How to Build Your Tech Product as a Non-techie

I’ve worked with hundreds of companies and organisations to help them design, build and support technology and software systems, and I’ve worked with a spectrum of people – from those with almost no technical knowledge to highly competent technology teams, and everyone in between. If you’re unable to speak to technical people on their level, or have no idea how to start working on a technology project, what approach would I recommend you take to ensure your technology project delivers what you need it to, while minimising waste and cost overruns?

  1. Find a technical team you trust. Remember that when the project faces inevitable challenges, it’s important that you have a level of trust in the team you’re working with and a relationship that can withstand the strain of ambitious project schedules. Look for validated customer testimonials, references and referrals, as well as a good personality fit with the people you’ll be working with. Ensure you know the specific people that will work on your project and get confirmation that they will be assigned to the project for its duration (unless exceptional circumstances prevent this – illness, etc.).

    "You buy software, I give you good price."

    “You buy software, I give you good price.”

  2. Value is more important than price. Really good software development is not a commodity and like most things, you get what you pay for. What you save in a low daily rate with one team, you may end up paying ten times over in redevelopment effort, wasted time, incorrect functionality or even complete project failure.
  3. Research and define your idea as much as possible in advance. What’s the business problem you want to solve? What solutions, if any, are out there already and how do they compare to your idea? The tech team can design the technology solution, so focus on thinking through and documenting the business issues in plain English as a first step. Capturing business requirements is a key task in new projects and investing in getting that right first will save a huge amount of time and effort later.
  4. Understand your MVP. The Minimum Viable Product is the most basic version of your product that a customer will pay you for. No matter what size your organisation, the Lean Startup model is an excellent approach to take when developing new technology when there is uncertainty involved, as there almost always is. Ensure that your technical partner understands your MVP, and that it is likely to evolve as you test it and get feedback. The faster you can deliver a prototype, the sooner you can find out if it’s something people will pay for. Avoid any functionality that isn’t absolutely core to the most basic version of your idea, then test it with potential customers and find out if they’re willing to pay for it. If not, try and find out why and let this guide the next iteration of your MVP. The Lean Startup by Eric Ries is a must-read on this subject.

    Just a few more features and I'm ready to start looking for customers.

    “Just a few more features and I can start looking for customers.”

  5. Follow a clearly defined process. Good software development teams will always use a highly process-driven approach to deliver for you. Whether you use an ‘agile’ project approach where short ‘sprints’ of development are delivered every 2-4 weeks for review and approval, or a more traditional ‘waterfall’ approach where everything is defined at the beginning and delivered over time, or a mix of these approaches that enables changes in requirements to be easily integrated into the process, make sure the approach will result in you having maximum visibility and control over what’s going on.
  6. Understand your role. You should take an active and constant interest in progress, without meddling with the team and preventing them from getting on with the job. Don’t allow technical people to bombard you with jargon and words you don’t understand – make sure terminology is explained so you understand the concepts being discussed, but try to strike a balance between seeking explanations and driving the tech guys insane with questions that they’re answering while they could be coding. Another option is to hire a third party technical consultant to act as a second set of eyes to review what’s being delivered. Be warned: sometimes these consultants can be looking for an opportunity to embed their preferred development partner rather than evaluating your existing team – there may even be a kickback in it for them. Be on the lookout for this and make sure they’re giving good, impartial advice and guidance.
  7. Include end-users/customers early. Talk to people. Show them early versions of your product. Get feedback and don’t be insulted if it’s bad, it should help you understand what people want and are willing to pay for. The feedback you get will often surprise you and give you new viewpoints on whether or not further features should be included. Beware though! Don’t ask users what they want in the product unless you’re dealing with very sophisticated users who have a very specific issue you are trying to solve for them. People will often tell you what they think they might want, or what they think you want to hear. Instead, show an early version of the product and get feedback. Always try to get commitment from them to pay if possible – if you can’t, that’s a bad sign. Focus on the features that will add the most value and test these early so you can see if you’re on the right track. Your proof is people using and paying for your product, not saying they like it.
  8. User interface is everything. Where possible, make it beautiful. You could have incredibly sophisticated technology behind the scenes but if it looks shoddy, people will think it’s shoddy. People will often forgive poor/basic functionality in early releases, but if your interface looks terrible or is difficult to use/navigate, people will be much faster to walk away. I’ve seen projects where almost nothing is left in the budget for high quality user interface work – the developers just stick a basic interface on the system. This is a big mistake – developers are almost never designers, so don’t expect them to work miracles on the front-end.

