The 8 key things to focus on when founding a tech start-up
Regardless of the type of organisation you want to set up, there’ll be key things you need to think about beforehand. But tech start-ups come with some specific challenges – especially when launching solutions in sectors known for their lack of innovation. This is something I know from my own experience setting up Frontline Aid. Here’s my take on the 8 main things to focus on when founding a tech start-up.
Harness your expertise and develop a great idea
You should have a fantastic proposition that fits a market need, and you must know what it is that you’re trying to solve. In our case, Frontline Aid had been in the making for more than a decade. We’d been running a charity but identified issues with data collection and a dearth of existing products to enable the sustainability of grassroots organisations. We knew these problems could be solved with concrete tech solutions.
Have the perseverance to fight for it
Being able to fight for your idea(s) – even when others laugh you out of the room – is key. The extent to which this might happen will depend on the sector you’re operating in. If you’re already working in business there’s likely to be more trust around being innovative. But don’t discount the extent to which disruptive tech – which could threaten jobs or certainly sound a bit Star Trek-esque – might prove to be a barrier to your stakeholders believing your vision is legitimate. This was certainly a problem in the humanitarian aid sector.
Years ago, when our charity started working in Palestine, we very quickly discovered that there were challenges with registering the kids who were attending our classes. Many had behavioural issues stemming from trauma and were unable to be still. Meanwhile classes would have people coming in and out throughout the lesson. This made it very difficult to accurately record how many children were regularly attending (which is something we needed to report on to receive our funding). We had the idea of giving each of the kids a smart wristband, or taking a digital image with a smartphone that would automatically render into a register of attendance. The donors laughed at us – they thought the ideas were ridiculous. But we knew that these kinds of smart solutions represented the future of data collection in our sector, and we persevered in spite of resistance. We were focused on solutions and innovation, not on doing things the ways they’d always been done before.
Amass the right people and make use of your networks
We knew right from the start that we didn’t have the technical skills and expertise that our idea demanded. We understood that there were gaps in our sector, but we were not tech experts – nor did we need to be. So be humble enough to realise you can’t do everything yourself, and massage your network: put yourself out there, reach out, and ask for help.
But don’t just hire from within your sector. Hiring from the same pool of talent can be self-serving and circular. Instead companies and organisations have to look at the future of how we run our entities, and part of that is looking at talent from different sources: the people who will bring fresh perspectives and different solutions. (I actually find this tricky in terms of our work around being innovative and entrepreneurial. Because the people who are ‘allowed’ to operate in these ways have generally gone through a sound education system, and often come from a similar background. This leads to a very monochrome talent pool, and a narrow perspective. All of those other people who could have amazing skills and ideas don’t get to reach the table, let alone sit at it.)
In terms of finding and amassing a talent pool, my advice would be to get creative. We initially started by asking people for their expertise on a voluntary basis. Tech is known to be a well-funded area, which leads to a lot of people wanting to help and give something back, especially to those like us who were working in a humanitarian space. So we banked that goodwill and sought their experience, even if they were only able to spare a few hours.
Also look for people who are committed – those that believe in what you’re trying to achieve, and who can go on that journey with you. This kind of resolve can get you through the tough times.
Carry out thorough research and development
Invest money in your research and development phase. We did this initially by bringing in some funding for our charity, which had a budget line against developing tech solutions for monitoring and evaluation, and for data collection. So we were able to get creative in how we used these funds to enable us to do some exploratory research.
This meant we could build out some of the processes, carry out usability testing, iterate from our early models, and ultimately develop a minimum viable product (MVP). The usability testing was particularly key for us, because we wanted Frontline Aid to be utilised in many different countries (often in war zones or conflict areas), by users who may not have had much tech training. It was quite a complex proposition for our developers and designers to work on, which is why hiring the right people is so critical.
Understand that it will take time – and get ready to pivot
Coming up with fit-for-purpose tech solutions can take a lot of time. For us, things were a decade in the making. Obviously the whole world is now used to working remotely since Covid, but we actually started grappling with remote working issues way back in 2011, at the outset of the Syrian War. We had to leave the country while many Syrian staff remained, continuing to carry out important project work. And we had to figure out how to keep running these projects when we were no longer around. The way we started to do that was through remote working and digitisation, which spawned some of our initial ideas around the Frontline Aid model. Be aware that you’ll need to put in the hours every day – probably for months, maybe even years – to get things off the ground.
Meanwhile, remember that something peculiar to the tech sector is the sheer pace of change. Perhaps by the time your MVP is ready, a new technology may have launched that renders it obsolete. So you have to be ready to pivot, and be future-oriented. Technology like ChatGPT will change the landscape, and will raise important questions around ethical use, and who has control and power (not to mention the potential for abuse of that power).
Be mindful of legal and intellectual property rights (IPR) issues
Do you understand the kind of registration you want, and the kind of model you’re going to have for your business? What does it look like? This is a key consideration because it will translate into any business planning that you do.
Similarly make sure your intellectual property is protected sufficiently. Employ the services of pro bono lawyers to advise you on the best ways to protect and own your original material – or use your network to access these services at a free or discounted rate. Be wary of any contracts you take on, as sometimes there are clauses relating to the ownership of IP during the contract period.
Be prepared to raise lots of money
Funding your start-up is obviously critical. Once you’ve got the foundations of what you’re trying to achieve, you really just have to raise the funds to make it happen. And you need a lot of money to get to the next stage. Fundraising and investment raising is an artform, so make sure you get the right team around you. As a founder you have to be able to communicate your idea succinctly and persuasively, write amazing grants (or have someone who can do this for you), inspire an audience, and sell your proposition (and yourself) to the people holding the purse strings. Bear in mind that there are different investment pathways as well, from crowdfunding to venture capital funding. We started by building up a tiny portfolio of money, initially from a governmental donor, and going from there.
Have the right mindset
Be open to seeing opportunity and overcoming setback. Unfortunately 60% of start-ups fail within their first three years. So it’s vitally important to keep picking yourself back up time and time again – because there will be barriers along the way. You need to have the capacity to rise, phoenix-like, every single day. And you need that belief and confidence in your proposition: to see what it is that you want to achieve, and get there. Ultimately at Frontline Aid we want massive innovation across the humanitarian aid sector, with tech driving extreme change. For us that’s worth fighting for.
Ummul is CEO and co-founder of Capoeira4Refugees, RealtimeAid, and tech start-up Frontline Aid. She is an advocate for race, equality, female leaders and localisation. She is currently writing her first book.