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How to make buying computers and software for your startup suck less

Worrying about buying people new computers isn’t one of the first tasks in a new tech startup but it sucks when you’re big enough that it becomes a thing. Here’s my thoughts on how to make it all suck less.

In many cases, the first computer hardware in a startup are the personal laptops or tablets owned by the founding team, contractors, and sometimes, the early hires. This gear isn’t owned by the company and that’s probably just as well – you all have much more important things to do than decide what computer gear to buy, especially if you already have your own.

If you’re leaving a previous startup (or leaving any other job which provides you with a computer, phone or tablet) before you go and the bridge is burned, see if they’re interested in selling you the equipment you’ve been working on. Often they’re happy to offload it at a reasonable market price because they don’t need it or because there’s nobody to wipe the contents and set it up for a new employee, and they’d rather buy your replacement employee a replacement laptop. I still own a classic ‘Dotcom boom’ era Herman Miller Aeron chair which is as good mechanically and ergonomically as the day my employer moved us into a bigger, fancier office.

When you’re negotiating to hire early employees, ask them if they’ll be bringing their own laptop and phone. Their reaction is sometimes a great indicator to whether they’re truly an early hire (“actually, I’d be much happier if I could bring my own MacBook Pro and work with that”) versus someone you should maybe hire when you’re 30+ employees (“I don’t actually own my own laptop, at home I just watch Netflix on the laptop my employer’s IT department gave me”).

Sooner or later, you will start hiring people who won’t come with their own laptop or phone, and will expect their employer to provide all that for them. This is an important inflection point when you or one of your cofounders may become responsible for something called “IT Strategy” a thing which in larger organisations may require as much as 25% of the workforce to set, maintain and protect. And I bet that’s not what you had in mind when you began your startup. So… let’s see if we can minimise the pain a little.

Lean IT Strategy for startup founders

The leaner your “IT Strategy” the better. Your operating principle should be “how do I push as much of the selection, specification and maintenance responsibility back onto the individual, so I don’t have to do it, without causing utter chaos?”

“Lean” should almost never mean “standardised”. Your job as a startup founder is to do everything you can to accelerate your progress towards product/customer fit and rapid growth. The equipment your team uses will be one of three things which can influence growth and product/customer fit (the other two being “their brains” and “the way they collaborate and solve problems”). Usually, people will be happier if you treat them as individuals and more productive if given the opportunity to choose exactly the right tools for the job.

So let the finance team buy Windows laptops if that’s what they want, and let the design teams buy 21” monitors if that’s what they want, and let the developers buy a MacBook Pro, if that’s what they want.

There’s a chair in there

IT strategy doesn’t just involve a computer and a phone. The right chair is as important as the right laptop for productivity so I recommend giving people choice on a chair too too if your startup owns its own furniture (vs working out of an accelerator, incubator or coworking space where furniture is included).

I recommend giving everyone a budget – say, AUD$5,000 – for computer, peripherals (external monitor, keyboard, mouse, etc) and chair. Make it available as part of their onboarding process, prior to their first day, and it can be a very positive start to their new job. It’s easier to model the cost too as you can build it in to the total cost of hiring someone new. You’ll find that people very rarely spend the entire budget and never go over it if they’re just new to the company, so you should always be under budget on your IT strategy. Winning!

Some dodgy tax advice

Speaking of budgets, check with your accountant, but you should be able to get a tax write off on capital equipment expenses like computers up to a total of AUD20,000 per year, so the equipment cost of your first four hires may be entirely deductible. Alternatively, the depreciation (the amount by which each bit of equipment is worth less each year) is claimable. Remember though, in order to claim it, you’ve got to have revenue and tax to claim against!

If your startup hasn’t already failed, set a day every year towards the end of the financial year when you decide whether the equipment needs updating, and review the budget. You can have a fantastic mid-year party if you’re all unboxing and setting up new equipment together.

The difference between utility and personal identity

When someone in your product team comes forward to ask for a new computer, you should remember there’s probably a huge gap between “necessary utility” and “what they’ll tell you they need”. It can be tempting to make everyone work from the cheapest and least-powerful gear necessary to do the job, but remember that for product people, a laptop isn’t just a tool, it can also be part of their personal identity, a sign of rank or status, and a means of creative expression.

When they flip open their laptop in a café or at a conference, the kind of laptop they flip open, the stickers on the lid, the kind of bag they carry it in… all of this is often as important to their personal brand as the clothes you wear or where you live are important to yours.

Product people would generally prefer to communicate and interact with the entire world via their devices rather than face-to-face, so trying to make someone use the wrong device is in some ways analogous to asking you or I to talk through a numb mouth after a dental anaesthetic.

IT strategy as reward and motivation

Often giving someone the desk, chair, laptop and screen-of-their-dreams is the most effective motivation and retention tool in your tool belt. It works better than cash because it’s the company’s hardware and they’ll miss it if they leave, and cash needs topping up every year whereas the equipment probably won’t need to be upgraded for at least a couple of years! (speaking of which make sure you don’t buy anything if the press rumours are that a new model is coming soon, because when that ships it will make whatever you’ve bought seem lame, now matter how well suited for purpose it actually is.

Set everyone a budget rather than buy everyone the same equipment. That allows them to express their individual preferences in device and peripherals. It also encourages them to feel ownership which may result in them taking better care of it.

In my experience, the simplicity of having everyone on Windows, or everyone on OSX, or everyone on the same hardware, is much smaller than the benefit that comes from allowing everyone to work on the device that allows them to be more productive. However you’ve got to make it very clear that the decision – and then the responsibility to live with that decision for the next 2–3 years – is entirely theirs. Don’t let them buy the wrong equipment because they haven’t researched it properly unless you’re prepared to make them pay to replace it!

