How to turn an idea into a product

Hello everyone, welcome to another episode of the Growth marketing series, and I am especially excited for this one because I got to interview one of the best in the Venture building space in Africa, a developer turned venture builder, Nzwisisa Chidembo. And he shared insights on how to founders can turn their idea into products.

In this article, you will see how a founder lost N3+ million trying to build his app and how you can successfully turn your idea into a full-fledged product, the different paths available and which path will work best for your startup

KO: Hey Nzwi, can you please introduce yourself?

Nzwi: My full name is Nzwisisa Chidembo, I head up Engineering at Founders Factory Africa, been in the tech scene for plus 15 years. I’ve had the experience of working with founders throughout my career. So be it within the Founders factory Africa ecosystem, or when I was working in “corporate”, which was more so the entrepreneurial side of things I’ve always worked with, with founders leveraging technology to realise the objectives. So that’s a bit about me.

KO: A founder reached out to me and he was telling me about this journey to bring his idea to life. And he reached out to a software development company in India to develop this app idea. With no result after some months, he reached out to an agency based in Nigeria and later go a buggy product. Months later, he is left with a buggy product and N3+ million in the drain trying to build his idea. Now he is going through the route of getting in-house developers. why do you think that is? is it common? Can you share your stories?

Why do founders struggle to develop their idea?

Nzwi: Yeah. So I mean, I think the context that you have provided have, you know, founders looking to build and having nightmare stories, this is a very, very common scenario. More common than most individuals who are looking to be founders are aware of, which can be quite a surprise, and quite demoralizing for the founder who’s pretty much trying to get a product into the customers’ hands. 

And the reason why it tends to be a challenge based on my experience is simply because you have a founder on one end of the table, who is looking to build a product does not necessarily know what good looks like from a technical perspective, and then engages an external party seeking to get that product out. And, what usually happens is that there is a misalignment in terms of firstly, the expectation, but also in approach. 

So one of the things that we excel at, at Founders Factory Africa is being able to iterate as we build and pivot when the need arises.

And this is something that founders don’t necessarily think about very early on. They think of a product and basically, spec it out to its entirety. They give it to an agency to build it out. And things change along the way in so many different ways that it’s very hard to sync up that product to the new realities on the ground. So You know, many challenges come to play. 

So basically, you will find that an agency will build a product. And then the founder doesn’t know how to assess how good that product is. And it just ends up being this terrible experience for the founder who has lost money. But most importantly, have lost time. That’s something that you can never get back. 

Leveraging No-code, Software development Agency, or In-house team to build your product.

KO: I know there are different routes a founder can take to building their product, they can leverage a no-code tool, go through an agency, build an in-house team or reach out to freelancers. So can you talk about these different paths? And which path do you advise founders to take? Under what circumstances? 

No-Code Tool

Nzwi: Yeah, so let’s start with leveraging no-code tools. So one of the things that have become very aware to our team at FFA, is that there’s very low awareness of no-code tools on the continent and their capabilities.

And so, you know for founders, who are trying to test out a hypothesis very early on, no-code tools are a great avenue, to assist them to get up to speed and to have something in the hands of the customer, might not be 100%. But it will prove that key value proposition. 

And so you will find that within the FFA team, especially the engineering team, we are always promoting the use of no-code tools. And we have personally spent a significant amount of time ourselves skilling up around these tools simply because we have seen the power that they have. Mind you, we are coders we are programmers, we can build out products in, in sort of, like leveraging deep technology. But for us, it’s light and day, the amount of speed that one can have leveraging such tools. So no-code tools, I would promote and shout from the mountaintop for any founder to be well versed at what’s out there and how far they can go. There are many success stories within the founder’s factory portfolio of founders who have leveraged no-code tools to great success. 

Software Development Agency

Then let’s move on to leveraging agencies. So this is the thesis that we have come to as the FFA engineering team, in that, yes, there is that gap that exists. From a founder perspective, knowing what good looks like when working with agencies. However, there is still a role for agencies to provide value and we are a firm believer in this. 

How we have gone about de-risking our founders, when they engage with agencies is ensuring that we can cover that gap of them knowing what good looks like so we come in and act almost as a referee, to ensure that from a strategy perspective, from a codebase quality perspective, things are being built the right way. 

And you know, we don’t necessarily just stop at the technology but we ensure that what is being built is aligned to the business strategy as well. This is just more so leveraging our experience. So I would definitely recommend any founder out there who’s looking to engage with an agency to have an individual who knows what good looks like on their side of the team, who can be part of those engagements, and who can go a long way in de-risking their engagement with different agencies. 

Leveraging In-house Team

Then if we talk about bringing in-house team, I think that’s the utopia, right for any business that’s coming up. But it’s all about knowing when to bring in the right individuals at the right time to ensure that the runway is not depleted. But also just to ensure that you don’t necessarily get to a point in time where you bring in the wrong person, and you don’t get any acceleration in the product’s objectives. 

So this is where really one, or a founder would need to get advice from someone who’s been building platforms for a while to know what skill sets to bring in, at what point in time, and this is very much so, you know, per business approach. And also looking at what resources are available to that business, if they already engaged an agency, so it depends on how the business is growing and scaling internally for one to be able to get to know who to bring in at what point in time, I’ll always recommend that the founder have a bit of flexibility when it comes to bringing in teams, a lot can change early on in the journey of a startup.

