Non-tech MVPs: Why Every Tech Startup Should Start With One

SXSW 2016 LogoThis post was inspired by a SXSW 2016 panel called, “No CTO, No Problem: Building A Non-technical MVP,” which featured Noble Impact VP of Product Erica Swallow, Fruitkit Co-founder Fernando Leon, Bain Capital Ventures investor Stephanie Weiner, and Contently Studio Director John Hazard.

Non-technical entrepreneurs often hold themselves back once they’ve got an idea, because they feel like recruiting tech talent to build a proof of concept is essential. Technical entrepreneurs, on the other hand, tend to exercise their strengths as builders early on, before validating their business ideas. In both cases, the outcome tends to be wasted time, either building a product that no one needs or not putting an idea through the validation wringer.

In a SXSW 2016 panel called “No CTO, No Problem: Building A Non-technical MVP,” three colleagues and I presented a case for going non-technical as a necessary step towards product validation. A Minimal Viable Product, or MVP, is a term coined by Eric Ries, defined as the “version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.” What better way to minimize effort than to make an MVP that doesn’t require a single line of code?

Below are our panel’s key thoughts and recommended resources for would-be entrepreneurs who are looking to test an idea. Above all, we hope that this conversation around building a #NontechMVP will inspire potential startup founders to get started ASAP on tackling the problems they hope to solve!

The Argument For Starting Non-tech

Nontech MVP Sketchnote by William Donnell

UX designer William Donnell included our panel in his SXSW Sketchnotes!

Starting non-technical when you’re trying to build a tech company may sound counter-intuitive, but it’s actually a great way to validate a concept and save a lot of time before you get to coding. Many smart and eventually successful entrepreneurs, with or without technical backgrounds, have started with non-technical tests.

One entrepreneur that comes to mind is Aaron Patzer, founder of personal finance app Mint. In a talk he gave at Princeton’s Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education, Patzer explained how he grew to 1.5 million users and sold for $170 million in just two years. To validate the idea, Patzer started with a simple beta signup landing page, which asked people to sign up to be emailed when Mint launched. Mint also launched a personal finance blog, which provided users with relevant finance-related resources and promoted the beta launch page, as well. In the end, after 8-9 months, nearly 30,000 emails were collected for beta launch. Not a bad turnout, right? And mind you, Patzer holds degrees in electrical engineer and computer science from Duke and Princeton.

“Number one is to validate your idea. I actually didn’t write a line of code until I did about three or four months’ worth of thinking on Mint, which I think is counter to what a lot of people will suggest. A lot of people will say ‘Just get the product out there, just iterate very, very quickly, (and) just make a prototype.’”
— Aaron Patzer, founder of Mint

Everyone on our SXSW panel shared both success and failure stories when it came to validating quickly or beating around the bush with an idea. I, for example, had an idea for a peer-to-peer delivery platform and was able to see the technical product come to life after participating with a team of four at a 72-hour hackathon on a bus called StartupBus. We called it Deliverish, and some of us stayed on board for about 9 months after the hackathon, working on our free time, mocking out better front-end design concepts, interviewing potential customers, participating in more hackathons, building our own beta launch list, researching competitors, and trying to decide which beachhead market we wanted to address. After 9 months, we had a working prototype, but no customer transactions.

Had Deliverish started with a non-technical test, we might have actually gotten off the ground (though, in the end, it’s for the best that we didn’t… all the market research I did while at MIT Sloan actually helped show how competitive and oversaturated the last-mile delivery market is). A #NontechMVP could have come in the form of having people text the co-founders when they needed something delivered. From there, we could have deployed a contracted delivery person or conducted the delivery ourselves. We could have worked from there to automate aspects of the service that were the most annoying for the customer experience.

For any startup, it’s important to validate an idea as early as possible. Believe me, 9 months of building and researching — while valuable in its own right — is far too long to go before landing a single transaction.

Three Panelist Case Studies: PennLets, Fruitkit, and Noble Impact

fruitkit fruit delivery

Fruit subscription service Fruitkit started with a non-technical MVP to prove that its service had great enough demand.

On the SXSW panel, Stephanie Weiner, Fernando Leon, and I shared our own recent #NontechMVP stories, with PennLets, Fruitkit, and Noble Impact, respectively.

PennLets is a sublet listing service created by Weiner and some of her classmates while she was at the University of Pennsylvania. The team used a WordPress theme and got the service off the ground in one day. After 24 hours, the site had more than 500 active users (10% of the UPenn undergraduate community) — in a couple of months, the userbase had hit 2,000 students, says Weiner. In the end, the crew sold the site, as-is, to the university, and it still exists as the central subletting portal for UPenn students. To boot, Weiner and her colleagues are still listed on the site as the site creators. Weiner says the benefit to going non-technical is that the site was up in no-time, it didn’t crash (due to the support WordPress offers), and it validated the team’s concept in less than a day.

