Building a Startup: Fund Raising (October – April 2013)

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When you build a startup you have to chose between two directions: bootstrapping (make your business profitable as fast as possible without external money) or being venture backed (building product and gain traction as fast as possible and focus less on profitability). I could write a lot about advantages and drawbacks of these two paths but I’m going to make it short. At Cozy, we think that we need a fast growth to propose a decent alternative to Google/Dropbox services. That’s why we decided to look for VC funds. In this blog post I’m going to share the process we followed to reach that goal.

Investor structures

Before going further, let’s see the three major structures from where you can get funding.

Business Angels

They are rich guys who get together to invest money. Investing is not their main occupation. Most of them were or are entrepreneurs. If your application is accepted by them, one or two among them will follow your project and make you pass several interviews. At some point, they will consider you are ready to pitch in front of the whole club. Then, every member will tell how much money they want to invest in your company. They invest as individuals.

Micro Venture Capitalists

They are very rich entrepreneurs who invest their money alone or with one or two partners. Investing is their main occupation but they can still be considered as big business angels. They are are quicker to decide than VC and can provide you help even if they don’t chose to invest in your project.

Venture Capitalists (VCs)

A Venture Capitalist firm is a company that manages the money from big companies, government or  from very rich people. They are the one who can propose the biggest amount of money. Among VCs you have different kind: the ones that do only seed funding (500k-1M$) or only serie A (1-5M$), serie B (10-50M$)… There are the ones that invest only in e-commerce companies, the ones that invest only in medical company… It’s important to understand in which field a fund works. It’s almost useless to meet VCs that don’t fit in your money range or that don’t invest in companies like yours (it’s only good for networking).

NB: Geolocation matters too. Depending on their origin, funds won’t act the same way and words could have a different meaning (ex: in US a seed round can reach 10M$, in France the limit is 1.5 million).

Meeting VCs

Meetings VCs is hard. Cold emailing/calling is not efficient to meet them (unless you have very big figures to show, but in that case VCs come to you). So, the best way to see them is to get introduced by someone they consider valuable (most of the time several introductions are required).

That leads to another problem : where to find people connected to VCs? How to convince them that your project is awesome? Good news, the startup ecosystem is not so big! Bad news, you will have to network hard (and not work on your product by that time…).

To build your network, the simplest way is to be part of the ecosystem. For that apply to startup accelerators and startup events. Accelerators requirements are close to the one asked by the VCs, so it makes a good training to prepare your application for them. With Cozy we tried to get selected in Le Camping, Mozilla Web FWD and The Family. Le Camping rejected us (we applied too early, our project was not ready). Then we get selected for both WebFWD and The Family. They are both good but WebFWD was closer to the mantra of our project and offered us the opportunity to get introduced to the US startup ecosystem. So we chosed WebFWD. We learned a lot from that experience about every aspects of a startup. Moreover, we had the opportunity to improve our pitch in front of US coaches and VCs. Most of all, we met Pascal Finett, a startup mentor, who advised us to focus our business model on the B2B2C strategy (sell Cozy to distributors who will handle the marketing and distribution while we focus on the product). It helped a lot and made things really clearer for VCs and how big the things could become.

Once you pitch in meetups and once you get trained and introduced via startup accelerators your network grows. If you project is good and progress well, you will be introduced to several funds.
NB: Be patient, it takes a lot of time and requires a lot of efforts. And of course don’t forget to improve your pitch all along the process (be agile!).

Meeting Business Angels

Business angels work more in a traditional manner and are more accessible. The process is very scholar (fill a big form, make your interviews, accept their conditions and make the final pitch). BA clubs are very interesting to meet, since they are/were entrepreneurs too. They have a lot of good advice to share and their network will probably be wider than a VC one. The only problem with them is that they cannot put as much money as a VC firm. It’s ok for a seed round, for the the next ones you will have to focus on VCs.

Pitching

The first step of fund raising looks a little bit like a recruitment: you make several interviews until you know if you are accepted or not.

At your first interview, you do a 10-20 minutes pitch. Then you answer to questions. If you’re pitch is not too bad, you have a good discussion and the guy will look very interested. Then… Nothing! It will be your job to ask for the second meeting. No need to say that you must have good news to give them before doing your follow-up. It could be anything related to growth, team, press… If it’s directly related to your business model it’s from far better. What will surprise you is that if you don’t have huge figures, VCs will almost ask you to bootstrap your company before considering investing into it.

