Productivity = Skill * Commitment * Tools

Author: Dave Cassel  |  Category: Entrepreneurism

It’s very difficult to start up a company part time. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it’s tough. This simple equation popped into my head earlier:

Productivity = Skill * Commitment * Tools

Early in our effort, we actually did pretty well on the Commitment part of the equation. Four of us developers would gather at a house and work on the project. I’d leave work as early as 4pm and stay at the house until midnight. That’s a lot of time to put in after a full day’s work, but I was committed. I was excited. I had big dreams. When you love what you’re doing, it’s not work. The others were committed as well.

The only problem: we didn’t know what we were doing. None of us had ever built a web site before. For that matter, we didn’t have much experience with large software systems. My early recruits were, like me, working in a research department, where scalability and stability take a back seat to exploring ideas. The early had a number of features, but it was buggy and brittle.

After doing that for a while, I shifted my day job to a group that was doing web development for a large system. I learned about MVC. We adopted a framework (CakePHP) that made it easy to structure things well. We’d fix bugs by rewriting pages in the framework and discarding the old page. We could build new features faster, and now our view code was separated from our database calls, so changing the look got much easier.

But somewhere along the line, the balance of the equation changed. Our skills grew, as we got to know PHP, JavaScript, CSS, and how to structure things. But the guy whose house we were going to was also in grad school, and his classes demanded his attention. We switched to another guy’s house, but after a couple months, he got married, and his wife needed his time as they worked on projects around the house. A Bear Rock Cafe became our office. They had free WiFi and outlets, and the food was pretty good. Only they closed at 9, instead of midnight. Over time, fewer people came out, and we weren’t able to stay together as long. People had other demands on their time, and just weren’t able to commit like they had in the beginning. Productivity, which had never been all that high, dropped.

We kept progressing, but we also started to notice more and more competing sites popping up. Eventually, we acknowledged that our pace of development wasn’t even fast enough to keep up, let alone catch up.

Lesson learned: to make progress, you need a balance of skills and commitment. (More about tools in a later post.) For a part-time, bootstrapped team, the commitment part is especially crucial. Skills will be acquired over time, but without the time commitment, it won’t be enough.

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