Don’t code: 5 steps to an outsourced MVP

by Matthew Thurmond

Don’t spend months learning to code or looking for a technical co-founder. My interviews with Harvard Business School entrepreneurs and outsourcing industry experts reveal a new playbook for early-stage ventures that replaces the “shut the door and learn to code” ethos with an “outsource early and hire late” strategy. A handful of web-based tools and services are enabling this shift and savvy entrepreneurs are using them to quickly and cheaply bring minimum viable products (MVP) to market.

The 5 steps below describe an easier way to create MVPs:

1) Mock it up
First things first. What, specifically, do you want to build? If it’s a website, skim similar sites and draw up the main pages with your desired logo. After a few iterations on paper, you should have a general outline. Now use Balsamiq to do a more formal mock-up. The end result will be a shareable pdf that looks like a pencil sketch.

2) Design the graphics & specs
Now you want to add color and interactivity. Use Adobe Photoshop or Fireworks for this. You can download a trial version and can take lessons on if needed. The end result is a pdf that looks like the actual site or app and has clickable links that allow you to experience the navigation.

3) OR, skip 2 and outsource the design
If you have no interest in design you can just skip step 2 and outsource the process entirely. DesignCrowd and 99designs let you run “design contests” based on the product specifications you set. Multiple designers will submit graphical ideas and you pick the best. The process can take 3 days – 2 weeks and costs $250-$750. In return, you get a professional pdf prototype of your MVP that is colorful and clickable.

4) Hire a freelance developer
Now go to oDesk or Elance and post a job with your design linked to the description. Expect 10-20 developers to apply and proactively send your job to 5-10 others on the site. Each developer will have feedback from previous buyers and you can conduct a few interviews to narrow it down. Most of the bids will come from off-shore developers and the good ones will charge $20+/hr. You can also outsource complex MVPs to a U.S. development agency like Elm City Labs. The work quality is higher but these agencies cost more or want equity.

5) Manage the developer
You will need to manage the development process and constantly convey what features/bug fixes you want the developer to accomplish. Use Pivotal Tracker to manage the work queue and use Word and/or Photoshop to send visual aids with clear instructions. Make sure you have ownership of the code, hosting service and domain and set up bonus payments that line up with quality targets and deadlines.

That’s it. If you’ve done the process right you should have a functional web site or application. Now you can test the product with customers and, if successful, start approaching technical co-founders and angel investors. Expect the entire outsourced MVP process for basic websites to take 1-3 months and $1,000-$5,000. Expect more complex apps to take 3-6 months and $5,000-$15,000.

For examples of recent HBS startups that have outsourced development via oDesk and Elance, check out Vaiad and Northwestern University Store.