    It ain't beautiful, but... no,  sorry, that's all I got.

    It ain’t beautiful, but… no, sorry, that’s all I got.

Successful software projects are not down to luck – you need to drive your project by understanding the different stages, what you should focus on and demand, and what you can just accept or forgive, knowing that no project is textbook and all projects encounter challenges.

The best software development companies will guide you down the path of following the processes I’ve outlined above (or similar) by default. If they don’t then alarm bells should start ringing. Trust your gut instinct and work with a team that you believe ‘gets’ your project and will be able to deliver it for you.


A Step-by-Step Guide to Hooking your First Customer

Is your startup a customer virgin? These steps should help get things moving.

The majority of people don’t like selling, or don’t think of themselves as good salespeople so push selling down their list of priorities. Doing this can result in you finding yourself in the position of having invested lots of time/money into building your offering, only to find there’s nobody who wants to pay for it. You can try to pivot, but wouldn’t it have been much easier to talk to target customers earlier to find out where to focus your efforts?

"I may not have any customers, but look at all the shiny bells and whistles on my product."

“I may not have any customers, but look at all these bells and whistles.”

Whatever stage you’re at with your startup, if you haven’t started approaching potential customers, now is the  time.

  1. Define your target customer. What type of organisation do you think would be a perfect fit for what you’re offering. Try to be as specific as possible in who you’re targeting, as it will be much easier to find the people responsible for making a decision. What size/style of organisation are you targeting? What sector are they in? Where are they located? What department or role in the business is responsible for the problem you can fix? Why do you think they’re a good fit? Is your offering irresistible to them, or can you make it so? Can they afford to pay? Then create a list of organisations that match the ‘perfect customer’ definition, which you’ll need to test.
  2. Understand your competitive advantage. Are your target customers already working with someone else in this area? If so, what are you offering that’s different and better? Don’t be intimidated by larger competitors – just find what’s unique about your offering. For example, as a small startup with 3 people, how can you compete against a large multinational company that addresses the same problem? Look for the differences – you’re passionate, agile and highly responsive. You give the Managing Director’s phone number to them and they can call any time 24×7. Does your large competitor offer this? Probably not. Does your competitor have a hugely feature-rich product? If so, perhaps you offer a budget version with 80% of features the customer will actually use, but at a third of the price they pay today. The most important thing here is to align your competitive advantage with an area of pain the target customer has. If you can find and access an under-served niche market with little or no competitors then this is obviously ideal.
  3. Document your value proposition. What is the unique benefit that your customer will get from paying for your offering? You need to focus on the benefits from the customer perspective. As the customer, what benefit will I get from paying for this? How will it impact my bottom line? Why should I care? Try and turn this value into a concise, jargon-free, easy to understand marketing message. Focus on making the offering compelling and low-risk for the target customer – remove barriers to why they would choose your offering. Understand the target market customer, the unique differentiator you have for that market, the sector you operate in and your proof point. FedEx has a great value proposition that ticks all the boxes: “For deadline oriented business people (target market) FedEx is the most reliable (unique differentiator) overnight package delivery service (the sector it operates in) because of its sophisticated package tracking technology (proof point).”.
  4. Create an initial target list. This will depend on your offering and the target customer profile from Step 1, but start by building a list of ‘low-hanging fruit’ opportunities – i.e., a list of customers that are highly likely to match your sweet spot definition of a perfect customer – either because you know they are very likely to need your offering, or because you will find it easy to access them and convince them to work with you. I avoid buying marketing lists as the data is usually out-of-date. Invest the time in building a list using contacts/friends/family, with LinkedIn and by researching websites, brochures or by calling the target company to ask who’s responsible for your area of operation. This can be time consuming, but the end result is so much better and more useful.
  5. Work out your approach. Trying to make a traditional sale in this situation can be difficult. It may be easier to ask target contacts to provide feedback on your product idea or to participate in a free, limited-duration pilot of the product, or to work in partnership with you to address their area of pain, given that you are building a product to meet their exact needs. Remember to make sure other target customers have the same problem though, otherwise you’ve just built a customised solution with a worldwide market of one customer. It’s also important to remember that people don’t value things they get for free. You can end up setting a precedent for your offering as a low value commodity, which will force you to compete on price. Be careful to ensure there is a timetable agreed to allow them to evaluate the offering for a trial period, during/after which they give you a testimonial/feedback on their experience and either discontinue or start paying.  The best way to sell to big organisations is to sell to other big organisations – it gives you credibility. Do whatever you can to get a reference client – even if that means losing money on the first deal.  Be confident, truthful, don’t exaggerate but passion is contagious – if somebody sees that you’re genuinely passionate about solving a problem they have, they’re much more likely to want to help you and work with you.
  6. Get contacting. Send emails to your target contacts and follow up a couple of days later by phone. Ask for meetings. Be shameless about using family, friends, former colleagues and associates to get warm introductions into the organisations you’re targeting. Always remember to treat introductions with the value and respect they deserve, as someone is risking their reputation by recommending you. Get out there and hustle – go to networking meetings, find events that your target customers attend and go along. Get your elevator pitch perfected, and don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and ask for what you want.
The phone book: not a well-defined target customer list.

