Here’s a myth buster: tech startups are rarely tech companies.
After working with tech startups for over ten years, I’ve learned most don’t have tech founders or tech executives on day 1 or day even 180.
If you want to start a tech company, your non-technical background has nothing to do with it.
Believe it or not, tech startups are no longer about building tech from scratch.
As a non-technical founder, you can leverage tech adjacent, tech advisors, open AIs and APIs, or take the tech off the shelf to bring your idea to life much faster—without diluting your equity against a full-time tech executive.
It’s all about saving costs and executing things faster: A basic mantra for startup success.
Starting a tech startup with no tech experience isn’t a made-up story. Be sure to read to the end for a recent real-life success story.
Table of Contents:
- You Don’t Need Tech Experience to Start a Tech Startup
- Why You Don’t Need a CTO to Start a Tech Startup
- How to Hire Developers or Freelancers for Your Startup
- Why a Non-Tech Background Can Be a Good Thing
- Learning How to Code Your way to a Tech Startup
- Learning the Basics of Starting a Tech Startup
- Why Internal Communication is Key For Your Tech Startup
- Why Early-Stage Tech Startups Must Presell
- How Storymapping Can Speed Things Up
- Success Story – A Tech Startup w/ No Experience (or Money)
You Don’t Need Tech Experience For a Tech Startup
OK, you might not be the type to code your way to building a million-dollar tech startup. But you’re not the only one.
A 2014 study conducted in NYC by Endeavor revealed— ⅔ of tech startups are launched by founders without computer science or STEM-related backgrounds.
The significant stakes in the startup environment, whether you are a founder with tech experience or not, are big.
Every startup must turn into a profitable one or be acquired before it burns out.
A startup must address an inefficiency or issue that currently exists. This could be why effective leadership involves a blend of technical and business skills, which can come from a small group (Jobs and Wozniak) or a single person (Bezos).
“I’m not a tech guy. I’m looking at the technology with the eyes of my customers, normal people’s eyes.” – Jack Ma, Co-founder of Alibaba Group
Many tech companies without tech-savvy founders or Stanford graduates have managed to run massive tech giants.
Melody McCloskey, who founded StyleSeat; Michael Dell, the visionary behind Dell; Sean Rad, one of the co-founders of Tinder; and Steve Jobs, who founded Apple, built amazing tech products without former tech education.
You can, too.
In this article, I will show you how to start a tech startup as a non-technical founder.
You Don’t Need a CTO to Start a Tech Startup
You’re building a tech startup, so you should be ready to invest heavily in tech, right? Bringing in a Chief Technical Officer (CTO) surely makes sense.
However, you must determine if you have the scale for a CTO to manage. Will you enjoy driving an additional role when your CTO has little to do in your early-stage startup?
But, if you are working with the right developers, freelancers, or the right kind of agency— who will not use your naivete and lack of experience or lies and obfuscates— you can make it happen.
Side note: Even if you’re using tech adjacent, open sources and APIs to build yourself a tech product. You will need massive help in customization and implementation. That costs money and time.
Here’s the caveat: Even with a technical co-founder, you’ll likely need technical execution support. The person you want to be in your long-term tech executive seat might not be the same person who can scrap together a bunch of different technologies at day zero.
For the execution, you will require full-time hires, contractors, freelancers, or an agency. This can be tricky and time-consuming. Here is some help.
Hiring Developers and Freelancers For a Tech Startup
Finding the right tech support as a non-technical founder can be challenging. Here are a few ways to make it easier for your tech startup.
Use Trusted Sites To Find Talent
Communicate Your Project Needs
Outline the scope of your project needs to potential talent. Explain the goals, deliverables, timeline, and necessary technologies or skills. It’s good to know about your desired tech here—more on this as you read on.
Request Proof of Work and Expertise
Always ask candidates for more information about their previous experience as a programmer—and request samples of their work, such as code snippets, project documentation, or links to previous projects they’ve contributed to.
Set a Clear Budget
Agree on a project budget or hourly rate before the job begins. It sets clear expectations, reduces potential misunderstandings, and helps in budget management and legal protection.
A Non-Tech Background is a Good Thing
Success often asks for a non-linear route. Many blame Complexity Theory for the success of many startups.
This might explain why Airbnb didn’t originate from seasoned hotel professionals—and why not all tech companies are founded by computer scientists.
Instead, they usually have fresh (newbie) perceptiveness. Let’s look at some examples.
In October 2007, Airbnb was started by Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia. Both were graduates in industrial and graphic design. They initiated Airbnb by placing an air mattress in their living room and changing it into an impromptu bed and breakfast.
