Founder & Venture lead
I once interviewed with a software consultancy company for a position as a software engineer. I remember being asked to wear a suit. The building was huge and I was struck by the realization of how many suit-wearing people worked there. I could tell there was an apparent hierarchy just by the way they paraded the corridors into flashy conference rooms. I was offered coffee by a receptionist and later asked a few questions related to Java and SQL by a senior developer. They were easy. Suspiciously easy. It felt more like a practicality than an actual interview. I didn’t finish the coffee, and when I got home I was offered a position as a software engineer with a generous salary.
I rejected the offer, obviously. I discovered that I would be given a new flashy hyper-inflated title and assigned to work on a huge government-funded project, and that I would be a truly valuable addition to the organization. It never quite appealed to me1. At Backtick, we’re on a mission to make consulting not suck. We approach this challenge from two primary perspectives: clients & employees.
Having been involved in the startup scene for quite some time during our studies, Michal Stypa and I left Apple to try something on our own. Starting a consultancy company was pretty far down the list, but we changed our minds quickly after listening to a few inspiring talks about startup funding.
Our idea was to start a company that could help other startups with one specific problem presented in a few of these talks - we learned that one of the biggest challenges for startups who get funding is to quickly apply the cash and turn it into value. Specifically what that means is to hire engineers and build the product.
Hiring great engineers is hard. Very hard. And not just any engineers - startups have realized the importance of hiring a certain type of engineer that will stay for the long haul and take responsibility in all stages of building a fantastic product. This is especially important in an era where startups need to innovate beyond what has traditionally been possible with software2. Unfortunately for startups, the talent pool is small and doesn’t come cheap.
Consultancy companies are traditionally on the stiffer side, so we thought there would be an opening in the market for a startup-friendly engineering boutique in some of the more advanced topics, such as data engineering and machine learning.
Our goal was to build a company that could help startups with the same passion we have for our own, personal projects. This was more challenging than we thought - a startup would never hire a consultancy company if there’s an option to directly hire instead. It makes sense, all the know-how would get lost when the consultant quit, and worst case it would leave a lot of technical debt that somebody else would need to take care of later. This is a big risk, and the reason why startups don’t hire consultants. We also later found out that this is not just true for startups, but for companies of all sizes across many sectors - the difference is the startups were accurately aware beforehand, and the more established companies realized it after a few years of working with many different consultants (horror stories start at $200 each, reach out!).
Yet somehow, by offering startups plenty of rainbows and cake, we managed to convince them to give us a try. Just by thinking as a startup, seeing things from their perspective instead of trying to sell as many hours as possible, we created many win-win situations. By acknowledging that startups have bumpy roads, both in product development cycles and investment cycles. We were flexible with our work so that it had the greatest impact at the right time. For example, if you hire an engineer as a small startup, that person is bound to you. When things go south, your options are to fire the person, or keep them - but you cannot pause them. With consultants, you can. Backtick can leverage this method to make an impact at the right time, allowing clients to spend their money wisely.
Hiring consultants is often synonymous with admitting that you don’t know how to do things yourself. I’ve seen technical founders struggle with this - it is okay to ask for help, you and your team cannot know and do everything yourselves. I usually advise to embrace it instead and see consultants as a way to accelerate product development, but honestly it really comes down to the consultants in question. Not the company, but the actual persons working in the project.
On a general level we approached clients’ engineering teams with a sound, humble engineering philosophy based upon building things with quality and trying to get end-to-end as fast as possible3. Making this work was mostly a matter of communicating with transparency and having access to end users. Of course, we had to commit to the projects with passion and our opinionated thoughts - which sometimes meant not agreeing with the client. This is crucial if you’re serious about building long term relationships.
Over the years, our offer has been extended to work not just with startups, but with mid-size and enterprise companies as well. All companies need to engage vigorously in preparing for the future with new product offers, services and features. We’ve found that most companies understand that, and we've worked successfully with multiple R&D divisions and product launches with bigger companies over the years. We still do!
Nobody wants to work 60 hour weeks just because somebody sold a project with not enough resources to complete it in time. Ironically, the same person who sold the project also somehow managed to over-promise the delivery to the customer - but hey, at least someone had a good day and got a bonus. Consultancy companies live to profit. Money goes to the owners, resources (engineers) move around between companies for an ever increasing salary and after many years in the business you end up in some advisory role at an enterprise with too much money.
Despite no one wanting this, I still hear and see this all the time, not just in software4. The behavior drives employees to depression and fatigue, where there’s little inspiration and motivation left. Just more work to do for somebody else. Why would anyone get into consulting? To make partner in 10 years and then 10 years later move out to a farm and take up woodworking and grow plants?
On the other end of the spectrum there’s the startup world, full of opportunities. Many seek it, yet few succeed. It’s estimated that 90% of startups fail. Some data from Techcrunch estimate your chances of being acquired to 16% if you manage to secure seed funding. There’s more to elaborate on these stats - more than what can be accommodated in this post. It all depends on what we mean by a failed startup as there are many different routes when things start looking grim5.
Your main takeaway should be that it is hard. Hard doesn’t mean wrong. You should be prepared to give it a few shots and try again if you don’t succeed the first time.
Of course, very few people have the mental and physical strength to fail at this multiple times, especially since each serious attempt takes a few years (even if you failed fast multiple times before deciding what company to start!). And while chances get better every time you fail, it may very well take many years until you succeed. This is expensive, both in time and money. People simply give up after one or two attempts because they run out of personal finances and (perhaps eventually) need to take care of a family.
We’ve been pondering this at Backtick. We all want to be exceptionally great engineers, founders, entrepreneurs and inventors. But how do we maximize the expected value of our time? The answer simply lies in borrowing some concepts from the investment world.
Essentially, instead of giving you incentives related to profit sharing or to become a partner in 10 years, we instead give all our engineering hires equity in our holding company, Backtick Valley. Through Backtick Valley, you will own a stake in multiple companies, spreading your risk. We believe this is the only way to, with full transparency, give back to the engineers. As a result of this, if a company gets started from Backtick Valley or a joint venture emerges, you will indirectly own shares in that company. We call this our improved transparent, superior equity model for engineers.
It does require some significant skill, effort and strategy to succeed with this. We believe we’re on the right track and we would love your help to accomplish it. We believe in our clients and their efforts. We believe in the work that we do and we believe that great engineering is about skill, passion and teamwork. We expect our engineers to deliver to our clients with the same passion that they have for their own projects. This is possible because we give our engineers true incentives, and an alternative to climbing the corporate ladder.
Backtick gives you a chance to take a de-risked startup route with lower to-the-moon chances, but higher expected value. If this appeals to you, don’t hesitate to reach out or check out our open positions. We have a flat structure, so if suits and hierarchy aren’t important to you, it could be a good fit :)
Published on January 11th 2023
Last updated on March 1st 2023, 10:40
Founder & Venture lead