How to be a Non-Technical Co-Founder in a Pre-Launch Tech-Startup
I’ve seen a lot of posts floating around on the topic of non-technical co-founders and how they can contribute to a startup during the early stages of their product and business lifecycle.
It seems like a majority of these reads focus on the same general ideas: have a vision, keep a positive mindset, outline an MVP, etc.
These are all indisputably accurate pieces of advice for any founder.
My problem is that once I’ve finished reading, I’m still stuck right back where I began with no idea for how to act on any of the information I just digested. It’s like I just spent time training for a marathon but can’t find where the starting line is.
For the last few months, I have been playing the part of non-technical co-founder at a startup that has been pre-launch and pushing frantically towards an MVP — and being bored of reading the same resources over and over, I thought I would throw together a more structured list on some examples of the things I’ve done as we have been building up to our release.
Note: This post is not about how to find a technical co-founder to join your efforts/vision. I was extremely fortunate to pair up with a great friend and amazingly talented developer from day 1, and I understand this is seldom the case. Please also note that you do not need to be a technically skilled person to start a company. There are countless resources out there for finding technical co-founders, or what to do if you are unable to find one. (See also: How to Get a Technical Co-founder & How I (finally) found a technical co-founder…)
1. Project & Product Management
One trait you see with many early-stage startups is a passionate and ambitious vision without a structured framework to carry it out.
The idea of developing an MVP is well known in startupland. But how are you going to get to there in the quickest possible manner without being distracted by every little new and shiny idea/feature that pops up along the way?
As a non-technical founder, keeping your developer(s) focused and on track becomes one of your most critical responsibilities early on.
It is easy to get derailed from releasing version 1.0 of your product when you are constantly wanting to improve and iterate on your product as it is being developed. So let’s talk about how to stay on track.
“If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late” — Reid Hoffman, non-technical co-founder of LinkedIn
Planing the Product Development Process
In attempts to stay organized and on the right track, we have implemented a variation of agile product development and scrum into our development process. Through a combination of retrospectives, sprints, and daily stand-ups, we have established a consistent and somewhat standardized process that keeps our team focused on creating and refining only the most essential product features.
We have tested out a few different tools, however Trello always ends up being the most productive for organizing our team and process as a whole.
Trello is an amazingly simple yet effective tool for laying out sprints and seeing the progression of that sprint as it unfolds. We can label cards based on their function and assign each to one or multiple members of the team.
Inevitably, you can’t control your developers and every single one of their day to day activities with 100% accuracy. However managing the development process to the best of one’s abilities can provide structure and direction that will ultimately make for a much more efficient product roadmap leading up to launch.
Wireframing, Mock-ups, and UI Design
Unless your developers can read your mind, they are likely going to want to see some sort of visual framework/outline which they can work off of while coding your application.
Here is where you get to let your creative side shine.
We first began by using Moqups to create a wireframe-based black and white layout for an early version of our application. Of course, our app has come a long ways since then, however it did the job in getting the ball rolling.
Eventually (and fairly quickly), our UI planning needs grew to be more than what a simple wireframe had to offer.
That’s about the time I discovered Sketch.
Sketch is an f-ing awesome application-design tool for Mac users. You can easily create gorgeous user interfaces for either web or mobile applications, and comes pre-loaded with a bunch of cool templates and icons for use.
See that? That’s the very first creation I ever made using Sketch.
Kinda cool, right? And guess what?
You need zero technical skills whatsoever to use it.
I was able to pick up all of the basics and everything I needed to start designing our UI in Sketch through a series of YouTube tutorials and various other guides from around the web - all within a couple hours time.
What’s more, is if you pair Sketch with a tool like InVision, you can create a prototype that includes some of the functionality (button/link clicks, menus, animations, etc.) that you would like to include in the actual application your developers are creating.
2. Marketing & Brand Awareness
Anyone who tells you that you need boat loads of cash to market a product effectively has no idea how modern day internet marketing works.
Sure, money doesn’t hurt if you know what you’re doing. But thanks to a combination of social media and search engine optimization, marketing your product has become easier than ever before.
