Do you need a technical co-founder? – well, it depends…

I read Phil’s post stating that you don’t need a technical co-founder with some interest.

Yes, at the very very start of a business, given the range of free to air tools out there, it’s right you don’t need a technical co-founder to do some quick iterations to get to your first cut of a product that might be worth investing more in as people have shown an interest in using it.

And here is the crutch in all of this, the might bit. Yes, you have people interested in using your ‘just add water’ product – but if successful you will need to turn it into a viable product and thats when things get ‘fun’ very quickly…

Technical leakage…

The main problem with this approach (and one I’ve encountered in the field) is that the ‘just add water’ approach often ‘leaks’ into the technology of the end product; i.e. you try to weaponize a bag of technology into a product framework and end up spending far more time & money on it than if you just started from scratch, which could adversely impact on your window of entry into the market.

I would argue that if you are going to throw together a first cut product, at least have someone with a technical background (like us) to talk to and ensure you are:

  1. NOT painting yourself into a technology corner. Be very aware it is a stopgap and nothing done at this stage, technically, should really carry through to the final product unless it is proven to be: reliable, scalable and framework orientated.
  2. Using the right off the shelf technology for the job. It could be you have a variety of choices open to you, some which could be with you for the long haul, others throw away. Technology knowledge and awareness of how change impacts systems and data over time plays a big part in this. By the right choice of technology at this stage you could save money now and in the future.

What is your technical USP?

The other factor you need to consider is this: if you can create a first cut product out of combining other services and see if people will use it – what is to stop your competition doing exactly the same thing? The answer, not alot really, in fact zero…

I know, competition, its a dirty word; but anyone serious about running a business needs to have one eye on them at all times. Ideally your product needs to be at least defendable in some sense against carbon copying, and this is where the WordPress proof of concept approach is dangerous – because if you have something actually groundbreaking, you have just proved to everyone its a goer and you are on the same starting blocks for the market as your competition – ouch!

Remember, in this game its usually the most motivated, prepared & funded that wins; if this describes your competition, you are in for a nasty fight & its one that you started…

In essence you need to have something ‘magical’ at the heart of what your product does, a defendable bit of product ‘turf’ that acts as the foundation for your USP (Unique Selling Proposition) – i.e. what can you do better than all the rest out there that is expensive to copy or not obvious?

Now if you can combine a USP with the WordPress proof of concept (i.e. there is a central nugget of magic) – then all is good; your competition cannot just cheaply carbon copy you and you have reduced your initial costs to prove you have a viable product.

What would I advise?

1) If you do not know one end of WordPress from another, get some real help. Phil’s articles are a good start but WordPress has literally thousands of plugins and themes available for it – plus anyone who can code in Php (like me) can easily extend it in any direction really.

2) You at least need someone technical to bounce your ideas off; I call this the ‘technical sniff test’. It could be that your magic idea got sh*t canned somewhere else for a good reason you weren’t aware of. Or there might be someone already doing what you do and you didn’t find them. Or by the application of a bit of technology you weren’t aware of your 5 out of 10 idea could be turned into a 10 out of 10 idea (this is important, I’ve lost count over the years how a simple technical reframe can make an idea really fly)… Unless you talk upfront to someone in the technology space – you will never know until its too late.

3) Read, read and read some more. Then some more! The more you understand the ins and outs of what:

  • is your real competition,
  • your feature set space is (i.e. what you could do going forwards),
  • market trends will impact you,
  • technology trends will impact you,

the far far better you idea will be and the better considered it will be against the hard reality out there, and the quicker you can react when needed. Ideas need to be constantly tested and your understanding of the market needs to be constantly tested too. Essentially be aware of your own knowledge limitations and seek to keep improving your general knowledge.

4) Probably the most controversial, is be very careful of the ‘shrink wrapped product framework’. These may get you off the ground quickly, but often are designed to take you in one direction quickly. Which is great if that aligns exactly with your evolving product – but can be a right expensive pain if you diverge off that path. It also makes you critically beholden to the framework provider, which could be extremely limiting. Also they tend to produce a lot of ‘carbon copy’ products for obvious reasons.

You should aim as much as possible to:

  1. Utilise Open Source Frameworks (i.e. WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, Symfony, etc)
  2. Minimise your usage of paid for software (plugins to Open Source frameworks is okay), ‘black box’ frameworks and  subsystems should only used if no other way.

If you don’t know what to do, talk to your techie friend (or us!). Remember, you want to aim to be technically ‘nimble’ and that really applies to the whole technical stack; you need to quickly go where you need to go without any excess technical baggage.

5) Get an independent second opinion – I cannot stress the importance of this. Everyone has different opinions, different experiences and objectives. When building a house, you wouldn’t just take the first quote you got back, so why are you doing that with your business? Ask around, work out who gives you the best advice & work at building mutually beneficial relationships with them. Filter out the duffers ruthlessly & fast; you will soon develop a nose for it. Bad advice is toxic & dangerous; good advice is honest, constructive, frank & a sole tonic.

What else I would I advise?

It’s very important that you do not become too ‘wed’ to your idea in its current form. You need to be prepared to shape and refine it over time based upon your experiences and the advice of others; especially those with an experienced technical background.

Remember, it is very rare for an initial idea to be right on the money – the trick is to refine on the basis of validated feedback, no matter where it comes from – i.e. your website is but one channel, it’s an important one no doubt, but it is only one channel. Also note I say validated feedback, not all feedback is equal, you need to weigh it with respect to whom is giving the feedback, their background and what it relates to.

Note: this is not ‘pivoting’ – that you do when you have created a product, pursued it and found yourself in an unprofitable dead end that needs reversing out of fast (otherwise known as a ‘change of direction’ in an established business). This, on the other hand, is rather ‘fine tuning’ or ‘reactive iteration’ of your idea to add usable value to it.

In Conclusion

By all means keep your initial costs down to test your product market, but be well aware of the downsides in doing this too. You could be inadvertently giving away a golden egg and not realising it; or you could be saving money now to spend more in the future. Also, always talk to your techie friends first, you might avoid some serious potholes and find some unknown shortcuts.

Agree with what I say? Have something to add? The comments are open below – go ahead!