Published by Rich Kershaw on August 5th, 2020

Things tech startups can avoid #1: Not Invented Here

This is an article in my series "Lessons for tech startups", about ways startups can prepare themselves for the many ways they’ll be scrutinised in their path to funding.

"Not Invented Here" syndrome is something I’ve come across regularly when I’ve been evaluating software providers for partnerships and due diligence. It's well recognised, informally, in the technical architecture world, but probably isn't quite so widely understood outside. It refers to the reluctance many technology designers have for using off-the-shelf solutions to a problem in favour of building your own. It crops up for many reasons, most commonly:

  • Lack of trust in open source (this one’s less common these days!)
  • Lack of trust in relinquishing control to a third-party vendor
  • A need to own 100% of the intellectual property
  • A keenness to give developers a fun or challenging project

It's a big misconception that anyone looking at your company will want you to own all of your IP, but I’ve come across it time and time again. I’d argue that anyone looking at your business, whether a partner, a client or an investor, is only really going to be bothered about your owning the core IP for the thing that makes your business uniquely yours.

Ask yourself, "what makes us different?". If you're a services business, your investors will be buying into the strength and knowledge of your team, your market penetration and your client list. Unique software IP won’t be something investors are looking for if there's already an off the shelf solution which does what you need. In fact, if you've built your infrastructure when you could use a ready-made product faster and cheaper, your home-grown system is more likely to be seen as a millstone around your team’s necks, and a potential vulnerability. It also leaves you exposed to competitors who can build faster and cheaper using off-the-shelf products.

As for giving developers things to do, if you find yourself having to give your engineers "fun" projects to keep them engaged, that’s probably masking an engineering team management problem you should spend some time dealing with. Entertaining developers with a project tangent to your roadmap can be a distraction from building the best product you can, and only last as long as their time with your team - you’ll be dealing with the consequences long after they move on.

There are other consequences of "Not Invented Here" thinking. You can easily box yourself into a partnership-blocking corner by failing to interoperate with mainstream technology without lots of development. Plus, the vast majority of time building everything in-house is a false economy. Once you factor in the skills required to maintain it versus having proper support and an SLA from from a vendor, you might find yourself asking if it was really worth it.

In short, build your own stuff if you actually need to… but always be asking "can I get to market faster or cheaper by going off-the-shelf?"

I've grown and guided technology platforms to scale and investment for over 15 years. If your team needs guidance on preparing for investment due diligence, platform scaling or customer experience optimisation, get in touch for and find out how I can help!
I’m, and you can find me online and on LinkedIn.

I'm currently available for short and long-term projects, including interim and non-executive CTO positions.

Get in touch!