And, as a non-technical co-founder, this type of marketing becomes part of your daily routine.
Just because you don’t have a product quite yet, doesn’t mean you have to keep it a secret until you actually launch.
In fact, building a community of social media followers for your brand before you ever have a working product can help produce a much better outcome for when you do launch!
Creating company profiles on a variety of social networks takes just minutes to set up, and only a tiny chunk of time each day to post and maintain.
Let’s discuss a few of the main ones and what your company should be doing with each:
The Main 3:
Facebook — posting relevant articles, content, and company updates 1–2 times per day, responding to any comments/questions
Est. Time: 5–10 mins/day
Twitter — posting relevant articles, content, and company updates 3–4 times per day, responding to any comments/questions, liking/retweeting any mentions, following influencers in your market/industry and retweeting their posts
Est. Time: 5–10 mins/day
LinkedIn — posting relevant articles every week or so (preferably company-generated content or extremely relevant articles)
Est. Time: 5 mins/week
Some others that don’t hurt to have:
AngelList — set up company profile, add founders and company info, list job openings if needed
Crunchbase — set up company profile, add founders
YouTube — use to post any promotional videos for your product
ProductHunt — best used when closer to launch, however you can set up a profile at any point in time
If you have any others you recommend then please comment!
Alright. Now you know a few of the different sites you can be using to start spreading your brand name and market your business.
But, chances are you still might be thinking — what kinds of content should I be posting for all of the world to see?
Start thinking about your potential customers and target market. Step into the shoes of your end user for a second, and think — if I were them, what kinds of things would I want to read/see?
If you post things that the eventual users of your product would be interested in reading, chances are they will follow you and see your updates for when you actually release your product.
Check out our company Twitter for proof into building followers before launching. Not a single paid follower on there!!!
One last thing I highly recommend is using Buffer for scheduling what time of day your social media posts go live. You can customize the frequency and times for posting, and connect multiple accounts to all display on your main buffer homepage.
Buffer also provides some basic analytical insights into your post performance so you can weigh out what is capturing the most activity from your followers.
Blogs can be fun to both read and write — however, they are also an incredibly useful marketing tool.
Writing your own, original content to be posted on your company blog is a great way to spread awareness for your product, both pre and post launch.
Even if you don’t yet have a company website, you can always set up a profile here on Medium to host all of your work.
You’re probably thinking — well I’m not a writer… whatever would I write about?
Just how I mentioned you should post things on social media that are relevant to your future user base, focus on the topics that will draw in and capture the attention of someone who would be in the target market for your product.
You can check out our company blog here!
Oh ya, and it doesn’t matter if you suck at it — you probably will when you first start. What matters is you keep writing and publishing content consistently — you’ll get better, I promise.
One thing to keep in mind when you are writing, however, is search engine optimization (SEO). There are literally millions of tools out there that can help you target key words in your writing that will set you up to rank better according to Google’s search algorithm and help more people find all of your hard work.
Here’s a few resources that have helped me when writing our company’s content:
And don’t forget to post all of your finished content to your company social media pages too — spread the word and be proud of your work!
Measure and Analyze Results
What’s the point of marketing if you can’t see what is working and what isn’t?
Thanks to Google Analytics, you can see every single visitor that has ever navigated to your website, where they came from, and what they did during their stay.
Kind of creepy, huh?
Google Analytics is an phenomenal tool for measuring how the content you produce is performing, as well as how your social media efforts are working to drive in page visits to your website.
It can take a little time to get used to the many interfaces and features within the application, so I definitely recommend checking out the Analytics Academy if you need some help getting started.
3. Business Development & Administrative
We’ve already brought up a variety of incredibly useful applications for you to start implementing into your startup, but there are also a bunch more we haven’t even touched on.
How are you going to capture leads on customers?
What about planning your sales process?
Then how do you ensure the best possible customer experience when you eventually launch?
You’ll need a whole new suite of applications to handle and automate each of these processes, and someone has to set them up and monitor their performance.
Guess who that someone is?
CRM & Sales
Now that you’ve started a following on social media and are writing content to start driving people to your website, you’ll need to capitalize on that increased traffic.
