Product Development for Non-Technical Founders
By Landon Young, Ph.D., Executive Director of University Initiatives
While technology is one of the most lucrative industries for startups in Indiana, the complexities behind creating technical products can be overwhelming, particularly for a non-technical founder. Non-technical founders will not likely become the best designers or developers overnight, but they can become great product managers. In this article, I will share my insights for successful product development.
The Non-Technical Founder Dilemma
The non-technical founder dilemma is this: You have an idea that requires a technical solution, but you lack the expertise and experience to create the technology yourself. How can you solve this dilemma? While having a trusted tech co-founder can be helpful, this may not always be possible. However, there are a variety of options that can help, including learning how to code or hiring a development agency (5 Ways to Build an App from Crema).
Let’s say you have an idea to create an app but have not found a co-founder yet. There are a few paths you could take, including:
- DIY. You are likely not a designer or developer, but if this is a path you want to explore then there are low-code and no-code options like Bubble for building your MVP. Alternatively, you can take a longer path to becoming skilled such as enrolling in a training program.
- Hire outside help. This may be the most expensive solution but would likely provide the best quality. Furthermore, if you do not bring design-ready mockups with all necessary elements, then you could end up paying top dollar for work you could have done yourself. Lastly, make sure your hired guns are working in an agile way which will allow for the changes that will surely come.
- Opensource resources. Software like Figma and Sketch provide professionally designed resources and templates to help create and test apps. These platforms typically allow for collaboration so you can easily share within your team.
While starting a company and building something has never been faster or cheaper, it is up to you to make sure you are building the right thing.
The Solution: Product Management
Regardless of which approach you take, you still must learn to be a good product owner, client, and product manager to ensure you are delivering the right product. Product management can vary across different companies and industries, but in your startup, it might mean being an expert communicator, conducting customer interviews and user testing, running design sprints, and prioritizing the product roadmap, resource allocation, and measuring your milestones and metrics along the way.
Product management can offer solutions to ideate, conceptualize and visualize your product, help you manage and strategize, and allow you to eventually recruit new team members, including replacing yourself by hiring a new product manager.
For product management to be the most advantageous, you need four things: knowledge, advisors, tools, and skills (KATS).
- Knowledge. You have to have foundational knowledge to know what you are and are NOT going to do and why. You must be familiar with approaches like Agile, Lean Startup, and Design Thinking, that inform the design, build, and delivery of your product. You will want to ensure that your contractors, hires, or cofounders are in alignment with these approaches and goals. In coordinating work with others, you might need to employ a way of working and communicating like Scrum to help keep everyone aligned on tasks, milestones, and timing. Finally, become familiar with the lingo that your teammates or contractors use such as “git”, “user story”, “requirements gathering”, or “rubber ducking”.
- Advisors. Start interviewing professionals in design, manufacturing, software development, product management, or other related industries. Ask them what a typical day looks like, what tools they use, who they work with, and how they communicate as a team. Some of these people will be extremely helpful. It’s important to maintain these relationships; these are informal advisors who might be formal advisors or board members someday.
- Tools. You’ve started learning about approaches, process, and tools, now use them! There is no one size fits all toolset or brand of tools. You’ll want to consider things such as: Needs of the job (Sketch vs Figma); Scale of the job (Asana vs Jira); Stage of your company (personal email vs Mailchimp); Personal preference (Dropbox Paper vs Confluence). Remember, you are the product owner; it’s not your job to be the most skilled technical person, but to lead the entire team in the right direction. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice, start using the tools, and keep experimenting until you find a fit. For more details on the most essential tools, check out this Curated List of Tools and Software for Product Managers in 2020 from Product School.
- Skills. As the product owner, what skills should you refine? Josh Elman, Partner at Greylock recommends several critical ones:
- Researching and synthesizing information. This includes combining information with your own intuition and developing hypotheses. It’s also helpful to develop inspiring world views and visions that take people from point A to a better point B.
- Communication. Use visual and written skills to communicate your vision, strategy, and roadmap. You’ll draw clear wireframes, write detailed user stories, and explain your vision and strategy clearly and concisely.
- Leadership and persuasion. This will help rally your team towards a vision they might not believe in.
- Technology and design. You will need to understand how things work and why things work.
- Working with engineers and designers. You don’t need to learn coding or design per se, but you’ll need to learn their language and earn their trust.
Leading any startup is a challenging yet rewarding task. If you have a great idea but lack some of the technical skills, don’t let that stop you from pursuing your goal of creating a product. With the right tools and resources, the solution may be easier than you think.