Apply Now

Building a product people want – A CTO shares his learnings

Author:
Alan Mosca
Posted:
10 June, 2021

When Alan Mosca and Dev Amratia arrived at Entrepreneur First’s Demo Day, ready to pitch their new company to world-leading investors, they didn’t have an end product. 

But they had traction. A lot of it.

“Prospective customers were lining up to give us their data. Our first customer had signed us up to a six-figure trial. We knew by then how big this technology could be”, recalls Alan.

The pair had spent the past 6 months creating their company nPlan at Entrepreneur First.  

nPlan takes the guesswork – and risk – out of the construction industry. Utilising data from past projects, the team accurately forecast timelines, risks and budgets – saving costs, and presenting an accurate picture of how long an infrastructure project will actually take.

Less than 4 years later, the company counts industry giants including Shell, Google and Network Rail among their clients, and recently announced a $18.5M funding round from backers including GV (the investment arm of Alphabet, Google’s parent company).

Getting from insight to ideas

When Dev and Alan came to Entrepreneur First to begin their startup journey, they didn’t know what they were going to build, let alone that it would be something of this magnitude. They didn’t even know each other.

All they knew was that they wanted to build a business that made an impact.

“Dev brought experience in infrastructure and construction, whereas my background was in finance”, says Alan. 

“While there were interesting and hard problems to solve in that industry, you were growing a number, not the human condition. I wanted to build something that energised me.”

But how did they go from two individuals, without a clear cut idea of what they wanted to create, to this point?

CTO Alan shares his story as a founder, and the three key learnings that came with it.

#1 Find a co-founder who’s committed, honest and shares your values

Alan had begun his career working in Finance, while doing a Master’s, then PhD, in the evening. The EF team recognised that Alan had high potential as a founder, and reached out to encourage him to join the programme. 

Alan’s initial response was ‘no’. But, after pivoting his career to working at a startup in New York, he developed an appetite for risk. He wanted to branch out on his own.

However, he discovered that finding the right co-founder was easier said than done.

“I tried to start a few ventures with people I knew from my PhD, or in some cases a couple of friends. None of them went past the first few months or so”, he recalls.

“I quickly learned that the most important thing you need to find is a co-founder that’s at the point where they’re ready to commit full time. Many are very gifted individuals with lots of potential, but they weren’t yet prepared for what the founder’s journey required. 

Some even think, “we’ll come up with a great idea and then within a month we’ll have a billion dollars and I can retire.” That is not the truth. 

EF does a good job at filtering that. Everyone there wants to build a company now, and to put the work in.”

Alan therefore joined our programme to find a co-founder that shared his values and work ethic. He met Dev at an EF event before the cohort even started.

“I chatted with a few interesting people. But what stood out most about him was how open and frank we managed to be with each other. We were able to say, ‘I know that’s never gonna work’ or ‘that idea is terrible’. 

I’ve experienced the full spectrum of company cultures in my career, good and bad. Dev and I shared the same values, and he spoke to the kind of company that I wanted to build.”

Alan and Dev at Entrepreneur First
Alan and Dev at Entrepreneur First

Entrepreneur First encourages cohort members to test out partnerships quickly – and if they’re not working, to move on and try something, and someone, different. For Dev and Alan, however, they found their partnership complementary and productive from the get-go. 

An EF workshop proved this point further.

“EF made us do a ‘superpowers alignment’ exercise. Think of it this way: there are a lot of superpowers a founder can have in terms of skills and responsibilities. For example, you might want to hold the vision for the company; you might like managing people; you might like selling; you might like dealing with technical architecture.

EF asked us to rate ourselves against these superpowers, and how much we value each – then compare against your co-founder. This helps you spot gaps and overlaps that could cause tension further down the line. We looked at each other’s scorecards and we worked.”

With the right partnership in place, Alan and Dev had an ideal foundation on which to build their product – before they even knew what that product was.

