Wearing the Startup Scarlet Letter
One startup entrepreneur lists 10 things she’s learned in 24 months as the non-technical founder.
By Michele Spiezia (Founder & CEO, Bespoke Atelier)
In the past month or so, a good number of emails have appeared in my inbox, all with the same request — ‘I’m not a ‘tech’ person, but I want to build an app. I heard you built your product using a developer. How do I do it? Where do I start?’ So, what follows is an account of my own experience, and a Letterman-style Top Ten Things I’ve Learned as a Non-Technical Founder. (P.S. — I will not be offended if you skip straight to the Top 10 List)
Market Expertise = Problem Solved, Right?
In the New York startup space, being a ‘Non-Technical Founder’ is to wear the scarlet letter. I mean, the fact that there’s a name for it even! You don’t walk around calling engineers and computer scientists ‘Non-Creative Founders’ or ‘Non-Executive Founders.’ It didn’t make sense to me at all— I have 17 years experience in the creative space, so I decided to build a product that solves a problem that I, my friends, colleagues and probably every other creative on the planet suffers from. Market expertise = problem solved, right? Well, not in their world. When I embarked on the startup scene two years ago, I was taken back when a seemingly normal introduction would take the same turn, every time.
Me: Hi, I’m Michele.
Them: Oh hi, I’m __________.
(insert polite niceties here. If you’d like specifics on how being a female founder affects this portion of the conversation, see here.)
Them: So what do you do?
Me: I’m building a platform for creatives that provides a holistic solution to the creative process.
Me: (reframing) It’s a B2B mobile play for creative SME’s.
Them: Oh cool. So you’re an engineer?
Me: Nope. I’m a lot of things, but engineer isn’t one of them.
Them: Haha. Do you have co-founders?
Me: I do! My husband and I founded the company together.
Them: So he’s the engineer?
Me: Nope. We have an awesome dev team here in NYC that we outsource.
Them: Oh, okay. Have you considered hiring a CTO, or bringing someone onto your team? You’re probably going to need that.
Me: Well, if I was building a house, and knew exactly what type of house I wanted because I’ve lived in houses my whole life, I wouldn’t marry the architect, I’d hire him, right?
Them: (silence) Uh.. yeah. I’m.. gonna go get another drink. Nice to meet you!
I wholeheartedly believe that as a Founder & CEO, it’s your job to find the best talent and the best minds to fill in your (many, many) knowledge gaps. When you’re a bootstrapped startup, outsourcing or subcontracting is typically the ONLY way to make that happen. So, as a ‘Non Technical Founder’ I knew I needed a killer dev team to actually build the thing that existed as a creative utopia in my mind’s eye. I found one, luckily, on the recommendation of a few super smart, tech-minded friends. I hired them.
That was two years ago. I have learned countless lessons (most of them the hard way), and spent enormous amounts of time, energy, and cold hard cash figuring it all out. What follows is a top ten list— an immensely distilled mind dump of the most crucial lessons I’ve learned in the past 24 months with links to some of my favorite posts/videos/etc. It’s abridged. A primer of sorts. And remember, the real work is up to you, and your journey will have it’s own crazy, insane, roller coaster path to chart.
Good luck, my (non-technical) friend.
10. No One is Going to Steal Your Stupid Fucking Idea
This is one of my favorites from Adeo Ressi, and one of the best lessons I learned early on. Don’t be sheepish about telling people what you’re creating. If you don’t tell them, they won’t be able to help you. It’s that simple. Stealth mode is bullshit 99.9 percent of the time.
Tell everyone you meet — it’s your first opportunity to find out if your idea is even worth pursuing, if someone’s already built it, and if you can even articulate what the hell you want to build in the first place. Oh, and when you tell everyone, you need to then shut up and LISTEN to their feedback.
That being said, when you do hire a dev shop, be smart. Get a lawyer and a great contract. Sign an NDA knowing that it’s a fun formality but essentially meaningless, because no one is going to steal your stupid fucking idea. Also, an NDA does NOT entitle you to your code, or specify that you own the code that someone is creating for you. Make sure you have a clearly defined work for hire agreement in your contract, and that you always have access to your code.
9. Keep Your Day Job
I hate to break it to you, but chances are you probably won’t get funded on an idea and a business plan, and if you haven’t already guessed, developers are expensive. The startup funding landscape is extremely competitive, and though if you read enough Tech Crunch you’ll think that money grows on trees, it’s just not true. You will have to at least have a working demo of your product and some people actually using it before an investor will pay any attention your way. School yourself in all things tech & tech funding (yes, you do this in addition to working your day job. Think of it as going to night school after your 9-5’er).
For Bespoke, we put in $120,000 of our own cash, and have currently raised $110,000 in friends in family money. Our platform is eight weeks from launch. We are just starting to get angel investor interest. I spend countless hours creating and nourishing relationships with potentials investors. Then there’s the pitch decks, the executive summaries, the financial projections. Be prepared to be broke, tired and frustrated… for a while — especially if you’re a person that’s had moderate success at being some other type of functioning human being in the workplace.
Initiating your path on the startup road is like changing your major in your senior year — lots of the same skills apply, but few of the credits transfer. If your learning curve looks like a stripper pole instead of a hockey stick, you’re doing it right.
8. Good And Fast Will Not Be Cheap…
… and cheap and fast will not be good, good and cheap will not be fast. Understand this deeply. You are hiring someone to build the thing that lives in your mind’s eye. If they build a crappy version of it, you’re going nowhere. Also note, if they build a crappy version of it, that’s your fault for not articulating it correctly in the first place.
