The following piece had originally been guest posted on VentureVillage on 2012–09–14.
A while ago, Alexey Komissarouk posted an article on TechCrunch proposing that founders should learn to code themselves – just as Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley did years ago. In terms of outsourcing product development, he leaves us with a quotation by billionaire James Goldsmith: “If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys”.
In the long-term, outsourcing development in agile environments truly results in poor quality. But this shouldn’t automatically mean spending hours and days desperately trying to get your head into Ruby on Rails before starting an online business. Learning to code might sound easy at first but learning to do it right is hard work, especially for non-techies. Even if you manage to build your own prototype (after lots of costly hours), you’re probably still far away from efficiency and knowing best practices how to develop and set-up a rock solid environment.
So what to do? Finding a technical co-founder is far from easy, especially when you are not living close to the MIT/KIT campus. I say – forget about trying to find a co-founder for long-term development, at least for now.
Instead, focus on defining a simple, customer-oriented minimum viable product (MVP) to be built with the help of outsourcing. Learn how to specify software with well-written user stories and leave the make-and-trash-development to low-cost resources before getting serious with software engineers.
If writing beautiful code is not something that turns you on in the long-term, use this MVP to verify your idea, get some tiny traction and find a well-fitting technical co-founder to take over the technical half – or, if you are lucky, have them find you.
Finding a technical co-founder
Soon after referring Eisenhower to a few people in my network, I talked to a friend and developer who – all by himself – promptly suggested building an Eisenhower iPhone app, if I could contribute the necessary design work. While having lunch together the following day, we decided to split future profits and since then are investing night shifts and weekends to soon finish our part-time project which has already grown far beyond both our both expectations.
Meanwhile, rebuilding the web application with focus on quality and scalability has already begun. This time developed from the ground up by – simfy collegue and then co-founder – Tim.
Over the last two weeks, we have rebuilt our web front-end and the underlying back-end from the ground up using Ruby on Rails. Tim is currently refactoring the iPhone client’s synchronization module, while I’m integrating recent web designs into our project.
Our source code repository and hosting is powered by Heroku. Such full-service infrastructure service providers might be a bit pricey but means we’re free to care about our product not hardware issues. And when success hits hard, it is easier to hire a professional to migrate the application to Amazon Web Services or dedicated server hardware and middleware.
Building Eisenhower: The takeaways
Instead of trying to talk developers you know – or those you don’t – into joining your company based on some idea or pitch you might have every once in a while, build something first. Just as with venture capital, it is always easier to recruit collaborators with both a grown concept and a working prototype. This gives you the opportunity to better explain and sell yourself and your ideas and also provides a solid basis for valuable discussion.
All takeaways, in short:
If you are more passionate about business, product management or design than software development while planning to launch your own start-up, invest your valuable time in sharpening your product’s specification and design, target market and value proposition.
Only bother learning to code yourself if you either have plenty of time and money or plan to pursue a career as a CTO or lead engineer in your future start-up.
Before desperately searching for a programming co-founder to help you get your business off the ground, outsource development of a throwaway prototype offshore.
At least before spending more than $US400-500 on your minimum viable product, try to first use other tools such as pen-and-paper UI sketches, presentations, click dummies or different concepts taken from the pretotyping philosophy.
Leverage a working prototype and early traction to find a passionate technical co-founder, then re-built all critical parts. Do so incorporating gained customer insights and with an eye to long-term software quality through well-documented, maintanable code and test-driven agile development.