We had a packed room at Harvard Business School on November 17 to discuss experiences in developing digital businesses.


Mike Roberts, a James M. Collins Senior Lecturer and Executive Director at the Arthur Rock Center for Entrepreneurship put the speaker team together and it included some highly experienced HBS students, recent students and entrepreneurs sharing their experiences in building digital businesses. The team included Maxwell Wessel, Brent Grinna and Lincoln Edwards. Our moderator, Christopher Michel both facilitated the session and delivered a lot of value as an accomplished entrepreneur. Brent is an MBA ’10 grad who is incubating his start-up, Evertrue at a Venrock-backed company in Boston called Where. Maxwell and Lincoln also represented some fresh and real experiences launching digital applications. I was put forward by our client colleagues at Bain Capital Ventures and MITX. My role was to bring a perspective as both a service provider to the industry and as an entrepreneur building digital businesses.

Most of the 100+ attendees were midstream with plans to launch digital businesses. There were Arthur Rock Center for Entrepreneurship scholars and others, and they surfaced a range of issues. Christopher Michel, the facilitator was back from a month in Tibet but was able to jump right in and drive the conversation. The challenge was to share some perspectives on how to go about a web development project, how to engage effectively technology team and how and whether to outsource to an offshore provider. Qestions included:

  • How and whether to outsource technical development?
  • How does an HBS entrepreneur engage the right technical leaders in partnership to launch a digital business?
  • What are some of the better offshore partners?
  • What are other considerations in building a digital business?

Some headline conclusions were:

How and whether to outsource technical development?

The outsourcing model makes a great deal of sense for elements if not all of the development process. It is particularly strong for low cost prototyping efforts at the early stages of concept development. A critical success factor will be having a technical member of the core team to help oversee the outsourced team. Some of the considerations we discussed were location – whether offshore in India, Eastern Europe, Asia or South America makes sense and how language, time zones impact these choices. There are also highly varied levels of offshore resources ranging from one or two people in India to global sourcing firms. The choice of who to select should consider the technical complexity and technology frameworks used, the ability to work in a highly effective communication process. Keep in mind as well the location and documentation of the code base to ensure sustainability if things go wrong with the relationship. Using milestone payments for documented code releases can be an effective model. Most of the digital applications in this discussion were based on a custom build approach – for companies looking to outsource web development for standards based platforms like WordPress, Joomla and Drupal, the options are many and the risks more manageable.

How does an HBS entrepreneur engage the right technical leaders in partnership to launch a digital business?

The days of heading down to Kendall Square and lining up a development team from MIT are perhaps gone. In fact, it may be the reverse. The MIT Technologist heading to Harvard Square to line up a business team for his/her digital venture. But the real truth is that a digital business cannot be successful – in my opinion – without a highly trusted core team member that is also a technologist. The role is critical to ensure an effective development process and effectively translate a business vision into a solution. This is particularly true if the team uses an offshore provider to build out the system.

What are some of the better offshore partners?

Many were brought up in the discussion, and there are many firms that specialize in different segments of the outsourced environments. The checklist should include competencies around the current technology platforms needed in the development, the approach to project management, the ability to communicate in English in a trusted way. Above all, the provider needs to be a trusted partner and you can’t rely solely on the ratings in the freelancer systems as these organizations change. Make sure you discus options and get personal referrals where possible and use win-win contract structures. What is the CMM level of the firm? Will the team be dedicated? How do you communicate, Skype? Are all the skills considered – user experience and branding? Functional design? Technical implementation? Testing? By developing a personal relationship with the provider team and meeting face-to-face, you can build long term trusted relationship and realize strong returns on investment.

What are other considerations in building a digital business?

A few other considerations were brought up. Technology is only a small part of the business model. How will the team operationalize the business? How is the the governance structure set up? How is equity and compensation structured? When executing a project, what is the right development model? Iterative? Waterfall? How do you ensure confidentiality? How will the application be supported over the longer term? What are program, regulatory, operational and sourcing risks and how should they be managed?

Final Remarks

Debi Kleiman who recently took over leadership of MITX from Kiki Mills offered a strong closing argument about the benefits of membership and the supporting focus of the MITX organization as a resource for students and others pursuing a digital business.