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.

How to Get Consumers Addicted to Your Content

Tara-Nicholle Nelson, vice president of digital and content at SutherlandGold Group, presenting at SXSW 2012

This post originally appeared on NASDAQ’s blog, where I contributed articles about content strategy during SXSW 2012.

Addiction is not a subject usually pegged to positive meaning – we usually speak about addition in reference to physical or psychological dependencies on a substance, person or object.

But addiction can have a positive meaning, too. Some of us get our fix with coffee; we all know someone addicted to Angry Birds, FarmVille or Words with Friends; and there are already some Pinterest nuts popping up all over the web.

There’s a synonym for these types of addictions, says Tara-Nicholle Nelson, vice president of digital and content at SutherlandGold Group, and that word is “love.”

For content addicts, this love is usually expressed by frequenting a small group of sites on a regular basis. Just think – are there any sites that you visit on a daily basis? What exactly is it about those sites that keeps you coming back?

Nelson says that brand publishers must understand what motivates consumers to consistently return to content sites, and then take those learnings to heart. Only then, will brands learn how to create addictive content.

Every brand goes through a process to becoming a brand that is loved by its consumers. That process entails reach, trial and stick. Once a brand has reached out to a consumer, that consumer must then try it out. If these two stages go as planned and the consumer keeps coming back for more, the brand has achieved “stick.”

There are three steps to generating “stickiness,” says Nelson, and some brands are already doing a great job at it.

1. Don’t Publish Information. Fuel Aspirations.

Brands must understand what their customers want to keep them happy. People want change more than ever, says Nelson. We want to be smarter, live cleaner, be more passionate, eat better foods, be more frugal. And we are more committed than ever to achieving our goals and dreams, she says.

To achieve our goals, we want knowledge. Brands can help us make our goal achievement smoother to achieve our aspirations, she says.

There is an opportunity, then, for brands to help consumers visualize, track and reach their goals. This can be as simple as creating content – how-tos, for example – to help consumers get what they want.

Or it can be as complicated as creating new products that help users track progress towards their goals. Products like Mint (personal finance tracking), Chartbeat (real-time blogging analytics) and The Eatery (healthful eating visualization) all do this.

2. Market Your Manifesto.

Brands should create manifestos that transcend the utility that the brand provides – they should take on topics that are bigger than their brands or the verticals that they work in, says Nelson.

Lululemon’s manifesto, for example, is all about a way of life that that has very little to do with yoga and exercise, its core areas of business. Instead, it’s all about life, love, relationships, health. Here’s an excerpt:

“Do one thing a day that scares you… Stress is related to 99% of all illness… Dance, sing, floss and travel… Sweat once a day to regenerate your skin… The pursuit of happiness is the source of all unhappiness.”

Your manifesto may even become an integral part of your company’s revenue. Sound silly? Think again. Design company Holstee began offering up prints of its company manifesto (as pictured above) last year. The message went viral, and so far, the manifesto has been viewed online more than 50 million times and print sales accounted for 50% of the business’s revenue.

3. Double-down on Content Experiences.

Keep in mind that a consumer’s experience with your brand doesn’t end with a tweet or a visit to your website. Whenever possible, couple content with real experiences.

Lululemon, for example, hosts free yoga events in its store and even puts on an annual worldwide Salutation Nation yoga gathering, where yogis from all around the world gather at 9 a.m. their time to practice yoga together. Not only is Lululemon helping yogis improve their practices during the event, but it posts videos and pictures online afterwards for attendees to enjoy.

Likewise, a number of subscription-based mail services are cropping up, including poster child, Birchbox, a beauty-samples-by-mail company. Birchbox creates a content experience around the arrival of its latest beauty sampling in the mail. The Birchbox team creates video tutorials and how-to posts on how to best use the samples. And users even post their own reviews and how-tos across the Internet.

Birchbox also maintains a lifestyle-oriented blog and social media presence that follow topics that appeal to its audience. For example, the team put together a SXSW packing list chronicling the must-have items that they’d be bringing to the conference – great packing tips for fellow attendees.

Nelson’s tips are a great start towards creating a brand and content that people love. What are your tips for creating addicting content?

What Content Strategists Can Learn From the Movies

Content Strategist Carmen Hill presents at SXSW 2012

This post originally appeared on NASDAQ’s blog, where I contributed articles about content strategy during SXSW 2012.

What does content strategy have in common with the movies? At first glance, not much. Hollywood is all about red carpets, premieres and red carpets – and content strategy is about analyzing performance data and tweaking strategies to optimize success rates.