NB: A good sign that you make progress is when they want to see the whole funding team.

A note about the second meeting. Most of the time  you will have tougher questions. Usually there is a “bad guy” who wants to upset you and see how you react when someone says bad things about your project. At that point you simply have to be bullet proof to questions. That’s why you will have to meet a lot of investors: the more interview you will do, the more bullet-proof you will be! See the interview process as an iterative one and make you pitch progress each time you discover new things that investors like!

At Cozy, we focused on building partnerships with established companies. We won several contracts and partnership promises. That was plenty of good news to share with VCs!

What matters

Two things will interest investors:

- What makes you business valuable and what will make your valuation grows.
- How the funding team is consistent over time.

You will find tons of advice on the web, but the one mentioned above are from far the most important things to communicate to VCs. BA will focus more on the second point, since they can see themselves in you. The first point is obvious, at the end they are here for numbers and they want to be sure to have a good return on investment. The second point is important too, specially for seed funding. There is a not so low probability that your business will pivot at some point. So they can’t invest too much on your idea and its first executions steps. That’s why they like to invest in the founding team. They want  to appreciate you and feel good by thinking they will work with you for the next 5 years.

Let’s resume: to convince then you have to:

  • Tell them why your valuation will grow at the next round.
  • Prove them that you are already accomplishing what you say.
  • Show them that your motivation is still high six months later.
  • Have a good long term vision. They want to be able to imagine that your are reaching the IPO.

Termsheet

If you succeed in being selected by a fund you will receive a term sheet in which they write how much money they offer for how many shares. You will discover the valuation of your company and the terms of the investment. Be aware of terms like full ratchet, double dip, bad leavers, time to look for an acquire, etc. They can be very harmful for your share ownership or for your exit money. So, you have to understand them fully before negotiating them. You will have to find a good equilibrium between your valuation, the amount of money you raise and these terms. The investor will let you only one week to agree on these terms. Contact all the investors that looked very interested. They will probably make an offer too. The more funding proposal, the better it is for your negotiation.

Once the term sheet accepted, you cannot look for other funds anymore. So you have to wait for the due diligence. If you didn’t lie about you company state, you should obtain your money one or two months later.

Common Patterns

  • VCs look always very interested in your project. If they don’t that’s a really bad sign.
  • A no is always temporary, if you have really big news, they are always ready to change their mind.
  • In their team, there is a guy who loves your project and one who tries to find flaws everywhere.
  • They are slow to decide.
  • Really interested funds decide faster.
  • They all know each other and they share information about you.

To Conclude

Looking for funds is a tough path. It will require a huge amount of work and energy. Try to be smart and take the opportunity of the many pitches to get as much feedback as you can. Another good tip: when a fund refuses to invest, it doesn’t mean that all of the team don’t like your project. If you have some advocate their, they will still be glad to help you. Don’t hesitate to ask them for tips and info about negotiation and pitching. That’s all, I don’t have much more to say, so, good luck to you!

NB: I’m the CTO guy. So, don’t hesitate to ask questions in the comments or by email. If you need more accurate information about the process. I will ask to my business partner who led the fund raising and update the present article.

What’s new with Cozy Cloud

Partnerships

That’s all for VC stuff! So what’s new with Cozy? We started small contracts with one French ISP, one with a domotic company and we are still building a partnership with one of the biggest hosting provider in the world (this is why we need funding). And by the way, we are still running experiments with La Poste to build a backup box that people could plug at home.

Product improvements

Aside of the fund raising we worked hard on the product. We released the first version of our platform (the Snowden Release is already famous all over the world), we improved basic apps like the contacts and the calendar managers and built a synchronization module for contacts and calendars (this what our user were asking for!). We published a first version of our file manager application and we made some noise with the release of the first web and open source bank manager (build with our partner La FING).

Today we are thinking on how to build the first web mail application that could be a decent alternative to gmail. Should we work with the Mailpile team? Should we build our own one? That’s a tough question!

Community

The community keeps growing, we reached 500 stars on Github, earned 130 points on the Webdev Reddit channel and our IRC channel is always crowded. We got several contributions and now people from the community perform support.

Marketing

We focused more on the retention part of the product (the fact that’s it useful enough to people so they keep using it). People engaged more with us, so we can consider that it is a success. By the way, thx to Khuram Malik for his advice about that!

