"Altar.io is like having an extended team of co-founders" – Interview with Altar.io
Techreviewer spoke with Paolo Dotta, co-founred of software development company Altar.io. The interview is a part of a series on web development. Learn more about Altar.io on their Techreviewer profile.
Please, introduce yourself and your company. What does your company specialize in?
I’m Paolo Dotta, one of the co-founders at Altar.io.
Altar.io is a product and software development company based in Lisbon, with offices in London and Milan. We specialise in product and software development for entrepreneurs.
I always like to describe Altar as a bit different than the usual software house.
What I mean by this is we don’t simply receive a list of requirements and jump straight away into implementation. What we do is help entrepreneurs build great products.
We do that by first getting together with them to discover what will make that product great. We reason on the business case, we help fine-tune it (if necessary) and on the best possible user experience to solve the users’ problem. Only when the product blueprints are closed, we move onto the development stage.
We work with senior talents only and compete on quality. Smaller teams, fewer communication issues lead to better and faster results.
More than this we have a rule at Altar which is: all our managers and founders have to have had experience as a founder or early employee in a startup. This ensures we preserve the lean mindset.
On a personal level, I have a background in Finance. I started my professional career in capital markets.
My first venture in entrepreneurship was a startup that failed after seven months, due to a number of naive errors that I made.
I took everything I’ve learned from that experience and in 2015 I co-founded Altar.io. Now I do my best to help other entrepreneurs avoid the mistakes I’ve made.
Who is your ideal client? What industries, regions or types of businesses are you focusing on?
Our ideal customer is an entrepreneur who wants to build a great product in line with lean methodologies.
- Entrepreneurs who have an idea and deep knowledge of their industry looking for product and tech knowledge to transform that into a business;
- Established founders who’re looking for help in their existing startup (from iterating the product to building satellite MVPs or even building dedicated teams).
That being said, we don’t just focus on startups. We also work with corporate clients. However, our mandate is always the same. Managers approach us with a problem, an idea or an opportunity and we help them create the product using the lean approach.
What makes you different from competitors? What are your main competitive advantages?
I’d have to start here with something some of our clients have said to us:
“Altar.io is like having an extended team of co-founders.”
We work with our clients with an entrepreneurial mindset, not the mindset of a supplier (and we don’t take equity!), meaning we always advise the client to be as lean as possible to reduce the time to market.
It may sound counterproductive as this results in smaller tickets for us, but, in our experience, that’s the only way to ensure a Startup is successful. Go to market fast with an MVP, learn from your customers and iterate quickly.
This mindset allowed us to help many entrepreneurs succeed, which in turn increases the lifetime value of the engagements for us.
So, in a nutshell, we don’t measure success by the quality of what we code. We measure it by our client’s success. We consider a project successful if the client is able to build a successful business, secure VC money and scale the company.
I’d also add that, because all our managers and founders have had experience as founders or early employees in startups, we can provide guidance and advice beyond technology alone.
What is your company’s core business model – outsourcing or outstuffing? Do you work with subcontractors? Why do you think such a model brings additional value to your business and your clients?
We are a consultancy firm and we work mostly on a time and materials basis - we have a rate per hour and our clients pay as they go. This is the most flexible structure, and one thing new startups need is flexibility.
Nevertheless, to accommodate clients’ needs we can set up different agreements.
The most common agreement (aside from time and materials) is a dedicated team. This is where we allocate developers to a client on a full-time basis. They work for the client but remain on our payroll.
We don’t use subcontractors. We only use our in-house employees, all based in Lisbon, Portugal.
How has COVID-19 affected your company? How has it changed your processes? What challenges has the pandemic added to your and your team daily work?
COVID was a bit of a shock firstly because I went into lockdown before anyone else. I was travelling from Milan to Lisbon when the first wave hit, at the end of February 2020. I immediately stayed at home for 15 days.
Secondly, because we had to change our approach in certain aspects.
Our commercial activity has always been based mainly on marketing. However, we were also very active when it came to business development (usually with bigger “institution” level companies).
We basically had to stop completely the business development because all those companies put a hold on innovation.
