How to get your tech startup going if you are not technical

NYC and Silicon Valley have a wealth of business people with solid business experience in many important, fundable sectors, but they face a major barrier finding comparable technical talent to form great startup teams.

If you are one of these non-technical co-founders one of your first moves is to decide who will do the tech side. I think 4 options are at play here.

Fake it till you make it

In many cases the first thing that a startup should do is to validate the market – do the consumers really need your product; is someone willing to pay for it; etc.?

In many cases, you don’t really need to build the product to test the market. Building a great landing page or a simplistic prototype and getting some traffic to it often provides enough market validation to raise the angel investment that enables you to hire a team of developers and build the product.

A great example is the story of Aardvark, a social search startup acquired by Google back in 2010. Liz Gunnes writes:

In order to find out, they got users to test-drive their ideas. For the first six months Aardvark prototyped ideas, gave them to 100-200 people, and if they saw they weren’t taking off, abandoned them (a slide of five abandoned ideas is pictured on the left). Once they figured out that social Q&A was the ticket, they didn’t pull back on user testing, bringing in 6-12 users a week over the 30-month span of the startup.

 But Aardvark didn’t actually build products right away. The service connects people with questions to those in their broader social network with corresponding answers, but for nine months a human being was involved in every single interaction — a kind of “Wizard of Oz” that classified the query and otherwise managed the conversation from behind the scenes.  

In the meantime, Aardvark recruited its core team and raised $7.5 million. ”

Learn how to code

Fred Wilson’s advice is: “If you aren’t technical, I suggest you get technical”. He provides a good success story on this point

Even better is the the story of Instagram founder Kevin Systrom: Не went from being a hobbyist to being able to write code that would go into production .

If you want to try going this route, here are links to massively open online courses which provide an opportunity to learn programming:

  • https://www.codecademy.com/completely free with interactive platform. languages: SQL, HTML & CSS, JavaScript, jQuery,PHP, Python, Ruby
  • https://www.udacity.com/ – free but offers paid certificates for course completion. Languages: HTML, CSS, Javascript, Python, Java , Mobile Development. Advantages include short courses for 4-8 weeks
  • https://www.coursera.org/ – free but offers paid certificates for course completion. It boasts a large base of computer science courses covering most of the popular languages; Most courses are 2-6 months.

Find a technical cofounder

Since you are the one with the original idea, you would need someone to drive the tech side. Start searching for a cofounder by asking your friends and querying your LinkedIn network, “I’m looking for a technical co-founder who does X. If you know anyone please introduce us. Also, feel free to pass my request and contact info on.”

Additional places to look are

  • Founder2be.com you can join here more than 40.000 co-founders, designers, marketers, developers, etc;
  • Namesake.com – a new social network where you can ask for recommendations for a tech co-founder; the site is focused on real time conversations and professional recommendations. It is still in closed beta so you will need an invite;

If you are one of them, you can take Fred Willson’s advice and try to pair up or stop only looking for a technical co-founder and focus on building your company instead.

Hire an external team.

Non-technical founders can hire a remote team to build an MVP in short the term, while continuing their co-founder search.

There’s a cottage industry of freelancers and development shops that are willing to take a combination of equity and capital to help you get to an MVP.

Offshoring often offers considerable cost savings. Fred Wilson is sharing his experience, The two primary reasons one company will outsource work to another company are cost and skill set. The third party outsourcing company can provide the required work at either lower cost or higher quality or possibly both. Sometimes time is also a factor. It is often the case than an outsourcing company can get the job done faster.Labor costs in emerging markets are often a fraction of the labor costs in the developed world. And you can often tap into highly educated and skilled labor pools. We have companies in our portfolio that have built world class engineering teams in places like Belarus, Slovenia, and India. These teams cost less and often produce amazing work.”

While many Silicon Valley founders say they would never outsource any significant part of their software development to another company or individual abroad because of various outsourcing horror stories, others swear by it and have achieved notable success.

Here are examples of tech companies that were started by non-technical founders and succeeded spectacularly. Some hired in-house developers, others prefered remote teams and overseas development.

  • Skype
  • Pinterest
  • Snapchat
  • Groupon
  • Alibaba
  • Amazon

The story of Digg is classic. Digg was developed by a freelancer found on Craigslist, who later became Digg’s lead developer:

In the fall of 2004, Rose withdrew $1,000 — nearly one-tenth of his life savings — and paid a freelance coder $12 an hour to mock up a Web page. He got a deal on server space over the Web for $99 a month.”

There are dozens of other stories. Less famous but still successful startups that used remote teams to move forward faster.

  1. The first version of Readyforce.com was entirely outsourced and is being used by customers, while the newly-recruited in-house engineering team builds the second gen product.
  2. Squidoo was founded by Seth Godin (non-technical) who hired a team (Viget) to build the first version.
  3. Glamsquad worked with Applico to build their MVP. After that, Glamsquad was named one of the Top 10 Startups to Watch in NYC by Time Magazine.
  4. The initial version of SumoMe was famously built for $60 by a freelance developer hired by Noah Kagan.
  5. Wanelo was developed by an overseas 3rd party who eventually accepted a small buyout when she rebuilt the code.

Mike Dorsey, entrepreneur & advisor shared his success story about being non-technical and founding his first company with outsourced developers. Leads95.com is a profitable lead generation and CRM company, with a web-based lead marketplace.

Unemotionally discussing options for non-tech founders is all well and good, but doesn’t really solve anything. Hot ideas need to be acted on fast; that’s the nature of the entrepreneurial beast.

The best solution may be a combination of the three.

  • Post co-founder requests wherever possible.
  • Simultaneously, get referrals for remote team vendors and start your due diligence on the one or two that best fit your needs.
  • Finally, as time permits and if you are math-oriented spend some time on the coding sites.

Just remember, you have only so much time and physical/mental energy, so spend them in ways that have the highest ROI.

 

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