Something a little different today. For my regular readers, I promise to try to keep the number of “opinion/rant” posts to a minimum and we’ll be back on our regular technical content in a few days. It’s pretty easy to just whack the keys and issue Epic Pronouncements on things, but the effect is limited:
In any case, I have had this post kicking around in my brain in some form for years.
Preliminary Comments, Background, Disclaimers
I’m going to talk about “algorithms startups”: this is a vague term to mean a startup that is oriented around building and selling (in some form) an algorithm – as opposed to building a complete solution and trying to make money directly from customers. I don’t mean a “pure” IP play where you invent something, patent the hell out of it, and try to extract money from world+dog. I’m assuming we’re talking about inventing something that didn’t exist before, writing the code yourselves, and trying to make money more or less directly from the code.
My experience (short version): I joined a startup (Sensory Networks, founded in 2003) while it was quite large in 2006, watched it lose traction until the end of 2008, and formed part of a small team (5 people, at the start of 2009) which took a small chunk of additional funding and took the business to a decent exit (I claim ‘decent’, in terms of the scale and funding of the startup since 2009) in 2013.
We built a software-based regular expression matcher called Hyperscan which we sold as a closed-source commercial library. Hyperscan was later (2015) open-sourced at Intel. I don’t know how to make money directly off open source so if you’re hoping for insights there I don’t have any experience.
Sensory Networks wasn’t planned to be an pure ‘algorithms startup’ – we just wound up there by default; focusing on the core of the task was the only viable way forward from 2009 onward.
I should note that many – most, even – of the interesting things that happened at Sensory Networks and subsequently at Intel are commercial-in-confidence. So, boringly, I am not going to be reeling forth exciting details of evaluations and commercial deals made with brand name companies That You’ve Probably Heard Of. There will be no exciting insider revelations, just affirmation of principles you’ve probably heard 50 times before for the most part. I will also not discuss acquisition mechanics.
I draw my experience both from Sensory Networks and my continued experiences with the Hyperscan product but also from watching closely a lot of other startups in the area. While we did some things right, we got a lot of stuff wrong, too. Unfortunately, a bunch of the things we didn’t do right are tied up with things that I can’t talk about or they are speculative (it’s easy to speculate about things you should have done but hard to tell whether pursuing alternate strategies would have worked better).
I’m assuming that most readers have already heard about the idea of continuous integration, fixing bugs first, etc. so we can take that stuff as read.
Many of the principles here were applied by much better software engineers than I am; I may talk a great line about testability and API design and fuzzing and so on, but most of the real work in this area was done by the core Sensory Networks team of developers from the restart in 2009 through to the Intel acquisition and beyond: Matt Barr, Alex Coyte, and Justin Viiret.
It’s also clear that the continued good qualities of Hyperscan and the freedom to pursue the strategy of open-sourcing the product are due to many good people at Intel. I don’t want to make it sound like the story of the product is over. What we learned is captured in the existing Hyperscan product and the processes around it. This post doesn’t focus on the post-acquisition side of things; the privilege of being able to give away your software is while working in a large company is a very different story than the process of getting to that point. It’s also a story that you’re not usually allowed to tell! 🙂
Opinions are my own and not that of any other person, past employer, etc.
So, in no particular order, some opinions about ‘algorithms startups’.
Doing an algorithms startup is a lot of fun
First of all, while there were parts of the process that were awful, if you like computer science, this kind of startup can yield an enjoyable experience. This may vary for different team members and at different times, of course. If you want to work on interesting algorithms and have picked a market where that’s actually rewarded, you might enjoy your work.
Doing an algorithms startup won’t necessarily make you tons of money
Obviously, no startup is guaranteed to make tons of money. But algorithms startups have some extra downsides.
- You are attempting to make money from other businesses. You’re going to paid a pittance relative to what they are getting, for good reason. They are building the user interfaces, supporting thousands of customers, building all the boring code you aren’t interested in or couldn’t possibly write yourself.
It’s also very likely that you’ll get paid very slowly. Try not to die in the interim!
