ben ogle

An idea for non-technical co-founders: try a service-first business

Mar 25 2013

Over the past several months I have been having a lot of conversations with non-technical folks who want to start, or are starting a company. I’m drawn to these conversations for the difference in perspective. I’m technical and I admittedly tend to have a build-first mindset – build out neat ideas first, ask questions later. But I’ve noticed an interesting pattern:

Non-technical folks often also have a build-first mindset. They want to build neat stuff and then go out and get users despite their skillset being on the ‘hustling’ side of the spectrum.

They have an idea, maybe some sketches or wireframes, but are held up by the lack of technical person able to build their vision. They just need a programmer. In this situation, the programmer will sadly think why do I need this person?

So I have an idea: don’t find a technical co-founder (yet) and don’t learn to code. Use your current skills and try your hand at a service-first business.

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I graduated from YCombinator a few months ago ( S12 Easel ). One of the most interesting parts of experience was being very close to my fellow batchmates. I was able to see in real-time and almost first-hand all the little struggles and successes. I got to see a huge variety of different skill-type distributions – some companies with all tech founders, some with mostly non-tech founders – attack their problem spaces in many different ways.

As a technical guy, watching the companies who were solving non-technical problems was particularly eye opening. I developed an extreme appreciation and respect for these hustling skills. To give an overview, their approach was generally this: build almost nothing at first (MVP!), pound the pavement and get customers to pay right away for a service they do manually, then build things to make the manual pains go away as they get more customers. It even worked for one technical team – an enterprise API. When called, the API would just email the founders, they would do the work manually, then asynchronously return the result.

This approach has wormed its way into my brain and I now think about startups in one of two categories: tech-first and service-first.

Definition

Tech-first products are those that need to be built to show they work. Google is a tech first product, as are games, productivity apps, etc. The point with tech-first products is that you can’t get users for a new product until it is built because it depends so much on how the technical piece works. You just can’t fake a new search engine or a file syncing utility. Marc Andreessen defines this as technology or product risk. Mitigating this product risk requires a technical person.

Service-first products depend on a service or community at their core. Groupon, Airbnb, Exec, and TaskRabbit are obvious examples. These companies needed almost no technology at first – they inherently have very low technology and product risk. They just hustled their way into town. Maybe your idea is a marketplace that connects widget makers to people who buy widgets? At first, relationships can be built with widget makers and buyers can be found without tech. The tech is applied later to help scale. Service-first products might be a subset of Ben Parr’s traction startups.

Explore only service-first products

In almost all cases of the non-technical folks I’ve spoken with, their ideas consist of tech-first ideas. Don’t do it!

Use your strengths! And find an idea that lets you use them immediately.

Explore only ideas that require no more tech than maybe a wordpress blog or simple website. Don’t think about the tech, think about how to make a service or community work in a tiny way. Provide your service 100% manually until you just can’t do it without more people or tech.

As a non-technical founder, you are likely good at building and maintaining relationships. You are probably good at selling things. You might be great at framing, so people buy into your vision or get excited about your ideas. These are amazing, difficult-to-acquire skills. They are skills you don’t get to use right away when building, say, a photo sharing app. But you can use them right now when building, say, a new kind of marketplace.

If you are able to show that your service or community is working in a tiny way without having built much, you will have orders of magnitude more ammo when trying to find a technical co-founder. Likely with investors as well.

In practice, when I was attending meetups, I did not meet a single non-technical person who had done any of this leg work. I would have taken them and their idea very seriously if they had.

Finding ideas

How do you go about finding these ideas? It seems many of them are marketplaces. Do you know of some latent supply somewhere? Do you have a novel way of rounding it up? Can you connect it to buyers? Can you take something that’s generally an expensive luxury item to the everyman (think stylist, personal assistant, etc)?

Do you have a difficult to acquire skill? For example, businesses in all verticals are terrible at marketing, maybe you can help them? Maybe in only a specific vertical?

What kind of people do you know? A lot of lawyers? Engineers? Construction workers? Maybe they need something you can provide?

