With Startup Loans now available via Dreamstake, it’s time to build your beta version or “minimum viable product”.
SO WHAT DO I BUILD ?
(“It needs to be like ebay. And Amazon. And also like Facebook. But better.”)
You probably have a great vision for your startup. Depending on complexity, your team size, skills and disposable time and budget your beta might represent a small sub set of where you are trying to get to, or it might be quite close to your vision for the finished product. To find out where you are standing, create a list of all the features you want, and try to mock up how the user experience will look like. Then you should prioritise which features will make it into your “beta”; do it carefully, use a cost-benefit-analysis for each item. Don’t spend lots of effort on a minor feature that people will rarely use, and don’t remove that one core feature which was the reason for conceiving your startup in the first place. Always go back to your initial “30 second pitch” to double-check that what you are trying to build still meets that objective. Better have a few features that work than many features that don’t. Developers are usually bad at making these decisions, because they like the challenge of building the most complicated things first, whereas your “beta wish list” should be driven by business reasons.
Your team – INVALUABLE !
Just because you are at an “early stage” doesn’t mean you can do it by yourself. Dreamstake looks at the “skill mix” in your team, and if it’s just you in your startup then it’s unlikely that you can cover all five areas (tech, design, business, marketing & sales, and management). You are now wondering “Hey, I can build Android apps, what else do I need for an MVP ?” – or “I have done SEO and marketing for huge corporate ABC, so I can do it for my startup”. But even at this stage you want something that looks good and is usable (design), that has a target market (business), and has an agreed and feasible feature set and future road map (business, management), you need to know who to show your “beta” to and analyse feedback (business), and maybe cleverly use it to build a first group of future customers (sales & marketing). Still think you can do it alone ?
If you don’t have co-founders or other team members yet, reach out to experts, advisors and people who have done it before, and try to get the help and answers you need.
“Can it be built for £5000 / £10000 / £20000 ?”
If you don’t have technical development skills in your team, the technical implementation will be a major cost factor, as you will need to find someone external to do it.
You need to look at technical implementation effort in conjunction with your feature wish list, and get costings from an expert. The results might make you change some of the priorities, moving things into scope or out of scope of your “beta”. Be especially wary when trying to integrate with complex external systems (getting info or sending info to banks, retailers, airlines, insurance companies, shopping and booking systems etc).
“Do I need a tech co-founder / CTO ?”
One of the biggest topics for startups seems to be the lack of technical co-founders or team members (or rather the overwhelmingly big choice of startup projects for developers to choose from). Clearly in the ideal world you should have technical skills in your team. But not having a tech person in your team will not prevent you from getting a “beta”. It might slow you down, require some learning, add unexpected management work, and could make you lose a lot of money if you end up with the wrong external service provider. There are endless stories about outsourcing going wrong. Observing these stories in more detail often reveals two main problems:
(1) It’s very difficult for someone non-technical to manage technical resources. If they are far away, that typically increases the problem. There will be misunderstandings and wrong assumptions, often leading to a poor quality product being developed, or even complete failure, with development being abandoned.
(2) Getting someone from a resource marketplace like oDesk or PeoplePerHour looks like a wonderful solution but is also risky; despite the recommendations found on such websites you will find various levels of skill, motivation, reliability and quality. The bigger the task, the riskier it gets, and committing Thousands of Pounds for developing websites and apps is different from relatively predictable tasks like logo design or a one-page translation. A good approach could be to test such a resource on a very small project first, to then gradually build up a working relationship and trust.
When trying to locate and work with external service providers, whether UK-based contractors or someone far away, I always recommend to have someone in the UK to manage them, someone who is experienced in managing such resources, and can successfully interface between the non-technical startup founder(s) and the technical resources. This at first might look like an additional cost and additional layer of complexity, but it will greatly help non-technical founders to reduce their risk and free up their time to spend on other important tasks.
“Someone from Kazakhstan said he/she can do it for $600″
Getting a UK-based IT contractor to work on your mobile app will make your budget disappear in days rather than weeks or months. Rates vary a lot depending on skill set and depth of experience, but with a typical budget for a beta in the range of £5000 to £25000 you are unlikely to get far with someone charging UK technical contractor rates (let’s say £250-£500 per day). Which makes it difficult to ignore proposals from Kazakhstan (or elsewhere) when they come at a fraction of the UK cost. But please remember the risks and very much obligatory UK-based management outlined above. If someone offers you a fixed price for development work without knowing and understanding your exact requirements there is likely to be a problem. A big one.
