Building a Tech Company Without a Tech Background
How do you start a tech company when you don’t have a tech background?
That’s the position Carrie Griffith was in when she started Little Nugget, a baby photo app that helps parents personalize, organize and treasure their favorite moments.
This week on the Better Product podcast, we’re breaking down the process of bringing a product vision to life when you’re not a ‘tech person.’
Carrie was her own user case study, yet she quickly learned the power of research and connecting with a community outside of her existing circle. So before a line of code was ever created, she spent nine months asking questions, seeking feedback, and understanding her audience.
Some of the best tech companies have non-tech founders. In this episode, you’ll hear what unique advantage you may have and how you, too, can bring your product vision to life.LISTEN NOW
Anna Eaglin: Imagine being a solo founder of a tech company with no tech experience. That's where Carrie Griffith was when she started Little Nugget, a baby photo app that helps parents personalize, organize, and treasure their favorite moments.
Christian Beck: From having no tech experience to having 150,000 downloads with 1 million moments saved in the app is quite an accomplishment. It all started during nap time.
Anna Eaglin: I am not that productive during my nap times.
Christian Beck: That's true. Neither am I.
Anna Eaglin: Carrie shared with us how she started building her app by capturing pictures of her first daughter and found out after her first year of life, Carrie had captured over 15,000 photos. She decided to figure out a way to share, save and capture those photos, those moments that matter the most to parents.
Christian Beck: So, before digging into development, she knew she needed to first validate the idea. Instead of rushing, she spent nine months talking to other moms before a line of code was ever created.
Carrie Griffith: If you saw my list of my MVP from the first UX that was developed, you'd probably laugh at what the product actually is today.
Anna Eaglin: Early on, she faced many of the same challenges that any entrepreneur does while having to learn a whole new language.
Carrie Griffith: I didn't necessarily know when I was having those initial conversations what to ask and what to look for in finding that skillset because I didn't have it myself.
Anna Eaglin: Well, Carrie learned as much as she could on her own. She knew eventually she'd have to find the right partner to actually develop the app. You'll hear how she knew she found the one when there was pushback.
Carrie Griffith: After that conversation, I knew that I had found my person because he wasn't trying to sell me on how quickly he could do something. It was just a lot more feedback and advice on this is how you can make it better and he also really pushed me to focus on that MVP to being really just a minimum viable product.
Christian Beck: It's common for founders to get tunnel vision. They have an idea, they know what they want to create. Right? This can be dangerous. Dangerous because you stop considering your user. You get comfortable with what you think something should be instead of validating, conducting research and making changes.
Anna Eaglin: Yeah, and I think that's where listeners will get a ton of value out of our conversation. Carrie has a B2C app, and so far on this show we've only featured B2B products. As this line between business and consumers continues to blur, we asked her what are the things that she did to build trust and grow her user base.
Carrie Griffith: Trust for this app is king because you're dealing with parents, families, babies, their photos. You're dealing with some of the most precious things that a parent can have. Today, with a lot of other social platforms, there's a lot of mistrust with the information you can give for an app. So, for me, and for Little Nugget, being able to build trust very quickly with my user is very important.
Christian Beck: How much of that trust that you're building outside of the app, the social media is your voice versus something that you're creating? The Little Nugget voice?
Carrie Griffith: It is a hard balance between the two, but the Little Nugget voice really is focused on being a real mom, a real parent. We like dads too, so Little Nugget is for moms and dads. But it's important that the brand is something that just a real mom can identify with. It's not just those beautiful, perfect moments. It's for those messy moments as well. I try to take on that voice in my branded social platforms as well.
Christian Beck: How do you do that? How do you figure out what is a branded voice? Is it all just natural because you happen to be a mom or do you have a process or any way to make sure that when I'm talking about it, this is the way I'm going to talk?
