(With apologies to Abraham Maslow)

One of the most interesting elements of working as a senior executive in a startup company is that such careers are typically punctuated with long periods of time off.  This is particularly true of successful exits, which provide the luxury of time off to think about the next great invention. Some guys go back to school, while others drop from sight for a while. But my personal favorite has always been consulting – it’s a great way to stay engaged, absorb  new technology, and best of all, learn what other startups are working on.

In my experience, consulting engagements for startup companies always seem to follow this specific sequence of needs:

Need #1 – Make it Work

The first meeting with a new company is always the same.  You meet with a bleary-eyed engineering executive and CEO who, often incorrectly, have lost confidence in their own team to solve a particularly pressing problem. The message is clear – we don’t care what it takes, just make it work. This is typically not a major challenge.  The company engineering staff usually has a grasp of the issues, so a fresh set of eyes and a bit of detachment often do the trick.

Need #2 – Make it Perform

Within a week the same guys call – a bit less harried this time. I can set my watch to it. The message this time?  “Hey, this thing works pretty well now, but the performance isn’t very good. Can you help us with this?”

Fixing performance problems is often a bigger challenge because more often than not the core architecture is the issue. So we bang on this for a while longer, and eventually the product works and performs well.

Need #3 – Optimize the Cost

This need usually takes a bit longer to surface because it’s most often related to hardware products.  The product works well and performs well, which usually means it’s going to sell well. As sales ramp up, the economic factors kick in.  The third call goes something like this – “Hey, this thing works well and performs great but we really need to get the cost down…. and by the way your consulting rates are kind of high….”

Once I tuned into this, I recognized that the same dynamics exist whether you are a consultant in a startup company or a manager running engineering for a startup company.  I think about these as discrete steps in an atomic order;

  1. Get it to work
  2. Optimize the performance
  3. Optimize the cost

The order is critical – big mistakes are usually made when the order is scrambled. Or worse, companies try to work on all three at the same time. Savvy engineering managers know to follow the steps one at a time, and also to anticipate the next need in the sequence and have the plan ready to go.  As soon as they sense functionality is close, they start thinking about performance.  As soon as the performance challenges start to come under control, they start trying to optimize the cost.

When it’s done properly, the progression is smooth, seamless, and delivers consistently good results.


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