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Recently and quite often, people with no programming background come and say they have this great idea that can be the next big thing and that the idea(s) is worth a fortune by itself. Then as they know I'm a programmer, they ask me if I'm willing to "code it up" for them or find someone willing to do it for next to nothing.

Judging from the enthusiasm, it's like they're drunk on their idea and that that by itself is the most important thing, but they just need a programmer. My response to them, depending on my mood and their general attitude towards what we do, is something along the lines of:
"Having the core of an idea is one thing. Developing it to the point that it becomes a platform that changes the world in which it lives is another, and you're going to be willing to pay proportionately to how big you think your idea is worth."

Have you been approached by these business type entrepreneurs (with no technical/developer's knowledge) with such a proposal and how do you react to them?

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It's not just programming. Screenwriters have to deal with this all the time from non-writers who have a "great idea" for a film script. –  chrisaycock Dec 6 '10 at 15:13
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I point to one of my programming books and say: "Cheapest way is to do it yourself. Besides, programming is easy, it's the ideas that are the hard part. Right? And you've already solved that part!" –  Steve Evers Dec 6 '10 at 15:27
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Politely point out to the person that because the person did not ask you to sign an NDA before disclosing "The Next Big Thing", they cannot sue you in the future if you end up implementing one. Close the discussion with a Thank You. (Screenwriters often get sued by random persons because of this.) –  rwong Dec 7 '10 at 10:46
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Yep, Love these... Usually I get excited with them and start drawing a project plan with them. Then outline the rough requirements for programming, then give a rough order of magnitude estimate of the time I would need to do it, then tell them that if they come up with this money and share profits half and half i'd be happy to help... It rarely is mentioned again after that. This said... if one day one guy bring a big fat check with his idea hell i'll do it !! I sure like these discussion better than debating the feasibility of a perpetual motion system... –  Newtopian Mar 3 '11 at 5:33
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16 Answers

up vote 21 down vote accepted

If they are only willing to pay next to nothing, that means they really don't believe in the idea. They just want to try a long shot and see if they get lucky.

I usually respond with something along the lines of "you get what you pay for" for development services, and if they don't want to pay anything, they aren't likely to get much.

If they say they'll give you stake in the company, that's a bit different, then you have to evaluate how you feel it will do as the next big thing.

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Or they don't realize that programming is actually a big part of the work, not just a minor line item. Possibly both. :) –  Anna Lear Dec 6 '10 at 13:57
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If they can't pay you and you are working for a stake in the company then its really the same as asking you for an angel donation and you should evaluate it accordingly. If you don't have experience with evaluating a startup's prospects I would just steer clear of it since the vast majority of "ideas" will never get off the ground. –  Jeremy Dec 6 '10 at 15:25
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Anna, do you believe programming is the big part of the work? –  user2567 Dec 6 '10 at 18:09
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Sometimes these business grads are willing to pay fairly. The problem is that as programmers, our confidence might deceive us to think we are able to accomplish certain parts of an unfeasible aspect of the idea, only to fail and be blamed for the disaster. On the contrary, if we succeed, we have to make sure we get our fair share (which I believe should be worth more than the idea by itself and perhaps be the biggest chunk of the profit). –  chiurox Dec 6 '10 at 18:52
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I ask leading questions, try to figure out how much of their idea they actually thought through and whether or not they understand how much work will be involved or if they think of programmers as just a commodity. To a lot of people software development is magic and they treat it as a minor task item. After all, some kid wrote Facebook, so it can't be that difficult, can it?

If they show that they understand the problem domain, I would take them seriously, otherwise not so much.

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I've come to realize that I know nothing when it comes to the "next big thing".

When I first came across Twitter I thought IM/IRC only worse. It will never fly.

When MySpace came out I thought "oh Geocities all over again". It will never fly.

When I saw the commercial for the Snuggie I thought "a blanket with holes or a backwards robe". It'll never fly.

I can't help but feel I'm somewhat left out knowing I'm not the target market.

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@dietbuddha: ehhh you're not the only one bro, I said same thing about facebook and look where it is now... :-\ –  ComputerSaysNo Dec 7 '10 at 9:59
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I may be slightly older, but I remember thinking this HTML/HTTP thing would never catch on, when there were more efficient ways of getting information. –  David Thornley Dec 7 '10 at 19:15
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People with brains generally aren't the target market for these things. –  sevenseacat Mar 3 '11 at 6:48
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The head of a computer science department recently wrote this article about business majors who would call-in to ask if a programmer would join their projects. He writes that the value of a product comes from its execution, not just the idea.

