Can a non-technical founder create the next big tech startup?

How non-technical founders can start app businesses
Paul Lewis-Borman
Founder and CEO
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Picture the scene, young entrepreneurs huddled in a college dorm or their parent’s basement, coding into the small hours to found the next big tech startup. Greatness doesn’t build itself, you have to put in the hours and burn the midnight oil. Only later, once you’ve made it can you afford slides, bowling alleys and family days. But what if you’re not technical and you don’t write code? Are non-technical founders precluded from founding tech startups?

I hope nobody thinks the answer is yes, because great ideas aren’t just the preserve of people who can code. Of course, if you can code you’re one step ahead, but you still need time to work on your startup, and if you have a full-time job you’re not going to realise your dream unless you can either quit or take a sabbatical to work on it. And, if you’re a non-technical founder, you’ve not only got to find a way for you to become full-time on your startup, you need to find somebody technical who can too.

But it’s more complicated than that because you need to code both the front end and (very possibly) the back end, and these are pretty much different skills. You also need to visually design your app, so there’s a third skill for graphic design. And, of course you need to know how the whole lot hangs together, so you need an architect.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are cross-disciplinary technical-creatives who can do all of these things, but they tend to be already running their own startup or working for Google. In fact it’s these people or a small group of co-founders that possess these skills amongst them, which I would class as ‘technical founders’.

I started my career as a programmer, but my code writing days are long past and while I could teach myself to program with the latest technologies it’s not a good use of my time; and if you’re not technical, it’s a terrible use of your time. So, as a non-technical founder, you will need to find and fund an experienced multi-disciplinary team. If you have a bunch of Silicon Valley exec positions on your resume then happy days, because angels and VCs will be throwing money at you. But if you live in Swindon, you’re going to need a plan B.

Plan B: what to do if you’re a non-technical founder, in Swindon

Firstly, take a look at where you are in your startup lifecycle. If you are in the early stages of formalising your idea or creating your Minimum Viable Product (MVP), then your requirements are different to when you are launching to market.

When I began Meetzoo, which aims to make business meetings more productive by combining people’s business calendars with collaborative note taking and social networking, I used PeoplePerHour for things like icon and logo design as it is cheap enough to assign two or three people the same task, which allowed me to choose whose idea I liked the best. I found that it’s as much about the person and how well you communicate with them, as it is the first design they produce. Before choosing a partner for my app’s user interface design I did a similar thing, iterating the design with each to see how well we worked together.

I founded an app development company who, as chance would have it, arrived on my doorstep because the UI designer I’d chosen had previously worked with them and suggested their CEO might be interested in doing a deal. We made an arrangement whereby they develop the app in return for a monthly retainer and share options in Meetzoo. The advantage is I have means of getting the app developed, but for a fraction of the cost of a full or even part-time team.

There are cross-disciplinary technical-creatives who can do all of these things, but they tend to be already running their own startup or working for Google.

In my previous business I had a full-time development team, so I was accustomed to an immediacy of response and a rate of progress that’s just not realistic under this scenario. Things take longer to do, so I have to make tough decisions about what is worth doing and what is not in the time available. For example, features that help differentiate the product are worth doing, but those that duplicate functionality that users already have through other apps or means are not - even if some of those features might seem obvious that they should be included in a finished product. This has got us to the stage of having a finished MVP that is in open beta testing.

When looking for such a partner you need to take a realistic approach to divulging your idea and this is a great opportunity to start developing your pitch. Ask people to sign up to an NDA, but be realistic that it is only as good as your ability, judicially and financially, to enforce it. The most important thing is not to lose momentum in the execution of your idea by refusing to share it with anyone. Great ideas need great people to make them a reality, so the value you bring is not only the idea, but also your determination to make it real.

You Minimum Viable Product: making the trailer

Developing an MVP will allow you to gauge the appeal of your idea to users and hopefully help you attract investment so you can build it properly. I like to think of an MVP like a film trailer or a pilot episode, and this is where I depart from the zeitgeist of Eric Ries and the Lean Startup. I believe you need to have some production values in your MVP to capture peoples’ interest. You need to make it beautiful. If the trailer for the original Star Wars had a bunch of guys running round waving Bacofoil tubes with cereal boxes taped to their chests, would you have seen the movie?

Now while I am sure there are many examples of great MVPs produced for a few thousand bucks, I would say that realistically you need a startup budget of between £30,000 and £50,000. If you don’t have this kind of cash, then you are in a chicken and egg situation because you’re not going to get anybody to invest unless you have an MVP and you can’t develop a product without some investment.

However, if your idea is good then you may well be able to attract the interest of a seed incubator such as London-based Seedcamp where they may give you £50,000 in return for 5-10% of your company. Let’s be clear, this isn’t going to allow you to employ you a full-time team, well not for very long. However, there are a bunch of new companies like Exeter-based Koncept who are taking equity in return for developing your MVP and this provides a way for non-technical founders to get a ready-made team fast and at an affordable cost.

The good news is that unless you’re doing something very unusual or ground breaking, most of the technical problems like multi-tenancy, concurrency, performance and scalability have already been solved, and often pre-packaged in services like AWS or open-sourced by companies like Facebook, so you shouldn’t have to reinvent any wheels. In fact, I would advise very strongly against doing so and be mindful that if you rely upon an inexperienced coder or team, you may find you are wasting time and money working on problems that have already been solved by much smarter people. So, make sure the partner you choose has the relevant experience, look at their portfolio and follow-up on references.

From trailer to production

The next stage for Meetzoo is to employ a full-time development team to support our launch and deliver the roadmap that will get us into revenue generation. This will allow us to put arms around both the product and the people using it so we can respond quickly to problems and suggestions, provide fixes and improvements and show progress on implementing our roadmap. You just can’t do this with a part-time team. So, now I’m crowdfunding to achieve this, a job made easier because I’ve created a beautiful MVP to capture the imagination of investors – and I’m not even technical!

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By Bheald
06th Dec 2016 09:38

Paul - sounds like you're not really non-technical if you started life as a programmer! Leaving aside whatever is meant by the 'next big tech startup', the wider point is that successful businesses are always so much more than the technology. From wooing investors, to retaining staff, to building a loyal client base, very quickly any tech skills a founder has got need to be parked. An understanding of tech considerations is of course useful, but really as part of the package of skills that a CEO needs to handle the multiplicity of growth challenges every company faces.

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to Bheald
08th Dec 2016 11:55

It's a fair cop! I do have a technical background which helps in understanding the nature of technology development and in particular, developers. However I find myself in the same predicament as "non-technical" founders in that I no longer have the relevant skills to code a product. So my key message is that you can find people cost effectively who have the right skills if you are prepared to give away some equity (which you should be imho). And even if you're completely non-technical, then there are companies like Koncept who will be your virtual CTO too.

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19th Feb 2017 12:41

Everyone has their place - and by that I mean your knowledge defines your value.

I've worked in tech environments including my own startups, and in my personal experience, coding wizards can rarely lead a team or a business. They are great at coding, but don't necessarily understand economics, business, HR, brand perception etc. Likewise, the non-tech people that do understand all those vital facets, could never (and should never) code to save their lives.

If Myers-Briggs and the various psycho-analysers taught us anything, its that a team requires all types just like a table requires four legs (occasionally three lol). The reason there are a million failed tech startups? Possibly because of the lack of other skillsets.

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