I recently wrote a post about 22 Mistakes I Made as a First Time Founder. It’s easy to look back and recognize some of the mistakes I’ve made, but it’s challenging to think of an entire alternative plan for what I could’ve/would’ve/should’ve done.
But an alternative plan is pretty useless to think about. I mean, how can you know that an alternative plan would have had a better outcome? There’s really no way to know a plan’s outcome without actually going through with it. That’s basically the scientific method as it applies to business strategy. In stead of resenting myself, laboring over things I could have done differently, I prefer to think about the things I did well, separating the good from the bad. It would be a huge disservice to myself to equate every single action I took as playing a small role in our company’s eventual failure; many actions were smart.
There were plenty of things that I would do no other way. That is to say, things that I’m extremely proud of myself for having done as a non-technical first time founder. I differentiate between technical and non-technical because these are the fundamental classifications of founders. Technical founders (people who can actually code a website/app) have a different kind of learning experience in parallel to their non-technical co-founders’ learning experience (these are the people who focus on the business and marketing side).
We see some amazing technical founders such as Mark Zuckerberg who have mastered the business side as well, but these are extremely rare. I have not seen any reverse stories of a founder with a business background becoming a world-class engineer. To be clear, this is referring to men and women who never wrote code prior to starting the company. If you know of any instances where an individual with no coding experience became a rockstar technical founder, I would honestly appreciate you letting me know because I would love nothing more than adding that to my Rolodex of Possibilities.
To preface the bulk of the post, I never did find a true technical co-founder for my startup and that was the single biggest mistake I made. Therefore, my perspective might be less helpful to a non-technical founder who has a rockstar technical co-founder (between us, you don’t realize how fortunate you are). But if you’re a non-technical co-founder like I was (and will be again in the future), this post is a “do” list meant to balance out with my previous post which is essentially a “don’t do” list. I always hate when people tell me what not to do but don’t bother volunteering possible actions I could take in stead of the ones they just told me to not take.
Anyways, here are 8 tips for non-technical first time startup founders.
1) Bring at least one specialty to the table. I earned both my BS and MS in Finance and left an investment banking job in San Francisco to start my company. If there was a single tangible specialty I had, it was the ability to build a badass financial model. This ended up being really useful for our team when we were considering potential business models (when you’re building a B2B startup this is a lot more important than when you’re building a consumer startup). Essentially, the question always came down to: “if we do x extremely well, how long will this take to become a cash flow positive business?” This compass ensured we were always on the right path in the business sense. Feel free to download the excel template I built here (this one’s on me). I’m biased because I made it but it’s really my favorite 5 Year P&L forecast for a startup. If your startup requires a more complex model at the idea/seed stage, you’re overthinking it. Simple is better.
2) Teach yourself to build robust, dynamic mockups. We wasted time working with a handful of designers before I finally said fuck it and decided to learn how to design an app. I bought Sketch from the Mac Store — a simplified UI design software for Mac — and did a deep dive into UI design. I realized nobody else would be able to design what I had in mind, so why not just design it myself? Within a couple weeks, I had our entire user interface designed. The next step was uploading the screens to InVision (can’t recommend this tool enough) and there it was — a dynamic, self-containing mockup of our application. You could click buttons and they would take you to other screens. Even though the “product” involved zero lines of code, it served the only purpose it needed to serve: convincing developers to work with me. The InVision mockup I designed with Sketch allowed me to show what we want to build rather than describing it. Within weeks, We had a front end iOS developer and a backend Python developer working with me to build our prototype. For the developers, it was like building a puzzle when they already had a clear sight of the final picture. Asking a developer to build an app or website without giving them a full mockup is like asking them to build a puzzle without giving the final picture. Very rarely can developers both design and build software from scratch. I actually really enjoyed mocking up our app so recently I dove back into designing UI: Here’s a simple mockup I designed for Grab, a fun side project I’m hacking on with my roommate. It’s pretty terrible but it’s a simple start for something that will improve with time.
