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You can't code? Great. You are much needed.

You can't code? Great. You are much needed.

 

It is not uncommon for people who can’t code but bristling with product ideas—the Idea Smiths— to wistfully exclaim “ah…if only I could code”.

To be able to code is definitely an advantage, but if you can't, how can you still be the one whose need is greatly felt in the team?

There are a few things that Idea Smiths can do that are critical to the idea’s success, which if done well, can over compensate the lack of coding skills. As an Idea Smith myself who has built and sold a product, and working on my next one called Parallelo, here are five things that I endeavour to improve at.

Research

This is THE most important responsibility of the Idea Smith. So important that he/she has no business bringing in a coder and designer into the project until this is done.

But even before you start market research, detach yourself from your beloved idea. It is important to do this so you can objectively heed to what your research will tell you and avoid the researcher's bias.

There’s another thing. Start with the assumption that there isn’t a need to build your product, that it is not a big pain to solve, that other strong alternatives exist, that there isn’t a critical mass for it to be a business. Any or all of these assumptions are good because they are usually true.

Now conduct your research to refute these assumptions. The results should convince you that your product needs to be built. You are going to spend a significant time and resources in building that product, so it better be worth all that. If it is not, then that is the right time to chuck it.

Startuppers who value their time more than their imagination, do market research.

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Now about Market research. It includes consumer research and alternatives research.

Consumer Research

Consumers are users and buyers. They are not necessarily the same people. If that’s true in your product’s case, hmmn, well you have more work to do because you have to research both the user and the buyer.

The first step is to create a 'Persona' of your Consumer. This helps you seek out only those people whose opinion matters in the success of your idea.

Pradeep Nair of Confianzys Consulting helps many top firms adopt the Blackblot Framework of Product Management. He says,

'Personas' are fictional archetypes and are not real people but reflect behavior observed in many people.

Put down on paper the persona of your consumer.  Here is the persona we designed for the User of Parallelo.

Parallelo User Persona
Parallelo User Persona

Now the next step is to 'meet' and talk to people that fit your persona in real life.

During the very early stages of executing your idea,

It is more worthwhile to talk to 5 people than send a questionnaire to 50 people

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You will be surprised how far more insightful the in-person interviews are. It is also important to remember to –

Adopt a free flowing format – Don’t have a rigid structure. It is good to have a set of questions to ask but follow the respondent’s lead to ask related questions. Have a conversation instead of filling out a survey form.

Ask open-ended questions – Avoid leading questions. For example, ask about the pain points for which you have a solution in mind, not the respondent’s opinion about your proposed solution. Otherwise, you will never know what is the real pain that the consumer is willing to pay for a solution. For Parallelo, we asked our interviewees 'what are the pain points / what could be improved' with respect to sales presentations.

Alternatives Research

Usually we look for competitors who offer a solution similar to what we have in mind. The problem with this approach is

We are disheartened if we find a competitor and elated if we don’t find one. Both reactions are wrong.

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If there is a competitor, there is some validation that a problem exists and if the competitor is a long standing one, even better, as the space may be ripe for a shake-up and to do things differently. If there is no competition, chances are the consumer has some other alternative. If you stop at competitor research, you’d not know what that alternative is, and you will learn the hard way that your elation at finding no competition was misplaced.

For example, let's say you have a solution for college lecturers who conduct seminars. Your solution will remove the drudgery of managing excel sheets of invitees, speakers, topics etc. You research the market and find that there is no product similar to what you have in mind. You go ahead and build it, only to realize later that it won't sell. Why? It turns out that while the drudgery part is true, the lecturer has an alternative in the students who are willing to do all the hard work.

Therefore the need to do Alternatives Research, which is about looking at all the options that a consumer has to solve a problem.

Once you have a good sense of the problem, customers/users, and competition/alternatives plug them into a business model.

I highly recommend Ash Maurya's 1-page business model to get started. It should take you only 20 minutes to build one.

Wireframe

Wireframing helps you articulate your solution to the coder and designer. These don’t need to be technically right, for example, instead of one click, the user may take three clicks to accomplish a task per your design, but

It is essential for the Idea Smiths to be conversant with at least one tool to convey their ideas successfully.

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Since you would want to get more done in a short time, avoid feature-rich complicated wireframing software as they’ll typically have a steeper learning curve. Choose the closest alternative to pencil and paper. I use pencil and paper to organise my thoughts and then use Scapple to create wireframes for desktop.

Scapple is a mind-mapping tool but easily doubles up as a wireframing tool because it allows you to not connect the elements. Here is an example of a early wireframe for Parallelo created using Scapple.

Parallelo Wireframe
Parallelo Wireframe

If I am working on a mobile app, I use Phototapper. If you do a lot of wireframing, you’ll find using a tablet like an iPad, a notebook app like Bamboo, and a thin-tip stylus like Adonit Jot Script greatly accelerating your wireframing speed.

