Adapted from my 2018 Ignite Talk

For most people in the tech world, life can be fairly drab They sit in cubicles, at insurance companies, writing code, designing their millionth, mind numbing button, or making cold calls to hostile schmucks all day. It’s a job right? Something you have to be paid to do, because no one in their right mind would do this for free.

On the other hand, we have the guys in Silicone Valley, wrapped in hoodies and self righteousness, planning on getting rich and changing the world (not necessarily in that order). But how do you get from cubicle to your dream? Working on what you love?

“I’m never doing this again”

I would like to tell you about one the best dumb ideas of recent history: The StartupBus. A Navy Seal boot-camp training program for tech entrepreneurs. Or so I like to think.

In 2010, my friend Elias, was working in Venture Capital, and wanted to get a bus with a bunch of friends and go to South by South West – the huge film, music and tech conference in Austin. He thought would be funny to semi-mock Startup Culture in Silicon Valley by having everyone on the bus try and build a tech startup in the three days it would take to get there from San Francisco.

It sounded crazy to everyone, but they all had so much fun, that a group of them decided to turn it into a “my-city-is-better-than-your-city” tournament the following year. They all went back to their respective states, and started recruiting riders for a full-blown competition. 

The format is simple: 30 strangers get selected to get on a bus, as long as they are extremely competent and fall into one of three clichéd categories: Hipsters Hackers, and Hustlers: Graphic designers, Computer programmers, and Marketing and Business Development people.

They then get on the bus day one, introduce themselves, and pitch an idea for a startup. Groups then form around the ideas, and then the teams work like crazy, for three or four days, to make an actual business. With REAL products, and even Customers – In three days!

I was first invited to ride the 2011 Miami bus. I worked on two separate teams, competed against 10 other busses, 60 other teams,  and didn’t sleep for four days, and met some of the most amazing people that are still in my life to this day.

Since then, the competition has grown. There are more and more busses every year from more cities, a separate European competition, and I’ve recently gotten back from the inaugural StartupBus Africa trip, which was epic! But why would anyone do this?

Well, most people are just… terrible at their jobs. I assume you’ve found this yourself. But the bus is different. The sheer caliber of the people you meet if off the charts. Everyone works so hard, and is so good at what they do, that there is a feedback loop of inspiration; You WANT to work harder to show that you belong. 

The result is productivity to an extent not seen in the real world. What can you create on a bus in three days? How about a fully fledged, artificial intelligence food ordering system that will automatically order you lunch every day? Yeah, we did that. 

Nomscription – Built in three days. On a bus.

Internet free chat system for disaster areas? Yup. A career matching system for Veterans? Check. Customized cereal delivered to your door? Yup. A full social network for selling what you grow in your back garden – a team from Tampa built that!

And there are hundreds of others. But the bus isn’t all flowers and roses. In fact it is totally awful. And that is one of the reasons it’s so successful. If you can build something amazing in three days next to a chemical toilet, you can do anything.

There is bad food, motion sickness, team melt downs, spotty power and internet access, and every new hell you’d find in a real startup, but compressed into the equivalent of a long weekend.  As a result, you learn to be flexible, to deal with the chaos, and to thrive.

Then there is the physical side.  Try having a normal conversation after writing code for ten hours doing this. Also, after four days without sleep, you can have some pretty inspiring insights, as well as some mind-blowing hallucinations. Not to mention all the caffeine and alcohol.

The pure squalor of the situation, combined with the amazing team work that goes on, binds you so closely to those people, that you instantly have 30 new best friends. I started referring to the processes as entrepreneurial Stockholm Syndrome. 

But the process opens your eyes. A passionate, five person team, working 16 hour days, for four days straight, produce 320 hours of actual work. That’s an equivalent 40 work days of super productivity. 

If you can build a complete product, create marketing materials, pitch decks, business cards, have customers and sales, etc., all in three days, ON A BUS, what could you do if you gave yourself six months?

I bet that you’re pretty amazing. You just can’t begin to realize how freaking amazing you REALLY ARE until you’ve HAD be amazing waste deep in crap and sleep depravation. There are no excuses. Go and build something, right now!

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I help cruise lines turn their technical ideas into reality. I'm experienced in all stages of innovation and technology management. I've also been programing since I was 8 years old, and have somehow retained the ability to have normal human interactions. Occasionally I speak about how Industrial Psychology and Neurophysiology can be interrogated with IT and systems management, because I spend a lot of time thinking about the subject, as strange as that may seem.

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Software Development Teams: Build vs. Contract

Almost every business is technology-enabled in some way these days. Hair salons do their scheduling online, powerline workers train in VR, and pharmacists use AI systems to check for contraindications. There are very few businesses out there that could not be made more efficient and profitable — or provide better services for their customers — through technology.

