I am a software engineer working at a startup of less than 5 years that has a mildly successful software that brings in enough money to keep the lights on and everybody paid. I am currently the only software development employee at the moment.
I work pretty closely with my manager who was actively seeking opportunities to expand new software product ideas with a focus on our core competencies and proven technical solutions that we do well.
I feel lately that things are flying wildly off track. I am being brought into sales pitch meetings with customers for ideas that only vaguely resemble the original business plan and enter into areas that are not our strengths. The sales guys all have a positive can-do attitude so I hold back on my fears until I get time for a followup meeting with them and they do not seem to understand when I tell them that they are overcommitting and downplaying the complexity of what they are selling. It is all new ground too so we have little to build off of from our original products.
Further when I present the hurdles to them they just assume that their is some "third-party component" that can be easily plugged in so that these ideas can be implemented quickly. Most of the time there isn't.
On top of that, they are talking with MANY different potential customers, which is good because you want to hedge your bets, but what if they all want to sign tomorrow and they all want what they are promising in less than 6 months? It would be a disaster, they don't have enough money to hire me a team or even the very necessary hardware I need in house to do the kinds of work they are committing ourselves too. I understand venture captial can make these happen after a deal is signed, but if you have to deliver in 5 months and there is still no team, it would be at least 3 months to get a SD team together and fully trained to actually tackle the project!
I won't even get into how terrified I am by the "quality" of the customers they are talking to. Over the phone their needs are simple, you meet with them in person and suddenly what they are asking for morphs into PeopleSoft and the sales guys don't know how to say no.
I am having a lot of anxiety lately and was wondering if I am just worrying about nothing. The sales guys seem disgustingly optimistic about this all but I can't seem to shake this sense of a painful foreboding in the company's future. Do you feel that the sales guys are making the best choice for the company, or should they be more conservative?
Is it better for a startup to focus on its core competencies and vision, or wildly swing at every possible opportunity that vaguely resembles the company mission?
I think you have a good grasp of the situation, and likely already know what decision you need to make.
It sounds like your upper management is realizing that their business model is flawed, so they are flailing around trying to bring in more business to keep things afloat. This isn't bad in all cases, but it seems like they don't have a good grasp of their resources.
For a startup with limited resources there is a very real danger in overextending yourself, just as there is danger in growing too fast. If you don't have the resources on0hand to absorb the costs associated with changing and expanding the business, you shouldn't be trying to.
And like you noted, relying on VC or angel money to bail you out isn't going to cut it. The deal cycle for VCs can be upwards of 7 months, Angels around 2 months. So that wont work.
As the software guy, you need to sit down and have a very frank talk with your management about what resources you have, and hopefully get the salespeople reigned in. Like I said, looking for other opportunities isn't too bad of an idea, but you need to focus these really well.
I would suggest a big meeting with sales staff, management, and technical staff. At this meeting you need to pull out all the prospects you have, and vet each one individually. As a company, I would guess you're trying to develop a product you can continue to sell to other customers. So when you're vetting the customers, find the products with the best potential, and don't require a lot of extra resources (or of they do, plan on how to get them earlier on). And find out which ones mesh well with your current business.
You guys need to communicate more, or you're never going to get past this point. Hope this advice helps you out a bit.
If a startup realizes its business model is flawed, or that there are bigger opportunities in another market, it can pivot and modify its original vision. But "swinging wildly at every pitch" is not pivoting.
It's not only a burden for the development team, but it's bad for the company in the long term. What's going to happen when all of those customers decide to buy, but they're all expecting a different product?
Some tips that come to mind:
Say that you're busy working on all the other features they've promised. ;)
Basically you need to figure out if people in power know what's going on with the sales team, and have a handle on what they're doing. If they're unaware of the problem, make them aware.
If they know about it and think it's okay, then it might be time to start looking for another job. It might not be if you really have faith in your founders, but that's something only you can figure out.
Your paragraph that starts with "On top of that, they are talking with MANY different potential customers, which... " sums it all up nicely. You should make company owners aware of these facts and your manager should be very well aware of this since they're marketing. They should be aware they're selling false promises.
If they dismiss your arguments then I can think of nothing else than that:
If the first one is true, then your arguments should be convincing to your manager (when sitting at the same table with company owners)
If the second one is true, you have nothing to worry about.