Got an email recently from a guy named Scott Balster. He had pinged me on Twitter earlier asking if he could pick my brain about something.  I agreed and here’s what he sent me:
I am building a concept called Employtown (www.employtown.com ) where basically the premise is to give job seekers a platform to build a digital billboard of themselves, promote their search among their networks, and receive bids from employers.
I have done some testing and with the signups I have received from the landing page and want to move forward. My hold up is that I have a limited technical background (have used Joomla and other open source programs). Basically, my options are:
I can learn to program to build it myself in phases.
I have a developer who can build it for 10-12K (the complete spec that I laid out)
Or find a technical co-founder who wants to work on the project.
Find a developer who can build it in stages and then test the features and user metrics to know when to adjust.
What are your thoughts in this situation?
I’m glad Scott emailed me. Personally, I don’t find the idea super compelling, but I’ve learned not to get too hung up about initial startup ideas, because they usually change. Plus he is a business cofounder and thus holds a special place in my heart. I spend a lot of time on HN and while the community is great, they tend to enjoy ragging on non-technical people who want to start companies. Though perhaps they just need to be approached the right way.
I want to help Scott – and I think his challenge is more than just how best to build the product, but in fact are three-fold:
1) Customer traction. You said you have some signups. How many? Are people lining out the door to get this? How do you know if this product is what people really want? [I shared with him a copy of The Entrepreneur's Guide to Customer Development, which readers should really just go ahead and get it. Great read]. I know you didn’t ask for this and perhaps I’m not seeing the vision, but I don’t know if online billboards are going to resonate with hiring managers. Getting proof of customer desire (not just from jobseekers, but HR people) is key.
2) Technical ability. You don’t know how to build what you want to make right now and you’re exploring different ways to do it. This ties very closely to the first point, customer traction, because if you build something no one wants, everyone is frustrated and time is wasted. I would encourage you to outsource the barest MVP – saves money, time and easier to pivot. See a great post by Derek Sivers, founder of CDBaby called “How to hire a programmer to make your ideas happen“. After you build a prototype, use it to get feedback and interest in the product – then you’ll be in a better position to find a real technical cofounder, which I think is critical to building a successful tech startup.
3) Money. It seems like you have enough money to fund some development, but ultimately to really build this out, unless you have a bootstrapped model, you’ll need additional funding. Having traction and a strong technical cofounder will help a lot with garnering the bigger dollars you’ll need to truly build this out. (As will connections to angels and VCs.
There are few things worse that chasing an idea, spending a lot of time and money to build something, and then seeing it go nowhere. That’s why it’s so important to figure out if you’re building something people want – before you go out and kill yourself trying to make it happen. Once you know people want what you’re going to make, it becomes easier to find someone to build it and to raise money (or earn it through product sales) which will help you continue forward.