In most situations, buying software and customizing it makes the best sense. You need a word processor and an accounting system, but it would show boldness to the point of lunacy to build one yourself. Quickbooks and Microsoft Word are worth the few hundred dollars a year. They might not be perfect, but the cost to build and maintain your dream accounting software could run into the millions.

However, in many situations, businesses invent new ways to improve their internal operations or their customer experience. While a comparable off-the-shelf solutions may exist to fit those needs, a custom built product is likely the only way to deliver the required features and processes the company is looking for. Features like these become competitive advantages. Organizations want to own the intellectual property behind their competitive advantages. You don’t want to license these types of systems if your competitors can license them just as easily.

That leaves companies with one choice: Build your own custom software. But the question is whether you should try and build your business-changing application in-house or outsource it to a development agency.

Cost vs. Time

Most decisions in the professional space come down to the project management triangle. If you want to build software of any decent quality, you can pick two of the three corners to move: cost, time, and scope (the number and robustness of features the project has). If you want fast and cheap, you have to shrink the scope. If you want robust and cheap, you’ll have to wait a long time.

The decision to hire an agency or build a team hinges on these three corners. In business applications, scope is usually the non-negotiable — the requirements are the requirements. Building a team takes a lot of time and costs money. Hiring an agency will drastically reduce the ramp up time by comparison, but potentially cost more. If you are worried about quality, remember that you get what you pay for.

Management Structure

Deciding to build out your own development team is not for the faint of heart, but it can have serious benefits.

To build a basic, but healthy and functioning, software team you will need the following:

  • A CTO or CIO to handle strategy and management.
  • A Director of Engineering to manage the team, build out processes, etc.
  • A Software Architect to design the system. (This can be a senior developer for small teams.)
  • A couple of DevOps engineers to manage the environments.
  • At least one QA expert. (No, developers can’t check the work themselves, I’ve tried.)
  • Developers, including full-stack, frontend, and backend developers if you’re building out a product. A good mix of senior, mid-level, and junior developers would be my recommendation to make the team robust.
  • A product owner. Preferably someone with management experience
  • A scrum master (if you’re following Scrum/Agile).
  • UX expert. I cannot understate this role enough! (They can be outsourced if you have to, but are much better to have on the team.)
  • A visual designer. Depending on the product you are building, this is the one optional role.

This is the biggest reason to hire an agency. If you want something built well, you really need a team that looks like something similar to this. Depending on your budget and experience, it could take years to put a team like this together.

However, if you have highly technical and experienced upper management there are benefits to in-house teams.

But We Are a Lean Startup

That’s great! Then you don’t need any of the stuff I listed above. But if you are purely a technology startup, then you (I’m guessing you’re a founder), need to be building the tech yourself, or at least have a co-founder building the tech. As the company scales, you can bring on additional help and you will almost certainly start looking like the organize above.

How Long Does It Take To Build a Team?

It depends on if you’re talking about a good team, or just any team. Building an organization from scratch takes time. You need to recruit, hire people, onboard them, manage them, weed out the good, let go of the bad, hire replacements for those let go, etc. You also need to invent, document, and enforce the systems and processes that will lead to the best outcomes. You will need to build a culture of caring, accountability, and quality. So, basically it will take a long, long time. This is a lot easier to do if you have a top rated CTO or a Director of Engineering in place already. Someone who has gone through this process before will be able to get you up and running much more quickly. They will also be able to oversee all stages of the team building from recruiting to delivery.

Recuiting may be the hardest piece of all of this. Good developers don’t want to join companies without histories of good development practices. So if you don’t have someone for new hires to look up to, you’re going to be stuck with coders who are just looking for a job, and they don’t write good code.

In-House vs Outsourced — Conclusion

Unless you are going to go with the lowest bidder, there probably isn’t that much difference between a good internal team and a good agency. Well-run development studios partner closely with their clients and eventually start to act as part of the same company. The developers in agencies like this feel as much ownership in what they are building as full-time employees would — sometimes more.

Price is not going to be dissimilar either. Once you count things like benefits, office space, management scaffolding, training, hardware and software tools, payroll, HR, etc., etc., etc., it’s unlikely that in-house could be done cheaper than even the large agencies.

The real difference comes down to the level of control you want over the team and the type of product you’re building. If you are a small technology startup you would be crazy to hire a big agency unless your product needed to be really good from day one. If you plan on becoming a technology company, you might want try a hybrid of agency and in-house. Finally, if you are a small- to medium-sized company whose existing products or services are not predominantly tech-focused or delivered, I would suggest not doing development in-house.