Why Founders Should Know How to Code

By knowing things that exist, you can know that which does not exist.”
Book of Five Rings

A startup is not just about the idea, it’s about testing and then implementing the idea.

A founding team without these skills is likely dead on arrival.

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I was driving home from the BIO conference in San Diego last month and had lots of time for a phone call with Dave, an ex student and now a founder who wanted to update me on his Customer Discovery progress. Dave was building a mobile app for matching college students who needed to move within a local area with potential local movers. He described his idea like “Uber for moving” and while he thought he was making real progress, he needed some advice.

Customer Discovery
As the farm fields flew by on the interstate I listened as Dave described how he translated his vision into a series of hypotheses and mapped them onto a business model canvas. He believed that local moves could be solved cheaply and efficiently through local social connections. He described when he got out of the building and quickly realized he had two customer segments – the students – who were looking for low budget, local moves and the potential movers – existing moving companies, students and others looking to make additional income. He worked hard to deeply understand the customer problems of these two customer segments. shutterstock_158330768After a few months he learned how potential customers were solving the local moving problem today (do it themselves, friends, etc.) He even learned a few things that were unexpected – students that live off campus and move to different apartments year-to-year needed to store their furniture over the summer breaks, and that providing local furniture storage over the summer was another part of his value proposition to both students and movers.

As he was learning from potential customers and providers he would ask, “What if we could have an app that allowed you to schedule low cost moves?” And when he’d get a positive response he’d show them his first minimal viable product – the mockup he had created of the User Interface in PowerPoint.

This was a great call. Dave was doing everything right. Until he said, “I just have one tiny problem.” Uh oh…

“I organized some moves by manually connecting students with the movers. And I even helped on some of the moves myself. But I’m having a hard time getting to my next minimal viable product. While I have all this great feedback on my visual mockups I can’t iterate my product. My contract developers building the app aren’t very responsive. It takes weeks to make even a simple change.”

I almost rear-ended another car when I heard this. I said, “Help me understand.. neither you nor your cofounder can code and you’re building a mobile app? And you’ve been at this for six months??” Whoah. This startup was broken at multiple levels. In fact, it wasn’t even a startup.

The Problem
Dave sounded confused. “I thought building a company was all about having hypotheses and getting out of the building and testing them?’

There were three problems with Dave’s startup.

  • He was confusing having an idea with the ability to actually build and implement the idea
  • He was using 3rd parties to build his app but he had no expertise on how to manage external developers
  • His inability to attract a co-founder who could code was a troubling sign

A Startup is Not Just About a Good Idea
As the miles sped by I explained to Dave that he had understood only two of the three parts of what makes a Lean Startup successful. While he correctly understood how to frame his hypotheses with a business model canvas, and he was doing a good job in customer development – the third component of Lean is using Agile Development to rapidly and iteratively build incrementally better versions of the product – in the form of minimal viable products (MVP’s).

The emphasis on the rapid development and iteration of MVP’s is to speed up how fast you can learn; from customers, partners, network scale, adoption, etc. Speed keeps cash burn rate down while allowing you to converge on a repeatable and scalable business model. In a startup building MVP’s is what turns theory into practice.

Dave had fallen into the new founder trap of looking at the business model canvas and thinking that coding was simply an activity (rapidly build mockups of first the the U/I and then the app). And that he could identify the resources needed, (outsourced contract developers who could build it for him) and he would hire a partner to do so. All great in theory but simply wrong. In a web/mobile startup coding is not an outsourced activity. It’s an integral part of the company’s DNA.

Having a coder as part of the founding team is essential.

Coding is the DNA of a Web/Mobile Startup
I offered that if Dave wanted to be the founding CEO then he was going to have to do two things: first, create a reality distortion field large enough to attract a technical co-founder. And second, learn how to code.

Dave was a bit embarrassed when he explained, “I’ve been trying to attract another co-founder who could code but somehow couldn’t convince anyone.” (This by itself should have been a red flag to Dave.) And then he continued, “But why should I have to know how to code, I’m not going to write the final app.”

One interesting thing about the Lean Startup is that it teaches founders about Sales and Marketing (and a bit of finance) without making them get an MBA or a decade of sales experience. Founders who go through the process will have an appreciation of the role of sales and marketing like no textbook or classroom could provide. Having done the job themselves, they’ll never be at the mercy of a domain expert. The same is true for coding.

I was glad I had a lot of time in the car, because I was able to explain my belief that all founders in a web or mobile startup need to learn how to code. Not to become developers but at a minimum to appreciate how to hire and manage technical resources and if possible to deliver the next level of MVP’s themselves.

shutterstock_161223782

Dave’s objection was to list a few successful startups that he knew where that wasn’t the case. I pointed out that are always “corner cases” and if he thought I was wrong he could simply ignore my advice.

As I was about to pull off an exit for lunch and to recharge my car I strongly suggested to Dave that for both this startup and the rest of career he put his startup on hold and invest his time in attending a coding bootcamp. It would take him to the first step in appreciating the issues in managing web development projects, identifying good developers, and finding a technical co-founder.

Weeks later Dave dropped me a note, “Boy, what I didn’t know about how much I didn’t know. Thanks!”

