As company that develops digital products for various startups, we talk to founders with varying degrees of technical experience, from non-technical backgrounds to seasoned software engineers. So, is it possible for non-technical founders to build a successful digital product? Yes, we definitely think so, and we’ll share some details about how in this blog post.
In this article we’ll talk about how non-technical founders can build successful digital products, and if you are that person, what you can do to help ensure great outcomes.
It’s not about the tech!
Creating great digital products is not solely about software and technology, it’s about people and problems. Great technology that doesn’t solve a problem and doesn’t fill unmet needs can become a total waste of time and money.
To have a successful product, digital or otherwise, it must be desirable. Desirability must be validated, you can’t go on your hunch alone, though that is usually where the idea comes from. You see what you believe is an unmet need and a pain point that no one has solved.
That’s not to imply that technology isn’t important – it clearly is. But for most digital products you will not be selling great technology, you will be selling solutions. Great digital products like Dropbox and Airbnb started with great ideas. The tech was there to support it, but the idea – the needs they were meeting and problems they were solving is what made them successful.
Nearly every time we talk to an early-stage founder, they mostly have some kind of solution in mind. Now, this is the hard part – you have to throw that solution out, at least for the time being. Your preconceived notion of the solution may not be right, at all or in part.
This is the Problem / Solution Fit validation which is paramount.
You have to talk to customers, perform interviews (not surveys) to learn what motivates them, what their pain points are, how they solve them now, and consider if they would be open to a new solution. This isn’t a trivial step, but without it, you increase the risk of product failure dramatically!
Innovation frameworks like Design Thinking and Lean Canvas can help get you on the right path. If you have never started a venture before, in most regions there are organizations that can help such as ITEN here in St. Louis, or the St. Louis University Innovation Mentoring Teams, both of which I mentor for.
Learn what an MVP is, and isn’t
There are many different definitions and approaches to building an MVP which we talk about here. But a good working definition is that the MVP (minimum viable product) is a product with the minimum features required to establish that your product has value, and the users can provide feedback to inform the ongoing development process.
Often, the MVP can be largely a simulation where you build something that functions like your product vision (as a preliminary prototype), but it is a lot of manual stuff in the back-end. In those scenarios, the tech isn’t important because you will scrap it and start over.
Other strategies include architecting an MVP that you intend to build upon continually and should be able to scale for some foreseeable period of time before it needs rearchitecting. Only go this route if you have validated your product idea thoroughly and have the budget to invest in it.
Learn how great products are built
As a founder, it is your responsibility to understand and learn how digital products are built from ideation, validation, MVP, and launch. You also will need to learn about how design and development teams collaborate, how they are managed, and what they need in order for them to serve you properly.
Take the time to understand what Agile development is and its advantages and pitfalls. It’s how nearly all software is built now, and founders that are new to developing software can sometimes struggle with the concepts which can be counterintuitive.
You need to understand what Epics, Stories, and Features are. Learn what a backlog is and understand how Sprints work. Learn what CI/CD means, and why it’s important.
Your technical stack – the technologies that your software is built on from top to bottom is also important. This will be the hardest part for non-technical founders to get a handle on because no two development teams are alike; engineers are opinionated about their favorite technologies, and a Google search about the latest tech someone told you about will yield confusing pros and cons without the right leadership.
Creating and building a successful digital product requires a Product Owner. There are many definitions of what that role is, but generally speaking, the Product Owner defines the vision, represents the needs of the customer, and is in charge of the features, the backlog, and sprints.
Founders are notoriously bad Product Owners because they usually are visionaries, but don’t have the experience to manage all the development details. If this is a role that you decide to take on, you will really need to do your homework.
How to make good tech decisions
If you made it this far, I haven’t scared you off yet. Good, because all this can be grasped by any founder that carefully takes the time to complete their homework.
Let’s say you have built a quick and dirty MVP that your customers love, and you are ready to build the product you want to scale. Making good decisions on how the platform is architected will be critical.
You will need a CTO. If you can afford it, you can find a CTO that can guide you on making your technical decisions. A good CTO can be expensive, so for early-stage companies that might involve giving up equity, which might totally be worth it.
If you can’t afford a CTO, that means your it! You are making the tech decisions. Here, a solid development partner can really help put you on the right path. But remember, every development team, including ours, has a technical stack they are fluent in. You must spend the time to make sure your development partner has a great track record and is looking out for your interests. Talk to their clients and learn how they work and manage projects.
Here are a few tips that can help founders make better decisions regarding their product development journey.
The offshore development siren song
Be wary of the lure for off-shore development teams. I’ve highlighted this because startups with limited resources often cut corners to get a product developed, and offshore can be very attractive on paper. However, the risk of product failure with startups using offshore development is extremely high.
Why is the failure rate for products developed offshore so high? Usually because founders do not have the skillset to manage a development team at that level. Offshore teams are programmers that take exact direction from you for every detail. They are order takers and are not going to help you thought leadership to always find the best solution. If you do decide to take this path, you almost certainly will need an experienced CTO to manage the offshore team.
Other problems include time zone shifts that make communications difficult, language and cultural differences, and the inability for founders to know when something is going off the rails. What offshore teams offset in terms of cost, are typically replaced with management operational costs.
Non-technical founders can certainly build great digital products. We see them all the time, and we specialize in helping those entrepreneurs find their path. What separates the successful from the not successful is not luck; it’s hard work, doing the tedious homework, and not being afraid to ask for help.