Building products the Nashville way

Nashville: The Opportunity For Something Different

In a previous article, I talked about how I've seen a tremendous growth the Nashville craftspeople community in the past 3-4 years. In my adopted community, I see a sense or camaraderie, respect and volunteerism that I've never seen in other areas. Those traits, combined with the nascent potential that still exists, enables us create something special here.

We've matured with our community events. In fact, since I wrote that article in November of 2013, there have been four new technical meetups added - including my own about building APIs. Leaders in the community established two new regional conferences - PyTennessee and Nodevember. Also, a host of new companies are getting involved in community events, and Girl Geek Dinner started with rousing success.

That all happened in four months.

We've got some amazing technical and community leadership in this area. If we combine that leadership, the deep respect we have for each other, and the passion for crafting, we have the opportunity to make something great in this here city. We have the opportunity to make a different kind of culture that develops successful businesses by bringing together the right people. The main way to achieve this goal is to create a successful business, and then iterate on the process. Of course, building a successful business requires hard work and exceptional talent on both sides of the equation.

Let me explain.

Build Products, Not More Tools


Many moons ago, I worked for a large health care company building Coldfusion/JavaScript applications for internal billing teams. I remember a blog post that expressed frustration that ColdFusion developer community was producing framework after framework, utility after utility, tool after tool, but no one was making good products that were elevating and highlighting the ColdFusion platform.

Like sand through your fingers

I tell that quick story, to jump directly into something else I've been discussing with people in the Nashville community lately. I've been to many hackathon events, meetups, and conferences in this community over the past 3-4 years, and I've seen the craftsperson spirit and imagination build some amazing products in short periods of time. The problem is that the products get built to the MVP (minimally viable product) stage to get presented at an event, but so many of them immediately wither and die.

The team members that work so well together for 24 - 48 hours, and have the expertise, maturity and wisdom to build something that fast, have such a difficult time coming back together again after the event to go that extra mile to make a sellable product. My team from Hack Nashville 2013 was equally guilty. In one weekend, we built a product that was almost immediately sellable. I had feedback from 4 companies with a few days saying that if we delivered all the features laid out in our initial plans, they would buy it.

I worked on it for a few more hours in the following weeks, but soon realized no one else had any interest in following up.

Why does this happen? There's some obvious reasons, like the fact that we all have lives and have limited time to get together again. People's priorities change, so what seemed like a good idea for a Hack weekend, doesn't sound that exciting afterwards. Life does get in the way after the relative seclusion of a Hack weekend.

Missing element

But I don't think those are the main reasons.

I believe there's a very important component missing, and that's the business folks. You know, those people who can't code their way out of a wet, paper bag but often have the acumen and experience to know when a product is going to fulfill a real need and be profitable. The thing is, we don't go to Hackathons to work with business people and make a successful product; we go to have fun with other craftsfolk and have a good time tackling challenging, rewarding problems.

But afterwards, once the fun is over and the team realizes that they've got something good, there's nowhere to turn. No one to speak to about next steps. No voice of experience to use as a sounding board.

Craftspeople: Show Me The Benefit

Almost unanimously, when I talk to people in our community that I deeply respect as technologists and product builders, the driving spirit is making the world a better place. They see the benefits that technology can bring to humanity and think of products that can realize those benefits, regardless of whether it would make them filthy rich. Now, I don't want to go too far down that path, because I also believe that most technologists would also like to make a living on making the world a better place, but the latter is a simple byproduct of the former.

Craftspeople are also starting to realize the power that they hold in the partnership of technology and business. I believe that the old shackles of the Industrial Age thinking are are finally breaking, and that now that we are in the Information Age, the rules are different.

Slowly, the product builders are realizing that the rules now involve equal partnerships with business builders. The one cannot exist without the other, and both are equal in order to avoid failure. I've seen it many times myself, just in the last handful of years; business begin with a great idea, but start off with such a disparity of respect and trust that it crumbles and fails.

Also remember that the blade cuts both ways. We, as a community, must respect our business partners as well and not view them as necessary evils. We don't like to do market analysis. We don't like begging investors for money. We don't like the schmoozing, loud-mouthed sales folks that our business partners have to put on a smile for. But it's what they're good at, and we need them.

Just because we build it, it does not mean anyone will come.

Business: Show Me The Money

In contrast, when I talk with people whose job it is to build a successful business, sell products, and raise money, their passion is about building something bigger than themselves. Without the crafter point of view - in the weeds of the technology - they care about helping people, but in a different way.

They know that you can only help people if you help yourself first. These are the people who know that it takes more than just building great tech because there has to be a message there that lets other people know how it can benefit their life, or their business. There has to be money to cover operating costs, health care benefits, salaries, offices, desks, computers, and everything else it takes to build a business.

They, also, would like a business to be profitable, and tend to care a bit more about fiduciary success that the crafters do. Why go through all that trouble of making something when you can't get rich off of it?

Unfortunately, if the perception is that the executive and operations folks in business care solely about short-term profit, and not if their business is helping people, then it creates an immediate barrier between those selling & financing a product, and those who make the product.

An alternative to the incubator

They're great for young entrepreneurs, fresh out of college with newly minted business degrees and dreams of hitting it big, but there's a colossal number of experienced, talented, passionate, battle-tested veterans of the Internet all over the world. The thing is, they have kids, and wives, and community commitments, and care more about helping each other than helping themselves.

Is there another way?

I believe there is, and I've had my eyes opened in the last few years by talking to many other crafters who share my ideals. You see, there is the possibility of turning the whole thing around where it's the crafters who drive the process instead of the financiers and business folk. If you can get a trusted group of people together who are experienced, team-oriented, talented, and interested in working on challenging projects then you can create a system that non-technical people can turn to when they have a great idea.

I call it the Generator System.

The traditional incubator requires a team to come up with a business idea and a plan for its development. That team then spends weeks or months generating a full product and the scaffolding for a business to support development moving forward. A Generator System changes the configuration to expedite the process of determining if an idea is marketable.

Multi-phase approach

Phase 1

First, a group of trusted crafters is assembled who are experienced in generating MVPs (minimally viable products) in as little as one weekend. They know how to strip down an idea to the bare essentials needed to produce something that can be shown to customers and provides the most value.

This is the most difficult part for many reason I've already mentioned. Finding veteran crafters who are willing to dedicate time away from their family and friends to build this team will be challenging to say the least.

Phase 2

Anyone with an idea for a product or service approaches the team with an idea. Everyone on the team is given the opportunity to work on the project if it interests them and they currently have time for it. There would be clear guidelines about equity in the final product that the original idea owner would need to agree to.

Phase 3

A short discovery phase would happen next where the originator and the generators would filter the idea down to MVP scale. At the same time, the business lead would provide feedback on how the product could be marketed and sold.

Phase 4

Then the crafting phase would begin. Using the fastest prototyping tools at their disposal, the crafting team would build the MVP and present it to the originator and the business lead. Architecture, and best practices are not concerns during this phase as the most important factor is building the features that will attract customers.

Phase 5

Lastly, the business lead would execute the plan to market and finance the product. Again, crafters are not good at this in general because we are specialized in being builders, not sellers, and the world needs both to build a successful product and business.


Now, I currently have no plans to build a team like this, but I know a few people in the community who are. You see, I have fallen prey to many of the reasons for not contributing. I've missed meetings because of family commitments, I've missed lunches because a meeting at Lonely Planet ran late, I've had to decline brainstorming sessions because it conflicted with a personal plan.

These things just add up, and to be honest, I don't have the answer on how to get around it. However, that doesn't mean there's not an answer, and I think that a community of like-minded, creative people can solve it.