Final Thoughts

Six last months were quite crazy, the product made big progress and the company is now hot among the French investor eco-system. Today, everything is ok: we are closing our first fund raising round and we have an active community of users and contributors!

Building a startup: from darkness to light (may – september 2013)

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Last 5 months were so busy that I didn’t find enough time to write on this blog. As you understand, I put almost all my energy in Cozy Cloud. During that time we get our first traction: we were selected in startup events, to be a part of an accelerator, we were pressed and most of all our community get significantly bigger. Here is the story.

Startup competitions

We were selected to compete in several startup contests: Web2Day, LeWeb, ICT… That was a good thing: it offered us feedback on how to build our pitch for investors. The drawback was that it kept us from improving our product or making our user/customer research.
NB: Another good thing is that when you are looking for collaborators of any kind, it brings you credibility. People pay more attention and are more likely to do things with you.

Accelerator

After a publication in LinuxFR, some Mozilla community members spotted us and encouraged us to send our candidature to the Mozilla WebFWD accelerator. So we did! And guess what? we were selected! Since two months they have provided us great advice about how to reach our potential customer, how to understand and please them, how to build a great pitch and how to manage finance. With their insights, we decided to pivot a little bit to reach our audience quicker: we are now building partnerships with hardware manufacturers and hosting companies.

Press and community

We were featured in several news plaforms (Wired, LeMonde, LeFigaro…) and blogs (among them the famous Korben). Previously we talked about credibility, this is another way to get some!  This way people know more about us, we found new supporters.

The other cool thing is that it brought thousands of visitors to our website. People subscribed to our waiting-list and started to use and install our software, some of them even wrote new blog posts about it. Our IRC channel get crowded and we received several contributions on the source code (bug reports and pull requests).

New applications

Last but not least, two new applications joined the gang:
Kyou  A tool to build analytic from data stored in your Cozy. It’s a very interesting usage because it’s the first app that takes advantages of data from other application.
Cozic A friendly audio player (let’s say it’s a winamp/itunes in your cloud).

Conclusion

These last five months made us found a firm ground in the start-up ecosystem. We drew the first shape of our community. We learnt to understand our customer better and improved the platform a lot. It was really exhausting but the experience was awesome.  Now we still have to improve the product (the platform and its website are ok but we still have to improve the applications that run on top of Cozy).

NB : I have tried to apply the 37 signals principles. They argue that working too much is a little bit acting like a hero: you think you can always solve more problem by building new things and work more. This could become an issue because it leads to extra work for the other team members (who are already quite busy) and it prevents you to find the more elegant solution (when you are in hero mode you use brute force instead of thinking). It looks like I failed deeply at avoiding the hero mode. I worked a huge amount of hours and produced a lot of stuff. If you ask why? I think that I simply didn’t know how to handle outside requirements: startup events, community growth, press publication, clients and a productive team. When someone ask you something you can say no. But when an unique opportunity happened or when people around you accelerate the process very quickly, it’s very hard to say no. Getting lean looks easy on the paper but trust me, it’s definitely harder when things become real.

What happens when you are selected for LeWeb Startup Competition?

One month ago, Cozy Cloud was selected for LeWeb London Startup Competition semifinals. That was quite a good surprise and we were not ready yet to compete at such kind of event. So last month was mainly dedicated to be ready to reach the final stage. Being selected there allowed us to pitch in front of big VCs and have a stand to showcase our product. That was a great opportunity to make our funding search really easier. The aim of this blog post is to share with you how things went and what changed for our company.

Before the competition

leweb_01Motivation
Being selected is already a great achievement: only 16 start-ups are selected among 400. So after more than one year of work, that was really good to be considered by our peers as a competitive start-up. Moreover, that was a great motivator  for the whole team.

Social Proof
Once you are selected to LeWeb, a lot of people from the start-up ecosystem don’t consider you the same way. When you speak to them, they listen more carefully than before. That’s a little bit sad but it seems that the way things work.

Announcements
We wanted to reach our community and have a little bit traction before pitching. So we made announcements about our product on two Hacker websites: LinuxFr (close to our users) and Hackernews (less focused but wider audience). They both worked pretty well (1450 clicks for the first one and 59 up-votes / 3000 visitors for the second one) and our main Github repository reached the 100 stars. Unfortunately, that was not enough to put it in a pitch, but that brought new users to Cozy Cloud. So during two weeks, we helped people on our IRC channel to setup Cozy Cloud on their home servers. With that feedback we improved our installation script, created a trouble shooting section and learned what to improve next. Then we changed the home page of our website to make it more appealing and send a newsletter. Being selected urged us to get closer to our users.

