So you’ve got a killer idea for a mobile app or tech product, and you want to build it. But… you don’t know much about design or development. And you're not sure how to launch without a technical cofounder. Sadly, lots of people give up right there. You really don’t have to, though.
One option: learn to build. Kevin Systrom, founder of Instagram, famously learned to code so he could build the first prototype himself. Cool story, bro. But you’ve probably got a day job and enough on your plate already, so chances are you don’t wanna go that route.
The other option: get some technical help. For most would-be founders without a technical background, this makes way more sense. It’s rare that one person has both the technical chops and the business acumen to ideate, design, build, launch and market a tech product . So if you’re the non-technical half of the equation, you've got two options. Either you can try to find a technical cofounder, or pay for development help.
If this is the fork in the road you find yourself at, this article is for you.
Here at Input Logic, we work with startup founders with all sorts of backgrounds. We’ve helped design and develop a ton of products that might never otherwise have seen the light of day. We’ve learned a thing or two along the way. For this piece, we also spoke with some non-technical founders who’ve actually launched startups. They share their words of wisdom, and advice they wish they’d known when getting started.
In short, there are five critical things you need to get right:
- Define your problem
- Get to MVP, ASAP
- Develop a brand
- Set a launch strategy
- Bring on a senior technical hire when you’re ready
Your goal: to get from idea to launch, and onto a successful trajectory.
We’ll walk you through your options, and some actionable steps you can take to get your startup off the ground.
Let’s get into it!
1. Define your problem
This stage is critical. You don’t necessarily need technical help at this point, but you do need outside input. Eric Franzo created and launched Purposely before bringing on a technical cofounder. This made defining the initial scope a little challenging. “I had too large of an idea,” he told us. “When we ended up bringing a CTO on, he was super good at honing in on the main value. But when I started I had this gargantuan thing.”
Development work, by nature, requires ruthless prioritization and structured thinking. So someone with a technical orientation can often be really good at helping with problem definition. If you don’t have a technical cofounder, that’s okay. But it’s definitely wise to spend some serious time validating your problem. Talk to potential customers, and people with experience building and setting product strategy.
Questions you need to answer, with total clarity:
- Who’s your target customer?
- What, precisely, is their problem?
- How are you going to solve it?
- Why is your solution going to be better than anyone else’s? (In other words, what’s your competitive advantage?)
- Who would your competitors be? (If there aren’t any you can think of, why not? There might be a good reason for that.)
- How will you make money?
- Can you validate this idea with real target customers?
Getting outside perspectives is vital at this stage, before you spend precious time and resources building. Your goal is to zero in on a narrow, precise definition of your target customer, the problem, and your solution. From there, you should have a clear picture of what your business model will be, too.
Plenty has been written about this process so we won’t dive too far into it, but remember: Without a technical cofounder to help you refine your idea and build an MVP plan, it's even more important to get direct, honest feedback from customers and good product strategists.
2. Get to MVP, ASAP
Whether or not you’re working with a technical cofounder, you’ll want to get an MVP launched as soon as you can. That way, you can start a rapid feedback loop process, where real user behavior helps inform each step of your design and development work.
The key to developing an MVP is having a crystal clear idea of the problem you’re trying to solve, and for whom (see step 1). Then you need to distill that idea into the most basic version of your product possible. Deciding what not to build at this point is even more important than deciding what to build.
Another way to think about this: if you knew you only had x number of weeks to make this happen, what would you decide to do for the MVP?
Hack it together yourself
Maybe you can manually replicate most of the functionality of your ideal product without any technical help whatsoever. Rodolphe Dutel, founder of Remotive, managed to launch by building a workflow from a combination of SaaS tools.
Rodolphe was still working full time at Buffer when he started a newsletter about remote work in 2014. Next, he used a basic Typeform and an email-capture one pager to get his remote job board going. For a year and a half, this worked just great. He then built a very basic job board managed by an Airtable, mirrored on a simple HTML page. By the time he added a technical cofounder, Remotive was profitable, and Rodolphe was a few years into running his business.
The advantage of this approach? It makes you focus. “At the beginning I was highly dependent on other people to help update the website,” Rodolphe says. “I couldn’t have a fancy dashboard, couldn’t handle support tickets. If anyone wanted something from me, I had to think about whether it was feasible for my non-technical-self to do it.”
Plus, it allowed him to keep costs low while validating the idea. “I didn’t have to think about how to pay for my cofounder’s salary, because that wasn’t feasible at the time,” he told us. Crucially, “having a cofounder would’ve set me on a different path. We would’ve had to sprint to get revenue, or raise money. It wouldn’t have been a community play. I would’ve had to think about revenue and make it profitable ASAP, which wasn’t the objective at the time.”
