Eddy Lee, Ph.D, is a venture capitalist investing in Silicon Valley and Singapore. He is also a Consulting Assistant Professor at Stanford University.
So you have a great idea for a new mobile app or Web service—but you don’t know anything about coding or developing. You might have started searching for a tech-oriented co-founder to help you launch your idea, only to find that your startup can’t afford the ongoing salary for a skilled software developer.
The question is: Does a startup need permanent tech staff right away or can you get things off the ground without one? This four-step plan will help you move from idea to full-fledged business, without the need for massive startup capital.
Step 1: Test your demand
What drives sales for online services and mobile apps? It may surprise you to learn that the technology itself takes a back seat to market demand.
You can find out whether your idea will succeed ahead of time by gauging the potential demand for your product or service. There are a few different ways to do this. Some examples include:
- Organize a local market research campaign (best for services that involve connecting businesses with customers).
- Start a Facebook page to introduce your idea and solicit feedback and comments from people who might use your offering.
- Build a simple website using easy, no-coding-required tools like Wix for great-looking, interactive pages, or LaunchRock for sites specifically designed to collect feedback on ideas.
When it comes to local market research, the best way is to talk to your clients and understand their needs.
A quick example would be OpenTable, a Web service and app that lists the best restaurants in your area and makes reservations for you. If you were starting this service and wanted to test market demand, you might visit the restaurants in your area and tell them you’re launching a free marketing service for them. You could then distribute flyers asking potential customers to contact you about the service, and find out how many are interested.
Step 2: Build your preliminary website
Once you’ve determined that there is sufficient market demand to make your idea viable, it’s time to move on to the next phase—envisioning your online presence.
Just because you don’t have any development or coding skills doesn’t mean you have to scratch out your ideas on the back of a napkin. You don’t even have to use a digital image program to communicate your vision for your website or app. The best option is to create what developers call a wireframe: basically, a skeleton layout of what you have in mind for your design.
There are several easy-to-use online tools for creating wireframes. One of them is Balsamiq Mockups, a drag-and-drop program that offers fast, simple wireframing tools with features like clickable buttons that help you share your ideas more efficiently.
Step 3: Outsource a developer
Developer salaries are high and often out of reach for a startup business. However, there is a middle alternative between the end points of hiring a full-time developer and going without one: outsourcing.
There are hundreds of Web and mobile development companies that work on a per-hour or per-project basis. You initiate the project by describing your requirements to them, and they will return with a quote telling you approximately how long the project will take and how much it will cost. This is one-time fee, rather than an ongoing salary.
Shopping around: Getting project quotes
If you plan to outsource to a developer, the best idea is to present your project to several development companies and shop for the best deal. Keep in mind that cost should not be the only determining factor—you’ll also want to consider completion time and quality.
In general, you’ll find that high quality comes with high prices. The most expensive developers are usually around the Silicon Valley or the East Coast. There are also overseas companies that provide mobile and web development, and while the prices are typically low, often the quality is too.
Obtain several quotes for your project from the U.S. and overseas developers. You’ll also want to look at their portfolios, get introduced to past customers, to see whether their work is the level of quality you’d like for your developing idea. With enough searching, you’re sure to find good quality services at reasonable prices.
Crowdsourcing: The latest alternative
One relatively new and effective way to find a developer for your project is through crowdsourced marketplaces like 99Designs and crowdSPRING. These services have their communities of designers and developers create designs according to your requirements, and allow you to pick the best one you’d like to work with. You set the proposed fee for the project, and pay only if and when you choose a winner.
Step 4: Planning for the long run
When you’ve outsourced a developer and your idea is up and running, it’s time to turn your focus to long-range sustainability. Eventually, you will need an in-house team of designers and developers to work with you directly.
A full-time creative team provides plenty of benefits, but the price tag can be steep. There are a few ways you can work around the traditional salary arrangement:
- Employ a hybrid approach by hiring one trusted developer, who can then outsource some tasks to a team of freelancers
- Build a strong online presence through platforms such as AngelList. Although primarily a fundraising avenue, it’s a flourishing channel for attracting entrepreneurial folks to work for you.
