late last year, i was minding my own business at a cafe. beer in hand, deep in code, oblivious to the world around me. when all of a sudden, my neighbour starts reading over my shoulder in a kind of “watchya up to” kind of way. he can tell i’m a dev; of course, he has his own group of guys just like me, coding away solutions for him at a whim. he’s going on about the various half-baked solutions his team has worked on, and i’m barely managing to keep up my side of polite conversation, poorly disguising my disdain for his understanding of modern software development. he’s an advertiser you see. a marketer. a businessman.
“the problem” he tells me, is that “you guys are trying to save the world”, but not him. “i’m just trying to make a living”, he said.
it got me thinking about my own process. like most developers with a morbid curiosity in the startup scene, i like to dabble, and get particularly interested in any idea that solves my day-to-day dilemmas. whereas this guy - this advertiser - was completely focused on finding and evaluating potential revenue streams. of course - unlike me - testing out his theories wasn’t free.
his strategy was simple. pay for advertising on country-specific traffic siphoned off certain porn sites to an instructional dating video. those who watched the entire 30m clip (crazy, right?) were led to a credit card form, allowing them to order the video series for 69.95.
it was a smoke test.
after filling out the order form, hopeful gents were told that the product didn’t yet exist, but thanks anyway. so, he burns a few potential customers, but after making his $200 bet back after 3 conversions, he knows he has a viable market on his hand, and voila, a worthy investment.
it made me wonder what i would do if i couldn’t code. how would i gain the conviction to gamble my hard earned cash on the possibility of more in the future? if i had to pay some third party for the prototype i required - what would a real MVP be? one that was cheap enough to not be a huge financial risk to me, but would openly and honestly put my business model to the test. the more i thought, the more apparent it became that i needed to quote myself for my own time.
say i want to create a tool to highlight the influencers around me, and sell it on the app store. i might estimate 25 hours for a basic iOS app, and 12 hours writing a service for it. giving myself a discount, i’m looking around $3700 to build a basic prototype. let’s say i throw in $250 of facebook advertising. all up, i’m looking at around a $4000 bet on whether or not my app has promise. would i pay 4k to get someone else to do it for me? how much do i need to make to prove my hypothesis? what can i cut to get the costs down to something more palatable?
in the end, this whole interaction with the advertiser got me thinking more about the need for us developers to think holistically. with more and more vc money ending up as our salaries, it’s a great time to be an engineer. yet by the same token, it’s all too easy to fall into complacence and presume that because we’re in such high demand, our skills are the sum total of what’s needed to build a great business.
in many ways, this is why adam and i created the brainstorming event, tilt. we were conscious of taking the emphasis away from hacking - which everyone seems obsessed about these days - and creating an environment where people combine the myriad of skills required to run a successful company. they conceive, collaborate, pitch, pivot and refine. they convince the investors - and themselves - of their businesses viability before they’ve committed themselves to any code. sure, ideas are a dime a dozen, but the people who put them together, the connections they form, the strategies they discuss and the skills they rely on during the creation process, aren’t.
no one underestimates the value of engineering - least of all me. but on its own, engineering will only ever be a means to an end. sure, you can create a product with every conceivable feature a user could want, but what does it matter if no one even wants to use it?