It wasn't long ago when only kings could make great change in the world. Today, change can come from anyone which can inspire you to quit your job and start a company. I regularly meet with friends who have world changing ideas but struggle to take the next step. I have written down some of my advice for you and split it into two blogs, this blog for understanding your idea so you can get into the garage and the next blog for Getting out of the Garage.
Startups take time. Many of the "overnight successes” you have heard about took many years to build. I worked on Hugecity for three and a half years but didn’t leave my job until the last year.
You never know everything about your idea but understand as much as you can before you show it to others. Describe who is your customer and what you need to get your money out of her purse while making a note of every assumption so you test them later. Then storyboard what a customer sees from the very beginning to the very end of your idea.
When you think you understand your idea, walk everyone you can through your storyboard and LISTEN to what they have to say. An idea that has not been proven is next to worthless so you do not need hand out NDAs. You can do all of this today without raising money, hiring developers, or including anyone else. The more you understand now the more runway you will have in the future.
Start building a community around you idea. Keep track of who you speak to and keep them up to date on your progress.
You are not going to do all of this alone. Start looking for soulmates to help build your idea and tap into startup community. Read on for more details and great tools. If all this is old news check out my blog on Getting out of the Garage.
Stages of a startup
- Idea <$10k using your money
- Understand your idea and share it with as many people as possible
- Start building a community
- Identify possible soulmates to work with
- Garage <$100k using your own savings and maybe friends and family money
- Build a prototype
- Seed <$1M
- Alpha Launch: usable, but not polished
- Raise Series A in 12 months
- Test revenue
- Funded >$1M
- Launch a real product and grow a profitable business
- Gear up for Series B: $6M-$10M
Understand your idea
We have ideas about what is broken, what could be better or what wrong needs to be set right, but often we have not thought completely through our ideas. I use the Business Model Canvas to work through the components necessary to make an idea into a business. Keep it simple but be as specific as you can.
If you think you are ready to design an app, draw every step out. What is the first thing a user sees? What is the last thing? When is the next time they will use your app? How often are they going to use this thing you are going to create? I draw as big as I can on a white board or a window and then move my designs to Balsamiq for storage and fine tuning. If you don’t know how a part of an app should look, copy one that works. If you can’t decided between a couple different paths, design each path. Print out your designs and mark them up like you would if you were grading a paper. Keep walking yourself through the app until you feel like you have answered as many questions as you can think of.
Ideas are stronger when they are shared. Create an elevator pitch and define your mantra so you can easily explain your idea to other people. Then walk as many people as you can find through your app. You have two ears and one mouth for a reason, so listen to what people have to say. Ask as many questions as they let you ask. Ask strangers. Ask men and women. If it is a service, ask how much they would pay for it. If it is an app to help a specific business or group, ask people in those groups. All of these stories will help you fine tune your app's features, explain what you want to developers, and talk to investors.
Test your assumptions
Write down all of your assumptions. You probably don’t need to have an app to test most of these assumptions because there are many ways to test manually. You can set up Facebook groups, weekly emails, online documents, Squarespace websites, or anything else to simulate the service your app provides. Talk to members of the people who would use your product. Would they want/pay for something more? This way you can learn what works and what doesn’t. Change it up, or "iterate", and keep testing. Create a list of everyone you have talked to and want to talk to. If you don't have their contact information, look it up. Data.com and LinkedIn are great tools to find the contact info for almost anyone.
Time is money and energy
The more you learn with out spending money or another person’s time the better. App development is slow and expensive. When an investor, developer, or anyone joins your team, they are investing in you and your idea. They are excited about joining you but that excitement does not last forever. If their excitement wears off and there is no traction or no money in the bank, its pretty hard to stick around. The more you test and understand before bringing others on board, you the more time you will have in the future.
If you are not the developer, there will always be questions about the design. What does this button do? What happens when a user hasn’t signed in? Are we tracking this? You want to answer as many of these questions as you can before you hand your design off to someone else. A developer will make decisions on his own that will change your app. If you don’t agree with those decisions your development time and cost go up.
Tap into the startup community
Every city has startup and developer meet ups, hackathons, and pitch competitions. Dive in, even if you don't have an idea or a team. There are a number of great startup podcasts that will help you understand the startup vocabulary. You can't do everything, but learn what you can by yourself. Start looking for a soulmate to help you build your idea. One of the best ways to vet a developer is to become one. OneMonthRails is a good online tool that walks you through building a web application. If you are already working with others track your teams progress using either Pivotal Tracker or Trello. Both of these tools are also good for keeping a list of all the possible future features and your assumptions.
If you have already started check out my blog on getting out of the garage.