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Repeat after me, I will not do another startup as a non-technical founder unless…

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(above: the original paper mockup of Twitter by @jack)

I have spent nearly the past year working on my startup MyFavorites and I thought this was finally the time that I had learned all my lessons on failure. I hadn’t.

What I have learned this time around are a slew of things I can’t possibly begin to document. Some of these lessons I can’t even see yet, but there are some obvious ones.

I’m a non-technical founder, aka I can’t program. I have held every role in the book at web companies, including being a programmer back in the late 90s, so I understand web technology — I understand what it can do and the limitations. I leaned towards the business/marketing side of things many years ago. I’ve been reading about new technology and startups since the days of the Business 2.0 and Red Herring publications in the 90s, and then I was the 4th writer at TechCrunch back in 2006. I have consumed nearly every article on TechCrunch the past 5 years and tried many early-stage apps/sites. I can look at a new service, software, website, mobile app, and my mind just starts spinning with ideas for improvement, marketing, and monetization.

I will not do another startup unless:

  1. I have full paper mockups for every screen of the user experience, and I have had real people use the experience via these paper mockups. I have to fully think out the user experience more than I ever have before — and I need to do it before I start hiring a graphic designer.
  2. I can program it. At least a minimal version of it. Dennis Crowley learned what he needed to get the first version of Foursquare out, and Philip Kaplan dabbles a bit pushing out little projects here and there.

If I can’t program it, then I need a technical co-founder (there’s no room for an idea guy). Finding cofounders is just like finding a significant other. You don’t marry someone immediately. You date a lot — most last an hour, some can last months, others for years. Finding “the one” is just as difficult as it is when marrying. You both have to believe in the same principles and what you’re looking to accomplish in the future. You have a baby together — or babies. Long distance doesn’t work.

What happens when you aren’t programming a web/mobile startup yourself is that the project costs escalate and get out of control. Even if you get a fixed price on your project, someone’s going to get screwed — you or the programmer. 110% of the time you have not defined every nook and cranny of a project. And what if it does take off — there’s ongoing maintenance, support, tweaks, features, etc.

Being a non-technical founder is difficult, because the balance of work shifts greatly during pre-launch. At first, the non-technical founder (possibly with the technical founder) is hopefully bringing the user-experience to the table — and maybe money for design and marketing. (But I’m learning you shouldn’t be wasting any money on design or anything — put out something simple. If it’s awesome, the people will come and use it.) Then the technical founder does the programming while the non-technical founder sits there buying sandwiches. Then launch hopefully occurs, and then the non-technical founder can really have a role — customer support, marketing, social, blogging, press, bizdev, etc. Meanwhile the technical founder is doing support, tweaks, new features, and scaling.

There’s a reason startups typically happen by college kids — they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. They aren’t tied down by families, wives, kids, mortgages, etc.

So I’m contemplating my next steps in the work aspect of my life. I question whether I should be trying to start companies myself — whether I even want to run a company. I’m not an operational manager and I’m not a project manager. I think if I was working on a solution to something that I truly passionately believe in, then I may take another stab, but I don’t know when or if that problem will ever exist for me. Meanwhile, I get fascinated by a lot of cool stuff that’s being built by people.

I know one thing, I need to start blogging again. I love consumer internet startups and I know I could lend a lot of value on the product/marketing/bizdev/monetization/sales/community/rolodex side of things. I think I may want to work for an investor, or group of investors, or start a small fund and invest some money from people looking to get into these exciting times we’re living in. That way I’d have a vested interest in the success of the portfolio and I would work to assist the startups (and source new promising startups that look to change the world).

Much more thinking too come, but for now I’m going to enjoy and appreciate this awesome summer that’s upon me — new home, marrying the girl of my dreams, trip to Europe, and all the other awesome things to do in sunny Buffalo.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jeffraab Jeffrey Raab

    I hear you loud on clear on this. Which is why I’m learning Ruby. http://goo.gl/YkbDk

  • http://www.hadermann.be/blog Piet Hadermann

    I’m a tech guy and I hear you load and clear too.

    I’m gettting tired of the blank stares when I mention paper mockups (or that a UI is not just a bunch of buttons and fields thrown together) and I’ve had my share of ‘why won’t you add this feature it’ll only take you 5 mins’ in the past.

    And it was just as bad with the enterprisey guys when I programmed for a living as with the entrepreneurial non-tech types on after-hours projects.

  • http://stevepoland.com/about Steve Poland

    If only I had a nickel for everytime I said ‘why won’t you add this feature it’ll only take you 5 mins’ , haha :)

  • http://stevepoland.com/about Steve Poland
  • http://twitter.com/criddar Cody Riddar

    Good luck with your Summer. I made the same decision about 3 weeks ago after my latest start sputtered out of the gates and my co-founder went back to his day job. I even began a backyard deck project and started shopping around my resume to get my career back on track.

    But within 2 weeks inspiration struck again, and I’m back at it with yet another idea.Oh well…

  • http://stevepoland.com/about Steve Poland

    Learn to code if you don’t know how to already. And/or master the hell out
    of Balsamiq or something similar for mockups :)

    Good luck!

  • http://twitter.com/kojnp Andrei I

    Looks like dev costs went high for you and that sucks. Also maybe the devs you have are not the best suited to do the job?

