Thursday, January 7, 2010

Reduce your micro-startup burn rate...and see the world, too!

At Voxilate, we've taken a novel approach to reducing capital expenditures while maximizing productivity and creativity: we're taking the show on the road and are putting our money where our mouths are--creating voice-activated applications for mobile devices while being mobile ourselves!

This is a bit easier to do as a micro-startup (also known as "Micro ISV"), given highly-available mobile broadband and ubiquitous wireless Internet connectivity, competitive hosting and "cloud" solutions, and the myriad online, hosted services at our beck and call these days.

Here's a quick rundown of tips we've found vital to our mobility so far (we will expand on these in later posts):

Mobile broadband: Don't leave home without it. We purchased a wireless broadband plan and wireless card that's plug-and-play with our mobile broadband-enabled CradlePoint MBR900 router. We also have a PepWave Surf personal wi-fi receiver that can harness available wi-fi and make it available to more than one team member or computer.

Network redundancy: Make sure you're bound to more than one network and/or cell provider. You want to always be able to call out, check email, and connect to remote systems with at least one of your team's phones or netbooks using wireless broadband cards or cell-phone tethering. We often switch between AT&T and Verizon services. Would be better to switch between three or four - but we're talking about belt-tightening, here!

Hardware: In addition to your mobile broadband card and portable routers, a good mix of laptops, external hard drives, and small form-factor systems like the Mac Mini will serve you well. You'll also want cigarette-lighter power adapters to power and charge your stuff - and, if there are more than one of you not driving while on the road, use the router in the car with the broadband card. Also remember to bring power strips, outlet expanders, Ethernet cables, thumb drives, extra chargers, connectors, and so on.

Internal Systems: You should have a source control system, build system, and bug system for development. What you choose to administer locally or remotely is up to you, but do make sure that everyone's got a copy of the source repository checked out and if you're self-hosting build & source control, ensure that you can swap build and source control systems from one laptop or mini-server to another in case of catastrophe. If you're going to be someplace for a day or two, make sure you check in your code. During this 'period of stability,' remember to also rsync (or some other replication method) to back up your critical systems to your hard drives as well as a secure off-site backup provider that you trust and uses encryption.

Hosting redundancy: Choose hosting providers you trust and who have good reputations - don't always go for the cheapest (although price doesn't always mean quality, either!). Look for hosting providers that provide data center geographic diversity. Augment with other providers - you want the ability to quickly bring your systems up in case of a hosting provider's catastrophic failure. Amazon's web services are excellent for this purpose--encrypt and backup your data to S3, build your backup systems with EC2 & EBS--and pay only when you need to bring them up or test (and you can bring them up in minutes, with simple shell scripts). Great for staging/development/pre-production servers, too.

System monitoring & Maintenance: You'll want to set up something to quickly alert you via email or SMS when remote systems go down - use a service like Pingdom and supplement with self-monitoring on your hosts. Sign up for system status and downtime alerts (if you're not added by default) for all of your providers. Follow their Twitter feeds and check your email. Do what you feel you need to do to keep peace of mind and security; script it, add it to crontab, and have it email you its results. For example, scan your web logs for unexpected traffic that doesn't 404. Monitor vulnerability alert RSS feeds for software you use (both locally and especially on your externally hosted systems). Use Snort and OSSEC. Use whatever tool(s) you love. I love elementary shell scripts. Lots of people love Nagios. Many adore splunk. Mix and match for great justice.

Delegation: Use services to do your bidding and spend your time doing what you do best. Take advantage of great services like Amazon's Mechanical Turk for quick, repetitive, or data entry type tasks and for graphic design expertise. Get a good accountant that can meet via phone or email. Use online fax and voice services to stay connected wherever you happen to be.

Mail: We use trusted family members and a mail receiving/scanning service, Earth Class Mail. You can view your mail online and have it scanned and/or snail mailed to you wherever you happen to be, singly or in batches. They even have an auto-deposit option for checks you receive. Also try to configure anything you can to send you bills and notices online--scanning costs can add up.

Digital and Physical Security: This is a biggie! When you're carrying your tech like a turtle on your back and depending on the wireless of others, an awareness of both physical and network security are vital. Don't connect to wireless networks you don't trust. Don't check your bank balance using hotel wireless, for example, and always check certificates (although that isn't any guarantee these days, unfortunately). Be careful what you download. Bring your own routers to ensure that you can connect to your local resources without going over the public Internet.

As far as the real world goes: Assume everything you have will be stolen and plan for the occasion. Make copies of all important documents and store with someone you trust. Categorize the importance of what you're lugging, then lock up the most valuable things and keep them on your person when you leave your vehicle for the night. Get into a routine, and make everyone crosscheck each other so you don't leave anything behind.

Short-term locations: Go beautiful, go off-season. Use sites like Check out executive long-term stay spots as well - if you plan ahead, you can often get a really nice condo in a great location for much less than you'd pay for a standard hotel room.

Make sure they've got broadband, and come prepared with all the things described above. Plan your stays around your work schedule - stay awhile if you're in deep development. You don't want to be on the road (well, with the tips above, you can be if you want to be!) when you've got a lot of coding or testing to do!

Trust, but verify: Verify your setup before you embark long-term. Use your network setup where you're currently at, then take it with you on the road. Try staying somewhere local for a week or more, near friends/family/business acquaintances so that you can easily offload equipment you find you don't really need.

These are just a few of the things we've done to reduce our micro-startup 'burn' while enjoying a spectacular view.