The phone book: not a well-defined target customer list.

When you secure a meeting/call/demo, prepare for it thoroughly by thinking of what questions they will ask and having good answers for them. Remember to think of your offering and the value you deliver from the customer point of view. Why will they get excited, or even care at all? How much are you charging? What’s the total cost for the first year of service? How much will they save by using your service? Why is this a low risk proposition for them? What are the easy next steps they need to take to begin working with you? Keep to the point and know what you want out of the call/meeting, then don’t be afraid to ask for it.


A Simple Formula to Find Winning Ideas

6 Simple Steps to Follow to Validate Your Idea

So you’ve got an idea for a business. This one’s stuck in your head. It’s an exciting feeling – your new business is starting to take shape and you don’t see any major roadblocks that you can’t envisage being able to overcome. So what next?

One thing should take priority at this point: validating the commercial viability of the idea. Or in short, find out if it’s a winner.

“But wouldn’t it be faster to just not bother?”

To do this, I try to answer these questions:

  1. What problem is being solved? Looking at it from the buyers perspective, what problem do they have that your offering will fix?
  2. Who, specifically, would pay money to have this problem solved? People and organisations have lots of problems, but is the one your proposing to solve big enough to make them need/want to spend money to fix it? Do those people have the money?
  3. How urgent a problem is it for those people? If it’s a problem that’s way down their list of priorities you may have trouble getting and keeping their attention long enough to make a sale.
  4. Who else solves this problem, or similar problems? Who are your competitors, or who could easily become a competitor when they see the opportunity you’re exploiting? What indirect competition is there for the budget you hope is spent with you?
  5. Why would somebody choose this solution over the alternatives or what they use currently? What is truly unique about your idea that also gives a compelling reason for your target client to buy from you? This is usually the hardest question to answer. What unique advantage do you have that someone else couldn’t easily replicate?
  6. Where are those people located and how can they be accessed? If you can’t connect with your target customers, it’s pretty difficult to make a sale.
7 billion people and all I need is for each of them to give me a penny: not a commercially viable idea.

7 billion people and all I need is for each of them to send me a dollar: not a commercially viable idea.

