2. Bringing an Idea to Life: The Art of Building a Product

In Balaji's article, he quoted an interesting post on Quora that stuck with me.

An idea is not a mockup,
A mockup is not a prototype,
A prototype is not a program,
A program is not a product,
A product is not a business,
And a business is not profits

For anyone who is mildly aware of the tech industry, you will know the big names like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon and many others. These companies have generated massive amounts of value for their founders, employees, customers and even affiliates who work with them to provide offerings to customers as fully-fledged businesses.

With the experience that I have gathered from Impact Africa Network, I would like to dissect the idea of building a product that generates value for customers and the founders. Impact Africa Network is a startup studio on a mission to ensure that young Africans participate in the digital transformation of Africa as creators and owners.

By looking at the set of steps above, I will show you how we went through these steps as a team, or at least until the stage we have reached and the lessons I have learned.

Of course, the devil is in the details and each product idea has its own way of handling these steps. Some require huge investment and great skill, while others can be done from home with a remote team. With software products, you have the advantage of getting through this process faster and easier than with biotech or nuclear fusion startups.

For context, I am working on a product called Shukran, which is a digital tipping platform that ensures the most deserving service workers are rewarded and increase the tipping culture. These service workers include waiters, barbers, salonists and so on.

Mindset and Team

As a quick comment, it is important to note that each stage requires a different mindset. You can do this by taking up a different role, or strategy or hiring someone to lead that process. The best way to do this is by having a good team. I cannot stress this enough. I am grateful for the one I have and those I had (Team Shukran always gets the show on the road!)

Alright, let's get started by looking at the first 2: the idea and the mockup.


It all starts with an idea.

In many cases, we see a problem and come up with a quick solution to it. We think to ourselves that this can be a great business idea and we think about all the features that it could have. This is the natural approach that most people take and it's misleading.

Before you jump into designing a solution, you need to understand why you thought of that solution in the 1st place. We come up with solutions based on the tools and experience that we have. Let’s take a look at climate change as a problem. An activist would solve climate change by advocating for oil companies to stop selling oil. A scientist will come up with a solution to extract CO2 from the atmosphere.

Notice something all these people have in common?

Clearly, the solution they come up with is based on their expertise and what they can do. However, the problem remains the same. At the end of the day, it remains to be seen whose solution reduces the effects of climate change. In order to do this, the innovator in question has to get down to the cause.

In the same example of the activist, their cause of climate change is oil companies selling oil or cars using petrol. He suggests that we get rid of petrol cars and reduce oil consumption. That's great until you realise that we hardly have alternative sources of energy to drive our economy. All cars, trains, ships and planes rely on oil. Telling them to stop consuming oil is unrealistic. Another innovator would consider building electric cars. That would reduce petrol consumption but can it compete on price with petrol engines?

That's the challenge to tackle.

The innovator must recognise the effects of a problem, seek to understand the causes and come up with a solution that works. This requires research. When dealing with a problem that people face in their daily lives, we conduct market research. This consists of:

  1. Talking to customers (This cannot be stressed enough)
  2. Researching existing solutions to tackle the problem
  3. Bouncing ideas with other innovators

We can borrow a page from Elon Musk, read many books and talk to great people. Generally, get into the minds of successful entrepreneurs to get a whiff of their brilliance.

You should also consider talking to potential customers so as to get a good idea of whether your idea is effectively meeting their needs. I will also add talking to your potential customer.

As you look into the idea, you can answer these 3 questions:

  1. Is it a problem?
  2. Can you build a solution?
  3. Are there people willing to pay for it?

Let me show you what I mean.

When we were doing our market research, we developed a set of questions to ask our target customers to assess if the problem exists and if they like the solution. It is important to note that investigating the problem allows you to understand how your target customer thinks, their motivations, their needs and also their habits. It is best to keep the conversation structured with a set of questions but you can ask follow-up questions to drill into any interesting pain points they have. For example, we would ask waiters about how they receive tips but we would end up getting tales about the performance reviews by managers, how they work in shifts, the tough interview process and the high employee turnover rate in some restaurants.

