Building Backstage Capital Cover
An MVP Story
Cover is a new initiative by Backstage Capital to help more aspiring entrepreneurs and investors — regardless of income, location, or profile — have access to invaluable startup-related books. It’s yet another great idea from the creative and intelligent mind of Venture Capitalist Arlan Hamilton.
I featured Arlan and the mission of Backstage Capital on my podcast, Mission & Values, and throughout the whole production of our episode, I was fueled and inspired by the idea that my small contribution went toward such a worthy and smart goal (to level the playing field of venture capital by investing exclusively in the best underrepresented founders in the country).
Knowing that I’m a designer/developer, Arlan pinged me last weekend to find out how much time and money it would take to build out the idea that became Cover.
We discussed two approaches:
- Build a custom app with forms, a database, an admin interface, etc.
- Go Lean and ship an MVP (minimum viable product) using a landing page and SaaS software to optimize for learning and then consider building a custom app, if warranted, later.
The worst potential outcome of building a custom app is that you spend time on something that turns out to be unnecessary. When that happens, you’ve wasted time. The more unknowns you have, the more that’s likely to happen. If you already know what needs to be built based on validated learning, it can be faster to build out your custom app, but that’s not often the case.
I was thrilled when Arlan opted for the scrappy option #2 to launch and learn. By Monday night, we had a cool, new project name and a working landing page. By Tuesday night, we were ready to ship version 1 with all the functionality we wanted to test. We’re still monkeying with details and there’s plenty of work left to do with the project, but we’re already learning and people are sharing and responding positively to the live project.
I’d love to share the tools we used and why we chose them to encourage you to optimize for learning fast, too.
It’s always wise start with the content. You’ll save time designing (even at the wireframe or mockup stage) if you know what you’re working with, and you can be literal about the content rather than hoping everyone’s expectations and imagination line up when realized.
Any old collaborative document will do, so the app choice is less important than your team’s comfort and ability to move quickly with the tool.
The app here isn’t hugely important, but the goal is to take the working content and get it quickly into a format where you can surface any design issues or decisions that need to be made. Wireframes and mockups are often faster to create than working HTML/CSS versions if you don’t have an existing style guide and design pattern library.
We started with high-fidelity mocks in our project since it was a familiar web design layout and structure (hero section, single and double columns, basic typography and buttons) where the header and footer patterns already existed.
The Backstage Capital website is built on WordPress, so the easiest way to launch a landing page was to use that. I selected an appropriate photo from the ever-wonderful Unsplash, repurposed all the existing CSS styles I could to stay on-brand, borrowed some CSS from other websites I have (tada — instant, lightweight grid system!), and we were off to the races.
We plan to make the content fully customizable within the WordPress Admin, but we wanted to get this page launched as quickly as possible, so currently we’re simply using a single hard-coded page template and Arlan routed all content requests through me. So unsexy, I know, but why wait to get that done? You can launch it now to start learning, and then continue to improve it later!
So often the functionality you need in apps can be reduced to forms. I always think about Ev Williams’ hilarious observation that all of his successful products are essentially ways for humans to type in text boxes. Well, it’s likely your app is no different. For Cover, we needed 3 forms: a book recipient application, a book giveaway sponsor application, and an author donor application.
We considered a few SaaS tools for this like Google Forms, but went with Typeform because it’s such a fun user experience and works well on desktop and mobile. This is where the decision to go the scrappy route really starts to pay off.
Think about it this way: Typeform’s entire business is to provide the best form experience; how are you going to focus on what makes your app different and also do a better job at forms than they do already?
Even if you go with a more traditional form design without any fancy scrolling, you need to handle error messaging, cross-site scripting protection, responsive mobile layout, etc. You can use all kinds of existing open source software on the front- and back-end of your app to crank through these requirements, but there’s little chance that you’d finish that before even a non-technical person could build and ship a Typeform form. That’s the power of SaaS right there.
Most form software has limited admin interface features and you’ll usually want to save the submission data to another data store — maybe that’s a database or spreadsheet.
We decided with Cover that having a spreadsheet would allow us to do anything we’d need to with application review and selection. A script in Google Sheets would be an easy way to do random selection to choose a winner, so that’s the tool we chose for v1.
Ah, but how do you get the data from Typeform to Google Sheets? You can either manually export the data from the form app and import it into your data store, or automate that painfully tedious task with an integration.
Here, again, is where SaaS comes to the rescue. It’s Zapier’s business to make this integration experience easy for you. (Full disclosure: I’ve worked as a Product Design at Zapier.) So, we set up a “Zap” (a connection between SaaS apps that automate tasks) to save form submissions in Typeform to our Google Sheets spreadsheet.
So, that’s the MVP we launched for Cover. I’m excited to see where the project goes and I’m proud to have worked on it with Arlan and Backstage.
I want to point out something about great leadership here. When you work on a project you believe in that makes you feel great, you’ll go out of your way to ensure its quality and give each task lots of love above what’s required to ship. That motivation comes from a project leader’s chosen goal and their ability to empower the people helping to achieve that goal.
Arlan left lots of room for me to pitch in on creative ideas on both design and technical solutions, we had quick and well-reasoned discussions that resulted in actionable decisions, and all of that resulted in the feeling of momentum and joyful collaboration. Above all else, she selected an inspiring and worthy mission, and that will continue to bring the best out in the people she works with.
If you’re leading a project, never forget the power of uniting your team around a clear and motivating mission and giving each team member the autonomy to contribute their best work and be their full self. If you get that right, you’ll not only ship, you can change the world.