Part 4: Things We Did Right

This is a series of 8 blog posts that will describe more about my experiences building Sampa, my mistakes and what would I have done differently.

Sampa failed, but it didn’t fail because we did everything wrong. Some things we did right and I’m very proud of that. Some of those was on my blood, some I learned along the way.

Just Ship It!

The primary and most important thing that I did was to SHIP IT! Not a single person that I worked with directly or indirectly, can tell me we failed because we didn’t ship our product. I shipped good software, I shipped great software, I shipped bad software. The only reason we would abandon a feature was because we made a clear inexcusable strategic decision that feature was not on our best interest or should be traded-off by another one. That rarely happened.

Shipping is the result, and the two factors that led us to ship so often were: Focus and “no”. Focus meant when I was writing code, spec’ing, testing it or deploying I couldn’t care less about anything else. I was also good at saying “no” to myself and to others. I was able to quickly understand the difference between doing something “good enough” in 2 days or doing “the right thing” in 7 days. “Good enough” always wins on my book.

It’s Not The Code

For about 6–9 months into Sampa I was very much in love with the code and the platform I’ve built. But after the first Alpha and getting users asking some basic “how do I do this?” kind of question I quickly learned that your consumers and your partners couldn’t care less about your code. They didn’t care if it had 10,000 or 300,000 lines of code, if it was open source, if it complied w/ XHTML standards, if it used Tables or not on the HTML. They didn’t give a shit. No one gives a shit about this except developers. But we pat ourselves on the back every time we write well-documented, well-architectured and standard-compliant code.

So after that 6–9 months I just abandon my code and focused on how can I do feature X in the most efficient manner and please users. That takes a 90-degree turn in your thinking. When you care about users, you stop thinking like a geek and you start thinking about short and long term value. Don’t take me the wrong way, I still wrote shared libraries and well-compartmentalized code when I felt we would reuse it in a short period of time, otherwise I would just make the thing work. Later I learned that a lot of those concepts are called “Agile Development”.

Understand Your Limitations and Accept Them

If you really, really want to succeed you have to give away control to others. That involves everything you do today because there always will be someone better than you. Some things are easy choices. I quickly gave away all my control at being a CEO of Sampa. I also gave away all my ability at designing templates, homepages, etc., and many other things.

What we did really well was to learn that our team didn’t have the marketing branding skills to create a compelling user message. Like most tech startups, we all come from a tech background and that makes us a different beast. For example, for any geek “URL” is a simple term. When you tell a user that word they might freak out. I can see it right now someone reading this post and saying “that’s not true, nowadays everyone knows what URL is”. Alright, but if you are not like that go search your entire code for “URL” in a user message and immediately replace it with “link” or “web address”. Actually, when in doubt use whatever terminology Microsoft or Amazon uses (they test this stuff).

We Were Scrappy

Yes, we spent almost all of $1.35 million we raised (there are still some left). But that took about 24 months, which translate into a burn of about $50K a month. At one point we have 4 full-time and 5 part-time people. I won’t say that every penny we spent was worth spending, but if we did spend we thought at the time it was the right thing do to. Ok, maybe that’s an obvious and empty statement. But we didn’t have parties or morale events (which I regret a bit), we didn’t have a Wii, a Flat Screen TV, expensive chairs or desks. We didn’t sit in nice buildings with a view of the lake. We spent on things we felt would move the needle the most. Sometimes they didn’t, but unless we could plot a direct correlation between cash spent and a benefit, we would not spend the money.

Next post: The Little Secret of Web Startups

Marcelo Calbucci

Marcelo Calbucci

I'm a technologist, founder, geek, author, and a runner.