So make sure you negotiate every particle of the deal before you move forward with a team. Will they charge you per feature set or hourly? Are you giving them equity or paying them? How many other projects are they working on? Are they actually coding, or off-shoring to some chick in Taiwan? (That’s a shameless shout out to our developer, Pearl. we ❤ Pearl.) How will you manage deadlines, and missing them? Did you speak to their referrals, and check out some things they’ve built? Check them out on GitHub? Are they simply building what you tell them or do you expect them to locate and identify potential problems?
7. Lost in Translation
If you are not an engineer, a computer scientist, or a project manager, take heed: Developers and dev teams communicate in in their own language, literally and figuratively. Things that seem common sense or obvious to you will not to them and vice versa. Do not make the mistake of thinking that your dev team will make assumptions about your product or how it should work. Do not expect them to see your product from a user perspective, because they probably won’t.
Provide copious amounts of granular information — design mockups, flow charts, wireframes and mock interactions. If you don’t know what any of those things are, Google it and find out before they start coding. Making the project manager your best friend is bonus — this person will act as the lifeline that bridges the gap between your brain and your developer’s brain.
6. Shit Takes a Long Time
My motto is ‘Sooner than you think, later than you want.’ If you’ve ever had the opportunity to do any type of home renovation, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about here. Deadlines are important. Timeline estimates are important. But shit is going to take a long time. Way longer than you expect or want.
Unless you are building a fart app or some widget, coding an app or product platform is extremely complicated. I still am in awe every time my dev team builds something that actually works the way I expected it to, knowing that the beautiful interface in front of me boils down to thousands of lines of 1’s and 0’s. Start to approach dev teams or developers as early as possible, because it can help you test the validity of your idea, and because (trust me) this isn’t a “hire the first person you meet” type of thing. You’re going to build a relationship over a period of time. Better like each other.
5. One-Night Stand or Getting Hitched?
One of the most defining moments of this entire experience for me was the moment at which I realized that I was building a business, not a product. As you can see, I keep talking about my ‘tech startup’ not my ‘app.’
That’s because for months I walked around thinking I was going to create this finite ‘thing’ that would go out into the world and ‘be,’ and then realized in the middle of a dev meeting one cold January afternoon that I was, in fact, the Founder & CEO of a whole new company — one that would grow, and (sooner than later) require all of my attention in order to succeed (ie. I would need to ditch my day job).
I believe there are a few exceptions to this rule, however, an app is something that requires maintenance, updates, user support. It doesn’t live in a vacuum. Think strongly about whether or not you’re in it for a one-night stand or looking to get hitched before you drop your panties to the floor.
4. It Takes a Village
I’ve been asked “Can I do it alone?” I would say, if you’re asking me if you can be a single founder? Absolutely. Full disclosure, my husband has always been my co-founder, and we compliment each other in ways that defy understanding. Personally, I could not have done it without him.
All mushiness aside, even if you are going to be a solo founder, you’re still going to need a team: your developer(s) at least, probably a project manager, maybe a designer (I highly suggest it). Though tiny and parceled together, as we approach launch, our team consists of the following: Myself, Francesco (my co-founder), Eric Kass (our Indiana-based designer), Tiger Party (our dev team, consisting of a CTO, Creative Lead, Project Manager, Lead Engineer and 2nd engineer), Christina, my part-time second set of hands and Jomi, our new intern.
Granted, we are two years in, committed to having a business not a product, and approaching launch. But I’ll bet you get the point.
3. This is Not a 501(c)
Unless you’re looking to start a charity, you’re going to need a business model (i.e., a way to make money). If you don’t have a plan on how to make money, then you better think hard about a team and the investor path, as you’re going to need a hell of a lot of money if you want to build a company that launches now, monetizes later.
You also need a way to support the development of the product until its launch, because there’s a whole iceberg in the sea beneath the tip that is your launch and (hopefully) get customers to pay you. Oh, and be prepared for your business model to change (a lot) as your product moves along the production pipeline and becomes what it is meant to be.
And, just in case you were wondering, Leaders Eat Last. Francesco and I still have not reaped one penny from Bespoke. Not. One. Penny.
2. Atlas Shrugged
Your app is the fun part. Your app is the thing you’re making that’s going to change the world. But there’s a mountain of things that have to get done in concert with building your app/product/business.
You’re going to need a business structure, and definitely a lawyer. You’re going to have to create terms & privacy policies. Do you need a trademark? Who will handle getting the app on its intended platforms for sale/release? How will you handle customer feedback and support? Bug fixes? And don’t forget that your app isn’t going to sell itself. You’re going to need a distribution plan, a sales and marketing strategy and social media outreach.
1. Don’t Jump off the Brooklyn Bridge
My mom said it to me, and I’ve said it to my own son at least a dozen times. Just because it seems everyone else is doing it, doesn’t mean you have to. Why do you want to create it? For whom? (p.s. “for yourself” is not a good enough reason unless you have nothing else to do and are independently wealthy.)
Yes, apps are hot right now. Lots of money is flying around, lots of rags to riches stories. But if you look beneath the surface you’ll see that every one of those founders, technical or not, struggled a shit ton to get their product to market and make it successful. So make sure you really want to do this. Don’t get stuck on a bandwagon that’s going to a destination you’re not interested in, because I can guarantee you it’s making stops in Shit Town, Hell on Earth, and Suicidal Township.
And that’s that. I’m a non-technical founder who’s still standing, 24 months since our first back-of-the-napkin idea, when I was standing right where you are, not knowing a damn thing about what I was in for. Hopefully I’ve shed a speck of light on what you might have in store. I’m always happy to chat with people who have done their homework and are looking for some more specific insight. Get in touch.
This post originally appeared on Medium.