Traditional Planning Cycles Don’t Work for Startups

4 Questions 4 Founders

Building for mobile is no longer a serious question when calculating strategy for a company, it is a given. In fact, this company has made an exclusive bet on mobile with an intersection in gaming. I sat down with Suneet Shah, CEO of Open Kit to discuss his company, apps that he has built in the past and what it takes to build a gorgeous product.

This is the first of a series of interviews I will be conducting with folks that I have had the opportunity to meet in the app building community. Suneet Shah is a founder of OpenKit, a social platform for mobile game developers. He previously built several mobile apps as an Entrepreneur in Residence at YouWeb and was a Product Manager on Microsoft Office.

Suneet Shah

Why did you decide to start building apps?

1. Fun — building apps is a lot of fun— it’s tremendously gratifying to build an app and then use it right away on a mobile device in your hands. Ever since I interned at Palm in 2006 and worked on one of the Palm Treo smartphones, I’ve always been interested in the mobile space.

2. It’s where the users are — mobile reach today is over a billion people and will soon reach 3B people or more. It will be more prolific than the internet. People are starting to spending more time in mobile apps than watching TV. Mobile app usage dwarfs mobile internet usage. No matter what type of users you’re after, you can likely find them on mobile.

2. Why did you decide to build PDF Touch a Windows 8 app?

The hardest problem for any startup or new product is distribution— getting people to use your product. You’ll always have technical and product challenges, but even with a great product, getting distribution becomes the biggest challenge.

When you launch a product early on a new platform, if that platform gets mass adoption, you can basically get cheap distribution for your app. So in May of 2012 I decided to take a bet on Windows 8 and build a Win 8 tablet and PC app.

My thesis for Win 8 was that the early adopters of Win 8 tablets were likely to be “prosumers”— more sophisticated consumers who are likely to use a lot of productivity tools. So I decided to build a productivity app and that’s when I came up with the idea for PDF Touch— an app to annotate and take notes on top of PDF files.

The app was in the Windows Store on day 1 and performed great for the first 6 months. It made it into the top 20 charts, and when I made it a paid app, it was in the top 5 paid apps over all and the #1 paid productivity app. I ended up refocusing my time by founding a startup in a completely different space, but PDF Touch is still doing well, generates revenue, and has turned into a nice side project and hobby.

3. What was one of the biggest challenges you faced at your new company, Open Kit?

Focus. You will always have way more things to do than the resources you have to accomplish them. The biggest challenge is figuring out what the right and most important things to do are, and where to focus. When you’re deciding between shipping a new feature customers have asked for, fundraising, talking to new customers, and evaluating partnerships— everyone seems like it is urgent and should be a top priority. But you can’t survive if everything is your top priority.

To try and deal with this we set our focus in a couple of different ways— we use 2 week sprints (like a lot of other startups).

We also set our goals with a 30-day plan and a 90-day plan. The 30 day plan helps us focus our next few sprints and our 90-day plan allows us to be a little more strategic and think a little longer term. When you’re shipping a product, it’s easy to just lose yourself in coding and not think about larger implications of what you’re building. Having a little longer term plan helps avoid that.

That being said, plans change frequently— I like to say (not sure where I heard it): Plans are useless, but planning is essential. We re-evaluate and reference both the 30 day plan and 90 day play every week. As an early stage startup, it’s hard to have a 6 month or 1 year roadmap, because in 6 months the entire industry can change.

With our sprints and longer term plans we try to make sure we’re always focused on the right things— and even though that sounds obvious, I think it’s actually one of the toughest problems for early stage startups.

4. Any advice for someone that is starting their own company?

Find ways to scale yourself as quickly as possible. That’s my number 1 advice. Whether that means hiring new people, or delegating work you’re doing even if it means a short term dip in productivity, you have to find ways to enable your startup to get more done. We did this in a few ways— from the founding of the company we decided to build everything completely open source and involve the community. Initially, it took us a little longer to bring our product to market, because open source products by nature are subject to more technical scrutiny. But it was worth that extra time because we were able to get contributions from the community.

We were also scrappy with our hiring and found unconventional ways to hire engineers. For example our first engineer we hired as an intern from a University in Spain.