There is no rule that says you need to be a technical founder to start a startup. In, fact there are plenty examples of successful non-technical startup founders.
That said, if you are a non-technical founder, there is no reason why you shouldn’t learn to code. In fact, I am going to argue that learning to code as a non-tech founder will give you a competitive advantage.
But first, let’s make sure we understand the distinction between a technical vs non-technical founder.
What is a technical startup founder
We don’t need a complex definition to describe a technical founder. The definition is simple:
“A technical founder is someone with the skill set required to build their product or service.”
For example a technical founder of a software company would be a software engineer. The founder or a hardware company may be an industrial designer or electronics engineer.
Regardless of the example these people have one thing in common. They can use their time, rather than money, to build their product or service.
What is a non-technical startup founder
We can now consider the definition of a non-technical founder. In essence it is the reverse of the above.
“A non-technical founder is someone who does not have the skill set to build their product or service”
To build their product or service a non-technical founder needs to either hire someone with the skill set or outsource development of it.
For the purposes of this article we will be focusing on software startups. A non-technical founder in this instance will need to outsource software development. I.e. hire someone who knows how to code.
Disadvantages of being a non-technical founder who can’t code
Despite the fact that you don’t need to be a technical founder to start a startup there are some disadvantages to consider.
A non-technical founder of a software startup who can’t code often runs into the following challenges:
- Accelerator programs like Y Combinator often prefer a startup have technical founders. This helps keep them capital efficient.
- Angel Investors and VC’s often also have a preference for a startups with in-house technical talent.
- A non-technical founder often requires more capital to build and maintain their product.
- Non-technical founders who can’t code can often make mistakes on who to hire.
- If a non-technical founder runs out of money product development stops.
- If a non-technical founder doesn’t understand their code base or how software is developed it can make communicating with their developers challenging.
Here are some other things I have learned working on my startup as a non-technical founder.
My Personal Journey As A Non-Technical Founder Who Couldn’t Code
As a non-technical founder myself I can relate to your situation. It can be frustrating to have a product/service that requires a skill set you don’t have in order to be built.
When I first started my journey with Task Pigeon I did recognise the gap I had in my skill set. Not only did I not know how to code, I also didn’t know how to hire for someone who did.
To solve this challenge I tapped my network. I spoke with colleagues who were able to advise on what I should look for in a developer, as well as the various technologies I should consider using.
This made the hiring process much easier. I wasn’t putting up a random ad on outsourcing platforms like Upwork asking for a developer. Instead, I put together a comprehensive brief that allowed me to cut through the noise and find a developer who actually knew what they were doing.
I then had a detailed interviewing and hiring process. This included testing potential software developers and having others review their code. Outsourcing development of Task Pigeon in this fashion allowed me to build my MVP for less than $10,000.
Despite this I have made mistakes and continued to notice a gap in my skill set. What I also struggled with is that I was set up to pursue a technical career after high school.
Ten years ago for my HSC (final year of high school in Australia) I studied industrial technology electronics and placed third in the state. Many of my classmates went on to study Electrical or Technical Engineering. In past years previous graduates pursued other technical careers in software engineering.
I don’t believe you need to become 100% proficient. Nor do you need to know know to build your application from the ground up (although it is great if you reach that stage). But being able to understand software development and how to code is helpful even if you continue to outsource development.
So why should you learn to code as a non-tech founder?
Why You Should Learn To Code As A Non-Technical Founder
The one thing that always put me off learning to code was the knowledge that it would take years to become proficient.
As a startup founder I wanted to shorten the time to market.
If I was going to learn to code first then develop Task Pigeon it may only be getting to market today.
The calculation in this instance is simple. It would take me “x hours” to learn how to code. With “y hours” available to learn each week that would equate to “z months”. That time commitment has a dollar value and outsourcing development was the better investment.
What this formula fails to take into account though is the efficiency you gain of knowing how to code.
Even if you don’t become proficient enough to develop your entire application there are still reasons why you should learn to code as a non-technical founder. These include:
- If you learn to code as a non-technical founder you can communicate better with your team.
- Improving your ability to communicate with your developers helps you brainstorm solutions easier.
- You can improve your ability to hire the right people. You also know when a potential developer is exaggerating their capability or knowledge.
- It isn’t that hard to develop a solid base of knowledge. You don’t need to become an expert. Even knowing 10% will put you ahead of the game.
- Having the ability to code provides a “backup” in the event that your developers leave/stop working for you. While you might not be able to code the entire application being able to fix bugs here and there can keep you going.
- Understanding how to code allows you to brainstorm new ideas and expands your knowledge of what can be achieved.
- Showing that you can explain the logic of your application can ease investor concerns about your lack of a technical co-founder.
