Startup founders are all about their vision, their purpose for doing what they are doing. This means they are often far away from many of the details their product will need in order to be developed. One of these is information systems. Because an information system is the place where information is stored and where the magic begins and happens, it is important that founders step away from the big picture to understand what will be the heart of their project.
In its simplest terms, an information system is where information is collected, organized and stored. It also refers to the network of what communicates with what, and how, when and why. It is something that must be determined from a project’s earliest days and it requires very specific decisions and understanding.
To design an information system, you must define the kinds of information it will contain. If that information is in any way personal to users, you must also communicate to them what data will be saved, why, and what, if any, purposes it will serve. Sometimes, knowing the what and why of information will determine the kind of database you will need. Beyond that, it will then need to mix with other software to batch, read and manage the data you hold.
Security is key
Cybersecurity is key today, especially where personal data may be at risk. For this reason, security must be an integral part of any information system. There are many options, including a global information system that is secure on the Internet with software that only allows access to a small part of the system, and systems that exist over multiple levels such as a private API, a public API, and the final application that checks security at every level.
The tokenization of information is a way to ensure the anonymity of the end user for security. There is also the mobile or client environment approach that is designed so that all users have access to shared information but then each has their own personal database that is fully secure and private.
Always think lean
Although there is work involved with growing and changing your information system as your product grows and evolves, with synching and merging information, this should be part of your plan. The idea of starting with an information system that will serve your product in two or even five years is not only a waste of money, but may be restrictive in its design and put constraints on your budget that you are not ready to handle.
Once your product is established, you will understand better what is needed, be able to identify, for instance, where any bottlenecks in the process exist. At this point you may conclude that multiple databases or moving some data outside the main system would be more effective. Or perhaps the solution is a global ecosystem, an urbanization of information systems that includes various database types such as NOQS or cache systems.
Not knowing will be the biggest mistake you make
The biggest mistake many startup founders make is not understanding the information system behind their product, instead leaving it to the developer to do the work. The issue is not of mistrust, of the developer not doing what they say they will, but the roadblock of what happens when no one but that developer knows the system. The biggest waste of time and money in development happens when one developer leaves, or when another one is added to a project and it costs time and energy – both for the new developer and the existing – to communicate the process.
This is a process I am often called in to assist with – sitting down with a developer to understand and then document how the system works.
The solution is to insist that, along the way, the technical team develop a schema – both software and physical architect schema – to explain what data exists and in which software component, what real or virtual servers are required, and how they all connect. Even a very rudimentary drawing linking one to the other with arrows showing the process of connection and what interacts with what can be enough. Whatever information system your product begins with or evolves into, it is critical that the founder understands what is the very heart and soul of their project.
What difficulties did you encounter with your own information system? What did you learn? What advice can you offer others? Share your stories below.