how to make the next big site
March 11, 2007 4:39 PM   Subscribe

my friends and i have an idea for an awesome website - the next youtube or myspace. we know what we want it to look like, how we want it to work, the features we want it to have. but (and this is a big but) none of us have the skills to actually make it - or even know if it's possible with current technologies. is the idea worth anything without the technology or code that would bring the idea to fruition? how do we take our ideas to the next level? how to we protect our idea while trying to do this? hoping you can help a few english majors with a dream make it with an internet startup...thanks!
posted by sacho to Computers & Internet (29 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
similar question.
posted by special-k at 4:46 PM on March 11, 2007

Have you seen this askMe from a few days ago?
posted by davar at 4:47 PM on March 11, 2007

Find a contractor, but first determine if you either have a bucket of cash to give him/her OR if one of your friends would be found sexually desirable by a contractor.
posted by DU at 4:50 PM on March 11, 2007

Oh god, no. The idea isn't worth anything without the code, and the code isn't worth anything without the users.
posted by Firas at 4:57 PM on March 11, 2007 [3 favorites]

Geeks taking money off English majors is so 1999, but it's still a remarkably remunerative game. :-) In all seriousness, unless one of you in the core group has some significant management experience, particularly in software development, it is likely to be frustrating and counter-productive to hire coders and hope for the best. You need to begin with a first rate business plan, followed by a conceptual layout, and a basic "flow" diagram for the site, that defines every page (or page prototype) that you think users will see, and how they will be functionally related/navigated. And you need to be in touch with an IP attorney about protecting your concepts, researching similar patents existing, and protecting your ideas during disclosure and development. It's tricky, and generally not cheap.

But many of the key players in some of the most lucrative tech startups of the '90's weren't geeks, so it is possible. What has changed in the intervening decade is that most geeks have become much better businesspersons, too.
posted by paulsc at 5:00 PM on March 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

or even know if it's possible with current technologies.
This shouldn't be a worry, see below. Eventually everything will become possible, and if it's that great of an idea you should be able to move buildings to get it done (yourselves). If you look at interviews with basically all of the rich great people who've built things, they pretty much agree that they didn't even know if it would be possible when they were starting out, or at a minimum they didn't realize how huge it would become.

Is the idea worth anything without the technology or code that would bring the idea to fruition?

How do we take our ideas to the next level?
Learn the skills that can make it happen.
posted by anaelith at 5:02 PM on March 11, 2007

Ideas are ten-a-penny. So are coders. People who have the drive to build their ideas are rare and potentially rich.
As suggested, step one is a detailed business plan.
Next you need to write a requirement specification you could give to a programmer.
Both these things are well within your abilities.
Check out Joel on Software for the absolute best tips on writing requirements (and heaps of other good advice for tech entrepreneurs).
Next, go to rentacoder or and get a programmer to make it come true.
If it were me, I would aim to get a proof of concept done at that point, then shop it around to some VCs who can bring some cash, contacts and experience (in exchange for say, 49% or more of equity).
Good luck, and post it to projects when it is up and running.
posted by bystander at 5:18 PM on March 11, 2007 [4 favorites]

Unfortunately, Wired Magazine, Business 2.0, etc. have popularized the notion that the way you build a successful business (or website) is to start with a great idea. This is not true in the general case. There are certainly exceptions: once somebody figured out how to make a life-saving drug out of mold, that idea alone was probably pretty valuable. It's rare though.

Look at your examples: youtube and myspace. What about ifilm and friendster? These sites in particular weren't even started with the intention of building what they ended up being. Youtube 1.0 was "Hotornot + videos". Myspace was some sort of spammy dating site, if the internets are to be believed.

I'm not saying your idea is bad, or that good ideas are worthless, I'm just saying there's an embedded assumption in your question that building "the next youtube or myspace" or "making it with an internet startup" is somehow likely to proceed "having an idea for an awesome website." I think this is a fallacy.

I also disagree completely with anaelith. If you look at people who've built things in the technology world, almost all of them were builders: people who could write code, design web pages, basically handle the nuts and bolts of getting the thing built. So much so that the press makes a big deal about the rare counterexamples (cf. founder), and frequently overreaches (Shawn Fanning had to buy a Windows programming book to build Napster blah blah blah).

