Twice a week I host office hours and the most common issue people 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 you begin to grow. But if you’re 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 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 it 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.
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 you 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. 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 until I’ve validated my concept all that quality code is a waste because I don’t know if I’m putting my energy into something that matters.
Too often, technical and non-technical people rush into building without getting feedback from customers. Time and again I’ve seen cases where founders rush into coding their product, only to have it dead on arrival. The team then is forced to scrap six months of effort and thousands of dollars worth of work, 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!” you say.
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 it. If no one comes or signs up, it’s time to go back to Step 1-3.
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 also 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’re building and why you’re building it, finding an enthusiastic technical co-founder will be much, much easier.