The lifesaver for you is that once you get your system accepted by other businesses, they will keep paying for it and you can go and sell the same code to lots of other companies (“Doctrine of Multiple Use”).
- You are competing with Free and Open Source if you are closed-source, or you are trying to make money off a product that people can get for free and dissect if not.
I have no experience trying to make money off FOSS software so I can’t speculate about how hard that is.
Competing with FOSS (while still asking for money for closed-source software) is difficult, and you need an enormous advantage. There were a number of FOSS regular expression matchers around when Hyperscan was closed-source, but none of them were close to providing what our customers wanted (large scale pattern matching and ‘streaming’ matching).
I think a startup of this kind can make a fair bit of money, but I would be surprised to hear that it’s in the ‘hyper-growth’ category.
Speculative: What should an algorithms startup do after capturing most of the Total Addressable Market for that algorithm? When are you ready to do that?
This gets into unexplored territory: our answer turned out to be “get acquired”. I would hazard a guess that it’s at least possible for a algorithms startup with a good structure to move into adjacent markets and continue growing. Maybe if you’re good enough at this you could make something big…
Equally speculative would be answers to questions like “when is your core algorithmic product essentially ‘done'”? We continued to tune Hyperscan, always aware of gaps in performance, excessive costs of various kinds (bytecode size, stream size, compile time) and gaps in functionality that might be expected from a regular expression matcher (unsupported constructs).
So we never answered either of these questions – at least not directly – but that answer would be pretty important for a similar startup in a similar place several years in.
Don’t drift into being a consulting business
Stick to the Doctrine of Multiple Use; don’t build special-purpose builds of your software if you can help it, and definitely don’t just wander into consulting if you didn’t intend to have a consulting business.
We had some extra help with this – the Australian government had a nice R&D scheme (now the “Research and Development Tax Incentive”). This mandated a doctrine of “multiple sales” – we couldn’t get a generous credit for work done for just one company. This ‘restraint’ helped us in the long term (not just the money, but the discipline).
We did add a few features in the pre-Hyperscan 4.0-era (before the open source release) that were each ultimately needed by just one customer in the end. These features were always theoretically interesting more broadly and we didn’t do special-purpose builds for single customers; these single-customer features were made available to all. However, they never really got wide adoption.
Ultimately these features were dead-ends – adding a big testing load (adding weird new modes or API functions often increased the test load geometrically) while never getting much use. On the flip side, some of these features were needed to stay alive commercially.
Iterate, and release a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) early, but make the MVP actually Viable
You have to offer something much better than the alternative. A critical functionality improvement or 5-10x on some metric will get you noticed – and unless you’re a drop-in replacement for something else, you’ll probably need that big improvement.
The idea that you build a Minimal Viable Product is now a cliché. It’s harder than it sounds, even when you plan to do it. For an algorithmic startup, there’s a fine line between “unintentionally trivial” and “minimal”.
When we built Hyperscan, the first iteration of what became the successful product (Hyperscan 2.0 – 1.0 was built on different lines and very little aside from the parser was retained) was pretty awful in many respects. Tons of different regular expression constructs would be either slow or not supported (“Pattern too large error”). An extremely early evaluation version even occasionally printed curse words on the console, a behaviour not normally desired in software libraries.
However, we did have some killer features:
- Supporting lots of regular expressions at a time (alternatives like libpcre or Java regex only supported 1 at a time),
- Streaming (the ability to suspend and resume a regex match, as you would need to if matching a regex across a stream of packets), and
- High performance (we were typically quite a bit faster than alternatives – 5-10x was typical).
People were willing to live with a lot of quirks and edge cases if we could deliver on those three items. Over time most of the more obvious quirks and edge cases went away (especially compared to the competition).
We weren’t a drop-in replacement for any other regular expression matcher, so a modest increase in performance was always offset against developer effort at our customers. Evaluations where we couldn’t deliver a big speedup or some substantial new functionality almost always failed. They even failed later, when we were an open source product and were giving Hyperscan away for free.
