Can you start a technology startup as a non-technical founder?
You drastically increase your chance of success if you build on what you already know. Does it mean that that’s the only way to succeed? Of course, not. The technical part of a tech startup is a small part of what will make your business a success.
The stereotype of the tech startup founder is a geek locked into a room with fluorescent lighting banging away on a keyboard. If you are not a coder but dream of starting a tech business, there is hope for you. There are many who have done it.
Here are a few examples of non-technical founders starting successful tech companies:
- Alibaba founder, Jack Ma, graduated from college with a degree in English.
- Airbnb founders, Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky, have design backgrounds.
- Groupon founder, Andrew Mason, graduated from Northwestern University with a music degree.
- Oracle founder, Larry Ellison has a sales background.
- Tim Westergren, who founded Pandora in 2000, is an award-winning composer, an accomplished musician, a record producer with 20 years of experience in the music business.
- Jessica Scorpio, who founded Getaround, a peer-to-peer car sharing company graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science.
- Tim Chen, who founded NerdWallet, has a background in banking.
Even if you are the world’s greatest coder, you still need to work with your customers to make sure you are building something they want; you need to market your product, recruit a team, serve your customers, manage your business, and much more. Most of the skills required are non-technical.
A great way to make up for the deficit of starting without technical skills is to partner with a technical co-founder. While you are searching for a technical co-founder, there is a lot that you can do without writing a single line of code.
Be realistic about your tech or non-tech skills.
There are different levels of nontechnical skills.
Where do you fit?
- Can’t code.
- You have to watch a how-to video to set up email on your smartphone.
- You still own a VCR.
- Your VCR is still blinking at 12:00 and you have no idea how to change it.
No matter which category you are in, you can still start a technology startup, but…where you are technically will have a huge impact on what it will take for you to succeed.
Note: You can still be a very smart person if you own a VCR, but if you can’t program it, you probably shouldn’t start a tech startup.
List what you can do.
It’s one thing that you are non-technical but might still have some very valuable skills. Focus on what you can do and make a list of it. Aside from coding, technical startups need a lot of work in many areas such as research, raising money, recruiting, product development research, marketing, PR, etc. Write down all of your relevant skills and list what you will do and by what date. It is important to have this in writing and to set deadlines. Without measurable goals, there is a good chance that it won’t happen.
Here are some essential nontechnical skills required to build a successful tech startup:
- Design mockups
- Customer interviews
- UX testing and design
- Surveying customers
- A/B testing landing pages
- Ad writing
- Conversion optimization
- Writing product descriptions
- Web copywriting
- Blog post writing
- Guest blogging/guest posting
- Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, etc. social network marketing
- PR – writing and outreach
- Sales – especially pre-sales
- Team building / Recruiting / HR
- Legal issues – interviewing attorneys, researching legal issues
Reach out to your potential customers.
Realistically, you shouldn’t write a single line of code without getting a real understanding of your customers’ needs. You don’t need to be a geek to get real customer insights. Actually, it might help you because there is no danger of you to geek out at your customers.
When you contact your potential customers find out the following:
- What are the challenges your technology solves?
- Is there a real problem or are you creating a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist?
- Would they pay for it and how much? The only real proof that they will pay for your technology is to pre-sell. Most companies don’t do this, and it is one of the reasons they fail.
Validate your business idea.
Before you even think about building anything test your business idea. A great way to do this is to set up a landing page and drive some traffic to it. It is easy to create a landing page without doing any coding. You can use third-party tools like Unbounce or LeadPages. You can pay for traffic on Facebook, forums, or some other social network and measure the number of signups. This way you can quickly figure out your cost of getting a new customer.
Here is how to validate your business idea:
- Talk to people about your business idea. It is a huge mistake to treat your idea as a secret. Go out there and share it will people. Pay attention to how people react to your idea.
- According to Travis Steffen, a serial entrepreneur who scaled and sold six tech companies, your idea must come from the customer, not you. He also argues that you only have a valid business idea if you can profitably market it.
