Unsolicited Advice for the Green "Idea-Guy"

We are living in a time, known in history as, “The Rise of the Idea Guy.” The amount of people with ideas for tech companies that don’t have the means (financially and/or technically) to bring them to life is on the rise.

Living in a college town where people are being constantly encouraged, by professors and faculty, to start their own ventures makes this rise especially prominent. The type of “Idea Guy” I’m specifically talking about here is the one of very hard pressed means looking for a) someone to partner up with or b) someone they can pay in equity.

I spend 6+ hours a day at the New Leaf Initiative, and since this is where people with ideas get funneled by the University, I probably deal with 2 - 3 “Idea Guys” in a given week. This means that when you walk into the Leaf - probably for the first time - you’re not special, but actually playing from behind, as plenty of rude “Idea Guys” before you have come through and left a bad taste in the mouths of many. (I’m not trying to discourage anyone from coming in, please do, I just ask that you at least finishing reading this article first).

So “Idea Guys”, let me share with you my perspective, as a person with technical skills, on your archetype, give you a little insight into how we perceive you, and then pose some questions to you that you better be able to answer - all so that you can stop irritating us and increase your chance of finding someone to work with. *Note: people are not going to ask you these questions when you approach them, they don’t interview you, you need to work these into your spiel. Also, these are only a few general questions that I’ve encountered through many conversations with “Idea Guys” and are only to get you started.

First off, a little on perceptions:

Please don’t contact us from a hotmail, yahoo, or aol email address. This one is trivial, yet simple, but important. Imagine walking into a Calvin Klein office in a tank top, cargo shorts, and wearing socks with sandals, asking for a job as a designer. Maybe you’re a good designer, but now you really have to prove it because everyone doubts you. First impressions are important, some would say it’s a major key.

Spend the time to do research on what you’re trying to build or rather have built. Don’t come in saying “this app needs to work on your phone and the Internet.” What does that mean? Do you want a website that is optimized for mobile (which it should be anyway), or do you want a mobile app that has a web dashboard? If you don’t even know what you want, how will anyone take you seriously?

If you ask us to sign an NDA, or talk in wide brush strokes around your idea, because you’re afraid we’ll steal it, we are going to walk away from you. Have you ever heard of someone actually stealing an idea? The only two I can think of are Apple borrowing the GUI from Xerox Parc, and Zuckerberg allegedly stealing the idea of Facebook from the Winklevoss twins. Two. That’s it. So odds are nobody will steal your idea.

Us programmers are not a commodity. We are not sitting around twiddling our thumbs waiting for a job. Hiring us is not a favor. We have our own projects, work, and lives. So please don’t act like you’re helping us out by giving us work. We aren’t the client - you are - treat us with respect and dignity. Learn a little bit about what it takes to build an app or website so that you can understand what it’s like, and realize that we can’t just “whip it up.” Just like the Mexican who smiles warmly when a Gringo tries to order their dinner in Spanish, we too will appreciate the effort you are making to become immersed in our world.

Now here’s the most important piece of advice I think I can give. When trying to hire an engineer, especially for an equity stake and not as a contractor, have something to show. Some validation that your idea is working, that you’ve invested time into it. Read The Lean Startup and apply these general principles to what you’re working on. If you aren’t willing to run your whole company by hand at first, then you don’t care enough about the problem you’re solving to even be asking for our help. By hustling and putting in the time you’ll develop insights about the market that actually make you valuable to the engineer, more so than just your idea - which isn’t worth much. Let me give you two examples of the Lean Principles in action:

  • Product Hunt. For those of you who don’t know, Product Hunt is a place where people come to launch their products/keep up with the latest products. That’s my one sentence description. Product Hunt started out as a mailing list - nothing technical about that. Ryan Hoover, the founder, would send out a newsletter with links to products he’d found while searching the Internet for recreation. Eventually his newsletter grew so big that he decided to build a website - in a weekend. Just a simple site with product listings that could be upvoted and downvoted. So he went from newsletter to barebones website. He didn’t build the full product from the start. The email list gave him an idea, and the MVP site validated his assumption. By building one piece at a time, he was able to take feedback from the community and build something they wanted. This story also highlights the fact that you don’t need to be a programmer to build an online community. What’s your email list (metaphorically anyway, perhaps it’s a Slack channel)? If you have an MVP to show a developer, one that has growth and user feedback, you’re going to find that you’ll have a much easier time bringing someone onboard.

  • Food on the Table. This example is directly out of The Lean Startup and has always stuck with me. These two guys wanted to create a product that would generate shopping lists specifically for the grocery stores around you, based on the recipes you selected. At first they struggled to find clients, but in hustling and being very involved, they were able to find their target customer.To get their first customers they did everything by hand. Drove to stores, found the sales, made the lists - all by hand. They only had a few clients at first, whom they waited on hand and foot. By being so involved they gained insightful feedback from their clients, which they used to refine their process and offerings. As they took on more and more clients, they would automate another piece of the process. Eventually they ended up with a fully automated product. No venture money was required in the beginning because they were making money the whole time (while not a lot, it was enough to keep them in the game). Very few products need investors. If you can’t get people to pay for your product at first then it probably isn’t solving a real problem.

Ok, we’re done with the perception sharing part (and the digressive story time). Now onto the introspective part of today’s program:

Don’t try to weave a direct answer to these questions into conversation, this isn’t the SAT. Show us the answer, don’t make us ask you for it. Here are three overarching questions that - surprisingly - few people can answer when trying to find a partner or hire an equity based contractor:

Are you willing to do everything by hand, spend a few hundred dollars (minimum) without a clear return, and work longer hours than you already do?

If you answer no to any parts of this question, then starting your own thing isn’t for you and you’re in it for the vanity which a developer can smell a mile away. They’ll be much less inclined to work with you.

What value do you add? What can I, the developer, not do that you can?

If you fall back solely on the notion that the idea is your contribution then no one is going to work with you. You basically expect us to do all of the hard work. Figure out what else you bring to the table (skills, insights, connections) and make what you’ll be doing and what you’re bringing to the table crystal clear. If you can’t think of anything, this might be for a few reasons: your idea sucks, you know nothing about the problem you’re solving, you’ve spent zero time and energy bringing this idea to life (which makes us wonder how much you really care), or you are a wantrepreneur.

Why do you need a developer? What exactly will they be building and why?

Not everything needs to be an app or a website. Some things only need to be a Slack channel. Maybe your product is better as a blog, an Etsy store, or in-person events. Be ready to answer why you need custom software, and can’t use something that already exists. Once you know why you’re building something, and can articulate it well enough in 30 seconds, be able to explain it from the developers point of view. You’ve got this grand vision, know what infrastructure needs to be built, and steps executed on, to make it into a reality. Have a loose idea (at least) of the product roadmap, and what assumption each feature is testing. Metrics for success are also useful so that you and your developing counterpart are on the same page.

This is only the tip of the iceberg, and by no means the only things you should be able to answer. What I’m trying to say is, please do your homework, and don’t come to us making demands and thinking you’re hot sh*t because you have an idea. You’re human, I’m human, you have ideas, I have ideas. Whoop de freaking doo. That doesn’t make you special. So please stop treating your idea like the Goose that Lays the Golden Eggs. We’d love to welcome you into our community with open arms, just do your homework and don’t be rude.