quot;I need a free developer for my brilliant ideaquot;

If you’re part of an online group about startups, entrepreneurship, founders, or CxOs on Google Groups, Facebook, Slack, Meetup, or any platform, I bet you’ve seen a post like this come by:

“Hi, I have a brilliant idea, and I’m looking for a programmer to build it. I’m sure as soon as we do it we’ll be able to raise money, so I can’t pay you right now. I can’t talk about what it is because I don’t want people stealing my brilliant idea. Do you know any programmer who might be interested?”

If you read this and your skin doesn’t crawl, it’s because you are the person who writes posts like that, or you are a developer who’s about to learn a 6-month-long lesson on how to run away from those people. I won’t rip off on the “idea person” (sometimes also called the “business idea person”) because the problem here is a lack of understanding of how to get things done. Suffice to say, that most of the world — including yours truly — don’t believe ideas have a value of themselves. The value lies in the execution of the idea.

This post actually helps ideas persons go from a no-value idea to something that has actual value.

After meeting with dozens of people during my open office hours over the last few years with a similar problem, I put together this plan for them.

Step 1: Don’t write a business plan

If you are doing a business in which you are not trying something new, like opening a restaurant or hotel or a new insurance broker, sure, a business plan with detailed financials and execution plan can be helpful, but if you are doing anything related to tech, business plans are a waste of time. Instead of spending months in research, financial analysis, quoting papers from Pew or Gartner, writing a two-page executive summary clearly stating the need you are trying to address, who you are addressing it for, and why this is the right moment to create this solution. At the top of this document, write a two-sentence elevator pitch. This document is for you to keep yourself grounded on this truth. If you change your mind or learn something new, change the document.

Step 2: Define a customer journey

The customer journey is how customers will experience your product, from learning about it to getting value. You can write this in paragraphs, flow charts, or bullet points. I like the narrative format with a personalized description and flow (“Jane learns about XYZ through an ad on Vogue. She comes to the website using her iPhone, and immediately see three deals that …”). Another way to think about customer journey is to imagine you are sitting behind them while using the product, and you write what they did. Remember, the journey starts before they interact with your product and continues after they exit it. For example, if your product is about printing pictures, the journey started when they took the picture and hung the picture on the wall.

Step 3: Write user stories.

User stories are a common language that product managers, designers, and developers use to define the functionality that needs to be built. You know your product is “done” when all the user stories have a checkmark next to them. Read more on Wikipedia on how to write user stories or buy a book on the topic.

The best way to do this is to talk to real customers. You are not selling anything at this point. Don’t try to convince or correct them. Don’t try to change their mind. Listen to their needs and how they solve them today.

Don’t get too hung up on the best style for your stories, do as much as you can (e.g., “Jane must be able to add items to her shopping cart”). If you don’t end up with 50 stories or more, you probably missed a bunch (sign up, sign in, change the account, print invoice, contact support, cancel an order, update credit card, etc.). This is an important exercise for you to know your vision better.

The best user stories are driving the user to realize the maximum possible benefit from your product.

Step 4: Draft a version of the business model canvas

You can read more about it here. It’s a great document. It feels like a business plan in a different shape, but it isn’t a one-and-done. You’ll update this document often as you learn more about your product, business, and market. This might be a good time to come out of the cave and ask a few other founders, investors, mentors, advisors, and industry experts their thoughts on your canvas. Again, this is about iteration, not about achieving perfection in a piece of paper.

Step 5: Eliminate 50% of the user stories you wrote.

Yes, they are great and important, but they are not the core value proposition you are trying to create, and they won’t help you prove if there is a market or not. The whole goal of this process is to prove if you should invest the next four years of your life in this idea or if you can get rid of it in three months because no one wants it. So get that red sharpie (strikethrough on Google Docs also works), and use this litmus test: If I launch a simple version of the product without this feature (user story), will it affect my ability to prove or disprove that users want what I’m building? If the answer is NO, strike it. But, but, but, … if users cannot reset their password, they will have a bad experience. It’s not about proving the product is complete but that what you are offering is what people want.

Now, you might consider a shortcut and say that you will only write the important users’ stories to begin with. I believe that’s a mistake for two reasons: 1) Writing good user stories takes practice, so the more you write, the better you get at it. Your core stories will be better if you also practice on non-core stories. 2) The process of writing user stories will help you think through problems and solutions you haven’t thought of before. It’s like having a brainstorming session with yourself. So avoid the shortcut.