Carrie Griffith: So, I have my own voice but my own mom voice probably is a little sarcastic for the broader mom target. What I wanted to do was find a balance between tapping into the emotion of what it feels like to be a parent and capture these moments and have something that you feel like your children can have when they're grown up, but also tap into what it feels like to be an overwhelmed mom with a newborn and another child running around, because it has a hard time, it's very overwhelming. And so, what I did was working with you guys, a lot of user research to understand what challenges moms are going through, how they perceived a little nugget and how they perceived the importance of capturing those moments in a safe space. A lot of what you'll see in the messaging now is from that research.
Christian Beck: I want to back up one step on that one and ask what spurred it on, because we just dove into it, but then we get to the outcomes. But I'd like to know, so you started to get research out ... almost an outside perspective on the brand voice. What sparked that? What was the business event that said, "Okay, I've got to do something here?"
Carrie Griffith: Little Nugget was in the App Store for about a year and a half. I was one of the earlier apps for baby milestones to be in the App Store, but there were a lot of fast followers into the category and as I was looking at my competitive set, everybody was talking about moments and milestones. It felt like as you went through the App Store, every headline, every subheader was talking about capturing moments and milestones, so I knew something needed to happen. I'm still in the business of capturing moments and milestones, but I wanted to talk about it differently because to me, moments and milestones is really transactional.
Carrie Griffith: It doesn't really get to the emotional aspect that you feel when you think about your kids' photos, and you're trying to capture these moments in time as they're happening. Especially for a new parent, you don't quite get it yet how quickly time goes and how all of a sudden you have 10,000 photos on your phone and you've done absolutely nothing with them. So, I wanted to be able to figure out a way to communicate that to parents, especially when they're just in the throws of having a two week old that like, "Hey, put your head up for a little bit because this really is going to go by quick." I know everybody tells you that, and you don't believe it, but I'm on the other side of that now, and it really does. That's when I realized I just needed some help in how to better position it. That's how we ended up with a personalized, organized and treasure positioning that it is today.
Anna Eaglin: What were some of the outcomes that helped you craft how you talk to that real mom and who that real mom is?
Carrie Griffith: The research that we did was all ethnographic talking to ... there were five first time moms with small children. There was moms with multiples, and I believe there were moms who were expecting their first children. Through that research, we just spent time with them asking them questions, how they're documenting their children's moments, whether they're scrapbooking or doing it on their phone. Understanding how they felt about documenting those moments and also how they're sharing them, so we could get to the core of, is this something that they just want for themselves or is it something they're doing to share out on social media?
Carrie Griffith: That really helped identify this more of what that dialogue looks like, when we're talking about Little Nugget, when we're talking out on social media and putting the positioning statement together.
Anna Eaglin: It sounds like you talked to some moms and potentially dads who were not Little Nugget users. Why did you talk to people outside of your current existing users?
Carrie Griffith: I wanted to branch out to parents that weren't using Little Nugget because I wanted to better understand how they were or weren't documenting the moments because it's pretty safe to assume if they're a Little Nugget user, they are using it. So, they can give me really great feedback on the current product, the current features, what they want to see out of the product. But I wanted to get further up the funnel, down the funnel?
Christian Beck: Different side of the funnel.
Carrie Griffith: Different side of the funnel.
Christian Beck: Yeah, we're on our way, but it's not where you currently are.
Carrie Griffith: Wanted to get to a different side of the funnel of that parent's mindset when they aren't doing this, but they really have that need and that tension is there to document those memories of their children, and they're just not either doing it right now, or they're overwhelmed with it. So then in our messaging, in our social media and all of our advertising, we can speak to that need, not our current user, but the user who still needs to have that problem solved.
Anna Eaglin: So, it sounds like the outcomes of the research influenced a lot of how you talk to current and future users. Did it influence anything else? Any other aspects of the product?
Carrie Griffith: It influenced the product roadmap significantly? Getting back to the dangers of having the blinders on as an entrepreneur and not talking to your users and potential audience, I had a full set of features and functionality that I had at the top of my list to add to the 2.0 rollout of the app. After this research, a lot of it was invalidated as things that the user, not current user, but even potential future user didn't want in the app. One of that was to make it a private family social network. A lot of the moms we talked to felt that they already have Facebook, they have Instagram, they have iCloud photo sharing. They don't want the pressure of having another social network they have to keep up with, where they could potentially make grandma mad, or the mother-in-law mad because the baby got to spend more time with another grandparent over the weekend.
