A Programmer’s Advice to Startup Founders
I met with a member of a local accelerator today who wanted my advice about what technology his next startup should use. Rails? A native iPhone app?
Needless to say, I took a deep breath and heard him out.
“I want to build something where people can schedule things to be bought and shipped at a future date – like flowers to my mom on mother’s day, gifts for the nephew on Christmas. Where do you think I should look to find a programmer to build this?”
If I could have seen myself at that moment, I’m sure I let out a smart-ass smirk. Oh well.
“Just do it yourself,” I said. Blank stare.
“But I’m not a programmer…”
“So? Setup a simple web form and get people to list of things they want to queue up – flowers next mothers day, Christmas gifts, whatever. Find a way to securely store their credit card number. For each thing they list, add an entry to your calendar to buy whatever they need with the card you have on file.”
You could see that he was in shock that someone who builds software professionally was telling him to use email, a spreadsheet, and a calendar.
A business (or startup, if you must) is not defined by its technology. Few would say that a bakery lives or dies by it’s oven, or an insurance company by how well they setup their office cubicles.
The startup mentality has led us to believe that we need apps and IP and everything else to create a scalable business. While the idea above might get a little unwieldly if he had, say, 1,000 customers, right now he has a grand total of zero customers. No one but his conversation with himself in the shower has verified that this is a viable business to sink time into.
But it’s a startup – the normal rules don’t apply.
Bullshit. My favorite podcast of the year is courtesy of Jason Cohen, where he interviewed the founder of Padseeker.com, who wanted to build an API or something for apartment renting. I remember when I burst out laughing after Jason quipped, “But property managers don’t care about having an API or not. They just want to sell their apartments.”
Likewise, this imaginary audience just wants to set and forget their yearly buying necessities. My mom could start this business without spending a dime. But everything is imaginary and hypothetical until you have customers, and a customer isn’t someone who filled in a LaunchRock form (this was another suggestion of his.)
A customer, in the traditional and only sense, is someone who pays you money for something of value. They don’t care about your native apps, or whether you go for Rails or PHP. Hell, they probably don’t care if they need to use a phone or a keyboard.
In the end, you are selling a solution – in this case, a way to stop forgetting about buying stuff. Question whether you need investors, accelerators, or whatever else is expected when kicking off your new venture. The biggest problem you have will likely have to do with getting people to pay you, not how well you’re able to scale.
Excuse me, now. I need to go to Starbucks. I hear they have an amazing point of sale system!