Twitter Summary: When your see a problem that requires you to spend time, money or space. Spend money or space, because time is the only one you can’t reuse.
A classic tradeoff in computer science is the time vs space tradeoff in executing an algorithm. As mentioned in an earlier blog post (An Introduction to Search Engines). If you spend extra disk space storing index data, you can improve the speed of a search by orders of magnitude. The decision here is clear cut. It does take some extra over-head to manage the indices, and update them as the data changes, but the benefits to the customer are immense. The other practical advantage is that as the cost of disk space has plummeted, all the overhead is the management of the data and very little of what was actually stored and computed.
In the startup world, the tradeoff presents itself as “Build” vs “Buy”. Should we build a website from scratch or buy a content management system to display our information? The decision here is ocasionally not as clear-cut and depends on what you want to be the core expertise of your company. If you have a company who’s core expertise is selling cars, investing in creating a new web framework would not be to the advantage of getting sales quickly and is likely to add unnecessary expense. If your expertise is a new web technology that allows you to experience a car prior to driving (and closes more sales) that is where you should consider building your own technology.
When bootstrapping a company, the best decisions I have seen is to fit together as many pre-built components as you can, even if they are your presumed “core expertise”. Only when they begin to show that they are not flexible to your core expertise, should you consider replacing them with some newer, better, faster technology built by your own team. The time saved getting your product to market can help you evaluate whether you have a market for what you want, and you can later decide where your time is best spent in buliding for your customer.
In talking with other technologists and entreprenuers, the wisdom has generally been “fail fast”, so that you can limit investments down dead ends. You can summarize this as spend the money or take the extra space to try something rather then waiting to build it yourself. The time spent will be minimized and your can always pursue the next better idea if the current idea doesn’t work.
Time vs Money/Space is not a correct tradeoff, as they are not interchangeable. With Money and Space, you can always re-use it, loan it or find somebody who can get it for you cheaper. When it comes to Time, you are not getting it back.