Software development · Building a team

Software community lab?

David Schwartz Multi-Platform (Desktop+Mobile) Rapid Prototyping + Dev, Tool Dev

April 8th, 2015

Sorry, this is a long post. Please bear with me. I'm a software developer with 30+ years of experience. I'm reading all of these questions about how people can find a "tech" or "software" person as a co-founder, and want to cringe. Terminology is a big problem here, as well as a fundamental misunderstanding about software developers. I'd like to address that briefly, then describe an idea I just came up with to help solve the bigger problem and get your feedback on it.

Experienced software people come in two flavors: (1) people who program for a living and won't work for free; and (2) people who are very creative, have enough ideas of their own to work on for three lifetimes, and may be having trouble paying their bills. You won't get either one to partner with you for 100% equity! The first group just won't do it. The second group can't afford to, and even if they could, you're fooling yourself if you think you can convince them to invest a bunch of time and resources in YOUR idea (in which they have zero control) rather than invest the same time and resources in one of their OWN ideas (in which they have 100% control).

As an aside, these are the same people you're worried about stealing your ideas. Even if they did, they wouldn't be able to do anything with them. They're generally harmless in this respect. (We think, "My ideas are FAR BETTER than yours, anyway!" However this statement occurs to you, it's a big impediment to us stealing your ideas.)

What's left for you to choose from is retirees; near-retirees; unemployed people who are broke; and young turks who have very little overhead (they may be living with their parents), very little experience, and very little ability to advise you about the breadth of technical issues your idea may encounter. So they're not going to be good candidates to act as a "business partner" or "co-founder". Maybe a "coder".

Anyway, what I find most folks need is not a co-founder, but a rapid prototype of their software that acts as a proof-of-concept and moves them further down the road.

So I came up with this idea for creating some kind of "Software Development Lab" that operates like the model used by Tech Shop. However, instead of having a bunch of expensive mechanical tools there for use by the community, there would be a small staff of software experts who can help you flesh out your idea, write up design documents, and whip out functional prototypes in a matter of days or a week.

The Lab is "Community funded" somehow, and the staff is paid a modest amount to be available to consult with members who need help, as well as create software. (The staff would also be available for direct hire on an hourly basis.) The software they build isn't like full products that take months to build; rather, it's quick-turn proof-of-concept prototypes that are semi-functional -- enough to look and work ok, but not production quality.

The work itself is done on a kind of "pay it forward" basis where there's an expectation that any immediate funding you get will include some monies to reimburse the Lab, as well as some equity the Lab gets to benefit from your future growth.

This is different from most incubators in that the Lab isn't being "incubated". It's a resource for startups to use BEFORE they get to the incubation stage. And the Lab isn't helping with the startup in an end-to-end sense; rather, it's just helping the non-techie founders explore the technical side of their product in far greater depth than they could get from kids with little real-life experience, as well as get access to quick-turn prototypes built by experts.

So what do you guys think of such a service? Would it fit for your needs (as opposed to other things you may have considered).

The pink elephant in the room, of course, is how does this get funded? We'd be looking at around $400k per year for a staff of 4-6 people per Lab, plus office space. Startups cannot pay for these services at this point in their evolution. After a year or so, I'd expect that there would be enough startups that got enough funding to start repaying their costs, so it could become self-sustaining. But what parties would have enough of an interest to provide initial funding?

Adam Darrow Business Analyst by day; stress coach

April 8th, 2015

Alan Peters. "Finding someone to develop your idea".  To me it's not the finding part that you should cringe from, it's the developing my idea part.  I, personally, am looking for developers who are passionate about the problem/solution I'm focused on.  It may be hard for people to understand, but even though developers are in short supply, that doesn't stop me from being selective.  Why would a business developer want to partner with a developer who isn't passionate about the idea.  Anyway, that's what makes me cringe. 

