4. Build a SWAT team

March 26th, 2007   |   by Frank Addante

(Part 4 of a 5 part series: “So, you need to develop a product?“)

Any entrepreneur, CEO or CTO should always have a development SWAT team on hand. This team should be outside of the core development team and outside of the company’s critical path. This team can be made up of employees, a virtual group of employees (borrowed from their core team/job) or an outside development shop. It doesn’t matter as long as they are super “scrappy” (see Scrappy versus Steady), have great vision, move extremely fast and require little direction or management.

I have had to call on my SWAT teams many times in the past. Sometimes in emergency situations, and other times to take advantage of market opportunities that quickly arise. Sometimes I have had to trash what they produced, other times it became a major turning point in a company’s growth.

At L90 (Startup 3.0), we were sued by DoubleClick on the eve of our IPO for alleged patent-infrindgement. They tried to sue us in Virginia. We were scheduled to launch a new data center (of over 300+ servers) in Virginia the following week. With hundreds of millions of dollars in shareholder value at stake, I had to call on my SWAT team to do two things. First, they needed to reroute millions of dollars in computing equipment from Virginia to Texas and setup a new datacenter in less than 2 weeks. And second, they needed to architect and deploy an alternative to our core ad-serving software (which was delivering billions of ads for the Internet’s top web sites at the time), because DoubleClick was trying to get an injunction to shut us down. The SWAT team was able to pull-off both of these seemlingly-impossible objectives within weeks and it gave us a lot of leverage in settling the bogus lawsuit in our favor.

At StrongMail (Startup 5.0), in the beginning, our biggest selling challenge was that it was difficult for us to visually demonstrate the value of our infrastructure solution. We had developed the world’s best engine, but it didn’t have a steering wheel (our strategy was to rely on other companies’ steering wheels). Our internal development team was busy focused on developing our core product, but I needed to develop an application with an attractive, easy to use web user interface. I called on one of my outside SWAT teams and within months they were able to create an application on top of the StrongMail infrastructure that made it easy to demonstrate the value of the core infrastructure and it made the selling process magnitudes easier. It turned out to be a catapult for the company, and sales have been booming since then. The application is now being used by some of the world’s most successful companies. After the initial product was developed, it was folded back into our internal engineering team and became part of our core product offering.

Without having a SWAT team on hand, it could have taken 10X as long to build a team, product specs, an architecture and a roadmap. The SWAT team helped us kick-start the project and get it to market in less time that it would have taken us to interview and hire a small team.

A solid SWAT team is invaluable, and to me, it is essential.

Next… Outsourcing (Part 5 of a 5 part series: “So, you need to develop a product?“)