If your key selling point is performance, but you’re only offering 20% better, you’re in trouble – especially if you’re not a straightforward drop-in replacement for someone else’s product.
Your product will have gaps, but the earlier your customers discover them, the better
Aside from the elevator pitch (hardly the time to tell people how much Hyperscan sucks), we were careful to set expectations early. For us, there was a hierarchy of when the bad news gets found out:
- During early discussions (“Your product isn’t a white-box IPS system? Oh.”)
- During a technical deep dive (“Your product doesn’t support back-references? No, thank you!”)
- During the evaluation when your customer tried to integrate your code (‘doesn’t compile’, ‘API wasn’t actually what we expected’)
- When the customer tried to load signatures into our regex engine (“fail at compile time”)
- When the customer ran our engine during evaluations (“performance or overheads not good at run-time”)
- After the customer has signed a contract and shipped something with our product in it to their customers.
There are a number of terrible strategies that many startups use that pushes the ‘bad news discovery’ downward in this hierarchy. Some of these terrible strategies are technical, some are marketing related.
It’s better to eat the pain early; most developers understand the principle that you’re better off getting a nasty message from the compiler than a crash at run-time. This principle of “bad news early” is good practice beyond that. You won’t screw your customers; you’ll pleasantly surprise them in the evaluations and you’ll get a well-deserved reputation for honesty. You also won’t waste time in meetings or evaluations that can’t end well.
Maybe if you don’t waste their time now, they’ll be more interested in you when your offering is better aligned with what they want.
Work clean and test everything
It’s tempting to cut corners when you’re a struggling startup. However, you’re actually less set up to get away with cutting corners than a big corporation. If you mess things up, that becomes your reputation – you can’t send a VP out with a few more talking points for his or her weekly golf game with his good buddies who are all VPs at the customer whose product you just stuffed up. If you mess up, you’re dead.
Don’t mess up.
We did this once – we disabled a test (unusually large inputs) after we made a few changes with the intent of turning it back on shortly after (this only affected evaluation versions of our code, not commercially shipping versions of our code). As per Murphy’s Law, naturally this bug was found, not by us, but by an evaluation team at one of the biggest networking companies in the world, on the second day of their first evaluation of our product. The evaluation continued, but with an air of forced smiles and gritted teeth, and didn’t go much further.
Assume anything you don’t test is broken.
You will need to test your code relentlessly, and designing your code for “testablity” is critical. We rejected some features strictly because we didn’t know how to quickly and programmatically find a ‘ground truth’ for how they should behave (needed for our fuzz testing). Other features had their design influenced or dictated by testing requirements.
For example, our ‘streaming’ feature has always been guaranteed to behave identically, in terms of matches generated, to the matches generated by block mode writes. This was very hard – many other regular expression implementations either don’t do streaming at all, or sort of ‘fake’ it (i.e. you can get matches as long as they aren’t spread out too far in the buffer, or too spread out over multiple packets, or on some regular expressions you get them accurately but not all, etc).
By sticking to a strong principle (streaming always works the same as block mode) we could test our stream mode programmatically without having a poorly defined notion of when we were and weren’t expecting to be correct.
The ability to ‘fuzz’ a complex system is a lifesaver, but it comes with a trap
Fuzzing is great. I met a couple Microsoft employees at RSA in 2009 and they asked me: “do you fuzz-test your system”? I admitted “no, we don’t, but I’ll try that when I get back”. We found a lot of stuff – before our real customers did.
We invested a lot of effort into the idea of figuring out how to most effectively test regular expressions – they have a complex structure in themselves, and then you’ve got to figure out what sort of inputs will make interesting things happen inside the bytecodes that we built in Hyperscan. There’s no point testing regular expressions with random data – all those nice optimizations that allow you to skip the hard stuff whenever a required “literal factor” isn’t there will “protect” you from finding your bug. Great for performance, bad for fuzzing. Thus, we put a lot of work into building positive and near-miss negative regular expression test cases. We build systems that were every bit as complex and (arguably) interesting as the regex optimizations itself.
