like a premature optimisation, but you’ll be grateful when you find yourself able to keep scaling and operating effectively.

We have the tools and the know-how to make that commonplace in 2022. Let’s do so.

By Terry Brown

Terry Brown is associate director of engineering a Healx, a UK start-up working on AI-powered treatments for rare diseases.

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