Do tech founders need to be tech savvy? Thanks to tech, possibly not

Everyone’s starting to cotton on: in the digital age, you don’t get rich through working, saving, or investing in property. You get rich by founding a tech startup then selling it for millions. But what if you don’t know basic code, let alone how to build an industry-smashing innovation?

Want to build an app? There’s an app for that.

In fact, there are several “cross platform frameworks” that allow the layman to build apps for iOS and Android without knowing a single line of code. 

Tools like Bubble, Flutterflow and Backendless are not second-rate, apps-for-dummies resources. They’re used by companies generating billions in revenue and deploying hundreds of millions in venture funding.

If the 2010s were the age of the innovator, the 2020s are the age of the ideas man/woman. You can leave the rest to technology. 

Programming isn’t like it used to be

No-code app builders take less time, money, and staff, since key features are pre-built into the platform. Drag and drop, imports, and other basic functions do all the heavy lifting. 

There’s even an app for project managing your app build. Taskable integrates tasks and calendars, and lists the essentials required for your no-code stack. 

This isn’t to say the abundance of user-friendly tools is the be all and end all for building your empire. Their functionality will reach an endpoint as you start to scale. While no-code platforms are useful in creating MVPs, you’ll at least need a low-code solution when you want to start integrating more complex features.

Secondly, cross-platform frameworks are essentially someone else’s platform. This means you don’t own your code. If you want to hire a software development team and start scaling, your platform vendor may require you to export your code into their database (known as a vendor lock-in). 

With this in mind, many non-techies prefer to keep their code in-house by sourcing a technical cofounder. 

Meet your match

If you’re a sales and marketing type, you may not have many devs, engineers, or programmers in your network. If you don’t have coder connections, there are resources out there for you. 

Indie Hackers has a ‘Looking to Partner Up’ forum. Y Combinator has a cofounder  match-making service. Naturally, there are dating-app-style services like CoFoundersLab, but as with all dating apps, reviews are mixed.

Also similarly to dating, face-to-face is often better. Recent years have seen Find Your Cofounder events by orgs like the Sydney Startup Hub, UTS Startups, and Startup Victoria proliferate as more and more people are drawn to entrepreneurship. 

The thing to remember is that software devs don’t want to do all the work while you swan around and schmooze investors. They know the value of their mental resources, and will want to see a very detailed strategy – ideally an MVP – before they commit their time. 

Wireframing helps – use whiteboard tools like Miro or the slightly more advanced Figma to build out your vision as thoroughly as you can before you go cofounder shopping. This helps prove you’re not just another ideas man with a big idea and a short attention span.

Rise of the non-technical founder

Don’t let the boffins intimidate you – the non-technical founder is a growing breed. They are often strong sales and marketing people, business brains, or skilled project managers and motivators. They may be “visuals people” with the aesthetic awareness to build a beautiful brand.

They’ll often know a market inside-out without any knowledge of how to build anything in it. 

This is what’s known as founder-market fit.

Focusing on the Minimum Viable Product, non-tech founders can funnel their energy into scoping out demand. Forgo those painstaking, perfectionism-driven hours technical experts spend in the lab (or the office, or the garage), and get out into the world to start scoping demand.

You’ve also got time to develop a solid business plan and a recruitment strategy for filling those gaps. Good software engineers are hard to come by. A founder prepared to invest “sweat equity” – funnelling in their time and brainpower rather than financial investment – is even harder.

Finally, non-technical founders must be expert communicators. You won’t be able to blind investors with science, so you’ll need to convince them you’re the right person to lead in other ways. 

AliBaba founder Jack Ma is an English grad who has “never written one line of code”. Groupon founder Andrew Mason has a music degree. AirBnB founders Brian Cheskey and Joe Gebbia were designers, and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman was a scientist. 

Melody McCloskey, founder of StyleSeat, is a non-technical founder who credits her success to surrounding herself with like-minded people. She was a French and International Relations grad and PR manager who encountered three separate hair styling disasters and wanted to do something about it.

McCloskey was actually interested in programming, but dropped out of her high school dev class because she was the only girl. It wasn’t until years later she realised founding a tech company wasn’t impossible. 

In her words: “You just have to wake up and say, ‘I’m going to learn from past meetings, past conversations. And I’m going to get smarter and better and I’m going to kill it in these next meetings.’

The crucial thing for ideas-led entrepreneurs to remember is that it’s not the idea, it’s the execution. Coding is a skill. Selling is a skill. But as a non-technical founder, starting, sticking to, and scaling a business is a personal choice you’ll need to make every morning.

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