A Letter to Start-Ups on Technical Development

Lower your Development Costs by as much as 50%

There is a perfection in getting your product into the marketplace as soon as possible so that it can evolve organically rather than waiting for it to achieve perfection.

Dear Start-Up:

Get to a “Minimum Viable Product” as quickly as possible. Whether your “product” is hardware, software, a combination of the two, or some kind of service, not only will you save money, the sooner you get something operating that people can use, the faster they will be able to provide you with useful insight, and the sooner you will have opportunities to refine and, in some cases, redefine you approach. Do not fear mistakes and false starts, as you will get past them and into a position of having happy customers and growing your new customer base.

As its name suggests, a Minimum Viable Product, or “MVP,” has just enough features and functionality to be useful. The bells and whistles can come later, once you have the core product well defined. As easy as this sounds, you may be hard pressed to find a true minimum set of features because you might second guess yourself by thinking that this or that feature, by not being included, could handicap the critical initial release and prevent it from being accepted.

But moving right to a MVP does not mean you start coding today. There is an important planning step that can save you from a tremendous amount of grief and possible failure. This step is the writing of a good technical product specification that will help you decide on the minimum set of features so that your MVP is developed as quickly and as close to your vision as possible.

Listen up: Do not skip this step, even if you think your MVP is not “rocket science.” It may not be, but it is often your young company’s first technical cornerstone, setting forth its basic system architecture and, as such, it needs to provide a strong foundation for what is to come.

Why you Need a Specification

Chances are good that you will need outside developers. If one of your founders is a developer, he’ll probably be too busy with other start-up related issues to be able to dedicate enough of his time to managing all of the development. Besides, if your product is to get out in a timely fashion, it may need more short-term talent … so it’s time to call in some professional developers.

As developers prepare quotations for you, they will ask you for a number of technical items to help them gauge the effort, to neither overshoot nor undershoot your requirements. Examples of such items are technical write-ups, screenshots, mock ups, demonstration videos, sample code, proof-of-concepts, “lab curiosities,” the technical section of your business plan, to name a few typical items which are, by the way, best provided or shown under a non-disclosure agreement. Be mindful of not delivering materials that are focused only in one area, such as the end-user experience, because they may not provide enough detail by themselves to cover the full range of your MVP’s features and functions.

Developers are at their best they receive a high quality technical product development specification against which they can then provide exacting quotations. Besides serving other purposes such as helping you to intelligently determine the MVP’s feature set and establishing your budget, this specification becomes a technical document that liaises between you and your developers. It tells them in no uncertain terms what the product will look like, how it will behave, and what “under the hood” considerations need to be made. It eliminates guesswork on the part of the technicians and programmers. It prevents unpleasant surprises during the course of development when, for example, you and your developer suddenly realize there has been a difference in assumption on some aspect of the product; to resolve this now apparent and unfortunately discrepancy, the development path has to change, the deployment delayed, and the budget revised higher.

Please don’t think that a product specification will take long. We’ve done them in as quickly as a few days and certainly not longer than a few weeks for more complicated projects. Depending on the kind of product or service, a typical specification runs from between 10 and 50 pages. During the writing of the specification, several important issues usually come to light that are best addressed before development is actually begun. These issues are not necessarily technical; they can be related to the business model, customer requirements, and government regulation, among many other factors.

Also, do not think of the time to have a specification prepared as being “lost.” The clarity that the specification will bring to the table will actually allow your product to be developed more quickly overall. Also, some degree of technical research and development work is performed during the preparation of a technical specification, much of which finds its way into the final MVP. Occasionally, there may be multiple technological approaches that need to be evaluated in light of the project’s desired goals. All in all, this engineering-driven specification process with some built-in R&D has the effect of significantly lowering your overall development costs, in our experience by as much as 50%.

Some questions may come to mind…

What will my specification look like? What will it contain? It will be a comprehensive report having, among other things, every feature, every function and every user interface screen of your MVP defined. It has sections of standards, guidance, goals, assumptions, checklists and definitions. it covers all of the MVP’s functional requirements, and some non-functional requirements as well. It deals not only with the software layers but also with what hardware will be used, even if it’s cloud-based, and how it is configured, made secure and has built-in redundancy and backups. It will incorporate your business intelligence, philosophy, personality and value proposition. To the extent of relevance, it will identify vendors, manufacturing processes, and intellectual property considerations. It will contain a proposed development schedule along with an estimated budget.

What does a specification do for me? With proper care, your specification evolves into a “living” guide for the technical side of your business. It becomes an important asset of your company, thereby increasing the value of your company. It can be leveraged to add significant value to your business plan and to your patent filings, and it also becomes a cornerstone for your trade secrets. It can be used to solicit exacting quotations from not only the technical advisory firm who may have helped you develop the specification in the first place but also from a number of other competing firms as well if you so choose.

Should I pay for the specification? Shouldn’t developers do it as part of their quote? Most developers provide free quotes when given a reasonably good specification of what it is they are being asked to do. In lieu of their receiving enough technical material, developers may suggest that you have a technical specification prepared as the very next step. You can do that yourselves or have a qualified engineering team do it for you. Since your MVP’s specification is custom work which has no market other than you, and since it will increase the valuation of your young company, the developers are entitled to just compensation for this preliminary effort. Also, the adage, “you get what you pay for” is very applicable here — you want a solid, engineering document upon which your future can rely. You really do not need a bare bones, short-term “punch list” that will be essentially obsolete a few changes later.

Once you have a properly designed specification for the MVP, your project manager can “shop it around” for maximum cost savings without giving up much in the way of quality. You may choose to break it up into sections so as to help minimize the exposure of your intellectual property and trade secrets. Once one or more developers have been engaged, your project manager will then monitor the project’s progress, providing you with updates and flagging any important issues that need your attention.

As part of the technology strategy consulting that DataPlex provides, our engineers can develop your product specification, act as your project manager, and undertake key portions or possibly all of the technical development to ensure that trade-offs are properly considered and your MVP is developed quickly and to your liking. We can help you develop “customer profiles” and “use cases” that serve to bring closer the real-world to your product’s development. Feel free to contact us to find out how in your particular case we may be best able to help.

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