8 successful startups with non-technical founders

You don’t need to be technical to launch your tech company although it definitely helps. There are many other success factors like drive, vision, creativity, the ability to communicate them and excite others, sales know-how, business savvy, financial smarts, negotiating skills — and a bit of luck doesn’t hurt. All these are necessary to turn a finely-engineered product into a successful business.

Last week I posted about getting your tech startup going if you are not technical.  This week I will cover some examples of successful tech startups that were founded by non-technical people.

Pinterest

Ben Silbermann,  Pinterest founder, is not a typical tech dude. The Iowa native worked for Google but didn’t come from an engineering background — he was designing products like display ads. Hе graduated from Yale with a degree in political science and later took a consulting job in Washington. He began reading technology blogs and enjoyed learning about what people were building: “I would read about things like Digg and Kevin Rose.”  Plus, Silbermann was exposed to people who built amazing products. 

And then came Pinterest –  the website and mobile app enables users to collect and share their favorite images.

Silbermann and two friends, Paul Sciarra, who worked in venture capital, and designer Evan Sharp,  launched Pinterest in 2010. Members use the site to “pin” products to collections called “boards,” an activity that’s become so popular even President Obama is doing it.  

It caught fire and quickly skyrocketed to success with more than 30 million users globally and a $1.5 billion valuation. What started as as a fun side project has became one of the fastest growing social networks on the web.

Linkedin

Reid Hoffman  is one of the most successful entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, as well as an investor and writer. He graduated from Stanford with a B.S. in Symbolic Systems in Cognitive Science and holds an M.S. in Philosophy from Oxford. He served as an Executive Vice President of PayPal where he was in charge of business development, corporate development, international, government relations, and banking/payments infrastructure.

In December 2002 Hoffman launched a professional networking site that became a $20 billion-plus company  called LinkedIn.

Zappos  

Did you know that Tony Hsieh did not actually found Zappos? The actual founder was Nick Swinmurn. Here is the story.

Nick Swinmurn graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara  with a degree in Film Studies. He founded Zappos in 1999. His initial inspiration came when he failed to find a pair of brown Airwalks at his local mall.

Swinmurn shares his story: ”I was fresh out of college. I got out of college, worked for the San Diego Padres for a year. There I realized it was taking forever to advance, and was kind of slow paced, so I moved back to the Bay Area, entered a job at an actual Newspaper, for Autoweb, and that was my introduction to the internet. I didn’t use email in college, this was 1996. I think I went to the library and signed up for ucsb.edu email address but I couldn’t quite figure out how to use it, you’d go to the terminal and use it and all that.

My Dad told me, you know I think the one you should focus on is the shoe thing. That’s a real business that makes sense. So I said okay, focused on the shoe thing, went to a couple of stores, took some pictures of the shoes, made a website, put them up and told the shoe store, if I sell anything, I’ll come here and pay full price. They said okay, knock yourself out. So I did that, made a couple of sales”

That same year, Swinmurn approached Tony Hsieh  and Alfred Lin  with the idea of selling shoes online In July 2009, the company announced it would be acquired by Amazon.com in an all-stock deal worth about $1.2 billion. Since its founding in 1999, it has become one of the world’s largest online shoe stores.

 

Whisper

Michael Heyward grew up in Beverly Hills, CA, the son of a successful television executive and a stay-at-home mom. He “really, really always hated” school, so much so that he didn’t bother applying to college. When he was 18, Heyward went to work in the interactive division of his father’s company, DIC Entertainment, which created popular children’s TV shows.

With Brooks, his neighborhood friend as a cofounder, Heyward started WhisperText LLC — the mobile service that lets anyone share their innermost secrets anonymously. He was inspired in part by PostSecret, a popular blog from the mid-2000s that collected anonymously sent, emotionally revealing postcards and put them online for all to see.