Get interested in innovative ways to test your product. This is not a second-class activity for the “lesser developers” (many other firms have discovered this).
The trap: having a good fuzzer gives you a sense of safety, allowing you to build a more complex system than you might have dared to otherwise. Possibly this is dangerous; I’m still thinking about this point. It’s said that people who think their cars are safer are more likely to drive like maniacs…
Assume every metric that isn’t measured is Bad News for you.
In the same way that everything that isn’t tested is broken, any performance metric you don’t regularly measure (and regularly look at the measurements) is ugly news, showing that your system is bad and getting worse.
Assume everything you don’t measure is probably bad
Long after we supposedly knew what we were doing, we managed to regress our main public benchmark case for open source Hyperscan without noticing. It was differently structured than our normal performance runs, so we didn’t put it in our regular performance matrix – so out of the 21,000 numbers generated per night by our Continuous Performance Monitoring infrastructure, we managed to mess up our ‘brag numbers’. It wasn’t hard to fix, and the performance change resulted from a restructure that likely made sense (most performance numbers improved, and these numbers went back on track long-term), but it was a fresh illustration of a principle that we should have grasped already.
Watch out for Individual Contributor “Tourists”
We all know them. These folks are heading for management by the shortest route possible. They don’t like coding or grunt-work and the minute they can stop, they will be telling people what to do. Computer scientists should be skilled professionals, but many people enter the field with the goal of doing as little as possible of that and to get up into management as soon as they can.
I would be stunned to hear that an architect with 3-4 years professional experience (or a structural engineer, or a doctor, etc.) would deem themselves ready to go lead a team of professionals (often with more experience than they have), but a lot of people coming through computing degrees are expressly on that path.
These people are dangerous in startups because there are few reasonable outlets for their ambition. There’s just not that much of a hierarchy to climb; don’t let them make one to suit themselves.
Conversely, reward your Individual Contributors and don’t dead-end them on compensation.
The converse of this comes from the motivation of many of the “tourists” to get out of these individual contributor jobs: the pay sucks. A mediocre manager is usually paid far better than a really great individual contributor. A well-rewarded ‘technical leadership’ track is a good ideal – rather than dead-ending your technical people or hoping that they’ll magically turn into good person-managers.
Of course, this is a nice trick, given as a startup you probably won’t have any money for a while. But it would be good to think about it, especially before you thoughtlessly splash out a salary $20K per year higher to a random VP of Something-or-Other or a Director of Important Sounding Stuff than you pay your absolute best developer.
A good team is not comprised of 100% ‘A’ players on some “Most Awesome Geek” standard.
It’s actually OK to hire people who are ‘B’ or even ‘C’ players in some areas. The right analogy is closer to one of those team sports with relatively specialized players – being an Australian the natural analogies are cricket or Rugby Union, but our American readers might think NFL. A team full of the ‘best all-rounders you can find’ would be mediocre in most sports; and team full of the ‘best quarterbacks/fast bowlers/etc. you can find’ would be terrible.
Even a small startup needs a diversity of skills. If you put everyone through an algorithms-on-the-whiteboard exam and take the top performers, you might wind up with 5 algorithms / compiler / systems nerds and no-one who knows how to talk to customers, write documentation, test your system or do releases and builds.
In the Computer Science world, there’s an snootiness about certain skills trumping all the others. You need to hire people who are excellent at something you need and willing to learn some new things.
Build only what you need
It’s a lot easier to hear complaints from customers that your API doesn’t do enough, and fix that, than it will be to wean them off stupid things you put in your API back when you didn’t know what you were doing.
We saw a number of preposterously complex APIs for regular expression matching go by over the years. A minimalist API was popular with customers and easier to test.
We made some decisions that meant our API was not necessarily tiny – having streaming, multiple regular expression support, and having to completely avoid dynamic memory allocation meant that Hyperscan’s API is quite a bit more complex than, say, RE2, but we converged pretty quickly to a small API that we were broadly happy with.
Don’t throw extra features in there if you aren’t sure customers really want them. If you have to do it, mark them experimental and kill them off if you don’t hear much about them.
