October 1, 2011
If you are a non-technical person ready to put together a startup, there are some very important things you must do before you start to look for a technical co-founder, though in fact, you can launch your tech startup without one.
One of the first things I did when I left my job at Goldman Sachs was to start looking for a technical co-founder. I read multiple blog posts and commentaries about the difficulty of finding a technical co-founder. Some were nicer than others. But the less encouraging ones put zero value on being a business co-founder. The comments section for many of these posts were filled with “How could you possibly think someone will want to join you?”
But then I realized why.
So many of the calls for technical co-founders went something like this: “I have a great idea – please come be my technical co-founder.” The non-technical founder only had an idea and had done no work to back it up. If you have done any research at all, you would find that ideas are worth nothing without execution. That is startup lesson number one.
One of the most important things I did was be honest with myself when deciding whether I had the skill set necessary to successfully lead the type of company I was trying to launch. My first idea was for a travel startup, but I had no technical expertise to solve a very technical problem and no relevant industry experience.
Now, neither one of these things stopped me from taking several steps that gained me some credibility in my new startup community – steps that every non-technical co-founder might consider taking:
1. Research. Research the industry. Research the solutions that are already out there for the problem you are trying to solve. No matter how novel your idea might be, someone else is already trying to tackle it in some way. Your first job is to learn everything you can about your industry. Who are the players, who are the bloggers, who will talk to you?
2. Talk to anyone that will talk to you. This means running your idea by anyone that will listen. Your friends and your family will tell you that it is a great idea. They do not want to hurt your feelings. Talk to strangers about it. Better yet, since you have done a ton of research already, you should know who in your industry is respected. Seek those people out and ask their opinion. I was incredibly surprise at how much time and feedback some of these folks were willing to give me.
3. Flesh out your idea. After all the research and all the conversations, your problem, solution, and market fit (or lack thereof) should be clearly defined. Spend as much time as you need on this step. Just because you have a problem does not mean that everyone else cares about that problem. If you cannot clearly and concisely define your ‘secret sauce’, it’s time to go back to the drawing board.
4. Mock it up. I found it much easier to tell someone what I was working on by showing them. There are a ton of tools made for non-technical people. As a non-technical co-founder, you can, in fact, make an entire mock-up of your site (check out iMockups or Balsamic, 2 easy-to-use mockup tools). You can even create an entire website using Wix.com. A lot of these tools are also free to use, so take advantage of them.
5. Learn the language. You are in a foreign country, so learn how to get around. Spend some time learning about the infrastructure of the web. Learn which programing languages are used for front-end development, and which are used for back-end development. Understand what a server does. These are small things that will go a long way when talking to anyone in the tech startup world. Some of the best reading I did was Yipit co-founder’s Vinicius Vacanti’sseries on ‘Becoming your own Technical Co-Founder’. I bought a book and started learning basic HTML.
In the end, my first idea was a no-go. I found that the problem I was trying to solve was not one that really needed solving – at least not in the way in which I wanted to solve it. But the best part about doing all these things is that I met my co-founder for the company we are actually launching in a few weeks. And we are both business co-founders.
We did all the steps above. We built and entire website using free resources, with little or no programming needed. We were luck in that we had enough cash of our own to hire a designer and programmer to work on our beta site. But the reason we were able to afford it is because of how prepared we were. After our first meeting with Night Owl Interactive, they wanted to work with us. We had all of our user cases fleshed out. We had our entire site mapped out. We had a functioning prototype. They were impressed with us.
One of the best compliments we have received is from our designer, who truly believes we will make it. I spend at least one day a week in their offices going through the design and development.
I am able to communicate with everyone in an effective manner because, while I am not fluent in their language, I understand and can speak the basics.
We have a long way to go before I can say we have been successful, but in 2 weeks, we will launch a startup without a technical co-founder.
I would love to hear what you have done as a non-technical co-founder – or, as a technical co-founder, what your business founder did to attract you to their project. Leave a comment below!
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