Building a startup, especially one that offers software or a tech product, requires a mixture of leadership, technical and sales skills. The bar is raised high enough even for a brilliant person with the brightest ideas. What makes it even harder is a popular conviction that a non-tech person cannot be a founder of a technology startup. Although the reality shows a number of successful non-technical founders who never wrote a single line of code, it’s not unusual to hear from a VC that unless there’s a technical co-founder, there’s nothing to talk about. Such a response can cut you down.
Solo or with a partner?
If you want to start on your own and take care of both the company development as well as product development, you would have to be like Leonardo Da Vinci - a visionary, a painter, and an engineer in one person. In other words, quite a rare breed. Keeping yourself focused on running the company and building a tech product may take you on a rollercoaster ride a lot of early founders experience when they start.
Startup founders are all tech-educated people? Not even half of them! Source: hackernoon.com
We often talk to freshly minted founders who spent weeks on describing the desired features of their product. What they often forget is that a feature is not only the looks but most of all the mechanism behind it (let’s call it the backend). If you’re not techy, bring an engineering partner to the table but make sure you discuss the algorithms and the app’s mechanics together. Why? Because when the sun goes down, you want to know the business and the solution in and out.
Specialists in their fields
As much as knowing how to code can help, it does not determine your capability to make knowledgeable decisions about your project. After all, product development has many edges including finance, marketing, sales, leadership, management. Coding is only a fracture; one of many tasks on your way from zero to a prototype, and then a market-validated idea.
And here’s where your expertise comes to play. Look at it this way - will a software developer understand the pains of the logistics or medical sector if they never worked in them? Probably not. But you, as a specialist in your field, will. What’s more - you’ll already have the access to potential groups who would test your idea and give you feedback. And that’s a luxury not every founder has.
Looking at the bright side
Even though founders with a strong technical background have an advantage in the eyes of VCs, it doesn’t mean that they’re made to succeed compared to non-technical ones. Enough if you think when was the last time you rented an AirBnB apartment, picked your date on Tinder, ordered something on AliBaba, or saw a corporate employee using a Dell computer. Yep, you’ve got it right.
All those majestic technology companies were founded by either designers (Brian Chesky), finance specialists, English MScs (Jack Ma), or business graduates. Far from the road of programming languages, frameworks, databases, and APIs.
What can you do as a non-technical founder?
In order to give your project a head start, you can prepare for the development in advance.
Research, research, research
A lot has been said about the importance of market validation still so many fresh founders tend to neglect it. Sloppy research will backfire during product development unless you decide to take baby steps and build a prototype first.
$1 spent on research or $10 to change design or $100 to change something in development
What’s more, thorough research does not require any coding skills and you can use it as a reference point for potential vendors, partners, and investors.
What to pay attention to before you even think of technical details?
- The pain you want to ease (needs discovery).
- The business model (monetization model research).
- The people who will use your product (target group research).
- The solutions already on the market (competition research).
Validate and ask for an opinion
According to a CBInsights survey based on 101 post mortems with startups, the number one reason responsible for 42% of startup failures is the lack of market need. It shows that founders don’t validate their idea on the market before they put money in building their products. That’s a serious mistake. If you don’t have any experience in business validation, turn to a tech partner who can offer different validation tools and is able to advise you which validation method would fit your product best.
Find your tech partner
At some point you’ll get to discussing technology details, may it regard the best tech stack, the engaging UX, or the efficient approach to product development. It’s good if you think of it in advance and look for a technology partner who would support you in making the decisions that exceed your comfort zone. Fortunately, every Jobs has his Woz :) There are several ways to possess technical competencies even at the very beginning of your founder journey.
Sooner or later you'll find your Woz! source: britannica.com
In most cases, an internal partner is a brilliant software developer who will eventually build the entire development team. You start small (just the two of you) and keep the work in-house as long as possible. The usual allocation of responsibilities in such a scenario is that you answer for the vision and product roadmap, and the technical co-founder accounts for coding and quality assurance. The UX is often neglected, which brings certain risks to the table. We help such small teams prioritize their product scope and support them with the science of user-centric design.
The bottom line: Find a technical co-founder only when you feel things “click” between the two of you and when you have a legal advisor to prepare a partnership agreement for you.
Founders who want to focus on the product and have matters such as recruitment or team retention taken off their shoulders bet on outsourcing the entire team. Such an approach significantly speeds up the process of releasing the first version of the product or testing a prototype, mostly because you don’t have to wade in the darkness as most first-timers do. Bringing the team’s experience to the table makes you come up with the right ideas much faster.
The bottom line: If you want to go far, take the entire team. Test, prototype, and then decide on the next steps. You’ll save time on making bad decisions.
Yep, you’ve already guessed - a mixed partnership is when an external team complements your in-house team. Such an approach is often called team augmentation and is meant to hire specialists for particular skills. Let’s say you have a marketing and customer success experience, while your tech partner is a software architect with no mobile experience. Instead of waiting three or so months to hire a mobile developer, you can approach an external software partner to temporarily augment Flutter developers or UX designers to your team. What’s more, it makes sense for a lot of new tech startups to partner with a strong prototyping team, focused on validating your business assumptions.
The bottom line: Partnerships make you stronger from the beginning. They’re also a flexible way of scaling your team up and down according to your current needs.
A lot of startuppers who stepped in Merixstudio premises were convinced that they could take shortcuts when it came to designing. Maybe it was a long time ago when the competition among applications was not as fierce as today. Nowadays, you need to enter the market as soon as possible and win the hearts of early adopters. We do it twofold. Firstly, through a product design workshop that helps to choose the feature set and line it up according to priorities (which is not an easy task at all).
Secondly, through impeccable design that can play the role of a magnet that makes your app stand out.
If a prototype looks good from the front end, you’ll have an easier time persuading talent to help you work on the back end. With visual designs, it came alive and engineers and others started to see what I was building.
Perri Gorman, a non-tech co-founder of Unroll.me
Top designers know that they need to rely on more than their aesthetics. User experience is a result of numbers analysis. You need to know how people behave, why they make particular choices, what they find more important than the rest. In other words, experience in design is what you need to succeed, no matter if you’re prototyping, building an MVP, or polishing your existing software product.
In order to start, you don’t have to come up with an extensive scope of your product. In fact, what you should do is the opposite - start small, get feedback, and iterate from there. There are several proven paths you can choose from. One is to build a prototype being a clickable trailer of your application.
What’s important is that in order to build one, you often don’t need to write a single line of code. What you have to do is to understand your product and turn your vision into a visual representation you’ll test with potential users. The lessons from user tests will determine the next steps in product development.
Key takeaways on building digital products
The success of Pinterest, Airbnb, and other startups run by non-technical founders prove that coding is only one of a whole variety of skills necessary to build digital products. What you need in the first place is innovation and a good plan you can start with. A solid tech partner can help you make technical decisions and solve technical nuances. On top of that, such a partnership can take other pains off your shoulders such as recruitment, employee retention, or assessment of competencies you need in your team at a certain point in time.
It makes sense to learn from the best and grow your knowledge with the process. The same applies to your product. Start small, reach out for help to experienced teams, validate your idea together, and prepare for a road to success.
Have an idea for an app but you've got no tech background? Check how we can help you at every stage of building your digital product.