A Startup CTO's Guide to a Pandemic

A Startup CTO's Guide to a Pandemic

So here's the scenario:  You've just spent 2 years building a company with great people, cool tech, and a little bit of success.  The only problem is that a global pandemic just hit and has shut the entire planet down.  What do you do?

Here is my answer to such a strange problem:

  1. Cut Costs
  2. Focus
  3. (... read below)

1. Cut Costs

This one is a double edged sword.  You will get to figure out what infrastructure you get to optimize, but at the same time, you will have to figure out how to do your job with less.  The first part is fun and the second part sucks.

For the fun part, you will get to revisit your entire infrastructure that has accumulated over the years, and think about what can be optimized.  Whether that is switching to new service providers or configuring existing providers to save money, you will have free rein to poke around.

In my case, our biggest cost was AWS, so I tackled that first.  We have a bunch of blockchain nodes running in our infrastructure.  Some of them require high throughput disk speed in order to keep up with the network, which can get quite pricey.  Our first task was offloading this to a 3rd party service that will run the nodes and manage them for us.  Taking these type of actions can save thousands of dollars per month.

The other item targeted in AWS was cluster node server costs.  Back in the 2008 crisis, many companies cut costs by moving to cloud based services instead of running things in their own hardware infrastructure.   Similarly, now is the time to look for new services and ways of doing things that require less resources. Since the time we originally built some of our original infrastructure, new services like AWS Fargate have been introduced to allow you to run services without dedicated server costs.  Moving to these services can save hundreds of dollars per month or more.

For the part that sucks, you will have to do more with less.  This will include cutting back on tools and services that are being run.  For example, we cut back on spare seats in Github that were there for a buffer and also went through GSuite accounts and removed any old accounts that were hanging around "just in case".  Going forward you will need to manually add/remove seats and will undoubtedly lose some data that you will need.  This can save hundreds per month.

The worst part, of course, is if you need to cut down on headcount.  If you need a primer on working your way through layoffs, see David Ulevitch's article where he does a good job going through the logistics.  The main take away is that this will be hard to do, but nothing compared to what the employees are going through.  If it needs to be done, get it over with.  Cutting headcount will save tens of thousands per month and is usually the largest cost in a startup that can be cut.

So to recap:

  1. Look at infrastructure costs that you can optimize
  2. Look at unused resources you are paying for that you can get rid of
  3. See if there are new technologies you can invest in and adopt to get efficiency
  4. Reduce headcount

2. Focus

When times are good, it's easy to look at a lot of different opportunities and waste time talking to people about it, playing with the tech, and talking about how it could be accomplished.  At this point however, that all gets thrown out the window.

If you have already attacked the cost cutting side of the equation, the only other variable is how to drive revenue.  If you have a feature or product that needs to launch that can help the company grow revenues, this has to be your number one priority.  If there are any roadblocks that can be removed for your team, or if you can take action on any of the infrastructure or design projects to move things faster you should focus your energy there.

Also, as a startup CTO, there are always potential customers asking you to build some custom solution that doesn't align with the goals of the company.  It might seem like a good time to explore potential integrations or 3rd party partnerships, but unless these will drive real revenue for the company, you should be exploiting the current path that has already been laid out.

Finally, it is very important that the entire team is focused as well.  During a crazy time like a stock market crash and a global pandemic, the team might be very distracted.  They may be looking after family members or taking care of children in their home, so be prepared to be flexible.  Anything you can do to limit distractions and make very clear what needs to be accomplished will be valuable.

To recap again

  1. Focus on the feature or product that is going to drive revenue
  2. Cut out distractions
  3. Make sure the team has clarity for goals and help them focus

3. Enjoy the Ride

This is going to be a test of endurance and mental grit through something that no one had any idea was coming your way. Many companies are going to give up and shut down, some companies are going to grind it out, and some companies will even get some serious tailwind.  No matter what, when you emerge from the other side of this challenge, you will be wiser and stronger because of it.  

Good luck.