I Have This Great Idea for an App

by Chris Smith

The great thing about being a full-stack developer is having the ability to turn an idea for a software product into reality. As a consequence, however, you're likely to hear more than a few unsolicited product ideas. One place I worked, there was this business founder type who would regularly come over and say, "Guys, I have this great idea for an app!" It got to the point that as soon as he opened with that line, the developers would start laughing. In a good-natured way, of course.

Sadly, some developers I know have become so jaded with these idea people that they end up making disparaging comments like "learn to f—ing code." Now, I'm all for more programmers, and believe that everyone should give programming a try. But in my opinion, what is really needed is for the idea people to get better at marketing.

Marketing is Hard Work

While most of what needs to be done in the nascent stages of a startup is to find product-market fit, the naive idea person is convinced of success and can't wait to build the product.

A developer friend recently emailed me the following story:

At the cocktail hour I met a guy who is the biz guy for [blank]. While chatting with him he told me about an idea for an app he had developed with [blank], a sort of checklist app for [blank] to help them make sure everything is done, and which would also include things like [blank]. He was quoted $40,000 to do the job so the project was stalled for lack of funds. It seemed like the kind of nichey app that could do well and make some money, but maybe that was the cocktail talking…

When I read or hear something like this, I bristle at the part about being "stalled for lack of funds." Now, it could well turn out that the idea person has done everything possible short of actually building the product to validate his idea and build his customer base, but I doubt it. If so, he shouldn't be making a cocktail-party pitch without mentioning things like a sales funnel, how many prospects are visiting the landing page, how many have signed up for the email list, how many have submitted the fake purchase form, what's being done to get in touch with them, and how their feedback has influenced the idea.

Heck, even developers will do well to put marketing first, as Start Small, Stay Small author Rob Walling has argued for years, in articles such as Why You Should Start Marketing the Day You Start Coding. But if you're an idea person looking at giving up a sizeable amount of cash or equity in order to build your app? You'd be nuts not to validate your idea first with relatively inexpensive marketing.

Investor's Due Dilligence

"We invest in people rather than in ideas" is an aphorism of venture capitalists. As you consider investing your sweat in the idea of the bright-eyed, silver-tongued idea person who approaches you at a cocktail party or in the company lunchroom, you would do well to follow it. (Even if you are just starting out as a developer and looking for a way to get some real-world experience, your opportunity cost is very high. Getting involved with open source is probably a much better early investment.)

Now then, hopefully this isn't news to you, but partnering with someone who is all talk and no action is a terrible idea. So is partnering with someone who doesn't have a marketing mentality. This is what I call Steve Blank 101: Viewing a product idea as a hypothesis that needs to be tested as cheaply as possible in an iterative fashion. Build a test, run the test, look at the results, fiddle with the hypothesis if needed, and repeat, each time investing a little more. Non-programmers can do this very cheaply with tools like WordPress, so a lack of funds is no excuse. (For programmers, I recommend using a static-site generator such as Jekyll.)

Once you get into this Customer Development and Lean Startup stuff, you realize it takes a lot of work. Therefore, judge the idea person, not the idea. Don't partner with someone who indulges in the naive hope that his or her idea is ready for the world and just needs to be built. Ask for proof.