Kaitlin Pike

The startup scene includes a good number of non-technical people whose skills are a vital component of most web companies. But creating a web business with only non-techies? That’s not something you think about every day, unless you’re LaunchBit co-founder Elizabeth Yin.

elizabeth-yinElizabeth and co-founder Jennifer Chin believe anyone can launch an Internet-based business, even if they don’t know how to code. In their workshop at Web 2.0 Expo San Francico (Get Going: How to Build and Test Your Idea Without Programming), Elizabeth and Jennifer will provide attendees with specific methodology and tools for testing and starting a business. After coming to their workshop, attendees will know how to launch a business idea without coding anything, how to market it, and how to measure early-stage success.

Elizabeth recently spoke with us about her session, starting an Internet business without coding, and customer development. Read on for more.

Kaitlin: The basis for your session surprised me: How to start a web based business without knowing how to program. At first read, I thought that was similar to “how to open a bakery without knowing how to bake.” Can you give me your elevator pitch defending your workshop idea?

Elizabeth: These days, for most internet businesses, the number one challenge is customer acquisition and marketing — not in building a website.  There are obviously exceptions to this, but the overwhelming majority of startups that fail don’t fail because their website didn’t work.  They fail because not enough people used it.  This means that as entrepreneurs, we need to do a better job of vetting our markets before even building anything.  That’s what this workshop is all about — how to do this.  My co-founder Jennifer and I developed this methodology for our own profitable sites, even though we’re developers ourselves.  We came up with this methodology out of necessity, because prior to working with Jennifer, I had a startup that failed — I wasted almost 2 years and about $20k of my own personal savings by not vetting my market.

Kaitlin: What’s the reaction from the startup community been like? Are you getting any negative feedback from programmers?

Elizabeth: The reaction has been amazing.  We’ve done a couple events on this topic now in conjunction with Women 2.0 and TechStars Boston.  All events have been sold out, with the most recent one selling out in just 4 hours.

The developers I’ve spoken with actually are very positive.  People approach them several times a week with technical co-founder propositions, and they are just annoyed at all these unvetted propositions.  To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you don’t need programming talent or skills for your company — once you prove out your market, you almost inevitably need technical skills on your team.  But, I’m saying that you shouldn’t even think about programming anything at all until you’ve vetted your market first, regardless of whether you can program or not.  It’s just too much of a waste to build out things that people don’t want.

Kaitlin: Without giving away too much about your workshop, can you give me an example of how a non-technical person can test their web business idea?

Elizabeth: Sure — we have both online and offline methodologies. The latter is not particularly novel — we’re a big fan of doing customer-interviews, a very old-school technique.  You’d be surprised, though, how many web entrepreneurs fail to do this either because they think it’s not useful for a “high tech business” or because they’re afraid to hear feedback rejecting their idea(s).  We’ve learned a lot about how to do customer interviews from user experience experts in the Valley, and our workshop pulls from what’s worked for us using those best practices.

As for online techniques, we advocate running landing page tests and building a very simple prototype — all using existing third party tools.  There’s an amazing number of tools that non-technical people can draw from to learn about their customers.  For example, Wufoo and Google Forms are great tools to collect sign-ups for a service on a landing page test.  Both are simple, quick to add to a landing page, and reliable.

Kaitlin:  Where does the business marketing plan fit in with this process? At what point do you encourage these founders to invest their time in heavy market research?

Elizabeth: Ironically, although my co-founder and I have both won business plan competitions in high school and in college, we don’t advocate for them anymore.  I think business plans can be a great way to clarify one’s thinking, but it’s less effective when it comes to actually vetting a specific market.

Case in point: one of our sites, Shiny Orb, is a comparison shopping site for wedding apparel.  We could do research all day to see how big the wedding apparel market is or how it’s trending.  We could make projections about how much of a dent we’ll make in the market.  We can say we’ll do marketing via AdWords.  We can say lot of things about our marketing plan, but the fact of the matter is that when we’re first starting, we really don’t know a lot of things.  When we’re first starting, we need to find just a handful of passionate users before we can even think about scaling up and taking over a market.  And to find those passionate users, we actually need to find a very specific type of customer who can get excited about a very specific type of product.  So in the case of Shiny Orb, yes, the wedding apparel market is huge.