#2 Ideas don’t matter - insights from customers do

Dev observed that large scale projects hardly ever complete on time, and are over-budget. However, companies didn’t know how to solve it.

They didn’t know why this happened – so they remained agnostic to a solution. Instead, they focussed on gaining first-hand insight from customers on why this problem was happening. 

“I remember a member of the EF team saying ‘all ideas are bad; it’s the insight that matters’. We were recommended The Mom Test, which was the best £7 I ever spent, and should be top of the reading list for all founders. 

Dev and I were encouraged to speak to as many customers as possible about what happens on the ground. We formulated a lot of ideas and solutions, and we had a lot of bad ideas. 

At one point we speculated that it could be a productivity problem, so we considered cameras on workers’ helmets so we could track what they were doing. Obviously you couldn’t do this anyway because that’s a massive privacy issue, but we were also solving the wrong problem. So we kept talking to more people.”

Throughout these conversations Alan and Dev kept hearing one thing.

“When a contractor bids on and starts a project, they make a lot of plans and schedules. However, these often aren’t fully defined and leave room for uncertainty. You therefore don’t have a good idea of where the risks or potential delays are going to be – and you can’t mitigate for them, or build an accurate timeline or budget based on their effects. 

When these issues come to fruition, you get delays and you go over budget.”

They’d found their problem to solve – and recognised where they could bring value. With experience in managing risks and prediction, they believed they could eliminate this uncertainty. 

“When I worked in finance, I’d worked around a vision of risk that was entirely quantitative. None of that was going on in construction and infrastructure projects.

That’s when we thought; what if we could find a data set, and create a way to forecast or predict what’s going to happen on your project? And what if we could then mitigate the risks from a systematic perspective, rather than a subjective one?

We worked out there was a historical correlation between the data. That meant it was runnable. What we had to do was take this insight we’d discovered, and build the machine learning models that could eliminate this uncertainty.”

From these insights, Alan and Dev had found a ‘hair-on-fire’ problem that contractors couldn’t solve – and were going to create a product that could.

Alan's co-founder Dev pitches at Demo Day
Alan's co-founder Dev pitches at Demo Day

#3 Discover as much as possible, iterate as fast as possible

As with almost all successful founders, Alan is someone with a strong bias to action. What was critical for the team, however, was ensuring that that action was taken in the right direction. 

“It’s very easy for me to quickly go and begin creating prototypes. But we started the Entrepreneur First programme in September and didn’t write a line of code until Christmas – only three months before Demo Day.”

What Alan focussed on instead was ensuring that the team were focussing on the right solution, to the right problems – and iterating and ruling out ideas as fast as they could. 

“Taking a product management mentality is naturally going to be hard for deeply technical founders. You have to discover as much as possible and iterate as fast as possible. But that doesn’t necessarily just mean test the code – test the people.

You need to be prepared to kill your darlings, because the likelihood that the first idea is going to be a good one is close to zero. Try out new versions as fast as possible. Draw on whiteboards, sketch on the back of an envelope, and ask your clients if it would work. And if it doesn’t, make a change, and ask if that would work.

The more we did that, the more refined the idea. That gave us a good vision of where we wanted to go.”

It was from this vision that Dev and Alan were able to build the MVP that they pitched to investors. 

“Going into Demo Day, we knew that we had significant traction based on that MVP alone. A client had already signed us up to a six-figure trial, and we weren’t even six months old yet.

Our ‘proof point’ of the product’s potential had people lining up to give us their data.” 

Based on that first MVP, and being able to clearly demonstrate the traction their idea could have, nPlan secured their Seed round within four months of Demo Day.

“We then began building out our models, and making the technology a reality.

We had, and still have this big vision of integrating risk, financing for projects and having an integrated view of the soft part of project delivery. It was this risk-driven approach that really excited investors.

Our story went from there.”

In the next part of this series, Alan will share how he and Dev continued their journey after Demo Day, and, from a product people want, built a culture people want to work for.

How useful was this post?

Click on a star to rate it!