Carrie Griffith: Little Nugget is a place where you can post all of the messy moments and they're private and there for parents. It's not the curated life of parenthood that you put on your more public social networks. It really is just those moments, memories.
Anna Eaglin: It sounds like the research helped you identify what Little Nugget is not. Is that fair to say?
Carrie Griffith: Yeah, absolutely and I was dead set on the track of making it a closed family social network and after hearing these moms and having their feedback on what they really need from an app or a solution on their phones, that was one of the lowest priority things on their list because it would add more stress into their lives. And documenting your kids, all your photos and organizing them is never going to be easy. Our goal is to make it just a little bit easier, a little less hard for parents to do that.
Christian Beck: So, this new way of talking that you're now armed with, and the research that you know about current users and prospective users, can you give us an example of the ways that that makes its way into your digital marketing on the website or the app or social?
Carrie Griffith: I have what I guess you could call this little messaging Bible that I always refer back to because it's easy to get out of the mode, especially when you're doing a lot of social media scheduling, just to be like, "OMG, cute baby heart, heart XO, love you," where you hope that a lot of people will just go and like the photo and give comments, but you have to work for engagement on social media these days.
Christian Beck: Were those things, the messaging you ended up with? OMG, heart, heart? Okay.
Carrie Griffith: Yeah, but I do that every day in the Instagram posts.
Christian Beck: So, you have to do more than that is what you're saying.
Carrie Griffith: You have to do way more than that to get an engaged follower on social platforms and to get your content seen. So, through the research that we have an entire messaging document that it's just basically the guidebook of whether it's a push notification in the app or it is a Facebook ad or just an Instagram post, how we're talking about Little Nugget and how we're talking about documenting these moments because we want every post to resonate with that user and to feel a connection to the brand that they're not going to get out of the OMG cute baby go create your milestone photo today. So, we want to get to that deeper connection with our users.
Anna Eaglin: How do you execute on voice inside a product as opposed to outside of a product like on Instagram or Facebook?
Carrie Griffith: Inside of the product, a lot of it is in the onboarding and just reminding parents when they are adding their baby's name and their birthday and their profile photo, because that's something which can give you pause as to why do you need this? And it's assuring them that we're here, we're parents too and we need this so we can make the experience better for you. When it comes to getting them to create that first photo, it's talking about how quickly the moments go by, so be sure to start capturing them now. And then, in our push notifications, which we actually get great feedback on and I get messages through our social platforms is we have really ... they're just real moments of push notifications.
Carrie Griffith: They're not transactional of I see Cole turned two months today. Be sure to go make us photo, which are necessary, but it's those push notifications where it's like you're doing a good job today, mom. Keep on doing it or you can conquer this, you've got this. No one's better than you. Those messages where you can ... I've had moms give feedback that they've gotten that push notification in a moment where they really needed it and it just kinda made them smile. It's not going to make them open the app, but it helps us give that kind of real mom connection to them.
Christian Beck: How do you know whether what you're doing is resonating?
Carrie Griffith: I would say since we relaunched the app with the new messaging last June, the reviews in the App Store have just been so positive. The feedback we get from users has been great and our sales have really increased since then. I think the new messaging has really given us ... we've stood apart from our competitors and have been able to get features from Apple. We've gotten a lot more news and press since branching out with this new messaging. So, in that way, when I see the momentum we've had since the pivot, the messaging pivot, it's all been positive. So, it's a matter of continuing to keep it up and make that connection and evolve as we need to.
Anna Eaglin: What's your next step with the messaging? When are you going to know it's time to start pushing forward again?
