In addition to being the CEO and Founder of Task Pigeon I also put together the daily Startup Soda newsletter and mentor Student Entrepreneurs at the University of Sydney. As a result, I come across a lot of people interested in starting a startup.
While some of these founders/teams have technical skills and are able to build an application themselves, but a lot don’t. This shouldn’t stop people pursuing their idea though, so What’s my advice in these situations?
Well it depends on the individual, but it largely follows one of three tracks:
If you are plugged into the startup ecosystem and have existing relationships with developers then finding a co-founder is often the easiest (and preferred) route.
Option Two (A)
If you are young (i.e. a Uni student) then you have more free time than any other point in your life (regardless of your study load). In which case it’s worth dedicating the time and energy to learning how to code.
Option Two (B)
If you are young and/or don’t have commitments and have time on your side then joining an existing startup is another longer term play to make. In this case you may pick up a junior sales, marketing or operations based role.
Once you join an existing startup you want to hang out with the developers at lunch, after work and attend events. Build relationships in the space now so that in a year or two when you want to launch a startup you have a technical co-founder who is also a friend to do it with.
Not all of us can afford to step down and take a junior role for a few years while we build relationships with developers. On top of that it’s likely that if you are in your late 20’s or early 30’s you have started to bank up a number of commitment such as a partner, mortgage or kids.
While you still can learn to code afterwork and on weekends you have to realise that it’s going to take months, if not years, to become proficient enough to build anything that is complex enough to sell.
In many cases it is the smarter and more cost effective decision to outsource your MVP, get it to market and build the business from there.
Simply put 12 months of your time, is worth more than the $10,000 it may take to get your MVP to market.
This guide is written for people who fall into bucket number 3.
With that out of the way, here’s how you go about building your startups MVP for $10k or less.
First of all, everyone thinks they have great ideas, but that doesn’t matter much if no one is willing to buy whatever it is you are selling. As a result you should validate your idea as much as possible before spending any money on designing or developing your idea.
For example if you are building a B2B tool for Content Marketers then a great place to start is on Linkedin. If you send enough messages you can easily line up 20 or 30 phone/skype conversations with people who work in this role.
When you speak to them you don’t want to pitch your idea directly. You want to ask probing questions to understand what challenges and frustrations they have in their current work environment.
Then ask yourself does your idea/solution solve any of those issues?
Let’s assume that your phone conversations with Content Marketers go well. Of the 20 people you spoke to 15 said they had a pressing issue that your tool solved. Now, it’s time to take the next step in the evolution of your startups development.
The more work you can do here yourself the better. You need to transform your idea into something that people can actually see and feel. Typically you will start with wireframing. Even if you don’t have a design background you can easily do this. Essentially its a rough sketch of how the interface/application will work.
You don’t need to dive into all the nitty gritty. I.e. Focus on the main functions only. There’s no need to wireframe up the settings or payments page just yet.
Once you have the wireframes pick one that is moderately complete and outsource it on a site like Upwork. What you are looking for is UI/UX Designers with experience working with other startups. You will most likely get a number of applications that you will have to weed through. After this you want to select the top 3 proposals and send them that first wireframe to design.
I did this for my startup, Task Pigeon and for less than $100 I got to test the skills of numerous designers. Once the first “test” designs come back, select the Designer that most closely matches your needs/has the best skills and send them the remainding designs to complete.
You now have the basis of your application and can create a landing page to start showcasing your vision. I highly discourage the use of landing page software such as Kickoff Labs, Unbounce, etc.
Because we are a scrappy startup and the price is simply too high. You can buy a HTML theme (with an editing interface) on Themeforest for under $70 or use WordPress where themes cost a similar amount. Add $10 a month for hosting and you will be fine.
This is a much better option than paying $70 to $100+ a month for a landing page creator. Alternatively, as a fall back and if you are not confident with either a HTML or WordPress Theme then use SquareSpace which should set you back only about $15-$20 a month.
While your designs were being completed you should have continued your outreach campaign. Hopefully by now you have spoken to 40 or 50 people, with a good percentage of those indicating that they had a problem you could solve.
Now’s the time to go back to these people. Remember how you didn’t mention your product/solution previously? And were just asking for feedback? Well now is the time to let them know!
A word of caution though. You are not trying to sell to them just yet. You want to go back and say that when we last spoke you identifyed problem ABC. I am developing a solution that solves that issue and would love your feedback.
It’s best to get them on the phone again and send them a link to the landing page while you talk. If not you can use email.
What you are looking for is confirmation that their issue really does exist (i.e. they are interested in hearing how you plan on solving it) and more importantly that they believe your tool looks like it could do the job.
