As part of Microsoft’s BizSpark program, Syncfusion’s vice president and cofounder, Daniel Jebaraj, addressed the concerns of entrepreneurs via a live Facebook chat last month. This experimental format yielded questions from the audience concerning challenges of the technology industry, methods of funding, and best practices for marketing.
Microsoft BizSpark encourages software start-ups by providing development tools and business resources. Syncfusion has partnered with BizSpark since 2011.
Audience questions and Jebaraj’s responses are listed below, grouped into the four main topics covered. This chat was recorded on August 29, 2012.
Technology Industry Challenges
What are the top three challenges for starting a software company?
I think the top three would be:
• Finding an idea you can love and stay with for the long run. You do not want to come up with something that you will not be able to stick with.
• Finding a core group of people who share your vision and love for the idea. I think it is harder doing things alone.
• Finding the money required to keep the lights on, especially during the early days.
Where do you think app developers need to spend their time? In design, debugging, understanding the devices, or something else?
I think it helps to clearly understand the business purpose of the application. Once that is clear, then I would spend most of my effort on that area. I guess I would just look at it as my crucial domain. Everything else—design, development, etc.—is important, but clarity of business purpose is vital. Once that has been established, the other decisions will be easier.
Do you think it's harder for women to succeed in the tech world?
I am not sure if it is harder for women or not, but I can say for sure that if you have an idea and stick with it, your chances of ultimate success are no less than anyone else; you may have to work a bit harder and change a few minds along the way.
I have two young daughters, and I want them to consider a career in tech one day.
How did you scale your product and evaluate whether you needed to take outside funding or not?
We came up with the funds needed to keep things going for a few months between the founders. We estimated that we would be able to produce a product that we could sell in that time window.
We started selling as soon as we could and never looked back. We did consider raising money a few times in the early stages, but I don't think we came close to it at all. We felt much better bootstrapping.
Personally, I think raising money comes with pros and cons. If you could scale without raising money, and get to a certain level before you consider outside funding, that would be the way to go.
This only holds true if your product can be sold without high overhead and an expensive marketing and sales effort. At some point, you will need to consider adding a sales team, which would be a good time to evaluate if you need outside funding.
To summarize, if your product can scale without having a lot of up-front capital costs, consider doing it with your sales instead of raising money.
What is the best way to get funding if you are not in a high-tech area?
If I were to consider raising money, I would first look at ways I could save and raise some of that money myself. Anyone else putting in money will take you seriously if you have some skin in the game. Also, having the ground work done will demonstrate additional commitment. If you have access to angel investors, you can then pitch your idea to them and provide evidence for what you have done thus far.
When people give you their money, they like to make sure they are making a relatively safe bet. There are a few groundbreaking ideas that may get funded on the merits of the idea itself, but for the most part, you have to do more to demonstrate commitment from your end. If it takes building a prototype or selling it to a few early customers, then that will make your chances much higher.
Along the way, keep asking can I do with less money and still make this work? Keep evaluating how much money you really need. If you can get [the company] off the ground with less, you will be better off.
Which areas of tech are venture capitalists looking to fund lately?
This is outside my scope of experience… That said, I do know from our customers that there is a tremendous amount of interest in anything that has to do with mobile phones or tablets. I am guessing this will be an area of interest for venture capital firms.
A big challenge for a start-up is marketing its product, especially when it does not have a proven track record. What’s a good way to tackle this?
You have to be creative with marketing. If you want to do what everyone is doing, it will likely be expensive. When we did not have money for marketing in the early days, we started and maintained (and still do to this day) several FAQs for our target audience. Those took a lot of effort, but they paid off and more than compensated for our lack of a marketing budget.
You can always come up with ideas that will draw attention without having to spend a ton of money. If you go with traditional print and online ads, you will likely spend a lot of money and not get much in return. You need to reach a certain critical mass before you spend on traditional channels.
Start-ups really struggle after the prototype phase. How do you survive beyond that?
A prototype becomes a product when you can sell it to a few people. Tech founders often get hung up on minor details. The bottom line is that you want to get it out the door and in the hands of paying customers. If you do that, then your problem will be resolved.
Do you think the mobile-social market is the next big thing?
I guess mobile-social would be great, but I am sure there are many more business niche areas within the mobile domain where the chances of making money are higher. It is sometimes counterintuitive, but you do not always want to be in the hottest area. There are too many contenders in those areas, and often that makes it hard to make money.
What is the most important thing to establish with your audience when preparing to demo a new product?
You have to establish confidence. Confidence in your product, company, and yourself is vital. If you can address the concerns of the audience in a way that inspires confidence, you have it made.
If there is one thing that you believe will change the web in the next five years, what is it?
I wish I knew… I think single-page applications will transform the way we work and perceive web applications.
What is your opinion on marketing a product? Should marketing start while the prototype is ready or should you wait for the final product?
You should start as early as possible. Early adopters will be aware that they will run into issues. Commitment to resolution is important, but the more exposure you can get the better. Writing white papers, crafting a web presence, and producing other material related to marketing is as important as the product itself.
You said that valuable content on your site helped conversions. What about writing content on other sites? What else besides spending money on ads brings people in?
Yes, content helps. Approach it from the mindset of your customers. Typical customers have questions. If you can address those questions and make the material available, you will provide a valuable service to your customers and help your company in the process. Make the content as valuable as possible. That makes a big difference.
Do Syncfusion controls support any version of ASP.NET MVC?
[We support] ASP.NET MVC 3 and later.
Can your ASP.NET MVC controls be used in pure HTML?
No, the controls require an ASP.NET MVC backend.
Do Syncfusion controls work with Visual Studio 2012?
Yes, we released Essential Studio 2012 Volume 3 in August. It works with Visual Studio 2012 and Windows 8.
Can we expect a great framework from Syncfusion for single page applications?
Yes, we will produce frameworks for single page applications (SPA). Currently, Microsoft's path is to use Knockout and Upshot. Upshot is not, however, ready for final release. We will certainly have SPA-compatible frameworks around the time that Upshot is ready.
(Questions from participants have been truncated and Jebaraj’s responses have been edited.)