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Entrepreneurship for Engineers: How to DIY Your DevRel

For technical startups, early marketing efforts are mostly developer relations — and it's up to the founders to do it. So how should you get started?
May 7th, 2022 5:00am by
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Entrepreneurship for Engineers is a monthly column by longtime New Stack contributor Emily Omier that explores the concerns of developers who want to build tools for other developers — and build a business around their innovations. We welcome your feedback, and ideas for future columns.

For technical startups, early marketing efforts are often indistinguishable from developer relations (DevRel). And it’s the founders who are responsible for doing it. So what is DevRel and how should you get started?

The essence of DevRel is being the face of your organization’s technology, solving developers’ problems and educating them about potential solutions and best practices. Developer advocates are generally the people who talk at conferences, write blog posts, host webinars, answer questions on Discord/Slack, and talk to open source users and customers.

In other words, they do everything that a founder does in the early days of a startup. When thinking about what you should do as a founder to build awareness for your new company, many of the tactics you should use are classic developer relations.

Technical founders are ideally suited to do-it-yourself DevRel. First of all, most technical founders have a product that is addressing a problem they personally struggled with as an engineer. This gives them credibility to talk about the pain points that exist and how an open source project or commercial product could solve them.

So how should you think about DevRel as a founder? Let’s dive in.

Start DevRel Efforts Early

While your fledgling company may be in stealth mode, that doesn’t mean you can’t start your DevRel program now. Starting founder-led developer relations well before the company launches, giving the launch a much greater chance of success, said Austin Gunter, director of product marketing at Primer.ai and formerly at Gremlin and Ambassador Labs.

According to Gunter, before Gremlin was introduced to the public, Kolton Andrus, Gremlin’s chief technology officer and founder “had already spent a couple of years investing in how he was positioning and messaging the company, chaos engineering and himself. The impact is that by the time Kolton wanted to publicly launch Gremlin, he already had brand momentum on this topic.”

Early DevRel does look a little different from what it will become later, because of the focus on building authority for the founder, rather than the company, especially if the company is still in stealth mode. Early DevRel for open source startups usually then moves to focus primarily on the open source project, so any product-specific DevRel is often the third iteration of the DevlRel program.

What Does DevRel Look Like?

“There’s a ton of organic activities that aren’t paid, so are great DIY ways to get out into the community,” said Kiersten Gaffney, chief marketing officer of Codefresh, a software-delivery platform.

Before starting, however, “make sure you understand your purpose as a business,” she said. “Because if you don’t understand your purpose, you can’t really build out a content strategy because you won’t know where to begin.”

Here are some ways that technical founders can start doing DevRel on their own, perhaps even before leaving a day job.

  • Write blog posts. These can be on the open source project’s website, on a Medium website or even the founder’s personal blog — though a dedicated project site is best. If your company is in total stealth mode, however, the goal is really about building authority for yourself as a founder.
  • Write for other publications. There are many outlets, including other, bigger companies’ blogs, the Cloud Native Computing Foundation’s newsletter, and tech news and analysis sites like The New Stack that accept guest articles. Writing articles for these publications is a way to talk about the problems developers face, and how you’ll solve them.
  • Be active on Twitter. “Every week I learn something new on Twitter from founders or investors,” Gaffney said.
  • Present at conferences or meetups. The most important part of getting speaking gigs is that you can’t be actively promoting a product, so this can be a great option at the beginning.

One thing to note about DevRel — it’s OK to divide and conquer. If you have multiple founders, it’s normal for one (probably the most extroverted) to take on most of the DevRel work, leaving the others to work on something else. There are many, many demands on founders’ time, and the company really only needs one public face at the beginning.

How DIY DevRel Matures

As the company matures, launches out of stealth mode and adds a commercial product, there are some things that have to change.

First of all, you need to make sure that people understand you have a product. “The end goal with any DevRel team is to really try to make sure that that dotted line between your paid product and whatever open source project the DevRel team is promoting is super close,” Gaffney said

Taking this approach means it will be easy for people to make the jump from learning about your open source project to understanding why they might want to pay you for something.

At some point, most technical product startups will end up hiring someone to do DevRel full time. But even then, founders shouldn’t totally neglect developer relations — they often remain the company’s face and continue speaking at conferences and even jumping into Slack channels until they’ve left the company.

“It’s never your product that makes or breaks your business, past a certain point,” Gunter said. “It’s always your go-to-market motion.”

For technical companies, especially open source companies, developer relations will always be a huge part of that go-to-market strategy.

Do you have any topics related to entrepreneurship you’d love to see covered? Reach out on Twitter and let me know.

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