Lessons Learned

  • Startups are not just about the idea, they’re about testing and implementing the idea
  • A founding web/mobile team without a coder past the initial stages of Customer Discovery is not a startup
  • Everyone on the founding team ought to invest the time in a coding bootcamp
  • Your odds of building a successful startup will increase

What Job Needs to be Done? 2 Minutes to Find Out Why

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How Big Is It Really? 2 Minutes to Find Out Why

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Validation: Be Sure Your Startup Vision Isn’t a Hallucination. 2 Minutes to See Why

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Customer Discovery: The Search for Product/Market Fit. 2 Minutes to See Why

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Keep Calm and Test the Hypothesis. 2 Minutes to See Why

 
NIH I Corps logo

Why Lean May Save Your Life – The I-Corps @ NIH

Today the National Institutes of Health announced they are offering my Lean LaunchPad class (I-Corps @ NIH ) to commercialize Life Science.

There may come a day that one of these teams makes a drug, diagnostic or medical device that saves your life.

—-

Over the last two and a half years the National Science Foundation I-Corps has taught over 300 teams of scientists how to commercialize their technology and how to fail less, increasing their odds for commercial success.

After seeing the process work so well for scientists and engineers in the NSF, we hypothesized that we could increase productivity and stave the capital flight by helping Life Sciences startups build their companies more efficiently.

So last fall we taught 26 life science and health care teams at UCSF in therapeutics, diagnostics and medical devices. 110 researchers and clinicians, and Principal Investigators got out of the lab and hospital, and talked to 2,355 customers, tested 947 hypotheses and invalidated 423 of them. The class had 1,145 engagements with instructors and mentors.NIH I Corps logo

The results from the UCSF Lean LaunchPad Life Science class showed us that the future of commercialization in Life Sciences is Lean – it’s fast, it works and it’s unlike anything else ever done. It’s going to get research from the lab to the bedside cheaper and faster.

Translational Medicine
In life sciences the process of moving commercializing research –moving it from the lab bench to the bedside – is called Translational Medicine.

The traditional model of how to turn scientific discovery into a business has been:
1) make a substantive discovery, 2) write a business plan/grant application, 3) raise funding, 4) execute the plan, 5) reap the financial reward.

For example, in therapeutics the implicit assumption has been that the primary focus of the venture was to validate the biological and clinical hypotheses(i.e. What buttons does this molecule push in target cells and what happens when these buttons are pushed? What biological pathways respond?) and then when these pathways are impacted, why do we believe it will matter to patients and physicians?

We assumed that for commercial hypotheses (clinical utility, who the customer is, data and quality of data, how reimbursement works, what parts of the product are valuable, roles of partners, etc.) if enough knowledge was gathered through proxies or research a positive outcome could be precomputed. And that with sufficient planning successful commercialization was simply an execution problem. This process built a false sense of certainty, in an environment that is fundamentally uncertain.Current tran med

We now know the traditional translational medicine model of commercialization is wrong.

The reality is that as you validate the commercial hypotheses (i.e. clinical utility, customer, quality of data, reimbursement, what parts of the product are valuable, roles of CRO’s, and partners, etc.,) you make substantive changes to one or more parts of your initial business model, and this new data affects your biological and clinical hypotheses.

We believe that a much more efficient commercialization process recognizes that 1) there needs to be a separate, parallel path to validate the commercial hypotheses and 2) the answers to the key commercialization questions are outside the lab and cannot be done by proxies. The key members of the team CEO, CTO, Principal investigator, need to be actively engaged talking to customers, partners, regulators, etc.

outward facing

And that’s just what we’re doing at the National Institutes of Health.

Join the I-Corps @ NIH
Today the National Institutes of Health announced the I-Corps at NIH.

It’s a collaboration with the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop NIH-specific version of the Innovation-Corps. (Having these two federal research organizations working together is in itself a big deal.)  We’re taking the class we taught at UCSF and creating an even better version for the NIH.  (I’ll open source the syllabus and teaching guide later this year.)

The National Cancer Institute SBIR Development Center, is leading the pilot, with participation from the SBIR & STTR Programs at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.

NIH Uncle Sam smallThe class provides real world, hands-on learning on how to reduce commercialization risk in early stage therapeutics, diagnostics and device ventures. We do this by helping teams rapidly:

  • define clinical utility now, before spending millions of dollars
  • understand the core customers and the sales and marketing process required for initial clinical sales and downstream commercialization
  • assess intellectual property and regulatory risk before they design and build
  • gather data essential to customer partnerships/collaboration/purchases before doing the science
  • identify financing vehicles before you need them

Like my Stanford/Berkeley and NSF classes, the I-Corps @ NIH  is a nine-week course. It’s open to NIH SBIR/STTR Phase 1 grantees.

The class is team based. To participate grantees assemble three-member teams that include:

  • C-Level Corporate Officer: A high-level company executive with decision-making authority;
  • Industry Expert: An individual with a prior business development background in the target industry; and
  • Program Director/Principal Investigator (PD/PI): The assigned PD/PI on the SBIR/STTR Phase I award.

Space is limited to 25 of the best teams with NIH Phase 1 grants. Application are due by August 7th (details are here.)

If you’re attending the BIO Conference join our teaching team (me, Karl Handelsman, Todd Morrill and Alan May) at the NIH Booth Wednesday June 25th at 2pm for more details. Or sign up for the webinar on July 2nd here.

This class takes a village: Michael Weingarten and Andrew Kurtz at the NIH, the teaching team: Karl Handelsman, Todd Morrill and Alan May, Babu DasGupat and Don Millard at the NSF, Erik Lium and Stephanie Marrus at UCSF, Jerry Engel and Abhas Gupta, Errol Arkilic at M34 Capital and our secret supporters; Congressman Dan Lipinski and Tom Kalil and Doug Rand at the OSTP and tons more.

Lessons Learned

  • There needs to be a separate, parallel path to validate the commercial hypotheses
  • The answers to commercialization questions are outside the lab
  • They cannot be done by proxies
  • Commercial validation affects biological and clinical hypotheses

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