Founding a tech startup when you don’t code

by Scott Taylor
2nd September 2017
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The volume of inbound questions I get from founders is great ????  it has given me enough to material to write about for the next month — hopefully you find the topics I’m writing about helpful. If so, please do reach out and let me know. One question that comes up again and again is, “how do I start a tech startup without any tech knowledge?”

It’s a valid question. Although, I have to admit, it has been written about thousands of times. But anyway, here’ my take. I kicked off launching my first online business at age 15, not knowing how to code. Truth be told, I wouldn’t be able to code up something that’s production ready today; at best, I’d be able to put together a rough MVP. However, there was a time, for a year or so when I religiously tried to code as much ruby-on-rails and javascript as possible.

The value of this post is highly dependent upon what vertical or space your new startup occupies. Although, I feel it also has a certain amount of self-selection. Those who are founding a neural network startup will, for the most part, need to be more technical — and by founding such a startup, I guess they’re already technical. This post is best suited to those of you who want to build the next LinkedIn, Airbnb or Uber. Something that can start off, from a technical standpoint, relatively simple — growing into something more technical as time progresses.

Many people who are now CEOs of multi-billion dollar tech companies started their companies when they didn’t know how to code, and many still don’t – it’s all about understanding your strengths and partnering with people to cover your weaknesses.

You can validate your idea with minimal coding knowledge

Many of you may not know this, but I’m constantly throwing pages up onto the internet, diverting a little bit of adspend toward them, and measuring the uptake and interest. I’m always coming up with startup ideas, as I’m sure you are too, and this helps me A/B test which ones have the best chance of succeeding.

The best founders are usually the fastest; hence, if you can validate an idea without investing a huge amount of time or money — it’s a win. Fast no’s help focus you. So the general advice would be, don’t go on a 1 year coding course to launch a startup, you can validate it beforehand.

Once you have it validated, pitching it to a friend who you think would make a good technical co-founder will be a lot easier. Chances are, once you’ve found someone, they’ll be able to implement in under a month what would have taken you significantly longer to build.

As an entrepreneur you have to be relentlessly resourceful

I know you already know this — but to cover all bases, as a founder you have to be resourceful. I’m always banging on about this. Part of me thinks I continue to reiterate due to us millennials having a bad reputation — we’re generalised as lazy and self-entitled. So I want to ensure we buck that trend.

The world is geared to say no to you and your startup, the mechanisms and norms in place make it difficult for you to follow your dreams. Bills, living expenses, geography, race, age, gender — there are a tonne of variables, that unless they line up perfectly, will mean that you (like me) have a harder time starting your own business.

But that’s okay — because we have tenacity, drive, determination and intelligence on our side. So you don’t know how to code, you can go one of two ways. Either learn to code or don’t.

Two is better than one

For most people, and this is a grand generalisation, so please do not follow this advice without having thought it all through, I would recommend finding a technical co-founder.

Investors generally prefer teams with size >1. From my past experience, having someone to bounce of, brainstorm with, etc. will help you immensely. They will keep you honest on your goals and deadlines, they will take care of areas where you are weak, they will bring a different skill to the party.

There are websites and organisations trying to facilitate finding you a co-founder. Think for startup peeps., and are all good online examples. Some of these sites also host face-to-face events that augment the online experience. Check them out.

Learning the basics now will pay dividends in the future

I’m not suggesting you should shortcut, and bung all the development related stuff onto your co-founder. You should still stroke that curiosity.

Understanding the development process, what goes into changing one small element, and finally understanding the brain and approach of a developer is invaluable.

I see a lot of tech startup CEOs who have received funding, but don’t have any tech knowledge, get frustrated with their development teams. They get frustrated simple because they don’t know what it takes to build an app. They’ll have unrealistic expectations, they’ll grind on the dev teams morale, and most importantly they’ll lose the respect of a hugely important part of the team.

The year that I did of coding let me find a whole new respect for the wizards that developers actually are — there is so much going on behind the scenes, that changing one simple flow actually can take quite a lot of dev time. Related to this, it will allow you to understand the terms that will come to run your startups roadmap and shipping schedule; things like sprints, JIRA, test environments etc.

Thus, in summary — even if you have development covered by someone, jump in and immerse yourself in it for a while. Use the likes of Codecademy or Team Treehouse.

Build your own MVP, it doesn’t even have to be close to perfect

The world of startups is now inherently competitive, everyone wants to launch the next Facebook — this is both good and bad. Good on a macro level in terms of we now have tonnes of smart people focused on changing the world. Bad on a micro level, specifically for you, as it means more competition for funding. So, as I said earlier, you have to stack the odds in your favour. If you go to pitch a VC or an angel investor with nothing for them to play with, or no data, you’re going to struggle.

The modularisation and appification of building web and mobile apps, means that it can be as simple as drag and drop to create some basic applications. With products like Salesforce for Startups, entrepreneurs with little or no programming background can build an application, market it to the 150,000 companies using the AppExchange, and sell it to major enterprise clients.