But, it was important for us to say what specifically about this product idea was interesting to our potential customers — was it variety of dresses?  Price?  And, what kind of customer-type would be most interested?  A professional bride who has no time?  A budget-savvy bride who loves to shop online for deals?  A mother of a bride who is doing research for her daughter?  Once that product/market fit is in place, customer acquisition strategies follow — you can’t really say apriori in a business plan that Google AdWords is going to be cost-effective, because you don’t know beforehand if that’s what will convert your target customer-type.  So in the beginning, it’s extremely important to find a good foothold, which is a bottoms-up research approach rather than a top-down one.

We do advocate, however, writing down a list of assumptions and questions — this has helped us go back and validate our thoughts when we do have some data points for our websites.

Kaitlin: In your session description, you say you’ll reference Steve Blank’s customer development philosophy. Could you give a quick rundown of this philosophy and why you chose to focus on it?

Elizabeth: Sure.  Customer development is basically a process to go from being a startup to a sustainable company.  The first couple of steps in this process are all about finding what is called “product-market fit”.  Many new entrepreneurs never even make it past this stage to even think about scaling up, so this is what our session focuses on.  Finding product-market fit is essentially about finding power-users or passionate users, that first core group of people who absolutely love your product.  In order for this to happen, you’ll want to find this customer-type while also evolving your product concept to have just 1-2 functions that really resonate with these people.  The process of finding this is kind of a dance between evolving your product idea and your customer-type to find this great fit.

Kaitlin: Once an entrepreneur has tested their idea and found it to be viable, what do you recommend they do for next steps?

Elizabeth: After an entrepreneur has tested out his/her idea by building out a bare-bones prototype with 3rd party tools that does just 1-2 things that people really love, then it’s time to scale that up.  That is beyond the scope of what we cover, but at this point, if an entrepreneur is not technical, I’d recommend finding a technical partner of some sort (either a co-founder or hiring a developer).  Depending on the business, it may make sense to raise money, but in many cases, people can also bootstrap.  Regardless, at this point, you’ll know that you are in the right point to scale up if you have the data to make a strong case for building out your idea.  If you don’t have data that suggests you have a good business, then you are not at this point and should keep iterating your prototype / market.

Kaitlin: What’s the best way for non-programmers with business ideas to find good technical people/a CTO?

Elizabeth: Finding a technical co-founder is hard!  My technical friends and I get approached with technical co-founder requests all the time for unvetted ideas.  But if you can vet your market beforehand and say in quantitative terms “hey — here’s the number or percentage of people who signed up for this product, messaged at this price,” then you’ll have a lot more credibility.  Even better is if you have actually pre-sold your product.  This will make your request get noticed.

But finding a technical co-founder isn’t just about finding smart developers.  It’s about finding a partner — someone with good personality fit, and that just takes time to find.  Meeting lots of people at meetups, startup weekends, hackathons, engineering school events, and other entrepreneurship events is good way to start — but, it just takes time.


Kaitlin Pike is the Web 2.0 Expo community manager. She can be reached @w2e or @kcpike. To see Elizabeth speak, register for Web 2.0 Expo SF now with  discount code websf11bl20 to save 20%.

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6 Responses to “How to Start a Web Business… Without Programming?”

  1. César Hon 11 Feb 2011 at 5:55 pm

    This one sounds very interesting.
    It’s really hard to find technical people who get compromised with another people ideas.
    I hope to assist Web 2.0 expo.

  2. Elizabeth Yinon 23 Feb 2011 at 7:59 am

    Thanks, Cesar — come to our talk! Feel free to email me if you have any questions: hello [at] launchbit [dot] com. Cheers!

  3. Stuart G.on 24 Feb 2011 at 12:25 am

    Thanks Elizabeth and Kaitlin!

    Your approach can save people a lot of heartache and lost time.

  4. [...] From Elizabeth Yin’s talk at Web 2.0 Expo. [...]

  5. Johnon 11 Mar 2011 at 9:26 am

    I’ll be attending the Expo this year. Will your workshop be available for myself that signed for the Expo pass only? This workshop seems very interesting.

  6. Los Angeles Clubson 15 Mar 2011 at 1:27 pm

    Great little article. It goes both ways – programming and business knowledge are two totally different fields. Just because you can program doesn’t guarantee that you know how to run a business. It’s also highly unlikely that a profitable web business can be built and run entirely by one person. It takes a team with complimentary skills, and the beauty of this day and age is that temporary teams can be built and outsourced to create a business without any one member having the full-range of necessary skills.

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