From Dev Agency To Design Solution

How Nontechnical Founders Can De-Risk A Startup

September 14, 2020

Code & Design

A product is destined to fail or succeed before a single line of code is ever written. There are, of course, numerous (famous) exceptions to this rule, but after operating a development agency for a long ~seven years now, I can confidently confirm that it’s relatively simple to accurately predict the success of a future product launch with only two data points:

  • The size of the early community
  • The quality of the design prototype

If that seems like an exaggeration, rest assured, it’s not. At SetDev, we’ve come across hundreds of first-time founders & have had the privilege of building out a handful of their MVPs. This, in addition to countless personal projects we’ve launched, has led us to a conclusion:

1st-Time Founders, Especially Non-Tech Founders, Are Rushing To Build

The game has changed. App startups have slowly been commoditized which means that speed isn’t the differentiator anymore; early adopters no longer provide authentic feedback on poorly-designed MVPs because they no longer have the same patience for early products. The key differentiator in 2020 for a launching product is now community. And community loosely translates to: who cares about what you’re building?

The Pre-Launch Process

It’s for this reason that we’ve spent the last few months veering qualified leads away from programmed MVPs & instead towards interactive design prototypes: a full iteration of the product design process we’ve built along the way. At a strategic level, there are three reasons to slow down on the development & focus on increasing the likelihood of product-market fit:

  1. Kickstarting A Community Of Early-Adopters
  2. Validating Through Authentic Feedback Provided By Said Community
  3. Refining The Product Vision Down To The Last Pixel

A caring community & a pixel-perfect design drastically increases the chances of startup success. And this can, & should, be done before a single penny or minute goes towards programming the actual product. The tactical benefits that cascade down from the strategy are:

  1. An Email List Of Potential Early-Adopters
  2. Massive Savings When Working With Developers
  3. Increased % Of Landing First Sale | Seed Check

Now, these are the reasons for why a founding team should absolutely never proceed without first iterating through a pre-launch design phase; however, there’s an additional caveat that’s particularly important if you’re a solo founder or two-people team. This article is written specifically for the non-technical founder, aka, the business guy; this is because this early on (pre-product) in a startup, it’s unclear how their time is best spent:

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Contributing Early-On

Once An Idea Has Taken Hold Of The Brain It’s Almost Impossible to Eradicate

A (well-earned) meme in the last decade is that of the excitable, energetic, & yes, annoying, wanna-preneur in their early-20s; these cartoonish figures peruse Hacker News & inhale The Hustle, kicking back a Soylent as they tell you about their latest startup idea.

And yet, in retrospect, while most use that term derogatorily, I, in turn, think of it nostalgically — after all, weren’t all experts at one point naive beginners? Wannapreneurs are one decision away from becoming serious small business owners, or at least significantly more productive early product founders; it’s a matter of channeling that passion into an effective effort.

Despite the surface-level bravado of business school undergrads at a pitching competition, I’m familiar with the sentiments under the surface. They might not show it, but let me confess on behalf of every business guy:

We Overcompensate Because We’re Well Aware That Our Contribution To A Product Early-On Is Nearly Zero

So we dive into 68594302 pages of a business plan & laboriously seek out a somewhat tech-literate engineer, praying that they’ll help code our idea for equity (lol). This scene is intimate to me because I was very much that business guy; I marched around my immediate network, horn-blasting everyone within earshot of my latest startup idea.

Fortunately, the stars aligned & I eventually found a close engineer friend that was computer-literate & lukewarm-ish on one of my ideas. He didn’t program (yet), but I was familiar with his work ethic & learning speed to trust in his ability to deliver. As he slowly picked up HTML, then CSS & finally JQuery (hey now, this was like 5+ years ago), our idea, a music festival app, slowly came to life. Momentum grew & as a team it was clearly exhilarating, yet personally, my insecurity deepened as I pondered: but how am I contributing to this?

As his skillset improved, we (he, really) started hacking together the very first public iteration of our site. And in my (very humble) opinion, I had this genius design perfectly mentally-mapped out & communicated said design with nothing short of crystal-clear communication. And yet…this first iteration looked like absolute dogshit:

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I'm So, So, Sorry...