Listen to your customers but don’t let them design your API for you
We had a lot of really valuable feedback over the years from customers. Getting information about their use case was hugely valuable. However, an exercise that never went well was trying to co-design API features with them. It didn’t seem to work. They don’t know enough about how your system operates to make good suggestions.
Capture significant use cases, even when you don’t have a brilliant solution for the use case.
One thing that worked well was to identify important use cases and capture them in an API even if our implementation wasn’t great. For example, a lot of users wanted to be able to identify matches that occurred in a range of the output – e.g. “This regex /<R>/ matches only if the end of the match is between the 100th and 200th byte”. The user could have been told “hey, we don’t have any particularly good way of handling this – why don’t you do that check yourself, as our solution for this will be pretty much equivalent”. However, over time, implementing optimizations for this case is something we did – which we would not have been able to do if we told our users to go away and bake the solution for the problem into their code, which we wouldn’t see.
So if the API requested creates information you can use, it may make sense to capture the requirement even before you have a good solution.
An example of where we didn’t get this right (initially) was regular expression ordering. Due to the way we initially implemented things, we didn’t return regular expression matches in order by ending offset, nor we guarantee that the user would not get the occasional duplicate match (pretty bad, but it turned out that these things were OK in a MVP). One problem, though, was that users who picked up Hyperscan 2.0 (2.1 added ordering and duplicate suppression) built layers of code that dealt with our inadequacies – these layers of code get baked-in and often sprout other functionality, so even after we guaranteed ordering, those layers of code were there, sucking up performance for a task that was mostly no longer even needed.
This isn’t a license to just build castles in the sky – the requirements that you’re capturing should be important. This principle contradicts minimalism, so be careful.
Don’t Bog Down on Trivial Stuff Immediately (or at all)
There are a lot of decisions to be made early in a startup. One pretentious thing you can do is decide that, because your startup is going to grow to take over the world and be really awesome right from the start, you should definitely spend a nice constructive period of weeks arguing over things like coding standards (and maybe some company values and a mission statement). You will find that Parkinson’s Law of Triviality takes over – everyone has an opinion on this kind of stuff and you’ll get a tedious all-in brawl for weeks, resulting in some standards that everyone will go ahead and ignore.
This didn’t apply to programming languages for us (this was more or less dictated by the level of complexity of the compiler, dictating C++, and the harsh environment of the run-time, dictating C, and the huge variety of platforms and tool-chains we needed to support – ruling out pretty much everything else). But I imagine that a nice knock-down-drag-out pissing contest (not a nice combination of mental images, is it?) about programming languages would be another great way to waste the first 2-4 weeks (months?) of your investors money.
Be aware of the risks of ‘bikeshedding’ at all times, not just starting out. However, it seems particularly unpleasant to get stuck in this phase early – the temptation will be strong when the startup isn’t really working yet.
Work Clean – Legals
Another area where it’s imperative to work clean, as a small startup, is legally. I am not qualified to provide legal advice, but it is of enormous benefit to think about this from Day 1. Do you own your code? Can you prove that? Have you dragged in random fragments of code that you don’t know the licenses for? Have you hired corner-cutters whose code will be revealed to be 50% copypasta from Stack Overflow and 40% fragments of unacknowledged GPL code?
I’m not specifically recommending you use a service for automated detection of this (Black Duck seems to do well, but I don’t know whether a small startup would want to spend their money on this); just don’t hire people who do that sort of thing, and remind junior developers that it’s not OK.
Similarly, a lot of startups join consortia and relentlessly announce partnerships that amount to little more than a press release and a exchange of banners on your website. These agreements may not bring you much more, but bear in mind, every bit of paper you accumulate will be something that you’ll be hearing about again during due diligence.
Every bit of paper you sign is a potential millstone. Don’t do a whole pile of important-sounding ‘businessing’ stuff that doesn’t get you anything and involves you signing tons of legals.
Think really carefully before you splash out small shareholdings to random people. You’ll need to go back to these people during an acquisition.