Following this announcements, someone from Mozilla France endorsed us for being candidate to WebFWD, the Mozilla accelerator. Their values perfectly match ours and they have great things to teach about community management and product marketing. That was quite a good news for us.

Pitch Building
At LeWeb the three best startups are mostly selected on their pitch. So we had to prepare ours. We were not ready yet for that. So, to practice our pitch, the best thing to do was to meet… investors! That’s why we started our fund raising search. We also participated to a smaller Startup Competition called Web2day. For this one we were not ready at all but we learned that we were too much focused on the product presentation and were not ready for Q&A about our financial projections. Fortunately our meeting with investors encouraged us to perfect our executive summary and becoming fully ready!

The competition

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The competition was in London. We had a lot of pressure on us but The City was very sunny and we were glad to discover the Center Hall Westminster, a marvelous place. The entry tickets were offered to competitors, that was a good and cheap way to meet people that would be unreachable usually.

NB : One very annoying thing is that we were forced to wear an unmovable bracelet that no one checked. The user experience for a 1400 pounds ticket was probably awful for other participants. Except of that, the organization was close to perfect.

Once there, things became serious. The first day was a mix of stress and networking. LeWeb offered small stands for competitors so we pitched the whole day to everyone who came to us: bloggers, students, journalists and VCs. Moreover, LeWeb organized 15 minutes face-to-face meetings with VCs or start-up experts during the two days. We take advantage of that to meet several investors (between them the famous David Hornik of August Capital).

About the competition, we had to be present early in the morning to listen to the introduction. The principle was simple. Every start-ups were pitching during the whole day. The best three pitches went to finals. So we waited with a growing pressure until our turn. We chose to not listen to other competitors and prefered to stay at our stand. At noon, we had to check the stage to see if our computer and our mobile will be properly displayed. At 2pm TechCrunch recorded short pitches from all the competitors. At 3pm Benjamin, my partner and CEO met an investor. And at 3:45pm we were at last invited into the backstage : a lovely room with a private bar. There conference speakers were working on their talk, other competitors came back from the stage and some others were waiting like us. Then, around 4pm we reached the semifinal stage. Even if it’s a small stage that’s still impressive and even more when we saw the jury is made of two people from Accel Partners a big fund that invests mainly in companies that could see Cozy Cloud as a competitor (if it  becomes big).

Then we started our pitch, I didn’t talk, I was just there to manage the demo. Benjamin was  a little bit stressed but that was ok, hi s talk was clear and he made the audience smiled several times. The demo time came, it works pretty well until the mobile part. The application crashed (in fact I was signed out but because of the browser cache, I didn’t understand what was happening). As I learned with playing music, we had to go on like if everything was ok. So after a short and weird break we go on: the rest of the demo worked correctly and Benjamin finished his pitch. Then came the Q&A session. The jury make like they didn’t understand our value proposition (centralizing data around user to give him new capabilities, make him more productive and take smarter decisions). So Benjamin explained again what he said but without bringing new elements. That was not bad, but that was not really what was expected. The pitch ended, we were not satisfied by our performance. After that we were exhausted, one hour later we left the event and decided to go back to our beds.

The second day we were more relaxed, we met a lot of people again. Around 11am they announced secretly the finalists. We understood quickly that we were not selected. That was a little bit frustrating but we were not surprised due to our previous performance. Whatever the day went well and we met a lot of people. Among them, Philippe Raynaud CEO of Audio Fanzine, a boostrapped company (1M+ euros of annual income). Then we went together to see the finals. The stage was really impressive. Our friends from PricingAssistant won, we were quite happy for them. After that we left to enjoy some fish and chips!

 

After the competition and final thoughs

Now let’s talk about immediate results. Even if we didn’t win, being part of LeWeb brought to us several very nice “goodies”:

  • Our website was listed on websites with good page rank;
  • We get a little mention on TechCrunch;
  • We were featured on a well known French blog with 3000 feed subscriptions;
  • We had meeting with 5 VCs (early and late stage funding);
  • We got several tweets from accounts with 30 000+ followers;
  • It was like an intensive training of two days to improve our pitch and clarifiy our value proposition.

