Hard lessons learned from a Non-Technical Startup Founder

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Not every successful startup was founded by someone who knew how to code. In fact, a number of the world’s most recognisable startups of the last decade were founded by people who didn’t come from a technical background. Two stand out examples would be Brian Chesky from AirBnB and Jack Ma from Alibaba.

That said, if you are looking to get a tech based startup off the ground, and lack the technical skills to build the product yourself it can be an uphill battle. As someone who falls firmly into the “non-technical camp” I faced this very issue with my task management startup, Task Pigeon.

Over the last nine months however I have navigated the road to finding, recruiting and managing technical teams and wanted to share what I have learnt along the way.

Lesson Number One – You Need To Know “Something”

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If you are going to build a product that involves someone writing code then you at least need to be able to hold a conversation. If you don’t know the different between HTML, CSS and JavaScript then you need to put the breaks on your grand plan and build a foundation to begin with.

There are countless recourses available on the internet (both free and paid) that can help you understand the basics of coding. Before starting Task Pigeon I completed a number of courses on Udemy and Treehouse (two online locations where you can learn to code).

I was never aiming to be an expert but at least I gained an appreciation of what goes into the basic building blocks of every web application. As a minimum I would recommend learning HTML, CSS and JavaScript.

Lesson Number Two – You Can’t “Find” A Co-Founder With Just An Idea

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Unless you are already fortunate enough to know a software engineer it will be extremely hard to find a co-founder if all you have is an idea on a scrap of paper.

Developers, especially Full Stack Developers, have countless job opportunities in today’s job market. On top of that they are constantly pitched to join new startups. The problem is that as a non-technical founder you don’t really understand what you are asking.

If you stop and think for a minute you are not asking someone to join your “team”, what you are really asking is someone (who you don’t really know) to spend hundreds of hours of their life working on something that has very little chance of success for no money.

So unless you already have this network in place and can bring someone on who you already know and shares your vision expect to have to go down route two.

Route two involves hiring or outsourcing development, either to a freelancer or an agency to get your MVP off the ground. If you can achieve this, then at least you can go to a software engineer, show some traction and then look to recruit them as a CTO.

Lesson Number Three – Get As Much Advice As You Can

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Without a software engineer in my own network (who was freely able to work on this with me) I chose to outsource development of my web application. But while I chose to pursue this avenue I also recognised that I wouldn’t get the best judge of character or talent when it came to finding a competent developer.

What I could do was find someone in my network who ran a coding school. They put me in touch with one of their Full Stack Web Development Teachers who was kind enough to sit down with me and run through various technology stacks and recommend what would be most appropriate.

Not only that, they helped to review a number of the applicants I was considering and provided insight on the strengths and weaknesses of each individual/agency. This is a critical step. Without any advice you will likely hire the wrong person. So find someone who has gone through this before (or better yet is a developer) who can at least advise you during the hiring phase.

Lesson Number Four – You Are Not The Expert

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As a startup founder you probably like being “in charge”. In this instance though you need to fully surrender to the idea that you are not the expert in this field. While this does not mean you should hand free reign over to your developer/development team, understand that they know a lot more about what they are talking about than you do.

To help bridge the gap you should be actively involved in each stage of the development process, ask questions about the in’s and out’s that you don’t understand and continue your research into software development throughout each stage of your journey.

This will ensure you have a better understanding of how the project is going, improve your knowledge and cut down on mistakes that come from your own miscommunication on key issues.

Lesson Number Five – Everything Will Take Twice As Long As You Expect

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As with most things in life building a web or mobile application will take twice as long as you initially expect. This doesn’t have to be a big issue if you have a technical co-founder on board, however if you are paying a development team (especially if it is by the hour) you need to budget for your project taking longer and costing more than you expect.

There would be nothing worse than having your product 50 or 75% complete and then running out of money before you can get it to market. On top of the actual development fees you also need to keep in mind that you need more for hosting, marketing, company formation.

If you find that your budget will be stretched thin it is better to wait a few months and build up more of a cash stockpile before jumping in. The road ahead is littered with startups that never got to market and you want to ensure that you are not one of them.

Bio: Paul Towers is a 3 x Entrepreneur and the Founder & CEO of Task Pigeon, a web application that makes it easy to create, assign and manage the tasks you and your team work on each day. Paul is also a passionate supporter of the startup ecosystem in general and regularly mentors startup founders and student entrepreneurs.