And that’s what we do, we are a supplier of innovation.
So around April 2020, we were starting to get a bit worried – along with every other business in the world.
But then the attitude changed. COVID made people realise that this may be the perfect time to scratch the entrepreneurial itch and launch a new project.
And we started to see the results of that. A few months after the panic, our lead generation started to go up and it’s kept going up into 2021.
Don’t get me wrong, 2020 has still hindered our growth targets because of the business development side. That being said overall it’s been positive: we didn’t have to put a single employee on layoff.
Has COVID-19 influenced your marketing strategies? What are the main channels you use to promote your services now?
We doubled down on marketing. Business development completely stopped so instead of 60/40 marketing/biz dev it became 100% marketing.
So we doubled down on the channels and increased the budget.
Projects & Clients
What are the key factors that you consider when making a project estimation and proposal for a new client? Please, describe your process when you get contacted by a new potential client.
In terms of estimation, I like to say that we estimate what we can. When you’re working with ideas and innovation, things are rarely set in stone from day one.
It all depends on how well defined the idea is when our clients come to us. Because when it comes to technology, the devil is in the details.
When the idea is so young that it’s too vague, we don’t make an estimation on the project itself. Instead, we identify how many days we think are enough to create the blueprints for the project.
Once we’ve worked with a client for those days (usually 7 to 10 but sometimes more) we can then start to budget how much the development will cost based on what we discovered.
In terms of how we deal with potential clients, we tend to be very strict with our processes.
We do everything we can to reply within 12 hours of the first touchpoint.
We will either respond via email or with a call. This is again dependent on how much detail the potential client provided when they contacted us – because we want to make sure we go to calls with as much information as possible so we can help people efficiently from a business and product standpoint.
What are the top challenges you and your team face in the software development process most often and how do you deal with them?
The biggest and most common challenge in the industry is deviating from estimations.
As I mentioned before, we are working with ideas and innovation, a lot can change very quickly.
So we have strict management of processes here also. Every project has an estimation in terms of budgets and timeframe.
However, you can never get it right 100% of the time. If there is a leeway in time or budget we handle it very simply:
If the fault is on us, we take responsibility. For example, if we take longer than we said, we’re not going to charge the client for the extra time.
If the client asks us to make a change, then we will send a new estimate to them – both in terms of budget and roadmap. Once they approve that then we move on and develop the new changes.
What are the criteria for the success of a software development project?
As I mentioned we work with the Lean approach. With that in mind, we can consider an MVP successful when we discover the answers to the questions we started with. And sometimes those answers tell us not to develop the product further – after all, we’re testing something new in the market.
So if a client comes to us with a list of questions related to an untested product idea, and we help them answer those questions with a well-built MVP that rigorously tests the idea, then we consider it a successful project.
This leads to a crucial point: how we measure success here at Altar.
We don’t measure a project’s success by the quality of our code. We measure it by the product’s ability to prove or disprove the client’s main assumptions.
If those assumptions are proven right, perfect, we then do everything in our power to help them scale their business
If not, we’ve saved them from pursuing a product that wouldn’t work.
From your experience, what are the best practices to attain client satisfaction?
So the obvious thing here is when we deliver the product on time and on budget at a high quality – those core KPIs.
But of course, this is real life and there are ups and downs in any relationship. We deal with software and problems that exist.
What we’ve found is that the client is less bothered by those problems when we are transparent with them.
So the best way to attain client satisfaction is clear communication and authenticity throughout the entire process.
To make sure we are always able to communicate clearly we only work with a select few clients at any one time. And we only pick projects we believe in, so we can reach a point of true alignment with the client.
These two things not only ensure communication will flow beautifully, but it also gives the project the best possible chance of success – which is the goal in the end.
How do you assess the role of research agencies like Techreviewer in bridging the gap between clients and service providers?
Choosing a partner to help you develop your project is one of the most difficult decisions you have to make as an entrepreneur.
Platforms like Techreviewer enable entrepreneurs to assess the best solution for their specific use case. It ensures that they’re picking the right company. A team they can trust.
It gives them more information about their potential partner, and the more information the better.