A great idea, big dreams, and ambition are all things that would-be founders have in common. But there is much more to launching a software startup with the potential to grow into a viable business.
Chris Bisnett, co-founder and chief architect of Huntress Labs, and the co-founder of LegalConfirm LLC, where he led product design and development until the company was acquired in 2014, has first-hand knowledge of what it takes to get successful companies off the ground.
Bisnett relays some of his experiences and shares advice, both that can help you take an idea and turn it into a profitable business.
What is your advice for choosing co-founders and building a team?
Bisnett: Choosing co-founders is probably the most important part of starting a company. These are people you are going to spend many stressful hours with, so you need to know that you can work with them. It’s really cliché to compare it to a marriage, but you’re going to spend so much time with your co-founders that the success or failure of the company is dependent on your ability to work together to get things done.
I was lucky enough to have worked with my co-founders prior to starting Huntress, but we never spent as much time together as we do now. I know a lot of founders are looking for someone to help them build their companies, so I would encourage them to really think hard about whom they pick and make sure that, when everything is failing stress is high, you can still work together.
What is your advice for funding a software startup? Should you avoid VC funding?
Bisnett: I think this really depends on the type of business you’re starting. For example, if you’re building a web app, you’ll need much less capital than someone trying to build a hardware device or someone trying to compete in an established market. If you wanted to build the next greatest phone or e-reader or trying to sell a better issue tracker to enterprise, you’ll need more cash.
At Huntress, we bootstrapped the company for 18 months while we worked at full-time jobs before we raised a $765,000 seed round. There were definitely drawbacks to not raising earlier, but it meant that we spent more time talking with each customer to understand what their problems were and how we could solve them. This meant we had a very good fit with our customers, even before we found product-market fit. This really became part of our culture and shapes how we partner with our customers to make sure they get the best experience.
On the other hand, not having additional capital meant that we were forced to grow slower and had to wait to make some of the hires that could have helped us accelerate growth. It’s really a trade-off that each company has to balance when getting started.
What are the most important elements to incorporate in the work culture you are building?
Bisnett: When we started Huntress, we had each worked at companies that shaped our view of places that we didn’t want to work for again, such as places that put profits ahead of employee happiness and customer satisfaction. We wanted to build a company that we would want to work at, one that was transparent about how we handle things and why. That’s also the type of company that customers like working with.
By being transparent about what we’re doing, our customers can feel confident that we’re treating them fairly, and we never put our employees in a spot where they feel the need to lie or misrepresent the company’s position. For example, in the few cases where we have missed malware infections on our customers’ computers, we’ve always admitted fault right away and discussed the details of exactly why we missed the infection and what we’re going to change to improve the product so that it doesn’t happen again.
Rank the importance of listening to user feedback.
Bisnett: We often find that user feedback and feature requests are usually focused around a symptom of a problem and not necessarily the problem itself. Whenever we get feedback or feature requests from customers, we always try to dig deeper and see if we can identify the root issue. Many times we’ve had discussions with customers about a complex feature request only to find that we could solve the underlying problem better, and faster, with a different solution. Listen to what your customers are asking for, but don’t be afraid to dig deeper to really understand the pain point.
What additional advice would you give a founder launching a software startup in 2020?
Talk to your customers constantly when you are building and continue to ask for feedback. As a startup, you only have a short time to reach product-market fit before you run out of money, so you need this feedback to help guide you. The trick is to build something that solves or reduces a process for your customers that is painful, time-consuming, or both. Once you find a pain point that is big enough that multiple customers experience it and are willing to pay to make it go away, you’ll have your product.