Another article also mentions that the execution is what matters and that an "ideas guy" is really just deadweight to a business that isn't making any sales.

The best bet is to tell the non-programmer that if he's serious about building his great idea, he should:

  1. Approach potential customers with the idea -- if he doesn't know who they are, then he can't get revenue anyway.
  2. Get them to sign a non-binding letter of interest to raise capital -- if they won't sign, then they aren't really interested.
  3. Pay developers the market rate to build the product -- if he can't convince developers to take less than the market rate, then his idea really isn't cutting edge.
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Everyone is dead weight to a business that doesn't make any money. –  JeffO Dec 6 '10 at 17:08
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I live in San Francisco, where you have to use a stick to clear these people away. I'm starting my fifth company right now, and have a few thoughts:

  1. Yes, they're drunk on the idea. Your first big idea is like your first good cocktail or your first real girl/boyfriend. At the time, it is the best thing ever. Really, though, it's just the best you've ever experienced. An n of 1: it's a problem.
  2. Startup ideas are worth exactly nothing. Literally, $0. The world is awash in them. Execution is all that matters, and a lot of execution is iterating on the idea based on feedback. While it's still just a notion in somebody's head, it has received no meaningful feedback.
  3. Measure these people by what they've already done. A would-be entrepreneur who has never created anything is about as interesting as a programmer who hasn't shipped or a "writer" who has never published. They might have talent and potential, but awesomeness requires the kind of experience that comes mainly from making mistakes.
  4. As a fallback, measure them by their specific skills. For example, my co-founder, in addition to having an awesome idea, is also great at user testing, subject recruiting, survey writing, data analysis, detailed user interface design, product management, outsourced project management, and presenting to investors. And probably a dozen things I'm forgetting. You have spent years making things; they should have a similar record of doing what they'll be doing.
  5. Never work for free. Quote them a fair market rate. If they and their idea are as awesome as they think, they should be able to raise money to pay you. If they can't convince other businesspeople to invest, there's no reason to think that you know something the suits don't.
  6. If you do work for free, which you probably shouldn't, then make sure you get paid in equity. Before you write a single line of code, make sure they form a company using a lawyer who understands startups, and make sure you have your own lawyer to watch out for problems you don't get. And if nobody is serious enough to pay for incorporation and real legal documents, then this is just a fantasy. Run screaming.
  7. Structure things in a way to prove the idea at minimum cost. Most ideas don't work out. Rather than building the whole thing, find the smallest increment you can test and ship that. My co-founder and I killed 6 perfectly good ideas through various user tests before we found one that was solid.

Those who are seriously interested in startups should check out the Lean Startup movement. The basic notion is that a startup isn't there to build out a founder's vision; it's to treat that vision as an initial hypothesis and discover where the truth is. There is a book due out soon, and in the meantime all the talks and slides from last year's Lean Startup Conference are available.

Because I'm shameless, I'll also mention that we are hiring developers. We are looking for people who eventually want to found companies, and we do our best to teach people everything they need to know. E.g., Just a couple of weeks ago we did an internal class on venture financing: how it works, how we did it, and even what all the numbers and negotiating points were.

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If the person has a lot of domain experience, they may have more than just an idea. Now whether or not they're willing to make any type of commitment is another thing. Will they help you with design and testing and do they know anyone else in their situation that would buy it? Better yet, would they help you sell it to those people? Are they well liked in their industry?

Example: A person walks into a store and notices a clerk doing a paper and pencil inventory and thinks, "Wow, someone should program a smart phone app to take inventory." Another person says, "I've been running a store for 10 years and nobody has built a descent smart phone app that does XYZ and I've met a lot of other store owners at conventions..." This might be a person to take a little more seriously.

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Turning an idea into a business is a very difficult transition. It requires thinking about a number of intangible aspects, as well as the very important aspect of how are we going to make money off of the idea. I would make the person come up with business plan if they are really serious. It will help them see what holes are in their bright idea.