Write

Until your product starts to make money and you can invest in other forms of marketing, you should be doing a lot of content creation and marketing all by yourself.

It is no small feat to keep creating content that your customers care about and which will also keep your product on top of their mind.

There isn’t a software yet which when you input the keywords relevant to you, will churn out an article that will rank on top of Google’s search results. If you’ve heard of one, don’t believe in it.

Mark Suster and Neil Patel give some great advice on generating content. Copyblogger and HubSpot too have some great resources for content marketers.

But here's the caveat. You will learn a great deal about watching what's trending, capitalising on popular hashtags, and fashioning your content around them etc.

All this can be overwhelming, and it usually doesn't work in B2B scenarios.

Don't lose focus. Create content that YOUR CUSTOMER cares about.

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Before starting to write, ask yourself this - "Can this topic help my customer professionally?"

Even then there's no guarantee your customer will read all of it. But if you do this consistently, it will keep YOU on top of her mind, and you would have succeeded.

Program

If you have the appetite to learn one more marketing skill then let it be web design. You heard it right. I asked you, a non-coder, to acquire a technical skill. Let me explain.

Todays’ web marketing is complicated and involves technical stuff like creating landing pages (using unbounce or such), redirecting them to your domain, adding analytics code, adjusting button sizes, changing text or colors, adding forms, setting up email lists, and so on.

But at this stage, besides yourself, you are likely to have just one coder and a part-time designer with you. For any start-up speed is critical, so

Leave your coder and designer to build the core product. You roll-up your sleeves and do the rest.

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This is not tough. In any case, you are not required to be a coder, just technically literate to do simple front-end tasks.

It is not the end of the world if you just don’t have the aptitude for this stuff, but you will be delighted how even a basic understanding of HTML, CSS, Javascript can make you immensely productive.

Take for example, the tweetable text above. I learnt that by making some portions of my content immediately tweetable, readers tweet 63% more. You too can learn to do that in less than 5 minutes.

There are many free and commercial online courses you can take to learn more. Codeacademy for example is free, but if you are serious, pay to learn. I learn from Treehouse. They have great teachers, high quality videos, and a nifty learning platform.

Treehouse profile screenshot
Treehouse profile screenshot

Analyse

Somebody said that if you are not tracking you are not marketing, or something to that effect. But to wrap your head around analytics is as hard as it is important. Mukund Mohan of Microsoft Ventures says that

"Google Analytics is the most expensive free software."

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The many things that Google Analytics can do can indeed bamboozle the newbie, and suck out all available time.

At some point, you got to have a good handle on Google Analytics no doubt. A friend in the Google Analytics team suggested a simple way. He said rather than seeking to know all the things that GA can tell you, learn to find answers to the 2 or 3 most important questions you have and ignore the rest at that point. Sensible advice I thought.

Those with greater resolve can take a step-by-step initiation into Analytics with Avinash Kaushik’s Web Analytics: An hour a day.

However, you'll love CrazyEgg. It answers some early questions very simply. Consider this. A heat-map of my blog suggests that, people who read my posts are most interested in knowing who I am.

heat map of kkirank.me blog
heat map of kkirank.me blog

Based on this insight, I expanded my hitherto one-paragraph introduction to a full story.

So did people actually read it? Oh yeah. The following scroll map indicates how far people have scrolled down on my 'Who am I' page, just as you are doing on this page.

who am I scroll map crazyegg
who am I scroll map crazyegg

The brighter the page, the more attention it got from the visitors. When I consider that visitors spend a little under 3 minutes on an average on this page (from Google Analytics), I can conclusively say that people are reading the content. Now I can use this information to determine where to place my 'Read next' fly-in on this page.

I found CrazyEgg really simple and useful to get started. There are other analytics software like KissmetricsMixpanel, Intercom and awe.sm that give different insights.

Most of them have free trials. Please use them. One tip is use a secondary account for the free trial and cancel it after the trial expires. That way you will know how much discount they offer at the time of cancellation. This is fair because one, they factor this in anyway and two, as a consumer, it is your right to know the lowest price you are required to pay.

But don’t use this tactic to get an extended trial. If the product was useful and you want the benefits to continue, be nice and choose a paid plan. You then acquire the right to expect your consumers to treat you similarly.

Conclusion

If you are an Idea Smith, you will be glad to know that the obsession with the coder has ended in the start-up world. The new hero now is the 'business guy' (gal) one who can guide the start-up to a product/market fit and generate revenue. In short, one who can build a business.

I highly recommend you read Chris Toy's marvelous post on this topic, which goes with the title

One Major Reason Why Startups Still Fail to Find Product-Market Fit.

And one of the vexed issues that ideasmiths face is how to find the right developer. There are love and arranged marriage approaches to this. I will write about it if there is sufficient interest.

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Parallelo Lite is a delightful Chrome Extension that lets you easily present documents remotely without the need for things like Webex.

Get it now.

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