- Enlist college students or graduates as interns to help them build developer experience, and then hire them full-time once the internship ends
Remember, you don’t need coding skills or development experience to launch a successful Web service or mobile app. What you need is a market for your product, a solid plan to bring you from idea to execution and beyond.
The pros and cons of building your own CMS
Bill Beardslee is the CEO of Magnolia Americas, where he is responsible for Magnolia’s business in the Americas, tending to clients, sales, lead generation and infrastructure.
It’s common for your developers to listen to a vendor proposal for a Content Management System (CMS) and say, “We could just build that ourselves.”
And the developers are right. Many companies have opted to use their internal talent to build a CMS, resulting in a terrific product. However, from seeing companies switch from their DIY solutions to our commercial CMS over the past decade, we now recognize some patterns.
Here are some of the things we’ve noticed about the pros and cons of rolling your own CMS versus buying a commercial off-the-shelf product.
You can build to fit your business needs
One simple fact: No commercial CMS fits 100 percent of a business’s needs. There are always features or capabilities missing – or worse yet, there are architecture that interferes with what you really want to achieve.
For example, if your company is in the publishing business, the speed at which your organization can move is an important consideration. Your authoring environment needs to be streamlined to accommodate fluid UI manipulation, your DAM must support batch uploading of images and your authors need semantic content tagging.
Your content editors and publishers know exactly what they want and together with your engineering team, can create and test wireframes. And before you know it, you are on your way to creating a product that fits nearly every need in your business.
You control timing and pace
Tired of looking at a commercial vendor’s roadmap? 2016 can’t arrive soon enough, right? When you roll your own CMS, you dictate what features are added, what is deprecated, and when.
As your business enters new markets, your developers can customize or extend your CMS to meet new requirements. In fact, the business can begin development months before entering a new market, providing maximum impact at launch.
The ability to attack business opportunities with a commercial CMS are more difficult, particularly if you are waiting for “roadmap” features that will help your business.
You avoid the RFQ/RFI process and vendor negotiation
Choosing an enterprise CMS is a long process. Among other things, you’ll need to define requirements, issue RFQs, participate in meetings and demos with multiple vendors, perform your own due diligence, gather feedback from internal stakeholders and work through several rounds of negotiation with your vendor.
There is also the political element to consider. Purchasing a CMS is a significant outlay – sometimes so significant that is labeled a strategic buy.
As a high visibility requisition, upper management needs to be involved. And if you have a distributed publishing model, the number of stakeholders is often in the dozens. Some of your stakeholders will try to convince (or bully) the organization to believe that their requirements are more important than those of other business units.
At best this leads to internal wrangling, at worst it creates fissures between people. By rolling your own CMS, you bypass all of the above, saving you months of time, heartburn and potential political road kill.
For every dollar spent, you know the features you’re getting
CMS vendors are guilty of feature bloat. They pack a lot into their product, so that they can attract the widest customer base and stay on par with competition. Because you don’t usually need all of a vendor’s features, you end up overpaying for the features you do need.
If you build the CMS yourself, you can decide where to invest your development dollars, and you have complete control of what you’re getting for your money. And of course, you’ll also save on licensing fees.
It might give you a significant competitive advantage
You know your business better than any CMS vendor. Rolling your own CMS gives you the chance to apply all that hard-won expertise to your primary customer channel – your website.
A custom CMS can be a strategic asset. Your bespoke templating engine, workflow and customer experience can all combine to help create a game changer… just as Amazon did years ago.
It takes time to build a robust CMS
If you’re developing a new CMS from scratch, it could take a year or two to achieve an acceptable level of quality and features. And when it’s released, there is a good chance your initial requirements will be outdated due to new technologies or shifting business requirements.
Using a commercial CMS could mean quicker deployment, and vendor upgrades keep your website aligned with current marketplace trends.
Congratulations. You are now in the CMS business
Once your new CMS is deployed, it’s no longer a skunkworks project, but a full-fledged product that needs a dedicated owner, product team, quality assurance, technical integrations with third-party applications and more.
Unlike a commercial vendor, there’s only one customer – your business – so you can’t amortize your development costs. Your product needs to be self-funded, year in and year out. You need to allocate time and resources to fix bugs, train users and integrate the system with databases and third-party services. If you’re not in the software delivery business, it will be a difficult competency to master.
