Launch Festival · Minimum Viable Product

Design, Sell, Raise, then Build?

Alex Littlewood

September 16th, 2013

As a non-technical founder, I cannot build the product I have in mind. Though I have wireframes, and a strong concept of the MVP, I have been torn about the sequence in which i should start this process. Additionally, I do not yet have a tech co-founder, so I am realizing I will likely have to raise and pay salaries to get this going. The sequence I have in mind is as follows, would love your thoughts:
- Design: Based on my vision for an MVP, I would like to have a graphic designer create good mockups of the user experience, possibly even animate some of the functionality. This will make the product/concept feel very real, and can be done much more quickly than coding.
- Sell: I'll use these design mockups to get a few early customers interested and verbally committed to advertising/contributing to the site.
- Raise: With a few key customers "verbally" committed to the concept, I'll raise a Seed round of funding to be used to hire a strong technical lead, as well as any additional development resources that may be needed. 
- Build: Any/all hires will need to be able to write code, but with a team in place, advertisers ready to go, content lined up, we race to get V1 off the ground.

So far this community has been a great place for feedback and resources, thanks in advance for your input. 

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Brent Goldstein

September 16th, 2013

Consider that before you raise you will need some customers/revenue (not necessarily profit) and to get customers you will need more than initial visual mockups. The reason is that a viable minimum product takes going through customer development iterations to find the actual features the customer 'must have' and would actually pay for. Ideally these iterations are with something the customer can use, click through, etc. This can be a real minimum prototype, but a prototype of some kind. If you can get customers to sign-on and actually commit revenue with only visuals, you've got a stellar hit. More often they'll likely say it 'looks interesting', call me when I can use it.

-Brent

Sal Matteis Innovation Policy, Building companies, Helping founders, Mentor at 500 Startups, Seedcamp, Startupbootcamp, Techstars

September 16th, 2013

Alex, 

It's a bit tough to judge the book by its cover because we have no idea what kind of business you are in the process of building.

The one thing I'd advice is this: *Nothing* tramps 'validation' .

Prove that you are solving a real problem shared by many people ( if your goal is to build a sustainable business that can attract capital) before you even start designing anything - ask yourself this question: does anyone want what I am about to build. 

And after you ask that question go out and validate it. A good 90% of validation can happen even before design stage by mean of qualitative data (interviews). 

Before you even start designing and mocking up or engaging other people - do anything you need to prove to yourself that there is a big problem and a large market. 

Too many, companies are started with the idea that a grand vision will turn into a great business. 

You are making a number of  assumptions (some are more risky than others) on problem/solution/market/business model/channels/unique value proposition etc. Start validating the riskiest assumptions before you even get to start. Before you leave your job or seek for a co-founder.


Getting thru validation first will help you in a few ways: 

1) Making sure that you don't waste your time 

2) Validation is the *best* incentive to convince a tech person to join someone. Strong validation doesn't pay for salaries but it will attract the ambitious kind of folks who see potential in working in something that matters.

Happy to discuss off line. 
Sal

Nick Corneil Co-Founder - Trainer+

September 16th, 2013

I agree with the feedback you are getting here and can add some experience of my own, being a BizDev strong, but technically lacking co-founder.  

We started 6 months ago with more domain expertise, customer validation and potential customers than most startups.  The overwhelming feedback we received was that the idea was great and well thought through and the team was exactly what investors look for, but we still could not get a penny without traction.  We were very creative in how we got our MVP built, trading BizDev work for consulting and bootstrapping the company that way, as opposed to hiring contractors or learning the technical side ourselves back when we started.  What we ended up with was an MVP that is days away from completion but no technical team to finish it or maintain it afterwards.  We have now spent the last two months learning more on the technical side to fill the gap ourselves, but wish we would have from the start.  Moreover, being strong in sales and domain expertise, we lined up a number of pre-sales (even got LOI's) as a means to bootstrap if we did not receive investment, but they too want to see traction and LOI's have little value to investors (actually got laughed at when presenting them once).

The lessons learned for us were: 1) You can not raise without traction unless you are a known entity to investors (as Tim pointed out), 2) The only way to make up for the technical hole in the founding team to investors is with traction (screenshots, validation, LOI's are not enough) and 3) You have to convince a technical partner as your first sale (as per Craig), or just learn how to scrap it together yourself (wordpress/twitter bootstrap are great as others here said).  Michael/Paul are on to something, but unfortunately a developer(s) would have to take on a lot of equity projects and hope one breaks for this to be feasible, as Jake has pointed out that good developers don't tend to work for equity.

