Tips For Getting Started For The Non-Technical Web Entrepreneur

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Tips For Getting Started For The Non-Technical Web Entrepreneur

 

The following is a guest post by Fan Bi, the Founder of Blank Label Group, including the sites Blank Label, Thread Tradition and RE:Custom.
 
No programmer wants to be the technical co-founder of your IDEA, no angel will fund your IDEA, no customer wants to buy your IDEA. Do you see the pattern? If you’re at ground zero with an idea, the best thing to do is to make your idea into something real. 
 
1. Pitch everyone your idea 
 
The Winklevoss twins are still going to end up with eight figures to their names. You should be so lucky to have someone take your idea. The most useful thing you can do when you’re at the embryonic idea stage is talk to everyone humanly possible about it. A lot of people won’t get it, a lot of people will tell you it’s dumb. That’s okay, just treat them as data points. After all, startups are an experiment and you’re at step one of testing your hypothesis. Make sure you take down the contact info of the people you meet as you’ll want to follow-up with them as you progress down these steps. Once you have a one sentence pitch and a 60 second pitch down-pat, you’re ready to move on.
 
2. Mockup wireframes 
 
You’ve got a much better sense of the idea, you’re received feedback from other entrepreneurs, and hopefully some customers. Now put your idea on a whiteboard. Draw out what your homepage looks like, no color needed; just think about language and layout, study other sites that have good design, look at the existing players in the space, and understand what works well and what doesn’t. The goal of this homepage is to test whether people are going to apply an action (like give you their email address) in exchange for promising to solve their problem at some later date. This is a good example of something that’s super simple, here’s a better example. Once you’ve drawn up your homepage in a wireframing tool like Balsamiq, you’re ready to move on.
 
3. Hire a designer 
 
Go to 99designs, an oursourcing site like oDesk, or even Craigslist to find someone to design a homepage. This should cost you anywhere from $150-500. Again, show them sites that have design that works for you, send them your wireframe, and make sure you ask for at least three revisions in your fee. The three revisions should be used in three series of feedback, with the people who’ve given you feedback along the way. If you’re not familiar with Photoshop, make sure you ask for individual JPGs of the different images, as well as the JPGs of all three versions of the homepage (this will matter for the next step). Once you’ve got something that you think looks good, and other entrepreneurs and potential customers are on board with, you’re ready to move to the next step.
 
4. Do customer development
 
Now the fun stuff begins. Host the three versions of your homepage on Unbounce. You now have a website, congratulations. Next you’ll want to sign-up for Snapengage so you can talk to customers when they get to your site. Then you’ll want to sign up for Optimizely so you can create even more versions of the homepage, to test button placement, wording and images. And you’ll want to sign up for Google Analytics to get even more data about how people are using your homepage. Finally you’ll want to sign up for Mailchimp, so you can properly collect emails. All of these services have free accounts for beginners, and they all work with each other seamlessly. With around $200 on Adwords, you’ll want to start talking to potential customers. Starting Adwords does have quite a steep learning curve, way outside the scope of this post, but for a non-programmer, it’s a very important skill to learn. With all the tools you’ve placed on the homepage, you can test what language and layout works best based on given metrics, e.g. how long they spend on it, how many people take an action, and you can have real-time conversations with them to learn why they visited, what about the site makes them uncomfortable, etc. Keep going until you have 200 unique visitors to your page.
 
5. Make good connections with investors and advisors
Even if you’re not looking for financing, it’s always good to have a perspective of how investors view your business, especially your business area. Every now and again, they’ll also provide some useful feedback. In addition, you should start to more aggressively form relationships with informal advisors, people that have some domain expertise who you can go back to every month or so with simple questions and meet every quarter or two. You’ll also have a much better time recruiting a team if you have investor relationships and advisors to point to.
 
6. Develop relationships with press
 
Research journalists that write about your area. That should mean topically, and geographically. As an example, at Blank Label, as a web business we talk to tech journalists, as an apparel company we talk to fashion bloggers, as a custom brand we have lifestyle articles written about us, because we’re Boston based we get local press, because I’m from Australia we’ve been written about there too, and of course there are a ton of journalists writing about stories like yours everyday from Entrepreneur Magazine to small business section of New York Times. The important thing is to refrain from pitching them; just drop them emails about their articles, providing insightful feedback. You should comment on all their posts. They will inevitably ask you what you’re up to.
 
You should be able to move swiftly from steps 1-6 within 2 months. After those 9 aggressive weeks, you should go back to the programmers, angels and potential customers, and see if their decision to work with you has changed.
What do you think?  Any tips for folks that are not technical, but looking to start an Internet company?

