Karl Hughes
Creating a Tech Startup without a Developer: the Lean Way

Creating a Tech Startup without a Developer: the Lean Way

Since writing this in 2015, I’ve only become more convinced that more startups need to start without a developer. Premature automation and optimization is a huge time suck, and developers are expensive. The last two startups I’ve been with have used off-the-shelf services to create their MVPs, and even now when we want to test something new at The Graide Network, we usually do it manually or semi-manually before we build software around it.

So, if you have an idea, great! I’d love to see you make it happen, but don’t fall into the trap of building something before you know it will sell.

There’s a perception out there that creating a successful tech startup is about nothing more than making a product that by its awesome and paradigm-shifting nature will magically attract customers.

For example, consider the following conversation I had recently:

Would Be Founder: “I want to make an app that suggests outfits for you based on the weather, your personal style, and the season.”

Me: “Sounds awesome! But why not start with a simple email list? That way you can get customers and validate that people will sign up for something like this before you commit to an app. Maybe just get 20 friends in one city to send you preferences, group them into style clusters, and send a few emails every day for a month?”

WBF: “What? You mean do it manually? That would mean I’d have to wake up early every morning and send emails to people and do…work?”

Me: “…”

If you aren’t willing to do work, you shouldn’t be starting a company, even if you think that eventually your technology will make the company so easy to run that a monkey could do it. You can’t start with a product or you’re sure to build something that either (1) nobody wants, (2) nobody will pay for, or (3) sucks.

Bob Dorf reminded me of this

Bob is the coauthor of The Startup Owner’s Manual, and thanks to the people at 1776 here in DC, I got to hear him talk about “Lean Customer Development.”

Lean startup methodology demands that you test your product before you build it, and lean customer development essentially takes that imperative to its next logical step: get a customer before you build it. His advice was to spend as much time as possible in the field, asking questions, and getting real pain points from your potential future customers as possible before spending a dime designing, building, or marketing your product.

It’s something that when you hear it makes so much sense, but yet very few entrepreneurs actually do it this way. So often people insist that they need a product to demo before they talk to customers, and by the time they realize they’ve built something that no one needs, they’re discouraged and out of money or time (time being the most precious of the two).

There are so many tools that there’s no excuse not to test before you hire

You can get people to sign up and commit to pay for a product you haven’t built yet.

Set up a Wufoo or Google Form, make a list of potential customers, and start contacting them. Once you feel like they’re ready to commit, get them to sign up in the form.

Whether your future product is an app, a data mining tool, or a social network, having a list of committed customers to help you as you build your product will go a longer way than any amount of funding you can raise. Once you have customers telling you what they need, your vision for the solution will form. Think in terms of the simplest possible solution, and then move to the complex. For example:

  • If you want to build a real-estate comparison website, start by manually collecting home prices in a specific area and limiting your customers to buyers in that limited space. If people sign up for your manual comparison product, they’ll surely sign up for an automated one once you finish creating it.
  • Say you want to create an advanced home automation solution. Instead of spending tons on R&D to build software that controls all of a home’s devices, why not start with one thing: automatic timer lights. These are cheap and readily available, and you can install and maintain them for your customers as well as teach them how to use them. Once you know there is a demand for these lights, you can start to sell further automation to existing customers rather than starting at step 1 with nothing.

The lean customer development method is almost always better than the product-first method, but the challenge is often figuring out how it applies to your problem and solution. Get creative, research existing tools, and discover the depth of the pain point you’re solving. That’s how you make a tech company without a developer.

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