After answering all these questions carefully, with some research to back up your assumptions, you should have good initial insight into the scale of the opportunity. The trick is to minimise the risk of starting up and chasing that opportunity, while not over-researching and becoming paralysed by a fear of getting it wrong. Risk is inherent to startups – it’s an essential and exciting part of any new venture that you need to embrace and accept, but you also want to be reasonably sure you have good odds of putting together a sustainable business that can thrive and grow.

It should become fairly obvious if the idea you’re looking at is truly great, or just OK, or worth assigning to the ‘Maybe Not’ pile. This approach isn’t just for startups – I use it to validate almost all new ideas. It’s also important to revalidate the idea constantly over time using the same formula as you move into the startup phase, learn more about your market, target clients, competition, etc.

Gordon eventually realised his idea for Stay Wet Paint wasn't a runner.

Gordon eventually realised his idea for Stay Wet Paint wasn’t a runner.

This approach also gives you confidence that your idea is worth hearing about. When you speak to potential partners, clients and funders you’ll have the ability to answer the questions they’ll inevitably ask, while managing to sound relatively clued-in and intelligent!

Not another startup advice blog!

You’re right. There’s a lot of them out there – I’ve checked. So why am I adding to the pile?

Over the last 15 years or so a lot has changed – my first big contract in my first startup was with Ryanair for the development of their website. I was still in school at the time, which caught the attention of the media and served as a great big break, for which I’ll always be thankful. This was back in the day when most companies didn’t have a website. It was before the dot com crash. The vast majority of people connected to the internet on 56.6 kbps modems at best. Dark days indeed!

Nobody pick up the phone, I'm downloading a file!

Nobody pick up the phone, I’m downloading a file!

Since then the world has changed completely – the vast majority of travel is now booked online, social media is endemic, we use apps and connected devices all the time, we stream our entertainment content. And most people don’t have time to boil the kettle while waiting for an email to download. What’s also changed is what’s involved in building a startup business. It costs a fraction of what it did even five years ago to build a software product, web tool or app, and the cloud combined with infrastructure such as the app stores, enables innovative startups to bring their idea to the masses and scale relatively cheaply and easily. The flip side of this is that those who provide funding to enable these startups to scale are now demanding significant market traction before agreeing to part with their cash, which is understandable when looking at it from their perspective.

This is where I’ve seen the problem. And this is why I decided to start this blog.

This all looks to be in order Mr Ponzi.

This all looks to be in order Mr Ponzi.

Most startups are so focused on the development of their technology and product that the fundamental commercial viability of the idea isn’t considered in enough detail until later on, or is paid only lip service. They may have built what they consider to be their minimum viable product (MVP), gone to market and even had some traction. Everything looks rosy. That is until the V.C. or other funding partner starts pulling the idea apart and everyone realises that you’ll require a Facebook-esque number of users before seeing a penny of profit. It’s potentially months/years of your time and money wasted, and it was so easily avoidable.


Commercialisation strategy and execution is by far the most important thing to consider for the overwhelming majority of startups. It doesn’t matter how innovative and cutting-edge the technology is if nobody is going to pay for it, they won’t pay enough, the budget you need is assigned to something else more important, you can’t afford to tell them about it, or you require such enormous scale before you hit profitability that most funders will consider you too risky and opt to put their cash into another startup team.

I think a lot of the problem actually goes back to the education system – particularly in Ireland, where little or no focus is given to the art of selling. Learning to sell, negotiate, define a value proposition from the perspective of the target client, present and pitch – all of these things are ignored, usually in favour of learning how to prepare a business plan that nobody is ever going to read, or a profit and loss account that you’ll need a professional to re-prepare and validate for you in any case. What a waste of time and resources!

Forget that app idea, have you done your Greek homework?

Forget that app idea, have you done your Greek homework?

I’m hoping to address this by providing tools, processes and general advice on how to package and sell an idea, product or service, how to create demand, how to pitch to potential funding partners, and how to get to a stage where commercial validation of a concept is the default setting when evaluating whether it’s worth you investing your time and energy into the creation of a new product or business. At the very least, I hope to spark a discussion.