There are a lot of questions and debate around whether a tech startup needs a technical founder as opposed to a non-technical founder and whether they can scale a business fast.
Andrew Chen says that many technical founders argue against the need for non-technical founders –
…There’s an illustrious track record of engineering-founded companies succeeding, spanning from HP to Facebook. There are a lot of data points that say that a 20-year-old Stanford computer science major can do it himself, or at least with his other CS roommates. Similarly, the very best alums out of places like Facebook and Google have lots of access to capital, advice, and people — these are all recipes for making you (the business founder) completely irrelevant.
The fact is that the likes of Apple, Alibaba, Amazon and Airbnb and more, all had non-technical founders. Founders that have been able to build tech startups into what are now well-respected tech giants.
So how do they do it? How do these famous non-technical founders scale their businesses fast, without technical experience?
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You can’t do it alone
That fact is that one person cannot form a whole business. In other words, you need a team. To build a team that can help scale the business, you need to bring in the needed skills.
Regardless of your background, a company will not reach its true potential until someone who knows how to create partnerships, drive customers, speak to audiences and motivate employees and customers does so. In other words, unless it is a much-needed product with next to no competition, you will need to know how to write copy, pitch clients, review contracts, raise funding, network, and maintain strong relationships with early clients when the technology is still pretty basic and doesn’t do everything it’s supposed to.
Make your choice and own it, but remember that concepts matter more than skills
Are you unsure whether to gain business skills or technical skills to give your business the best chance at success? If so, you are in for a debate with no clear winner.
So, decide if you want to be an engineer or an entrepreneur, and then own that decision. More importantly, know that concepts are what yield results in business, not specific skills.
Perhaps one of the key defining traits of most non-technical entrepreneurs is the ability to sell a vision long before a product comes into existence. And, inspire people to make it happen.
As a non-technical founder, there are three crucial steps to scaling a startup:
- Build your prototype and MVP
- Build your technical team
- Add value as a non-technical founder
Build your prototype and MVP
The challenge for all entrepreneurs is to turn an idea into a product that customers want to buy. A quick, low-cost way to do this is to build a prototype and then a minimum viable product (MVP). Prototypes and MVPs are designed to prove product/market fit.
What’s the difference between them?
A prototype is an early model of a product designed to demonstrate the feasibility of a concept. It doesn’t need to be a working product but rather something that introduces a concept.
A Minimum Viable Product, on the other hand, is an initial version of the product with just enough features to allow your target market to test the concept’s functionality. It is designed to provide feedback and, more importantly, determine whether it is worth developing.
Target the right market
Most successful entrepreneurs have either studied the market carefully or have toyed with a side project that showed a lot of promise before deciding to bring it to life.
Drew Houston, co-founder of Dropbox, got started in his spare time while working at another startup. He only moved to Dropbox to work on it full time once he saw that people were validating the idea. According to Houston, jumping ship before that would have been reckless.
Alex Turnbull, founder and CEO of GrooveHQ, got frustrated with a problem when working as an assistant to a financial advisor (his brother). He found that there was no solution to help manage the customer management side of things. He put his ideas for a solution down into a PowerPoint presentation, and then called other financial advisors in the area asking if he could have five minutes of their time. If they agreed, he then asked them about their experiences and pain and discovered that they suffered from the same problem. It was only then that he decided to get the solution built.
Perri Chase, former founder of Archive.ly, says:
In the early growth stage of business, an entrepreneur can grow their customer base using a variety of tactics. Some may even choose to use a blend of several different methods. Whether you opt to do grassroots campaigning or put technology to use, fully understanding your target market is key to maximizing your success.
Joel Gascoigne shares a similar view, saying that what is critical in developing a successful product is eliminating the unvalidated aspects and finding something that your customers truly want. Achieving product/market fit does not require any technical skills to achieve.
Start selling to prospects right away
Finding developers and others to build your product could take a lot of time. The idea of, “Build it and they will come” is nice, but not realistic. You need to develop customers so that by the time your product launches, potential customers will be ready to buy.
Use presentations, mockups, your prototype and your MVP to show people what your company is building. Pre-selling the product is a chance to get feedback into what potential customers want and are willing to pay for.
Check out the video below to see how successful businesses found their early customers.
Build a technical team
Every great tech company has a powerful technical team. In order to scale your business fast, at some point, you, too, will need to get started on building a technical team.
However, assembling a technical team can be a time-consuming challenge.
Why? Because many of the people you would be looking for would rather seek opportunities elsewhere as compared to an early stage startup with an uncertain future.
Here are a few ways to get started on a productive, successful search:
1. Find a mentor or hire those better than yourself
One of the best ways to build a technical team at the outset is to ensure you bring on those who are better than yourself (not just in the technical side of things). For example, communication among technical team members can aid or hinder productivity and efficiency. But communication does not seem like an important skill when you’re creating the job requirements.
Having a mentor who you can turn to for ideas and insight will help you think ahead, and look for the best possible candidates.
While relying on a mentor to guide you through the challenges of building a technical team is a great option, what if you don’t have a mentor to help?
You could potentially find a mentor by approaching technology studios or incubators. Alternatively, you could recruit talent.
To determine what talent your team needs to be successful, you first need to ask yourself:
- What do we need to achieve?
- What skills or expertise is our team missing?
- What does success look like for this individual?