Ugly, but still a breathing, living website, I nonetheless enthusiastically sent the demo to an entrepreneur friend-of-a-friend out West that I respected deeply & looked up to; he responded with likely the shortest & most cutting message I’ll ever receive, three single words:

Are They Serious?

Reasonably, communicating a product vision verbally resulted in a (literally) laughable disaster; however, any type of momentum when starting out is infectious, so far from throwing in the towel, I swallowed a hard lesson. What should’ve been obvious now stared me in the face: with one or two founders, the deepest product contribution a non-technical co-founder can make is to pick up product design!

From That Business Guy To That Design Dude

A month’s worth of full-time Teamtreehouse lessons is all it took to pick up the fundamentals of Photoshop; rapidly, the product vision evolved as my newfound skillset compounded. Suddenly, I felt like a true, early-stage founder as I could visually see my contribution.

More importantly, we noticed a significant improvement in our team communication & execution. Confusion in how it should look drastically dropped off; instead of hovering over his shoulder while offering useless commentary, I now meticulously refined the product vision & turned over crisp mock-ups.

A Mockup Prototype Is Worth A Thousand Pitchdecks

Engineers interested in startup ideas will glaze over anything that they can’t build (pitchdeck), but guess what they can rush to build? Design mockups. It took laborious work (now from both of us equally) to design & build out the v2, but when we did, it was quite a different response: we saw our first trickle of returning users!

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There are few feelings in the world comparable to those of seeing a product come to life — it’s ultra rewarding & addicting (assuming someone at least somewhat cares). A handful of early-adopters is all that’s needed to revitalize a team, & shortly afterward, with some light marketing, our trickle of users grew to a stream of fans.

Unfortunately, the downside of small success is overconfidence. And with a W on the product design front & swearing I’m the next Van Schneider, I confidently doubled-down & immediately began designing v3 (because…why not)? Less than three months after publicly deploying the v2, I opened up Adobe XD & cranked away on the next version. I had grown exponentially as a graphic designer, feverishly churning out a full high-fidelity mockup in a handful of weeks.

In what can only be described as hilarious poetic irony, v3 of Stredm led to an immediate & whopping cliff-dive of 80% of active users. My newfangled design turned off an impressive four out of every five of our beloved users (which, there weren’t that many to begin with).

Within a matter of days, my understanding & forgiving co-founder reverted from v3 to v2 as we scrambled to save the early community. Devastated by the short-term damage I caused here, I was again forced to look into the mirror & analyze. Once more, what should’ve been obvious now stared me in the face: I was building what I thought mattered, not what our early users cared about. Graphic design isn’t product design; the key difference, & what this incident highlighted, is that the latter requires ceaseless communication with early or potential adopters.

Talking To Customers & Early-Adopters Is The Other Largest Contribution A Non-Technical Founder Can Make

Views From 511 SE 5th Ave

The last section was purely anecdotal, my reflections as I travel back to our earliest days when I was quite literally the non-technical wananpreneur. I offer that section as a preview of the general patterns we’ve observed in other teams, but also, as a bridge for those in the same position — those that are hungry & rabid for a chance, but don’t know exactly where to start:

Outside Of Coding, Talking To Potential Customers & Communicating The Vision Through Product Design Is The Best Use Of Your Time

For the last seven years, we’ve worked with the full-range of founders multiple times over; reasonably, as a development agency, our clients were always business or non-technical founders. Time & time again, multiple themes, actions (or lack of), & consequences re-appeared:

  1. Prepare To Be Sticker Shocked

Today, in 2020, numerous online business models are commoditized in no-code platforms; as a development agency owner, I can confirm it’s very likely that you do not need to engage with a development agency. Blog, newsletter & e-commerce websites are a few clicks away on tested & reliable platforms. There are, of course, rules to this exception, such as unique web/mobile apps that do require engaging software engineers & external expertise.

Counterintuitively, despite the progress in these specific, not-technically-complicated platforms, custom-built software built with a modern stack is still very expensive (& rightfully so)! In fact, if a development agency doesn’t start a project proposal at least in the five figure mark, run away. Confused by the advertised prices of Wix, Wordpress, Shopify & the like, most clients that did require custom solutions were routinely sticker-shocked at the $20K+ scope.

