Advice for non-technical founders creating a startup

Many non-technical entrepreneurs have exciting ideas for building technical solutions—like software as a service (SaaS) or mobile applications in a variety of industries—that never get off the ground due to a lack of technical skills. You don’t need to know how to code to start a tech business, but it certainly helps. The first step to getting started is proving that your idea can work, often with a minimum viable product (MVP) or proof of concept. It may be easier for a technical founder to accomplish this step, but non-technical founders aren’t without options.

Successful founders are able to cast a vision for potential partners, customers, and investors about what’s possible with their product or idea. To do so, founders can explore several avenues for initial product builds, such as using a dev shop or freelancer, creating the first version using solutions that don’t require coding, or finding a technical co-founder.

Build an MVP using a dev shop or freelancer

One option for non-technical founders building out an MVP is to use freelance developers or a dev shop to create the product. Outsourcing the build of the product when the founding team doesn’t have the expertise to build it themselves can help startups get up and running with a viable offering for potential customers. While this may initially seem like a good idea, it’s not without risks.

Hiring a dev shop or a freelancer can be quite expensive, and the price will increase with the quality of work. This is often an issue for an early-stage startup, and while it may seem like investors will reward founders who have a working prototype to show, many early-stage investors will balk at the business being dependent on outside agencies to survive. Alternatively, if you’re self-funding, hiring outside help to develop an application can take up a large portion of your initial investment. Consider if that’s an amount you want to spend to ultimately not be in total control of how the product ends up.

Keep in mind that startups need to move fast and be able to iterate and pivot quickly. Using freelancers or a dev shop often takes more time than using dedicated resources. This process doesn’t allow for the fast and frequent iterations required to find product-market fit and solve problems for your potential customers.

Finally, there’s a risk that once the startup is able to onboard a full-time technical hire, that individual won’t approve of how the product was initially built. Often, the solution is to rebuild, meaning wasted work and ultimately wasted money on earlier versions of the product.

Build an MVP using low-code or no-code tools

As an alternative to a dev shop or freelancers, there are plenty of low-code or no-code resources available, and you can use those tools to build an MVP as a proof of concept for potential co-founders, customers, and investors. Low-code or no-code platforms allow non-technical individuals to build out their ideas with simple user interfaces. There are options for many different types of industries and builds, and with the right solution a non-technical founder could get started quickly. Consider what you need for an MVP. If your idea is for a mobile app, could you get stared with a mobile-responsive website built with drag and drop tools on platforms like WordPress or Squarespace?

Airbnb famously started with a simple website, a few air mattresses on the floor, and a scrappy team who kept iterating on their idea and platform until they found success. The first version didn’t have payments (you had to exchange money with the host upon arrival), maps to locations, or many of the bells and whistles it has today. The founders even tell a story of driving around to hosts and taking pictures of the spaces themselves.

The first version of your product doesn’t have to be perfect. A famous quote by LinkedIn Founder Reid Hoffman, “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late,” is an inspiration to many entrepreneurs that getting started is better than getting it perfect. An MVP is the first step in a long road to success, and founders should be willing to cut down the features to what is absolutely necessary.

This approach levels the playing field for non-technical founders. If you can prove your idea with a landing page and Google Sheets, then do it. Get creative with all the ways you can piece together existing technology to showcase how you plan to solve problems for your target market.

Find a technical co-founder

Arguably the best option for a non-technical founder building a tech business is to find a technical co-founder. Having a technical co-founder who is passionate about the idea and benefits from its success allows teams to move faster and be more effective as they work to find product market fit. If you plan to seek investment, having a technical co-founder on board will be viewed more favorably by most (if not all) potential investors. There are varying opinions on how to split equity among co-founders, but one thing is certain: you’re free to choose the agreement that’s best for you and your company. Founder splits can be 50/50, but they don’t have to be.

The importance of choosing the right co-founder can’t be overstated. While it’s beneficial to have a technical person on the founding team, choosing a partner you can trust is crucial. Don’t let the potential positives of bringing on a technical co-founder outweigh the need for due diligence. Make sure the person you choose is a good fit for the long term. Choose a partner who has a passion that’s aligned with yours and will benefit the business long-term. Technical co-founders also need to have the ability to lead and grow a team, while being willing to roll up their sleeves and code, especially in the early days of the business.

It can be difficult to find and attract technical talent. Some organizations, like Y Combinator, have co-founder matching programs available. While it’s often easier to find a co-founder if you already have a proof of concept, programs like these will also help match founders coming with just a great idea. If you’d rather find a match on your own, you’ll need a bit of luck. Everyone has a professional network, but if you’re not already in tech then you may have a difficult time connecting with the type of talent that you need. Expand your network and increase your chances of success by joining communities like IndieHackers or CoFoundersLab.

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