Here is a template of questions we used for our market research:

  1. Demographic - age, gender, income, role
  1. Geographic - country, county
  1. Psychographic - lifestyle, personality, values, interests
  1. Behavioural - benefits, user status, readiness to buy

Create a Google form or Airtable form to fill in these questions as you talk to customers. With structured data on a spreadsheet, you can surface the frequency of what users are talking about and trace trends in the data. For example, 4 out of 10 people mentioned that they tip waiters often. That's a good insight to present when defending your idea. It can even surface more questions on why the other 6 people don't tip often. That's a new question to ask and track the data that comes.

In this stage, you are gathering insights and drilling down on the root cause of the problem you are trying to solve.


Shoutouts to the team:
Victoria Chebet was my partner in crime at this stage. From drafting our first questionnaire to going on our first expedition to talk to restaurants in town, I learnt a lot from her about talking to users.

An idea is not a mockup

You have all these insights and a couple of ideas on how you can solve the problem. This is great but now we need to narrow down on how we will solve it.

This process is a battle of ideas for solutions. It is all about which ideas and perspectives show more promise in solving the problem and why. Most ideas on the solution will not make it to the mockup.

A mockup is a visual representation of what the solution will look like but lacks the functionality of the actual solution. It includes user flows, wireframes, design sketches and so on.

Consider this the solidification process where hazy ideas become visual concepts of how the solution will work.

I have come to learn that this is where the fights happen. Each team member has their own idea of how the solution should work. Ideally, each person should have a say in how the product should work but ideas will always clash. Members can get attached to their ideas and will not be happy to see their feature idea getting dropped or ignored from being added to the mockups.

When people request feature ideas, they are imposing their reflection on the product. It is always a good feeling to see your idea noticed and considered. It is a form of investment that gives you initial skin in the game. When you talk about the product, you know that a feature was thought up by you and you will advocate for it. We identify ourselves with the ideas we have, which makes sense why people get demotivated or upset when they are not heard.

To mitigate conflict, keep track of all the feature requests made and the reasons behind them. It will greatly speed up the process. One framework is user stories, which specifies:

  1. Who is the user who will use the feature
  2. What is the action they would like to take
  3. What will that action help them achieve

For example,

As a tipper, I would like to deposit money from my Mpesa account to Shukran, so I can have funds in my Shukran wallet

  1. User: The tipper
  2. Action: Depositing money from their Mpesa account to Shukran
  3. Why: To have funds in their Shukran wallet

For each feature requested, create a user story.

From a user story, you can draw out a user flow. These are steps that the users will take to deposit funds. Specify the clicks they will make, the information they will enter, the output displayed and so on.

For example,

Once you have a user flow, you can design sketches of the user interfaces. The visual components like buttons, text fields, icons and pictures are considered. The basic sketches are wireframes, which have no colour and specify the general placement of components. The next evolution is mockups, which contain the colours, patterns, logo of the site and so on.

|200 |200

On the left is a wireframe of the dashboard. Observe that it has no colour or fine details, it presents a structure of the page. This was done in Balsamiq.

On the right, you have a mockup, it shows the colours, element details and brand style. This was done in Figma

On the tools you can use at each stage:

  1. User stories - Jira, Trello, Miro, Google Docs
  2. User flows - Figjam, Lucidchart, Miro, Google Docs
  3. Wireframes - Balsamiq
  4. Mockups - Figma

Mockups are the closest thing to the product but without functionality. It shows the user interface for logging in to the platform but it's just an image and no data is stored.


Shoutouts to the team:
In this stage, we got help from Yuanita Rita in branding and design and Margaret Wambui in product design. Initially, we started by drawing on pen and paper and tried to work with Balsamiq but it wasn’t a clear image of what the product would look like and feel. They really propelled our design to the next level with great colours, a logo and amazing product designs for our Minimum Viable Product (MVP). I learnt that you don’t just jump into development with sketches. Having a clear design brings clarity to small but impactful decisions. It also makes things efficient.

To be continued…

That’s it for this article. You can go and process the information that you have received. This piece doesn’t have all the answers but my hope is that it will lead you in the right direction. Now you can go from idea to mockup with a torch in your hand.

We will continue the steps in the next essay. Thank you and happy building.