It’s the age-old problem – you’ve got a great idea for an app or tech solution, but you’re lacking the skills to build it yourself. That’s exactly the position Janine Sickmeyer was in when she quit her job in 2013 to focus on her business idea: a software app that helps lawyers file bankruptcy paperwork.

As a paralegal, Janine understood the problem she was trying to solve and knew there would be demand for a solution, but had no experience in coding. So, she carefully mapped out her minimum viable product and then taught herself the basics of coding before partnering with some developers to bring it to life. A few years later, in 2019, NextChapter had over 6,000 customers and was acquired by a major legal publisher. Here Janine takes us on a step-by-step guide to launching as a non- technical founder.

PART 1

1. Clarify your problem

‘Before you even start talking about finding a co-founder or building a tech app, make sure that you have a problem to solve – and that you’re the right person to solve it. That was the biggest thing I knew for me and my market. My product was a bankruptcy application for attorneys, so it is very niche, very unsexy. But I knew so much about it because I was a paralegal. I was doing all of the work by hand and I had used all of our competitors’ software before and realised that no one had created an online solution for this problem yet. So I decided to do it myself’.

2. Outline your solution

‘You need to outline what it is that you’re going to build and break it down. Make a list of everything you want your product to do and then narrow that list down by half. Then half again, and again, and again, until you have the absolute core features that would still provide value to your customer. What you’ve just made is your minimum viable product (MVP), the bones of the product you will launch with.’

3. Develop user stories

‘Think about who’s going to be using the product and how they’ll get from A to B. Start with: “First they log in” or “First they have to create a login and password”. It might sound simple, but you want to write down every step of the process they’ll go through. Different types of users might have different user stories, so write each of them out separately. For NextChapter we had different stories for paralegals, attorneys and their clients. These user stories showing how people will use the product are the most important thing you’ll use to build the product or give to a developer to build it for you. These stories can just be in list format or you can mock them up using a wireframing tool like Balsamiq.’

PART 2

Decide how to build your product

Now you’ve done the research and fleshed out user cases, it’s time to build the thing…

‘There are a few different routes you can go down to build your product if you’re non-technical,’ says Janine. ‘You can learn to code and build it yourself; you can hire a developer to do it for you; or you can try to find a technical co-founder to come on board.

‘I did a mixture of the first two routes because I found it useful to understand the tech before hiring, so that I knew what to look for and how to communicate. I taught myself Ruby on Rails, HTML and CSS. I was working 10 hours a day for 30 days. That was great, because it helped me understand that everything I wanted to do was possible – then I hired developers who could build it much faster and better than I could.’

1. Build it yourself

‘If you have the time and desire, you can build a lot of the product, and at the very least a minimum product, on your own with the new tools that are out there. No-code tools [like Adalo, Glide, Webflow and V.One] have a drag-and-drop interface that make it much easier to build apps and websites even if you don’t have a technical background.’

2. Hire developers

‘I used Upwork for hiring my developers. It’s great because they have a work diary tool that makes it easy to make sure the developers are staying on track and working on what you’re paying them for. I offered the developers that I worked with a half cash, half equity deal – they were so excited about it because they wanted to be a part of the company.’

3. Find a technical co-founder

‘If you’re non-technical and looking for a technical co-founder, you need to be the subject matter expert and have experience dealing with the problem you’re trying to solve. Otherwise, they could partner with anyone to build it. To find potential co-founders, join startup networks or post on tech hiring boards.’ Tools include: Bunch of Founders, CoFoundersLab, AngelList and Hacker News.

This article was first published in Courier Issue 38, December/January 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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