August 11th, 2008
Here’s the Deadliest Catch: Hiring an Agency to Build Your Startup
You just launched your new startup. You’re caught up in the excitement and energy of it all and happy to see your baby in the world… Here’s the catch, the deadliest: You can’t change or adapt your site because you hired an agency to build it.
Please know that I’m not picking on Agencies here… I’m picking on the entrepreneurs that hire agencies to build their startups. We have some of the best agencies in the world here, but you should NOT hire them to build your startup. (I mean no offense to any agencies that are reading this, but for startups to work with you they risk the future success of their business.)
Agencies Build Great Websites
Startups are not just websites. With a website for a small business you can get away with building it out and then other than keeping the content fresh and minor tweaks here and there, not mess with it much for a year or so. With a startup, you’re going to change, modify or add something major within the first few days, sometimes even hours of your site’s life. In some cases between the original site map and spec phase and the actual launch of the site, you’ll change something major.
No Ability to Change or Adapt
With any agency built site you’ll be able to update most of the content, maybe even add some sub content pages in your CMS area… But the startup world is extremely fast and chaotic. In order to survive a startup needs to be constantly evaluating their service, the market and the latest industry trends. When you exist in a market where a company can pop up overnight and completely shake things up, you need to be ready to adapt.
It is important to keep in mind that you can’t possibly create an exact plan for the first 18 or even 6 months of your startup. 50% of what you do will simply be wrong. You need the flexibility to constantly be testing out ideas, trying new things and you need the financial freedom to do a lot of the wrong stuff. If you’re paying an agency to be wrong 50% of the time, you’ll run out of money very quickly.
Agencies Are Not Cheap
I’ve worked in the agency world and I know that there are a lot of overhead costs to keep a small company afloat… I also know that you get what you pay for and getting great work from an agency means having to spend some money. But for the same price a startup would pay an agency to build their site, they can hire a solid designer and a talented programmer for an entire year. With your own developer you can test out ideas and be ready to respond quickly to problems and opportunities.
Lack of Speed Kills
Bids, Quotes, Objective Summaries, Wireframes, Etc. Speed kills when driving drunk. but it is what keeps your startup alive. The web world has the attention span of a goldfish and to stay on top of their rapidly shifting focus, you need to stay tuned in to what your users need / want.
None of the Founders Can Actually Develop the Website.
It should be a huge red flag for the founders and their early investors when none of the founders can develop the site. This isn’t to say that a startup without any developer founders can’t succeed, but it will take a bigger financial investment and be a bit slower to get it off the ground.
When you don’t hire an agency, you have to know what you’re doing… you don’t have to know how to program your site… but you should know why you built it in PHP rather than ASP, why a certain framework is best for you or why you should custom build, etc. It is hugely important that somebody on the early team can build the site… or you immediately hire on a developer. If you simply can’t learn enough about what you’re trying to start to manage some technical contractors than find a partner who understands the technical part… If you just can’t learn it, then don’t start your site.
A Real World Scenario
Fantasy Land: You love sushi. You live on the stuff… You can rattle off all kinds of different rolls and fish delicacies… so you want to start a fishing company. You know how it generally works. Get a boat, hire a good crew, find some good fishing spots and viola! you’re rolling in the tuna.
Reality Land: You know nothing about how the fishing business actually works. You aren’t fluent in the terms… “Your sharemen are saying your prime berth is no good, so you’re talking to a banker about any naked mans that can point you in the right direction.” What kind of boat is right for what kind of fishing… long-lining, crabbing, etc.? How do you evaluate the skills of a good captain & crew? What is the appropriate equipment you need to buy to be effective? How do you know when you’re spending too much on something or not spending enough?
A Cure for Agencyitis
So what if you’re one of the entrepreneurs who has already hired an agency… or are a non-technical founder not sure how to go about learning what you need to learn to hire the right developer?
I didn’t want this to just be a harsh critique and not offer solutions, but the answer to the above question is a long answer and this post has already exceeded most people’s internet attention span. So I’m going to write a part 2 of this post with a hopefully helpful and in depth answer. Look for it here, or the coming soon www.InternetAstronauts.com – A Bootstrap Startup Blog
The Darius’ Advocate
The points above are from my experiences, but I’d love to hear your thoughts… even if you completely disagree. An agency perspective could be useful too.
And now on a lighter note… and sticking with the fishing theme:
6 Ways Bering Sea Fisherman are Like Startup Entrepreneurs
They Risk Big
Alaskan king crab fishing reported over 300 fatalities per 100,000 in 2005. While startup entrepreneurs rarely directly risk their lives like the bering sea fisherman, they risk their financial security, personal relationships and often put huge burdens on their loved ones.
They Love What You Do
If you’ve watched the deadliest catch than you would know that Bering Sea fisherman love what they do. They hear a calling to the sea and she beats the hell out of them every season… but they come back every year because they love being fishermen. Many of them have been generations fishermen and they pass down their love of the sea to their kids.
People Think They’re Nuts
It’s hard to watch the show and not think these guys are all missing a couple key connectors in their brain. The weather is as hostile as it gets, the work is back breaking hard and you stink like fish for weeks… oh yeah, and you’ll likely get sea sick enough to know what you look like from the inside out. To the outside person, it just doesn’t make any sense. Why give up the security of a comfortable career and balanced home life in order to work ridiculous hours and risk so much? Because they love it.
They Are Nuts
Let’s face it… you do have to be a little nutty to suffer as much as they do. But crazy ideas are often the most successful. It takes that stretch of the imagination and sanity to come up with something that doesn’t yet exist.
They Smell Bad
Startup entrepreneurs definitely don’t smell as bad as a fisherman, but chaotic working hours often throw a wrench in any plans you have to do basic things like grooming, working out… and sometimes even eating and drinking non-caffienated fluids.
They Need to Be a Bit Lucky
Fishermen have Charts, Maps, Expert Team Members… and if they drop their pots where the crab aren’t it could spell disaster for the season. They also can’t prepare for the random rogue waves that have been known to steal fishermen from the decks of the boat. A startup entrepreneur can have a solid launch plan, the right team and at the end of the day… a little bit of luck could be the difference between your rockets igniting or exploding on the launch pad.
They Make Good Money
The last one doesn’t count… because if you can’t handle the previous 6, then it doesn’t matter how much money you could make it just wouldn’t be worth it. Being a startup entrepreneur like being a Bering Sea fisherman is not about the money. It is about doing what you love and doing something new, exciting and hard as hell.
[Editor: Thanks, once again, to Darius for sharing his ideas and opinions on the startup scene. I always look forward to hearing his insights and first-hand accounts from the trenches. For more from Darius...]