New Haven, CT-based Independent Software helps entrepreneurs and early stage ventures build their software products and teams in a revolutionary way.
In an effort to strengthen the startup ecosystem in Connecticut, Independent Software created the A100 Program out of its experience developing talent locally. The program, coming to Hartford this fall, trains, develops and connects aspiring software developers with innovative, high-growth companies.
Innovation Destination: Hartford spoke with Independent Software CEO Derek Koch about the company’s beginnings and current initiatives.
IDH: You’re not from Connecticut. How did you land here?
KOCH: I came to Connecticut after being part of the Chicago and New York technology community. I worked with some friends from The Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University on a startup called Visibility in the insurance space, which moved me out to New York. We later moved to Connecticut because my wife, a neuroscientist, had an opportunity to join a pharma company here.
IDH: Tell us about Independent Software. How did you develop the concept for the company?
KOCH: Coming out of a venture-backed startup that successfully sold, I wanted to focus on helping entrepreneurs build software products more effectively, but more generally “win” the battle of the early phases of proving out a product. During that part of the venture lifecycle, there’s an enormous amount of risk and uncertainty, but there’s also a better way to go about startup product development.
By developing your product and the market in tandem methodically, you can de-risk the process substantially. The process of developing a good product has a lot to do with the methodology, the way you go about building the software, but also the entrepreneur’s role in the process—how they collect information about the customer and how they develop the customer and market.
Maximizing the entrepreneurs’ bang for their buck is critical as well. The vision for Independent Software is to help entrepreneurs win by helping them master the process building successful software products. We value transparency in the process, maximizing learning and resourcing the process in a way that changes the realities on the ground in local ecosystems.
IDH: How has the company’s mission evolved over time?
KOCH: If you fast forward from that point in the past to where the company is today, we’ve spent a lot of time refining that core idea. To give you just one example, we’ve just wrapped up our sixth A100 cohort in Stamford, and worked with our 101st Apprentice. That work, building on other, more traditional product development work, and community-building work, has moved us to a powerful point. We now know that agile software methodology, customer development methodology and apprenticeship—developing young, local talent and leveraging talent that is appropriate to the level of the product development exercise—provide tremendous advantages, and reflect both our vision and values. Apprenticeship is an extremely important part of the equation, because talent is so fundamental and strategic in software development. Especially in a state like Connecticut, but also in other smaller environments, how talent is brought into the equation and how it develops in tandem with product development is really important.
Historically speaking, that’s the whole sweep. It started off with this fairly simple idea—build a company designed to help entrepreneurs develop products more effectively—to where we are today, which is fairly different. We’re apprenticeship-focused, focused on developing young talent and really focused on agile software development and customer development process. We’re also committed to building a more robust software community—getting software developers and software entrepreneurs together so they can learn, have fun, and do more exciting work—that’s a really important part of what we do.
It all came up in the normal process of implementing the idea, succeeding, making mistakes, working with customers, trying to maximize value for them and being relentless about hitting challenges and saying: How do we design around this? What do we do next? That’s really where our apprenticeship came from.
IDH: How many employees do you have?
KOCH: There are about 10 people who contribute to the team. Like a lot of companies, we have a mix of full-time and other contributors. Our cohorts of apprentices are actually an important part of our team. They’re not employees, but in a lot of ways they’re part and parcel to the way we work with our customers now. We have 15 apprentices who just completed the Stamford program right now. We’re looking toward the Hartford and New Haven cohorts that we’re going to run in the fall simultaneously.
Our projection is always to have 20 to 30 apprentices in each of those cohorts. Our team at any given point in time is sort of big and it’s full of all kinds of non-traditional work relationships because of the apprenticeship program and because of way we work with ventures with the A100 program.
IDH: How and where did your interest in startups begin?
KOCH: I played in rock bands from high school and college until 2002. There are a lot of ventures in the arts that look like startup ventures, musical acts being one of them. Music features all the startup issues: product development (writing and recording), operations (carrying gear, playing clubs), and sales and marketing (both booking shows and selling recorded music). My guess is that the arts features the riskiest type of venture next to restaurants—almost everyone eats routinely, not everyone has to have music daily.
Some of the musicians I played with were also interested in ventures and in software development. So in my cohort at the University of Chicago, I had a lot of friends who were interested in collaborating and experimenting as we started our careers.
We started to play around with startup concepts on the side, like many college graduates do, moonlighting at first on a lot of experiments, many ending up as failures that didn’t go anywhere. But for me that was an important part of getting into the startup world. And it was all excitement at that point. Through that group of post-college friends and through music I got started and got to work with other people on ventures.
IDH: You view “failures” as learning experiences. How so?
KOCH: Not all failures are learning experiences. But if you're working toward a vision, have a mental model you’re working against and have tried something that doesn't succeed, there's almost always something to be learned from the experience.
I think it’s an important point for a startup community that wants to grow. Building some successful companies, not to mention a successful community of startups, takes a lot of failure and experimentation. Much of that experimentation has to be done by young people with more energy and ideas than knowledge and experience. It comes down to time and numbers.
There can be a tendency on some players in an ecosystem (government, angel investors, venture capitalists, vendors and sometimes even established entrepreneurs) to look down the nose a bit at new, inexperienced entrepreneurs and focus energy and resources on the ventures they feel are most “mature.”
While supporting ventures in general is a good thing, making bigger bets on a smaller group of companies is risky. Sure, make some bets on those companies, but also spread around a lot of support to newer entrepreneurs as well. These entrepreneurs often don’t require a big investment of dollars, and the payoff can be substantial, creating those mature ventures everyone wants over time.