To conclude, I would say that LeWeb, by pushing us forward, was a great opportunity to reach new people. The motivation and the trust given by this event helped us to go one step higher. In other words, LeWeb was the kick in the pants we needed to reach the next level.

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last photo credits: Jessica Bernard

Building a startup: beta stage (december – april 2013)

Last months were very busy at Cozy Cloud: we started our new beta program, we hired new members, we communicated more widely and we worked hard on the product. Here are the details of what happened.

beta stage

We previously started a beta stage that would be better called an alpha stage: only a few close friends were able to test our product (named Cozy). In december we decided to make things wider. This time we took hundreds mails from the list of people who subscribed on our website and we mount up a Cozy for each of them and send an email about what was happening. We were very excited by that and it was time to battle-hardened all our stack (infrastructure and product).

hard times

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Unfortunately, four bad news happened to us after our beta launch:

  • Things didn’t work as expected. We had very few feedback. Almost noone wrote to us. Some people didn’t even use their Cozy, despite the mails we sent to them. We learnt one thing : the capabilities of the product were too poor. Even if people knew the potential (it’s an extensible product) of our platform they didn’t get interested in it… except a very few ones who gave us some hints on what was wrong, what was not working.
  • We met a lot of problems with our hosting infrastructure. Providing hosting services is not as easy as you could imagine. Even with 100 instances we had to set up automatic backup, precise monitoring and look for optimizations. And we are still working on the provisioning and logging aspects. It’s like we have to be able to scale early.
  • We wanted to be part of Le Camping, a kind of YCombinator for French startups (we are located in France). We spent a lot of energy in our application material. We rewrite most part of the website, we changed our linkedin accounts, we spent days to record the required video. But that was not what they expected: we were busted in the first round.
  • We also send applications to have a stand and talks at FOSDEM. Our application was refused too.

This clearly brought us some doubts about the value proposition of Cozy and the feasibility of providing clean hosting services. Fortunately, people that follows us since the beginning kept encouraging us and help us with bug reports, feedback or  developments. That maintain our faith in what we do. So we decided to go on and find more workforce to help us.

NB: The reasons of why we get rejected surprised us: The Camping said that we need an experienced marketer or a first round of fundraising. FOSDEM told us that we should have a fast growing community. For both, we candidate to them to find help to do what they ask for…

new team

We made several recruitments : 3 developers (interns) and one marketer. That was a great move : they all performed pretty well and fix broken things. Today, they are still improving the product,  and they are bringing a lot of new ideas.  Moreover, what we learnt from our previous intern session, made it easy to set up our new organization (see my recently posted slides). All the materials we wrote before (documentations, tutorials, public repository…) helped them to get operational very quickly.

marketing

marketing

Then we started to think marketing seriously. First we improved the overall aspect of the product : we redesigned the user interface. Second,we improved the tools provided to Cozy external contributors to help them to set up their development environment.

Then, we applied the principle of content marketing : you produce great content (blog and newsletters) to give a good reason to people to come. We  also contacted blogger in our field (self-hosting). That’s important to reach the community to let them know that we are doing something that could interest them. We learnt from that we should separate more the project aspect (Cozy is open source) from the corporate aspect. Then we get more feedback on our app and our installer. So we could figure on what to focus on. We also received a lot of encouragements which were very important for our moral.

conclusion

So we learned the hard way two things: that’s not because you are able to convince people of your field (self-hosting) that you will be able to convince people from another one even if it’s a close one (innovative people). The technical part should never be underestimated too. We had a lot of experience in IT and we get still astonished by the required amount of work. We also tried to think simple all the time, but adding a lot of simple things make a complex thing. We also learnt that bringing new people to the project and receiving positive feedback give a lot of energy. Building a startup is a long journey and moral must be kept on top all the time.

Next months for Cozy will be dedicated to our contract with our partner (FING), to growth hacking and to fund raising. We hope you will hear about us very soon and not only on this blog!

A startup with no office, hipster tools and open source products

Talk performed at LyonJS, April 2013

Building a startup: branding and community (september – november 2012)

When you build a startup, you define a product. Once the first iterations are done, you make it functional and verify some of your assumptions. Then you obtain a kind of  “first version”, a state that statisfy you enough to think “I would  buy it”. You could apply the same for your “pitch”, the way you introduce your product to people interested in what you do. Then you observe that things could be sexier, more engaging. When this feeling arises, this is time for branding: putting a logo on your company, dress your punchlines with a beautiful design, define your mantra and build partnerships that will rely your values.

