Most founders think that a website with the right features is the magic bullet that will make their business successful. They think “If only we had x, then customers would come”. They think that leveraging tech in a way that matches their vision will be the grand solution to whatever problem they’ve trying to tackle.
This leads to disappointment on all fronts.
Non-technical founders trying to come up with technical solutions is like a layperson trying to invent a new drug, or a non-engineer trying to design an aeroplane. “I want my miracle drug to do this, and people will pay millions”
This is a recipe of disaster. You budget to make the miracle drug, but don’t budget for customer service, or marketing, or box design, or shipping costs, or government approval, or clinical trial, or for keeping staff working for 10 years while all of this happens.
In web terms: You have a great idea – “An app that tells you what recipes you can make from what’s in your pantry!” – and you contact a developer to build it for you. You have a design in your head, you’ve figured out the way you want it to work, you’ve thought about a pricing model.
You’ve done all the fun stuff.
But you probably haven’t thought about how you’ll handle app store listings and SEO, or how you’ll set up a service for customer complaints or feedback, or how you’ll deal with iPad users or desktop users or colourblind users or users who forgot their password or users who find a bug that crashes the app or users who don’t speak English or users with phones from 2012.
If you build it, they won’t come.
The point here is that technology – an app, a website, a widget – is only one small part of the business solution puzzle, and it’s often prioritised way, way, way more highly than it should be.
I try to talk myself out of a job wherever possible, and my advice to non-technical founders with a great business idea is almost always the same: Build a crappy version of it yourself in Squarespace or Webflow, get it live, and focus on getting your first 20 users.
I’ve seen it go the other way before – founders spending >$50k and 6 months developing an pre-launch full-featured app, which gets blown out in scope and timeframe because they’ve never designed an app before, and then we end up in a situation where the project feels stale.
What’s worse is that the founder has no control over the app now – it’s too complicated, it’s custom-built with NextJS running on a Vercel server that they don’t have the access keys to nor the technical know-how to access and edit. If they want even the smallest copy change, they have to contact their developer and try to make it work.
This results in an all-too-common situation where the founder’s enthusiasm to, you know, start marketing and find customers and actually run the business is extremely low, because they’ve just spent all of their precious “I’m starting a startup!” energy feeling like a constant failure as they manage what is now a long-term over-engineered app build.
In this example, the founder has learnt a whole bunch of unhelpful things, including:
- Building an app is expensive and bad
- Developers are grifters
- They were stupid for trying to start a startup
- Their ideas was bad
- They are bad
Now let’s imagine that the founder built a crap version themselves using Squarespace. They had to figure out how to select a template, how to compress their idea so it fit within the framework and could be expressed using off-the-shelf tools.
They spend 2 weeks building the thing and get it to a moderately functional version – a landing page, some info pages, a signup page and a checkout flow. They decide that for the first few users they can do a lot of manual work in the back-end, with a view to automate it later on if they become successful.
A few weeks after the outset, they have a live business – albeit a slightly hacky one – that they’ve completely set up themselves. They have a lot of energy (and leftover money) to spend on Instagram ads. They get signups, they get drive and energy and enter into a positive feedback loop, they proceed past MVP and start to really understand what their users want.
In this example, the founder learns:
- Their business idea isn’t precious, and can be altered to match the available tools and technology
- How to use basic web building tools
- That they should only focus on their first few users, rather than building for their first 10,000 users
- That marketing and onboarding and user acquisition are far more important in the early stages of a business than engineering
This is just a long way of saying: Please don’t hire me unless you really, really need to. In fact, I will gladly help you not hire me, because I’m a specialist and I am expensive. I want to see new businesses succeed, and the best way to do that is to build something really quickly and a bit crap and get users.