I don’t usually mix my day job at TheRightMargin with my various passions here at 47hats, but an experiment I and three other employees are getting ready to launch was just too useful for people here to pass up.

As self-funded startup founders (SFSFs?) we tend to code first and ask questions later. I’m a programmer dammit, and if I write a cool feature then users will love it! Maybe. But maybe coding is a way to dodge the emotionally hard work of talking to users (ick), finding out what they want, need, feel (more ick), and putting yourself and your ideas out there all alone on the internet stage. Makes getting picked last for a dodgeball team in high school PE sound fun.

But the reality is there are at least a few bits of all this relatively new Lean Startup/Customer Discovery/Gear Up touchy-feely stuff that’s useful, elegant and solves real problems.

Take, for example, testing a new major feature. Not testing in the code sense – rather, but testing if any of your users or prospective users want/need/will use that feature. It’s called “prototyping”: creating a non-code (even paper!) bit of interactive stuff that can test the value of a major feature before spending days or weeks coding it out.

Take for instance adding Timed Writing Exercises (TWEs) to TheRightMargin. The idea came from a common problem we heard from our interviewees–when you’re writing something major you can get horribly, painfully stuck. One way to get unstuck is to do some batshit crazy five minute writing exercise that gets the little grey cells in your head pumping again and makes you a happy writing camper.

So instead of coding this feature, I prototyped it in a quick, non-code way first. With a measly Google Form and a Medium post. Not one line of code. (please give my prototype a try!) We think we’ll get enough data from people’s responses to this prototype to tell us if it’s worth building out. It feels a bit uncomfortable – reaching out to people instead of writing code. But if it works (and I will let you know), we’ll know if we should build it out based on more than just intuition.

In fact, Art has built a ‘staying on track with your writing goals’ prototype (which is mostly him doing things for for you), Christine has whipped up some cool online prototypes for you to try (please let her know what you think!), and Shivani has set up a cool and fun way to onboard you and your writing goals. Please give them all a try, they take only a few minutes each!

Solo founders never have enough time. We have to pick our battles and our features carefully. Prototyping (non-code ways of testing out major functionality on real people) is a smart way of getting some advance intelligence on what the market is going to think of our latest and greatest.

So if you’ve tried prototyping at your startup, or are thinking now about prototyping that shiny new major feature before writing a line of code, share with the rest of us in comments here.