The Way We Work
November 21, 2011 by Julia Camenisch

With a flash of inspiration, you’ve conceived a tech idea that could be a game-changer. Unfortunately, all you have is the idea; the tech know-how to make it happen is completely absent. What should you do?

If this is the predicament in which you find yourself, take heart. You are in good company. Several tech firms, including Squidoo, Yammer and Meebo, were started by founders that didn’t major in computer science or talk PHP code in their sleep. If you are one of those lucky few who has conceived the answer to a tech problem and is entrepreneurial enough to envision a business based on that idea, then this post is for you. Here is how to take your tech idea from a daydream to a successfully executed startup.

Step One: Prove the Concept

I know you love your app idea and cannot imagine that it just might possibly be a dud, but the harsh truth of the matter is that it’s more likely to fail than succeed. So before you waste time and money looking for a developer or technical co-founder, you need to run that big idea through the gauntlet of the following tests:

  • Is there a similar product already out there? Chances are, you are not the first person to think of this idea, so it’s important to thoroughly investigate all potential competitors to see how their products compare to yours.
  • How does an initial mockup look? You might not be able to program, but you can visualize. Using tools such as Basalmiq, iMockups or Mockingbird, you can quickly create a wireframe version of your app or site. This will allow you to find any conceptual design flaws early on, and enables you to present your idea to users, developers and investors to get feedback.
  • What are users’ initial reactions? Your friends and family are unlikely to give you an unbiased opinion, so solicit input from potential users. Find out if they think there is truly a demand for the product or if your idea needs to be modified to better fit market needs. Let these users critique your idea from every angle. As painful as it may be, your final product will be stronger. (Note: If you are concerned about idea theft, have your testers sign a simple non-disclosure agreement.)

Step Two: Self-Education

Once you have determined that your idea is viable, it’s time to prepare for adding team members. While you can hire the talent to compensate for your lack of technical expertise, it is still good to have a basic understanding of what is involved in the development process. It is also helpful to have a solid business plan in place to help you attract top talent ⎯ that’s where the self-education step comes in. Here are some steps to guide you in the process:

  • Evaluate your skill sets and abilities. While it can be agonizing, the process of self-evaluation is vital. You have to be prepared, both in knowledge and temperament, to guide the development of this product, so take some time to map out your weaknesses. Then do all you can to grow in those areas and/or determine what types of people you need on your team to bring some balance.
  • Learn the basics of the development process. Grab some books on the fundamentals of software engineering and try to understand the ins and outs of the process. You may also want to add some programming blogs to your RSS feed to help you learn the lingo.
  • Understand what constitutes good user experience design (UX). Play with every app and website that’s anywhere near the scope of your project. Take notes on what design facets make the experience seamless, as well as which elements don’t work well.
  • Determine your minimum viable product (MVP). What is the most fundamental functionality that your app or site needs to have? Call this “version 1.0″ and make a list of every action and click that should go into it. For some great reading on this topic, check out “How to Hire a Programmer” by Derek Sivers.

Step Three: Build Your Team

Now it’s time to bring on a team. If you have been serious about accomplishing the initial legwork, you will have a much better chance of both developers and investors taking you seriously. Here are some points to keep in mind as you build your team:

  • Attend networking events in order to find a Chief Technical Officer (CTO). You want someone who has the background and experience to spearhead development. Remember, though, that technical prowess is not the only thing you should be looking for ⎯ personalities are also extremely important. You need to be able to work together harmoniously through the various stresses that life will throw at your business. It is crucial that you get along, because your CTO can make or break your business.
  • Hire fellow visionaries. Yes, you do need help; but don’t just settle for anyone. Find people who see your vision and are as passionate about the project as you are ⎯ don’t just hire people who will work for the money and then call it a day. A great place to start is by interviewing some of the software developers available through oDesk.
  • Get your development team’s input to help shape the product. It’s always a good idea to make your vision as succinct and focused as possible for your development team (hence the previously discussed MVP concept), but it can also be extremely valuable to share your big idea with the team and allow them to contribute feedback.

While I have touched on some of the key ways you can successfully launch a tech product without a tech background, there is much more to be said on the subject. Two very helpful posts to peruse are Vinicius Vacanti’s “Become Your Own CTO,” as well as “Ideas, Execution and Technical Achievement” by Eugene Wallingford.

Have you launched a tech product without having a technical background? If so, I’d love to hear about your journey from idea to product launch. Share your experience in the comments section below.


Julia Camenisch

Contributing Author

Julia Camenisch is a freelance technology and business journalist. She also works as an editor and copywriter for a wide range of clients, including national magazines, small businesses and nonprofit organizations. Julia brings to Upwork a passion for empowering small businesses through the innovative use of technology.

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