I have been lucky enough to watch a number of my YC batchmates do an amazing job building service-first businesses. I cannot write about all of them, so I have chosen just two and I will explain through their their example.

Vayable

Vayable connects tourists with locals who will provide experiences. Think: AirBnB for travel activities. As an example, maybe you’re headed to the bay area looking for things to do in San Francisco. Vayable’s Jamie Wong wanted to go anywhere in the world and be able to have someone local show her all the interesting nooks.

For months, Vayable’s tech piece consisted of only a wordpress blog. She started locally in San Francisco and her first step was finding tour guides. All of the work was in pounding the local pavement. She hit up friends, friends of friends, and travel bloggers to be guides in SF. She even hosted meetups to find interesting people.

With some tour guides on hand, she set out to find tourists. Her initial batch of tourists came from a genius move: she hosted Airbnb guests, figured out what they wanted to see, and set up tours for them.

For example, one of the guests wanted to go on a startup tour of SF. Jamie knew startup people and had recently been introduced to three guys who used to work at as professional tour guides. They agreed to the startup tour. Then she hustled to find more folks for the tour: she made flyers, went to startup meetups, and even got some of her local friends in the mix.

Jamie found a latent supply. Turns out people know their cities really well, and are really eager to show them off – especially for some spare cash. And tourists love to be off the beaten path, experiencing local flavor and getting a personal touch. She was able to find these things out and get people to pay her real money with no tech. Just a blog with a bit of info, a couple pictures of the guides, a few video testimonials, and a whole lot of hustling.

Tastemaker

Tastemaker is a service that connects interior decorators with homeowners. They’re bringing interior decorating services – a luxury item – to homeowners on a budget.

Tastemaker actually started out working on a slightly different product – a sort of shoppable pinterest for home furnishings. Their current product – a marketplace for decorating services – came out of a simple task: understanding how people bought items for their homes. After digging deeper into the problem space and talking to a lot of target customers, they found that people had a lot options for doing the shopping, but really needed help designing their space.

So Tastemaker started talking to interior decorators, and it turned out that many of them were interested in taking on smaller jobs online to fill the gaps in their schedule, but didn’t know how to efficiently find customers. This was an epiphany. Tastemaker figured they could become the matchmakers, facilitate the interaction, and bring decorators work.

They had the supply-side of the marketplace, but most homeowners currently don’t buy interior decorating services, so the demand-side of the marketplace needed to be proved.

They asked a subset of the decorators from their initial conversations to be the ‘inventory’. Three decorators agreed. At this point Tastemaker’s two technical co-founders started building a web app but had a lot of unanswered questions about how it should work. Instead of waiting for them to finish it, the two non-technical co-founders went out to find customers. There was no website, so they did everything with pen, paper, and email.

The first customers were found by mining their personal networks. Just asking around until they found someone who wanted a room decorated, then talking to them about their needs and connecting them to a decorator who might be a good aesthetic fit.

The initial jobs went really well. They made money and found out that an interior decorator marketplace was viable and could be a real business. And just like Vayable, they did it with no tech up front. Tastemaker found people with excess supply, connected them to buyers, handled the interaction, and did everything manually. In the process they learned how the customer/decorator interaction should work and this helped them develop a web app that really met both the customers’ and decorators’ needs.

Conclusion

I want you – the non-technical co-founder – to go after ideas where your skills are the star, where you can make a ton of progress without anyone technical. I absolutely believe the tech in my example companies is important to their business. But it is not the core; it is not the star. Without the service component, the tech is meaningless. The tech is applied as the business grows to remove manual pains and scale.

Your skills are extremely valuable. Vayable, Tastemaker, and numerous others have shown that it is possible to get a company off the ground by building next to nothing. So I urge you to run with what you got.

Thanks to Matt Colyer, Aston Motes, Joann Kuo, Ian Tien, and Joe Fraiman for reading drafts of this post. I appreciate it greatly.

Ben's mug Ben Ogle is a Designer & Developer. He is a co-founder of Easel.io.