Twice a week I host office hours and the most common issue people to come to me with is this:
“I have a great product idea, but I need a technical co-founder to build it.”
To which I say: congrats! You have a good idea, that’s a great start. And yes, it’s true you will eventually need someone to build your product, and depending on your level of tech savvy you may even need a technical co-founder as your begin to grow. But if you are in the initial stages of product ideation and market research, you do not need a technical co-founder. Not yet.
When the idea is just that, an idea, you really aren’t ready to build anything. In fact, you should really do yourself a favor and make sure you are committed to the idea before you bring anyone else onboard.
So, before you do anything else, wait a few months (yes months not days), and if you’re still in love with your idea, even better! Now is the time to roll up your sleeves, and start building yourself. Yes that’s right, you can build the first version of the product all by yourself, even if you have never even seen code.
Let me tell you how:
Step 1: Paper Prototyping
Grab some paper and start sketching. Draw out what you think the first version of your product should look like. Rough is totally fine. We are going for boxes and text. The key is just to get the basic concept down on paper and start working through how the product will work.
If you want to get fancy and add some interaction, you can graduate from sketches to wireframes and use a tool like Balsamiq.
[Editor’s note: Read all about how wireframes work, here.]
The important takeaway is that at this stage, no code is being written. Your goal is to flesh out your idea and begin to understand the scope of the project.
Step 2: Customer Development
Now take those pieces of paper or the mockups in Balsamiq and show them to at least 5 potential customers. This does not include friends and family! Friends and family will only give you a pat on the back, you need real feedback that you can use to improve the paper prototype.
Don’t be worried or embarrassed by the humbleness of your paper prototype. The goal here isn’t to sell your product, it’s to get real people to give your real feedback on your product idea. Believe it or not, having a simple wireframe can actually help you because potential users will feel more comfortable giving you honest feedback.
Step 3: Iterate
If you did steps 1 and 2 you should have learned a lot about your customer, their needs, how they felt about the product, and you should be ready to make changes. The good news is that because you didn’t spend time and money hiring technical talent to build the product out you can iterate quickly and on your own!
So go back to your wireframes or sketches, and update them to better suit your audience’s needs. Then go back to your customers and see what they think.
I can write code, but even though I can, I don’t build anything until I know that what I’m going to build is what people need. The thing is that coding takes a lot of time, and since coding is my trade, I want to produce something that is high quality. The problem is that before I have validated my concept, all of that quality code is a waste because I don’t know if I am putting my energy into something that matters.
[Editor’s Note: Steve Blank, the original lean startup-er calls “Assuming ‘I Know What the Customer Wants’” to be the cardinal entrepreneur sin.]
Too often technical, and non-technical, people rush into building without getting feedback from customers. I’ve seen time and again cases where founders rush into coding their product, only to have it be dead on arrival. The team then is forced to scrap six months of effort and thousands of dollars and start over. Save yourself time, money, and heartache by following these three steps first.
But I’ve already done these three steps! I really need a website!
If you think you’re a little more advanced and eager to have an online presence here is another suggestion. Start testing your idea online.
The next step for you is to begin to see if people will buy what you are selling and where the drop off points may be within the product. Your singular focus is still to make sure that you are considering creating something that has real value to real customers.
How do you assess that? Make a sales page and see if people sign up. But just a sales page!
Here’s how you can do that on your own:
- 1. Setup the domain and website using WordPress.
- 2. Convey the concept of your product on the WordPress website using words and pictures.
- 3. Use a WordPress plugin to turn it into a membership site or sign up for Mailchimp and see if people will give you their email addresses.
- 4. Head over to Twitter, Facebook, or Pinterest to tell people about your product.
- 5. Add Google Analytics to your site to see if people even come to your site. If no one comes or signs up, it’s time to go back to Step 1-3.
[Editor’s Note: Better yet, sign up for Skillcrush 101 and learn how to code and launch your own sales website.]
If you do the first three steps, and the advanced section you’ll be in a good position to not only communicate the product specifications to a technical co-founder, but you will have actually validated the product’s appeal. You will know what you want someone to build, they will know what to build, and more importantly, you will both know why. There will be far less ambiguity, which will make for a longer lasting working relationship.
And I promise you, when you know what you are building and why you are building it, finding an enthusiastic technical co-founder will be much, much easier.
Poornima Vijayashanker started her career as the sole femgineer at Mint.com. After Mint was acquired by Intuit, she decided to leave to found her own startup, BizeeBee. Poornima loves coding, solving tough engineering problems, and all things lean product development. She writes about all of the above, and more, at Femgineer and tweets @femgineer.