How are you doing after celebrations of the New Year? I present you the first interview in the new year! I had a pleasure to talk with Yevgeniy (Jim) Brikman a founder of Atomic Squirrel. If you want to learn more about startups and how they are established - take a read!
[Hakin9 Magazine]: Hello Jim! How are you doing? Could you introduce yourself to our readers?
[Jim Brikman]: Hi there! I’m Yevgeniy (Jim) Brikman. I’m the founder of Atomic Squirrel, a company that helps startups get off the ground, and the author of Hello, Startup: A Programmer's Guide to Building Products, Technologies, and Teams. Previously, I spent more than a decade building products, technologies, and teams at LinkedIn, TripAdvisor, Cisco Systems, and Thomson Financial, and got my BS and Masters in Computer Science at Cornell University. You can find more info on ybrikman.com.
[H9]: Can you tell us more about Atomic Squirrel?
[JB]: Launching a new software project, such as a startup, is painful. I found it painful at all the companies I worked at, and all the people I interviewed for my book (e.g., early employees at Google, Facebook, Twitter, GitHub, Stripe, and many others) found it painful at their startups too. Some of that pain can’t be avoided, but my hope is that Atomic Squirrel can reduce one big source of pain: the tech stack. Every time you start a new software project, you have to glue together all the pieces for your tech stack: you grab a server-side framework, connect it to a database, slap a client-side framework in front of it, set up version control for all the code, add a build system to compile the code, add a CI server to run the build after every commit, pick a hosting solution, write scripts for automated deployment, hook up monitoring, and so on and so on. None of these individual pieces is hard to do on its own, but as there are dozens of them (check out the Startup Checklist), they add up very quickly, and it takes you a long time to launch. Moreover, most people only know how to do a subset of these pieces, so when they initially launch, they have huge gaps in their infrastructure. At Atomic Squirrel, we are trying to take all these reusable infrastructure pieces and put them into a single end-to-end, battle-tested, community-supported, pre-packaged tech stack. Just as cloud providers, like AWS, save startups from having to invest a huge amount of time and money up-front to build their own data centers, we hope that Atomic Squirrel will save startups from having to invest a huge amount of time and money up-front to build their own tech stack. Let us handle the infrastructure so that you can focus on building your product.
[H9]: What’s the most difficult part when launching a startup?
[JB]: I think one of the most difficult parts is the disconnect between how startups are portrayed in the media and what startups are really like. A lot of founders watch movies like The Social Network and expect startups to be a never-ending party. They have this image in their head of startup life being a sexy career where you spend all your time coming up with brilliant ideas, giving keynotes in front of huge audiences, counting your millions of dollars, and giving orders to your coworkers like a five-star general. The reality is that the vast majority of startup life consists of hard, unglamorous, and unsexy work. Instead of coming up with brilliant product ideas, you’ll find a lot of your time is spent setting up cubicles, estimating how much toilet paper to get for the bathroom, figuring out how to hire a VP of sales, setting up payroll, filing an endless array of legal and tax forms, and creating pitch decks for investors. Instead of giving keynotes, you’ll find it nearly impossible to get anyone, anywhere to take any notice whatsoever of what you’re doing. Instead of counting your millions of dollars, you’ll find that most startups are perpetually tight on cash, pay salaries well below the market rate, and that big IPOs or acquisitions are exceptionally rare. And instead of being a five-star general bossing everyone else around, you’ll find, to paraphrase Evernote CEO Phil Libin, that everyone else is your boss—including all of your employees, customers, partners, investors, users, and media—and that you’ve never had to account to more people in your life.
[H9]: Why did you decide to name your company Atomic Squirrel? Is there a story behind this idea?
[JB]: Naming a company is hard. The name needs to be unique and memorable; it can’t be too long, too hard to spell, or too hard to find on Google; it must have the right connotation and not accidentally be insulting to any person or group; it can’t infringe on another company’s trademarks; it has to have a matching domain name that’s available and not too expensive; it shouldn’t be overly specific in case you pivot the company in the future; and so on. I spent a long time coming up with names, but nothing met all my requirements. I got my family and friends involved, but we still couldn’t find anything that worked. After a few weeks of frustration, we were sitting at lunch and tossing out random names that involved animals. Someone blurted out something about squirrels, which I misheard as “Atomic Squirrel,” and it made me laugh. It seemed to meet most of my requirements, so I went with it.
[H9]: Have you worked with many startups from the cybersecurity industry?
[JB]: We’ve worked with two startups that deal with cybersecurity. Both are in stealth mode, so the most I can say is that they are both working on different aspects of how to keep your communication and data secure.
[H9]:How would you say cybersecurity startups are similar and different from others?