Rob G

April 8th, 2015

this is a great topic, thanks David: like most entrepreneurs i have my own take on this :0 so here goes:

The lab would function somewhat like a 'maker space' for software-based business models - along the lines of Rackspace/AWS + some scalable, dedicated technical services. Non-tech teams would use the lab's SaaS/PaaS tools to build their MVPs with some level of assistance/training/support from the lab. This would be a paid service. Upon completion of a working MVP the lab and non-tech team would have a much better feel for the skills and drive and capabilities of the other team and the viability of the 'idea' and tech services. Both parties would be in a better position to decide how to scale. The lab might take on a bigger role in scaling and supporting the business going forward with paid services and equity or the business might attract their own tech talent/investment and scale on their own using lab's infrastructure and tools (or not). If done right the lab could attract investment and resources from a variety of sources. Here are some napkin notes:

Basic market dynamics make it clear that we have a high demand and low supply of developer talent willing to join startups at the earliest stages (those started by non-tech founders). I don't see the demand decreasing any time soon. So that means the only viable solution is to increase supply - we have to make development tools that are usable by non-technical people. The US seems to be incapable of increasing the supply (of tech talent) - we simply seem to be incapable of getting enough students interested in engineering and science at an early age who also have the DNA to be successful coders. And we seem to be unwilling to address the issue through immigration policy. Offshoring is good supplement, but it has its challenges and limitations. So here's my suggestion - and one that, if done right, can make the lab attractive for external funding.

1. put the onus on the non-tech team to build and prove the product/market fit. to do this the lab would provide (build or extend existing) tools that non-coders can use to build functioning MVPs. A 'functioning MVP' in this model actually works and can support some basic level of beta users and early adopters. Value prop: it goes beyond a business plan or power point pitch to prove to the lab that it is worth the time and equity to take on the non-tech team and their prototype to help get it to the next level.
2. These tools might look something like Phone gap, Twitter Bootstrap, Excel, etc.. A non-coder should be able to build something that functions like a Db in, say, Excel or Google sheets. I know of a Seattle team that is doing this now as part of a mobile app: They have a very strong technical team. The non-tech team should be able to build something that functions like business logic in a tool like Visio or Lucid Charts. They should be able to build a UI in something like photoshop or one of several UI mockup tools.
3. provide these tools in a SaaS/PaaS type model so that the MVPs that the non-tech teams produce have some reasonably manageable technical boundaries (the tech tool set is something the lab has expertise in and can manage) such that the non-tech team can pay for and leverage (and the lab can leverage) the lab's technical talent to help the non-tech team with set up, a little training, and hand-holding. provision servers, "Db" setup, etc., answer architecture-related questions, etc. think RedHat? - "here's our tools for some modest monthly fee, pay for training, tech support, etc".
4. Tech support and training: the lab would provide paid tech support and training to help the non-tech teams get over hurdles. This helps generate some early revenues for the lab and helps to assure that the non-tech 'customers'/'partners' don't flounder. It also helps the lab vet non-tech teams. It also forces the non-tech teams to get very clear on product functionality, etc. and allows them to iterate without driving the technical team mad.
5. Once the non-tech team has built their now functioning MVP supported by their paid technical partners (the lab) they can launch with some beta users and know they have tech resources behind them to help keep the wheels on and respond to user technical needs. This would likely be some paid arrangement. The lab would have input as to if/when they feel the MVP is ready or not and if/how/when they could provide 'tech support'.
6. If/when the non-tech team has proven some initial traction the lab can then decide if they want to help scale this to a 'production-ready' product and the non-tech team can decided how to pay for these services or take their MVP and transition it to an internal tech resource. The lab might be a good place for young coders to cut their teeth and find promising startups they could join - obvious advantages to both parties. The lab could partner with some freelance market places and/or off-shore resources to help spin up some lower-cost technical resources that could be dedicated to the project. Potentially the non-tech team would compensate the lab if they found and hired their tech co-founder from the lab. Given the SaaS model and some familiarity with the MVP the lab's runway to scale should be shorter and more predictable.
7. the MVP tools might not be production capable, but might be build such that porting to production capable systems would be predictable and repeatable. It's not realistic to scale to production using Google sheets as your Db, but we have some tools and services that can port your model and data to XYZ Db.
8. The lab could also partner with some UI/UX talent for paid design services.

this all sort of off the top of my head this morning so i'm sure there are plenty of holes to fill - not the least of which is how to build tools that non-techies can use to build something usable. The market will solve this problem as it is clear there is plenty of demand.

Eric Wold

April 8th, 2015

There are lots of services doing exactly this already.  Here is one and they don't even require equity:

But why not raise money and also be able to help the many brilliant but disadvantaged who can't afford the $10k?  Nobody loses when you invest in a great potential founder and take just a fair/reasonable amount of equity for doing so.