The first version of your site isn’t the final version. You must invest to evolve the solution.
Successfully launching your enterprise website on your custom CMS isn’t the end, but the beginning. You’ll now be at the receiving end of a stream of new requirements from different stakeholders.
At the same time, you’ll need to educate yourself about new trends and technologies. If you can’t analyze all of this information, take positions on key trends and continually invest in evolving your CMS, chances are it will start losing users and soon thereafter, budget.
Significant maintenance and compliance costs may not be immediately apparent
In some verticals (like government agencies, finance and banking), your homegrown solution will need to comply with mandatory security, quality, accessibility and performance standards. Managing these needs requires a dedicated IT team, presenting new coordination challenges and adding to overhead.
A commercial CMS vendor will ensure compliance with industry standards, and offers additional technical support and services to ease maintenance.
Will your sustaining budget be protected?
Post-launch, your CMS team will be responsible for evolving the product. That takes time and budget. But what happens if the core business – the business that funds the CMS team – stumbles a bit; or, if there are higher priorities on a given year? The CMS team will likely be viewed as a cost center, and when push comes to shove, cost center budgets get cut first.
These are the most common patterns we’ve explored, but we’ve love to hear your side of the story and how your company arrived to its decision.
The design guide for the uncreative eye: Tips for non-designers
Your brand is the essence of your company; it’s the one thing everyone thinks of when they hear the name of your product, advertisers often call it the “idea.” Branding is why Volvo is still considered the safest car on the market even though they haven’t made it on any top 10 lists in years and why people swear loyalty to Coke over Pepsi.
The power of branding goes hand-in-hand with design; without strong visuals, your brand won’t be remembered or recognized by most people.
The branding of your company is critical in driving the perception you’re trying to drive home to your audience, whether you’re an ice cream shop, an ad agency, or a social analytics startup. A brand is brought together through psychology, science and stunning design. Design is an essential piece of the branding puzzle that every business needs to focus on in order to achieve success.
It’s becoming more common everyday in the workplace for non-creatives to be assigned design-related activities, whether that’s resizing photos, editing an image in Photoshop or choosing an image from a stock footage database.
At this point in time, anyone involved with a company’s online presence should be aware of the visual branding of the business to ensure everyone’s on the same page, and that the business is presented professionally inline with your style guide across properties. It can be difficult for non-creatives to manage this – but with the right direction, it’s entirely possible to consistently keep the design of your company elevated.
These are tips blog editors, copywriters, business owners, and others can use to get ahead regardless of the presence of a designer or branding specialist.
1. Follow and refer to an established style guide to ensure consistency
A style guide is what your company’s leadership and designers, if they exist at your organization, agree upon when it comes to the visual presentation of your business to the public.
This includes what colors to use and not use, what types of images are acceptable and not acceptable, how to visualize the story of the company, proper logo usage, which fonts should be used, etc.
This document provides all staff members with guidelines for how all aspects of the company should be represented visually to ensure consistency and that all staff are on the same page. This style guide can be as concise or extensive as your company sees fit.
The most important aspect of design is consistency across all your properties online and offline, which is why an official style guide is so important. Consistency allows for measurement of what is and isn’t working, which is essential in the constant iteration of your design overtime.
Require buy-in from all staff members on the visual representation of the business to ensure there’s a maintained message, relevancy with your company, an established reputation for your business and an ongoing accountability across the organization.
2. Don’t use stock footage that looks like stock footage
Many businesses make this mistake and it must stop. It’s completely acceptable to use stock footage, but do not select images that look staged, that are low quality, or that don’t relate to your style guide or subject of the content where they’ll be used.
A few more Don’ts: Don’t select Bazaar Stock Photos that don’t match your brand, don’t be cliché, don’t be afraid to be abstract, don’t fear a simple image that gets the point across and lastly, don’t feel bad if you need the advice of other members of your team since image selection should not happen in a silo.
It takes a little bit of time and creativity, but there are resources out there that allow you to get quality imagery for free without paying for stock photos or a designer or photographer to create the images.