[JB]: For the most part, they are similar. To paraphrase Steve Blank, a startup is a company that is in search mode. That is, it’s a company that spends most of its time searching: searching for a product that works, searching for a way to hire people to build that product, searching for customers that want to buy that product, searching for a marketing strategy that reaches those customers, and searching for a business model that makes the whole thing sustainable. And since startups have a finite amount of money (a finite runway), this search process is usually frantic and full of uncertainty, confusion, and excitement. Or as Reid Hoffman put it, “starting a company is like throwing yourself off the cliff and assembling an airplane on the way down.” I’ve found that this applies to cybersecurity startups as much as it does to any other startup. It’s a huge amount of trial and error and typically, the most successful startups are the ones that are able to get to errors the fastest (see Speed Wins). It’s impractical (and counter-productive) to prevent all errors, so just about every startup identifies a few areas where errors are very costly (e.g., authentication and payment processing) and they follow a “measure twice and cut once” philosophy for that code. For the rest, they follow a “go fast and break things” philosophy. The only major difference with cybersecurity startups is that, usually, a larger proportion of their code deals with sensitive concerns, so they have to be more methodical up-front in building infrastructure that allows rapid iteration even in high-risk code. How do you do that? The key is to limit the possible damage from any single change. That is, agility requires safety. If you set up automated testing, continuous integration, continuous delivery, feature flags, and monitoring, you can iterate quickly even on risky parts of the code, as almost any mistake can easily be rolled back. In a sense, you build an “undo” feature into your infrastructure. This sort of infrastructure is not easy to build, especially for a small startup, and it’s one of the big pain points we try to alleviate for Atomic Squirrel customers.
[H9]: Why startups? What is so extraordinary about them?
[JB]: The entire first chapter of my book deals with this very question! It’s called “Why Startups” and is available as a free preview in Safari Books Online and as part of the free Startup Essentials e-book. The short version is that the world is changing faster than ever, and startups are driving much of this change. For example, did you know that Airbnb has more than 1 million homes listed, compared to just 700,000 rooms for the entire InterContinental Hotels Group, which is one of the largest hotel chains the world (they own the Holiday Inn and InterContinental chains)? Or that more messages are sent via WhatsApp than text messages via the entire telecommunications industry? Or that more people have access to mobile phones than toothbrushes? Seriously, look it up. More and more, startups offer the best way to work on products that touch millions or even billions of lives. Startups, like Facebook, Google, and Groupon, grew faster in a decade than most corporations grew in the entire 20th century. In fact, the average tenure for a firm on the S&P 500 index has dropped from 61 years in 1958 to just 18 years today. Add to that the fact that self-employment and the peer-to-peer economy on the rise, and focusing on startups is a no-brainer. It’s our modern-day gold rush.
[H9]: Why did you decide to write a book about startups? Can you tell us more about it?
[JB]: I wish I had a book like Hello, Startup when I was in college. By the time I graduated, I had a BS, a Masters, a bunch of internship experiences—and absolutely no idea what I was doing. What technologies should I learn and use? How do I build a product that doesn't look terrible? How do I negotiate a job offer? Should I negotiate for more salary or more equity? What is equity, anyway? Should I work at a large company or join a startup? I learned the answers to these questions, and many others, the hard way—through trial and error. I also learned that thousands of other people before me went through the same inefficient trial and error process. So I decided to do something about it, and Hello, Startup was the result. Of course, some lessons you can only learn by making your own mistakes, but for the rest, I hope Hello, Startup will save you a lot of pain by letting you learn from the mistakes of others. One of my biggest mistakes was not paying enough attention to the startup world early in my career. My first few jobs were all at big, established institutions (Cisco Systems, Thomson Financial, Cornell University), and it was only later and somewhat accidentally that I made the jump into the startup world (LinkedIn, TripAdvisor). What I saw there astonished me. I learned more in my first few months at a startup than I had in all the years of work, internships, and schooling before that. A startup is not just a smaller version of a larger company, much like quantum mechanics is not just a smaller version of classical mechanics. Classical mechanics describes the behavior of large objects (e.g., a baseball or planet) moving at relatively slow speeds with rules that are predictable and deterministic. Similarly, large companies tend to move slowly and live in a world with predictable rules because the customers and products are all known. Quantum mechanics describes the behavior of tiny objects (e.g., photons and electrons) moving at extremely high speeds with rules based on uncertainty, probability, and non-determinism. Similarly, startups tend to move at a hectic pace to survive in an unpredictable world where nothing is known. While many people are familiar with classical mechanics and large companies, you won't have a complete picture of the world unless you also understand quantum mechanics and startups. I used to think that all tech jobs involved endless cubicle farms, pointy-haired bosses, TPS reports, and enterprise code. I hope my book will convince you that there is an alternative by showing you the way work gets done at some of the best startups in the world. The ideas from these companies will be useful even if you never join a startup, and will grow even more useful as startups, entrepreneurship, and self-employment become more and more ubiquitous.
[H9]: You call what you do “co-founder-as-a-service”. Do you think that startups need help? That Atomic Squirrel is exactly what they need to develop?
