App-Building Advice for Non-Techies

It seems nearly everyone these days wants to get in on the app and web- development game. Apps, websites and web tools are hot, and developing one doesn’t have to be a full-time venture (thought you hope it turns into one once your product launches). But it’s certainly not a cakewalk, either—especially if you don’t happen to have an application development specialist in your inner circle.

So, how are non-techies making it in the competitive world of app and web development? Four Westchester-based tech entrepreneurs—all of whom didn’t know their SQL from their PHP when they started—share some tips.

Embrace your inner techie

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Scott Kera, who recently developed and sold Candidate Broker, an online hiring tool, for an undisclosed number of millions, had a head start with some basic programming knowledge. But, he improved his coding skills by “buying various books on software development and taking several Ruby on Rails courses on EdX and Udemy,” he says. Julie Roche, founder of Burbio, a site that helps parents coordinate school, sports and activity calendars, got her start by “taking on-line coding classes, going to tech “Meet-ups”, attending conferences, subscribing to blogs and newsletters, and reading books that focus on tech start-ups.” She then enrolled in classes at General Assembly in New York City in front and back-end web development and user experience design.

Tell everyone about your idea

“There is a truism about start ups that I read once—’Question: Who should you tell about your start up? Answer: everyone.’ That is the way we think about it,” says Roche. David Crane, CEO of Mobile Health One, which created MDChat, a HIPAA-secure communications app for medical professionals, recommends “doing everything you can to validate that your idea has potential buyers.”

Doug Messer, a 914INC Wunderkind and COO of University Beyond, a startup app that connects brands with college students seeking brand ambassadorships, adds, “You need to understand the demand for your product and the only way to do that is by talking to people or potential clients.” But, he cautions, be sure you are protected. “During development, non disclosure agreements are your best friend. Get familiar with them and have a template ready when you decide to go in-depth with potential developers. Once you move to contracts, make sure that you retain 100-percent ownership of the intellectual property.”

Determine exactly what you want before approaching a developer

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“I had a vision for the architecture of the site and taught myself how to use a prototyping software tool called Axure to visually layout the pages and functionality of the site and how the user would flow through it,” Roche says. “This provided a basis for the product specifications that I needed to find a development team to build the app.” For Kera, software tools were also key in the pre-developer stage.

“I used a number of management/markup tools ( Github, Snagit, ScreenFlow, Photoshop) to clearly convey what I wanted.” And all the entrepreneurs recommend building “wireframes”—visual guides that represent the skeletal framework of a website. “Go back and forth a million times with the pictures until it represents your goal before any code is written,” Crane recommends.

There are great resources nearby… but you also need to branch out

“The digital community in the New York area is all about taking risks and building things,” says Roche. “I recommend MeetUp as a great place to find groups you can learn from.”  MobileOne was able to find Westchester-based angel investors to help with its initial seed funding, Crane says, and is now part of the Westchester County Association’s BLUEPRINT Accelerator Network, which is providing additional funding as well as office space, and access to key mentors. But, this being the Internet age, tech resources can be found anywhere across the globe—Burbio’s developers, for example, are located in India and Belarus. “We found our development team through a freelance platform called Elance,” adds Messer. “You post your idea or the work you need to be done, and several independent developers as well as agencies bid on the job and provide a detailed scope of work.”  

Reduce your risks

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Concerned about your intellectual property rights? You should be. “Use a known, experienced development partner. Make sure you have an attorney experienced in software contracts, and that the development agreement defines the relationship as a work for hire and explicitly defines who owns the code and all rights—internationally,” Crane advises. “The best way to protect your idea is to have a specific business plan, surround yourself with an experienced team that is connected in the industry and can execute on the plan. If possible, file patents on aspects of the system that can be protected.” Roche also recommends having “a technical advisor who has domain expertise in your area.” And Kera warns would-be entrepreneurs to choose their investors wisely. “Bad investors will force you to release a product that isn’t ready, while good investors understand that all good things take time to develop. If your investors trusted you enough to give you a large sum of money, they should trust that you know best when the product is ready,” he says.

Be persistent and patient—and prepared to spend

“Everything takes longer and costs more than you originally planned,” says Kera, who says it took roughly $500,000 to get the first product-ready version of Candidate Broker up and running. “The site was modified extensively numerous times and was completely rebuilt twice. We also changed the name from Digiume (pronounced dihg-ah-may = digital + resume) to CandidateBroker.” Julie Roche and her husband spent some $40,000 of their own money to launch Burbio with what she describes as “a basic feature set—and then we made few modifications and added a few additional features based on user testing and feedback.” Why does it take so much time and money? Messer explains: “What most people don’t understand is how much actually goes into the development of an application. From writing thousands of lines of code to creating an easy-to-use and attractive interface, development requires a significant time investment. You have to make sure every button is placed correctly, every feature is easy to use; and incorporating feedback from potential users takes dozens of iterations.”

Are you a non-techie who has started an app or web tool? Tell us how you did it! Email edit@westchestermagazine.com.