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Fri, May 06, 2011

COMMENTS

Some good tips, but two comments. First when you write for entrepreneurs, loose the buzz words like "Wireframes"? Perspective means knowing who your audience and speaking to that level. Second, with regard to your advice about sites like oDesk for design, sites like thoes devalue professional creatives. Entreprenuers don't simply need design, they need professional consulation that goes along with creating a brand. If you are serious, do it right from the beginning. If you expect to get paid for what you do, be willing to pay other professionals for what they bring to the business of business. What goes around, comes around.

posted on Friday, May 06, 2011 at 10:23 AM by Tanya


@Tanya - Thanks for the feedback. Regarding the amount you should spend on creative and design, we've made a lot of mistakes from being thrifty early on, but someone you literally don't have the money to pay for it. Instead we've tried to incrementally make progress.  
 
@AnnBlanchard I appreciate the kind words. Best of luck in your journey. Have fun!

posted on Friday, May 06, 2011 at 10:30 AM by Fan Bi | Blank Label


Investor and press networking can be somewhat useful, but it's far, far less important than customers and product.  
 
If you're at all technically inclined, learn to program and do some prototyping yourself. Find someone to spend a few hours with you to help you get rolling - often the development environment and settings are more confusing than the actual programming languages, IMO.  
 
Also, see if you can offer your product as a service first. Put yourself or Mechanical Turk on the backend, limit the number of users, and see if and how people actually use it. Or for B2B markets, do consulting in the area that your product would automate. Customer development as in interviewing customers is good, but actually doing stuff for them is even better.

posted on Friday, May 06, 2011 at 10:33 AM by Greg


I always recommend 2-wireframes (even if hand-drawn) and 3-designer early in the process - forces a necessary thinking through of feature/functionality/value prop. 
 
Also demonstrates to others you're more than a talker.

posted on Friday, May 06, 2011 at 10:36 AM by Paul Heath


I would agree with this article with few remarks - I would add Elance.com as a place to hire designer and not just developer. $150-500 might be enough for 'a web page', but will not enough for a quality site with processes. Getting in touch with journalists from The New York Times can ver very tricky and challenging. 
 
However these remarks, in general I like the approach! Congratulations!

posted on Friday, May 06, 2011 at 11:36 AM by Petko Karamotchev


I can not express enough how important it is to develop relathionships with investors/advisors and the press.  
 
 
 
Creating relationships with the press allow for you to gain some traction and begin to build some sort of user base because their network of followers generally listen to what they have to say. 
 
 
 
If at all possible you should try to seek out an advisor who has investor connections. This person will be your biggest advocate, and if you are able to prove your worth to this "advisor" he may open up his network to you and you now have access to a book of potential investors you never thought possible. Additionally, investors like to invest in something together, so often times your advisor may even become an investor in your product himself.  
 
 
 
I call that putting your money where your mouth is!!!!

posted on Friday, May 06, 2011 at 11:44 AM by Robert Dolle


I've produced and programmed dozens upon dozens of websites for Fortune 500 companies, entrepeneurs and everyone in between for over 12 years. There's some good stuff here but a pretty gross oversimplification over all. Most sites I've created for entrepeneurs have failed for the following reasons: 
 
1. Assume that your idea has already been done, because it has. Therefore, when you pitch the idea, make sure and ask if they've seen anything like it, and be prepared to modify accordingly. Its 100% guaranteed your idea has already been done online, successfully or unsuccessfully. Which is not to say, your idea is bad or should not be pursued. Just ask around if anyone knows of anything similar and be prepared to adjust iteration after iteration after iteration. My best clients find that at the end, their idea is far different than the original seed they came to me with. For the better. 
 
2. In light of #1, the biggest failure my entrepeneur clients make is being so arrogant to think their idea is one in a million. At that point, we web developers know you are a sucker, we charge you loads to create the website, stroke your ego until we get paid, and we laugh our way to the bank knowing your arrogance will get the best of you. See #3 on how to make this work for you 
 
3. Find web developer or web designer friends or son/daughters with experience to give you honest feedback on your idea and if they have seen it before. Programmers, designers and producers live and breathe the web, they look at websites all day long everyday, they read the trades, blogs etc every day. They are the massive wealth of expertise that you should tap into in evaluation of your idea. That will allow you to adjust and make your idea truly distinguishable. We web developers gripe all the time about how our client could make this product distinguishable, but the client doesnt want to elicit the opinion of us pros. The truth is we want to work on products we are proud of. Its painstaking work creating website, so we want it to be successful as much as you do. 
 
4. Dont short change your design and dont go to India. Definitely a classic mistake time and again. Experience is everything in this industry. College kids know the tools, but dont have the experience.  
 