Dance like no-one’s watching; enter into agreements like every single thing you have ever done will be meticulously examined by one or more teams of lawyers working on behalf of a Fortune 500 company, as well as your own team of lawyers, who will be billing you for the time.
Work clean – Static and dynamic analysis
In our experience, running every static and dynamic analysis tool you can lay your hands on is worth trying. Both customers and acquirers down the track will thank you. Some tools are garbage, but as a rule, being clean on things like valgrind and clang static analysis and running with all warnings switched on and set to stop compilation was worth the trouble.
This is a day-to-day hit; you will occasionally have to do Weird Things to satisfy these tools. That’s a steady dull pain, but it’s better than the sharp pain you’ll experience if one of these tools could have caught something and didn’t.
Build in an niche appropriate to your scale; don’t take your tricycle out on the expressway
One of the keys to our success is that hardly anyone attempted to muscle in on our territory. While it seems that good quarter of the world’s serious computer scientists have a pet regular expression project, very few of these projects are ever built out as a commercial product. There were a number of regular expression libraries that had quite decent performance on some of our key use cases, but none of these libraries had the work done to make them robust and high-performing across the use cases we handled.
What competition did exist, fortunately, thought hardware-accelerated regular expressions were a great idea. Perhaps this is a stroke of luck that happens only once in a career.
Our job was doable with a small team over a number of years because ‘high-speed software regular expressions’ was a niche: profitable enough, but not too crowded. I’m glad we hadn’t decided that “video compression” or “neural networks” or “machine translation” was actually our niche.
Expect to fail evaluations and keep trying
We had evaluations at big name companies that failed 4 or 5 times before finally getting a win. Sometimes the teams wander away, sometimes your product is just not good enough, sometimes they were just kicking the tires with no intent of ever doing business.
If you go single-threaded with the intent of landing that amazing nameplate customer, it might well kill your company. They might say ‘no’. Worse still, they might say ‘yes’, but you have invested so much time in them, and waited so long for revenue, that you’ll wish you failed the evaluation.
Persist and chase many opportunities; also try to find out what went wrong (in case there’s a next time, or in case the mistakes you made will effect you elsewhere). The latter is surprisingly difficult; in fact, it’s often hard to elicit feedback of any kind – even from a successful evaluation. After bad – or even good – results, you may be like these two gentlemen from the Coen Brothers’ “Burn After Reading” (caution: strong language)
Build a huge database of benchmarks and actually look at them
One of the big advantages that we built over the years at Sensory Networks was a huge database of regular expression patterns that customers had shared with us. We treated this with great care and didn’t leak information from it – but we used it relentlessly to try to improve performance, even on cases where customers had wandered away.
Subsequent dealings with other companies often left us amazed at how little data our competitors had on the complex workload we were all supposedly trying to make go faster/better.
This took a fair bit of pleading with customers to get this information. One of the main selling points was that “if you share your use case with us in enough detail – or something that looks enough like it – we will measure performance on your case and if we mess up our code base relative to your usage we will discover it in 12 hours, not 4 months after we make the mistake and 2 weeks after we send you the release”.
This worked well, but not perfectly. Some of our best customers never, ever showed us their workloads.
As mentioned above, while it’s nice to have all these benchmarks, it helps to look at the results of running them, too. If there are 24,000 metrics on your dashboard you’re probably not looking at them any more.
Expect to be evaluated by the person whose code will be replaced by yours if the evaluation succeeds
If you are an algorithms library, the person who evaluates you will probably be the person who previously wrote the library to do whatever your product does – good luck! They are the domain expert, and if you’re unlucky, they Hate You Already.
There are a surprising number of honest and self-critical computer scientists out there working at big companies who will give respect where it’s due, even when this means admitting that someone else wrote better code (and sometimes, people were glad to give up the role and move on). Sadly, this isn’t universal. Expect to have the goal-posts moved frequently: you will often be competing with someone else’s system that’s being ‘generously benchmarked’ while your system is being ‘adversarially benchmarked’. This means that you really can’t afford to have glaring weaknesses in secondary metrics.
