I, like every entrepreneur, have a long list of business ideas just waiting to be turned into companies, or to be relegated to an archive with the rest of my ‘genius’ ideas that could have only come out of conversations spurred by one too many glasses of scotch.
And at one point, I, like every entrepreneur, had no clue how to start figuring out if any of my ideas were worth working on. Thankfully I read some really great books like Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup, and Tim Brown’s Change by Design that helped get me started.
The idea frameworks presented in Ries’ and Brown’s books are great in helping you evaluate your business idea and giving you a path to follow from ideation to execution, but, there’s something critical missing from each of them. It’s not surprising, really; amazingly enough, this critical topic is missing from the vast majority of other startup-related books and blog posts that I’ve seen.
The critical topic I’m referring to is The Team. You know, the people like you and your co-founders that actually have to carry out the strategies in this wonderfully laid out literature. Everyone seems so concerned with the business idea that the people aspect is often overlooked.
The tools and advice for beginning to build a team and find co-founders are few and far between. This boggles my mind. Finding the right co-founder(s) can be critical to a business’s success. With developers and designers in such high demand, the co-founder search process for an individual ‘business/marketing’ founder is extremely difficult.
The most common thing I see at every startup networking event, Startup Weekend, Lean Startup Machine, whatever, is a ‘business’ founder looking for a technical and a design co-founder. For a long time I included myself in this poor, unfortunate set.
But I’ve figured out a solution to this problem for all non-technical, non-designer founders. I call it the CAP, the co-founder attracting product, and it doesn’t require design skills or a single line of code.
The CAP is a product (or service) that you’ve refined enough to prove that it is something worth pursuing. The goal of getting to a CAP is to show a potential 'technical', 'design', or 'business' co-founder that you have a legitimate idea, you care enough about the idea to work through early iterations on your own, that you’re resourceful enough to build a crude prototype, and that you generally know how to get sh*t done.
Just to be clear, a CAP is not meant to be a MVP (minimum viable product) that you release to customers, and especially not a MDP (minimum desirable product) that customers will demand to actually use what your selling. A CAP should come well before either a MVP or MDP.
Getting to a CAP is a point much further than you might have expected you could take an idea on your own, and it takes no technical prowess to get there. It’s the point at which you’ve validated that you have a solution to a real problem for a specific population of people.
Before you reach a CAP, you will have had to think through the business model, have an executable idea of how you’ll get users and how you’ll generate money, have gone through some customer development, and have completed some rounds of initial prototype testing. Sound way beyond your current skill set? Don’t worry. It’s not.
Part 1 – Working through your business model
I’m not going to try and re-invent the wheel here. There are some awesome resources already available to help you work through all the pieces of your business model. The one that I find the most effective, especially for new entrepreneurs, is the Business Model Canvas. On that website you can download a PDF of the canvas, read through an explanation of what each section of the canvas means, and how to approach thinking about that portion of your new business idea.
Part 2 – Customer development
The theory of Customer Development has been written about extensively, originating in Steve Blank’s book The Four Steps to the Epiphany. Eric Ries wrote a great summary of the Customer Development theory in a blog post on his website back in 2008. It’s well worth the 10 minute read and will give you a good summary of the overall process.
My one sentence summary of this whole theory is: Take your idea, get out of your home/office/whatever and talk to potential customers about it, then adjust your idea and your target customer until you’ve found a product that a specific population of people want very much.
For most, customer development means walking around your local area and intercepting as many random people on the street as you can. I don’t know about you, but that sounds awful to me. However, when I do on-foot customer development, there are a few hacks that I like to use:
- Approach couples instead of individual people – I find that couples are more likely to stop and talk to me for a moment than an individual is. Maybe it’s a safety thing and individuals feel more threatened by a stranger on the street than a couple does.
- Approach people who look lost – People are much more likely to engage in a conversation with you if they are lost. You hopefully have some local knowledge you can give them first, and they then feel magically compelled to give you two minutes of their time so you can have a conversation and ask them your research questions.
- Approach salespeople in retail stores – This is by far my favorite one. I love going to highly populated shopping areas, like DuPont Circle or Georgetown in DC or SOHO in Manhattan, looking in store windows for bored salespeople, and going in to talk to them. You’ll find that bored salespeople in a quiet or empty retail store will talk to you about your idea until for as long as you can stand the sound of their voice.
An important part of my customer development process is always conducting research interviews. I find that the information I garner during these interviews, whether in-person or on the phone, is even more valuable than what I can learn intercepting someone on the street. Read this blog post for a guide to conducting consumer research interviews and recruiting candidates for them.
Part 3 – Building a CAP (Co-founder Attracting Product)
I consider myself an ‘incremental artist’. I by no means have great design skills and the closest thing to a masterpiece I ever created was, I’m not even sure what to call it… a 3D ‘drawing’ of Marvin the Martian I sketched and made out of pieces of rolled up construction paper glued to a foam board. Can’t picture what that would look like? Well here I am at 11 years old holding my masterpiece in all its glory:
To create a CAP, you need almost no design skills at all. Until 3 years ago, I thought Photoshop was only for photographers. I mean, really, they take photos, make them pretty looking and then sell them in shops… c’mon, don’t judge me.
