Starting with no stack

It’s been about 6 months since we started Steward. At the time, I thought we were just two non-technical guys hacking together a business idea over a long weekend. But after happening upon these posts by Albert Wenger and Andy Weissman, I realized that we had unwittingly entered hallowed ranks — we are a no stack startup.

If you haven’t heard the term, I suggest you read those posts. But the basic premise is that more and more businesses are being built essentially by tying together APIs in new and interesting ways. These aren’t just MVPs. These aren’t just fake-it-til-you-make-it companies vying for funding. These are real businesses.

Now even though we’ve only been around a few months, those posts got me thinking. No stack startups are an obvious evolution as companies have started specializing in each part of the value chain. But what are the benefits and risks of starting with no stack?

First, some background on us. At Steward, we do sales research on demand. What that means is sales and business development professionals hand off their grunt work (company research, lead generation, contact info verification etc.) to us and our global team of researchers. As you’ll see we’re a perfect candidate for starting without a stack.

We’ve evolved a bit in the past 6 months, but here’s the non-stack we started with:

  • Gmail — Customer communication
  • Google Forms — Request tracking
  • Zapier — Request notifications (internal and external to our teams of researchers)
  • Google Spreadsheets + Blockspring — QA
  • Stripe + Jotform — Payment

In other words, at the beginning, Steward was essentially run out of Google with a some basic automation (courtesy of Zapier) and payment processing (courtesy of Stripe).

Some quick takeaways from no-stack startup land:

  • The cost of starting this type of business is essentially zero. Setting aside legal costs, and the cost of our time, we only had to spend money on the domain and web hosting to get everything up and running.
  • Because we didn’t have to spend time building any technology up front, we’ve been able to focus almost exclusively on talking to customers and refining our messaging. Something we learned? Any sales guy or business development gal can outsource this type of work themselves via Upwork etc., but our value is in making that often arduous outsourcing process utterly seamless. That’s where the magic happens. And that’s where we focus our energies.
  • In addition to accelerating our learning, a customer-first orientation has given us the flexibility to go above and beyond to delight each of our new customers. The referrals have already paid that effort back in droves.
  • There are risks. One of our Zapier zaps malfunctioned (due to an erroneously edited Google Spreadsheet) and our entire request management system went awry for a day before we realized. In other words, if Zapier shuttered tomorrow, we’d be toast (well, for a few hours at least).
  • No stack is a beginning, but not an end. Sure, I think we’ll trust Stripe with our payment processing as we scale. But I can already see the end in sight for other components. For example, even though Zapier could scale with us (up to 50,000 requests per month), we need to start building our own researcher and request management system to optimize our operations. In fact, we’re already working on this one and should be ready to launch something new soon.

In sum, there are undoubtedly risks to outsourcing key components of your value chain. But what starting with no stack really does is force you to focus on the one thing that matters — your customers. And that is pretty much invaluable during the first days of any new company.