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Non-Technical Founders Can Build Great Tech Businesses, Say Investors – Forbes


The cost of launching a company has never been lower, and technology enables us to sell and communicate with anywhere in the world. While the opportunities may seem endless at first, there is a limiting perception that in order to build a successful technology business, you need to be a programmer first. 

Programmers turned CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates have helped create this stereotype and some notable investors do not fund non-technical founders. Yet the successes of companies like Alibaba, Airbnb and Stitch Fix, which were all created by non-technical founders, is good reason to question this orthodoxy.

I spoke to investors in London and New York about their views on non-technical founders’ chances of success, and whether learning to code is a real pre-requisite.

David Segura

Segura previously founded and exited Giant Media, a video exchange startup that helped pioneer programmatic technology. He has also invested in over 40 startups ranging from Eaze, Hawthorne, StyleSage, and many more.

Sophia Matveeva: Should non-technical founders start technology enabled businesses?

David Segura: Yes, absolutely.

Most businesses get founded in relation to a deeply personal problem that a founder wants to solve. Provided that the founders have grit and resolve, being non-technical should not be an issue. 

Many of the startups being built today and most of the startups that have grown into companies we admire were built by non-technical founders. Growing and scaling a company is a tremendous strategic challenge and the talent and tenacity of those founders is what ultimately matters most.

I think much of the focus and fixation on purely technical founding teams derives from the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, popularly known as A16Z. Their thesis is that technical founders can be taught business much more easily than business founders can be taught how to code.

This approach has led a lot of other investors and would be entrepreneurs to think that the only “legitimate” founder is a software engineer / code guru. This is simply not the case and never really has been. 

Marc Andreessen for example, while certainly technical, has long stated that he is not the best software engineer, and has attributed his rise as the chief technology officer of Netscape to his leadership ability and knowing enough to command the respect of other engineers.

Ben Horowitz, the otherA16Z founder, might be called technical, but his background before becoming a founder and venture capitalist was that of a product manager, not a world-class software engineer. 

While I think both non-technical and technical entrepreneurs need each other, I absolutely reject the idea that non-technical founders cannot start tech-enabled or even hard tech businesses. 

Matveeva: What should non-technical founders learn about technology?

Segura: This may not be a popular viewpoint, but I think non-technical founders should avoid learning to code. Yes, it will pay off to understand product and be fluent and comfortable working with software engineers and product managers, but I ultimately think it is a waste of time to go from zero coding experience to mediocrity or average acumen levels. 

Make the most use of your time by double and triple downing on your core skill-sets (whatever those may be). 

You should become fluent and knowledgeable of software trends and best practices – learn how to manage a technical endeavor from both a project and product standpoint, but you will not get credit or a moral victory for becoming an average coder in a world that only values excellence. 

Recruit and inspire technical talent or co-founders to work alongside you and get over your insecurities as soon as you possibly can. 

Yao Huang

Huang is a venture capital investor at The Hatchery, a serial entrepreneur and organizer of the exclusive Wonder Women dinners.

Matveeva: Should non-technical founders start technology enabled businesses?

Huang: Yes. Absolutely. 

There are many resources around these days to launch without being technical. The founder needs to be very organized, responsive, and able to listen and learn from the technical team. It is good for the founder to be a product person and understand user experience. 

The founder needs to guide, manage, and lead. They do not need to actually code. That can easily be hired. 

Figure out why the product needs to exist, how you are going to generate money and grow. Understanding these business questions impacts the development of the product. 

Matveeva: What should non-technical founders learn about technology?

Huang: Learning to code can help you understand what’s going on. But I would never hire a freshman in college taking accounting to do my company books. Stick to what you’re good at. 

There is plenty to do to grow a business. Hire experienced developers to build your product and guide them.

As a non-technical founder, you should begin by listing the features and functionality of what you want to build, and prioritizing them based on the needs of your users. Then, build a wireframe with a tool like Invision. After that, work with a designer to help you turn your ideas into flow and user experience. Having these three documents will help you work coherently with a development team, and save you time and money.

Gideon Hoffman, angel investor and advisor to rapidly scaling businesses in media and technology, who has overseen investments of over $100 million in media companies. (For full disclosure, Hoffman is an investor in Enty, the company I run).

Matveeva: Should non-technical founders start technology enabled businesses?

Hoffman: Non-technical founders are the ones with the understanding of the problem and insights about what users want. What solves a problem best, is usually not the best technical solution, but whether the solution resonates with users and is easy to use.

One great example of this was my friend Cyrus Massoumi, who founded Zocdoc, a medical appointment booking service valued at $2 billion today and backed by Jeff Bezos. He got the idea when he had a burst eardrum and needed a doctor, but was given substandard service by his insurance company. 

Zocdoc became a unicorn by improving a core patient experience. Yes, the company has great technology, but without a focus on improving bad patient experience and poor service, it would never have made it to this stage.

How should non-technical founders work with developers?

I think founders need to think of technology like they think of tax advice. You need to specify what you want and then buy. All modern businesses need to buy quality components, and all modern businesses invest in technology. 

Technical specialists are hugely valuable in delivering the visions of non-technical founders, but unless they can offer more than coding, they do not have ongoing lasting value past the initial stage. 

Non technical founders should be weary of giving up large parts of their company to technical partners, just as they would be if their accountant or insurer asked for a stake for providing their services.  

These conversations have been edited and condensed for clarity.



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