[JB]: I think it’s pretty clear that startups need help. Building a successful company is hard and the vast majority (roughly 3 out of 4) fail. That’s why there are incubators, accelerators, books, blogs, courses, and many other resources all focused on startups. At Atomic Squirrel, we’re focused on helping startups build their infrastructure. We’re trying to take care of the “undifferentiated heavy lifting”: that is, all the pieces that take a lot of work, but are largely the same at every single startup. Instead of wasting time doing the same thing a thousand startups have done before you, we try to free you up to focus on the pieces that are unique to your startup—your competitive advantage.
[H9]: What is the most common mistake made by startups in the technology field?
[JB]: A study by CB Insights of over 100 startup postmortems showed that the number-one reason for startup failure, by a large margin, was "no market need"—that is, the startup built something that no customer actually wanted. Having worked with many tech startups, I have to agree with this finding. Many founding teams, especially if they are all programmers, have a tendency to come up with an idea and lock themselves in a room for 18 months to build a product around it. They then release it to the world and wait. And wait. And wait. And of course, nothing happens. “If you build it, they will come” is simply not true in the real world. Even worse, the founders believe that the solution is to keep adding features to this product, as surely, they will eventually stumble upon the magical feature that will get everyone to buy it. This strategy rarely, if ever, works. The successful companies I’ve worked with found customers for their products before they built them. Steve Blank has this very much right in The Four Steps to the Epiphany. What you’re looking for are earlyvangelists: that is, someone that has a problem, knows they have a problem, has hacked together an interim solution to that problem, and is willing to pay money for a better solution. The only way to find such customers is to stop coding for a bit, get out of the building, and talk to real customers. You want customers knocking down your door and begging for your product before you start developing it. And even then, you want to follow a data-driven approach to incrementally validate your progress every step of the way.
[H9]: Your “start-up checklist” has over 160 items on it. Which three would you say were the most important and why?
[JB]: Tough question! Probably the three that make the most difference are:
Find the right problem. You should only start a company if you’re willing to spend the next decade of your life working on it. Startups take a long time and the only way you’ll be able to work that hard for that long is if you find a problem that you are extremely passionate about. If you can’t see yourself working on this problem for 10 straight years, don’t start a company around it.
Find the right people. Picking a co-founder is a big decision. You’ll be spending half your waking hours with this person over many, many years. Sometimes you’ll fight, sometimes you’ll laugh, and always, you’ll need trust and respect. It’s a lot like marriage. Similarly, early employees are like adding DNA to your company. The first 10 people you hire are really the templates for the next 100 or 1,000. See A Guide to Hiring for your Startup for more info.
Speed wins. Startups are all about trial-and-error, and in a trial-and-error world, the one who gets to errors faster will win. This isn’t a specific item on the checklist, but it’s a philosophy that permeates many of the items, such as building MVPs, bucket testing, and feature flags. See Speed Wins for more info.
[H9]: Do you have any thoughts or experiences you would like to share with our audience? Any good advice?
[JB]: In literature, The Competent (Wo)man (AKA Polymath) is a character who exhibits a very wide range of abilities and knowledge. If you are a developer, I recommend that you strive to be a Competent Programmer. That is, don’t think of yourself as a “PHP Programmer” or a “C++ Programmer”. Libraries and programming languages are tools, and calling yourself a “C++ Programmer” is a bit like if you were a carpenter and called yourself a “Hammer++ Swinger”. It suggests a very limited tool belt. It also suggests that you’re missing the bigger picture. You don’t hire a carpenter to swing a hammer. You hire a carpenter to build a house. Similarly, you don’t hire a programmer to build PHP apps or write C++. You hire programmers to solve problems. How do you become a Competent Programmer? By dedicating a small amount of time every single day to learning. To paraphrase, Joe Armstrong, the creator of the Erlang programming language, the best way to become a better programmer is to "spend 20% of your time learning stuff—because it's compounded. Check out the final chapter of Hello, Startup, which is called “Learning” for more info.
[H9]: Thank you!
Atomic Squirrel specializes in helping startups get off the ground.
Launching a startup is a long, complicated, and confusing process. Most startups hire an experienced lawyer who they can call every time they have a legal question. Now you can hire an experienced startup team who you can call every time you have a product, technology, or team question. You can think of Atomic Squirrel as a "co-founder as a service."
We have helped many companies with product design, marketing strategy, data-driven development, system architecture, infrastructure development, coding practices, production deployment, scalability, research, recruiting, training, and much more. So no matter what your startup is struggling with, we can fill in the gaps.
Website: Atomic Squirrel
LinkedIn: Atomic Squirrel
- Hakin9 is a monthly magazine dedicated to hacking and cybersecurity. In every edition, we try to focus on different approaches to show various techniques - defensive and offensive. This knowledge will help you understand how most popular attacks are performed and how to protect your data from them. Our tutorials, case studies and online courses will prepare you for the upcoming, potential threats in the cyber security world. We collaborate with many individuals and universities and public institutions, but also with companies such as Xento Systems, CATO Networks, EY, CIPHER Intelligence LAB, redBorder, TSG, and others.
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