SCB12: Ramzi Rizk on Why Startups Are Like Drugs

By Silicon Allee |

By Sandy Hathaway at Startup Camp Berlin

“Startups are like drugs. Even worse. And better.”

That’s how Ramzi Rizk of EyeEm began his story of a passion for product and team which has carried him through the stark realities of building a company, during his talk at Startup Camp Berlin 2012 on Saturday.

Likening founding a startup to walking a tightrope, Ramzi gave a broad sense of the daily grind involved – a process which is nowhere near as sexy as outsiders might think. Every day of the week is characterized by long hours and a lot of hard work.

The need to constantly be focused on a balancing act shuts out all other aspects of life, yet despite all this hard work, they still fail 90 percent of the time. But then the addictive nature of the profession compels you to stand up and do it all over again.

“A year or so ago I saw this chart by Paul Graham, and I thought, ‘Who the hell is this guy, you can’t just plot the life of every startup.’ Then I saw it again a couple of weeks ago, and I thought ‘Jee-zus.’ This guy really knows what he is talking about.

A Hell of a Year

“You launch your prototype, you get your funding, you’re like ‘f*** it, I’m there,’ and then…” He and the rest of the team spent months and months rewriting their positioning statement as they added and removed “more features than many startups have even built. And that’s how it goes. It’s been one hell of a year and we are still going at it.”

In establishing a founding team and the rest of the startup family, Ramzi outlined critical points for success as well as a humorous understanding of the group dynamics.

The founders need to be able to “design the shit out of (the product), to work on every single aspect, hands on.” While consistent in mentality to US startup hubs, his opinion is in contrast to what many German startups do in their outsourcing of product development to other companies such as bitcrowd. “If you’ll outsource from day one, forget about it. Have the core skills in the founding team to do everything.”

Perhaps in the prototyping stage, some of the attendees argued after the talk, outsourcing can be useful, but in general everything core should live in the team. A constant process of revision, of adding and removing features, of developing software long term means that the fundamental layer must be deeply understood by those with the vision for the future.

Ramzi described the rest of the average team as a delicate configuration of rockstars, hackers, journeymen, and perfectionists. “Rockstar developers come in at noon, drink coffee and hang around for an hour. They code for two hours, and then they go home.” What they achieve in that two hours is amazing – but you need to manage their diva-like egos.

Just the Hard Stuff

Hackers, on the other hand, are the first cousins of rockstars. They are brilliant, wanting to work on the hardest problems all day every day. Just the hard stuff – the merely functional work is not enough to get their attention.

Next come the journeymen, the nine-to-fivers. “They are usually the most underrated and under-appreciated in the whole team.” They are the backbone that carries the company, maintaining and developing all of the functional stuff. “But they cannot build the company, they are not the ones that will challenge direction or drive innovation.”

Lastly are the perfectionists, the academic types. They have formidable skills and knowledge and they are the best algorithm designers. But they can delay milestones for weeks perfecting beyond what is really necessary and getting lost in the details without establishing well-documented code. “They alone can screw the whole company over.”

Ramzi then talked about the startup version of sod’s law: Everything that can go wrong, will go wrong, at the worst possible moment. Within only a few hours of announcing the launch of the EyeEm app on the iTunes store and TechCrunch releasing the story, lightning struck a data center in Ireland which crashed their server and caused the app to temporarily go missing from iTunes, as well as knocking out their website. After a good deal of stress and frantic problem solving, the matter was resolved a mere ten minutes before the story was released.

He also touched on ego, and the importance of keeping a realistic opinion of who you are and what you’ve achieved in the larger context of the industry. There was a warning that “there are no magic beans in social media” – forget begging your friends to promote your app; it is more important to build a product that delivers real value to an interested segment, and the users will come to you.

Ramzi closed with some parting advice for his founder audience: “Smile you idiots. You are living your dreams.” Even though the work is brutal, you are creating something that you have envisioned in your own mind, making your idea real, and maybe even changing the world.