Moving on, here are the 5 steps you can follow to create your CAP.
1. Explain your idea to your mother
This means write down a clear and concise description of your idea in 100 words or less. Your mom should understand what your business does after reading this. Make no mistake, this will be hard. Good luck.
2. Create a reference set of companies
Make a list of other companies that are doing something similar, or might be a direct competitor of your business idea. Be a little liberal here with breadth of companies you put on your list. If you’re thinking of building a mobile app for people to keep track of their wine collections, you’ll want to look at other similar wine apps, but also apps like Foursquare or Yelp that present large directory sets of data to users in an elegant way.
3. Do some design and user experience research
Go find the websites or mobile apps of the companies in your reference set and see how they’ve designed their user experiences. In broad layman’s terms, the user experience encompasses how the website/app looks, how it’s laid out, and how easy it is to use. Don’t rush this part of the process. Take your time over the course of several days and be thorough. If it’s a website you’re thinking about building, take screen shots of the things you like about these sites and save them in a ‘design research’ folder. One of my favorite screenshot tools is SnagIt, because it allows you to capture just the area of the page you want, and then make notes on the screenshot right after you take it. If it’s a mobile app you’re thinking of building, go download the apps on your list, duh, and take some screen shots (sorry, no cool screenshot tool to recommend for mobile apps).
4. Create your mockups
This is the part that scares people the most, but it doesn’t need to. Mockups can, and should be simple. They don’t need any fancy designs, and you certainly don’t need Photoshop to create them.
My favorite tool for creating low-fidelity mockups is Balsamiq, and there is a $12 monthly subscription option which is amazingly affordable for anyone. The online tool has tons of shapes, buttons, menus, etc. already designed for me to use, and I can easily drag and drop pieces into place to create a mockup of my website or mobile app.
Once you sign up for Balsamiq, go look over all the screen shots you saved during your design research. Now start picking out a few elements that you liked one by one and create them in a Balsamiq canvas. You’ll notice that the wireframes you create will look like sketches. That’s what they are supposed to look like; this ‘rough’ looking presentation of your idea is meant to help you concentrate on the elements on the page and their placement instead of the visual design.
Here are some mockups I recently created in Balsamiq for a restaurant menu mobile app idea I was working on.
If a tool like Balsamiq still overwhelms you, you can always create very simple wireframes of your website or mobile app in PowerPoint or Keynote. This wireframe from when we started working on Wedkey is very simple and can easily be created in either PowerPoint or Keynote using text boxes and rectangle shapes.
5. Bring your mockups to life
Seeing your crude product designs come to life is by far the coolest part of creating a CAP.
If you’re working on a mobile app, the best tool to use is Prototype On Paper, aka POP. You can download this for free on your iPhone or Android, and it is amazingly simple to use. With POP you’ll be able to turn your mockups into a working mobile app!
Open POP and begin by starting a new project. Once you have your project created, open your mockup file in Balsamiq and use the app to take pictures of each of your mobile app wireframes right from your computer screen. If you want the images to be a bit clearer, email the images to yourself, or put them into a Dropbox and download them into the photo gallery on your phone. You can then upload the individual screens of your mockup into POP.
Once you have all of your images loaded in, you’ll see them laid out in the project view.
Start building your functioning app by clicking on the first image. In the bottom left corner of the screen, you’ll see a + and, when you click that, a red box will appear on the screen. This box will act as an invisible button in your app. Position the box over the area where your button belongs (i.e. the chat bubble below), then click the ‘Link To’ link and select the screenshot from your project list where clicking this button should navigate to (i.e. the list of active chats).
After you create the buttons and links on each of your screen mockups, you’re ready to test your functioning app! Just go back to the project screen and push the play button at the bottom.
Congrats, you now have a functional version of your app prototype. You can use this to test your concept and the layout of your app idea with people and see how they’d use it.
POP only supports mobile apps at the moment, so if you’re creating a website, you’re best off sticking with Balsamiq or Keynote. In Balsamiq you can create a set of linked, ‘functioning’ pages that act like a real website similar to the way POP works for mobile apps. They have a great tutorial of how to do that on their website here, so I suggest taking a read through that and watching their tutorial video. If your preference is Keynote, check out Keynote Kung-Fu.
If you’re currently a solo founder, finding the right co-founder(s) can be the difference between successfully launching your business and never getting it off the ground. Whether you consider yourself a salesperson, a marketer, a designer or a developer, building a CAP should be your initial goal.
Going to any kind of startup or networking event with a CAP in your back pocket (not literally, unless it’s a mobile app, in which case you should put your phone in your front pocket so it doesn’t get stolen), will dramatically increase your chances of attracting a co-founder for you and your business. Plus, going through the process of creating a CAP will give you a ton of interesting information to talk to people about.
Have you built a CAP and had success finding a co-founder with it? Is there another approach you take to finding a co-founder?