Knowing how to code is a trap 🪤
Ask yourself: "Should I build this?" instead of "Can I build this?"
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Today, I'd like to revisit a topic I first wrote about three years ago. I frequently discuss its principles, and after it came up in five conversations last week, I believe it's more relevant in 2023 than ever before.
Knowing how to code is a trap.
Why? Because creating something from nothing is incredibly enjoyable, and it often becomes the go-to approach for people with coding skills when they have a startup idea. Here's why I think that's a trap.
(Obviously, I am not “attacking” developers here. If you can code you have superpowers that 99%+ of people don't have, including me with just a basic introduction to HTML/CSS/PHP)
So why do I think that knowing how to code is a trap? Let me explain.
When pursuing a startup or new business idea, it's crucial to quickly assess its potential, as you don't want to invest time, money, and energy into something nobody wants. According to CB Insights, the number one reason startups fail (42%) is "No market need".
When figuring out if your idea has any potential (or, trying to validate it, in Lean Startup terms), your focus should be on proving the Desirability of your idea: getting more confident that the answer to "Do people want this?", is yes.
Answering questions around Feasibility (can I build this) and Viability (can this work successfully as a business) is only relevant if there are actually people who want a solution to the problem you're investigating.
So in the early stages of an idea, it's not about: "Can my idea be built?" (the answer to this question is almost always yes). It's about:
Should my idea be built?
With a 42% chance that the answer is no, knowing how to code can become a trap for many entrepreneurs in the early stages of an idea.
This is not limited to technical individuals, though. In 2023, the explosion of No-Code tools has made it easier than ever for anyone to build something. So to be fair, this post is relevant to a wider audience. But it’s all about the title, right? ;)
I often come across posts on Twitter and online forums where people have "built a thing" and are now seeking users and customers. When they started building, they didn't have a clear answer to the question, "Should I be building this thing?"
Now that they're deeply invested, it's painful to confront the possibility that they've "wasted" time on something nobody wants.
(Yes, I understand that tinkering with ideas and building things for fun is a great way to learn and improve skills. I'm referring to ideas that people genuinely want to pursue.)
So, why is this so difficult (for anyone, not just developers)?
Most ideas are centered around solutions, not problems.
When you continue to work with the initial idea (about the product) that sprouted in your mind, you (unconsciously) make a pretty big choice. You pretty much assume:
You know what the problem is you're solving
You know who you're solving this for (target customer)
You know where to find these people (acquisition channels)
You know how to talk to them (value proposition)
You know that your solution is the right solution (remember that sticky notes on the sides of computer screens are an alternative to your fancy productivity app)
Without setting expectations and boundaries around:
What you are investigating and want to become more certain about
How you're going to do that
What you're going to create to facilitate that (with or without code)
How much time you want to spend on it
When your efforts are successful
You open yourself up to being disappointed, while you still have done a lot of work.
Even a genius technical entrepreneur like Pieter knew that he had to start small and chose a Google Sheet as the MVP for his Nomad List idea (yes this was an MVP, if you want to discuss what an MVP is hit me up on Twitter or reply to this email 😉 )
By keeping his activities small - not building anything really - and focused, he learned everything he needed to know before he started to build his actual product:
Who is this really for?
What is the value (cities, data, insights etc.) these people are looking for?
What should the first version of my product look like?
How can I reach the people who already helped me?
How can I pitch them this first product?
Should I pursue this idea? (Yes! NomadList makes $700K per year)
I believe that, for most startup ideas (in my opinion 80%+), answering the question of whether there is a need in the market, or at least becoming a bit more certain about a need in the market, does not involve building something with code.
You can of course never be 100% sure if you're pursuing and creating something that people want. On the other hand, you can definitely be 100% sure if you're pursuing something that nobody wants.
Your goal in the early stages of your idea should be to figure this out ASAP and resist building anything that will become too big to fail in your own mind. Also known as the “Sunk Cost Fallacy”.
I hope you enjoyed this post! Let me know your thoughts on Twitter or reply to this email. I read everything.
High five from the internet,
Bram Kanstein (@bramk)