Nontech MVP Panel SXSW

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, 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.

Top 20 Startup Ecosystems in the World

I represented MIT TechLink at this week's Midway Club Fair and got a taste of the startup scene on campus.

I represented MIT TechLink at this week’s MIT student club fair and got a taste of the startup scene on campus. Excited for the next two years!

Having just moved to Boston for grad school, I’m learning more and more about the area’s ecosystem and always on the lookout for new thoughts and opinions on the Boston startup scene. While I’ve read over the past few years that it’s highly focused on the healthcare, energy, and industries, nothing beats living in Kendall Square, among the innovation.

And an infographic, of course, certainly can’t illuminate every aspect of a city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, but it’s always interesting to see how various communities stack up against each other. Boston, it turns out, is number six on the list.

Intuit published the below infographic last month, illustrating the results of the 2012 Startup Ecosystem Report, published by Startup Genome in partnership with Telefonica Digital and researchers at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkley. Measuring eight key areas — including startup output, funding, performance, and talent — the report deemed Silicon Valley the most entrepreneurial hot spot in the world (of course). But the real fun is in the other 19 ecosystems identified, some of which are called out for certain strong points. Santiago, Chile, for example, has the highest percentage of female entrepreneurs (20%), compared to Silicon Valley at a paltry 10%.

Click here to see the full size infographic.

Top Startup Hubs

Are you a startup entrepreneur? If so, what makes your city’s startup culture unique? Shout it out in the comments below.

Infographic courtesy of Intuit, Top 20 Entrepreneurial Hot Spots Around the Globe.

Next Up: Three Months of TechStars Awesome Sauce

Erica Swallow at TechStars NYC

Over the weekend, I had full intentions to leave New York this Sunday for a two-week trip to Utah, where I’d shadow winemaker Danny Bull at Montezuma Canyon Ranch and Vineyards to learn how to plant grapevines and make organic wine — as some of you know, I’ve been on a personal winemaking journey for the past few years, following one of my life goals of starting Swallow Winery.

And my plan for the full month of May was to knock out tons of work while sipping mimosas beachside on some gorgeous beach I had yet to choose.

All of that changed on Sunday night, though, when Lexi Lewtan, a friend and colleagued email introduced me to Eugene Chung, the new managing director of TechStars NYC, previously of NEA fame and currently also wearing VC and indie filmmaker hats — quite honestly I took the meeting because I love TechStars and Eugene’s background sounded oddly intriguing.

I took a Monday afternoon meeting, thinking I’d go in, hear about a really cool position, but ultimately decline, because I had to get back to my massive vineyard and beach travels. But I was in for the surprise of the year — for the first time in my life, I decided to take an unpaid position, merely because it sounded like the best use of my summer and the team I’d be working with sounded like a rockstar combo.

For the next three months, I’ll be working 70-80 hour weeks, missing out on a gazillion coffee dates, annoying all of my friends with party declines, and frankly, having the experience of a lifetime. I can honestly say there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing right now. Ok, except maybe having infinite amounts of cookies delivered to the office to share with my newfound team. But hey, my $5 per day budget isn’t going to allow for that. Trade offs.

I’m stoked to have the opportunity to help the next group of amazing startups build awesome digital media and press strategies as one of six baller TechStar NYC Associates, working alongside Eugene and Program Manager KJ Singh.

So, friends and family, believe me when I say I love you and for the next three months, I’m going to miss seeing your beautiful faces. Please don’t hate me if I don’t answer your phone calls, only respond to your text messages after midnight, and miss everything you invite me to this summer. Just know that I’m only following my passions, and I’m thinking about you all every moment of the way. At the end of this, you’re going to get to spend time with an improved version of me — one that probably spent the past few months sleeping under desks and on couches, meeting epic people and seeing amazing products built right before her eyes.

For you and for me, this is a long-term investment for a better me and a better world. Let’s do this!

A Selection of Startup Pitches With Flair

In my Startup PR courses on Skillshare and Udemy, I advocate using the Founder Institute’s recipe for the perfect one-sentence startup pitch (see video above), as pitching and messaging are usually issues for entrepreneurs or startup employees who may be more focused on product development, user acquisition, or a boat load of other tasks.

I’ve read some great startup pitches and some not-so-lovely pitches as well. It’s always a pleasure to work with startups eager to craft better pitches.

In January, I taught an online Skillshare class called “Getting Press on a Tight Budget.” After taking the course, students were asked to create press kits for their startups, making sure to include — at the very least — a one-sentence startup pitch and an email pitch written to me, a tech journalist. Below you’ll find some of the best pitches submitted, and in case you’re curious, you can find all of the projects on the class page.

One-Sentence Pitches

Let’s start with one-sentence pitches, the elevator pitch of email. Here are a few that stood out from the crowd:

  • Web Academy of Music is a video-based online music school that offers private lessons through video exchange to help busy people learn an instrument.
  • Meet Your Makers is developing a series of weekly markets and an accompanying website to help small creative businesses who engage in sustainable practices to gain main-stream exposure and increase direct sales.
  • offers a full service sake appreciation program that will help anyone discover and more fully enjoy Japanese sake using unique and fun in person and online sake tasting seminars.
  • Mewe is the first comparison site that helps purpose driven travelers find, book & rate their perfect voluntourism package and also enables them to crowdfund their selected cause.

These pitches are crisp and easy-to-understand — way better than the usual mumbo jumbo that reaches my inbox. And, I must say, Mewe accompanied its pitch with a delightful product video that showcased the team is serious and has a brilliant product idea. Furthermore, I’d recommend checking out UrbanSake’s email pitch, as founder Timothy Sullivan really understands the art of the personalized pitch.

