How a Non-technical Solo Founder Got Into Y Combinator

Two years ago I quit my full-time job, and declared myself an entrepreneur (inspired by the 4-Hour Workweek). At the time, all I had was an idea. And so my first goal was to find someone with a technical background.

I suspect that many of you are in similar situations. There’s something you should know: it’s never going to happen.

Don’t wait around trying to find that perfect technical co-founder. A real entrepreneur doesn’t sit around for someone else to take the lead. A real entrepreneur makes things happen in spite of being under-equipped.

You’re not expected to become a brilliant developer (or even a mediocre one), but you’d better learn how to code well enough to put together the first version of your product yourself.

In a Quora question on the “Top 5 Pieces of Advice for Entrepreneurs,” Dennis Crowley (founder of Foursquare and Dodgeball) says:

“1. Stop sketching and start building. Pre-Dodgeball I went thru 3-4 years thinking I was going to meet some magical engineer who would build all the stuff I was thinking about. But I never met that person, so I taught myself ASP and MS Access (yikes! eventually PHP and MySQL) out of a book and got to work just hacking stuff together. I’m still a really shitty programmer but I know enough to hack a prototype together” (Click here to tweet this quote)

The problem is that not knowing much about coding makes it especially scary to jump in. I had heard just enough about all the different programming languages – Java, C++, PHP, Python, Ruby, etc. – to have no idea where to start.

But I spent months looking for a technical co-founder with no luck, so a month before Y Combinator’s Winter 2011 application deadline I decided to pack my bags, move to San Francisco, and learn to code. At the recommendation of a good friend, I chose Ruby on Rails.

Almost two years later, I look back at that month as one of the most simultaneously enjoyable and miserable experiences of my life. I’ll never forget the first day: locked inside my bedroom just trying to install the damn thing on my computer! And do you want to know why it wasn’t working? I was missing a comma. (I wanted to cry.)

Someone once tweeted one of the truest statements about coding that I’ve ever read:

“If you like oscillating between feeling like the stupidest person on earth and a fucking genius, you’ll love coding.” (Click here for the original tweet)

Then one day, it actually works.

It’s one of the most beautiful feelings I’ve ever had.

Unfortunately, I didn’t end up getting into Y Combinator that winter. But I left San Francisco with something much more valuable:

I recognized a real demand in the market: the materials available for learning to code online are awful.

So I decided that someone needs to do it better. I created an online course called One Month Rails designed to help total beginners learn to code. It was simple:

  • a handful of easy to follow video lectures that people could watch in their own time
  • a real project to build (a Pinterest-style photo-sharing website)
  • and a straightforward set a resources that would help people build their web apps faster.

Fast forward two years, and this time I’ve been accepted into Y Combinator! I’m REALLY excited that I’ve been able to validate this idea with the help of the devoted community of One Month Rails! We are now 7,000 students strong.

So where do we go from here? In my next post, I’m going to talk about our plan for growth. One thing that’s true: we’ve validated a huge problem, and the solution is way bigger than just education (more on this in my next post).

Award-Winning Faculty at Columbia Business School. I write about startups, technology, and philosophy.