“Should I learn how to build it myself ?”
No. Unless you are already “technical” and are just lacking a particular new technical skill. As a non-technical co-founder you have to cover the other four skill areas (business, design, management, sales & marketing) already, and you have to keep the overview, provide leadership and strategy, talk with investors and “sell” your startup. Which is unlikely to happen if you are suddenly spending your time learning “Web development with jQuery and Ruby on Rails” (chapter 17: logging in) [book 3 of 9].
PLATFORM – A MINEFIELD (or for Londoners: “Mind the gap”)
It’s tempting to use platforms like WordPress (or even Drupal or Joomla) to build your solution, as that gives you a lot of features and styling templates “out of the box”, but don’t end up with an “empty shell” website, as adding custom functionality and “user journeys” can be rather complex, and will require an experienced developer. Instead of building your own solution you will be spending time exploring someone else’s solution before being able to implement meaningful changes.
Ask others for recommendations, what kind of tools and platform have they used ?
Stay away from “website in a box” solutions like the ones offered by some web hosting providers, especially the ones that contain advertising. They are typically not flexible enough even for the limited feature set you are looking for, and having advertising on there will be embarrassing and unprofessional. Use free stuff wherever you can, but sometimes paying $10 for a plugin helps if it saves you work and avoids “re-inventing the wheel”.
UI/UX Design Tools – FREE !
Google search shows you all kinds of free “mockup builder” / “prototyping” / “UI/UX” tools. These can help greatly to experiment with the user interface for your website or app. Don’t use tools that are too complicated; often you can bring your point across by drawing something by hand or doing it using some boxes in PowerPoint.
Keep in mind that these tools usually don’t build you a fully functional website; they are just to visualise how your screens and user journeys might look like, and sometimes generate some code for you to be used for “front end” development work later. No need to buy tools for this at this stage, because even the premium ones do not do wonders and do not automatically build fully-functional products for you.
HOSTING – CHEAP or FREE !
Be careful with free or ultra-cheap hosting offers, as you don’t want horribly slow performance, loss of data or embarrassing popup advertising just when showcasing your invention to potential investors, are at a pitch event or after inviting 500 beta testers. There are reasonable cheap hosting offers for £10 per month that will get you started.
If you want something more powerful and flexible, check out the fantastic free hosting offer from Rackspace which is available to Dreamstake members with a startup DreamRate of 100 or above.
Testing – FREE !
Have your website / app tested. But NOT by the person who built it. Developers will not locate the bugs and usability issues they have overlooked before. Use both “ordinary” users who know nothing about your startup idea, and use someone experienced, with an eye for detail, someone who enjoys breaking things. Both user groups will encounter completely different types of problems. The first group will alert you when they simply don’t understand how to use your product. The second group will find scenarios and types of input you haven’t thought about, and are probably crashing whatever you have built. Important that they are able to describe what exactly they did, so you can re-create the scenario to fix it. Many people will happily volunteer as beta testers, but only very few will actually provide you with useful feedback. Good to use someone you know personally, or give an incentive to participate. Make sure you ask beta users for feedback. Do a survey – FREE ! For example www.surveymonkey.com/
See what your users are doing – FREE !
Add analytics so you can see what users are actually doing. For example www.google.co.uk/analytics/
“I have a great developer but we still have questions.”
Making strategic decisions about technologies, implementation approaches, resourcing, scalability and internationalisation often require experience beyond the typical first time startup team. As usual, ask someone who knows. Try asking other Dreamstake members. Post something in the Dreamstake forum. Try the Dreamstake Technology Advisory service http://www.dreamstake.net/services/technology-advisory
Ralph Stenzel – Co-Founder & CTO of Dreamstake (www.dreamstake.net)
For the past 18 years Ralph (@amazingsquirrel) has been building and managing teams and platforms and has been translating between technical geeks and business people in both corporate and startup environments. Apart from Dreamstake, his portfolio includes roles at Deloitte, Siemens and Reed Elsevier as well as startups Shopitize, Wink’d and Yulpa.com.