Why focus is so important (a tale of technical choices)

It’s Jane on the line today, and we’re talking about focus this week!

Many years ago, I studied law in college (yes, my college major is “software development in the legal field”). We started learning about each new branch of law through defining its “general principles.” These principles serve as a guiding star for making decisions when there’s no specific norm in place, or something is unclear.

As SaaS founders, we need such principles, too — you can call them principles, or strategy, or vision, or anything else. We get bombarded with customer requests daily. We want to be nice and help everyone — but you can’t be everything to everyone! By spreading yourself thin, you risk failing at your main goal: shipping and maintaining a good, usable product.

Today I want to share an example of how principles (and the dedication to stay focused) influenced some of our technical decisions lately.

One of our early champions — the nicest person in the world! — had additional requirements about their customer data not leaving certain European territory. At the moment of that conversation, we were precisely in the middle of making several technical decisions, such as our hosting locations and email sending service (SparkPost US or SparkPost EU). The first impulse was to make these decisions based on that customer request, host everything in Europe, and go out of the way for that particular case.

However, we’re a US company now, having spent a few months doing painful paperwork to properly incorporate and set things up there. Our key customer profile is a small SaaS business, and most of them are located in the US and other non-european territories. It doesn’t mean we’re leaving EU companies behind — our plan is to be fully GDPR compliant — but it wouldn’t be wise to spend our limited time resources on additional compliance efforts. Essentially, we had three options:

  • Provide compliance for all cases, including the most sensitive ones.
  • Provide regular GDPR compliance without going into extremes.
  • Brush off all European/non-US customers entirely (which sounded horrible, since we’ve been struggling with all of that as international co-founders).

We went with the middle ground, and formulated a strategy that will help us with future technical choices: properly support regular EU customers, but not special sensitive cases, with preference towards US servers for our tech choices (when possible).

Here’s a snippet of what Benedikt ultimately wrote in response to that customer:

  1. We’re a US based company.
  2. We expect most of our customers to be from the US.
  3. We expect most of our customers to be small companies with fewer requirements on this.
  4. We can’t guarantee that all data processing and storage will happen in the EU. (Both the backups and email delivery might be a deal breaker already.)
  5. We’d rather focus on building the product right now and come up with a good solution to this eventually.

This would of course mean that we’re not a good fit for you anymore. However, we’d rather be honest about this with you now than down the road when we actually cause problems for you by sending data outside the EEA. We know it feels like we’re chickening out a bit with this, but I think it’s the best for both of us right now. We hope you understand. If you’d like your money back as a result, just let us know and we’ll take care of this.

Nothing horrible happened, and that customer is still with us, trying to figure out a legal solution on their side. While our team can move forward and focus on serving our key audience.

Hope this story helps you understand our decisions better, and be more confident in making your own!

— Regards, Jane.