So, lots of good feedback on here from the others before me, but hopefully this helps you not make the same mistakes that we did.

Fahad Siddiqui

September 16th, 2013

I agree with the general thought process that you have, but I think you'll learn in practice, that it is easier said than done. You will have to show something tangible to sell. 

You will also learn that your understanding on an MVP will be different from what your customers expect. 

You will want to either become technical yourself, and show something that looks like a product. Not sure what your product is, but if you can simulate it on wordpress, you can achieve a lot with very little technical knowledge. 

If you can successfully get to the stage of "Sell", then the rest of it should follow more or less smoothly. 

Helen Adeosun

September 16th, 2013

The one thing that you're missing is testing! My site www.sittercycle.com. You have to be as creative as humanly possible, but there are ways to test every aspect of your business, including design before you raise any money.

It's also not that easy to raise money without showing you are willing to build even a crappy version of whatever you're trying to build, and going to talk to customers FIRST as testers and then engaging them as customers.

But if you don't test, and think about that before selling, you're at risk at falling for the biggest trap which is convincing yourself and others there's a pot of gold where there might not be and building the right product for the customers you have in mind and not your actual customers.

You should also invest some time in building a team and mentors, in fact, approach successful entrepreneurs/investors as mentors and your life will be so much better and your product much better informed.

Helen A

Rob G

September 16th, 2013

hard to give salient advice with such little detail, but it sounds like you are planning to build a website and generate revenue from ads. you will have a very hard time (and you will spend too much time) raising money without traction (i.e. proven user growth and/or paying customers), unless you have recently sold your prior company for several million $$ or you just left FB, Twitter, Google, LinkedIn, etc. with several million $$ in you bank account and you don't need the money.  unless you are a proven successful entrepreneur (successful exits), are wealthy or you have strong tech skills and a Stanford Ph.D. you should focus your energy on building a small team and getting traction before trying to raise money. below is one process i know works:

1. customer validation 
2. mockup MVP:  powerpoint / wordpress.  should be able to sell your vision to co-founders and customers before cutting expensive code.
3. customer validation
4. tweak mockups
5. market validation (a bunch of customers, partners as well as competition, pricing, distribution, etc.)
6. business model development (canvas) - pricing, distribution, competition, partner opportunities, what-if modeling...
7. build a small (2-3 at most) team by selling them on your vision which is based on real market and biz model validation. 
8. build MVP
9. get written commitment from paying customers - checks are good 'written commitment'.
10. get proven market traction from paying customers/partners
11. raise money
12 grow. 

Craig Walmsley MD @ Progenit. Founder @ rtobjects. Locke Scholar.

September 16th, 2013

I hope you can do this - but my guess is that you'd have to get *something* at least half-working first. 

I was once berated at a panel for asking "where can I find technical people to work with on this concept?", the basic response being that if I couldn't persuade a tech-lead to work on this project, how on earth could I persuade someone to give me some actual money to do it?

(Which wasn't what I asked - but whatever...)

That said, do you need a co-founder, or can you hire some v. low cost off-shore dev to string the most basic thing together? - I know some folks who got seed funding on the basis of some very polished design, a working login-in button and a re-assurance that there was more development just around the corner...

Michael Brill Technology startup exec focused on AI-driven products

September 16th, 2013

Absolutely it'll be better... but I'm increasingly believing that an MVP is the new powerpoint.

Michael Brill Technology startup exec focused on AI-driven products

September 16th, 2013

It really is a shame that this community (er, user base) is so discouraged from leveraging each other's capabilities. I could see an awesome service where one or more members could help build an MVP for a non-technical co-founder for some modest piece of equity.

Jake Carlson Software Development Manager at Oracle

September 16th, 2013

Michael/Paul: There are probably plenty of technical people here (myself included) that would help you build an MVP for modest compensation. (In my case I would do contract work for pay over getting a modest piece of equity, though.) Or, just contract with an outside agency to build the MVP. Maybe we just need 'Help Wanted' board on here so it's easier to get the word out?