A lot of new entrepreneurs think that to launch a startup, you need to build a product, and to do that you need someone that can write code. At that early stage, however, the biggest risk for most startups is not the technology, but the market. Will someone out there actually pay for it?
Instead of building fancy technology from the beginning, hack together a prototype using free or inexpensive tools like online forms (Wufoo), drag-and-drop site builders (Squarespace) and eCommerce providers (Shopify). Below are three startups that got their first customers with little to no coding.
Product Hunt’s 20-minute startup
Product Hunt‘s concept is simple: to build a community for product people to share, discover, and discuss new and interesting products. When Product Hunt’s co-founder Ryan Hoover came up with the idea, he lamented the amount of time and work required to build an online community using Ruby on Rails or similar development frameworks. He knew there had to be a better and faster way to bring his idea to market.
From the comfort of his office in San Francisco, Philz Coffee, he hacked together Product Hunt’s MVP in 20 minutes. Hoover created a group in LinkyDink, a link-sharing tool where subscribers of a group receive daily emails of curated links from the group’s contributors.
Within two weeks, more than 170 people had subscribed to product discoveries from 30 hand-picked contributors, consisting of startup founders, VCs, and prominent bloggers. They now have more than 4,000 active users. This gave Product Hunt founders Ryan Hoover and Nathan Bashaw the confidence to continue working on the project.
Lessons Learned: If your startup is a user-generated content (UGC) website, use existing platforms like LinkyDink, Google Docs or Wufoo Forms to rapidly build a prototype and get it in front of your customer. However, make sure to carefully curate content at the beginning like Ryan did to make sure that your followers or readers are getting direct value from your website.
Rolling Tree’s collaborative community
Thomas O’Brien, Mark Lawson, Chris Jack and Devani Jannsen wasted three months looking for a developer for their startup, Rolling Tree. Rolling Tree is online community of skaters and artists that design products and projects together. Think Threadless for skateboards.
That’s when one of their advisors suggested they use Facebook Groups to start building a community. Stoked, the Rolling Tree team put together a Facebook group in less than a day. What happened next blew their minds.
Not only did they get 500 group members in less than five days, but the Rolling Tree community started holding weekly Google Hangout sessions with 3D designers and skateboarders to design skateboards together in real-time. Then, out of the blue, a prominent skateboarding company that sponsored the last X-Games, contacted them to find out if they can form a partnership.
Rolling Tree is now in the process of manufacturing two skateboard and t-shirt designed by their community members.
Lessons Learned: When building a collaborative community, build your community right now with existing social tools like Facebook Group, Google Groups or even Twitter lists. But as O’Brien cautioned, make sure you give clear instruction and guidance on the purpose of your group. The Rolling Tree posted clear instructions on their Facebook cover photo.
The selling machine at MetricWire
Despite being an engineering student, George Wang resisted the urge to start coding right away when he started MetricWire, a mobile app helping researchers gather research data, with Brian Stewart
As research students, George and Brian knew first hand how hard it was to gather and analyze data from health survey records.
Then, they came across Mappiness, a mobile app created by two researchers from the London School of Economics and Political Science to gather data specifically for their research. Instead of typical surveys that record events weeks after an experience, the app asked participants questions throughout the day.
That was their “aha moment.” George and Brian saw an opportunity to build a robust enough mobile app that can be used to gather, qualify and analyze data for any types of psychology and applied health science research.
But instead, of coding a mobile app right away, they sold their idea to psychology and applied health science researchers. In the end, they received over $5,000 of pre-orders in a matter of months before they even started coding MetricWire.
Lesson Learned: Without a working product, you might think that you’ll have a hard time selling something that doesn’t exist. MetricWire had that problem in the beginning. But, as Brian Stewart said, “get out there and be persistent. Use analogs to compare your product to like we did with Mappiness. Build mockups. You’re not a business until you make your first sale.”
No product survives first contact with customers
Whether you have the technical chops or not, don’t write a single line of code right away. Instead, build something rapidly using existing platforms like LinkyDink, Facebook Groups or even Keynoteand get that in front of your customer.
As Steve Blank once said, “no product survives first contact with customers.”