Now at this stage it is only screenshots and a single landing page so they might not be jumping out of their seats to buy it, but you want to hear some pretty positive feedback at this stage.
Let’s say the feedback to your landing page and screenshots has been positive. It looks like this really could be a valuable tool for these content marketers.
This should give you the confidence to spend a little more money finalising a few extra designers or tweaking some of the screenshots with your designer. By this stage in the development of Task Pigeon I had spent about $500 on design.
What these extra designs allow you to do is take them and put them into something like Invision. Even as a non technical founder you should be able to use this tool. You then essentially “link” a button on screen A to an action on screen B.
Congrats, you now have a working demo!
The fifth and final phase of validation I believe you should go through is trying to sell your product/service in advance.
This is easier said than done, but it is still vitally important to try. Typically you will have to offer a discount to get this across the line and give some time-frame/commitment for when it will be released.
If you can’t quite get people there that’s not the end of the world. Look at the process and see if there was an intent to purchase. For example did they go through the entire sign up / checkout phase thinking they were about to pay but then only pull the plug when they realised the app wasn’t available right now?
That still shows intent to purchase and is much more valuable than just collecting email addresses.
Committing To Build Your MVP
Let’s say everything has been going great so far.
You spoke to 50 odd people who identified a real pain point your product could solve.
You created some initial designs of the application that were well received by your target audience.
This gave you the confidence to complete some more designs in order to create a walk through demo of your solution.
Using this you were able to go back to the 50 original people, and a new larger audience, and convenience even just a couple of them to pre-purchase a licence. Or at the very least show an intention to do so.
At this stage you have to make a call on whether or not you are actually going to build this thing. But where do you start?
Outsourcing Your MVP
If you have followed the path above then we already know you are a non-technical founder who is looking to outsource development of your application. Seeing as we are bootstrapped this most likely means you will be outsourcing development offshore. Staying in country (i.e. Australia, US or UK) is simply too expensive if you only have a minimal budget to work with and no cofounder.
As a result you are likely to turn to platforms such as Upwork (here’s the Developers I have worked with – Lisa, Sat and Husik) or Freelancer. The problem is you are going to get an absolute deluge of applications and have no way of understanding who has the technical capabilities to actually build this thing.
When I was building Task Pigeon I was fortunate enough to reach out to my network and have couple of people who were able to advise on the appropriate technologies Task Pigeon should be built on. They also helped review some of the initial applications.
In addition to that I used an application called Devskiller to put potential applicants through a short test and also interviewed them over Skype. Yet despite all this it is easy to make the wrong decision. This costs you both time and money. Plus it can be pretty demoralising to go through a process like this.
A Better Approach To Outsourcing Your MVP
Instead of taking a chance and hoping you get it right a better approach is to find a startup who has been there and done it before. You can then ask them for advice or recommendations.
Just this week I was speaking with another startup founder who was looking to outsource some work. We spoke for over an hour and I was able to share a lot of the things I have learned along the way. In this case it was in regard to outsourcing content writing, but the same holds true for development.
If you reach out to other startup founders you will find that overwhelming they do want to help you and if they can offer advice they will.
The software development agency I ended up working with is called Mapwork. They are based in Armenia which is a huge positive in my eyes. When I was initially doing research into the space the default comment I always got was that you should look to find a software development team in Eastern Europe as opposed to Asia. On average there level of technical skills and proficiency is higher.
On top of that Armenia has a large and growing tech ecosystem. For example my team work out of a Microsoft Innovation Centre that opened in the country and numerous other global tech giants are establishing a presence in the country.
The other thing you need to consider when closing a software development agency is their ability to communicate with you and how interested they are in making sure you succeed. The team I work with at Mapwork are amazing in this regard. First of all they speak excellent English so communication has never been an issue. More importantly though they really do want to see Task Pigeon succeed. Having people who really are commitment to what you are doing is important. You don’t want a development agency that is just going through the motions.
How I Can Help
I’ve been there and done it. I’m a non tech founder who has launched Task Pigeon. We have paying customers and are slowing growing and increasing our number of paid users.
If you are sitting there with a great idea and want some help with working out how to get it off the ground please feel free to contact me. We can tee up a time to speak on the phone. I don’t want, get or expect anything in return. I just like helping other founders.
If there is a fit with any people I know in the startup ecosystem, or with the developers I use at Mapwork I would be happy to make the introduction. I want to see others succeed in the startup ecosystem as well and anything I can do to help shortcut the process or minimise the mistakes is something I want to help with.
Also published on Medium.