What I’ve learned as a non-technical founder.
July 19, 2017
When people talk about startups, often the first thing that comes to mind is “coding.” However unless you’re in the tech industry already you’re unlikely to be a coder yourself and there’s a very real possibility that you’ve never even met one.
Is it possible for someone with no technical background and zero coding experience to build a successful tech startup? Put simply, the answer is yes. There are in fact many successful tech startups that you probably didn’t realise had non-technical founders including big names like Alibaba and Airbnb.
So where do you start?
Build something you want to exist rather than because you think it will make millions.
Mark Zuckerberg built the kind social network he wanted to be a part of. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak built the computer that they wanted to use. If I had to guess, I’d say the Colonel was fairly fond of fried chicken too.
I’ve been guilty in the past of trying to build businesses out of gaps in a market where I thought a lot of money could be made with the right product. The problem with this mode of thinking is profit becomes your only measure of success, which can hamper your decision making and apply unwanted pressure.
And as Steve Jobs says, if you don’t love it, you won’t stick with it. I can vouch for this first hand.
The products I’m working on these days are products I want use. When people question my investment of time or capital I simply tell them that it doesn’t matter if no one uses my apps — because I will use them.
This takes away all the pressure to succeed and allows me to concentrate on one thing — delivering the best possible experience I can for the end user, me.
Focus on the customer experience.
This is something that I think as a non-technical founder you actually have an advantage in. Because you’re not bogged down with the how, you’re free to think deeply about the why of the user experience. You’re also not tempted to compromise on that experience because of perceived difficulties (real or otherwise) in turning your vision into reality.
It’s exactly this kind of outside-the-box thinking and no compromise attitude that drives many great startups to huge success. Use your lack of practical knowledge to your advantage. You don’t need to be an expert understand how something should make you feel.
This isn’t just applicable to tech products either. It doesn’t matter if it’s a new customer service model, a household product, manufacturing innovation or even an information service like a blog, if you focus first on designing and then producing a truly exceptional user experience then when you get to the growth phase it is that much easier.
Collapsing the wave function.
The fundamental challenge every startup founder encounters arrives when it’s time to turn your into a product and this can be even more significant for non-technical founders. To validate your concept, the most common method is to build a prototype or minimum viable product (MVP) to prove product/market fit. To achieve this you generally have four options:
- Build it yourself
- Work with freelancers
- Work with development agencies
- Work with a partner or technical co-founder
Build It Yourself
Your capacity to DIY really depends on what you’re trying to build and how that fits with your current skill set.
For example for web based startups tools such as Wordpress, Typeform, and other drag-and-drop sites like Squarespace and Weebly or Wix provide ready-made templates that are fast and easy to use. As an example I have built all my websites, including this one, using Wix.
In addition, other tools such as Marvel, Mockplus, Adobe XD, and Invision allow you to mimic user experience and improve your design. With easy access to various online tools, you can easily prototype efficient and user-friendly products yourself.
However, though ready-made templates are easy to work on and economical in building your prototypes, there are also disadvantages that you might want to consider. These include the time you’ll spend on finding tools you’re comfortable working with and the fact that ready-made templates limit your creativity in designing your site.
No matter what you’re working on there is going to be some element of DIY involved. Whether it’s product development itself, web design, graphic design, marketing, sales, or whatever, every entrepreneur wears a number of hats in order to get the job done.
To make this easier look at what others have done and adapt it to your vision. Model what you do on knowledge learned from people and companies that you find successful or impressive.
When I was developing the UX for my mobile app I looked at hundreds of other apps from all sorts of industries and took the parts I liked and adapted them to fit my vision. Even though my app is about social connection it’s design was was heavily influenced by marketplace apps like Gumtree and LetGo.
Then to build the screens in Photoshop I downloaded a bunch of free templates for app screens to see how professional designers put together their designs. This helped me learn correct use of layers and transitions and standard components that I used as a guide to make my own.
