How to choose the best tech stack for your startup
Every so often, software development companies share their take on the most popular tech stacks for startups, usually filtered through the lens of factors like scalability and expense, and then paired with examples of the stacks of now-successful companies with humble roots.
After decades developing software for startups, we have a slightly different take when it comes to tech stacks: The human factor matters as much as the technology itself. Make your decision based on what's the best technological fit, but also take a step back and think about how your choice affects not just your product but your company’s culture and aligns with your long-term goals.
Tech stack fundamentals
A tech stack consists of all technologies used for building a mobile or web app. These usually include programming languages, frameworks, frontend and backend tools, databases, servers, libraries, and design patterns.
Backend development powers the frontend without being visible to the end user. The tools used in backend development include languages and platforms such as Java, Ruby on Rails, Python, PHP, and Django.
In addition to the frontend and backend components, every tech stack includes middleware, like a CMS, web servers, and other technologies, like hosting environments and libraries that help manage data and establish communication between client and server sides.
How choosing the right tech stack heads off risk
When you're launching a startup, your tech stack is every bit as important as your product development, even though it's invisible to your customers and doesn't directly generate revenue.
In broad strokes, here's how making the wrong choice in terms of tech stack can backfire:
Scaling down the road. Imagine having a growing number of users . . . but being stuck with a tech stack that can’t handle the load. What's the fix? Often, a complete rewrite of the codebase in a more scalable language, like Node.js, PHP, Python, or Ruby, which means additional time and expense.
Migration issues. Migrating databases from one cloud or hosting provider to another is time-consuming and risky should something fall between the cracks.
Lack of qualified developers. If you go with a rarely used tech stack, you might have trouble finding developers who can fix bugs and scale it as you grow.
Incompatibility with the tech stacks of possible acquirers. Ideally, you want to go with a tech stack that won’t be a stumbling block for a prospective acquirer. (More on that below.)
Popular tech stacks for startups
A few tried-and-true tech stacks include:
The basic components of MEAN are:
(Note that MEAN has a sibling called MERN in which Angular.js is replaced with React.)
Python is an easy-to-learn and user-friendly tech stack, and it's often considered a must-have for machine learning, AI, and data science development. For example, Spotify uses AI-based recommendations powered by Python in its algorithm.
Python is also a popular choice for building general web applications and SaaS apps; it also provides extensive support for free data libraries, allows for scalable app performance, and can be used in conjunction with reliable web frameworks like Django and Frappe.
LAMP was one of the first open source tech stacks to gain popularity back in the day, and it's managed to retain its status over the years because, in addition to being mature and stable, it has a well-developed ecosystem. It might not have the name recognition of Python, but it is highly flexible and customizable because its components can be modified or interchanged; it’s most commonly used to build dynamic websites and web apps.
The basic components of LAMP are:
- Apache HTTP Server
Microsoft's .Net is an excellent choice for startups that come from an enterprise environment (think subsidiaries of Google) and don't need to rely on open source (like any MS product, it has licensing fees), plus it's common among startups that are building products in the medical and financial industries. Also, a .Net stack ensures speed and high performance and allows building a feature-rich framework for dynamic and interactive web apps.
Java is a robust and well-formed stack with a huge ecosystem. While it is not a common choice among garage-style startups that tend to gravitate towards modern tech stacks like Node.js, it's still used in situations where Java fits well into a startup's roadmap (e.g., if they're aiming to be acquired by a company that already uses it).
Java's popularity for developing new applications has declined in recent years, but it's still widely used for government, fintech, and medical apps.
Ruby on Rails gained popularity some years ago as the ultimate tech stack for startups: scalable, easy to learn, and fast to build with. Ruby has a vibrant community that constantly adds new gems to its repository — third-party libraries that enable engineers to implement extended functionality without developing new features from scratch.
Newer technologies like Node.js have replaced RoR to a certain extent, but it's still in demand among small energetic tech-centric startups. For example, Coinbase, one of the most popular cryptocurrency platforms, is powered by Ruby.
React Native is currently the most popular hybrid mobile framework. It allows for cross-platform app development for both Android and iOS using React.js, making it a great solution for startups that build apps with limited functionality and want to speed up time-to-market without the overhead of developing two native apps. React Native is a perfect stack choice for entrepreneurs looking to cut down on costs and resources and meet deadlines faster.
Startup tech stack examples
When choosing the best stack for your startup, it can help to take a close look at the particular technologies successful startups, unicorns, and prospective buyers of your company already use.
Robinhood Tech Stack
- Programming languages: Python, Go, Swift, Kotlin
- Frameworks: Bootstrap, Django
- Databases and stores: PostgreSQL, Redis, Kafka, RabbitMQ
- Cloud services: AWS
Robinhood built its robust and scalable brokerage system on AWS. Powered by PostgreSQL, Amazon RDS also allows the company to securely store customer and trading data. Since Robinhood is a mobile-first financial system, it heavily relies on the Swift and Kotlin languages that provide a top-notch trading experience on both iOS and Android apps.
