How technical does a web start-up founder have to be?

“How technical does a web start-up founder have to be? What are ways of overcoming the challenge of not being a hacker and wanting to develop a strong site?”

The Harvard MBA says:

Without question, it’s a lot easier to start an Internet company if you have the technical skills to launch the initial prototype yourself.

Technical founders have the ability to bootstrap development, and because the founder and coder are the same person, development usually proceeds much more quickly, and with fewer surprises.

But even if you can’t write a single line of code, you can still start an Internet company.  I haven’t programmed since CS106A in 1993 (though pride compels me to point out that I got an A+…), but I’ve still managed to start a number of companies.

I’m going to start off by assuming that you’re not independently wealthy…if you are, hiring good help is relatively easy, especially in this economy.  The techniques I’m going to describe are for the ambition-rich, but cash-poor.

The easiest way to get started is by recruiting a friend to be the technical co-founder.  This is how I started my first company, TargetFirst. I started it with my old friend Thomas Leavitt, who handled back end systems, and my old friend Albert Lin, who handled the programming.

If you know a number of alpha geeks, you’re set.  If not, get to know some.  This is easy if you’re still an undergrad, but if you’re in B-school or in the workforce, you’re going to have to try harder.  Try to network your way into the local CS program, or join a professional organization that includes a lot of geeks, like SDForum. You can also hang out at local startup-type events.

You may be tempted to turn to offshoring.  I’ve felt the temptation myself.  After all, if you can get your website built in the Ukraine for $100, why not go for it?

The problem is, if you can get your website built for $100, so can all of your competitors.  The best strategy I’ve found is using offshoring sites like Rentacoder and oDesk to locate potential hires.  Go for coders who are young and inexperienced–they have the greatest upside.  Start with a test project, and if that goes well, double down.

In the case of Ustream, the business founders, John Ham and Brad Hunstable, found their technical founder, Gyula Feher, on Rentacoder.  They hired Gyula to build their prior business, a college photography service.  He did such a good job that they got together to found Ustream, and the rest (one unstoppable Shiba Inu Puppy Cam later) is history.

There is one final option, which is to learn how to code.  It has been done (though not by me).  My TargetFirst co-founder Thomas dropped out of college and taught himself to program with a couple of community college classes and a lot of hacking.  Without any formal education, he built up his first company, WebCom, and sold it, becoming a millionaire in the process.  But it wasn’t easy.

He spent nearly a year hacking away, living in a tiny attic room above his great-aunt’s laundry room.  When he woke up in the morning, he’d bang his head against the exposed roof beams. Being a starving entrepreneur sounds romantic until you actually have to do it.

A few last tips for the non-technical founder–regardless of which path you choose, don’t abdicate responsibility for the product.  1) It’s your vision, and you should make sure it’s realized correctly.  2) Programming isn’t magic–it’s common sense.  And whomever you work with should be able to explain their thinking to you. 3) Choose good people to work with.  At some point, times will get tough, and you’ll want someone you can trust in the foxhole with you.

3 Comments

  1. Posted November 16, 2008 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    As someone who is a technical founder, I can say that there are real advantages to *not* being a hacker. The problem is that as a technical person, there is a strong temptation to build the whole thing yourself. If you’re not a hacker, you know its impossible to fake, and so from the beginning you are forced to find and depend on quality others. Though it offends my alpha-geek instincts to say it, “finding quality others you can depend on” is a more important startup skill than hacker chops. I’ve spoken with several other technical startup founders and we all say the same thing: if only we didn’t know how to program, we would have been forced to let go earlier and let the business actually grow!

  2. Posted November 17, 2008 at 5:08 am | Permalink

    Chris- Thanks so much for answering my question…it definitely helps a ton. I’m in the process of trying to figure out the right way to “do this” and having your insights is very helpful!

    I’ll keep you posted on the progress…

    Currently, I just launched a social web consulting business to raise money to fund the product. I launched 3 weeks ago and have 2 clients… step 1, check.

    Hope to have more soon. Cheers.

  3. Posted February 5, 2009 at 6:19 am | Permalink

    I agree with Stan. Maybe I’m a perfectionist, but I think there is a sense of “it must be full-featured and perfect” before a technical business owner wants to get anything out there. While this is great, you still need sales. I think technical business owners often have trouble just building the core product, getting sales, then improving it later.

    A strong networker and people-person could do really well as with a web start-up because he/she is putting emphasis on solving a business problem and looking for clients. Not being involved in the programming just frees up that much more time that can be spent growing the business.

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