Identity and website

We didn’t have the required skills to make an appealing logo and design properly our website. So we decided to hire someone good at this to make the job for us. After watching tons of portfolio from folyo.me, we selected the designers we prefered and contact them. We learnt the hard way that good designers are quite booked and required to be hired early. After a lot of researches and emails, we finally conclude to an agreement with Paykhan a Freelance designer.

He built the website with 4 iterations. The first one was a little bit messy but gave us a lot of ideas to explore. The second one was better structured but look a little bit sad. The third one was almost good and the fourth one consisted of adding small improvements to make things more beautiful. We grabbed feedbacks from different people we know to help us taking decisions. Finally, we integrated the result. Now, we can say that it does the job. Displaying our logo on all our materials and on our public accounts (github, twitter…) gives us credibility and the conversion rate of our website is really high: almost 50% of our visitors suscribed to Cozy Cloud.

cozy-logo

Community

Our product get ready for technical people who would like to self-host their Cozy Cloud. At the same time we decided to start our interns hiring campain. So we advertized softly to French students about what we do and  get in touch with the French free software community.

Because Cozy Cloud is a platform on which people can build their own application, we worked on providing all necessary materials about where to start to build on : starting template, Getting Started Guide, and a little tool to make deployment easy.

That led us to three recruitments and a first contributor who built two Cozy apps for his own needs (bookmark and feed manager). By the way we are going to hire one our interns of from the last session for a one year contract.

cozy_apps

Partners

Aside from that we built partnerships: we are getting closer to GnuSide a company that work on a similar project as Cozy Cloud, called FirstBrick, but more oriented on the hardware aspects. The FING, an organization that analyzes impacts of new technologies on our day-life will probably hire us to help them. They have a project called “Mes Infos” that could be compared to the MiData project. They want to make experimentations around personal data, so our personal cloud solutions could fit well with their project.

mes_infos

Communication

We sponsorized one event, JDLL, and held a stand there where we met a lot of new people and grabbed again a lot of feedbacks. We also made some contacts to sponsorize other events (JS community). Aside of that, we prepared the first series of blog posts that will define our mantra and that will serve us as references for all our communication materials.

cozy

Conclusion

Communicating about the product is mandatory for adoption. It takes a lot of time and should be thought since day one. What I learned too is that communication starts with yourself: giving a face to what you are building strenghten your motivation and make your ideas clearer. By the way, it made official the first steps of our mission: make the web a better place.

Building a startup: remote working (june – august 2012)

Context

The past three months had been quite busy and dedicated to build our MVP. For that we hired a team of interns. They were 9 but let’s consider they were only 6. 3 of them were working on a side project and didn’t work directly with us. About the product, we aim to provide personal cloud to our customer on which they can install apps as easily as on their smartphone, “self-hosting for everyone” if you prefer. To make it possible we had to meet three key milestones :

  • a website on which people suscribed
  • an hosting infrastructure to host instances of our product
  • the product himself: a web application that can manage other web applications

To achieve this goal we hired only interns with a technical background. They had partial knowledge of our techno and some were totally beginners.

Organization

We wanted to let people working remotely if they desired it. They all wanted it. So we customized our organization:

  • Daily meeting each afternoon where everyone tells what he did last day and what he is going to do (Skype).
  • Weekly personal meeting to describe the sprint of the week (Skype)
  • Virtual Kanban always up to date (Trello)
  • Q&A forum to share the answer of common problems (OSQA)
  • Founders acted as coordinators, product owners and developers
  • Specialist organization : one man, one project (they just stayed for 3 months, no need to make them work on different projects)
  • Regularly we did small workshops to resolve issues and make some formations and small demos (Mikogo)
  • IRC channel for non work-related discutions
  • Internal social networks for link exchange (Newebe)
  • Code review through Github
  • One corporate week-end where we climb up a mountain in South of France

 

What was produced

We are really happy of what have been done so far. We were pleasantly surprised that young developers could do so much:

  • All our internals tools are properly setup (we self-host most of our tools)
  • Our website is ready to receive suscriptions and follow a good architecture (full django stack : nginx, gunicorn, mongo, celery, redis…)
  • We can create personal clouds automatically from the admin UI of the website
  • We built the first versions of three apps that are available on our platform: a note manager, a todolist manager and a mail aggregator
  • The application manager of our product is ready
  • We did some R&D on how to make our infrastructure more scalable
  • We have a development process and a continuous integration woking on
  • We studied a lot of technos
  • We still keep doing interviews and making our network grows
  • The administrative necessities to make our company official is on the good trajectory
  • Our product is now up and running

 

Conclusion

We really enjoyed this working experience.  It made our life easier. Of course it requires passionate people and that founders stay close to help others to keep on progressing on their subjects.  Fortunately we hired great players. In addition, the sportive corporate week-end  was a great experience in strengthening our team spirit. Demos were really good too, we regret to not have settled them earlier !