- Find competing products. Yes, every business has competition. Competition is a good thing because it proves that there is a market for your product. If you are creating a specialty software for a specific industry, make sure that there are competing software products on the market. Your job is to create a better version of what is already out there on the market.
- Listen to what your customers are telling you. When I started my web design business, I did not want to offer web hosting. After my customers had asked for years, I stop resisting and now we offer hosting. Many times your market will tell you what you need to sell them, but you have to be willing to listen.
- Create a simplified version of your product or a minimum viable product as Eric Ries tells you in The Lean Startup.
- Pre-sell (More on that later.)
- If you have a product, try crowdfunding. Crowdfunding offers a great way to finance and validate your product at the same time.
Build a mockup.
Again, you don’t need to code. You can do this with a piece of paper and pencil. Create a wireframe. To get more sophisticated you can use some image editor or higher someone to do it for you. The important thing here is to develop a tool to demonstrate your idea. You will need this when you talk to prospects, investors, potential team members or co-founders.
The proof is in the sales. If you can pre-sell, it will be easier to find a co-founder, more customers, and investors. You can’t argue with sales. If you have a viable business idea and you have done your customer research, you should be able to pre-sell.
Take the following steps to pre-sell your product or service:
- Pre-sell to at least 5-10 customers. You won’t get rich, but it will give you some level of validation.
- Give people a significant discount for buying early. Never offer a lifetime discounted prices because it might become impossible down the road. Instead, offer discounts for the next 1 to 2 years.
- Limit the period of time customers can pre-order and receive the discounted pricing.
- Limit the number of customers who can pre-order from your business.
- Show social proof as you pre-sell. Quote, influencers and customers who already bought. Show the excitement about your products.
- Give a little extra to those who pre-ordered. It can be something as simple as a t-shirt.
Search for a technical co-founder.
Think of this as a very long job interview. Don’t even talk about it as a search for a co-founder. Rather try to work with various technical people on small projects. See if there is chemistry. If you work well with someone, move on to the next small project. If the person is not a good fit, move on to try the next person. Take small steps. Meet programmer in person if you can. Technical skills are important, but it is only part of the package you are looking for. You want the person to have a personality that will be a good fit for the company you are starting. No matter how good they are technically if they alienate the rest of your team your company will suffer.
Where to search for technical co-founders?
- Network – LinkedIn, meetups, seminars
- Forums – technical, coders, platforms
- Reach out to investors and accelerators
- Connectors – Reach out to people who are connectors in your industry.
- Read start-up news sites, forums and blogs. Find out who was fired, quit, or has a failed project? Yes, even great people fail, and they could make for a great entrepreneur.
- You could use a website like founder2be, CofoundersLab, or founderdating.
- Craigslist – Post a job on Craigslist.
Although it’s difficult to reduce a person to a few characteristics, you are looking for someone with the following:
- Attitude – You can train for more skills, but no amount of training will make up for the wrong attitude.
- Integrity – Again, this has nothing to do with coding, but everything with building a solid company.
- Humility – Reach out to people your potential cofounder worked with and find out what they have to say. It is important to know how s/he works in a team environment.
- Train-ability – Does this person know it all, or is he ready to learn new skills, languages, platforms, etc. Avoid people who feel that they have nothing more to learn.
What if you can’t find a technical co-founder?
All is not lost.
You basically have two options.
A. Learn to develop the technology yourself. To be honest, this is not very realistic. To develop real coding skills from scratch will take a good many hours. I would only recommend this option if you are dying to become a coder. If the urge is so strong, it might make sense, but it will still take a substantial time.
B. Hire a developer or a team of developers. There are many excellent coders you can hire. Outsourcing is a great option. Outsourced projects that fail are the result of poor planning. If you plan right and have a solid product development plan with milestones and dates, there is no reason you couldn’t make it work. The level of success here depends mostly on how well you prepare and do your homework on the team you want to hire. I don’t recommend hiring the cheapest offshore team. Work with someone local at least in the same country with you.
photo credit: Fall 2011 Student Hackathon Coding