How We Built a Tech Startup Without Tech
Mark Zuckerberg had a programming tutor at age 11.
Bill Gates was excused from Math class at age 13 so he could write code.
I learned what HTML stood for after I graduated college.
As an aspiring entrepreneur, I felt insecure about my lack of technical skills — it felt like a handicap. So when my friend Taylor and I came up with an idea 15 months ago and neither of us knew how to code, I was nervous.
Now, we have six figure sales and a working platform, and we even found a technical cofounder. Instead of letting our lack of technical abilities slow us down, we used it to our advantage.
There’s Nothing to Do but Sell
We stumbled into a problem first-hand by seeing our family members struggle with it. Small businesses lack the time and expertise to work on their online presence. The original idea for Compass was vague — to build a marketplace that connects freelance digital marketing professionals to business owners who need their help.
We didn’t have the technical skills to build a marketplace like Upwork or Visual.ly. There was only one thing we could do with our time: sell.
Five weeks and a few dozen phone calls later, we had our first 3 customers all for one service — web design. With our first three paying guinea pigs and two designers, we had the beginnings of our web design “marketplace.”
Interviewing prospective customers is a useful, common way to get early feedback. But we took it further by selling from day 1, allowing us to find the specific problem that people were willing to pay us hundreds of dollars to solve. We had a business, and it gave us a clear path forward: keep selling.
Prototyping to Stay Afloat
Over the next 6 months, we sold 40 more websites, nearly falling apart in the process.
While I was selling, Taylor was running project management 12 hours a day, every day, and it was barely keeping us afloat. The stress was starting to overwhelm us; our nerves were shot and our tempers short. The manual work that went into servicing more and more customers was actually becoming physically exhausting.
Paul Graham, who’s written the bible on startups, encourages “doing things that don’t scale,” and that’s exactly what we did. But the problem was our entire product was made of things that didn’t scale, and we were selling like we could scale.
Even though we couldn’t build the platform to automate the process, we had to do something. With our limited technical skills, we used an array of existing tools that we duct-taped together to mimic the experience of a platform so that we could keep selling and growing.
We combined Google Sheets, Streak, Typeform, and Zapier to make it easier for customers to provide content, to match customers with designers, and to facilitate a feedback process. It wasn’t pretty, but it was a prototype of the platform we hoped to build, and it allowed one person, Taylor, to run a web design marketplace with 40 simultaneous projects.
Our duct-taped process was keeping us afloat. But as we continued to grow, the cracks got bigger. We were reaching the limits of what we could do without our own technology, and if we were going to continue growing, we needed software.
Using Traction to Attract a Technical Co-Founder
Our good friend Matt was the best developer we knew. A few months before starting Compass, Taylor and I pitched Matt on another startup idea. It was a social app idea for which we had no users or revenue. He politely declined.
We were dejected, but we shouldn’t have been surprised.
In fact, according to Ryan Waggoner’s blog post, good freelance developers get pitched to join a salary-less startup about once a week.
But this time was different. We had dozens of happy customers and designers, tens of thousands in sales, and a working product. We had proof of concept.
Matt saw how he could turn us from a lean service business into a tech company. We had a bike and were pedaling as fast as we could; Matt could make a motor. For us, convincing a developer to come on board as a founder was less about the vision and the polish of the pitch, and more about having an actual business.
Putting the Cart Before the Horse
With a technical co-founder on board, our founding team was complete.
Excited by the fact that we could finally build our own tech, we started building the alpha version of our platform.
Four weeks later, it was finished. We were pumped — we finally had our own product! We immediately invited our next two customers to it, expecting the process to be seamless.
But it wasn’t. Worse, customers were more disoriented than before, resisting using our new, shiny platform.
“What am I supposed to do here?”
“Can’t I just send you an email?”
“I was confused so I just created a separate word doc. Is that ok?”
This was a customer development failure. This was a product process failure. This was a “holy shit we can build tech let’s get started” failure. As a result, we wasted 4 weeks of development time.
But it could be way worse.
Our current platform would have cost $144k and taken 4 months to build if we had decided to outsource it. Even after spending that much time and money, we still would have to make constant changes to the expensive platform as we continue to test our assumptions.
Technology can be an amplifier — we built the wrong tech and our problems got louder. We had some great assumptions, but we needed to further test before we were ready to turn our ideas into a platform.
Building — and testing — without tech allows us to focus our engineering resources on problems we deeply understand, saving us time and money.
Doing it the Hard Way to Find the Right Way
Now, even though we can build, we never start that way.
This is our process:
- I bring as many customers in the door as I can.
- Colleen (our rockstar project manager) manages all of the projects, and manually tries new experiments to make the process more efficient.
- Taylor hacks together solutions using existing tools to streamline Colleen’s work.
- We evaluate how Taylor’s solution affects the process, get feedback from customers and designers, and iterate.
- Once we get a working, duct-taped solution, Matt builds it into our platform.
We make better decisions because we’re not building our product based on what we think will work. We build our product based on what our customers, designers, and business operations need.
As first-time founders with limited resources, less guesswork means fewer mistakes, giving us a better chance to succeed.
We thought our technical inability was our Achilles heel when we started this journey. Now it has proven to be one of our biggest strengths.
Taylor and I are thankful we never learned to code. That handicap forced us to learn how to sell, learn from our customers, and build a business — not just a product.
Even now that we have a technical co-founder, building without tech is still a part of our company’s DNA.
So if you’re thinking about getting a business off the ground and looking for a technical founder, or you think you can’t get started because you need a website, software, or an app…
…Ask yourself: is technology really what’s holding you back?
I spoke with Hubspot’s VP of marketing, Meghan Keaney, about building without tech on Hubspot’s Growth show: Listen here.
Listen to more of what I have to say about this