If the idea is intriguing enough to me, I might even help them come up with a rough estimate of how long the idea would take to build. They need to see what it is that they are asking for. Their 1,000 man hour (and more) idea suddenly becomes a non-trivial thing to ask of someone to do in their spare time for little or no pay. Sure a startup needs passion, but people have to eat as well. Asking someone to live off their savings for three months is not reasonable. Getting funding to pay someone to do it properly is reasonable.

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I'm getting old and cynical, I'm afraid. I initially meet those sort of claims with the skepticism of encountering a snake-oil salesman. Especially if that person's past endeavors have not borne fruit. The "next big thing" is part research and part leap of faith. All too often I run into folks who have the last part in spades but haven't done a lick of real research. If I had hitched my cart to everyone who just "needed a quick website" or some such to be the replacement for Twitter, I'd be broke and out of a job and likely unemployable.

All that gloom and doom being said, I'm very proud of my past ownership with a next big thing company that is still doing well with a great product: http://www.dvdprofiler.com/ .

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I've had a few friends and acquaintances approach me in this manner. Unfortunately I'm very cynical to their claim of 'a great idea', but I always hear it out.

The problem is that non-technical people often have little awareness of what already exists. Too many times the proposal is a less desirable variant on an existing, extremely popular website - 'the same as website X but with Y', where Y is actually a negative. Unfortunately I can't give examples because I'm sworn to secrecy on these ideas!

The 'ideas person' doesn't usually give a well reasoned response to my questions about the viability of their project - 'why would I, as a user, choose your site over existing awesome popular site X? Explain how it your site is better.' - so I begin to talk about time and costs.

I normally say 'Off the top of my head this will take N hundred hours, my rate is normally $100 an hour (or whatever I feel like making up), so it will cost something like $50k to build'. They invariably sit back and blink, but it's not hard to point out that most websites that have a reputation have a lot of people working at them and cost a lot to build and maintain.

Finally, I promise that if they can sell me on the idea - that is, they can respond to my concerns about their 'business model' - then I'd consider working on it pro bono. I'm keeping my options open without promising anything concrete.

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In my humble experience, it's the best to ask for a predictable payment then to expect an unpredictable win. Even if in the long run you would like equity instead of fixed payment, this is a great way of filtering out people who are fakes. If you push the real buttons, you might even get them to say something like "Why are all of you programmers like that" (= he tried and failed, to fool a number of people).

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Say that it sounds great but to develop the product will take you at least several hundred hours work, more likely thousands. Ask them before you commit they need to show commitment themselves by spending similar time coming up with project plans, designs, business plan and financials. 99% of the time you will never hear back.

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Whenever someone says that, I naturally assume, they are looking to loose lots of time, money and energy on the most clueless idiotic thing, they drunked, on drugs, brain could come up with.

People who have actually good ideas, that are marketable, desired, and wanted, never ever say it's the next big thing, because real people have no idea, until it's made, identified the time, made good plans.

I mean good people with common sense, use that...and plan and prepare well.

If I heard anyone say that I'd start running away...

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In Software, we call these people more formally the Marketing Department.

Then we call Shenanigans on their attempts to sell or have the "next big idea"

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I usually go on to explain how much this and that will cost, that usually shuts them up pretty quick with an "Oh.....i had no idea it costs THAT much".

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Have you been approached by these business type entrepreneurs (with no technical/developer's knowledge) with such a proposal and how do you react to them?

Oh, gosh yes - dozens of times over the last twenty years.

I used to try to gauge the ideas, query and educate the people, etc. But then I realized the OP is right - a lot of those folks are "drunk on their idea". One of the things I learned from having cheerfully misspent part of my twenties in Irish bars is it's a waste of time to try to engage someone who's drunk in a rational discussion.

Now, I just say, "That's a great idea. My hourly rate is $X for programming, $3X for design and consultation services separate from programming, and I don't accept equity in lieu of cash."

I have a meeting tomorrow with an entrepreneur who will pay me the $3X rate for it, and consider that an excellent indication he's quite sober.

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If you are interested in the idea too, then you need to ask for a stake in the idea - just start at 50%. If they balk, you can give them a rate for contracting. You might as well start at $100/hr. Basically, these both flesh out how serious they are about committing to the idea. And the set an anchor for bargaining.

The reality is that people are terrible at predicting the next big thing, or at prediction in general. So you've got to be highly interested in the idea if your going to do anything with it. If multiple people come to you with the same general new idea, then at least you have demand.

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