Eddy Lee, Ph.D, is a venture capitalist investing in Silicon Valley and Singapore. He is also a Consulting Assistant Professor at Stanford University.


So you have a great idea for a new mobile app or Web service—but you don’t know anything about coding or developing. You might have started searching for a tech-oriented co-founder to help you launch your idea, only to find that your startup can’t afford the ongoing salary for a skilled software developer.

The question is: Does a startup need permanent tech staff right away or can you get things off the ground without one? This four-step plan will help you move from idea to full-fledged business, without the need for massive startup capital.

Step 1: Test your demand

What drives sales for online services and mobile apps? It may surprise you to learn that the technology itself takes a back seat to market demand.

You can find out whether your idea will succeed ahead of time by gauging the potential demand for your product or service. There are a few different ways to do this. Some examples include:

  • Organize a local market research campaign (best for services that involve connecting businesses with customers).
  • Start a Facebook page to introduce your idea and solicit feedback and comments from people who might use your offering.
  • Build a simple website using easy, no-coding-required tools like Wix for great-looking, interactive pages, or LaunchRock for sites specifically designed to collect feedback on ideas.

When it comes to local market research, the best way is to talk to your clients and understand their needs.

A quick example would be OpenTable, a Web service and app that lists the best restaurants in your area and makes reservations for you. If you were starting this service and wanted to test market demand, you might visit the restaurants in your area and tell them you’re launching a free marketing service for them. You could then distribute flyers asking potential customers to contact you about the service, and find out how many are interested.

Step 2: Build your preliminary website

Once you’ve determined that there is sufficient market demand to make your idea viable, it’s time to move on to the next phase—envisioning your online presence.

Just because you don’t have any development or coding skills doesn’t mean you have to scratch out your ideas on the back of a napkin. You don’t even have to use a digital image program to communicate your vision for your website or app. The best option is to create what developers call a wireframe: basically, a skeleton layout of what you have in mind for your design.

There are several easy-to-use online tools for creating wireframes. One of them is Balsamiq Mockups, a drag-and-drop program that offers fast, simple wireframing tools with features like clickable buttons that help you share your ideas more efficiently.

Step 3: Outsource a developer

Developer salaries are high and often out of reach for a startup business. However, there is a middle alternative between the end points of hiring a full-time developer and going without one: outsourcing.

There are hundreds of Web and mobile development companies that work on a per-hour or per-project basis. You initiate the project by describing your requirements to them, and they will return with a quote telling you approximately how long the project will take and how much it will cost. This is one-time fee, rather than an ongoing salary.

Shopping around: Getting project quotes

If you plan to outsource to a developer, the best idea is to present your project to several development companies and shop for the best deal. Keep in mind that cost should not be the only determining factor—you’ll also want to consider completion time and quality.

In general, you’ll find that high quality comes with high prices. The most expensive developers are usually around the Silicon Valley or the East Coast. There are also overseas companies that provide mobile and web development, and while the prices are typically low, often the quality is too.

Obtain several quotes for your project from the U.S. and overseas developers. You’ll also want to look at their portfolios, get introduced to past customers, to see whether their work is the level of quality you’d like for your developing idea. With enough searching, you’re sure to find good quality services at reasonable prices.

Crowdsourcing: The latest alternative

One relatively new and effective way to find a developer for your project is through crowdsourced marketplaces like 99Designs and crowdSPRING. These services have their communities of designers and developers create designs according to your requirements, and allow you to pick the best one you’d like to work with. You set the proposed fee for the project, and pay only if and when you choose a winner.

Step 4: Planning for the long run

When you’ve outsourced a developer and your idea is up and running, it’s time to turn your focus to long-range sustainability. Eventually, you will need an in-house team of designers and developers to work with you directly.

A full-time creative team provides plenty of benefits, but the price tag can be steep. There are a few ways you can work around the traditional salary arrangement:

  • Employ a hybrid approach by hiring one trusted developer, who can then outsource some tasks to a team of freelancers
  • Build a strong online presence through platforms such as AngelList. Although primarily a fundraising avenue, it’s a flourishing channel for attracting entrepreneurial folks to work for you.
  • Enlist college students or graduates as interns to help them build developer experience, and then hire them full-time once the internship ends

Remember, you don’t need coding skills or development experience to launch a successful Web service or mobile app. What you need is a market for your product, a solid plan to bring you from idea to execution and beyond.