3) Take an online coding class. Around the same time I taught myself how to design on Sketch, I also took classes on Treehouse for $25/month — chump change for the value. I watched dozens of hours of lectures, took deep notes, and ended up building (by following step by step instructions) two iOS apps: a crystal ball app that randomizes responses and involves animation, and a blog app that shows a list of blog entries. This gave me a basic understanding of Xcode and how iOS development works. When I finally recruited a front-end iOS developer, we were able to talk intelligently about the application specs and requirements. Warning: do not mistake this piece of advice with me encouraging you to become an engineer — engineering is an entire discipline and the fluency required to be effective as a technical founder is beyond anything I can imagine someone learning in months (this pertains to people like me who never wrote code before). You should simply strive to understand the framework that your engineers will be using.
4) Ask for help getting started. If you’re even in the enviable position of becoming a potential startup founder — this isn’t a luxury available to the masses — there are tons of people who care about you, believe in you, and want to be a part of your success story. Asking for help is the single best way to let people… you guessed it, help you! When I hear about people who keep their idea secret — or ask me to sign an NDA, I mean seriously? — for fear that someone will steal it, it’s a huge red flag about that person. That person is probably a great human being but as far as my desire to help them… it’s gone the moment they tell me they have a big secret they can’t tell me. I’ve told hundreds of people about my idea over the course of building my company and not only did nobody try to steal my idea, but the vast majority of the result of sharing was positive in the form of people offering to help. If you’re considering becoming affiliated with someone who won’t tell you everything about the idea/business — run as fast as possible in the opposite direction. They have trust issues and unless they have a proven track record of launching/executing, their weariness of opening up will make them a shitty co-founder.
5) Open up every chance you get. I did a couple public speaking engagements on campus when starting the company and these had a completely unexpected positive impact on my mood. There’s something about getting in front of a group of wide-eyed students or fellow entrepreneurs and sharing your story. The Q&A section forces you to think about things you never thought about. The whole process is therapeutic and meditative. Opening up to strangers about the thing you spend every minute of the day thinking about is amazing. Think of the feeling you get venting to your friends, but 100x better. Running a startup sometimes feels like a weird illness and I would always smile before I started my presentation when I toyed with the idea of introducing myself as “Hi, I’m Ben and I’m an entrepreneur”. I’m surprised there’s no such thing as Entrepreneurs Anonymous. [note: I actually did find a recent article about this topic]
6) Abide by regular health tips. It’s tempting to neglect your diet and activity while building a startup. The ramen noodle entrepreneur is often romanticized but ensuring healthy nutrition and sufficient exercise is a no brainer to me. I would start many days by having coffee and heading to the basketball court to shoot hoops. The energy I would have after that morning routine, paired with a protein rich salad for lunch, would last until the late night hours. Every time I ate pizza or went out excessively, my work productivity suffered. Each person is different but if you’re like me, maintaining a well-balanced diet is a necessary step to thriving. Fun fact: during my routine annual checkup while starting the company, I asked my doctor what his thoughts were on caffeine and how much is too much. His response was great “Just watch the sugar and cream. I crushed a couple pots a day in med school and I’m fine.”
7) Stay close with those you care about. I know a handful of people who essentially fall off the radar when they get into deep work. That’s okay for weeks at a time, but sometimes it’s for months. I made an effort to always stay in touch with my family and friends. When I shut down my startup, I was fortunate to still have intact relationships with the closest people in my life. This is very similar to the situation a lot of us are familiar with in which a friend is M.I.A. for months at a time when he or she is dating someone. I’ve actually known guys who date a girl and they both get so obsessed with each other that they neglect their own friends. When they break up, neither of them has the same level of friendship with those friends as they did before. Entrepreneurship poses the same danger.
8) Commit fully and do it right. I’m friends with people who have side projects that they’re hoping turn into full-time startups and I know guys outsourcing their tech to a third party. Although both of these are scrappy, I wouldn’t consider launching a tech startup in any fashion other than with a full-time technical cofounder (I would hack on stuff for fun on the side but building a startup is not a side project). I jumped 100% from my Wall Street job right into the trenches and haven’t looked back. When you abandon the beaten path, you can’t afford to look anywhere but forward. All your attention and focus must be zoomed in on the thing right in front of your face. I love this quote by Tony Robbins: “If you want to take the island you have to burn the boats.” You can make fun of self-help gurus all you want but that’s a badass line.