Rodolphe was able to build momentum for Remotive before quitting his job, hiring a technical cofounder, and going all in. He did this by validating his idea, hacking tools together, and maintaining ruthless focus early on.
But what if the type of product you want to build really does need technical help in order to launch?
Or hire some help
If you're looking to hire help to build your product, it’s vital that you pick the right person or team.
One option is to hire a developer. This is a perfectly viable route, and will usually cost less in the short-term than working with an agency or product studio. It’s important to ask yourself, though: is this person an expert at building the type of product that I’m working on? How well-rounded is their skill-set? Have they built for this particular platform before? Am I still going to need to hire more people to get this off the ground?
When it comes to working with a product studio, “the downside is the cost,” Eric told us. “But the tradeoff is that you’re getting a lot of expertise and a well-rounded set of voices. You’re getting much more than you would get working with a single person. A lot of that experience shines through. You’re pulling expertise from 5-6 people, whereas a technical cofounder has one experience.”
A good studio will be able to assist you not just with development, but also design, UX, and product and growth strategy. Even short sprints in each of these areas can radically improve the chances that your product will be successful. They'll get you on a faster path to revenue growth and reduce the amount of development time, effort and investment needed down the road.
By building a focused scope with a product studio, you can reduce your time to launch and start iterating faster. Having help with product and growth strategy early on means you’re more likely to build the right features first. You’ll also be able to launch with a strong initial customer journey, with the right analytics tracking and testing plan in place.
And while you don’t want to get too far into the weeds when launching an MVP, some initial UX and UI design can go a long way to helping you build initial traction. You only get one shot at a first impression. A clean, simple, easy-to-use interface will make it way easier to win over those initial customers.
What about just hiring a handful of third party people from Upwork and manage them yourself? Sure, but remember, that requires a ton of coordination and technical knowledge on your part. Plus, none of these functions happen in a vacuum. UX and growth strategy inform development deliverables. Development constraints inform design. Design informs UX. (And so on, you get the idea.)
If it’s possible, it might also be tempting to try to skip the cash investment altogether and offer equity to a developer you know in lieu of payment. This can work, if you can find someone great who’s open to it. But you want to be sure that this person is the right one to be building your product. In the end, any percentage of $0 is still $0. Sometimes a better option is to get help from a full-service studio with your MVP, and then bring on development help to iterate from there. Working with one team is often the most cost-effective way to ensure that all these pieces work harmoniously together. You want to avoid redundant work, cost overruns, or multiple stakeholders pulling your project in different directions.
If you decide to go the product agency / studio route, remember that flashy and fancy is not always better! You want a team that does beautiful work. But you also want them to keep you on track, streamline the work, and help you avoid wasteful detours so you can launch on time.
If you're interested in working with a product studio but nervous about going all-in, one option is to start with a trial run. You can work with your agency partner on a very limited scope (say, design), which will give you insight into what it'd be like to work together before you invest in the full product build.
3. Develop a brand
When you’re launching a business, you’ve got to build a brand. That doesn’t just mean ‘design a logo.' A brand is the look, feel and tone of every interaction a customer has with your business, from the product itself right through to their conversations with you and your team. When you’re launching lean and mean, you don’t want to invest an insane amount of time and money here. But remember: intentionally “not having a brand” is still a brand. It’s just not a very good one.
You can always find a good designer and a copywriter to help you cobble together the basics as a starting point. Better still, if you’re working with a product agency, you can also get them to build some brand identity work into your project plan. The advantage of this? You don’t need to spend time and money trying to coordinate conversations between your designer, writer, and developer. Instead, the studio team will collaborate together and ensure that all the pieces make sense visually, technically and strategically, right from the get-go.
To keep this phase light and ultra-focused, worry only about the basics:
- A good name (catchy, memorable, marketable, easy to spell and pronounce)
- A logo
- A small color palette
- Basic fonts
- Simple tone of voice (Upscale and serious? Fun and friendly? Edgy and irreverent?)
- A handful of image assets to work with
4. Set a launch strategy
This is where the rubber hits the road. It’s a lot of work to build a new product. There’s nothing worse than hitting 'launch' and ... nothing happens.
The truth is, building up a strong user base almost always takes time. But you can radically shorten the amount of time it takes by being super strategic about what your MVP includes, like we’ve already discussed. And no matter what, you need a good launch strategy.
What should a launch strategy include? The short answer is: it depends. The longer answer? Even before you spend a dollar on advertising, there are a few things you’ll want to have in place:
Momentum already happening
For you, that might mean an eager set of alpha or beta users who are already loving your product, providing feedback, and telling everyone they know. It might mean a big email list of people who can’t wait to try it. It might mean one mega-customer who’s excited to get going. What do these things have in common? Planning and preparation well before your launch date.
