Steve Jobs didn't code and he built one of the largest and most successful technology companies in the world. We're taught that entrepreneurs need to have a technical co-founder or be technical themselves to be successful, but that isn't the case any longer.
Programmers and engineers dominate the founder space and often times those who aren't technical are left to the wayside without much thought of what they actually bring to the table.
My friend and what I like to call the poster child of non-technical founders, Perri Gorman, is the co-founder of Unroll.Me and Founder/CEO of Archive.ly, and she does not code. In a post about the story of Unroll.Me, she said "I want non-technical people to know that they are not worthless because they don't write code."
Earlier this week I had the opportunity to interview Perri and learn all about her challenges, successes, and overall thoughts on what it's like to be a successful non-technical founder.
What were some of your biggest challenges when it came to starting a technology company without the skill set of coding or programming and how did you overcome them?
The thing about startups is that they are hard. Really hard. I'm not sure any one skill will make you destined for success. Resilience and the willingness to learn go a really long way though.
I personally think that the idea you have to code is an investor driven mentality. When someone gives you money to do something technical they want to know it is going to get done. When I first started talking about building Archively no one had any doubt that I have what it takes to make things happen. They doubted I could actually build my vision.
The number of challenges I have faced would make for a novel so I'll tell you about how I hacked it instead of the actual problems.
- I made a decision after not immediately finding a co-founder that I was doing this one way or another and nothing was going to stop me. A good friend helped me build my first prototype because he saw I was so motivated that I was not going to give up and he wanted to help me. I was lucky.
- I am a "domain expert" founder which actually helps a lot. While I don't code, I have 15 years of hands on professional experience in my space and you can't buy that. I used this to get really clear on my market and the problem I am solving. I also built a lot of early relationships with leaders and influencers and met the founders of most companies building products in my space. I did a ton of research and got clear.
- I made a strategic decision last year before we launched our private beta (which I mostly got done with consultants) to throw a lot of money at design. I had raised some money and the team I put together fell apart due to some really weird things like wives getting nervous, sick family, attempted suicide - I kid you not - not your run of the mill stuff. I think that would have been a point where a lot of people would have given their money back but I kept going. I hired the design shop that my co-founders at Unroll.Me were using and we put a real front end on the prototype. I designed the product and they helped me put a face on it. That was the thing that saved me. It came alive and engineers and others started to see what I was building. It helped me visually tell my story. It's "Fake it Until You Make It" - the backend may be a mess but at least it looks good.
- I never stop learning. I don't even know if I am actually a non-technical founder anymore, I am more of a "product" CEO now. When I started I had no idea what a wireframe was (seriously) and now I pretty much design the whole thing. I'm not really a "designer" or a "UX" person, there are people who we'll hire in the future who I hope will be a million times better than me, but I can get it done. I read like crazy, I try new tools, I have a design mentor, and I just keep learning. I think this is the most important thing any founder can do. Are there times I wish I coded? Sure. And for me if I learned anything it would be front-end but in reality I just wouldn't have time to do it.
What's the most important characteristic of a non-technical founder?
- Do what you are good at. If you are an awesome salesperson and you have an awesome idea, go pre-sell your vaporware. Don't just go to code school to be something you aren't because people say you have to. If you want to, by all means, but you certainly don't have to.
- Be a great storyteller. Storytelling is an art of transmission and persuasion. Go watch Nancy Duarte and read resonate. Storytelling is how you sell, market, raise money, and persuade. It needs to be a hip-pocket skill for a non-technical skill.
- If you don't want to learn how to code you need to learn how to wireframe and at least be familiar with the technical stack that your product will be built on. You need to know the landscape programming languages, databases, API integrations and how things fit together. You need to learn how to speak to engineers in their own language.
- You need a network. You will need help. Ask for it.
- Last but mostly importantly resilience. You have to find the magic door in the brick wall. You have to make crafty decisions to keep going and figure out how to make things happen. If you have this, the resources, including engineers, will show up to make it happen.
Most non-technical founders are told, "Find a technical co-founder." What would tell those naysayers that say it's impossible to be a non-technical founder?
When I started Archively I made a choice to move out West from New York. It was a really risky move because no one knew me and I didn't have a co-founder. I literally just moved and worked by myself in my apartment in Palo Alto. I put all of my saved money into it in the beginning, every penny I had and I just went for it. I have an incredible network and I met with a lot of amazing, world class technical people from Google and Facebook and other companies. I learned quickly that being an unproven CEO with a very strong idea about what I wanted to build is not the most appealing thing to engineers who could do anything. I cannot tell you how many engineers I talked to. I struggled. And I used to be a recruiter. It was very, very humbling.
I spent six months recruiting one particular engineer who eventually turned me down because he had a personal project he was passionate about. I thought that was the moment I was going to give up. But I didn't. I just kept going. A key thing that shifted for me was that in the beginning my self-worth as a founder was tied to the strength of the technical co-founder I could attract. I looked at it, shifted my perspective and decided to move forward without one. You have to ask, if I can't have it this way, how can I have it?
How did you do it? You have two successful technology companies, unroll.me and archively, what's your secret?
I don't know if I'd call Archively successful yet, we are just coming out of private beta next week! Unroll.Me is a great example of the possibilities because none of the four founders write code. We had other amazing skills though at put together we made it happen. I knew absolutely nothing when I came up with the idea for Unroll.me. You just have to decide to do it and get it done. There is so much hype in tech about formulas and the way to do things but that is all BS. There is no formula. In fact, if you stick to a formula you will probably fail. The nature of startups is that you have to roll with whatever is thrown at you. So my secret? I don't listen to anyone. I just do whatever it takes to do what I want to do. I also know when I don't know something and I find someone who does to help me.
New hackathon experience gives non-technical founders the chance to fulfill their dream
In the last four month a company (currently turning non-profit) based in San Francisco called ProtoHack has been creating a unique hackathon experiences for founders who don't code.
ProtoHack was created with the non-tech savvy entrepreneur in mind. Utilizing prototyping tools and visual editors ProtoHack's mission is to solve the tech gap in entrepreneurship. Most entrepreneurs are non-technical and are often close to the customer, have the domain expertise and insights, but fail at executing their concept due to the lack of technical skills.
"I am a non-technical person," says Cole Fox, CEO & Founder of ProtoHack. "I founded ProtoHack because there wasn't a platform for non-techies to launch their ideas. I tried learning code and starting my own startup, but failed." Learning to code isn't the only option any longer if you have a vision for the next "big idea."
ProtoHack will be hosting hackathons in Los Angeles, New York City, and Austin within the next year and is free to anyone interested in being apart of this movement.