The third co-founder, Nathan, a tech guy, joined in February 2008.
But by 2009, the weekly revenue of Airbnb shrank to $200. Investors typically seek companies exhibiting exponential hockey stick-type growth. And according to co-founder Joe Gebbia, the company had a horizontal drumstick graph. The company was definitely on the edge.
One afternoon, the Airbnb team with Paul Graham, the co-founder of Y Combinator, searched into their site’s data to figure out why things were not working.
After hours of investigation, Gebbia noticed a common thread among the 40 listings: subpar photos. With this info, the three-person team flew to New York, observed all the customer listing properties, and upgraded amateur shots to captivating high-resolution images.
Just one week later, the results were in—improving the quality of the photos had doubled their weekly revenue to $400.
This moment of realization and swift action marked a turning point in Airbnb’s journey toward becoming the global phenomenon it is today, with a $85.89B net worth.
Shipt’s Founder, Bill Smith, dropped out of school at 16. Smith spent his career as a serial entrepreneur running multiple businesses. In 2014, he started a financial technology company, where he got familiarised with the technical space.
Later, he identified a gap in grocery shopping and, to validate the demand, sold 1,000 memberships before writing a single line of code. His varied experiences outside of tech allowed him to replicate another success story.
Coffee Meets Bagel
She also highly insisted on keeping MVPs simple, without too many features— to keep the costs down and put extra focus on solving customers’ vital problems and market research.
All these founders had something more than just an idea. These founders understood that launching a tech company can be expensive. They prioritized a viable business, solid processes, and a strong team in place before committing resources.
These are just a few examples of how non-technical founders, too, can make a BIG difference.
Learn How to Code Your way to a Tech Startup
I know it sounds like going back to school and starting over again.
But, some non-technical founders have made this possible. They didn’t have a budget to hire a dev and give probably $100,000. But they had time, so they invested that.
An Example – Paperstack
Vadim Lidich, the founder of Paperstack, shared his previous startup’s story of how he learned to write code for his startup from scratch.
The tech product he wanted to create was a platform that would link available office space with potential tenants, effectively eliminating the need for a middleman broker.
His co-founder also joined in; they shared duties and worked together on the project. Both handled business activities during the day, including sales calls, emails, and fundraising, while working on a prototype at night.
They started assembling each code until their real estate marketplace was complete. They were shocked that the entire platform was functional.
This is a prime example of how learning to code is not impossible for non-tech entrepreneurs who seek to learn.
Utilize Tech Podcasts
It’s not uncommon for non-technical founders to find themselves trying to learn about technology while also raising money, managing a team, and developing a product.
If you find yourself in a similar position, tech podcasts can help you learn about tech and how the world’s favorites were developed.
Check out these Top Tech Podcasts for non-technical founders.
Learn the Basics of Starting a Tech Startup
Can writing code help drive sales and save you enough to do what you do best? Do you have the time and patience to master it?
There’s a chance you don’t.
Alternatively, you can learn the basics to help you team up effectively with your newly hired developers or freelancers.
Here are four proven ways to focus on what you do best.
(1) Build Network = Networth
Use every networking opportunity available to benefit your tech startup.
Share your ideas with the industry veterans at networking events or hold interactions with current customers. Do not hesitate to ask for honest feedback and record their insights.
This unbiased advice can help you and your development partner bring your ideal tech product to life.
(2) Know your sh*t
No one knows your market better than you.
Help your development team by researching and adding a unique feature to your service or product. No one will do this for you; you have to do this.
(3) Make it visible
Draw it on the board – scribble down everything.
You can demonstrate a wireframe to make it visual for your developer, where you need that widget, what type of design you seek, and the final layout you’re looking forward to.
Having a layout of what the product should look like helps keep the tech and non-tech teams on the same page.
(4) Learn from others and let them know
You never know; competitors can save you big time.
It is the cheapest way to avoid mistakes. It always makes sense to focus on failure stories compared to success stories; this is how to learn what to avoid and increase the chances of a successful business future.
To learn about international business failures, check out websites like fuckupnights.com. (The name makes sense)
Internal Communication is Key For Your Tech Startup
To get the perfect outcome without the need for any further alterations,
To bridge the gap for lack of developer knowledge about your startup idea,
For faster implementation, launches, and updates,
You should master internal communication—translating your needs, market needs, and customer needs to your coder.
Otherwise, you and your development team will be confused, potentially costing you money and hours lost. This happens a lot. I take these calls regularly and hear the stories.
