What Non-Tech Founders Should Expect from Development Partners

Christian Beck
May 21 · 6 min read

The age of non-tech founders is upon us. For years, it’s been assumed that you had to have a tech background to start a tech company but that’s no longer the case. Technology is cheaper, it’s easier to spin up apps with minimum overhead, and talent is widely available. While all tech companies will need to bring tech in-house, it’s not always required in the early stages.

If you’re starting a company in an industry with little tech competition, you can often get by with outsourcing development initially because you won’t need to add features or maintain your product at a pace that requires in-house development.

Outsourcing development is also a viable option when you need a prototype to gauge market interest and get initial feedback. Many VC firms and angels want to see this even at a seed stage (and rightfully so). But your first version does not need to be built to scale. Instead, it simply needs to be built to get feedback. If it’s successful and you can secure seed funding, you can use that to start thinking about your long-term dev strategy.

With that in mind, I wanted to write a few notes on what founders should look for in a dev partner. I see too many non-tech founders going into partnerships without having the right background knowledge. I have a background in software myself and while I don’t code, I’ve had to work closely with developers to implement my designs. As a result, I’ve learned seven key things to look for when vetting a dev partner.


But first: Educate yourself

Okay, you’re not going to become a developer yourself. You’re a founder driving a vision. But just as you should learn what thread count means before buying expensive new sheets, you should get yourself acquainted with dev frameworks and the basics so you understand the domain. Before you dive into looking for development partners, start educating yourself in the space. Think of these resources like those pocket dictionaries you bring out of the country so you can at least ask where the nearest bathroom is.

Resources

  • Hacking UI is a great newsletter with a wide range of topics around dev. In any given newsletter, you’ll find a few great links that explain development trends in language that’s easy to understand.
  • Better Product, a podcast I co-host, features interviews with product leaders and professionals. It gives a nice picture of what goes into building products.
  • Mixpanel has a great article on what a tech stack is. This is a must-read. It’s very easy to understand and gives you a good understanding of how tech is built.

1. Look for pushback

I see more development shops doing this well today than I had over the last three years. But there are still a lot of dev firms that will build exactly what you want. You want developers to be your partners, and challenge you when they see a red flag. The quickest path to failure is finding a firm that does exactly what you ask. On a related note, these are often the firms that cost less. They often cost less because they aren’t accounting for strategic thinking, and they’re just staffing a team of coders. Think of it like wanting to a build a new house but your construction crew doesn’t build off a blueprint.

Questions to ask

  • Are there easier ways to achieve my goals?
  • What are the riskiest components of what you’d build?

2. Timeliness is key

This is a principle that all agencies should abide by. But with dev partners, you need one who gives you the impression that you are their only client. While you aren’t building your product that’s scaling to $1M in ARR, you will need someone who can make quick changes or fix bugs. The last thing you need while you’re demoing your product to a prospect is a nasty bug to appear that won’t get fixed for days.

Questions to ask

  • How long does it typically take for you to fix a bug?
  • How often do your projects go beyond your estimated time?
  • How many clients do you have at a time on average?

3. Know your point of contact

Again, another seemingly obvious point, but for those who don’t have experience working with development, it can get lost in the shuffle of keeping track of everything else. Some development firms outsource their work to others. This on its own isn’t a problem but you need to know this up front so you know what effort you’ll need to put into communication. In addition, ask what their cadence and communication process is like. Your goal is to have a development partner that acts like a teammate as much as possible.

Questions to ask

  • Are you outsourcing work?
  • Who on your side is my primary point of contact?
  • What tools do you use for communication?

4. Ask for work examples

This is kind of like asking for references in a job interview, but you’re looking for an example of work they’ve done that might be similar to the product you’re building. This is also great for your own education because as you look at their work with an outside perspective, you’ll start to understand what good product should look like and what follow-up questions to ask.

Questions to ask

  • Can you show me examples of products you’ve built?
  • What were the results of your past work?

5. Bring your own examples

It can also be extremely helpful if you come equipped with products you like, or similar products for reference. It’s like a style swatch or a moodboard if you’re doing a home remodel. Often interior designers want to know what you like before they ever start designing a room. This goes for development partners as well. Seeing examples of what you like will help them understand your vision more clearly.

Questions to ask

  • Here are competitors doing something similar, anything stick out as problematic?
  • These are the products I like and what I like specifically, what is the effort coding these types of interactions?

6. Seek outside guidance

If possible, I’d take any quotes or information you get and have another person vet it. If you have any contacts in tech, or know someone who does, they can help translate your quote for you. There are many in the development community that are happy to help. Think of this as asking your mechanic friend about whether your car really needs that air filter replaced. Development is a new world so it can be helpful to have a translator.

Questions to ask

  • Does this project scope seem reasonable?
  • Do you have any technical concerns?

7. Involve product leaders

Lastly, I recommend involving a product leader of some sort. Our agency helps startups with designing initial concepts, and building roadmaps to help guide what should be built. But often startups may not have budget for this up front so, just like finding a developer friend, I’d involve someone who knows product. This can be as simple as asking for advice on your idea, whether it could be made simpler, etc. Even if you find a development partner that helps act as your partner, it always helps to have a clearer vision up front to guide the discussion. This will save you time, money, and most importantly increase your chance of product success.

Tools that can help communicate your vision

Starting a tech company is exciting, and when you don’t have tech background yourself it can have an added element of excitement (okay, fear). And just like hiring in-house, there will always be some risk that the fit isn’t perfect. But by taking these areas seriously, you’ll greatly increase your chances of finding strong partners and leveling up your own tech knowledge so you can ask better questions and find better partners.


I’m an executive design partner at Innovatemap. I write more about digital product over at innovatemap.com/resources.

Originally published at https://innovatemap.com.

Better Product

Resources on Product Marketing, Brand, UX Design from the Innovatemap team

Christian Beck

Written by

By day, executive designer at Innovatemap where I help tech companies design marketable products. By night, co-founder of UX Power Tools.

Better Product

Resources on Product Marketing, Brand, UX Design from the Innovatemap team

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