What software should we use?

When it comes to the software your startup uses, if you’re smaller than 50 employees I don’t think there’s any way you could justify using Microsoft’s Office and Exchange products over Google’s GSuite (Google Mail, Docs, Drive and Calendar). Currently starting at AUD5.00 per user per month, it’s half the price of Microsoft’s Office 365. It opens, converts and saves in .doc, .xls and .ppt formats so you can bridge the gap with Office users.

By the way, you shouldn’t have to pay extra for more hard drive space on the computers you buy because the more your team stores in the cloud in Google Drive or Dropbox, the less you have to worry about access, security and backup.

All the security you need

Ensure one of the few compulsory policies in your startup is to use a password manager such as Dashlane, Lastpass or 1Password to create unguessable passwords and store them, across all the cloud based tools your team uses. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked for access to a startup’s SAAS tool and been told, “oh here, have this ID and (easily guessable) password – we all use the same one”. That is very, very bad. Kill-your-startup-to-death-bad. Sackable-offence-bad.

There are no exceptions – the team won’t follow your “non-guessable password stored in a password manager” policy if they know the CEO doesn’t follow it. Learn to use your password manager software across all your devices and you’ll find it’s actually great for your own productivity, particularly on smartphones and tablets where it’s harder and slower to tap in an alphanumeric password. Let your password manager tap it in for you, faster than you can think the words, “man I hate passwords so much!”

Most team SAAS tools require you to create an ‘admin’ account with super powers for adding and removing users and for centralised billing. Make sure you’re clear on whether a new SAAS tool will require that before you let a team member sign the company up for a SAAS tool under their own email address. That can come back and bite you later if the team member leaves the company, or the team member decides to get creative with the company’s only credit card, or the ex-employee decides to secretly keep using the SAAS tool you’re paying for, long after they’ve left you. A good practice is to setup a GSuite account like “registrations@yourstartup.com” or “saastools@yourstartup.com” for admin purposes and control access to that account and the credit card hanging off it.

There are still very few examples of an active virus or worm in the Apple or Android ecosystem but if you’re in the Windows world, you may need to choose and budget for anti-virus software. Serves you right.

If you’ve somehow managed to hire people dumb enough to fall prey to social engineering ploys such as opening unexpected email file attachments or clicking on shortened URLs in emails or instant messengers, you might want to think about whether you’re really cut out to be a startup founder. But using cloud-based email like GSuite will help a lot with minimising the risk that anything will get through to the inbox.

The risks of using public or unsecured wifi connections are significant and less well-known, however. Using the free wifi in a cafe or the room wifi in a hotel is a great way to give ‘the bad men’ a back door into your computer, and from there, your startup. Make everybody put a VPN app on all devices that access wifi and if you’re smart, use one that either automatically turns on when your team members connect to an unsecured wifi network, or automatically prompts them to turn the VPN’s encryption on.

Saving money when buying Apple

Apple products are famously expensive and famously hard to get a discount on. So make sure you setup a corporate account with your nearest Apple Store – it won’t cost you anything but you’ll sometimes get better pricing, and you’ll always get shorter wait times for support. Make sure you pay for the AppleCare option, it’s an excellent warranty. It will definitely save you money in the long run when something breaks or stops working.

Commercial hire purchase deals, rent and leases always seem to be a rip-off. But Apple’s own financing offers zero interest rental for up to 48 months. You don’t end up owning it at the end of the term, but you can swap what you rent for the latest model during your rental agreement. Or at the end of the rental you can decide to buy it at a fair market price (which in Apple’s case isn’t much, the gear depreciates fast).

You may be able to claim up to 100% of those rental payments against your company’s income but check with your accountant about that.

If budget is tight, the few surviving independent Apple resellers periodically offer refurbished equipment which has often been upgraded so that it will match current models on performance, for less. And buying refurbished equipment from one of the few remaining Apple resellers out there is one great way to get super-good tech support and advice when you need it.

Fuck printers. And double-fuck fax/scanner/copiers

Seriously, printers and those ‘multi-malfunction-devices’ that are designed to jam paper in inaccessible places and copy when you meant to scan, are more and more like poker machines, primarily designed to suck out money.

You press a button, ink gets squirted on paper, the paper comes from trees the environment needs to eat carbon, the ink is made from crazy toxic things and panda tears, comes packed in three times its volume in shit you need to remember to take out to the recycling bin, and the ink gets more and more expensive with each passing year.

The more printers in your office, the more people will print, and the less they’ll think about how much they’re printing, and whether they really needed to print anything at all. Soon there will be more printed paper in your paper recycling bin than clean paper in the stationary cupboard. So fuck that.

You’re a tech startup. If you can’t think through ways to get by without a printer in the paper-free world of the twenty first century, you may be working in the wrong industry.

  • Keep everything in the cloud, using things like Google Docs that people can just collaborate on in the cloud, instead of printing out and scribbling on.
  • Instead of buying a printer, buy a data projector.
  • Make anybody who wants to print something, take it home and print it there. Or make them walk three blocks to the nearest copy place and print it there. They probably need the exercise.
  • Make them go ask a neighbouring startup if they can print it there. The shame will restrict casual printing.
  • The further the printer output tray is from your office, the less you’ll find anybody needs it.

And with that rant, your startup’s lean IT strategy is good to go!

This blog post was inspired by Gemma Lloyd of DCC Jobs who actually asked a much simpler question

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Thoughts and opinions from M8 Ventures

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Alan Jones

Alan Jones

I’m Alan Jones, coach for accelerators, partner at M8 Ventures, angel investor. Earlier: founder, early Yahoo product manager, tech reporter.

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