Email Pitches

Check out the wrap-up and feedback session for my Skillshare class, which features the best one-sentence pitches and email pitches with in-depth reasoning behind their awesomeness.

When it comes to choosing the best email pitches from the course, I’d say UrbanSake and Mewe did a great job.

There were, however, two email pitches that caught my eye, and for two separate reasons:

  • Leaves of Trees, an all-natural skin care company, submitted an email pitch, that while a bit jargon-y at times, was well-targeted towards a writer who cared a lot about all-natural products (me). Though I don’t cover skin care, I appreciated the detail put into explaining just how special the process was. Furthermore, this email included beautiful product pictures, including a lip balm close-up, which amazingly, I’ve been looking for a new brand of all-natural lip balm. It’s like they knew!
  • Just BE Cause” is a “book anthology that features Ah-ha moments that inspire the next generation of change makers,” written by social entrepreneur Syreeta Gates. I was charmed by Syreeta’s pitch, because she showed true passion, included endorsements from recognizable leaders in education and entrepreneurship, and seemed to have a purpose behind her work. She made a few missteps, which I pointed out in the comments of her project. But, otherwise, I would read the book in a heartbeat.

Last, but not least, I can’t forget the most thorough press kit submitted — the Skillshare press kit, submitted by Skillshare’s awesome community manager, Danya Cheskis-Gold. Of course, I couldn’t choose Skillshare as the top project submitter in a Skillshare class! But, I wanted to give a shout-out, since this kit has everything a journalist could need: FAQs, class examples, logos, team bios, photos, videos, screenshots, demos, press clips, thought-leadership articles. It’s quite amazing and is a perfect example for the startup that wants to go all out on its press kit!

If you’re still craving press kits and email pitches, head on over to the Projects tab on my Skillshare class for all the pitches you could care for. Hours of fun and learning, guaranteed. Cheers!

Where To Find Me at SXSW 2012

I’m super excited about SXSW 2012, as it marks a few milestones for me:

I could go on about how many firsts I’ll be having at SXSW, but I won’t bore you — it really does seem like a whole different experience from the first time I attended SXSW in 2010, though.

Anyway, I wanted to share my 2012 schedule with the Internetz. So, here’s where you can find me for SXSW this year:

Speaking About Brand Journalism

I’ll be speaking on a panel about “Brand Journalism in the Real World.” This session will focus not only on defining brand journalism, but also will go in-depth on what brand journalism looks like in action, how organizations can incorporate editorial practices and how traditional journalists can make the shift. The panel will be moderated by MarketingProfs Chief Content Officer Ann Handley and will feature the wisdom of Twitter’s Editorial Director Karen Wickre, Eloqua’s in-house reporter Jesse Noyes, and myself.

Throwing a Sunday Brunch

As director of community at Contently, I’m heading up the planning for our Sunday brunch meetup. In celebration of launching the Freelance Writers Meetup, we’re bringing together a room full of top journalists to gather over a full Texas brunch buffet, all the mimosas you can down in two hours, and the brilliant wisdom of Ben Parr — former Mashable editor, startup entrepreneur, and CNET and CBSi columnist.

Special thanks to Contently co-founder Shane Snow and the stellar team at Jones-Dilworth for helping put this event together. And Ben, thank you for joining us to share the story of your awesomeness!

Attending Parties Galore

While I haven’t planned out which panels I’m attending yet, I already have my top party picks aligned. Go figure, right? You can find me sipping on root beers — and beers of all types — at the following fine festivities:

Getting Educated at Panels

This year, I’m covering SXSW for Forbes, NASDAQ and The Content Strategist. Here are some panels and classes that I will be attending:

Am I Missing Anything Serious?

Given my schedule above, does it look like I’m missing something crucial? If so, let me know about it in the comments below! We only get one shot at SXSW 2012, people! Let’s make it count!

On My Healthy Obsession with Peer-to-Peer Marketplaces

I seem to go through annual cycles of Internet obsessions.

In 2008, it was social communication platforms, like Twitter. In 2009, it was services that make microblogging easier, like Hootsuite and In 2010, it was location-based mobile apps, like Foursquare and Gowalla. And this year, it’s social marketplaces.

The concept of “collaborative consumption,” also know as the “sharing economy,” completely enthralls me. The fact that I don’t need to book a hotel, buy a car or invest in a drill is amazing — instead, I can just borrow these things from regular people from my neighborhood or from around the globe for a small fee. Now, that’s something worth getting excited about.

So, what types of things can you collaboratively consume? The list goes on and on, but here’s a snapshot of some of the most interesting things you can find on social marketplaces:

Even more exciting is the potential for meeting awesome people via social marketplaces. You don’t get that experience with traditional marketplaces — Zipcar, I love you, but it’s just the truth.

I’ve hosted a number of guests on Airbnb (and have stayed in quite a few places as well); I teach a class on “PR for Startups” on Skillshare, and I’ve learned how to knit (see video above) and live rent-free in NYC; and I catsit for the fun of it via Sittercity.

Along the way, I’ve met some amazing people (Stefania in Catania, I’m talking to you!) and cats (Darcy, Yuki, Ernie and Sabi, you know you’re all the cat’s meow). What’s not to love?

The social economy is where it’s at for me this year, and I have a feeling it’s going to spill over into 2012. So, what was your tech obsession this year? Let me know in the comments below!

Are We Addicted to Smartphones? [INFOGRAPHIC]

I wrote an article about smartphone addiction last month, covering research released by UK telecommunications regulator Ofcom.

The folks over at e2save were inspired to create an infographic to visualize the data. It’s beautiful, so I thought I’d feature it today. Take a look.

Do you feel like you’re addicted to your smartphone? (I am pretty sure that I am.)