Our primary metric was essentially raw performance. However, there were a host of secondary metrics (size of pattern matching byte code, size of stream state, pattern compile time, etc.) and it was impossible to tell in advance who cared about what. Even worse, in an adversarial benchmark situation, you can expect whoever is doing the evaluation to suddenly ‘care’ about whichever metric makes your code look the worst.
Bonus anti-pattern to look out for: finding out that for months you have been talking to one evaluator who has 100% control of process and is hiding their results away from the rest of their company; you will go back through the email chain and notice that no other email address has ever appeared. Who is their boss? Who is their coworker? If this happens to you, stay not on the order of your going but Go At Once!
Evaluations seem to go a lot better if they are bottom-up and engineer-driven rather than top-down and manager-driven
We had a number of very successful evaluations at companies where the engineers were on our side and they persuaded their management that spending money on us was a good idea. Later on we had a number of evaluations where management of a company descended on their engineers and told them “use Hyperscan”. These evaluations were typically disasters, even though we had a better product and on paper the opportunities were promising. When it comes down to it, engineers don’t like being told what to do.
Expect to not be able to announce successes
For the entire history of Sensory Networks, we were almost never allowed to announce “design wins”. Most vendors who used Hyperscan were adamant that this not be mentioned publicly. I expect this would be similar for most algorithmic startups – too many announcements of this kind is presumably a free invitation to the competitors of those vendors to duplicate their functionality (we use signatures from X, a pattern match engine from Y, hardware from Z, and …).
So, expect your ‘News’ section on your website to be a bit more threadbare than you hoped.
Contract negotiations: don’t lose your nerve
Expect people to try stuff on. Many – most, in fact – of our customers dealt fairly with us as a small company. A few people, at a few companies, tried outrageous last-minute surprises in contracts. Keep your nerve; if that company make-or-break deal gets a horrifying provision added at the last minute, tell them to go away and do better.
Trying to impose exclusivity or various other limits on our freedom of action to sell Hyperscan as we pleased was a popular pastime, but no-one really insisted.
Some things that didn’t seem to be missed
- A nice looking website.
- Help from people who have nebulous jobs “helping out startups” (I don’t mean lawyers or accountants, I mean the Picks and Shovels crew that seem to know the real way to make money in a gold rush).
- Having a roadmap that stretched more than about 2-3 releases and 6-9 months into the future; we almost never achieved any of the ‘long term’ items on our roadmap.
- Finishing off emulating all the weird bits of libpcre, which was our ‘reference’ library for regular expression semantics (and generally an excellent base for semantics), or supporting a host of other syntaxes and semantics
- Joining important-sounding consortia that just amount to having a banner on someone else’s website in exchange for having your banner on their website. Does anyone care? The same goes double for being awarded ridiculous startup or small business prizes (“East Sydney’s Most Agile Startup 3 Quarters Running!”), exchanging physical plaques (!), sponsoring random things. etc.
- Getting all sorts of mysterious certifications about how great our development methodology was, which often seemed to amount to telling some organization “our development methodology is pretty great”, writing a cheque, and getting the certification, without anyone ever actually looking at our code. Odd.
Conclusions, Sort Of
So, that was a bit of a stream-of-consciousness series of opinionated “hints and tips”. I don’t think there’s a really solid conclusion here – we got some things right-ish and some things wrong-ish and didn’t do too badly.
I’d be lying if I said that I thought that doing this type of startup was a route to enormous startup wealth. I’d be surprised to hear that a company can become a 1000X type Silicon Valley success story from algorithms alone; I’m pretty sure that you have to capture a lot more of the value than can be captured if you ship a nifty library and go home. I do think that this kind of startup can yield a reasonable outcome and someone sufficiently interested in their work can have a pretty nice time and learn a lot, while getting paid reasonably for it.
I’d be interested to hear comments or criticisms or links to other similar startup stories. I’d be particularly interested to hear stories of what it’s like on the open source side of the fence; the path taken by Sensory Networks now seems somewhat of a closed-source anachronism.