Risk taking (sometimes failing and subsequently building experience) is really important to cultivate in a community. The times where you spend three months pitching an idea, getting raked over the coals and going nowhere toughen you up as an entrepreneur. It also increases the value you place on your own time, motivating you to do things differently next time. It gives you a sense of what the process really should look like and what’s important.
Although it doesn’t look like anything that’s incredibly impressive, sometimes on the face of it, it’s an important element of having a great community: trial and error and having people get out there and get the experience, because three or four years down the road the ideas they come up with and the things they pitch will be much more mature and raise your eyebrows and have you leaning forward. They just need that time to kind of percolate. This isn’t the kind of thing that people really learn how to do at school. You have to kind of apprentice yourself to the startup process a little bit.
IDH: Let’s talk about A100. How did Independent Software come up with the concept for the program?
KOCH: It’s is a pretty textbook example of the startup process. Independent Software wanted to find good local talent to hire. It’s very hard to find senior talent, it’s very expensive, and often risky. I wanted to find a good source of talent who fit our business and had a foundation in the knowledge we need developers to have, so I decided we’d go out and find and train junior talent.
We started to develop relationships with universities and professors, and hired “diamonds in the rough,” computer science, electrical engineering or math students who had a lot of potential and really needed work experience and practical training, which we could give to them through a structured, repeatable process.
I started A100 as an internal program, a tool that solved a problem for us. Over time, we realized that this program could help other companies like ours find talent. While conducting this as an in-house program for Independent Software got results, it was a really expensive and time-consuming way to find talent. But we also found that we were our people were getting poached by all kinds of businesses, such as Ticket Nation, 3M Healthcare, the Connecticut Department of Education and Microsoft.
Around that time, through startup community-building work I was doing, I realized that we were not the only ones who could benefit from a new way of sourcing up-and-coming local talent. We tried to solve our own problem and realized it could work, but we needed to pivot a little bit. We also got really good feedback from the community that this was something that could be a solution for other startups. We’ve had other pivots since, but the initial pivot was from an internal solution to a service for customers.
IDH: You emphasize community—in what ways is A100 involved with Connecticut’s startup ecosystem?
KOCH: Talent, like customers, capital and space, is a key startup ingredient. We direct our efforts at three different parts of the local ecosystem.
We have a couple different ways we bring startups into our process to help them build their early-stage products. We help them both with a development team, but also guide them in market and customer validation. Ventures who need help building products can apply for the program at apprentice100.com.
Of course larger companies that are looking for up-and-coming, local developer hires and looking to create a bigger pool of computer science and software development talent can also take on apprentices. Both ventures and larger companies are really important to the development of a stronger startup community; local talent pipelines are built by companies and talent working together.
Educational institutions and students play an important role as well. We’re in the process of building much stronger ties with the University of Hartford, Trinity, Central Connecticut State University, Tunxis Community College and Manchester Community College. Bringing those students into our cohorts helps to get them connected to the innovative companies in our local community.
Students across the region can apply to become an apprentice at apprentice100.com.
IDH: A100 has an upcoming program that will take place in Hartford.
KOCH: Yes, we’ve been conducting A100 in sites around the state in 2015, starting with New Haven and Stamford. We’re really excited about coming to Hartford with the program because of the impact the program has on the local environment. We spend 12 weeks intensively working with startups, companies and apprentices in each location.
My impression of Stamford, as someone who hadn’t had the benefit of spending much time there, is really different now than it was before. Stamford has a special vibe, not unlike New Haven, but I’m not sure that people realize that. Working there has been a mind-opening experience and I’ve become a pretty big fan of Stamford.
I know Hartford is going to be a similar experience. I’m continually reminded that the story of Connecticut is that there are great things happening just under the radar in each of these towns and that each one of these towns has a unique character. I’m really excited about our team being in Hartford and digging in and getting to know what’s really special about Hartford, not from a casual observer’s perspective, but from the standpoint of someone who works there and lives there.
IDH: In what other ways has A100 become involved with the Greater Hartford community?
KOCH: A100 has recently become involved with reSET. We really appreciate their support and their partnership in our program. We’re thrilled to be partnering with them the way we did with the Stamford Innovation Center in Stamford and The Grove in New Haven before that. We think the co-working community is really important and reSET is a vital partner for us.
IDH: Why did you decide to locate your business in New Haven?
KOCH: When I looked around, New Haven was the closest place where there were things happening. CTech, Connecticut Innovation’s incubator program, was getting started; there were a few Connecticut Technology Council events that were happening in New Haven.
I began to locate the business in New Haven because there were some very small, green shoots in terms of a community. It was not what we have today, which is pretty amazing compared to what was there when we arrived in 2006. But there was enough there that when I looked around I knew this was obviously the place to be. New Haven is a nice walkable community, there’s a lot going on. It was a vibrant place to work that felt comfortable and felt like a city.
IDH: What do you enjoy most about living and working in Connecticut?
KOCH: Great place, great people. Part of working and having fun in a city like New Haven is having being able to walk out of work and right into events like Arts & Ideas, great neighborhoods and new, world-class restaurants and bars. But without the people, that wouldn’t matter. The people you meet in the startup community and the other companies that are connected to the startup community are really what makes it a fun place to be.
It takes life to another level when you’ve got professional and personal friends you enjoy being around and you’re connected to a really vibrant community in a really vibrant place. As we’ve taken A100 around the state this year, we’ve gotten a chance to see that Hartford, Stamford and the other 166 towns in Connecticut have a lot of potential in that regard.