Carrie Griffith: Our initial users are growing up, their kids are growing up. So, I think as our users are growing, Little Nugget is going to have to grow too because we want to be there for those babies when they have their first days of kindergarten. So, how do we continue to be relevant for moms who've been with us from the beginning?
Anna Eaglin: There are some times in life when things are transactional. So, I'm thinking a little bit about weddings. Weddings come and go. You move into a wedding and then you move out of a wedding. Sometimes you move back into another wedding. It just depends. With babies under two, you move in, then you have a baby under two and then some day you don't. How do you think you'll balance the new babies and then the kind of that, the kindergarten pictures?
Carrie Griffith: So many milestones happen in the first two years of life, which is why with Little Nugget, we see users in the app all the time making these photos because there's one month, two month, they're sleeping through the night, they have their first solids. So much change happens in two years. But then, as the children get older, the two to five, things are still happening, but they're not necessarily milestones, but there are things you want to remember. So, it's starting to pivot Little Nugget from not just being an app when a milestone happens, you go when you add a sticker on top of the photo. Little Nugget is something that is there whenever these important moments happen.
Carrie Griffith: We're here to help get those photos out of the craziness of your phone's camera roll into of safe space so then you can access them easily, create printed books and slideshows and something that you can treasure now and that your children can also treasure when they grow up.
Christian Beck: You talked earlier about the moments and milestones category on the App Store and wanting to stick out above those others in the category. Do you keep up on the competition regularly as well? We've talked a lot about the user side, but are you always keeping an eye on the competition and if so, how does that factor into the decisions you make in the product and the messaging level on an ongoing basis?
Carrie Griffith: Yes, so I am. I do keep tabs on my competitors and what they're doing a lot on, you can do analysis on their keywords, their screenshots, what they're using, what features and functionality they're adding. That said, I have my product roadmap that I really do believe in based on the user research, but I always like to know if a competitor's beating you to the punch on that. I also need to make sure and keep tabs on whether or not it's going to go from those moments and milestones that I ... everybody was saying the same thing is if what I'm doing is working now, or my is going to start speaking in that same way. If that's the case, then it's time to continue evolving, to be able to stand apart from them.
Anna Eaglin: Is there anything going back that you would do differently with the knowledge that you have now?
Carrie Griffith: If I went back to the very beginning of this, I would have found the right mentors from the beginning and one of those, finding a technical mentor, because I am not a technical founder. I don't know much about code. Which shouldn't say anything. At the time, I knew nothing. But I wish I would have found a really strong technical mentor to help coach me through all the different languages, all the different possibilities of how an app can be built, the implications of making certain decisions. Because I felt like not having that at the beginning, I was playing catch up with some decisions that were made from the MVP stage that I'm still trying to clean up now.
Anna Eaglin: What does better product mean to you?
Carrie Griffith: Better product means that you're building something that your end user really finds value out of. You continue to improve it so they continue to find value and continue to use it and go even further and recommend it to other people. Because people build a lot of good products, but it can be a good product that people don't get a lot of ongoing utility out of. So, I think building it better means that you're building something that they'll always come back to.
Christian Beck: That was Carrie Griffith from Little Nugget. You can download the app in the Apple App Store and soon on Google. And of course, you can check out the site at littlenuggetco.com.
Anna Eaglin: Also, available in the nap store. Get it? Yes.
Christian Beck: Naps, sleeping.
Anna Eaglin: Baby.
Christian Beck: Babies take naps. Today, making his second guest appearance on the show is none other than Mike Reynolds, CEO of Innovatemap. Welcome, Mike.
Mike Reynolds: Thank you. Great to be here.
Anna Eaglin: Wow, second appearance.
Mike Reynolds: Second.
Anna Eaglin: Wow.
Christian Beck: Well, the people wanted to hear more of Mike, so we give them what they want.
Anna Eaglin: Give the people what they want.
