You don’t have to be a real tech geek to have an idea for a high tech business. Not anymore. A hypothesis: when it comes to high-tech business ideas, non-technical people have recently outnumbered the beloved geeks.
However, ideas are still dime a dozen, and the real difference is in the ability to execute. And here, the techies still have the upper hand.
So, dear non-technical founder, this one is for you.
It is difficult to know what you don’t know, but this is exactly your job. Yes, you know you cannot program. But often, you make wrong assumptions: stuff that’s actually easy to implement seems difficult – or more often – stuff you think is easy is actually quite a challenge. You might be blocked by something that can be easily implemented by customizing a CMS (a content management system, e.g. Drupal). Or you imagine a “simple technical solution” that would require a PhD 4 years to research – only to build a proof of concept worth a few scientific papers, but not ready for use in real life. I’m not kidding, I heard the phrase “we’ll use artificial intelligence to <insert a fancy feature>” a few times too many.
And that’s okay. No problem with making assumptions – if you are aware there is a high chance you’re wrong. Say it with me. “I am <Alice/Bob>, and I lack technical skills”. Now, let’s do something about it.
Treat your Product Ideas as Hypotheses and Test Them for Technical Feasibility
The first thing to do is to specify your product in as much detail as possible. It may seem clear in your mind, but trust me, there is a long way to walk from your imagination to an implementable product.
Write down a description of your product, in as much detail as you can. Begin by describing the different “stakeholders” – different types of users, and other people involved in the process around your product. Write down their major objectives. Describe how your product helps them achieve their objectives. Describe their interactions. Draw a scheme of their typical workflow and how your product fits in. Write down what type of information your product will need.
Then draw wireframes - simple visual blueprints of your product, “screens”. Show what users of your product should see, and what they can do. Think about the navigation flows between different screens. This post gives you a quick intro, and lists 10 tools you can use to create wireframes.
Armed with your product description, you can now start getting feedback. Go through your product description, step by step, with a technical friend. Or pay a professional to provide you with an estimate. They will ask you many relevant questions you did not think about. They will suggest simpler (or more feasible) alternatives. Get several opinions.
Don’t Wait for the Product to be Built to Show it to Potential Users
Now you can start working on making a set of screens that look as close as possible to a real product – a product mock.
Don’t wait for the product to be implemented to learn if your customers would want to use it and pay for it. Now that you have your product mock, go out and show it to as many people as you can to see if you’re on the right track.
Nothing can replace real people using a real implemented product. The point here is that in this early phase you may be significantly off.
Guarantee: walking through the product mock with your customers is guaranteed to save you from investing in wrong features.
Seek a Technical Co-Founder. Or Not
First of all, evaluate if you really need a technical co-founder. It may turn out your business is not that high tech after all. Sometimes, the technical part of your business is something that can be:
- Implemented with a <20K budget
- Built by using an out-of-the-box service or technology (e.g. e-commerce shops offered by a service like shopify, social networks like Ning, e-learning systems…)
- Made by partly configuring and partly programming what’s missing (CMS systems like Drupal have large communities of developers who can do this for you)
You should have already figured this out while talking to your technical friends. Take also into account product evolution - how important will it be to continuously crank out improvements and new features.
If your business is all about the product, you’ll have two options. Your first option is to outsource your development. Equipped with your product specification and some cash, go out and tender. Watch out: choosing a good technical partner, and managing the development process is very difficult without technical knowledge. Be prepared to pay well. If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.
Your second option is to find a super smart rock star developer and convince them to join. You’ll find lots of advice online on seeking technical co-founders. There’s no room here to repeat it, but please do your research first! You’ll even find some directories, like techcofounder.com. Although, think of co-fundership as a marriage with children – your company. In the best case scenario, you have already worked with your co-founder before starting the company together.
But do not make this your first step. The worst mindset you can have is “let me find someone to just program the thing, and then I can begin building the (real) business around it”. This is asking the developer, who knows less about your business and its potential – to take all the risk. There’s much you should do:
- Go out and talk to as many customers as you can. Show you have found something relevant customers are willing to pay for, and you have found a clever way to reach them en masse
- Do your homework. Perform research. How big can your business be? What is the competition like and how do you differentiate? What will be your longer term competitive advantage?
- Work hard on developing your idea by getting as much feedback as possible
- Based on the screens you have created, perform some usability testing. It ain’t rocket surgery
- Seek funding. You’ll want to pay your partner (and maybe yourself) if you really want to commit to making this work
- Having said that: commit, quit your job, or get a part time deal
Don’t agree? Have other ideas? Let’s help the non-technical founders change the world – add your thoughts in the comment section below.