Guest post: How we got our platform and startup back on track

This is a guest post by Evan Rudowski co-founder of SubHub.

We were two co-founders with one big problem.

We had a great team and loyal customers. We had big ideas and an ambitious vision we believed in. But translating our vision into code hadn’t proven to be easy. We were stuck with a platform that had too many limitations to take our startup where we needed it to go.

SubHub’s vision is to build a powerful website publishing platform that’s simple and intuitive to use and enables content creators to make money. Our underlying belief is that eventually all content will be digitized and distributed over the Internet. Much of this content must generate revenue for its creators as it is the only value they have. Our mission is to provide content creators with everything they need to prosper online.

Although simplicity is what we strive for, in truth it hadn’t been simple for us to get our technology to deliver. Yet, somehow, we managed to turn it all around, culminating in our launch this month of SubHub Lite. How did we do it?

Veteran entrepreneurs will tell you not to start a tech company without a technical co-founder. They’re right. Nevertheless that’s exactly what we did. You might call it our original sin. Without any technical skill of our own, my co-founder, Miles Galliford and I decided to build an entire platform. A simple app wasn’t good enough for us. We wanted content management, flexible design, intuitive navigation, membership, social networking features and revenue generation. Should be a cinch.

We weren’t entirely crazy. Platforms are where the big money is. Little applications are attractive and can of course be very successful, but platforms can be massive. Facebook, eBay, Google, Apple’s iOS — they are all platform plays. So maybe we were masochists — but as they say, no pain, no gain.

Our quest to get this platform built led us initially to hire an external development firm to build our first version. How did that work out? Well, in my closet at home is something I call the £60,000 umbrella. It was given to me by this development firm; £60,000 is what we paid them. We didn’t keep the platform but at least I kept the umbrella.

We built the next platform in-house with the help of our first tech hire. Far from being a failure, that platform has lasted us four years. It’s made some customers happy, it’s served the purpose for some others, and frustrates nearly everyone else for what it doesn’t do well enough or at all. As a result, we were leaving most of the market opportunity on the table.

This platform was built as a giant block of code, loaded with functionality. Well, it’s hard to keep building onto a giant block of code. Imagine trying to add a sunroof to a tank. The web kept advancing and customers kept asking for new things. We couldn’t keep bolting them on. We knew we needed a new platform with a more modular architecture.

You only get so many chances. This time we had to get it right. We needed a way to talk to our developers in a language we could all share and understand. This time our vision had to translate fully into code. Fortunately that’s when we discovered Agile development.

Agile enabled us to write user stories in plain English with clear acceptance criteria. It enabled our developers to ask questions to gain clarity. Agile sprints are fully transparent and result in measurable deliverables; for the first time ever, we could see progress happening and tweak and adjust continually within the Agile framework.

Under Agile, developers can’t hide behind a Wizard of Oz-style “don’t look behind the curtain” mentality as some like to do. At the same time, the business-side people are forced to clearly articulate and think through their requests. Developers are protected from whimsical changes and random interruption. Non-developers need to be coherent.

With Agile in place, we finally started making measurable progress toward building that elusive new platform. We were trained in Agile by Eben Halford, one of the few certified scrum masters in the UK and it really set us on the right course.

If building an entire platform seemed crazy, building all of it ourselves would have been plain stupid. Even with Agile, we still only had limited resources. We needed to concentrate our resources on where they could truly add value, and not on replicating what others had already done well.

We needed to focus on usability, on integration of the various components that would comprise our platform, and on development of those components that just didn’t exist anywhere else. That’s where we would be able to apply our own unique knowledge and expertise. Everything else we chose to view as a commodity that we should obtain elsewhere and then integrate.

We decided to build on top of Drupal, a leading open-source content management solution. Drupal had been achieving increasingly wide adoption thanks to its robust feature set and strong community. With Drupal providing a powerful CMS as the foundation we could focus on building a self-provisioning, user-friendly solution for nontechnical content owners and producers — our target audience. We could also concentrate on integrating all the other needed elements that make SubHub unique, such as content monetisation.

Masochists that we are, we decided to skip the then-current stable release, Drupal 6, and build instead on top of Drupal 7, which at the time was just entering alpha. Why? We’ve already established that we like pain but what was more important was that we didn’t want to have to do this all again in another 12 months. We wanted a foundation that would last a while. We knew Drupal 7 would put us at the vanguard. Indeed it has; with the launch of SubHub Lite we believe we are now the first major commercial service to launch on top of Drupal 7.

If our original sin was to launch without a techie co-founder, our saving grace was to set up the business in Cardiff rather than London. This enabled us to bootstrap using grants, loans and subsidies from local government. We’ve enjoyed a lower cost base than London and less competition with other startups for talented staff (although the labour pool is smaller, meaning that hiring can take longer). We’ve also been able to obtain equity investment from lesser-known regional sources, such as Finance Wales and its angel network, Xenos.

All of this has given us the time we’ve needed to apply what we’ve learned in the five years since we started out. We can appreciate how many startups can fail because they run out of money long before they run out of ideas. If we’ve done anything right, it’s been making sure that didn’t happen. As Twitter co-founder Biz Stone has said, “Timing, perseverance, and ten years of trying will eventually make you look like an overnight success.”

With the launch of SubHub Lite this month, we finally feel like we’re winning the startup marathon. Development has accelerated rapidly under Agile and we finally have the architecture in place to deliver against our vision. The marketplace has caught up with us, as everyone is now talking about how to make money from their content. Initial customer reaction has been positive and enthusiastic. As SubHub Lite evolves in the months ahead into a full replacement for our current platform, we will be well poised to take our start-up to the next level and fulfill our vision to become a world-leading content publishing and monetisation solution.