My favorite question I ask clients and my web colleague is whether they have ever had a successful India experience. I personally have tried outsourcing several times, always with meager results. I have never heard of a successful outsource result. You have to understand how Indian companies train their staff to understand why the organization foundation prevents a good result  
 
Thats good business for me and my colleagues, because we get called to clean up the mess that the Indian developers made, at significant cost and time to you. I will say there are Indian and Eastern European options that are good, but unless you have a very very strong referral from someone deeply tied to this industry, stay away from outsourcing. You will not save any money, because you will end up hiring domestic help to fix it at greater cost than had you stayed domestic from the beginning. Thats a significant portion of my day to day business, fixing outsourced messes. I interview foreign service providers quite a bit, and you can smoke out the lies in their service pitch quickly if you know the right questions.  
 
5. All the testing advised here is premature, because all you have is a home page, which is really just a 1 page powerpoint. You dont have a website yet. Your home page here is just the cover of the book. So, sure, do some testing if you want, but save the testing for when you have a full website. Dont waste so much time on this right now, you'll need it later.  
 
Im not really clear on the Customer Development here, or AdWords. If you only have a home page, you dont have a website or a product, you just have a book cover. Why bring customers to your store with AdWords if there is nothing on the shelf? You only get one shot at the customer, and your lonely home page isn't going to convince anybody to come back in six months when you have a product. I think the home page works for investors though so they can visualize 
 
6. Classic mistake -- just because you surf the web, doesnt mean you know the web. You drive a car, does that mean you understand how to dismantle it, repair it, market it to the public etc etc. Web is the same. Your web developer / programmer is a huge resource to explain to you that vast amount of considerations and tradeoffs that going into creating an online property. 
 
6. Google search wont make your company. Forget it. Companies spend untold dollars on optimizing their sites for pageranking, SEO, AdWords etc. Google is one arrow in your quiver. But use all traditional marketing tools as well. I repeat, if you build it they wont come. You have to go get them. 
 
Friendly advice. Not looking for a job, my plate is full. just friendly advice because it disheartens me to see my entrepeneur clients make these mistakes again and again and again. Everyone has an online idea, like everyone has a Hollywood script. Make yours special by consulting people who do this each and every day. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

posted on Friday, May 06, 2011 at 12:44 PM by James


Very interesting, I have been toying with the idea of an online reatil shop. But have no idea where to start. 
 
although I kind dont understand how to use/integrate all those you mention in one website. 

posted on Friday, May 06, 2011 at 1:28 PM by César M.


Trying to start a company that relies on a technical platform when you have no technical background is like trying to win a car race blindfolded. You can't tell when someone is taking advantage of you - especially remote contract programmers and designers. I've seen it numerous times. It's also dangerous not to know about accounting, finance, marketing, employment law and security, but less than the technical aspect. If I were in this situation (and I'm not), I'd take a clue from others who have admitted to being scammed. One that comes to mind is Danni Ashe. She wound up stopping everything to learn the technical side herself. She could then be aware when when someone was delivering bad code. 
Really, the ideal startup CEO who works primarily alone on a shoestring is one with about a decade of software engineering expertise, a technical undergraduate degree and an MBA. If you're not that, then you better have some really qualified friends who you can trust.

posted on Friday, May 06, 2011 at 2:09 PM by Richard


Hello, 
 
Please remove my photograph from this post, or contqact me about buying a license for its use. 
 
Many regards, 
 
Alex

posted on Saturday, May 07, 2011 at 3:52 AM by alex


Great Article about getting your idea started. But you will also need a User Experience Designer and and User Interface Designer and hopefully you can find one person who does it all. But any designer worth there weight is going to cost much more the $150 - $500 it's more like $5000. Projects change and evolve and you want a good designer on board to help. Also good luck trying to find a good designer on 99 designs and craigslist. You want to work with someone who comes with a recommendation.

posted on Saturday, May 07, 2011 at 9:31 AM by Kate McGee Reyes


Thanks for this excellent post! This is good advice if you're taking a transactional service to market. However, if you're a B2B player with an innovative proposition at a higher price point then you may also want to pick up the phone and road test your proposition in person or via web conference. This is especially true if your quarry is senior executives at mid sized or larger businesses.

posted on Saturday, May 07, 2011 at 6:06 PM by Will Zuckermann


Yes, no investors will talk to you if you can't code. They now have the d.fund (for designers) but that which sounds more elitist?  
 
Worse, if you're not solving a "problem" but creating a time vacuum, good luck.  
 