And there’s a train of thought that recommends also building that flexibility into the team. So that if one has to pivot, you’re not necessarily stuck with team members who are not necessarily willing to also pivot and maybe skill-up on a different technology. 

The customer is always first. So building with the customer in mind, and not necessarily leveraging technology because it’s known in order to address a problem like you always need to start with the customer in mind. So that’s, that’s a risk area when building out teams earlier on.

Leveraging In-house team vs Freelancer

So I’m gonna share something that I’ve seen, that’s pretty weird in the industry, right? It’s developers having multiple gigs, at the same time, this is where I guess freelancers fall into. 

And so one has to be very clear. If they are looking to build their team. bring in people who are full-time, that’s my recommendation. If you’ve got a strategy of leveraging freelancers from a short-term basis, then that’s fine. But do not mix the two. It never ends well for both parties. Someone either gets burnt out or someone ends up feeling as though they have been, you know, basically scammed out of the engagement. So my biggest recommendation is never to mix the two.

KO: Can you share your story of how you helped take a founder an idea stage to get to a full-fledged product?

FFA Case study: Leveraging No-code tool and Agency

So I guess there are many examples in FFA. I’ll use one where we leveraged agencies to a great deal, then one where we leverage no-code tools to a great deal. And some of our mistakes and how we have gone to learn some of these things. 

Case study: Agency 

So with one of our portfolio businesses, we had managed to build some of the core codebases internally as FFA, for that portfolio business. However, we had gotten to a point in time whereby we needed to ramp up the feature set for that business, and we needed to bring in external developers. So we managed to get some experienced external developers to assist with this build. But we assumed that we didn’t need to be super hands-on from a quality assessment perspective. 

And so we started this journey, work was being produced, we will see the outcomes to say, Okay, this is working. However, when the engagement was now basically winding up, and we were doing our checks and balances, it was only then that we discovered that half of the code base, really was not maintainable at all. It worked, but it wasn’t maintainable. Meaning that we couldn’t necessarily bring in someone else to start building on top of that code going forward. So that was a big lesson for us in that regardless of the reputation for a specific development house, we need to be hands-on, and it will be the same for any founder, right.

So if you don’t have the capabilities of knowing what good looks like, you’re already kind of at a disadvantage. We were developers, we knew what good looks like. But our focus was just more so on the outputs that were that will be produced from a usability perspective, and not necessarily from a code-based quality perspective. So that was a big lesson for us. And since then, we’ve been a bit more hands-on, on making sure that the quality side of things is up to scratch. 

Case study: No-code tool

Another lesson that we learned was just more so from leveraging no-code tools. So this is where we saw the power of no-code tools as a team, our initial hypothesis for our early-stage businesses was that they would need to leverage deep tech to test out their hypothesis, which for us, became clearly wrong assumption. As we started to see just how long it can take one to build up leveraging deep tech. 

So what then happened was that a founder engaged with us in the program, and the founder was able to test out their hypothesis using a no-code tool called Adalo. And they were able to progress so far, in terms of the hypothesis, that for us was a big revelation of the power of no-code tools. And we saw the advantage of leveraging such tools. We could have, you know, stayed on our high horse and say, you know, what we’re gonna build but it was very obvious that we have gotten it wrong from that perspective. And, we quickly pivoted now as a team and started going through this journey. 

Yes, we had some false starts when we were trying to learn some of these tools and knowing where they work best and where they don’t work best. But I think it has been thoroughly, thoroughly rewarding for us. Not only have we seen the benefits for building businesses, who are testing early-stage concepts, but we’ve seen opportunities of leveraging no-code tools for even businesses that are going towards series A raise simply because they are still hypothesis testing that’s happening even at that stage, right. So I feel it’s an area where we will see a tremendous level of growth. As more awareness gets built up around the power of some of these tools.

Final Advice for Building your product

KO: What is your final/wrap-up advice to founders to help them reduce spending unnecessary money and get their products in the market?

Nzwi: Yeah. So it’s a test, right? It’s a litmus test. If it takes more than a month, or more than two months to get something in the hands of the customer. As a founder, you need to question yourself and if your strategy is the right way, simply because of how fast things move. So it might be that you’re using the wrong strategy if your lead times are super long. 

So I’d say that should always be kind of a red flag if you are building a venture, and it’s still a very early stage. They are tools, they are their strategies. Their means to Lo-Fi your approach to validate a value, which is the most critical thing, after validating value then start building something robust that can scale as you start repeating the same strategy but do not spend too much time trying to build the utopia on day one.

KO: So basically, build an MVP first and get up in the hand of users.

Nzwi: But you know, that there are different definitions for MVP. Yeah, I think sometimes, founders kinda overthink it. And there’s a danger in having too much money sometimes. Because that’s what I say it’s too much money. Because when you have too much money in your hands, you’re thinking, Okay, I need to build the biggest thing to show. You know, my acumen is a founder. Which leads one the wrong way? 

Build fast and Build smart

I hope you got value, shout out to Nzwi for the amazing insights. Let me know what you think in the comment section and don’t forget to share, share and share.

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