Google image search now allows you to filter by usage rights to help find royalty-free images. However, it is still best to do a little more research on an image to confirm it is actually royalty-free.
3. When possible, collaborate with a designer through consultation or a class to customize your look and feel across properties
Maybe your business can’t afford to have a designer on staff, that’s fine. It’s highly recommended that you take a design class from a qualified professional or hire a consultant for a one-time engagement to review your company’s design materials.
Check services like Udemy and SkilledUp for courses on design to learn the fundamentals and how they can be strategically applied to your company. By working with a designer once a month, a quarter or a year you’ll be able to get actionable insights on the ongoing visual branding of your business for a lower cost than hiring talent internally.
4. Match imagery with the theme of your content when used in a blog post, eBook, on social media
Select, design or edit existing images to include in all of your online content that matches the look and feel of your business. Follow your established style guide to ensure there’s consistency across the business with the use of imagery in your content.
Visuals in your content are crucial to helping different types of learners absorb the information you’re providing. Visuals are what people react to the quickest. They also help break up text in a document, making it easier to get through and comprehend.
5. Refer to competitors and other companies as a reference guide for design
Have you ever thought about how your tweets should appear visually? What about the design layout of your e-mail newsletter?
If you ever need some insights on the direction any of your visuals should take, refer to other companies and competitors online when it comes to their website, e-mails, social media, banner ads, content and more to give you some direction and ideas.
Your style guide should help give the final direction on your visuals, while competitive research can help fuel creative inspiration. If you’re looking for design inspiration, review Dribbble and Behance to view the portfolios of some of the world’s best designers.
6. Conduct user testing to experiment with design elements, while listening to feedback from users across social media
The design of your company is a two-way conversation amongst your staff and your customers. Gauge the feedback of your audience on what’s working and what’s not by A/B testing your website creative and experimenting with different versions of your company’s design.
Use a tool like Visual Website Optimizer to compare your creative assets on your website to understand what your visitors prefer in terms of the placement of creative, the layout of your Web pages, the buttons and call-to-actions used, etc. Sharing two versions of a creative with one variable altered will allow you to gather valuable feedback about your audiences preferences when it comes to your design.
Listen to feedback on social media, from existing customers and react to reasonable criticism. Similarly to A/B testing, listen to the feedback of your audience across social media to best understand the preferences of your customers.
Experimenting with different creative on social media presents a free opportunity to gauge how interested your audience is in one piece of creative over another. As long as your content isn’t outright offensive, if your content fails on social media — it just won’t be seen, which gives you another opportunity to try something different across your channels.
The risk of experimenting and asking for feedback from your followers on social media is very low. The value added from constructive feedback can really help drive insights as to whether or not the visuals of your business resonate or not.
7. Learn how to perform basic photo editing on Photoshop, GIMP and other programs
As a non-creative, it is not your job to create a visual masterpiece from Photoshop. However, it’s important that you’re able to successfully use these tools to perform basic photo editing and manipulation to assist with the various design processes across the business like printing store signage or editing a product image for your e-commerce store.
The best way to learn how to use tools like GIMP, Adobe Photoshop, Pixlr, Inkscape and others is by using them consistently to learn what works and what doesn’t. There are also many affordable training options – from an online class through Skillshare or Udemy and how to videos on YouTube to reading step-by-step articles on how to best utilize these various tools for your needs.
What design tips have you found effective when it comes to assisting non-creatives? Leave your favorite tips in the comments below.
How to analyze and leverage Google’s guest blogging warning
If you are one of TNW’s many readers, there’s a good chance you might be a product owner, creator, or the marketer of one. And as such, you are no stranger to guest blogging.
In fact, guest contributions as a generic method started years before Google even existed – when columnists in newspapers got a one-off in a non-competitive magazine related to their field of writing, such as Sports or Fashion.
Their benefits were clear – being read by a whole new audience, promoting themselves through the article and perhaps even earning a couple of bucks…
Fast forward to 2011.
Around three years ago, when the “easy” ways of manipulating Google presence, such as building irrelevant links to your site within forum signatures and Web directories, have started triggering hundreds of thousands of penalties per year, online marketers and bloggers started to seek for a change of strategy.