The holy-grail is of course that you will reach the stage where you are a proficient developer. It may not be for the project you are currently on. And it certainly won’t happen overnight. But if you keep learning you will achieve that stage in your journey towards being a developer.
This ultimate provides you with freedom. Freedom to pursue new ideas without risk of burning through your cash, freedom to pivot an existing idea or add a new feature. As well as the freedom to fund your startup by taking short term gigs to keep the money rolling in while you seek product market fit.
For non-technical founders learning to code provides also means that you are bringing together two strong skill sets.
On one hand you have your marketing/sales/business acumen. This is what helped get you started in the first place. If you can augment that with technical capabilities then you are a one person team capable of so much more.
Resources To Get Started With Learning To Code As A Non-Technical Founder
If like me you have decided to add coding to your skill set as a non-technical founder then you need to find the right resources to get you there.
Broadly speaking I see two ways to learn how to code for someone who is already well into their career:
- Offline coding schools or bootcamps
- Online coding schools or courses.
Software development bootcamps are in-person coding schools that last for 6, 8, 12 weeks or more. They often focus on people interested in a “career change” for can commit to learning full time for a set period of time.
I have not personally attended a software development bootcamp program but generally speaking the pro’s and con’s are as follows:
Pro’s of attending a web development bootcamp:
- Short, focused and intense course designed to get you from 0 to somewhat proficient as quickly as possible.
- The ability to learn in a face to face environment with quick answers to your questions.
- A collaborative environment where you don’t feel alone as you are working alongside other people at a similar skill level.
- Cheaper than attending University/College (although not necessarily “cheap” when compared to other options).
- Suited to people who learn best in a face to face environment.
Con’s of attending a web development bootcamp:
- Often requires a full time commitment that does not suit individuals with an existing job.
- Can be expensive, often $10,000 +, putting them out of reach for a lot of people unless they finance it.
- Requires you to learn outside of the course as well to really get the most out of it.
- Doesn’t necessarily teach you everything required to land a job as a software developer.
- Not all bootcamps have the same quality level / are viewed with the same level of respect as others.
If an in-person bootcamp style program is not for you then you can also look at online coding schools or courses. There are various platforms online where you can learn to code including:
The pro’s of learning to code online include:
- Free and or low cost making it easy to get started.
- Low switching costs. If you find one course/program doesn’t suit your style you can cancel your subscription or buy another cost without having lost too much money.
- The ability to learn at your own pace and time.
- Hundreds of different courses available across dozens of providers. This allows you to select the exact course/skill set you want to learn. This contrasts to bootcamps where you often have a more limited selection.
The con’s of learning to code online include:
- Can involve trial and error to find the right platform/instructor for you.
- Lack of face to face engagement does not suit all people.
- You have to be self motivated and willing to commit to learning.
- Sometimes it can be hard to know what to learn in what order.
- Some online courses “go too fast”. If you don’t grasp one concept then the rest of that course can be a struggle.
What I Have Tried While Learning To Code As A Non-Technical Founder
Consistent with some of the recommendations I provided above I have tried a number of platforms while learning to code.
On my second attempt I tried Treehouse. There content on Treehouse is professionally prepared and they provide “tracks” to follow. Tracks ensure you learn things in the right order. I did however find some of the content too broad in certain sections. At other times they got bogged down in the “weeds” of a concept before I really knew too much about it at a high level.
Finally, I have found most success back on Udemy. I took what I learned the first time round and have chosen courses with a narrower focus. This is the Node.js course I have taken and would recommend.
While I am not at a level to build Task Pigeon from scratch I have completed 91% of the course so far and am confident I could understand the logic behind most of Task Pigeon’s code base.
Moving forward to do want to take a step back and complete a more detailed HTML5 and CSS course. I will then move into Angular so that I build out my understanding of the MEAN stack.
In summary I believing learning to code as a non-technical founder is at least something you should attempt.
Being able to bring your knowledge up from a 0 out of 10 to a 3 out of 10 will make it easier to communicate with developers. You will also understand the technical requirements of your project much better.
If you continue on your coding journey at get to a 6 out of 10 in your level of skill you should be able to troubleshoot some bugs. You will also be able to have more detailed conversations with developers. Finally, in a worse case situation you can act as a “backup developer” for your project.
At 7 or 8 out of 10 in your level of proficiency I believe you would find yourself capable of building most web applications that don’t require specialist skills (i.e. Artificial Intelligence or Machine Learning). If you reach that stage then you will have achieved a certain level of freedom. You will be able to continue development on your startup regardless of whether or not you secure funding.
For that reason I now recommend that all non-technical founders give learning to code a try. Even more so if you are a solo founder and don’t have someone on your team with technical capabilities.
Also published on Medium.