In her SXSW presentation, Social Media and Content Strategist Carmen Hill explained how content strategy and the movies are actually quite similar, though. In fact, she went as far as to say that content strategists could learn from Hollywood screenwriters by obeying the rules of the classic narrative arc.

Content marketers tend to focus on the sales funnel, a systematic approach to sell a product or service. The funnel illustrates a consumer’s path of discovery, consideration and decision-making in the buying process.

Instead, Hill says that content marketers should be thinking like screenwriters, taking consumers through the classic narrative arc, in which a story or movie incorporates the setup, a conflict and a resolution.

In these stories, there is always a hero, or protagonist to go on what is known as “the hero’s journey” through these three levels of storytelling. In “The Wizard of Oz,” for example, Dorothy is the hero. The setup is where all of the main characters of the movie are introduced. The conflict takes up the bulk of the story, and is invoked by a catalyst, or inciting incident. In this case, a tornado takes Dorothy’s house flying through the sky to Oz. Dorothy and her crew go on a mission to see out the Wizard of Oz during the conflict section of the movie. And finally, the resolution of the story comes when the hero saves the day – in this case, Dorothy discovers that she has had the power all along to return to Kansas, and everyone lives happily ever after.

So, where do customers come into play here? Customers are the heroes in the content strategy story. Hill explains that Hollywood heroes have a call to adventure, accept that call, seek knowledge, face their fears, overcome challenges and, in the end, become the masters of their worlds.

Consumers follow this same path, says Hill. They have a call to action when they discover that something is missing in life. They must then commit to making a change and research options, consuming content along the way. They face challenges, such as finances, in justifying and making their decisions. And finally, they acquire the good or service that helps them solve the problem, thus becoming the master of their world.

Brands, then, need to understand who their heroes are. They can figure this out through character development exercises. Much like a screenwriter spends time figuring out the personas behind his characters, a content strategist must figure out the persona behind his audience members. Are they decision-makers? Influencers? What do they care about? Where do they live?

Understanding the main characters of the story is a step in the right direction towards telling a provocative and meaningful story.

Just remember, unlike in the movies, the audience is in control of the story when it comes to your brand’s content. While content strategists may try to create the perfect script incorporating the narrative arc with absolute accuracy, the story will always be reshaped and influenced by its readers.

For your listening pleasure, here is a recording I took of Hill’s full presentation. Please ignore the typing noises — I was composing the outline for this post.🙂

My SXSW Panel Gets Drawn

I spoke on a panel about brand journalism with Twitter’s Karen Wickre, Eloqua’s Jesse Noyes and MarketProf’s Ann Handley at SXSW, and oh my lucky stars, it’s been documented via live graphic art. Isn’t that awesome?

This isn’t the first time I’ve been on a panel lucky enough to be noted via live graphic art, though. The first was at WOMMA 2010. Hopefully this is only the beginning of this colorful trend!

See the full-size drawing here.

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!

Parker Higgins and Erica Swallow Win #SurprisedSXSW

SurprisedSXSW Goodies from the "How to Create a Viral Video" Panelists

My favorite panel at the 2010 SXSW Interactive Conference was “How to Create a Viral Video“, which featured Damian Kulash, frontman of OK Go, Margaret Gould Stewart of YouTube and Jason Wishnow, director of film and video at TED. The panelists introduced the secret ingredients (boobies and kitties) and took it a step further by creating an homage to the popular “Surprised Kitty” video. The video starred Damian Kulash of OK Go tickling the 700 panel attendees and was filmed by Jason Wishnow of TED. After creating the video, they announced the SurprisedSXSW video contest, in which audience members were challenged to create more homages to “Surprised Kitty”.

Parker Higgins, my buddy and co-worker at the time, and I decided to up the ante by creating three videos, chronicling the big elephants in the room of SxSW: hangovers, the need for energy and celebrities. The original “Surprised Kitty” video, the homage filmed during the panel, and our three entries are below. It all paid off! We won!

The prize packs came in the mail this week. Thanks to the panelists for the awesome prizes:

– YouTube tube  socks (compliments of Margaret Gould Stewart of YouTube)
– OK Go flipbook (compliments of Damian Kulash of OK Go)
– The Decembrists Here Come the Waves DVD (produced by and compliments of Jonathan Wells of
– TED2009Global DVD Box Set (The complete archive of all 4 days, compliments of Jason Wishnow of TED)