So, adhering to Google representatives’ recommendations of creating great content and SEO veterans’ instruction of linking to fresh content, it seems everyone started to guest post in different levels of blogs and content quality.
Fast forward to 2014.
On January 20th – Just last week, Matt Cutts (head of Google’s web-spam team, or in other words – father to the Penguin & Panda penalties) published a post upon receiving a shameless guest posting enquiry by some random marketer:
“I would love to speak to you regarding posting some guest articles in your blog… All I ask is a DoFollow link or two in the article body.”
In case you haven’t been following Matt Cutts’ work in the past years, let me just tell you that the nice lady might as well peed on a police car and asked them to hold her beer while she goes back to driving drunk.
And no, Matt didn’t make this story up – I checked with him in person:
In fact, if you follow Matt’s requests to webmasters from the past years, you will find a very interesting pattern. It was in 2012 when he first hinted about staying away from spammy guest post opportunities. Then, two years and lots of inner rage later, his blog post exploded and turned the blogosphere to an angry mob.
So you can understand why in the heat of the moment he unknowingly coined the dramatic phrase of the year: “Stick a fork in it; Guest blogging is done.”
What will the upcoming penalty look like?
So considering the fact that Google’s Web spam team is working ‘round the clock to be able to identify and penalize unnatural link building methods, and that their leader has just declared war against low-quality guest blogging – it doesn’t take a genius to know what the nearest Google penalty is going to target.
Based on past experience, the penalty will carry a sweet name (I vote for “One-Eyed Weasel”) and affect any website that has its entire link profile based on guest posts – most of them in medium to low quality websites.
If in the past you had received a “pre-penalty” message in your Webmaster Tools, letting you know you better shift your ways before you hit the sandbox, the next penalty is simply going to wipe you out of the search result pages.
Know RIGHT NOW if you are at risk
Before giving you actionable items to analyze your chances of getting penalized, you need to ask yourself: Am I forcing irrelevant links into medium websites as a guest blogger, just for the sake of Google Rankings?
If so, don’t answer – just STOP and try to add NoFollow tags to your existing guest posts backlinks.
Then, go over these three tactics.
Tactic #1: There’s nothing easier for Google than identifying patterns that are visible to everyone else.
Set your browser to “Private Browsing”, then Google for the following phrases:
Yourname guest post
Written by yourname
Are you finding hundreds and even thousands of search results for guest articles that carry your name? If so, you’re definitely on Google’s bad side
Tactic #2: Head over to your WebmasterTools account, hit “Search Traffic” and then “Links to Your Site.”
This table shows Google’s understanding of the most linked pages in your website. Usually, guest authors link to their homepage via their Author Bio (“yourname is VP Marketing of homepage.com…”)
The image above shows a natural pattern of link statistics that we have at Ranky– however, if we relied on guest posts alone then it might have looked more like this:
If most of these 1,136 backlinks point directly at the homepage, which are hundreds of percents more than the amount pointing to the next most linked page in line, are a result of guest posting then you’re in a pickle.
Remember, the insights you see in the WebmasterTools are priceless, they are simply an exact visualization of how Google sees your link profile.
Tactic #3: On the same section of WebmasterTools, under “Who Links The Most,” Choose both “Download Latest Links” and “Download More Sample Links.”
Connect both charts and Remove Duplicates – now you have an almost perfect image of your Link Profile.
Go over your backlinks one by one, and mark guest posts in red. When you’re done, count them and divide the amounts of guest posts by your entire number of linking domains.
Are you getting more than 40 percent?
Then you, my friend, better stop your entire guest blogging campaign this instance.
Next: So, how can you remedy this?
How to analyze and leverage Google’s guest blogging warning
So, what SHOULD you do in 2014?
By now you must have realized what’s WRONG, now is the fun part; here’s what’s going to work in 2014 and even after the next Google update.
Think branding and branding alone
Imagine that Google has just announced they are completely ignoring all backlinks that exist in Author Bios. Would you still guest post for that website?
The beauty of backlinks in 2014 will be earning them in a lot more logic ways. For example, I wrote a Growth Hacking 101 in my blog and then asked one of the best online marketing blogs, KISSmetrics, to mention it in their Growth Hacking resource page.