My suggestion would be to disconnect your "next youtube or myspace"/"make it with an internet startup" dreams from your "awesome website" idea. Now, focus on the awesome website part: is it still exciting? If it is, start building it yourselves. Don't worry about any other crap like writing a business plan or "first mover advantage" or anything you have ever read in any Wired article.

One last comment: don't worry about "protecting" your idea in the meantime. Tell everyone you can about it, unless its Penicillin 2.0. Get people excited, get them to join your team, get them to tell other people. I could go on about the wrongheadedness of the "we need to keep our secret" sufficiently to bore even myself, but the punchlines are (1) it makes you sound crazy to everyone else in the business (2) the biggest threat to you is total obscurity, not being copied (this is why PR and marketing exist) (3) someone else has thought of it (4) patents are nearly useless to startups. Ok one more comment: bag the business plan. I don't know why people always give out this advice. No one will read your b-plan, and revising it 200 times is a great way to distract yourself from building the product.
posted by jeb at 5:30 PM on March 11, 2007 [5 favorites]

You don't have to be able to code, but you do need to bring far more than the basic idea to the site to stand any kind of chance of building and running it successfully.

If one of you is great at making deals and is a marketing guru, and the other can run a software project and knows the web inside out, then great, maybe you stand a chance and should go for it. Otherwise you'll find yourself paying people to do things you don't really understand and end up with something you didn't expect. You can't outsource everything.
posted by malevolent at 5:37 PM on March 11, 2007

is the idea worth anything without the technology or code that would bring the idea to fruition


how to we protect our idea while trying to do this

You basically can't. Ideas aren't protectable (and you don't get a patent until you're able to put your idea into practice, either through a prototype or through a description that's detailed enough for an expert to build a prototype).

And, of course, the moment you launch the beta of your website, anybody can look it over and clone it (funny you used MySpace in your example... remember friendster? iFilm?)

In practice, you should be proud of your idea, and you should tell everyone you know about it. Perhaps someone you mention it to *does* have the skills to help you, and is excited by the idea (or knows someone with the skills). Or someone will help you refine it further.

how do we take our ideas to the next level

You build it. If you don't have the skills to build the site itself, then do what you can to prototype or fake it while you find someone who does. As an english major, you might not be able to build a web page, but I'll bet that you can produce a document describing it -- or a Powerpoint (gak) or Photoshop (better) mockup of what your pages are likely to look like, and how they're going to work.

There are people who can take your ideas and turn them into reality for you -- for a price (Though maybe you'll get lucky and find someone who dreams of coding an internet startup, but doesn't have a good idea). Some people's price is monetary, others want ownership or free rent or sexual favors or something else. But remember, at this stage your idea is worthless without their implementation.

(Sacho -- I've got another salient point or two, but they're more suitable for private mail. My email's in my profile if you'd like to hear them)
posted by toxic at 5:37 PM on March 11, 2007

Basically, any startup requires three things to be successful: technological ability and vision, capital, and business skills. You need at least two of these to start up a tech company. If you don't have at least two of these prerequisites, you're wasting everyone's time, including your own. Business acumen is hard to come by, but you can bring coding skills (spend a couple of years learning how to code) and money (spend a couple of months raising friends and family startup capital) to the table. The more you start out with, the more control you'll have.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:46 PM on March 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

I believe science fiction writer Larry Niven once said (paraphrasing) that if a fan gave him an idea that he was able to turn into a bestselling novel, he'd buy that fan a drink.

You should expect a similar reward for your Web site idea if you let someone else actually build the product, the company, and the community.
posted by kindall at 6:02 PM on March 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

At least get it started by buying hosting and a domain. There are many good hosts out there that can provide the newbs with the basics to at least experiment with. Once you start to build up a userbase then you can start to take it to the next level by hiring coders.
posted by JJ86 at 6:09 PM on March 11, 2007

At least get it started by buying hosting and a domain

That's actually a really tough first step. You need a decent name with an available domain, which isn't easy nowadays.
posted by smackfu at 6:27 PM on March 11, 2007

Read Dreaming in Code. If, after finishing the book, you still think you have an excellent idea then more power to you.
posted by Lokheed at 6:46 PM on March 11, 2007

