I read a great post titled In the Future, The Business Founder Will Not Be Ignored. It makes the case for non-techies having a shot at starting tech companies. The post talks about how the situation will change in the future. I’m generally quite optimistic about business founders starting and scaling tech companies today.
I’d like to start by defining a non-techie or in other words a business founder. In the context of an Internet business, a business founder is “an entrepreneur with no formal technical schooling and actual software or hardware development experience“.
Here are some thoughts on how business founders can differentiate and build a tech start-up:
1) The right mix of things. Pure algorithm driven tech start-ups are obviously tough for business founders to start. To think of how the “next Google” can be started by a business founder is unthinkable. However, businesses that focus on disrupting traditional businesses (e.g. selling merchandise on the web) require a deep and holistic understanding of other business issues such as purchasing, logistics, warehousing, partnerships, etc. In such a business an algorithm is only a small part of the puzzle. Business founders who start such businesses with clear differentiation will find it easier to raise capital even from VCs who prefer technical founders. However, this approach automatically assumes that you know enough of the market that you’re entering into.
2) Work for a tech company first. Mark Twain had a wonderful quote – “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education“. It doesn’t matter if you’re a business person with no formal technical grounding. If you want to build tech start-ups it could help if you have worked in a customer-facing role for a technology company and have had the good fortune of experiencing how customer problems are solved on a daily basis through technical solutions.
3) Endless pitching. Here is an area where some business founders could be better positioned. Some pure tech founders are uncomfortable in selling, negotiating, buying, closing deals, doing follow-ups. It requires endless patience and “long pauses” during discussions. If you’ve been in any customer or partner development role, some of these activities will be right up your alley.
4) Learning and using technology is getting easier. Enablers for starting an Internet business seem to be getting easier by the day. And a lot of them are available as off-the-shelf solutions. Even coding is getting easier. Codeacademy is a great effort in this direction. Business founders who are technically inclined to learn can use any and all such tools that are available to learn. It would certainly help to know how things work.
5) Outsource. While this approach is debatable, it does work to a certain extent. Especially when you’re starting with an idea and need to go through rapid iterations. But, outsourcing is all about giving specifications. They will do as you ask from them. If you go wrong in your specifications, then your release could go off track. So what you need as a founder is a broader understanding of how the whole system would work together through all its releases and how it aligns with the overall vision or direction of your venture. Then outsourcing can be a very powerful tool.
5) Recruit a technical co-founder. A business founder needs to recruit someone who’s built products and led teams. This requires a recruiting mindset, more like finding a life partner through the arranged route. This position must be filled as you get beyond the initial idea. The way to do this? Reach out to networks and build connections. Sooner or later you will land up some meetings. Have long talks over coffee about your vision and how you see your space evolving. Pitch to them like you would to an investor. And when there is mutual respect and alignment, be generous during stock negotiations.
But in spite of all this effort, lets say you don’t find a technical co-founder. Try to think of all the geniuses who did not have formal technical grounding and managed to start and scale to build multi-billion dollar tech businesses. On that scale, one can quickly think of only Steve Jobs.
And one can assume now that there probably won’t be a genius like him ever again. Although Jobs didn’t have formal technical grounding at the time of starting Apple, he did have a massively creative mind and great understanding when it came to design. On the other hand he probably had to work several times harder in learning how software and hardware worked and understand what his and his competitor’s technical teams knew and did. By doing that he managed to stay ahead of the curve.
So, if you’re a business founder with real depth in one area and have the mindset to put in the needed effort to learn the tech side of things – then you should just go for it!
Worst case scenario: If nothing works and your venture fails, you will in the process learn a new skill-set and come out at the other end with a good understanding of product development that you can take to your next start-up.
The best case is of course well known now in the tech industry. Think Facebook!
Other related articles
- Why Nobody Seems to Want Non-Technical Co-Founders (vccafe.com)
- While startup CEOs are scrubbing toilets, CTOs are building things (startupnorth.ca)
- In The Future, The Business Founder Will Not Be Ignored (shaqqs.wordpress.com)