I started a search engine company and couldn't code a lick. What I did was co-found with an exceptionally strong pair of developers. I was the business and marketing brain, and they were the coding brains. Eventually, one of the coding brains learned the business side as well. It's easier to teach a coder business than to teach a business person coding.
While you don’t have to be a web developer to start a tech-based company, you’ll definitely have to work with one at some point. And no, it’s not as easy as hiring someone to build your vision and just watching it come to life—you’ll be responsible for finding the right person for your team, instructing them on what, exactly, to develop (ideally, working in a collaborative way), and managing the project along the way.
And throughout this process, there are a few things that many entrepreneurs learn the hard way. Here’s what to know, before you get started.
1.Validate Your Ideas Before You Start Developing
Do you have a great idea for a new product or feature? Your instincts might be to find a developer and get started building right away—but first, it’s important to test whether or not your customers actually want it.
To do this, specify what problem you’re looking to solve (e.g., “we want users to return to the site frequently”). Then, create a measurable hypothesis that you can test to see if your users will actually behave in a way that supports your solution. For example, your hypothesis could be: “Allowing users to post status updates is going to generate an increase in user interactions and user retention.”
Once you’ve done this, create a prototype of the feature you’re looking to build. And you don’t need a developer for this just yet—for an early draft, you can make a clickable demo using PowerPoint or Word, or even use a paper sketch. There are also more advanced prototyping and wireframing tools, such as Axure, Mockingbird, and Balsamiq, which you should get comfortable with if you’re going to be managing a product.
Then—still before getting your developers involved—show your prototype to your customers (or potential customers) and get their feedback. (You can schedule in-person interviews or using online tools like Usabilla or UserTesting.com.) Ask them open-ended questions to gauge their thoughts and interest in the feature, and try to really understand if the solution is exciting them or solving a pain point. And if so? Only then is it time to move on to actually building something.
2. Hire and Build a Great Dev Team
Hiring the right people is necessary in any organization, but when you’re hiring someone that’s building your product and bringing your vision to life—well, it’s paramount.
Here is the most valuable hiring lesson I’ve learned: Hire for DNA first, and for work experience second. Make a list of the characteristics that you value as a company, or your “DNA” (i.e., relentless drive, will get the job done no matter what, sense of humor)—then, make sure the person you’re interviewing or talking to matches most of the items you came up with.
What’s equally important is to hire people with aptitude, not a particular skill set. In the tech space, skills become obsolete every two years, so it’s better to hire people who are able to learn new technologies (and ideally, have a track record of doing so) rather than people who happen to know how to do something specific now. Remember, this person will ideally be with you for the long haul, and you want to make sure he or she is a great match both now and later.
3. Manage the Project Every Step of the Way
Finally, be involved in the building of your product. A common mistake I see people make: A founder will ship product specs off to a developer, trusting that everything will be done the way the founder sees it in her head, and only check back in when the final product is ready.
This is a recipe for disaster. If you take this hands-off approach, more often than not you’ll find your site or product not implemented the way you had envisioned. Maybe your directions were unclear, maybe they were actually impossible to implement technically, maybe your developer just misunderstood. But regardless of why it happens—this is a situation you’d rather just avoid altogether. Believe me, it is much easier to stay on top of the development process along the way than it is to have to go back and fix things later—or worse, start over!
A better approach is to use “Agile Project Management,” a common method of planning and guiding a technical project. An agile project is completed in small sections called iterations or sprints (daily, weekly, or within two weeks, max). After a developer or development team completes an iteration, it is reviewed and critiqued by other members of the project team.
The main benefit of agile project management is the ability to respond to issues as they arise. You will be able to keep track of whether or not the project is going according to plan, understand what changes are necessary, and ultimately, help deliver a successful project on time and on budget.
Want to learn more? Join me September 20-21 for the TechSpeak for Entrepreneurs event, where you’ll get the tech knowledge you need start and run your company.