Working with freelancers is an efficient way to create your MVP if you’re running on a tight deadline or budget. You can sometimes find freelancers locally on sites like Gumtree or Craigslist although these days it’s more common to use a platform like Upwork, Elance, or Freelancer through online platforms. This is the route I took to my MVP. You can read about how I got the most out of my Freelancer journey here.
It is worth keeping in mind that the quality of freelancers on many freelancing platforms cannot be guaranteed, thus many projects run the risk of failure unless you manage them closely.
Also for tech projects much of the coding may not be transferable which can add to your costs when it comes time to scale.
Nevertheless, there have been a few startups which succeeded in using freelancers. WANELO, an online community for stores and products, is famously built by freelancers.
As a designer, WANELO’s founder, Deena Varshavskaya, had prior experience working with freelancers and developers. She also had experience building mobile products. These experiences enabled her to act as the product manager during WANELO’s MVP stage. Ultimately, this was what led to a successful MVP built by freelancers.
Work With Development Agencies
Another popular and efficient way to build an MVP is to work with development agencies. Development agencies offer extensive services that can transform your ideas into the best MVP it can be.
However, with the quality guaranteed, the cost is often prohibitively high for early stage entrepreneurs particularly in Australia. Before I gained enough experience to leverage freelancers I looked into a number of agencies like Appster and Hyper but found they didn’t fit within my budget.
What’s more, working with development agencies usually requires rigid contracts that lack flexibility. Therefore, when you encounter unexpected changes, you can’t simply alter your project plan easily.
Work With Partner or Technical Co-founder
For non-technical founders like me, this is the dream. Finding that elusive unicorn that makes all your technical confoundery go away while somehow just “getting” your vision and buying in 100 percent. Right?
Unfortunately in reality unicorns are stubbornly hard to find. Sometimes they end up Zebras. Or horses. Sometimes even donkey’s.
Personally I’ve yet to find my unicorn. But that doesn’t mean they’re not out there.
If you’re looking for a technical co-founder bare in mind that you’ll have to convince them of the validity of your concept, so that they’ll join you on a journey full of uncertainties and oftentimes very little pay.
It seems wise to start looking within your own network first. The ideal partner would be someone you have worked with before, so there is mutual trust already established.
If you are at the point of scaling however finding a technical co-founder might be your only option. You will need someone who understands the tech world and can iterate your product quickly enough to catch up with your growth.
Know enough to communicate effectively.
No matter which development path you choose one thing remains consistent. You must spend a little time learning the basics of what is going to be needed to build your product. For example you don’t need to know how to write code to know that your app needs a database.
You have enough knowledge to be able to communicate your vision and goals clearly to whoever is building your product in a way that makes sense to them, whether that’s a co-founder, agency or freelancer.
There is a wealth of information available online for free that you can use to educate yourself. For example I used the Stack Exchange network to research and ask questions relating to best practice for encryption architecture in SQL databases. By the time I was ready to engage my developer I knew enough about the topic to be able to articulate my requirements clearly and save myself a world of pain later.
Don’t forget what you already know.
While my developers were happily coding my MVP I was able to devote solid time and attention to my business plan and marketing strategy. Because of my sales background I was even able to actually get out in front of customers and pre-sell my product, even though it didn’t exist yet.
This gave me a huge head start in terms of understanding my market and their needs and blowing away my often misguided (even though they sounded great in my head) assumptions. This helped me to start iterating my product while it was still early days saving a bunch of time and testing later.
It was precisely this down time, while I waited for my product to be built, that enabled me to use the skills I already had to move my project forward. And this applies to everyone no matter what your skill set is or background you come from.
That’s because at one stage or another every startup needs more than just engineers to succeed. They need marketing and sales, customer service, legal, finance, PR the list goes on. So whatever skill, talent or experience you have, find a way to leverage it and hit the ground running. As I’ve learned recently, there’s more than one way to peel a banana.