Stripe Tech Stack
- Frameworks: Ruby on Rails
- Databases and stores: Apache Impala, NSQ
- Cloud services: AWS
Top factors for choosing the best tech stack for your startup
Still scratching your head over where to start? Then think about these big picture questions:
Rebuilding or switching stacks is messy, expensive, and time-consuming, so you want to avoid it at all costs by anticipating how you’ll scale your tech stack when the time comes.
Scalability covers horizontal growth (i.e., the ability to accommodate a higher number of users) and a vertical dimension that allows for adding new components to a mobile or web app without undermining performance.
That’s why it is crucial to choose a tech stack capable of supporting growth (in both directions) beyond even your best-case scenario. Highly scalable programming languages like PHP, Python, and Ruby, along with AWS or Azure cloud services, will do the job.
If you’re not sure exactly where you’re headed in terms of scale, start by sketching out your MVP. Then, examine the features you hope to add down the road. Ask yourself if those features can be adequately developed using the same architecture as your MVP. The answer should help you rule out any stacks that could constrict growth in the future. This approach will also help assist in identifying startup technology stacks that will support your long-term approach.
The tech stack you choose for building your product directly impacts development costs, most of all dev salaries and maintenance cost. Finding specialists in an obscure framework can be more expensive than going with those accustomed to working with popular tech stacks.
However, in certain cases, a new tech stack can be framed as an investment for your startup. If your product’s core functionality involves new technology, your choice may even be marketable if it can be spun as an indicator of just how cutting-edge your idea is.
Ease of use and maintenance
A good technology stack is easy-to-use and provides developers with proper documentation, which helps to write clean code, minimize bugs, and make your app run more smoothly. Healthy software practices facilitate customer satisfaction by delivering better software and make your entire business more efficient.
Simple software architecture is easier to maintain, and popular frameworks supporting short, reusable codes present fewer challenges than obscure, complex languages. Plus, the bigger your operation, the more devs you'll need, raising the issue of developer availability and cost once again. Using open source tech stacks with a large developer community and proper documentation will keep maintenance costs under control and make hiring the talent you need easier.
No matter what decision you make regarding your technology stack, you'll regret some aspect of it when it comes to maintenance time. Every crack in your framework will reveal itself.
When choosing tech stacks for your project, also consider whether you aim to make your application highly responsive and reduce latency or if your app will require heavy load processing.
Based upon our experience in mobile and web app development for startups, we recommend planning projects as high-load from the start. (If you're building an app for consumers, for example, you could get lucky and see your product go viral overnight.)
High-performance architecture should therefore be prioritized for virtually any project. Of course, no one goes from one server to a thousand in the blink of an eye, but the right framework from the start will allow you to avoid database migrations even in high-traffic situations.
The sooner you launch your product, the less likely someone else will beat you to it. That’s why it is important to select a technology stack that will accelerate the product development process and decrease time-to-market. Out-of-the-box solutions and support for integrations with third-party solutions can grease the wheels for a speedy time-to-market. For example, Ruby on Rails provides many open source libraries and offers extensive options for adding new functions via third-party integrations.
If you're especially anxious to get your product in the public eye, a "mainstream" framework might be the way to go, simply because it's easier to find "mainstream" devs. React devs? Easy to find. ExtJS devs? Not so much. Go too niche with your stack and you risk finding yourself in a tight spot should you need to replace team members mid-sprint.
However, you shouldn't shoehorn a framework to fit your project. Your team's expertise also matters here. Suppose that your project calls for Django, but your devs are more experienced with Ruby. Leaning into that skillset may mean more efficient development, shorter testing/debugging periods, and, ultimately, a better product on the market, faster.
Your exit strategy
If your dream is to be acquired by a major company, a stable, enterprise-friendly stack is a wise idea when it comes to building your product — particularly, as noted above, if your potential buyer relies on the same stack.
One important thing to note: Stack selection could affect the valuation of your company. For example, if it would be a headache for a prospective buyer to integrate your company’s technology stack into their own, they might have second thoughts – and your valuation might get dinged during investment rounds.
Finally, when selecting a startup technology stack, it's helpful to own your personal preferences — rarely is a decision of this nature 100% objective. CTOs make decisions that are counter to "best practices" all the time — and there's nothing inherently wrong with that. You know your company better than anyone else, and startups are a trial-and-error journey by their very nature.
Sometimes it's helpful to think of personal preference as a building block for company culture, too. Every tech stack comes with its own culture (e.g., Ruby tends to attract younger, maker-culture types, whereas Python attracts engineers who are captivated by complex algorithms, and Node is current and hip), so your choice of stack can flavor your company culture.
Comparing tech stacks against the functional and technical requirements of your product is a must-do. However, keep in mind that your stack choice will have an impact beyond supported features and engineering and that your choice can be an expression of your founding philosophy and set the stage for your company culture.
Think of it this way: Your tech stack will be your home. Make sure it's comfy while you're living in it — and that when it comes time to sell, it's enticing to the right buyers.