Today we are still working in this mode but with a smaller team. To finish this post, you will find our list of pros and cons of this. If you have advice or similar experience like this one feel free to share it with me via email or in the comments.

Pro

  • It works efficiently, the distance pushes to communicate more and better than if we were in the same place
  • Less constraints for everyone
  • Self organization resulted in less stress
  • No need to track our employees, the shame to say that “I did nothing” at the daily meeting is enough
  • It’s attractive for hiring, specially for developers
  • Demos times are great

Cons

  • We were surprised that our collaborators never used IRC and very few the social network
  • Tools like Skype are good but frustrating when people have bad connection
  • It is not for everyone, one of our interns didn’t enjoy the experience.
  • It’s not the perfect case for people who needs long formation
  • Sometimes it feels a little bit odd to spend so much time at home
  • It was a challenge to make to everyone understand what others were doing

Newebe @ LSM

Hey, I will be at Libre Software Meeting 2012 (aka RMLL) where I will hold two ligthing talks!

  • The first one will explain why Newebe is different from other social network, monday 12:15.
  • The second one will be about my startup project, Cozy Cloud, and will give you some hints on how to make organic web apps, tuesday 12:05.

See you there !

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Building a startup: the beginnings (march – may 2012)

Three months has passed since my last blog post about the startup I’m working on. This period started roughly with one of our partners depart. It reduces our founder team down to two people. We had to lower down our expectations and things moved in a slower pace. To deal with that, we hired a consultant to help us. We succeeded in building the required infrastructure to serve our minimum viable product. This small victory gave us courage and led us to find people that could help us in the launch of our project. More details in the following.

1. Infrastructure

Startup is a lot of fun but it is also a matter of money. Because our business will be based on hosting, most of our efforts these last months were focused on the infrastructure. We had quite rough time : system administration is not our specialty. Which led us to hire a consultant to help us in this quest. We discovered the joy of virtualization, isolation, automated deployments…  and met our goal by building a decent and simple starting infrastructure with perspective to build a more scalable one as soon as our customer base will grow.

What I learned from this  is that your infrastructure should be led by automatization. Once you understand what should be done, make script of everything you do. Another advice I would give is that you should virtualize every installation to avoid breaking things on your host box. This has other advantages: you can sandbox installations easily, duplicate them or move them to another box quickly. Take also a look at Vagrant  to experiment your script safely on your local machine.

2. Product

About the  product itself, we made profound progress. Our code base grows fast and main components are there. We also set up a simple continuous integration process and got familiar with our technology choices. Next month will be focused more on software development. We will start our beta program with close friends, so we will be able to make the right choice about feature development.

3. New tools

By the way we added new tools to our previous list :

  • Jenkins for our continuous integration
  • Osqa Q&A (question forum) for our beta users to have a feedback place
  • Osqa Q&A for our team to make a dynamic FAQ of our tools.
  • Newebe for our internal social network.
  • Google apps for our mailing stuff.

Chosing and setuping tools take a long time, I wish I had a ready to go list and some magic stuff to set them up automatically (such as OpenVz templates for each common technologies).

4. Interns hiring

Benjamin, my partner, felt that we need more backup to deal with the amount of work. So we hired several people as interns from his former university to help us by doing technology studies and short developments. One of them will stay for a longer time and has great system administration skills. As you might guess, he arrived on time to consolidate our infrastructure and help us in a significant way on other system administration stuff.

As we have not yet an office space, for the moment every one will work from home. I hope it will be a great experience. I will provide feedback about that in my next startup blog posts.

5. Events

We were present at many great events and met a lot of people working in the same fields as us. What I learned, is that going to an event is always a hard choice. When you are there you don’t make direct production. The pros is that it provides opportunity to find collaborators and grab some feedback on what we are doing by explaining what we do. Moreover events can teach various helpful subjects and make you discover new technologies.

