There is an unspoken rule: to launch a startup, you need to build a product, and to do that you need someone that can write code.
Whether that means chasing down a technical co-founder, learning to code, or even building that “Lean MVP” – the conventional wisdom is that without tech abilities you’re nothing more than a dude (or dudette) with a Powerpoint.
A growing number of startups, however, are quietly disproving this assumption.
They’re getting their first customers with minimal technology, and often no code at all. Instead of building fancy technology from the outset, they’re hacking together inexpensive online tools such as online forms, drag-and-drop site builders, advanced WordPress plugins, and eCommerce providers.
They’re jumping right in to serve customers in any way possible – heading right for their first paying customers.
Most importantly, unlike the majority of their peers, by the time they start building a product, they already have a humming business.
How are they doing it?
Focus on serving customers instead of building a product
Successful founders all know one thing: it’s more important to serve a customer than it is to build a product.
This is the mindset you must get into when you start out. Most entrepreneurs are narrowly set on building a product that they lose sight of the real goal – to solve a problem for a customer.
Or, as Ben Yoskovitz eloquently put it,
“Customers don’t care how you get things done – just that you get it done and solve their pain.”
Replace technology with people
Think about the hardest part of the business you want to build. The part that would require the most complex development – the true innovation that no one else does.
Can a real person perform these tasks manually?
For many startups, this was the secret to massive success:
David Quail is a super talented software engineer, with one exit already under his belt. He wanted to solve his ultimate annoyance: scheduling meetings over email.
David’s original idea was to build an artificial intelligence tool that could read an email chain and automatically schedule the event. But this would take months if not years.
His shortcut to launching a business ASAP? He simply set up an email address for his customers to “CC” that forwarded to him, and did the work manually at first to prove that customers were willing to pay.
Over time he automated more of the service – but not before he already knew there was clear demand and was making revenues.
Another example – a marketplace:
Tastemaker is a marketplace connecting interior designers with homeowners for small design gigs. They started by contacting interior designers and building a physical list of those interested in extra work.
They then asked their network who needed help with interior design – and made the connection, processing payment themselves.
The Tastemaker founders used pen and paper to solve their customer’s needs and prove the market. They then built their online platform in parallel (which eventually became their core business).
You’ve probably heard many famous stories like ZenLike and Tastemaker. They range all the way from companies like Groupon or Yipit (raised $7.3M), to Aardvark (acquired by Google) and Diapers.com (acquired by Amazon).
What did they have in common starting out? At the core of many businesses, instead of fancy algorithms, you would have found the founders themselves, like the “man behind the curtain” in the Wizard of Oz, working hard, acting as the secret sauce.
Use these off the shelf solutions
While your core tech might in fact be a service starting out, you can wrap it with an online presence, digital interactions, and the administration of a true technology business.
In short, you can act, look, and smell like a fully automated online company that employs a posse of software developers and an in-house graphic designer.
- Use e-commerce services to accept payments and even subscriptions using “hosted payment pages” – requiring zero code.
- Let your customers interact with you through sophisticated online forms you can publish (and brand) using drag-and-drop editors.
- Build a support knowledge base and community forum with Zendesk, Uservoice, or GetSatisfaction
- Use copy-paste widgets from around the web like contact forms, Skype buttons, live chat, etc.
- Use simple-yet-sophisticated website creators to publish your central website and glue together all the tools into one presence. Strikingly and Unbounce are great for beautifully designed landing pages.
I could go on listing these forever (well, I did here). As you can see, the web is full of tools that let you conjure entire features with the click of a mouse.
The key is to always search for what you want before reinventing the wheel. Chances are someone has already thought of how to make your life easier.
The hidden treasures of WordPress
To most of us, the WordPress brand connotes a free blog, or a simple way to create a content website for non-technical folks.
But the true magic of WordPress is the ability to extend its functionality to create many kinds of web platforms – while keeping your hands (mostly) free of code.
WordPress itself is free, and you can purchase inexpensive plugins that automatically transform your website into a membership site, e-commerce portal, social network, and even daily deals site.
Instead of spending thousands on a designer, you can buy a high-end theme for around $40 and customize it to your brand. If you have a bit more saved up, you can hire a local WordPress expert for a few hours of their time for small custom tweaks and a personal tutorial. And, if you don’t want hosting headaches, you can use WPEngine.
WordPress is one of the most incredible tools on the web for non-technical entrepreneurs. There’s a bit of a learning curve, depending on how you want to use it, but definitely a faster option than finding a developer or learning to code.
It puts fate into your own hands.
Put it all together
Go back to that core customer need, and think of how to satisfy it by any means. Now how can you make that solution accessible? What would the process be for finding you and reaching out? How can you charge and provide support?
Chances are good that you can pull it all off yourself. If not, consider starting a bit smaller than you originally imagined, if only to start generating revenues today and fund your development.
Once you have your first few customers, you’ll have a very good picture of where your business is going, and what technology you absolutely need to build – and very clear motivation.
Does working this way pay off?
Tech companies started this way have sold for between $50-$540 million, or have gone public. They are growing at double digit rates. And they launched in a matter of weeks or months – not years.
If this approach makes you uncomfortable – that’s great. It’s a sign that you’re learning to think differently. However, entrepreneurs presented with this approach often have similar gut feelings:
What will investors think?
They will think you are clever, resourceful, flexible, persistent – and know how to focus on the right things.
To quote one of our investors, Len Brody, on his portfolio: “I call them the workaround culture… [they] just work around anything – and you have to.”
If for any reason they are put off by your creativity and resourcefulness, then you’re not talking to the right investors.
What about scaling?
This is a very understandable fear. It’s a scary situation to think, “Great, we got our customers, and now we’re going to disappoint them.”
Don’t let that thought paralyze you. Growth is rarely if ever a black and white, rocket-ship-spike. It’s a steady process that leaves you plenty of time to transition between solutions.
In other words, there’s a spectrum between do-it-yourself and full-robot-revolution. You might hire a few people in the meantime (with the revenue that their hire would naturally generate) while also developing a scalable technology.
As most entrepreneurs will tell you the way you get your first 50 customers certainly won’t be the way you get your first 5,000.
For those of you feeling held back by your lack of technical skills – or deep in development muck – ask yourself, what can you do *today* to get your first customer.
Give it a shot. In contrast to paying a developer, you don’t have a lot to lose. Do whatever you need to do to get your business going.
Remember: you’re not here to build a product – you’re here to solve a problem. And you certainly have the skills to do that.