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Don’t Build an MVP, First Build a CAP (Cofounder Attracting Product)

CoFounderAttractingProduct

I, like every entrepreneur, have a long list of business ideas just waiting to be turned into companies. And at one point, I, like every entrepreneur, had no clue how to start figuring out if any of my ideas were worth working on. Thankfully, I read some really great books like Eric Ries’s The Lean Startup and Tim Brown’s Change by Design that helped get me started.

But there’s something critical missing from each of them – something missing from the vast majority of other startup-related books and blog posts that I’ve seen.

The critical topic I’m referring to is The Team.  You know, the people like you and your cofounders that actually have to carry out the strategies in this wonderfully laid out literature.  Everyone seems so concerned with the business idea that the people aspect is often overlooked.

Yet finding the right cofounder(s) can be critical to a business’s success.  With developers and designers in such high demand, the cofounder search process for an individual “business/marketing” founder is extremely difficult.

The most common thing I see at every startup networking event, Startup Weekend, Lean Startup Machine, whatever, is a “business” founder looking for a technical and a design cofounder. For a long time I included myself in this poor, unfortunate set.

But I’ve figured out a solution to this problem for all non-technical, non-designer founders.  I call it the CAP, the cofounder attracting product, and it doesn’t require design skills or a single line of code.

The CAP is a product (or service) that you’ve refined enough to prove that it is something worth pursuing. The goal of getting to a CAP is to show a potential technical, design, or business cofounder that you have a legitimate idea, you care enough about the idea to work through early iterations on your own, you’re resourceful enough to build a crude prototype, and you generally know how to get sh*t done.

Just to be clear, a CAP is not meant to be an MVP (minimum viable product) that you release to customers, and especially not an MDP (minimum desirable product) that customers will demand to actually use. A CAP should come well before either an MVP or MDP.

Getting to a CAP takes no technical prowess.  It’s the point at which you’ve validated that you have a solution to a real problem for a specific population of people. Before you reach a CAP, you will have had to think through the business model, have an executable idea of how you’ll get users and how you’ll generate money, have gone through some customer development, and have completed some rounds of initial prototype testing.  Sound way beyond your current skill set?  Don’t worry. It’s not.

1. Work through your business model

I’m not going to try and re-invent the wheel here.  There are some awesome resources already available to help you work through all the pieces of your business model.  The one that I find the most effective, especially for new entrepreneurs, is the Business Model Canvas. On that website you can download a PDF of the canvas, read through an explanation of what each section of the canvas means, and learn how to approach thinking about that portion of your new business idea.

Business Model Canvas

2. Go out and do customer development 

The theory of Customer Development has been written about extensively, originating in Steve Blank’s book The Four Steps to the Epiphany.  Eric Ries wrote a great summary of the customer development theory in a blog post on his website back in 2008.  It’s well worth the 10 minute read and will give you a good summary of the overall process.

My one sentence summary of this whole theory is: take your idea, get out of your home or office, talk to potential customers about it, and then adjust your idea and your target customer until you’ve found a product that a specific population of people want very much.

For most, customer development means walking around your local area and intercepting as many random people on the street as you can.  I don’t know about you, but that sounds awful to me.  However, when I do on-foot customer development, there are a few hacks that I like to use:

  1. Approach couples instead of individual people. Maybe it’s a safety thing and individuals feel more threatened by a stranger on the street than a couple does.
  2. Approach people who look lost. You hopefully have some local knowledge you can give them first, and they then feel magically compelled to give you two minutes of their time so you can have a conversation and ask them your research questions.
  3. Approach salespeople in retail stores. This is by far my favorite one.  I love going to highly populated shopping areas, looking in store windows for bored salespeople, and going in to talk to them.  You’ll find that bored salespeople in a quiet or empty retail store will talk to you about your idea until for as long as you can stand the sound of their voice.

An important part of my customer development process is always conducting research interviews. I find that the information I garner during these interviews, whether in-person or on the phone, is even more valuable than what I can learn intercepting someone on the street.  Read this blog post for a guide to conducting consumer research interviews and recruiting candidates for them.

3. Build a CAP (Cofounder Attracting Product)

To create a CAP, you need almost no design skills at all. Here are the 5 steps you can follow to create your CAP.

1. Explain your idea to your mother. Write down a clear and concise description of your idea in 100 words or fewer. Your mom should understand what your business does after reading this.  Make no mistake, this will be hard. Good luck.