Fruitkit is another exceptional #NontechMVP example, in which a startup was able to turn a $100 investment into more than $100,000 in revenue in just over one year. Leon, a native of Colombia, and two friends founded fruit subscription service Fruitkit after living in cold, dark Finland, which lacks the year-round fruit market that South America boasts. The crew set up an out-of-the-box website, and after they unexpectedly received their first order (through a face-to-face conversation with a potential customer), they went into overdrive to figure out how they were going to fulfill the order. It turns out, they unknowingly had themselves a non-tech MVP, which consisted of sending an invoice, procuring the fruit through an importer, and delivering the fruit the following Monday (and every week thereafter). Leon collected feedback manually through customer calls, and gathered customer fruit preferences through a postcard that was included in each. Today, the startup has implemented automatic payments, tested delivery options (including an Uber partnership and its own delivery staff), and has relationships with three fruit importers and local farmers for summer (berries) and autumn (apples) procurements. (Check out Leon’s retrospective blog about how to create a non-tech MVP.)

Finally, there’s Noble Impact, where I serve as product lead. We are an education initiative with a mission to provide students everywhere a relevant and purpose-driven education. We began operations in Arkansas as a summer program, and then a K-12 course selection for public service and entrepreneurship education. To date, we’ve worked with more than 500 students at eStem Schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, building out a series of courses that engage students in project-based, portfolio-driven education that gets them engaged in their communities, solving problems that are connected to their interests. After more than two years of innovating on the Noble Impact curriculum, it became evident that the part of our classroom curriculum that was digital, was the part that would enable Noble Impact to scale outside of our first school.

Each student at Noble creates a digital portfolio that helps him or her define his or her personal narrative, values, interests, and related projects. These portfolios also drive student participation — once a student realizes that he or she can (and has already) contributed to society in some way, a spark for service is ignited. Our classroom facilitators originally built our 10-week portfolio curriculum using a site-building tool called Weebly. After nearly a year of testing and collecting student feedback on the experience, the team realized the pros and cons of an out-of-the-box solution, and as of this year, we’ve begun building a digital portfolio platform that’s customized for our classroom experience. Would we have started with our own platform, though, we would have wasted a lot of time building tech features that weren’t valued by our students. It’s only by testing on Weebly that we’ve been able to see what works and doesn’t in the classroom. Along the way, we’ve also used countless tools, many of which are listed below.

Getting Started With A Non-tech MVP

Non-tech MVP Panel SXSW

SXSW Interactive 2016 speakers for the panel, “No CTO, No Problem: Building A Non-technical MVP”

So, how do you get started validating an idea with a non-technical solution? In short, you should aim to break down the process to the simplest means of testing. Leon recommends doing a role play of users. In his case, one of his co-founders played a customer in need of a fruit subscription, and Leon played the role of the Fruitkit product (or seller). “I’d like to order a basket of fruit,” the potential customer starts. “Alright, let’s get you signed up,” says Leon. “What’s your name and where would you like the fruit delivered?” And the role play goes on.

I like to point to a recent non-tech MVP I participated in as a user. The startup, CartDelivered, is based in Little Rock, Arkansas and is a grocery delivery service. Founder Joshua Ayres is a branding and logistics veteran, having worked at mainstay institutions including Kraft Foods, Cadbury, Unilever, and P&G. He wants to grow the grocery delivery market in the cities outside of the top 100 by population in the United States, unlike his competitors which focus their services in large, metropolitan regions. The CartDelivered beta test was quite simple; it aimed enable a user to:

  1. Make a grocery list
  2. Send the list to CartDelivered
  3. Be connected with a delivery person
  4. Receive their order within a pre-determined timeframe
  5. Pay for the order

Ayres was able to pull the beta test off using existing tools. He recommended the customer use Grocery IQ to make a grocery list and email it to orders@cartdelivered.com, which could be done within the app. Then, he contacted his available delivery people, who he had pre-recruited to find someone who was available to make the delivery. After finding a match, he emailed the customer to convey that someone would arrive at a designated time. And lastly, once the order was final, he had the delivery person email him a copy of the receipt, which was used to send a PayPal invoice to the customer. All of this accomplished his goal, without him needing to spend anytime either learning to code or recruiting a technical teammate.

From our own experiences, here are some steps that were necessary for us, along with some non-tech tools that helped us achieve those goals:

  • Find and talk to potential/existing customers: Email, phone, Twitter, Craigslist
  • Building a “coming soon” page: LaunchRock, Unbounce, Kickofflabs, Quick MVP, Instapage
  • Collect feedback en masse: Google Forms, SurveyMonkey, Qualtrics, TypeForm
  • Design mockups: Napkins, paper, PowerPoint, Keynote, Moqups, Balsamiq
  • Build a basic product: WordPress, Wix, Squarespace, Cratejoy
  • Deliver contracts: Print/sign, Docusign
  • Develop a functioning app: Bubble
  • Communicate with our team: Slack, Whatsapp
  • Collect a payment: PayPal, Stripe, Venmo
  • A/B test options: Optimizely

If you’re an entrepreneur trying to validate an idea, our panelists urge you to break your idea down to the most basic test you can fathom. The sooner you can validate your idea, the sooner you’ll be off to actually building a technical product that people want.

For thoughts and ideas on how to strategize the simplest non-tech MVP, join the conversation on Twitter, via #NontechMVP.

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