Using a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) application is your best friend for this kind of task. There are plenty of options to choose from depending on your specific needs.
I have messed around with a bunch of different options, from HubSpot to MailChimp to ConvertKit and more — the best way to choose is to sign up for a few free trials and see what works best for you.
Once you find one that looks promising, you’ll want to integrate it into a form on your site so you can start collecting emails and leads from your visitors.
Most CRMs either supply their own forms, or can be embedded within your website so the lead capture process is as easy and seamless as can be. I’d recommend talking with your developers if you have any trouble.
There will inevitably be more and more tools/applications you will need as you develop your product and begin growing your business.
As a non-technical co-founder, it is your responsibility to recognize when the need for something new arrises, and to plan/react accordingly.
If your business needs a more formalized and defined sales process for closing customers, then do a little digging on sales pipeline software options. For example, we’ve set up Pipedrive to handle our future sales pipeline needs.
Additionally, when it comes time to launch your product, you’ll likely find you need to add an entirely new suite of applications to your list.
Hopefully if you are a non-technical co-founder, you now have a few new tasks on your plate that can keep you full until launch.
But don’t navigate away from this page just yet.
Although it might not be the most entertaining, perhaps the most important role that you play is that of the CFO. Money doesn’t grow on trees, and you need to make sure that your company isn’t spending like a lottery winner.
Accounting and Bookkeeping
First off, signing up for a bookkeeping service such as QuickBooks or Xero is a must.
Sure, you could try to track everything by hand. But the time and frustration you save using an automated accounting application is absolutely worth it.
The next step is calculating your monthly burn rate, and developing a company budget. If you are pre-launch, neither of them should be too outrageous (hopefully).
After tracking your expenses for a month or two, you should have more than enough data to calculate both.
I am sure to reconcile our company budget and burn with our actual expenditures on a weekly basis.
After all, 82 percent of business failures are due to poor cash management — and I sure as hell am not going to be part of that group.
One of the most under-looked, yet highly critical components for startup success is a detailed financial model.
A well thought out financial model not only helps to plan your financial future as a company, but it is also one of the key deliverables that a prospective investor will require if you ever need to raise capital.
And if you plan on scaling your business (hopefully you do), you’re going to need all the extra capital you can get.
There are some OK templates out there for getting started on your financial model:
However, personally I am not the biggest fan of spreadsheet-based templates. I find that they are often overly-complex and misused by many of the founders who attempt to decipher them.
Don’t get me wrong — spreadsheets are an unbelievably useful tool if put in the hands of an Excel-wiz. Unfortunately, this seems to not be the case with most founders and startups.
If you’re also having trouble, my recommendation is to either find a friend who knows proper financial modeling practices to help you out, or to look for a different alternative other than a spreadsheet template.
My company has been working on developing a simpler financial modeling solution for startups. Check us out!
On the topic of raising capital, it’s never too late to get started creating your pitch deck that you will use to present to investors.
You’re going to need one eventually, and your pitch deck and corresponding pitch always take a whole lot longer to perfect than anyone first assumes.
Here are a few awesome resources to ensure your company kills their pitch and secures investment:
- Sequoia Capital Pitch Deck Template
- 10 Slides To An Awesome Pitch By Dave McClure
- The Only 10 Slides You Need in Your Pitch by Guy Kawasaki
If there is one thing I’ve learned from having to pitch our business, it’s that you aren’t just telling someone what your business does — you need to also tell a story.
The best pitches captivate your audience by giving them a problem with which they can relate to, and then clearly display why their solution is the best answer to that problem.
And once you’ve created your financial model, you’re already one slide closer to completing your pitch deck!
By no means is this a comprehensive list, nor is it a list of tools that all non-technical founders absolutely must use to start a company. It is simply what I use and have enjoyed using in my journey through startupland, and I hope that you are able to use them to benefit your startup as well.
Above all, work hard, stick to your vision, stay positive, and always be striving to create an outstanding company culture. Starting a business is tough work — but there is an incredible community of bright minds out there and countless resources available to help you along the way!
And to any non-tech founders reading this: please be sure to comment and share anything you’ve been doing or what tools you have been using!