I spend a lot of time working in and around early stage startups that have figured out how to bootstrap their way through early IT needs. The good news is that technology has advanced to a point where many of the early needs are ready to be simply plugged into your site. In fact, I feel so strongly about the current ability to put plug-and-play technologies to use, that I've written about it quite frequently and have practiced it for the last year and a half with BottleKeeper.
However, there does come a time when, well, you’re in over your head and need to bring in the seasoned IT professionals. "When" is a question that is and can only be appropriate for your business, but let’s look at a few warning signs that you need help sooner than later.
1. The site crashes and you don't have a clue where to start.
Having your website go down is one of the most terrifying and frustrating things imaginable as a new company. The good news is that it’s not typically going to happen early on because you’re not driving enough traffic to really push the system. The bad news is that it’s inevitable once you are driving real traffic, which is precisely when you need to site up and running most.
Early on the fix can be as easy as calling your hosting provider to get help, but as your site grows and you plug more necessary components into it, things get a lot more complicated. As you grow, you’ll likely need to move away from early stage host providers such as GoDaddy -- which are great because they’re inexpensive -- into larger, more flexible and scalable systems such as Rackspace. This does come with an enormous technical learning curve as all of the pretty interfaces and help screens go out the window. You’re now in the proverbial “big leagues”.
2. You don't know what FTP means.
In reality, FTP -- or file transfer protocol -- is quite simple, but requires you to have an understanding of the framework that the consumer facing aspect of your site is built on. This starts with your root folder and goes down through content, themes, cache, plugins and a litany of additional necessary files and folders.
The positive aspect is that it’s not super complicated to figure out, the negative is that if you do something wrong, you might kill your site -- possibly irreparably if you don’t have the appropriate backups, which would result in a complete restart. Yes, I’ve had the pleasure of three complete rebuilds due to my rookie errors.
You won’t typically need to mess with FTP until you’re out of the early stage hosts as they’ll likely have some version of a C-panel -- or user interface -- that will give you a better means of making adjustments while you’re not in the actual files, mucking things up. But what you should really look at doing is hiring or contracting someone that has the ability to manage these things for you.
3. You've grown and are driving substantial traffic.
Although every dollar earned is of importance in any stage of a startup, early on the values aren’t quite the same. If you’re generating $500 per day and your site goes down for 12 hours -- equivalent to 50 percent of your daily income -- you’ll lose $250 -- a lot of money but not likely to break your budget. When you are earning $10,000 per day and your site crashes for 12 hours, you’ve lost $5,000. It’s certainly all relative to the startup and stage but that $5,000 pays for 25 to 40 hours of IT help and is likely spoken for in the budget.
When you get to this point, your business depends entirely on a live site and you need to put the necessary pieces and infrastructure in place to ensure that it’s as fast and functional as possible -- but doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to hire a full time IT person. Instead, look for companies to whom you can outsource your early IT needs, on an as needed basis, until you’re in the position to create a full-time position.