Alos, there's a steep and expensive learning curve when it comes to Elance for programmers and designers. Trust me on this one, you're better off on 99designs for designs. For programmers, don't hire anyone with a so called 'team.' Hire solo programmers instead.

posted on Sunday, May 08, 2011 at 6:41 AM by Snyggast


For wireframing, use this: http://pencil.evolus.vn 
it's free!  

posted on Sunday, May 08, 2011 at 6:49 AM by Snyggast


Good list, I think even for technical people this a great place to start. There is no point working on an idea for 6 months to find that there is no market for it, where as with a little bit (relatively) of work and money upfront you can quite easily find out if there is. Doing the whole land page and talking to customers thing let's you easily test the waters.

posted on Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 2:44 AM by Luca Spiller


Reach out to college kids. As a student, aspiring entrepreneur, and amateur web developer, I can tell you that I'm always looking for new companies to work with. College students may not have experience, but many of us are willing to learn and take chances in order to have something unique on our resumes.

posted on Thursday, May 12, 2011 at 7:53 AM by Karl Hughes


I would add some points to your encouragement: 
 
- You need to take the initiative to move your project along (the points in the article and the comments are all points on how to do this) 
 
- You need to show momentum of one kind or another...the more progress that you show, the more people will get interested. The more people start helping you, the more momentum you will be able to get for your project. Momentum is like a snowball (if you have ever made a snowball, you know what I mean!) 
 
- You will make many many mistakes along the way, no matter who you are. The key is to keep moving forward! 
 
Scott Maxwell 
OpenView Venture Partners

posted on Saturday, May 14, 2011 at 9:29 AM by Scott Maxwell


Great write up on Startups, the idea part is the core of your new startup; I agree 100% that you need to get feedback from as much people as possible. If you are starting your own company, I read this article that talks about the mistakes Mark Zuckerberg did when he was starting Facebook that you should avoid at all costs: <a>http://www.openforum.com/idea-hub/topics/managing/article/what-you-can-learn-from-mark-zuckerbergs-mess<a>

posted on Monday, May 16, 2011 at 1:36 PM by Francisco Pina


Great post. I think the part about providing wireframes is very important when starting up a website.

posted on Tuesday, May 17, 2011 at 12:32 PM by Don Kim


Interesting Stuff Love this! ‎10 Things You Need to Know Before You Start Your Own Business http://bit.ly/lgDQRX

posted on Thursday, May 19, 2011 at 1:48 PM by Frankie


I'd disagree on just one point. If you have a really compelling idea you'll find programmers/designers who'll put in sweat equity. I did, that how ProspectStream 3 was born.

posted on Friday, May 20, 2011 at 8:18 AM by Karl Treier


Awesome tips, developing relationships with the press will get you a lot of free coverage, especially if they like you. They will want to write about you.

posted on Sunday, May 22, 2011 at 2:41 AM by Accommodation in Durban


It is great stuff about startups. It is something different from anything I have read before.

posted on Monday, May 23, 2011 at 8:00 AM by Payroll Software


Wow this article hit home. I suck when it comes to writing coding and for that reason I find it worth it to pay for someone who is good. I was always told you will always have to pay either with money or your time.

posted on Monday, May 23, 2011 at 3:18 PM by Donothan Gamble


Wonderful Info! Social media is truly a competitive advantage for a young entrepreneur today. It has changed the way we interact online, both from the perspective an individual as well as an organization. For instance, for us having recently launched our website and shortly after our Facebook and Twitter pages, we were initially concentrating a great deal on driving relevant traffic to our website. In the interim of the further development and improvement of our website I shifted the initial order of interaction somewhat realizing that I can communicate directly better through our Facebook page than doing initial testing and implementation directly on the site. It gave us an invaluable opportunity to interact and gain immediate feedback with our fans thus allowing us to improve the user experience on the site. Not to mention a cost effective way of doing so. Upon initial launch of a site, especially when you are breaking new ground in an area which is virtually untapped and certainly underutilized it is so important to release, gain feedback, analyze and be able to re-release quickly when you are ready, as to not simply be throwing darts at a board. Social media makes something that would previously require costly focus groups virtually a thing of the past. DiedOnTheVine.com is the place to learn and grow from the lessons of "failed" business ventures. The idea is that by exploring these invaluable experiences we align ourselves to move forward with greater knowledge, understanding and awareness. We invite you to visit us on the site, after you visit us on Facebook of course! facebook.com/diedonthevine twitter.com/diedonthevine 
 
BTW... We are in the final phase of the re-release of the latest set of improvements to the site, so we are currently tweaking the new features. We encourage you to fan us on Facebook and we will let you know straight away when they are complete. 

posted on Monday, May 23, 2011 at 8:48 PM by DiedOnTheVine.com


This is a fantastic post. Not only have you provided some great thinking and simple instructions for getting started, but you've included some valuable links to affordable tools too.  
 
Really awesome. Thanks!

posted on Tuesday, May 24, 2011 at 8:50 AM by Dave Delaney


fantastic article. I found ti very informative because that is the exact situation i am in. I am launching an internet start-up and i have a business background as well as an MBA but no technical experience. I appreciate the tips offered in this post.  
 
What are your thoughts on using outsourcing companies like Elance to find programmers?

posted on Wednesday, June 15, 2011 at 8:05 PM by Don Tarinelli


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