Step 6: Create mocks

Likely you are not a great designer. It doesn’t matter. It’s not about getting detailed and beautiful designs in place. Design the 5 to 10 screens that make up the core of the experience and the value proposition’s main aspect. Use pen and paper if you need to. Use Balsamiq or PowerPoint if you prefer. Google Slides is one of my favorites for this task. I would avoid Photoshop, Illustrator, Sketch, or any tool that actually creates high-fidelity mocks. The higher the mock’s quality, the harder it will be for people to envision what it could be since you are already giving them the full answer.

If you feel this is something you can’t do, you might need to enlist external help. You are looking for a graphic designer and a UX or Interaction Designer to help you create these concepts. You can use services like oDesk, Upwork (Elance), Fiverr, or other places to find this person. Be aware that you get what you pay for. Start at the low end of the price curve, and if it doesn’t work, you only spend a couple of hundred dollars. Sometimes the reason it doesn’t work is not that the UX designer wasn’t good. It’s because the concept was flawed or couldn’t communicate the idea clearly. This is very valuable to you since you are becoming better at communicating the vision and understanding your own idea. You want to spend as little money and time as possible to get here.

Step 7: Set up a landing page

Now it’s a great time to set up a landing page and start collecting email addresses of people interested in your brand promise. You can be very scrappy and use some of the off-the-shelf products like LaunchRock, Unbounce, KickoffLabs, or Squarespace to cheaply and quickly set up a landing page to collect emails. I recommend you spend a little bit of money running Google or Facebook Ads to drive some people to the website. Spending $300 or so, you’ll be able to drive 100–200 people (or more) and see how many people put their email addresses in. If you get zero leads, you should revise the message (are you clear on the value?) or the value itself (maybe people don’t want what you are offering. Go back to step 2).

Some people will tell you to do the landing page first, even before you write a single user story or do any mock. I don’t believe it to be the best path of action. I’ve done it a dozen times, and it never worked a landing page first approach to prove demand because you are not necessarily clear on what the product should be and what the key features will attract people to it. Working from steps 1–6 helps you get a lot more clarity and create a much richer landing page.

Step 8: Eliminate another 50% of the user stories.

Wait, what!? Let’s get honest here. There are still a lot of stories that you don’t need. There are a lot of things you are adding to the product that can be postponed. There are a lot of steps that can be manually done. You probably don’t need to build the survey at the end of purchase; you can use Google Forms for it. You don’t need a Like button. You don’t need that parallax animation or the avatar crop feature. Keep cutting until it’s bare bones. It’s much easier to add a feature later if you have time left than to cut something if you are running behind.

Step 9: Find a developer

Congrats! You already created some value. You created a business model canvas, mocks, user stories, customer journey, and you have tens if not hundreds of people interested in your product. You are ahead of 95% of the “idea people” out there. Now it’s a legitimate time to enlist a developer. If you are looking for a real partner, you post this as you a “Co-founder & CTO” search; you’ll still keep a higher chunk of equity (55–75%) since you got the wheels moving and did so much already. If you are looking for a developer, you will need to pay them. It can be a couple of thousands of dollars if you use a service like Upwork/oDesk, or it can be 10–20x that value if you want someone to build it for you as a contractor or employee. All the work you’ve done in steps 1–8 should have taken you about 2 months and cost you $1,000–2,000, but you cut your development time (and cost) by half by doing those steps.

Step 10: Launch

Create a robust go-to-market plan that involves your social network, the email addresses you collected, some scrappy PR efforts (reaching out to journalists), potentially some paid search engine and social media advertising, or whatever appropriate channels you can find to spread the word. Measure everything on the product, send surveys, understand your costs and revenue, and optimize. Once you feel you understand it enough, you can go back to the user stories you cut down and decide if you want to add them back in. If the core product didn’t work, it doesn’t matter the extra features. You can pivot and try a new value prop. You spent the least amount of money and time possible to prove or disprove it. If it did work, congrats! Now raise money or continue bootstrapping.

Follow me on Twitter: @calbucci

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Marcelo Calbucci

Marcelo Calbucci

I'm a technologist, founder, geek, author, and a runner.