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Don’t Panic Labs pioneers “dev-for-equity” model to help startups

Photo courtesy of Don’t Panic Labs.

Lincoln based Don’t Panic Labs doesn’t believe that building software should be a matter of uncertainty.

“There’s a lot of conventional wisdom right now that says if you’re going to build software and you have all these uncertainties and changes coming for it, basically you can’t architect for it,” said Brian Zimmer, Business Director at Don’t Panic Labs.

Zimmer and the organization disagree with the industry standard of building throw-away software that eventually has to be rebuilt once a company knows what the software is actually going to be.

“Our success and some of the interest people have in working with us is how [they] can go about using disciplined software engineering practices even in startup and corporate innovation type environments,” said Zimmer.

Creating a specialized approach

Don’t Panic Labs is a force multiplier for software design and engineering that grew out of the engineering arm of Nebraska Global, a venture capital fund, seven years ago.

Initially, Don’t Panic Labs only worked for companies that were invested in Nebraska Global, but over time their talents evolved and Don’t Panic Labs took on its own identity.

“About four years ago we started to realize that we were really good at early stage software product development,” said Zimmer.

Companies began to contact them who didn’t need investment but were interested in their approach to product development.

“We really started embracing that as part of our business model,” said Zimmer. “We’ve gone from having three engineers working on efforts for other companies [to] a division of over twenty people working for other companies on these projects.”

Thinking and working differently

Don’t Panic Labs is so successful in what they do because they’re thinking and working differently to improve the chances of startups

“One of the risks for a non-technical co-founder is that at some point he/she will have a product to support and no technical team to support it,” said Udell. “We solve this by building the software, embedding the dev team as early as it makes sense, with our engineers and architects for as long as it takes to get them off the ground.”

Blackbox is one example of a startup that Don’t Panic Labs applied that approach to with great success.

“We really worked with Blackbox to bring them from an idea to a version-one that the founder of the company can now take and show around the world,” said Udell. “Not only that, we helped him on-board his technical cofounder and worked with him to train that person on software engineering so they could seamlessly transition that work back over to him.”

Investing in startups

Don’t Panic Labs works with publicly traded companies on their software needs, but their roots in venture capital creation pull them towards helping create products and companies.

“Our DNA is in creating startup companies,” said Bill Udell, Integrator at Don’t Panic Labs.

Last year they did $396,000 of dev-for-equity investment in startups. Their investment included product development for those companies as well as housing them on-premises, and training their in-house software engineers to take over once Don’t Panic Labs was finished with their work.

Photo courtesy of Don’t Panic Labs.

What’s next for Don’t Panic Labs

Right now, Udell and Zimmer see the company as having main legs: their contractual work with startups and publicly traded companies, and their investment and joint venture work.

“As an aspirational goal, we’d like a third leg on that stool to where we’re getting back into some software product development,” said Zimmer. “We’d like to launch a product of our own again.”

“It’s something that we’re starting to actively evaluate,” added Udell.

Putting knowledge into practice

Education is another area where Don’t Panic Labs is sharing its unique approach to software design and engineering. This week they’re launching a Don’t Panic Labs Software Design and Development Clinic taught by Chad Michel and cofounder and 2016 AIM Tech Innovator of the Year Doug Durham.

“I think we see the education line being another area that’s really growing for us over the coming years,” said Udell. “We’ve almost got four legs on that stool now the way we’re heading.”

The pilot clinic is already full, but Don’t Panic Labs plans on hosting at least three more throughout the year.

“There’s actually a body of knowledge around how to build software in the face of uncertainty and change, and there’s a lot of engineering patterns and practices that can be used to support that,” said Zimmer. “That’s been really core to a lot of the work that we’ve done. It’s core to some of the things we’re teaching in the class.”

The company is proud of their growth in numbers, but its really looking forward to growing in other ways while staying close to its core of software design and engineering.

“I expect we’re going to grow in impact over the next year,” said Udell.

Christine McGuigan is the Associate Editor of Silicon Prairie News.

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