At the very beginning when you're validating your problem, find some initial people who are thrilled to try your product. They’re not only valuable for helping you define your product strategy. They’re also the perfect people to solicit feedback from throughout this whole process. Ask them to provide rave reviews before you launch, then use their testimonials everywhere you're promoting your product.
The necessary framework to help you grow rapidly
Unless you feel like lighting a big pile of cash on fire, you’ll want to have a tight growth loop in place before you launch. What does this mean? At the most basic level, you want to have some clearly defined customer journeys. These should help users get value from your product, get excited, and then share it with someone else. A good product studio or growth marketer will help you bake this into your product strategy.
What are the key moments that we want a user to get to? When will they get excited? What action can we take to get them to share it with friends, and get value in return? (For example, can they get a discount or a free month for every friend they refer?) This process is different for every product, and usually takes testing over time to really get it right.
You should plan exactly what these moments are, track them with analytics, and have a testing plan in place to help optimize them in the future.
The advantage? The better you nail this, the more likely users are to stick around when they first try your product. The more the likely they are to invite friends. The less money, in turn, it’ll cost you to grow your user base. (And the shorter the path to profitability.)
Some basic Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
You don’t need to go crazy here at the beginning. But be sure that you’re discoverable when people are searching. At very least, be sure that your website (or marketing site, if you’re launching only an app) has the right meta tags and good copy, rich with keywords. A marketer with SEO experience, or a strong product studio, will help you ensure this is all set up properly.
If you’re launching an app: think about App Store Optimization (ASO)
Whether you’re launching in the iOS App Store, the Google Play Store, or both, there are some simple things you can do to help your app be discoverable. Make sure you’ve got the right keywords in place, use really strong marketing copy, and have clear, compelling images and videos set up tailored to each app store. If you’re selling your app for a fee or if you’ve got In-App Purchases, it’s worth spending some time to configure these properly and clearly communicate why someone would want to pay. Again, a good marketer with ASO experience or a strong product studio will be able to help you out.
5. Bring on a senior technical hire when you’re ready
Choosing the timing
How do you know when you’re ready to bring on a technical cofounder or executive? For Rodolphe, it was pretty simple. “I had reached the local maximum of what I call ‘being a no-coder.’ Either I could do a community play, which was fine but not what excited me most, or I could find someone who shared my ambition. I was approaching $100K/year in sales, and thought, ‘how to go from $100K - $200K? There was no question about it.”
If you get external help building your product, you might find that the timing is right pretty quickly post-launch. Eric at Purposely worked with us at Input Logic to build out his MVP, and then brought on a CTO (who he met through friends) shortly thereafter. By that point, the product was launched and ready for iteration and expansion, and he had hired some junior technical staff who needed managing. “The relationship with Input was great,” he says. “When we brought on our CTO they were more than willing to help make that process smooth, and help with the transition.”
Finding the right person
It’s not easy to find the right technical cofounder. Most non-technical founders we know met their counterparts either working together in the past, or serendipitously through connections. Deciding to bring on a CTO or technical cofounder is a big move, and choosing the right person is critical. (It’s basically like getting married — you’re committing to work closely together for an indefinite amount of time, through the ups and downs of building and growing a business.)
If you don’t already have strong connections in the tech industry, the process of building your product with hired help or a product studio can help expand your network.
Even if you launch with SaaS tools and avoid or limit development work altogether, like Rodolphe did with Remotive, you’ll likely find yourself encountering plenty of great technical people on your journey as a startup founder.
If you haven’t met the right technical cofounder just yet, don’t give up, and don't feel rushed. There are plenty of paths to launch that don’t require you to find the perfect technical cofounder right at the start!
Launching a successful startup is hard, but even without a technical cofounder it’s absolutely possible. “Be clear about what you want,” says Rodolphe. “Understand what you need. It’s never been easier. Coding is good, but there’s no point using a tank to kill a fly. Remotive is 75-80% commercial, and 20-25% technical. There’s no point to be super heavy in tech when we know it’s a commercial play, with some tech. If you do deep AI, robotics, etc., then sure, have technical cofounders. Else, think about it twice.”
Sometimes the best route is to get great help, get an MVP launched, and bring on technical talent as you're ready to iterate and grow.
If you need help, ideally you want to find one trusted group of people who have done this before. Look for people that can help you with:
- problem definition
- roadmap planning
- feature prioritization
- user research
- growth strategy
- brand development
- UI and UX design; and
- your launch!
Here at Input Logic, this is what we do. If you're looking for help getting your startup off the ground, get in touch below!