August 10, 2015

Great tech startups begin with a great development team

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Ela Goczyńska-Han, COO/Business Development Chief of Coders Mill, at the company’s table at the Launch Festival in San Francisco in March (Photo by JD Lasica).

This is part one of a five-part series on “Rise of a startup: Cruiseable.” Today’s installment looks at the decision to hire an overseas development team, Coders Mill.

Target audience: Entrepreneurs, startup teams, angel investors, venture capitalists, developers, businesses, innovators, educators, students, journalists, travel analysts.

JD LasicaDuring the past 16 months, as longtime readers know (and this blog goes back a long way, to May 2001), I’ve gone full throttle into startup mode, working with my co-founder Giacomo Balli on a travel tech startup called Cruiseable. We’re out to make it much easier and more fun for people to discover, plan and book great cruise vacations.

Over that span, friends, colleagues and strangers have asked me to write about our journey. And while I don’t lay claim to unlocking major new business processes or media insights, I do think some of what we’re doing will be of interest to other entrepreneurs (current and aspiring), as well as journalists, innovators, analysts and anyone interested in how the travel tech and cruise worlds work.

Unlike most startups that come out of Greater Silicon Valley (which includes San Francisco, which now spawns more startups than the original Silicon Valley), we decided not to spin out a few prototypes, test them, iterate and move on to something else if things didn’t immediately click.

That approach doesn’t work if you’re setting your sites higher — and we’re out to bring some rockin’ new social and mobile innovation to the $38 billion cruise industry. So we spent the first few weeks not coding, but researching. Learning. Absorbing all kinds of reports about the connected traveler, millennial travelers and the next generation of collaborative and empowered travelers.

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The plumbing & development process come first

We decided to pursue Gretzky economics. Skate to where the puck’s gonna be.

Game plan in hand, target audiences identified and branding solidified (I managed to purchase the cruiseable.com domain a few months earlier), our next step was not to build out a team, or whip up some prototypes, or invest months of time in pursuit of angel investors who shared our vision of empowered travelers.

No. We began by finding a great development team that could help construct the basic scaffolding for Cruiseable.

The quality of overseas development houses has risen markedly in recent years, especially in Poland, Ukraine, Romania and elsewhere on the Continent

We knew we wanted to be a “mobile priority” startup. While the rest of the world is moving to mobile, discovering and booking cruises is chiefly done on the Web. So we decided to create a single database that would simultaneously feed both a mobile app and our website. Any action you take on the site would be instantly reflected on the app, and vice-versa.

We did it, and it’s very, very cool.

With that single-database, no-jerry-rigging requirement in mind, we looked around for a solid development house. My co-founder is an all-star mobile app developer, but Objective C for iOS is a completely different animal than Python, PHP, Joomla and all the other code bases and development frameworks out there. (And from my years as the chief executive of Ourmedia, I sure as heck knew we weren’t going with Drupal.)

We had a finite budget and big ambitions. The quality of overseas development houses has risen markedly in recent years, especially in Poland, Ukraine, Romania and elsewhere on the Continent. I had given a talk in Krakow, Poland, two summers ago on The Social Startup to a large audience of developers and entrepreneurs. So it didn’t take much convincing from Don Dodge of Google Ventures, one of our advisors, to point us to Coders Mill, whose CEO put on the conference I spoke at.

Settling on Python and a development process

After several deep dives into our vision for the site and app, we agreed that Python was the most industrial-strength programming language and code base that could scale to thousands and eventually millions of users.

We’ve developed quite a relationship. Giacomo has flown to Krakow and met with the team, and the Coders Mill COO, Ela Goczyńska-Han, flew to San Francisco in March to meet with me and attend the Launch Festival. (In fact I introduced Ela to Launch founder and longtime friend Jason Calacanis.)

Scrum methodology

The language barrier reared up once or twice early on (my Polish is limited to the occasional Na zdrowie), but it was really just a communication rhythm that we needed to establish. The developers’ English is quite good. We’ve been using Trello as our project management system, to good effect, supplemented by emails and monthly “sprint calls” over Skype, where we discuss the deliverables for them to tackle in the next sprint. (In fact, the latest one just ended, at 2:30 am, a few minutes ago.)

We use Moqups as a prototyping tool, a beta site before pushing code to production, Google docs for listing and checking off tasks, Github as our code repository, Linode as our hosting service, toggl for tracking hours, and Scrum as our incremental agile software development method. (Hey, after working at Microsoft and at three startups, I actually know what all this stuff does. And it’s awesome.)

Oh, and I’ve been using Bank of America quite a bit to wire funds to Krakow, until we find the right set of angel investors who have the insight to join us on our quest for world domination. (Here’s our impressive team — more on them, and other tools we use, and the launch of Cruiseable, in our next installment.)

Would I recommend Coders Mill to other startups? Yes. It’s always good to work shoulder to shoulder with your developers, but when funds are limited, a development house like Coders Mill is a life saver.JD Lasica, founder of Socialmedia.biz, is now co-founder of the cruise discovery engine Cruiseable. See his About page, contact JD or follow him on Twitter or Google Plus.

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  • Robert Parmer

    I use Trello for a few different organizational purposes. In essence, it’s pretty great. However, I’m not personally a big fan of the ‘card’ system that Trello and Domo use respectively.