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Seraphin outsources its product development and then recruits a CTO

 

 

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About Seraphin

Seraphin is the leading digital insurance broker in Belgium operating on the idea that the insurance world as we know it today needs to be simplified. In fact, finding an insurer is hard work. Understanding every clause in your insurance policy, finding out about the different products on the market or comparing insurance companies is an obstacle course that is especially daunting. Discover how a Belgian startup was able to develop a simple and efficient product with no special in-house expertise in the beginning.

Seraphin’s primary mission is to simplify the management of insurance policies and to make them more understandable. As the brokerage business model no longer meets the market expectations, Seraphin’s proposal attempts to replace it by offering a simple and transparent solution. A digital platform also allows Belgian citizens to optimize their resources by maximizing their coverage while simultaneously reducing the cost of their bills.

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The Problem

As is the case at many startups founded by people with no technical expertise, the choice about product development must be made. The company will either decide to build it in-house from scratch or hire an outsourcer to develop the product. Although some startups may attempt to build the product with an in-house team, they still face a risk when it comes to recruiting the people with the right expertise. 

Launching a startup is a bit like a burn rate race against the clock. It is important to spend your money in the most efficient way possible. As a consequence, not even the slightest cost can be ignored and so recruiting an IT expert as a first step represents a big risk in the eyes of investors. Furthermore, it is hard to get a picture of needs in terms of expertise to develop the software that is going to become the heart and soul of the company. 

The Goals

  • Determining the product strategy (product roadmap) and the design of the application (prototyping)
  • Developing the Seraphin software and getting it to the market quickly
  • Providing best practices and training their in-house product team.
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The time to market should be about three months. That’s pretty short for fairly innovative and complex software
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Thomas Vanderstraeten
CTO, Seraphin

The Challenges

The skills of the team

In the case of Seraphin, the founders were fairly realistic about their in-house skills and needs:

I very soon realized that Information Technology covers more than a dozen different areas of expertise (Editors Note: developing the Statement of Work) using Sketch. Most companies do not master even this part themselves and I think that’s critical for a software startup. We absolutely needed to outsource the development of our project in order to find the right skills amongst these multiple areas of expertise.”  
- Xavier Lombard, Co-founder & CEO of Seraphin

In fact, developing an application takes time and requires very specific skills plus a host of complementary expertise to properly develop such an app:

  • Product Strategy
  • Front-end development (design and user experience)
  • Back-end development (server side)
  • Project Management
  • Structure, framework and expertise to develop an app

Outsourcing: Choosing the right strategic partner for your product

Although the co-founders initially contacted 3 development companies specializing in the field of insurance, they soon faced two major problems:

  • There was a potential conflict of interests
  • Although the “look & feel” of their apps was attractive, the code was outdated and, as a result, their solutions did not properly match the image of innovation that Seraphin wanted to convey

In the eyes of the founders, it was important to find a partner with the capacity to structure and to understand and who would be enthusiastic about their value proposition.

Recruiting a CEO, yes but when?

While working with a strategic partner to develop their application, they nonetheless felt the need to have a person in the company who would coordinate efforts with the outsourcer and fix any bugs that might crop up on weekends or at night. Working with an outsourcer implies, for the product part, proceeding at the pace of the company, which is not typically going to assign an employee to fix bugs outside of working hours. Having a technical professional instantly gives you a certain amount of flexibility and autonomy in dealing with the outsourcer. This is why they ultimately recruited a technical co-founder 5 months after their cooperation with Belighted began in order to eliminate this bottleneck:

When you are a fast-growing startup, there are multiple areas in need of improvement...when you work with a supplier, you have a specific budget and you constantly have to prioritize...It’s a real nightmare to have to tell yourself that you need to devote an entire day to reducing the backlog....But if you have someone in-house, you can count on this individual to be available in the event of force majeure. As you might expect, we are rapidly expanding and growing and there are decisions to be made. It is a really difficult balancing act.”  
- Thomas Vanderstraeten, CTO of Seraphin 
Belighted set up a structure and ensured that the first technical expert hired by Seraphin would find the best conditions possible for taking over the project.
 

Time to market, the lifeblood of any startup.

Note that recruiting a CTO right off the bat was probably not the best option for Seraphin for two reasons: on the one hand because it is relatively rare to find a full-stack developer with expertise in every domain; as a general rule, these professionals specialize in just one field. On the other, a CTO is also responsible for the business aspects of the application and so without help he/she would not have the time to perform all the roles required for developing an application without access to the broad range of skills that Belighted’s team had at its disposal:

If I had just arrived at Seraphin and I was expected to build a platform from scratch, it would have probably been thrown out after a few months. But in this case I was introduced to your best practices, and it’s obvious that your expertise is the result of years of project development. This gave me a very solid foundation and taught me the importance of attention to detail...I learned what I needed to know and now am able to take our particular project farther." 
- Thomas Vanderstraeten, Seraphin CTO

In addition, the time to market aspect is crucial to a startup. In fact, a single developer with equivalent skills would need up to ten times longer to attain the high level of quality that an outsourcer like Belighted, composed of different professionals and underpinned by more than 10 years of application development experience and delivers. This is much too long when you consider that getting your product to the market quickly is vital for winning your first customers and avoiding getting beaten to the punch by a competitor who is faster on his feet.

The Results

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Clean & Elegant
Fully Responsive

Belighted, a product development “one stop shop”, takes your project from concept to completion:

You are both a generalist and a genuine expert in your field or, in any case, in a specific technology (Ruby on Rails) because I can see that you have an excellent talent pool in your company. To sum it all up, you were able to help us with wide range of issues including system administration, identifying a backup solution (Amazon Web Services) and obtaining an SSL certificate. At every turn you had an answer for us, even if it was only directing us to a good resource. This on its own was invaluable and really saved a lot of time. In my view this is somewhat similar to a one stop shop. We hit on a good IT idea and you took us from concept to completion.
- Thomas Vanderstraeten, Seraphin CTO

We were able to get the Seraphin software to the market with a time to market of about three months notwithstanding the complexity of the product and its innovation aspect, which makes this quite a feat.

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