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A Startup abroad, a Product from Scratch

More than one year and a half ago, Around25 teamed up with Hookfy to create the MVP for a location-based product crawler. It was the first time we got involved (as virtual CTO) in a startup that's 2,500 km away and addresses a foreign audience.

One year and a half is plenty of time to dig deep into the process. And because we’re nice, extroverted guys, we’re going to pass the knowledge on here.

You’ll learn a bit about how Around25 and Hookfy managed to solve the remote co-founding equation, and also about what it takes to build an MVP when you rely on an international founding team.

Remote Founders - A Costly Affair

As we speak, Hookfy has graduated an accelerator programme. Among the other startups enrolled in it, only a few of them have in-house CTO. Why?

Any on-site specialist will ‘cost’ a founder recurring payments, whereas a remote one can be sustained from other sources than a recurring salary. Hookfy’s CEO, Alejandro, had this issue ever since he started meeting potential co-founders in Barcelona.

While they loved the idea, they asked for a salary Hookfy could not sustain. So looking for remote options on AngelList was the obvious choice. It took Alejandro an awful lot of time to compare dozens of candidates profiles and carefully balance costs vs. the technical skills needed. He was in the classic situation of the startup founder:

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Would he do this all over again? Despite the annoying paperwork required to sign a founders partnership agreement with parties from a foreign country, despite the dozens of monthly visits to the notary, Alejandro says ‘yes’.

Would we do this all over again? Loads of time was required on our end as well: embassy legal stuff, time to travel, time to attend events. Plus, Paul, our CEO, had to find a new style of leadership to adjust to this new context. Despite all the effort though, Cosmin notes that

“There weren’t any moments we thought of stepping back. We liked the product - it’s one of the few where we have loads of users and millions of products crawled. We also enjoyed the challenge that was finding the technical solution.”

Fast-forward to now, Hookfy is one of the products sustaining loads of users (more than 12,000) and millions products crawled. What did it get for us to achieve this?

Behind the Scenes: A Product from Scratch

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I brought Cosmin’s words into discussion because they reflect how and why Around25, as remote CTO, built the UI, UX and a unique database from scratch.

The database retrieves second-hand product listings based on:

  • location
  • relevance
  • number of times a product has been listed on platforms.

These would be supported by the rest of the tech stack we chose (cue some technical lingo here):

  • React and Next.js for the website;
  • NodeJS for API;
  • Wordpress for the blog.
  • Docker Swarm and AWS services.

It wasn’t smooth sailing. The database comprises millions of products and we started developing it in MySql. The number of products kept growing, which affected the queries’ loading time.

Get to 4 million items in the database and you'll see how responsivity starts to get shaky. This is exactly what happened to us - sometimes, a more complex inquiry that involved more filters would take 4 minutes to retrieve a response.

The problem came from delays caused by the geo distance filter. MySql proved to be unreliable when calculating the distance for so many items. So we put everything into identifying a viable alternative: brainstormings, hacks, and lots of trial and error. In the end, the winning solution was elasticsearch, a service that fitted this user case like a glove, due to its distributed, RESTful search service.

Why was this whole process such a big deal? Remember we are virtual CTO for an emerging startup. So we were in the position to find a solution that was both lucrative and low-cost. Whatever we were trying on, we needed to stay within budget.

Eventually, the end product was a search engine which differs from its competitors in that it aggregates results from more than 10 platforms. This means our users would have a much broader range of results to choose from, plus a way cheaper selection based on the products’ proximity. It currently crawls more than 4 million products, and has 1000 unique users per month, of which 30% are organic.

To put it in a practical perspective, this whole process would have taken ages if Alejandro had worked with individual freelancers, because you always need a back-up plan (more like plans) when you build front-end and back-end from the ground-up.

Remote CTOs and How to Get One for Your Startup

Having been through this, we can say that the most important initial step you can make is being aware of this dynamic: remote team - investor - CEO. In Cosmin’s words,

“It’s important to have a third-party that can validate and mediate the others”.

He claims this especially because there were numerous occasions where investors trusted us and recommended Around25 to future clients. Closing a deal that brings successful results pretty much depends on how skilled the investor is in:

  • understanding what we do and what value we can bring
  • seizing what the startup needs, accurately.

Besides understanding this, you also have to know what to expect from an initial meeting with potential co-founders. Our approach is having these points in mind:

  • The amount of time each party is willing to invest;
  • How much they are willing to adjust some of their current practices in order to accommodate this arrangement;
  • Vision: what each side sees in the partnership.
  • Business plan and background.

We were also interested in the level of risk Hookfy afforded to take with us by their side. And whether we can see eye to eye in regards to expectations. This is what the process looks like:

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After all, aside from all the risk we were taking, and despite all the startup experience we already had, this role of remote CTO was something new.

So who should consider a remote CTO? Paul sees that “it’s about people with a lack of technical person in the team.” When you lack the proper knowledge and your network doesn’t provide you with such connections, your freedom to develop the product is rather limited.

You saw how we built Hookfy's platform, you learned about the backstory and I hope this article has been a useful peek into how you need to approach the process, both when you want to hire or when you want to become virtual CTO.