One of the great parts of being out and on my own is talking to other entrepreneurs and small company employees. Almost every conversation is around the challenges that are unique to each person’s company. What I find truly amazing are how different and varied these challenges are, as well as how really connected to the customer they are.
When I was at Microsoft, and again at Amazon, so much time was spent working on things that would be best described as “internal business processes” or “inventing internal technologies.” For example, on 1v100, we created a from-scratch key-value pair data storage system with rapid throughput. At one company, I recall going to a meeting to discuss revision 12 of an internal strategy document, which was not appreciably different from revision 8 of the same document. It was only after leaving these companies, for smaller, more nimble companies, that I discovered that there were already tons of existing, excellent key-value storage systems, like Couchbase (then Memcache), Cassandra, and Redis, and in fact, there was a name for these: NoSQL. At other smaller companies, we’d gather relevant data, write a quick brief, have a discussion with maybe one followup, and then make a decision, no double-digit document revisions required.
So smaller companies can be faster. They can also be more exploratory, incorporating available tech. But most importantly, they can really be in touch with their customers. At every company where I have managed teams, I have encouraged my reports to attend local startup or app development meetings, so they could get a pulse of the community. The sentiment was there, and appreciated, but there was so much other work to do (usually updating documents, or reinventing technology) that developers never found the time to get out and understand their customers, or meet other developers with different perspectives. In the startup and small business world, developers and entrepreneurs have no choice but to talk with their customers. Their survival depends on every person understanding the customer needs, and finding ways to deliver an improved experience or a better product.
Truly, this is the most eye opening part of being “on my own”, as the problems that really need to be solved are so very different than the problems at large corporations. Large companies have an endemic issue with “re-invention” (more on that in a future post), but small companies are solving the problems they have to solve because no one else is, or can, or will. How does a coworking space solve customer registration and tracking problems while maintaining interpersonal engagement? How does a video game scale it’s multiplayer servers to appropriately handle load while keeping costs within the range of what three people can handle? How does a content company speed up delivery times?
Patent Commissioner Charles Holland Duell is often misquoted as saying “everything that can be invented, has been invented.” However, the past few weeks have demonstrated that this is completely untrue. There are countless problems waiting to be solved, and not just in the realm of software. There are millions of customers clamoring for a better experience, solution, or product. In large corporate land, solving problems that I didn’t believe we actual problems, I was unhappy. Here, in startup-land, seeing opportunity after opportunity to solve real, visible customer problems, I’m delighted. I can’t imagine how I could ever go back.