What you are talking about (+built in funding) is what I hope to build and was discussing in this thread:

An a-la-carte full stack accelerator.  Choose your terms on the way in the door.  If all you need is a short engagement and an MVP, great.  If you need more, great.

I think you can get the $400k, or even more.  In 24 hours since posting the above thread I've been contacted by people in multiple regions, including officials associated with economic development in two US state governments.  You could have a very nice business just focusing on the founders and their need for an MVP.  I think you can change more lives if you also align interests with the investment community and give them a reason to support what you are talking about.

Mike Moyer

April 8th, 2015

This is great. Why not take it up a notch and allow MVP developers to share equity in the startup? My model, Slicing Pie, will allow you to determine exactly how much they should get for their work:

I've been doing this on a smaller scale with my company, Lake Shark Ventures, LLC. Frustrated with a lack of technical cofounders, I hired an over seas team to work on MVP tech projects for my own ideas and I take equity in other startups. It works well on a small scale. 

George Lambert Interim CTO - CTO's for Hire

April 8th, 2015

Hello Fellow Delphi Person. Don't see enough of those.  We have been looking at some similar ideas.  For a new company there are complicated choices, and a big reality check. 

#1) Is your idea going to be worth your effort? 
#2) Is there a real market or monetization strategy out there? 
#3) What is the minimum energy you will need to expend to get a prototype to test the idea? 
#4) What will it take to move from that prototype to a finished shipping revenue positive solution? 

Software Startup Rule #1. Most software companies do not fail for lack of technological expertise, the fail for lack of understanding the market. (If you don't do the software -- then that is YOUR JOB) 

Software Startup Rule #2. Get help with building a plan.  Every dollar you spend building a great plan will return to you in missed headaches. 

Software Startup Rule #3. Everybody has a great idea on how to change your idea a little, but will they sign a contact with a deposit to get you to do it? If not, think long and hard, does it distract you from your focus? 

Software Startup Rule #4. Software Development is Easier in Photoshop and on a whiteboard, so use them to test your idea.  Prototype with pictures and powerpoint. Get a Technical Needs Analysis done AFTER you know what you are building.  

I have managed the design, build, deployment and maintenance of software that has been used by millions of users a month, but we never shipped a product until it was ready, and we never started a product with a commitment that we were going to have some level of revenue stream or market advantage from it. 

We have build products that failed, but not for engineering reasons, for marketing reasons. 

The reason for mentioning this is the idea of how to get things launched is a great topic for this forum. 

I have been working with someone I did a startup with that grew for under 10 to 90 people from Feb 95 to Dec 95, just before the internet boom.   I left to do internet stuff, and recently he has reached out to me and said, 

"There is no simple solution."  
* Local teams take time and money to build. 
* Remote teams will try to build the exact spec you send them - without any of your insite but will take all of your money giving you something that looks like what you want.  (Oh - I know this one too well) 
* What you should want is to partner to manage your project from cradle to grave. 

The people who write your prototype are not the right people to scale it to the size you want to make your investors happy. 

Lets keep moving this discussion forward / since we are all very good at what we do, and all have opinions lets put our heads together and find a way to make startups happen. 

PS: Not Sure  I know what I'm talking about? Look at my linked-in profile. 

PPS: Send me an email and I will send you an electronic copy of the book I wrote for friends and students who were doing small ventures in the mid 2004.  subject: "CashCowMarketingPlan Please"

Joanne Frederick Healthy people. Effective healthcare.

April 8th, 2015

I love the idea and was going to suggest the Slicing Pie concept as well, but the Mike just beat me to it. 

The other thing I would offer is that the service is built around Agile methodology so everyone would be happy at the end. 

I'm ready to do it now... Where do I sign up? 
Best of luck!

gnf .dk Software development - Noah ITAM/DCIM

April 8th, 2015

I am sitting here and reading comments. And they are all very good. Good insight and understanding of how things work.

But reading the original question by David - what I hear is basicly creating an online (non profit?) community where startups can get their "Best idea ever" a runaround - before he/she throws money after it. Is the community in need of getting paid for that service - should be dependant on the amount of "tasks" - if it works it can be sold ;-)

I am prepared to be a part of creating the interface, running it on my servers and be a part of the community - world wide even. 

Let us help to be creative with ideas..