Non-technical founders often write out their product needs while completely omitting to consider the app’s backend. As a result, the time needed to develop an app grows.
This is why I always start every single project with an in-depth roadmap.
Tips for communicating with your dev team
The following tips will help not only when hiring developers or freelancers but also when working together on the all-important product you’re bringing to market:
- Know the standard developer terms like DevOps, Frameworks, CSS, CSS3, HTML, and HTML5
- Outline your must-haves
- Divide your project plan into bite-sized chunks
- Dedicate a timeline to each task
- Stay ahead of your developers
- Don’t assume; confirm things. Everything.
Why Early-Stage Tech Startups Must Presell
There are startup projects and startup businesses; the difference is sheer— is someone buying from you? Do you have any customers, maybe 100 or even 10?
You can’t be a tech startup founder just by declaring you are one.
You must have a graph going upward and up to the right.
You’ll be an unfunded founder, and your self-proclaimed title won’t carry much weight until you’ve actually achieved something. When you sell something to someone, people start to pay attention.
That’s why execution is the most vital.
Many founders I have worked with made this mistake. They don’t start preselling.
A Prime Example
Tom Sagi, Co-Founder and CEO of Hourly, realized that his family’s construction business needed an update to manage his hourly workers’ time and pay. But he couldn’t find a single app that could do everything.
To bridge the gap despite having no prior experience building a tech firm. In 2018, he introduced Hourly, an all-in-one application to handle time and attendance, payroll, and workers’ compensation insurance with a single click. Also, it successfully raised $7.2 million.
But he waited.
Marketing was put on hold while Sagi built the Hourly platform. He believed that a product couldn’t be marketed unless all the issues were resolved and it was flawless.
But product promotion requires time. He might have started developing Hourly’s brand and audience throughout that development period and created the groundwork for launching Hourly.
Instead, he launched his client acquisition and branding initiatives from scratch when he was ready to launch the platform.
So, don’t just sit and wait for things to complete. Trust your idea.
You have to make your move now.
Storymapping Can Speed Everything Up
In 2005, Jeff Patton introduced storymapping to address a common problem in projects: focusing on feature development at the expense of the overall user experience and agile software development.
What is Storymapping?
Storymapping is a technique that visually represents how a solution will be developed incrementally with fast feedback cycles.
Unfortunately, most tech startups don’t storymap, and more often than not, they end up wasting 6-figures and months building the wrong product with the wrong team.
Here’s how storymapping is a game-changer for tech startups:
User storymapping provides a complete and comprehensive visual representation of a project or product, allowing teams to see the entire landscape of tasks and features at once.
Teams can spend time developing solutions and identifying the jigsaw pieces lacking from the solution.
Teams can easily rearrange user stories on the story map to determine the optimal sequence of processes for end-users. This helps in prioritizing “must-have” stories.
With a holistic vision, teams can prevent over-engineering or developing superfluous features.
Allows team members to connect the dots between user stories, features, releases, and the overall product roadmap, ensuring everyone is on the same page.
How to Prioritize Storymapping Steps
Minimum Viable Product – For example, if you’re making an app, your million-dollar MVP might be as basic as allowing users to log in and perform an important action.
Prioritization – You can determine which steps are necessary (must-haves) and which ones are nice to have but not critical (could-haves). This way, you ensure you address the most important user needs.
Mitigated risk – Storymapping is like a pair of binoculars for spotting potential challenges or roadblocks in your project plan. It helps you identify the riskier areas that could cause problems down the road.
Success Story – A Tech Startup with No Experience (or Money)
BlueVerse came to us as a tech startup with no experience whatsoever and without a penny to build anything. These three young entrepreneurs were just about able to raise the funds for a roadmap workshop.
Without writing any code or hiring a single developer, they created a 12-month, step-by-step roadmap and a clickable prototype in just five days. They showcased their roadmap and functioning prototype to investors, which allowed them to close a 6-figure seed round.
The tech startup is experiencing rapid growth, raising $1M @ $5M valuation in seed financing backed by an elite advisory board, with over $70M generated for its partnered businesses.
A founder can come from any walk of life, and you don’t need to learn how to create an app if you are an entrepreneur with the desire to launch an app; instead, you need to understand how to complete tasks.
Market research, sales prowess, fundraising, monetization strategy, and hiring are key qualities that contribute to your tech startup’s success. Non-tech leaders need to be good at attracting technical talent.
Teams with various expertise, where individuals complement each other and work together to achieve common goals, have the highest chance of success.