Whisper is one of the fastest growing mobile-social apps, generating over 3.5 billion page views per month. It has raised $60 million during three rounds of funding, the most recent of which closed this past March and included many of the same investors who backed Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr and WhatsApp

Snapchat

Snapchat has its roots in a bunch of college kids. Evan Spiegel met his co-founders  a frat party, while studying product design at Stanford. A party-loving member of Stanford’s Kappa Sigma fraternity, Spiegel formed what would eventually become Snapchat with the aid of fellow frat brothers Bobby Murphy(СS) and Reggie Brown(CS). He dropped out of Stanford in 2012 to focus on Snapchat — posted images are deleted from the servers in user-designated 1-10 seconds.

Spiegel turned down a $3 billion buyout offer from Facebook in late 2013. According to Snapchat in May 2014, the app’s users were sending 700 million photos and videos per day, while Snapchat Stories was being viewed 500 million times per day. In February 2015 the company reportedly received offers that valued it at $19 billion.

Zynga

 Мark Pincus graduated from Harvard Business School with a degree in Economics. He worked in venture capital and became a serial entrepreneur, founding Freeloader, a push-technology service; early social network Tribe.net; and Support.com, a service and support automation company.

But he is best known for Zynga, which rocketed to fame on the massive growth of its social games like FarmVille, which became hugely popular on Facebook.

Pincus launched Zynga with his friend Justin Waldron, who dropped out of  The University of Connecticut and created Zynga‘s first title, Zynga Poker, and later led product development and strategy.

They named the company Zynga, in honor of Pincus‘s deceased dog and hired a supporting team, including Kyle Stewart and Scott Dale. Within four years revenues grew to $1 billion and Zynga currently boasts 123 million monthly active users across its network of games.

However, the lack of major new game launches and the disruption of its web-gaming business resulted in poor financial performance and the stock tanked.

Criticism by investors and pressure from Wall Street forced Pincus to relinquish the CEO position to Don Mattrick  in July of 2013. Mattrick stabilized Zynga during his tenure made some interesting moves, including the acquisition of NaturalMotion, which offers popular games like Clumsy Ninja and CSR Racing.

Recently Pincus returned as CEO signaling renewed confidence from the board and Wall Street.

Shoedazzle

Founded by Brian S. Lee with reality star Kim Kardashian, Shoedazzle is a fashion subscription service that has more than three million members and nearly a million Facebook fans.  

Lee graduated from UCLA School of Law in 1996 with Bachelor’s degree in business economics. After practicing law for a few years Lee came up with the idea of ShoeDazzle. It  was inspired by his wife when she returned from a shopping spree with a pair of pricey designer shoes.

The company’s other co-founders include Robert  Shapiro (lawyer) and MJ Eng (Investor). Lee hired celebrity fashion stylist Rachel Zoe as the company’s chief stylist; ShoeDazzle also began introducing one new shoe style every day.

Since a site relaunch in January, orders have increased 30% and repeat visits are up 12%, Lee said. The company sells as many as 250,000 pairs of shoes per month.

Betfair 

Andrew Black, together with Edward Wray, founded Betfair, the world’s first and largest bet exchange . Black was clearly more product visionary than engineer and Wray  wasn’t tech-guy at all. While the engineering has vastly improved, it was initially weak until David Yu (now CEO of Betfair) joined as VP Engineering a couple of years into the life of the company.  

Betfair succeeded despite this because of an incredibly disruptive and innovative core business model that delivered such value to its customers that they used it in spite of bugs, glitches and general iffyness..  

What all these companies have in common, besides a viable vision, was a solid grasp of the importance of revenue and how to generate it. Betfair is proof that even shoppy tech will be tolerated in the short-term if the product significantly relieves user pain.

The take-away from these stories is that as important as tech is, the most brilliant code in the world will not, on its own, survive without customers. The tech-beloved bleeding edge has little value if no one buys.

Customers are the end-product of good design (think Apple), terrific customer experience (think Amazon) and the business savvy and execution that really drives long-term  success.

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