There is a high quality bar for devtools today. Design and UX are important. Developers like the CLI, but the consumerization of devtools is happening quickly. The late 2000s was the era of the slick mobile app. This design focus moved to SaaS in the early 2010s and has now arrived in devtools.
Think of some of the standard tools a developer uses today: GitHub. Vercel. Warp. Supabase. Tailscale. All of them have incredibly smooth onboarding, up-to-date documentation, dark mode, clean yet flashy marketing websites that demo the product well (neon is currently cool), a regularly updated blog, public changelogs...there’s always room for improvement, but these are the table stakes. The full experience stands out, particularly when I come across a new tool for the first time.
A focus on the details from end to end is a good indicator of success. Too often there are documentation inconsistencies, certain steps don’t work, images don’t match, or the onboarding flow gets interrupted with an error. Scenarios like using a password manager or having ad blockers enabled are considered edge cases when they are actually the norm for most developers. These are signs of lack of attention to detail.
I’m actively angel investing into startups where developers are the primary user, and the same applies to deciding when to invest. All of the good pitches I’ve seen over the past year have stood out through design and experience. There is a standard pitch deck format, but the best decks bring in their own colors, fonts, and graphics - basically the beginnings of a brand. Many have screenshots of a prototype product, sometimes already in production, especially if there are thousands of GitHub stars behind it.
This all comes together in the pitch meeting, which is in itself another part of the product and all about telling a story to describe a very optimistic future even when there might not be anything to show yet. It’s easy to tell apart the founders who have practiced how they want the meeting to go. They know the common objections, how to differentiate what they’re building, they know what they want from investors and have questions to ask.
For my part, when I’m talking with a startup founder about a possible investment I’m trying to find out a few things:
- Who is in the founding team? There must be at least one technical founder who is probably doing most of the initial development. If development is being outsourced then I’m not interested. It probably shouldn’t be a one-person show, though. All of the co-founders are important because building the product is only 50% of the work - the commercialization needs as much time as engineering, which is why I also like to see someone focusing on that full time. Have they been in a similar space before? Are they repeat founders? Have they been the user and/or the customer? What is their insight and why are they passionate about spending the next 10 years on this?
- Is this venture scale? There are many ways to build a business, but for it to work as an investment it has to reach a certain scale. The actual route always changes as things progress, but I think about how this can get to $100m in revenue in 5-8 years? How does it IPO at a >$1-5bn valuation? Not all businesses need investor money. Console itself is bootstrapped and run as a profitable business, but if you’re taking investor money then it must be venture scale.
- Is now the right time? There are no new ideas and first doesn’t always win. Why is the market right, today? How is it different from the competition?
- Is the user a developer? Is the customer an organization? It is still true that developers rarely pay for anything, but their employer will. So will developers use it? Will their company pay for it? What value does it bring for the organization? If it’s open source, what is the route to monetization (hint: cloud, not support/services).
- Is it starting too big? Everyone wants to be the new developer platform like Heroku, but that is very difficult. The big 3 cloud vendors can compete on the biggest, broadest portfolio of products. The startup opportunity is in unbundling a small piece and doing a much better job, then expanding over time. Trying to replace everything at once is too much.
- Does this fit in the developer flow? The product must fit in the flow of something important - mission critical or recurring. If it sits on the side e.g. cost saving, then it’s less valuable.
- Is it sticky? There are so many (new) devtools. Is it too easy to switch out? Why would developers continue using this for a long time?
There is a limit to how much can be known about pre-seed or seed companies, and how much time can be spent, but standing out as a potential investment is similar to standing out as a good product. A good product can be brought down by lack of good design. Conversely, a nicely illustrated deck is insufficient if the ideas behind it don’t stack up. But those that manage to combine the two really stand out.