Startup CTO — Premature Scaling

Michael Karliner

So, you are a first time CTO in a start-up. You’ve just landed your seed investment, and you and your team are feeling pretty good about yourselves. At last, you have enough money to be able to start the real work of building out your product or service.

Your CEO is completely committed to her vision has a near religious belief in it. And that is as it should be, because it a steadfast vision is necessary to be able to weather all the storms of startup life.

It’s at this point that you really start the transition from Lead Technologist to CTO. It’s often an uncomfortable process as you find yourself morphing from dedicated techy to a techy/business hybrid creature. But that too is normal.

This is also the start of one of the more dangerous phases in the life of a start-up, and it is characterised by exactly that fervent belief in your proposition. The marketing team start to make their plans for launch and in a management meeting, the inevitable question is asked of you:

‘Will the system hold up if are really,really successful in the first day/week/month?’.

Almost equally inevitable is the fact that no-one will be prepared to think about the much more likely event, which is that your much anticipated launch will be greeted by a vast, echoey silence, as the anticipated hordes of users fail to turn up.

And it’s at this point that you will save your company for the first (of many) times.

For the truth is that even the most modest technology stack will be more than enough to handle the traffic from the vast majority of startups. It will be quick and economic to implement, but most of all it will be quick to change in the face of experience. And therein lies the key to failure or success, for the moment that you start implementing the latest high performance technology as used by Google or Facebook or whoever, you start locking in assumptions about your business and overall proposition that are probably wrong to a greater or lesser extent. Very few businesses have failed because of a lack of capacity, but one of the most common failure modes of startups is not being able to re-cast their product or service quickly enough once it has become obvious that the original offering is not working.

So, as a CTO, it’s your duty to ensure that simplicity, flexibility and speed to market are your watchwords, and if that means you can’t take Facebook level traffic day one, that’s just fine.

Michael Karliner

Written by

Programmer, maker and inventor, occasional CTO, living in London

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