There are a ton of mediocre coders (or engineers), designers, businessmen, and people with ideas. It's a rare confluence of these skills, in either a person or group, that makes a successful site/business.
posted by phrontist at 7:02 PM on March 11, 2007

How much money do you have? If you are well funded, hire a patent attorney and patent the concept (budget $10k, but you can probably do it for closer to $5K if you find the right person). Then, hire a web developer and sign them to a confidentiality agreement. Here the money gets interesting. There are many, many of these folks floating about who are hungry for work. Bargains can be found. Perhaps it pays to start with some cheap labor for proof of concept and if it looks good hire more professional folks for the real thing. Until you go public or your patent publishes everything stays protected by confidentiality agreements. Once you file your patent you are protected on the patent front, but this is such a competitive arena and an application is no guarantee of an issued patent that it pays to not disclose the idea to anyone who won't promise to keep it secret. This includes potential investors. However, here the funny thing is some of them, certainly not all, are more interested when you go through the formality of confidentiality. They are a fickle lot. Good luck!
posted by caddis at 7:47 PM on March 11, 2007

There's lots of good advice here already, but I'll throw in my (pretty similar) perspective.

The team bit is key. You really do need the right set of people to pull this off, and you+your english major buddies isn't it. Nothing against english majors, but variety is important. Managing a software project is capital-h Hard (Dreaming in Code is a good reference for this) and "knowng what you want" is only a small part of the process.

Even the "knowing what you want" is pretty hard to nail down. While it seems like you know what you want to build, you don't. I know this sounds stupid, and I know it feels like it's all worked out and it's just implementation, but (having done this sort of thing before) you learn a ton by actually building something and playing with it and the design almost always changes pretty fundamentally. There's also a lot of very important details that are easy to overlook, but make up the day-to-day problem of doing design work.

I agree with the people above who point out that this stuff isn't protectable (often - and the stuff that is protectable is probably going to be technical details you haven't worked out yet) so I don't think you should worry about spreading it around too much. Besides, most people who are in this business have lots of their own ideas they want to work on, and don't won't get that excited about someone else's idea.

All that said, I'd be happy to give you a quick sanity check on technical feasibility (I'm an engineer, done this sort of work before) and design feasibility (studying this now, done a fair amount in the past) if you're willing to tell me.
posted by heresiarch at 8:32 PM on March 11, 2007

is the idea worth anything without the technology or code that would bring the idea to fruition?

As many have noted here, these aren't that compelling by themselves. "worth" is a hard thing to define -- I think good ideas are exciting and inspirational, so there's some worth there. But as far as getting funding, or resources, or getting team members to join you to help build the thing? Not likely.

I've had the chance to talk to the founders of MySpace and YouTube, as well as similarly high-profile sites like Flickr or Digg. (I work with a moderately well-known tech company too.) And the reality is, almost none of the people who made these things work started with the exact right idea at the start. The biggest successes came from people who built and deployed sites or services, and then started iterating based on the feedback from their users. I've seen firsthand while building a startup that some ideas I loved or that I was certain would be successful were flops, while offhand decisions or spur-of-the-moment choices became hugely popular.

To take your ideas to the next level, you basically have to eat, sleep, and breathe them. You can learn the tech requirements you need, and you can build a team that will help you execute on them if others can believe you're going to make this idea work, come hell or high water.

But to protect the idea? The best protection for the idea is to promote the hell out of it with a working example. Lots of people did server-side transcoding or flash-based playback of video before YouTube, though few had combined both into a simple service. However, YouTube is synonymous with this entire category of sites, because they were successful in attracting a large community of users, and because they were focused and determined to promote the work they had done. (You're English majors -- communicating the value and uniqueness of what you're doing once it exists should be your strong point.)