Christian Beck: Yeah. There was a lot of stuff that Carrie brought up. The place that I'd love to start is really talking about her role as being a non-tech founder. Now, Carrie worked at Microsoft in the past, so she's not a coder, she's not been in the product space working for a software company. So, everything that Little Nugget became was born out of somebody who was not coding this from scratch. I think that'd be a great place to start with you, Mike, because I know you've worked a lot with startup founders and seen all different varieties, so we'd love to hear your thoughts on this idea of starting a tech company when you don't have a tech background.
Mike Reynolds: The first thing, my first reaction to that is this is a real thing, and in some circumstances, a real challenge. And so, these founders that have a tech vision and can see a problem in their industry or vertical and see how technology solves it is much more commonplace, where I would say about half the founders we're seeing are probably of a non-tech origin where they do not have that network, they certainly don't have the software engineering skillset themselves.
Mike Reynolds: One, I'd acknowledge it's a real thing and it's more commonplace. A couple of things I would just say there, if you were in this situation, there are things you can do, and three things come to mind. One is lean into what you know well. The other would be get educated. And then, the third one would be acknowledge your weak spot and find a partner or possibly, potential teammate. The last one, the third one being, probably easier said than done. It's certainly with the demand of technologist. But I mean, if you're about to start a tech company, someone near to the founder, whether that'd be a W2 employee or a very key strategic partner has got to have master of the technology.
Christian Beck: I think that's a really good point because ... so you mentioned a few things there. Going back to, I think you said something along the lines of starting with something that you know well. I was thinking a lot about Stitch Fix with Katrina Lake. She was a non-tech founder as well and I think a lot of the stuff that she was doing in the beginning was nontechnical. I think she was using Google forms for Stitch Fix like submitting the stylist and she was a stylist and now Stitch Fix is one of the largest employers of data scientists out there from a "non-technical founder." I'm curious, how would you recommend somebody who's got a tech idea get started with something if they don't know how to code? What would they do? And Carrie's case, it was leaning on positioning the messaging and doing surveys. What else have you seen out there when you talk to non-technical founders, what are they doing before they code?
Mike Reynolds: The first thing is self awareness. Some of the best entrepreneurs we've seen are very self aware. They know what they're great at, they know what they're not great at and they have an answer for the things that they're not great at. Whether that be, that's got to be my first hire, maybe even to an extreme of I've got to find a co-founder that is going to fill that gap, but at minimum, they've got to fill that gap. To me, expand your network, reach out. If you need to use a partnership to get you from point A to point B, now the partnership, in many of these technical companies, just candidly, you're kind of kicking the can down the road because eventually you're going to grow this competency in-house. So, I don't know that a partnership can take you from A to Z in the lifecycle of your company, but it's certainly get you A to B, A to D, just to stay on that analogy.
Mike Reynolds: That's where a lot of people have to go first. What that's going to do if you're a non-tech founder, I'll just even ... we've got a lot of examples where that starts to season you, it's almost like one of your best tools to what it is you need. Are you someone that wants to completely entrust and empower this in a partner or a teammate? Is it something you want to having a strong opinion or hand in? Just even just to speak to the partnership, some development partners are great at ... they assume you've got at least some strategy mind where they're ready to just go code, just to see if we're going to get stuff done. I've seen a flavor where others are kind of translators. They're, they're educated, there's a senior person. Various degrees of business models, whether it's, I'm going to take care of you, I'm going to maintain this and others or I'm going to get this done.
Mike Reynolds: There's a lot of those. Or if you go to the partner route, that can educate you on basically what it is that you want to maybe eventually hire while at the same time getting you from point A to point C while you're focused on what you do well, whether that be selling, whether that be raising funds, whether that be marketing, whether that be working alongside and then with great vision on your product.
Anna Eaglin: Carrie mentioned that she chose her partner because she got pushed back from them, which she liked. It's like they're participating with her or they're giving her their thoughts. They're not just doing what she says. What do you think someone should look for in a partner like this?
Mike Reynolds: For a non tech-founder, if they're flat out admitting I don't have this competency, they should, this I go back to self aware, and should be very open to any sort of coaching, tough feedback you're making. I don't know that's in your best interest. But really, at the end of the day, you want to find someone that's going to complement your gap. If you're a non-tech founder and you're just simply coming to the table with this competency, you might know industry, you might know sales marketing, you might know business, but you don't know the technology stack set or how to actually get it done just got to complement that.