- How will this role help us reach growth goals?
Through this reflection process, you should be able to come up with a basic profile of the kind of person you are looking for and the skills they should possess. You could even determine which skills are required, and which ones would be nice to have.
2. Find an expert to conduct interviews
Without possessing technical skills, it can be difficult to discern a potential hire’s technical abilities. Ian Crosby, CEO at Bench, recommends finding someone else to help with that. You will need to assess for cultural fit and soft skills. But the expert you ask to vet candidates will help with assessing technical skills.
To find an expert who can conduct interviews, reach out to your network or ask someone whose technical skills have been validated by a third party you trust. You could even consider using a technical staffing company like Toptal, Crew, Scalable Path or Gun.
3. Look at non-traditional sources for talent
Hiring talent doesn’t have to be a cost-intensive process. You could hire engineers who have recently graduated, find potential candidates via AngelList, Hacker News, or at meetups. As you hire and grow your team, consider placing an emphasis on mentoring and promoting internally.
4. Start with someone who shows passion and initiative
Hiring is hard, and focusing too much on technical abilities can lead companies to hire the wrong people. To ensure a right fit, you also need to gauge a person’s willingness to collaborate, their acceptance of critical feedback, resilience, and how their personality aligns with the team and company values.
Asking about their past experiences, interests, and discovering their social aptitude can reveal if they would be a good fit.
5. Trust is key
Warren Buffet offers this advice for recruiting talent:
“You’re looking for three things, generally, in a person. Intelligence, energy, and integrity. And if they don’t have the last one, don’t even bother with the first two. I tell them, ‘Everyone here has the intelligence and energy—you wouldn’t be here otherwise. But the integrity is up to you. You weren’t born with it, you can’t learn it in school.”
If your team members cannot be trusted, it will slow projects down. So, hire people you can trust.
How do you know if you can trust them?
Trust requires three components:
- Knowledge and expertise to help solve a problem.
- Relationships and sincerity.
- Reliability and consistency in doing what they say they will do.
With the right systems in place, trust can just happen, no matter if you’re all in one office or a distributed team.
6. Hire a CTO at the right time
Assuming you have some traction with your MVP, it is perhaps not unreasonable to think that you need to go out and find a CTO to help build out this idea. This is especially true if you need to iterate the product quickly (as most tech startups do), and you are not able to give it the time and attention it deserves.
How do you go about doing this? And, how do you do this in a way that would be mutually beneficial?
Rahul Vashneya, co-founder of Arkenea, says the process is not unlike looking for a potential spouse. The issue with finding a CTO or engineering lead is that this person is someone you will spend a lot of time with. You will need to go through the ups and downs of your startup together. More importantly, you will both need to share the same vision and passion for the issue you intend to solve.
Traditional forms of recruiting or speed dating aren’t going to help you find someone you can easily work with and trust.
So, what would be a better approach?
Quit trying to actively find a CTO. Instead, invest in building out the first version of your product.
Hicham Amine echoes what Rahul says. After all, why would a seasoned and skilled developer give up a good job that pays well to head down an uncertain future with little or no pay?
Instead of spending your precious time on a tedious search, focus your efforts on validating your idea and finding users. For example, Dropbox created a landing page with an explainer video to show what they were trying to do. They got 75,000 beta users from that alone.At first, focus on your product. Dropbox created a landing page with an explainer video, and got 75,000 users Click To Tweet
Having said that, you can always be on the lookout for a potential CTO either through your networks and communities you are a part of. There’s no reason not to hire if you find that the person could be the right fit for your growing startup.
Add value as a non-technical founder: Stay focused on your strengths
A survey of Harvard business school alumni who founded companies found that aspiring founders should prioritize the following skills: leadership, product management, team management, selling, marketing, to name a few. Check out the chart for the full details.
One thing all founders learn? In a growing business, you cannot handle everything. You will need to focus on your strengths.
As a non-technical founder, your biggest strength is to bring a level of creativity to the business. Having a clear vision of what is to be achieved, a contagious passion to see it fulfilled, and the ability to hustle are your biggest contributions to a budding company.
Brian Chesky, founder and CEO of AirBnB, says he has 2 main roles as CEO. The first: to worry about anything that can sink the ship. Second: to focus on areas he is deeply passionate about like product, brand, and culture.
If you don’t have the tech background, you need to add value somewhere. You’re the ideas man; the guy with all the answers because you can’t sleep most nights due to your constantly racing mind on how to solve the next puzzle piece in your elaborate plan. A person that can do that is not only invaluable, but irreplaceable. It rubs off on people. You will create excitement with the people you talk to and interview and they will become incredibly loyal because they believe in you and your vision.
I honestly feel that a lot of people struggle to find a technical co-founder because they’re lazy. They think they can put some initial thought into an idea, pass it to a tech guy and poof, they have a product. Very few people can solve problems and think like a true visionary.
In order to scale your business fast, you will face the challenge of getting traction and validation. On top of that, you’ll have to execute ideas quickly, hire motivated team members and retain talent.
Your passion and belief in your idea is central to scaling your business. However, gaining traction with your idea and pre-selling it makes everything else pale in significance.
Having traction with customers and validation, on the other hand, gives you the leverage you need to pitch investors, attract like-minded co-founders and partners. This, in turn, provides key people and resources to help scale your business fast.