Zalmi Duchman & Ray Willig (photo courtesy of Miami New Times)

Flex Tech: How Short-Sighted Tech Can Block Expansion

When I launched my business, The Fresh Diet, back in 2005, like most entrepreneurs I was operating my bootstrapped company using a combination of word and excel documents. Unlike today, we did not have the endless amount of online tech options to help manage our day-to-day operations, and everything was done ad hoc with the limited tools I could find. Within a few weeks and a handful of customers, I knew that the current approach would never work so I hired an engineer, Ray, to begin looking for tech solutions for my meal delivery company. Our first “tech” move was to upgrade from our current excel sheet solution to an access database. I remember carrying this database around on a flash drive that was basically attached to my hip. Wherever I went, I brought that flash drive with me—it was the Holy Grail for my new business.

As the months went by and our business grew larger, I turned to Ray, now our CTO, and told him it was time to get this database online. Soon we had a web-based ERP system that became the engine of our business. Everything we did ran through this piece of software that we referred to as our “Admin.” Our kitchen reports, routing, sales, customer service, billing, everything was now accessible at the tips of my fingers wherever I went. No more flash drive riding in my pocket, I really thought I was crushing it tech-wise.

While we continued to grow, our “Admin” grew along with us, as well as our tech team. We began to no longer look at ourselves as a food company but as a food-tech company– a brand new category. By 2011 our in-house built “Admin” had processed over 50 million in revenue and we had 6 full time engineers working for us. We were cruising along in all aspects of our business, but little did we know that just around the corner we would be coming to a halting stop.

The industry and the world around us were changing, and I knew we would need to change with it. I saw all around me how social media was playing a huge role in growing start-ups by allowing customers to easily share their experiences with their family and friends. In a business with a very high CPA (Cost per Acquisition), I knew that implementing Facebook connect into our members area to allow our clients to login with their social media accounts and then share the meals they selected would do wonders for us. I envisioned our customers easily having the ability to “like” each meal, which would mean The Fresh Diet would appear in their Facebook feed, daily. The fact our clients were using our service every day and eating 3 meals and 2 snacks would mean we had the ability to really become part of their daily social experience.

But there was one major problem with this vision. When I tried to integrate the Facebook connect option into our software, the entire system crashed. Of course, I panicked and quickly had this undone. I wasn’t willing to risk my millions of dollars in revenue each month by having the heart of our business—the software—go down. My tech team told me that making any big changes like the ones I’d attempted would bring the whole system down. Our initial approach of building code on top of code, without taking into consideration what would happen if a new build “broke” a previous one, prevented such changes.

With chilling regret, I realized we’d been doing what was needed to grow our business quickly by building our software each day, but we had not been thinking of the future. I thought there must be some way to fix this mistake. My tech team looked into it, but because of the way our system was built, the changes would have come at a price we weren’t able to afford. Ultimately it wasn’t about the cost–it was the time and resources we couldn’t take away from our day-to-day tech team. Because our business relied so much on our software and was built in an unstructured way, we just didn’t have the bandwidth to roll out these much needed upgrades and our most important asset, our software, became a bottleneck for the company.

Looking back, if I could have done things differently from the beginning, I would have split the tech team in two and hired a few more engineers. I would have had one team focus on every day operations, while the other just focused on new features. I believe this would have alleviated the stress that came with having the entire team just concentrating on the present and not the future. If we would have really thought about the changes we needed to make down the road, we could have built the core of our system to be able to handle any change. Instead we only cared about the present and what we needed today, which cost us in the future

Now, whenever I advise entrepreneurs, I stress the importance of making sure their tech is flexible from the beginning. The rapidly growing tech of today can be deceiving. New innovations are promoting flexibility, but a business still has to take matters into their own hands and ensure they are building tech so that it can change and grow into the future. I can only now imagine how different things could have been if we would have built our technology in a more strategic manor. No one can see into the future, but making sure your tech is flexible can at least prepare you for whatever may come.

This article originally appeared on Forbes.com April 29th 2015

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You can find me on Twitter (@ZalmiD) and learn more about my work at www.ZalmiD.com

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