A business cofounder’s dilemma: learn to code, outsource it, find a cofounder.

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. [1] 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:

  1. I can learn to program to build it myself in phases.

  2. I have a developer who can build it for 10-12K (the complete spec that I laid out)

  3. Or find a technical co-founder who wants to work on the project.

  4. 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.

Scott then emailed back with some additional information, which I’ll respond to in line.

To give you a little more background on the concept I had a friend who created an online billboard for himself, and set up a bidding process for employers. He ended up receiving 15 bids and got an awesome job.

Cool, so there’s at least one situation where this worked. If he can recreate the aspects of what made this so successful with his product, then he might find some success.

So in my mind, I decided to test to see if I could set up a platform for users to do this and make it a hub where employers could find some great talent (more to your point about companies and hiring managers needing to embrace it for it to work).

In my initial testing (through Gutcheck service which allows me to pick a target demo and chat with them in real time) I found that people would be willing to pay for something like this.

It sounds like this product is going to be a two-sided marketplace. Both job-seekers and job-providers need to be interested in using the product. It sounds like his initial testing (cool find by the way: Gutcheck) focused mainly on job-seekers. Definitely good that he talked to some people, but you do have to careful not to oversell in these conversations “My app will get you bids from 20 employers and your salary will go up 50%! Do you want it?” may not end up giving you the data you need to move forward. =)

Anyway, now I am in the process of surveying my sign ups. I am getting a medium amount of signups, but many people are having a hard time getting a feel for my product concept.

Now I am backing up and testing a stripped down product where it is basically like www.about.me with the ability to add a resume and have all of their social media there. I can build that for about 4K.

So it sounds like Scott got less sign ups than he was hoping for. There are a few reasons why this might be the case:

1) He didn’t promote his landing page well enough. In which case he probably needs to get a bit more creative about sending traffic here. Perhaps a Show HN?

2) He didn’t explain his idea thoroughly enough. Perhaps. This is what he thinks and thus he feels a demo will help people better “get” the product.

3) People don’t want to use EmployTown. Perhaps again. No entrepreneur likes to hear that their idea might not be wanted, but this could be the case. More customer development might help here.

I am going to check into the CustDev book by Brant Cooper (I have spoken with him but not read the book).

Yes, please feel free to share my story on your blog. I really appreciate your feedback.

Cool – hope that goes well and thanks for letting me share. I hope you guys find this interesting. I’ll send this post to Scott and perhaps he’ll share what he’s been up to since we talked a few weeks ago.

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Jason Shen

Jason is a tech entrepreneur and talent expert. He is CEO of a performance hiring platform called Headlight, a Fast Company contributor, and an advocate for Asian American men. Follow him on Twitter at @jasonshen and subscribe to his private newsletter.

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  1. As someone who would like to one day be fortunate enough to have his own tech start-up, I really appreciated this. Great analysis and words of wisdom, especially on the technical and product side, that I won’t forget. Thanks for sharing!

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