Who better to answer questions about tech and software startups than Dan Rockwell, co-founder of Big KittyLabs, where dive-in and make it happen are words to live by. Rockwell started BKL in 2009 as a place to turn experiments and big ideas into reality.
No stranger to startups, in 2008 Rockwell also won the TechGenius grant at Columbus Startup Weekend for another of his ventures. His experience paired with an honest and thought-provoking list of questions make him a great resource for those looking to build a software-based tech startup.
1. I have a big idea for a startup, can you help me?
First, let’s dial that back. What you likely have is just an idea, which is really a project. So lets call it a project, because a startup is an overused word these days. Startup is what you have when you know what the project is, what the product is, who the customer is, know you have customers that want it, understand how it makes money, how it can scale and how it really go go go’s for traction; it’s at that point you actually have a startup. Until then, you have a project. It’s all good, I have lots of projects, what’s yours?
2. How much will it cost to make my mobile or web application?
That depends, do you know what to make? If you don’t know, the cost just rose significantly, depending on the complexity you need. If you don’t know the complexity, stop and don’t ask this question because you don’t have enough information- and that’s ok, lots of people are in this space. Knowing what to make is critical, and saying, “ya know a site for cats to be cool and stuff,” isn’t the data a developer needs. They need specifics. They need the dreaded requirements. Personally, I prefer a good conversation about what you’re trying to do, what you think you’re going to do and what you think is on the other side of the rainbow. Honestly most developers are unlikely to care too much about what’s on the other side of the rainbow, that’s not really their role, their role is to build your request. But a good developer will question you; and you’re likely to either like or really, really dislike that. In the end, they are trying to execute not only for you but to stand by their work, so it really helps to know what you want. Once you know what you want, everything starts at $15,000 and goes up.
3. What if I don’t have any money?
Congrats! You’re like most of us. However this isn’t the end. You just have to be 1,000 times more creative. One option is to write a compelling business plan and convince a State of Ohio loan program that your idea is serious bank. You can also work with various partners in the region – State of Ohio, TechColumbus, ECDI, Ohio State, (insert incubator/school here), and so on. There are no hand outs for ideas that can’t stand on their own, but there are an army of believes out there who have been where you stand today and figured it out. Learn from them. Network, network, network. Go to WakeUp StartUp and learn from folks. Go to Startup Weekend and learn how to build a big idea, and maybe get money for it.
4. While prototyping, how can I speed up the process?
Leverage everything. Use sites like Unbounce to build launch pages in four hours and move on to the next task. Leverage API’s from sites like ProgrammableWeb and GO FASTER. Don’t reinvent the wheel and don’t waste time with tasks that aren’t the most critical, required piece of the prototype. Leverage as much as you can as fast as you can and stay away from your own building bias. You will want to guide customers so that they never get confused and completely love you – this is a trap. In prototyping you need users to give you data. You should be obsessed with people telling you what is wrong with your idea and how to fix it, because if you fixed it they would buy it. Those people are your customers, you need their insights and you have fixed amount of time to get that data and build belief. Go faster. Remember software isn’t a build once venture, you will continue to build and iterate over and over, the build process may not be as frequent as the product gets better, but it does not end.
5. Why do you say I have fixed amount of time, don’t I have forever to see my idea through?
Actually, no. You have about nine months or less to realize your idea. There are multiple traps in this startup dance, one of them is working on an idea or business plan for longer than nine months. By that time you’re not really working on it, you’re doing everything but hustling. If you were hustling and your idea is software based, I bet you could realize the whole idea in 120 days or less, with or without money to do it. Money helps to build, but it doesn’t help belief. Belief can be gained with a story, a known customer, a product someone wants, an experience they want to have – you can create that in 120 days. What’s more troublesome is that ideas are not loyal to you. Guess what, some guy or gal in another place in the world just got that same idea. It’s a race to realize. It’s a race for traction. And of course there’s always room for me-too ideas, but they all can fragment the market and that causes the customers you have to pause and question. Close that gap, get to market faster and realize it.
6. How do I get started?
Buy some post-it notes, go to a cafe, a quiet place, library etc., and start thinking about the idea. Write every question, idea and notion in your head on a post-it. Question yourself as you go. Ask yourself, what is this thing? Ask, why am I thinking about it? Who uses it? Why should it exist? How does it work? How does it make money? What if it doesn’t make money – is that still cool? What then? Think in buckets as well, including ideas on things like features, revenue model, experience, brand and platform (web or mobile). Then project yourself three years into the future when this thing is being used. Look at those users, think about that experience they are having, think about those customers talking about your product. What are they saying? Think about the company you’ve made. Where is it- downtown, suburb, big building or small? Think of the people that work there, think about the wall of your press/accomplishments, people who wrote stories about you. What did they say? What magazines or trades did stories on you? The point of trying to see all of this is to help frame it, and then allow you to come back to today and think – ok, to build that future, I need x today, x tomorrow and in 12 months x, and so on. Realize that the future could be anything, but in 120 days you’ll start with something. Also realize that when you start, you continue, you don’t end until you choose to let it die. So get on with it, start building, start believing, start doing.