Mike Reynolds: I go back to the comment of be self aware and find a partner that meets what it is that you do not have, whether that be a full-time employee, if you should be so lucky to expand your network to find that or leveraging an existing partnership that is in market. I guess one other thing I would add that they should look for as well is yes you need to code this but you don't jump to that. I think when I said that earlier is one of the things I need to do is get educated just ... to even get educated, the first thing to do is you have this idea, it doesn't go straight to code.
Mike Reynolds: I know we've thrown the house analogy around here a lot of times where if I'm trying to figure out what's the right house to build, you don't immediately start pouring concrete. So, some just fundamentals that even are just best practices in the software world, design led development, thinking through what is an MVP, just some ... what is the right product, what is the vision. Validating those early on. Those types of things you would get exposed to a few yourself just try to get educated on the overall product development process and that's inclusive of product ideation, design and development.
Anna Eaglin: That is a really good point. I mean, there's a lot of product that happens up into development. That's something you can get up to speed a little bit faster. At least have a better understanding of that without having to get into the technical details of it.
Mike Reynolds: You are not the first person to bring a software technology idea to life. There are dozens of years of history and best practices on how to do this. So, as a non-tech founder to even just look to the technology space for inspiration and education exists. There is no idea for any software company that started with I have an idea and later that afternoon you're coding it. There was some level of investigation definition design to ensure that it's the right thing to do. Rarely was stuff ever immediately thrown into an engineer or at least today's day and age, whether it didn't have some product-minded person thinks through that first.
Christian Beck: I almost feel like there is some advantage to being a non-tech founder in the product space because it almost forces you to think outside of just development. Whereas, a lot of times people that come from development, always think build first. But if you can't build, you actually start thinking about other things. Like Carrie did a really good job reaching out to people initially. She was very low fidelity and even vetting the idea, I think she said she was using a PowerPoint to just vet the idea. Well, a lot of people in tech wouldn't do that. They would actually go build something and spend a lot of time. I think there's some advantage to being a non-tech founder cause it helps elevate you to realize that there's a bunch of other things that you can be doing that you may not think of if you came from the tech world.
Mike Reynolds: Yeah, and I'm going to agree with that. Some of the best tech companies I know, or at least ones that we've seen recently that are non tech founders, I would concur that they have that advantage. What they're doing is if you come purely from the text, you're going to likely get the tech stack right. It's going to be built bulletproof, on time. And if you've got great product and design skills, you've probably built the right product. What I often find those people struggle with is are they running the right business? Do they have domain expertise, do they have the connections, can they sell, can they market? Or a lot of times, the non-tech founders, they have to seek technical expertise, but where they come in to the table is I probably have great business acumen, I've lived in the domain I'm about to solve a problem for, so the access to my first, second and third round of prospects exists.
Mike Reynolds: It's not something hypothetical. I've got to go find a suitor for this product idea. They exist and I've got connections. I said, the first three rounds of sales conversations in my mind already, I can speak the language credibility. I've just got to go figure out as a non-tech founder how to get the product side right.
Christian Beck: If you're listening to this podcast and you are a non-technical founder or know someone who is, I would highly recommend you share this episode because I think what Carrie illustrated and what Mike has shared to I think provide some sort of blueprint for how you can actually get into the product space.
Anna Eaglin: Thanks so much for listening to the show this week. If you haven't yet, be sure to subscribe, rate and review this podcast. Until then, visit innovatemap.staging.wpengine.com/podcast and subscribe to learn how you can take your product to the next level. As always, we're curious, what does better product mean to you? Visit us on Twitter at @Innovatemap, or shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Christian Beck: I'm Christian.
Anna Eaglin: And I'm Anna, and you've been listening to Better Product.
Christian Beck: Better Product.
Anna Eaglin: Drop mic.