Good luck with it -- the odds are, honestly, against you. But I've never meant anybody that regrets the lessons they've learned from trying to be an entrepreneur.
posted by anildash at 9:03 PM on March 11, 2007 [2 favorites]

First thing is first, find a comp sci type that you trust, and ask him if it is possible. If he thinks it could be done, ask how much money you would have to spend on servers and what not to get an idea.
posted by magikker at 10:59 PM on March 11, 2007

The two sites you mentioned aren't even that technically sophisticated. I couldn't code myspace but off the top of my head I know about 5 people who could, most of whom aren't proffesional coders, and youtube took off because it came in at the right time (when broadband was becoming more widespread) and had the innovation of allowing people to imbed video on their own webpages, not because of technical brilliance. Is it really so hard to find a web design geek to help you guys out?
posted by afu at 1:12 AM on March 12, 2007

Echoing everything everyone else has said, I'll add this:

I think the single biggest detracting factor for you is that you don't even know if it's *possible* with current technologies. In that case, you're almost destined to fail, because without a firm understanding of what is and isn't possible, in what time frame, and how to triage and prioritize, even with a capable programmer, or programming team, you'll get no where.

Instead, you'll need someone in a strong business analyst/project management position that truly understands both your core vision and how to handle software projects, what can be done on the web in what timeline and how to bring it to fruition. And then, here's the kicker: your idea ends up only ever having been 10% of the total put into the job. You'll be pretty useless with "just an idea," once things get rolling, especially since you don't understand the goings on behind the scenes.

You'll be able to keep your grandiose ideas and "wouldn't it be cool if" features coming to the development team, but again, you'll have to find someone both as passionate, motivated AND someone who shares the same vision as you who can take the idea and run with it from a software engineering perspective.

Good code doesn't just write itself. Great websites aren't just born. And even worse? Brilliant engineers and programmers don't just create perfect code. A generally complex series of events, documentation, planning, concept, and thorough understanding are required before a project will come together. You can have the two-guys-in-a-basement team take things from idea to implementation, but they're the rare breed that really has to have it all. If you've only got your idea, then even expressing it in a way that will get it coded properly will be tough for you, and your end product will suffer.

This isn't to discourage you entirely. Find someone who's brilliant, code-centric, management-capable AND who gets where you're coming from, and have them write up the business plan, and you can fish it out. To have to coded will cost you a bundle. And remember the harsh reality: Software/web projects are ridiculously complex beasts. There's a reason MySpace goes down for maintenance regularly. It turns out that shitty code doesn't scale well. There's a reason Facebook hardly ever has "technical errors," and it's remarkable how hard it can be to write truly good code.

(I saw all of this as someone who manages a few relatively large software projects, used to code, knows a lot about the web and still doesn't come close to getting it all. Or even most of it.)
posted by disillusioned at 3:49 AM on March 12, 2007

You only think you have the next YouTube. The almost universal truth is that no one makes a hit on the web thinking "I have the next "YouTube," including YouTube.

I can't imagine that a single "big idea" for using the web for social networking or content creation and that is technically possible isn't realized in some form already. If it isn't technically possible yet, someone is working on it. Someone who knows how to code it. Unless you have a new idea for how to us the web, period, you're dreaming. It's all work and execution, not ideas.

Everyone thinks they have a great idea for a web business. It's almost never true.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:11 AM on March 12, 2007

us the web=use the web, sorry
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:12 AM on March 12, 2007

Hmmm. Everyone's a critic. They don't even know what your idea is.

You could start with requirements, but I would start by drawing my website out on paper. This gives you the chance to "see" it, and will make it a million times more easy for you to explain your ideas to others. The better thought out your site is, the less money you will need to have someone code it.

If you're thinking of getting some funding from someone, I would draw out some of the key usage scenarios (perhaps in PPT?) and use those as the last slides in your pitch.

Then post a job and hire someone directly to work on it for you.
posted by xammerboy at 7:26 AM on March 12, 2007

Consider why YouTube beat Google Video, and you might appreciate that the big idea is not why you win. It's the little details, and the momentum.
posted by smackfu at 7:40 AM on March 12, 2007

The difference between the people who started YouTube and you is that the people who started YouTube did it. You, meanwhile, are hanging around here, wondering how to do it. And while you flail around, someone else is doing the Next Big Thing because they're doing whatever it takes to get it done.

That's the difference between your "great idea" and hugely successful sites.
posted by mkultra at 7:42 AM on March 12, 2007

I think xammerboy's drawing suggestion is a great first step, and certainly more valuable than writing a business plan.
posted by jeb at 9:58 AM on March 12, 2007

Seconding the suggestion to get a prototype working first, then have a mechanism in place to improve based on community feedback. That's what creates community, without which you have nothing.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 3:34 PM on March 12, 2007

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