My advice would be to not go to all of them, and try to go there with a goal in mind (learn something, intensive networking…).

That’s all for now. In my next startup posts I will tell you how our beta program goes, what our product does and how we organize with our new development team.

Feel free to react in the comments section.

Building a startup : the beginnings (january – february 2012)

Two months ago, I joined my actual partners, Benjamin and Jonathan, for the long journey of a startup creation. Because, I like to share what I do and what I thought about software developments, I’m going to do the same about entrepreneurship and share my point of view on what we do. For this post, I won’t talk about the product and will focus more on the organisational aspects.

1. Thoughtland

Before meeting each other, we were in the wonderful world of thoughtland: we talk about ideas around self-hosting with our friends and we tried to anticipate the trends of the web. Worst, we were dispatched and did not know each other yet. The debate is wide and exciting and this phase is good to initiate our vision but the risk is to stay here too long and guessing too much on what does not exist. Fortunately, we like to get things done. First move: Benjamin hired partners.

NB: Thoughtland, I found this word from Pretotype It – The book

2. Hiring partners

After much reflection, Benjamin, who knows clearly what he wanted to build around self-hosting (he scratched his own itch and find a solution to a problem) decided to gather people to help him. First he used a classic and efficient technic : rely on people from his network. That led him to Jonathan, a brilliant developer  who graduated a year ago and had some experience with startup : one more builder for his team.

But finding the right people who are available and share your vision is not the easiest thing to do and sometimes network is not enough. To take things to the next level, Benjamin has several criterias: be interested in the web, desire for entrepreneurship, technical skills, availability, network… That’s a good start but then what’s next ? To make things happen Benjamin had a clever idea which costs almost nothing. On a blog post talking about cloud applications and  their privacy issues he left a comment telling approximately this: “Stop whining, do something. I’m building a company on self-hosting, if you are interested contact me.” Head shot: I answered.

By posting a comment on this blog post he knows that he will have very few answers but the conversion rate of his answers would be high: only people who are concerned by the problem and motivated to do something would answer to this kind of message.

NB: Head shot is a FPS video game reference, it means you did a risky, precise and efficient shot.

3. Organize

One of our problem is that we don’t have an office. Moreover we don’t know each other very well. So, how do we deal with that ? One solution, meetings :

  • One 4 hour meeting each monday in a coworking place : that is not a very productive meeting, but it is a way to learn to interact and work together.
  • One online daily meeting where people report what they do and what they are planning to do. Ideally we say no more unless we had a serious issue to deal with.

For the rest, we send emails without expecting fast answers to not force others to check their mailboxes too often.

4. Tools

To do all of our tasks, we studied several kind of tools. We tested a lot of them quickly and looked for two characteristics : simplicity and cost efficient. I started with a short list. Then I gave it to my partners who reduced it. We chosed our tools as in an agile way : use the easier to start with so we will be able to modify it easily when needed. Then we finally decided to use the following ones :

  • Skype : for our online meeting
  • Github : code repositories and ticket issues
  • Gollum : our wiki, integrated to github and easily movable if we want to host it.
  • Trello : kanban tools that we use with one board of three columns (to do, doing, done) for our daily meetings .
  • Jekyll : lightweight blog engine

5. Find an incubator

To be introduced to the French startup world, to meet more people and be visible to VCs, a good start is to be selected for incubation. It offers also us a small office, workshops and better access to public funds. Incubator is not mandatory but it helps a lot. Moreover, preparing the presentation to be selected, push you to think your company under the main aspects. This is really a good exercise. The only bad point is that they ask silly things like 3 years business plan. Wake up, this is a tech startup !

6. Action

Thinking and preparing good work conditions is a good thing, but he does not lead you to a viable product. So we started to focus on that. We had a great workshop with Stéphane Bagnier which explores the fundamentals of lean method. That motivated us to interview potential users and build a pretotype. Which is what we are working on right now. We also built a fake door (not online yet) to grab some emails and validate our message.

NB: Fake door is also a word from Pretotype It – The book, it is a website where you can suscribe like on any other web application, but after you suscribe a message tells you that te product is not ready yet.

Conclusion

I also didn’t mention administrative stuff and analyses/discutions like “bootstraping or not”, technology choices, vision, etc. Both are time consuming too but it fills up our wiki with a lot of useful informations. Finally, I am glad we arrived at that point after two months. We put the rails on our path to the minimum viable product : now we can focus on it.

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