    The “learn to code it yourself” idea is not something I would recommend you. Good, growth-sustainable coding is not trivial and it requires years of experience.

    Having graduated Computer Science I have strong developers in my social network, which I can turn to in case of need. This is a great way to find trustworthy tech guys.

    It was from my social network that I found my tech-half. We managed to launch two nice projects together: gdocsopen.com and gdrivesync.com

    So tech co-founder is the only viable solution I see.

  • Anonymous

    I have to say I strongly believe in HAVING a technical co-founder if you don’t. It doesn’t make a lot of sense (to me) to outsource ALL technical work. Once the product gets rolling, you need to be agile and be on an active cycle of feedback –> implement –> test –> deploy, preferably in short bursts (less than a month even). This means you need someone with intimate knowledge of the code – someone really driving the product. If you outsource it all, you really risk high expenses (as you alluded to in the post) as well as not really having a firm understanding within the company of the product – and in many startups the company IS the product – so that’s a real issue.

    I’m not a technical co-founder. I know enough to read code and know what it does, and to identify concepts and strategic decisions, but definitely not enough to sit down and actually write an app that actually does something useful. Luckily, my business partner is, so we are perfect fit for each other. There is a reason why bigger teams (I think I read up to four?) are correlated with an increased likelihood of success.

    Nick Reuter
    CEO / Co-Founder
    http://www.totaltab.com

  • Anonymous

    +1 on Balsamiq. I used it for all my mockups, it’s friggen fantastic for designing how you want things to flow. Easy to change, too, which ALWAYS happens!

  • http://stevepoland.com/about Steve Poland

    I wish the mockups were interactive — ability to input or click something
    and go to another mockup screen in the flow.

  • Anonymous

    You can actually do that. Search “linking” on this page — http://balsamiq.com/support/documentation

    It’s not perfect but it does let you tie clicking on objects to basically take you to another mockup. I did this for my Android UI design at http://www.totaltab.com and works very well. The only downside is you can’t really easily handle dynamic content (i.e. a button changes state depending on a condition, like if you are logged in)

  • http://stevepoland.com/about Steve Poland

    cool, thx

  • http://twitter.com/edwardmiller Edward Miller

    if you can understand the inherent needs and requirements of the system you can find people/resources to take care of the details. i say have a technical job that pays the bills. have a hobby where you can take huge risks and challenge the status quo and understand your art better than anyone else.

  • Anonymous

    Great post. Being a non-technical founder myself, I’ve come to find that operations, marketing and PR become my responsibility. I also manage loose ends and whatever else needs to be done so that my programmer partner can focus on programming.

  • RST

    Amen Steve, I have now decided to be the biz guy for techie startups as opposed to bring techies into mine. I’ve seen two companies in the last two months where the techies were given equity and then walked from the project.. tough stuff

  • Info

    Thanks for putting it all out there Steve. I am living every bit of this post right now.

    Congrats on the new home too!

  • http://twitter.com/keithandbrown Keith Brown

    Never seen someone put into the words the challenges of these two roles before. Kudos.

  • Inthewoods

    Check out Mockflow.

  • http://a.khavr.com/ Andriy Khavryuchenko

    I’m a technical person and wholeheartly agree on the mockup thing.

    The same time I’m not that sure that long distance won’t work. I have a wonderful team that’s completely distributed and I can scale it up in matter of weeks. If this works for the software development, why it can’t for business development?

    CEO and founder of http://42coffeecups.com/

  • http://www.facebook.com/justmailnaveen Naveen Kumar

    The above mentioned course by @steve teaches Python.
    It is a very easy, beautiful and robust language.
    i.e why im learning Python language (on my own) to develop my own pet ideas.

    Even i have no technical education but i am web-savvy and passionate enough to learn the missing element to shape my ideas into reality without hiring a developer to do so.

    If anyone is interested in learning python with me or possibly collaborate with me then get in touch with me on FB.

  • Peter Lalonde

    As a non-technical founder myself…. I have to agree with you on a lot of the points you make. I spent the first 6 months looking for a technical co-founder, someone that believes in the vision and is capable of making it reality. That was the toughest 6 months because nothing moved forward on the technology side of our business. But, being aggressive, I had customers, partners, marketing channels and a brand ready to go when the technology was ready. It wasn’t easy. I don’t recommend it to others, but I didn’t see another way. Ask me in 6 months and I may follow you down your chosen path… it sounds so nice. :)

  • Anonymous

    Hey Steve, thanks for the MIT course link! I’m going to check it out.

  • Norbert Madarász

    Programming language is barely just the foundation.
    Each language has it’s own ecosystem.
    To build something that works, you have to know this ecosystem.
    For example, these are the modules of an ecommerce webshop
    built on Java programming language:
    http://www.broadleafcommerce.org/confluence/display/BLC15/Key+Architectural+Aspects

    Take a look at all those modules needed (and a lot of them are not even mentioned).
    These form the basic foundation, the system is built upon.

    By choosing the core language, you automatically choose the software stack.
    Java, python, ruby, .net c#, php etc. each gives you tools you have to learn.
    (Even javascript could be used on the backend for scalable network
    applications, take a peek at http://nodejs.org/ )

  • Graciele E. Victor

    Why don’t you write stuff like that anymore? :( so informative for entrepreneurs. Great reading.