2. Create a reference set of companies. Make a list of other companies that are doing something similar, or might be a direct competitor of yours.  Be a little liberal here with the companies you put on your list. If you’re thinking of building a mobile app for people to keep track of their wine collections, you’ll want to look at other similar wine apps, but also apps like Foursquare or Yelp that present large directories to users.

3. Do some design and user experience research. See how these companies have designed their user experiences.  In broad layman’s terms, the user experience encompasses how the website/app looks, how it’s laid out, and how easy it is to use. Take your time over the course of several days and be thorough.  If it’s a website you’re thinking about building, take screenshots of the things you like about these sites and save them in a “design research” folder.  One of my favorite screenshot tools is SnagIt, because it allows you to capture just the area of the page you want, and then make notes on the screenshot right after you take it.  If it’s a mobile app you’re thinking of building, go download the apps on your list, duh, and take some screen shots.

4. Create your mockups. This is the part that scares people the most, but it doesn’t need to.  Mockups can, and should, be simple.  They don’t need any fancy designs, and you certainly don’t need Photoshop to create them.

My favorite tool for creating low-fidelity mockups is Balsamiq, and there is a $12 monthly subscription option which is amazingly affordable.  The online tool has tons of shapes, buttons, and menus already designed for me to use, and I can easily drag and drop pieces into place to create a mockup of my website or mobile app.

Once you sign up for Balsamiq, go look over all the screenshots you saved during your design research. Now start picking out a few elements that you liked one by one and create them in a Balsamiq canvas.

Here are some mockups I recently created in Balsamiq for a restaurant menu mobile app idea I was working on.

Balsamiq mockups

If a tool like Balsamiq still overwhelms you, you can always create very simple wireframes of your website or mobile app in PowerPoint or Keynote.  This wireframe from when we started working on Wedkey is very simple and can easily be created in either PowerPoint or Keynote using text boxes and rectangle shapes.

Mockups

5. Bring your mockups to life. Seeing your crude product designs come to life is by far the coolest part of creating a CAP.

If you’re working on a mobile app, the best tool to use is Prototype On Paper, aka POP.  You can download this for free on your iPhone or Android, and it is amazingly simple to use.  With POP you’ll be able to turn your mockups into a working mobile app!

Open POP and begin by starting a new project. Once you have your project created, open your mockup file in Balsamiq and use the app to take pictures of each of your mobile app wireframes right from your computer screen. If you want the images to be a bit clearer, email the images to yourself, or put them into Dropbox and download them into the photo gallery on your phone. You can then upload the individual screens of your mockup into POP.

POP mockups

Once you have all of your images loaded in, you’ll see them laid out in the project view.

POP mockups

Start building your functioning app by clicking on the first image.  In the bottom left corner of the screen, you’ll see a + and, when you click that, a red box will appear on the screen. This box will act as an invisible button in your app. Position the box over the area where your button belongs (i.e., the chat bubble below), then click the “Link To” link and select the screenshot from your project list where clicking this button should navigate to (i.e., the list of active chats).

POP mockups

After you create the buttons and links on each of your screen mockups, you’re ready to test your functioning app! Just go back to the project screen and push the play button at the bottom.

Congrats, you now have a functional version of your app prototype.  You can use this to test your concept and the layout of your app idea with people and see how they’d use it.

POP only supports mobile apps at the moment, so if you’re creating a website, you’re best off sticking with Balsamiq or Keynote.  In Balsamiq you can create a set of linked, “functioning” pages that act like a real website similar to the way POP works for mobile apps.  They have a great tutorial of how to do that on their website here, so I suggest taking a read through that and watching their tutorial video.  If your preference is Keynote, check out Keynote Kung-Fu.

Conclusion

If you’re currently a solo founder, finding the right cofounder(s) can be the difference between successfully launching your business and never getting it off the ground.  Whether you consider yourself a salesperson, a marketer, a designer, or a developer, building a CAP should be your initial goal.

Going to any kind of startup or networking event with a CAP in your back pocket (not literally, unless it’s a mobile app, in which case you should put your phone in your front pocket so it doesn’t get stolen) will dramatically increase your chances of attracting a cofounder for you and your business. Plus, going through the process of creating a CAP will give you a ton of interesting information to talk to people about.

Have you built a CAP and had success finding a cofounder with it? Is there another approach you take to finding a cofounder?

Danny Beck is a serial entrepreneur in Washington, DC, who specializes in startup marketing, web/mobile product optimization, and analytical decision making. He is currently the Chief Marketing Officer for ServiceAlley.com, and is an avid skier, triathlete, and a dog lover with a general inability to sit still. Danny received his MBA from NYU Stern. Follow him on Twitter @dbeckwords and on his blog Beckwords

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