Adam Darrow Business Analyst by day; stress coach

April 8th, 2015

I think this is a good start, and I appreciate your concern for us non-techies and the time you already put into this idea! The one really concerning part is the assumption that these start ups will get funded somehow with no team, no revenue, just a prototype (unless I'm missing something). Even if the non-techie inventor has a great understanding of the market, from everything I've heard, the bar has been raised - you need a team, and in most cases traction and some revenue before you will be considered "investable". Of course there are exceptions, but the message has been very clear and consistent. Not sure how to accomplish this, but I think there needs to be a for software ideas whereby a community votes up/down to bring an idea to market. Thanks again for starting the discussion! AD

David Schwartz Multi-Platform (Desktop+Mobile) Rapid Prototyping + Dev, Tool Dev

April 8th, 2015

Wow, these are some really great comments! I wish there was a way to reply to each one individually. Some are predictable only because I just didn't want to make the original post twice as long as it already is.

I'm looking at solving a very small piece of the pie here, although I'm realizing that maybe expanding it a bit might also be helpful.

Step 1: we'd review your overall proposal and examine your product/market fit. We won't do any work unless / until there seems to be a fit somewhere so we don't waste a bunch of time. Start pitching to whomever will listen and refine your story.

Step 2 (if needed): we'll build a "sketch" of your idea that you can show people for feedback. This is a non-functional prototype, perhaps built with Photoshop. Use that to go out and interview people to develop product/market fit. We'll iterate on that a couple of times if needed; after that, it should be clear whether the idea has legs or not.

Step 3: we'll take the results of your interviews and build a functional prototype. Get more feedback. Do more pitching. If the idea has legs and you're effective at communicating the product's benefits, you'll get some funding at some point. YAY!

While I like the idea of building out an MVP, that's not what I have in mind. It's an order of magnitude more involved than just a functional prototype to demonstrate proof-of-concept. Not ruling it out, but perhaps a better role would be for us to act as project managers for you at that point.

I like that idea of "Two Weeks 2 Beta" where it costs $10k to implement one user story. That seems quite reasonable. I cannot see this working with a team overseas. The cost savings on the developers will be eaten up in overhead and delays. The thing I like most about it is the fixed-cost and time-bounded nature of the proposition: people on a budget need to be able to predict what their money will buy them in the given time-frame. Software is so "mushy" that it's almost impossible to come up with reliable estimates, which is why it's common to get quotes from developers that vary by one or two orders of magnitude in both time and cost.

Karen Leventhal

April 8th, 2015

To validate some of the ideas being offered.   I think the "getting to MVP" journey can be broken down into sub steps, which can be "sold separately" if desired. David and others mentioned them, but here is our journey: It may or may not be helpful to anyone. 

1) Idea. That's all the team

2) Product Market Fit (Multi Staged): We did several sets of interviews/ and surveys, going deeper and deeper into the issue. And we will probably do one more before we get to MVP.  This is very important, saves a bunch of time.  This might be an iterative process.   I actually paid a graduate student to help with in depth interviews.
I'd been happy to tell what I paid if you're interested in details.  It was a great use of our limited funds. 

3) Pre MVP Pilot.  You might be able to skip this step with in depth interviewing, but we literally went out and did the functions that the site and company would do-- without hte technology.  This is the ultimate method acting of business. We sold like our sellers normally would, using the existing options. We communicated between buyer and sellers, and we came to understand what kind of communication typically happens or is desired. We did all our processes manually- just like many buyers and sellers do now-- and we learned a lot. This was super resource intensive-- we did it for about 6 months.  We had revenue and clients. Was it worth it? Don't know, but we learned a ton. 

4) Photoshop Prototyping. We hired someone (and in fact several people) to photoshop key pieces of the prototype.  A lot of this was done in conjuction with creating a pitch deck. So if you can combine these services, might be desirable. We spent a few thousand dollars on this. It was well worth but only because the person we worked was excellent and had a wide ranging background in UI/UX, and been both on the tech and non tech sides of start ups and really knew his stuff.   With a less qualified person it could have a waste of money. We then showed the photoshop prototype to our existing clients for feedback. 

5) The step we haven't done-- build the MVP. The good news is by doing it this way, we've got some built in beta testers.  But it's definitely been a long road. 

But basically, these seems like steps that can be parceled out. Forgive me for using this analogy, but it's kind of like an assembly line or series of finishing courses. The start up team can move through each one separately and decide it they want to continue with the lab and vice versa.