In 2020, it’s much easier & cheaper to get started on certain startup ideas; however, ideas that require innovative, custom, engineering from modern stacks are unfortunately still quite expensive. Keep this in mind.

2. Not Knowing What They Want

It was obvious in my path & frequently reared its head when working with clients: non-technical business founders have a very difficult time describing what they want. Though, perhaps, this isn’t entirely their fault as this is the vernacular we’ve come to expect:

  • Frontend/Backend/Database/API
  • UI/UX/Wireframe/Mockups

Reasonably, first-time founders are unfamiliar with the language, which is where the schism in communication starts & quickly compounds; in our experience, it became clear that assuming clients were familiar with everyday tech/startup terms was consistently counterproductive. Yet, unfortunately, this in no way decreased the product expectation they held in their mind.

As a rule, it’s significantly more expensive to iterate code than it is to iterate design; which, in turn, highlights just how important it is to flesh out the product in its entirety before writing a single line of code. Take the time to plan through all core user paths & every edge-case; the amount of time spent in development is inversely proportional to the amount of time spent designing & validating beforehand.

Consistently running into clients that had great but slightly ambiguous ideas is one of the core reasons we started more heavily emphasizing our design process; reasonably, while this linearly increased our time planning & designing, it exponentially decreased our time developing.

3. Lack of Feedback | Fear Of Being Copied

A 3rd toxic pattern we’ve noted with 1st-time founders, especially non-technical founders, is that of unnecessarily staying “in stealth” (or worse, asking people to sign NDAs). If user feedback is the lifeblood of a successful product, then keeping an idea hidden is essentially depriving oneself of oxygen.

Talking to potential users & customers is the clearest way of knowing whether someone will care at launch; cultivating a community early-on is the fastest shortcut to evangelizing early-adopters, which usually translates to the very first sales or downloads.

Founders bizarrely shoot themselves in the foot by keeping an idea hidden; share, ask for feedback, iterate, & show early users how much the team cares by returning with an improved design.

This Is SetDesign

Both our internal journey & our external observations have aligned — which is why we’re thrilled to roll out our SetDesign service. Officially, we’ve decided to shift from a development agency to a product design solution. We’re consciously making this shift because we hold a deep conviction that this new direction will help a greater number of people build long-term, successful companies, not MVPs.

We partner up with 1st-time & non-technical founders to help them kickstart an early community, validate their value proposal, & produce a pixel-perfect interactive prototype.

We do this by assigning a design lead & iterating through the pre-launch design process we’ve built over the previous seven years. The process is detailed out in our “How it Works” section, but to provide a quick overview, it consists of four (4) strategic phases which add up to a total of twelve (12) tangible deliverables:

SetDesign Process
SetDesign Process

We’ve written descriptions on each deliverable & we’re slowly publishing extensive, detailed individual blog posts along with attached templates. These twelve deliverables are a full replica of the entire process we’ve aggregated at SetDev. Each deliverable flows into the following one, culminating in an interactive prototype that’s validated by no less than fifty early-users. It’s long, but going through the process is the best way to drastically de-risk a startup idea prior to programming.

SetDesign Deliverables
SetDesign Deliverables

However…we’re well aware that twelve branding, design, & marketing deliverables translate to a not-insignificant amount of hours; which, no matter how much we systematize & automate, translates to a not-insignificant cost. So, in order to accommodate the early & eager founders that are likely budget-strapped, we strategized through what deliverables could be truncated without losing too much value. Which is why we’re launching with the varying options laid out above.

This isn’t fixed & we’re open to customizing on an individual basis, however, we hope the different variations open the gates to a new pool of founders that we wouldn’t be able to work with otherwise.

Let’s Get Building

As a team, we‘re enthralled with the path that lies ahead & believe that this is the single-best way we can help the next generation of non-technical founders. No-code, low-code or all code, none of that should stop you from refining that vision & validating through potential customers now. So whether you’re an associate at a prestigious firm longing for the dream or a seasoned side-preneur sitting on a great idea, let’s get building.