I actually didn’t care to get any rankings benefit, and I would also gladly be linked from there if all links were NoFollowed. I simply wanted readers to be aware of our blog as well, and what’s a better neighborhood than authoritative resource pages?
Don’t look at dry parameters of the websites you want to guest post for. Alexa means squat and PageRank is a complete joke these days.
You must only think relevancy.
I contributed to ReadWriteWeb and The Next Web because I’m a technology enthusiastic that owns a growth hacking firm, and they are the biggest magazines in that niche.
I also guest posted for CrazyEGG because they have the world’s most famous tool for measuring user behavior, and guess what – I do UX for websites.
On the other hand, if I would find the best Fashion magazine in the world and guest post there with no connection to online marketing whatsoever, that link would be meaningless for me even if the post got shared 1,000 times and drove me 3,000 visitors.
Not only will those visitors not convert in my website, but irrelevant links from guest posts are definitely going to be targeted in Google’s next update.
Google gives tons of weight to WHO wrote the post, not only where they placed it. Now, it’s a lot more natural to have more than one author to guest blog for the sake of the same website or product.
Think about it, an average startup team is normally combined of a CEO, CMO, CTO and a few other talented folks. Each one of them can contribute differently using their knowledge about management, marketing or technology.
This makes a lot more sense to Google than to have one “marketing representative” spamming dozens of blogs with the same boring content… because there’s a limit to how interesting one person can be.
Diversify author bio text
If you Google for one line of your average Author Bio, like “yourname is VP Marketing of homepage.com” you will find an insane amount of search results – that’s exactly what’s bothering Google.
Make it more natural by diversifying it with completely unique text, and try as hard as you can to get rid of the automatic line that says “Guest post by.”
Diversify landing pages
Not all Guest Posts should land readers back in your homepage. If you think about it, most homepages aren’t conversions oriented so that kind of makes no sense.
Instead, land them once in your Product page, once in your own blog, and once just in your Twitter profile.
Google will appreciate the fact that you don’t abuse the posts to stuff more backlinks directly to the same source.
Never rely on guest posts alone
Your backlink profile is almost the easiest thing for Google to analyze, especially after the most recent Penguin updates.
You must be analytical and think percentages when it comes to links. Personally, I have researched the link profiles of almost 100 startups which are doing great in the search result pages, and if you’re a startup then here’s is my recommendation for a Link Profile that will make Google fall in love with you:
- 40 percent – PR Links from real magazines like The Next Web, Mashable and TechCrunch.
- 25 percent – Links from social networks and content sharing platforms.
- 10 percent – Links from forums where users naturally asked about you, and other users naturally replied with their opinion.
- 5 percent - Q&A websites like Quora.
And saving the best for last… 20 percent tops for guest posting in relevant blogs.
Surprise yourself with creativity
This is a fun tip which makes the entire operation seem like a game. Sometimes there are much better ways to be linked from a great blog, other than guest posting for it.
Some famous products have a “testimonial” section in which you can get your link if you simply email them your positive experience. No need to beg for guest posts, no need to produce content.
Another example is engaging with the blogger in different ways.
A cool example would be how the CMO of PowToon made a phone call to the Founder of SocialMediaExaminer, a top rated resource for social marketing, to ask an honest question with no marketing intentions.
Only later did he discover that he was mentioned within SocialMediaExaminer’s blog post for doing so and earned a nice backlink to his website.
Meanwhile, SocialMediaExaminer gets hundreds of guest posting enquiries a month – 99 percent of them are declined.
This year, you should change your state of mind from “How to build a billion of links” to “How to brand myself in an awesome way.”
The guys down at the Web spam team aren’t evil, they’re simply fight spammy trends and try to make the search result pages a better place. It’s true that good people get hurt along the way, not to mention innocent product owners that hire agencies which don’t act clean, causing the business owner to fail without knowing.
I guess the best tip I can give you is to monitor your link profile on a daily basis (with WebmasterTools, OpenSiteExplorer and even Analytics – look for the “Trackbacks” feature) while ceasing guest blogging campaigns that are there just for the sake of link building.
If you do your branding right, Google is going to forever reward you.