Should you quit now because you’re wasting your time? If you look at many of the giant tech “unicorns” —private companies with over $1 billion valuation — and the major players in the public markets such as Apple, Microsoft, IBM, Google, and Amazon, you will find that the founders were often software or electrical engineers.
Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com, graduated from Princeton summa cum laude with two Bachelor of Science degrees in electrical engineering and computer science. In a study of the undergraduate backgrounds of the S&P 500 CEOs, IBM researchers found the 33% of the S&P 500 CEOs’ undergraduate degrees are in engineering and only 11% are in business administration.
So what if you are not a technical founder, engineer, or software programmer? Should you quit now because you’re wasting your time?
Very short answer:
With the right mindset and skillset, non-technical founders can be equally successful founders and entrepreneurs as technical founders and entrepreneurs. It has been done before, plenty of times; and it can be done again.
To be fair, first we must realize that everyone started out as a non-technical person. Through education, experience, passion, and training, these people learned a specific “hard” skill.
You can do the same.
There is nothing stopping you from taking online courses to learn how to code, going back to graduate school for engineering, or reading books and practicing graphic design.
But let’s get back to the point. This post is for the non-technical founder who has no time, money, or desire to become a technical founder. In other words, you are an entrepreneur, business (wo)man, or, what I like to call a “generalist” — someone who has many passions that to choose just one would be anguish. The opposite of a generalist is a specialist. The specialist tends to be a technical person, with one passion/skill.
To launch a startup as a non-technical founder, you will need the following elements.
You must understand that the technical person needs you as much as you need them. But what do they need from you?
Travis Biziorek, CEO and non-technical co-founder of Kibin.com, a tech startup that provides editing services, said this on Quora (I thought it was so good, I had to put the whole thing):
How do you start a tech startup without the tech skill set? Inspiration. You’re the ideas man; the guy with all the answers because you can’t sleep most nights due to your constantly racing mind on how to solve the next puzzle piece in your elaborate plan. A person that can do that is not only invaluable, but irreplaceable. It rubs off on people. You will create excitement with the people you talk to and interview and they will become incredibly loyal because they believe in you and your vision.
I honestly feel that a lot of people struggle to find a technical co-founder because they’re lazy. They think they can put some initial thought into an idea, pass it to a tech guy and poof, they have a product. Very few people can solve problems and think like a true visionary.
Your technical co-founder needs your ideas and thought process as much as you need them to help execute it. When you realize that and can portray that attitude, it will be a lot easier finding the right one.
From Travis’ answer above, we see that creative ideas, contagious excitement, hustle, and vision are the “assets” a non-technical co-founder brings to the table.
To hone these skills, an entrepreneur should do three things, constantly:
Grant Cardone, American entrepreneur and author, said, “The average CEO is said to read 60+ books a year and makes 319x the income of the average worker who reads 1 book a year but finds the time to watch 700 YouTube videos a year.”
Just as a programmer researches new SDKs, or a graphic designer watches tutorials, an entrepreneur reads business books, especially the stories of other entrepreneurs.
For a short reading list for entrepreneurs, I recommend the following:
- A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink
- Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
- Show Your Work by Austin Kleon
- Smartcuts by Shane Snow
- The Four Steps to Epiphany by Steve Blank
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Stephen R. Covey
Ideas begin in your mind but will end there unless they are written down. Keep a business idea journal. Jot every idea down in a notebook app on your phone using Evernote or OneNote. You never know when the idea will resurface later in life.
In today’s digital age, writing is the number one way to build a community online. An entrepreneur needs to bring to the table an audience, or the ability to grow an audience. This is something the technical person probably will not have or enjoy doing. Building an audience requires excellent communication skills and an entrepreneur who writes will have this.
“If you are awake, and you’re an entrepreneur, you should be writing. It’s the single biggest skill I think you could develop.”- @oligardner
The strength of an entrepreneur is reflected in the strength of his/her network. While technical people can build or design on their own, and entrepreneur needs to find the right people. Often, an entrepreneur is the one that knits a project together; he finds the “right people to put in the right seat on the right bus.”
Josh Chandler, a young UK-based entrepreneur, said a strong network is critical to the success of a young entrepreneur. In his article, How Young Entrepreneurs Can Build a Thriving Business Network, He said:
“As a young entrepreneur I know there are two factors which have made a huge difference to my success. They are determination and a great business network.”
As a non-technical founder, you may believe that it would be so much easier if you were able to build the product yourself. But there are plenty of non-technical entrepreneurs-now-billionaires who did not lift a finger to build.
Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, studied philosophy but jumped into entrepreneurship to best influence the world. His net worth is estimated to be $4.7 billion.
Richard Branson, serial entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin brand, had dyslexia and performed poorly academically. His first business venture was the high school music magazine Student which experienced overnight success. Branson lives on his own island and is valued at $4.9 billion.
Whether you have a background in philosophy or media, it does not require a technical or academically prestigious background to be successful as an entrepreneur. Branson and Hoffman will be the first to tell you that people are the key to capitalizing on any opportunity.
Do you need a technical degree/skill to succeed as a founder? No. But it would not hurt.
What should the mindset of a non-technical founder be? Inspiration. Have a strong vision with creativity and passion.
What should the skillset of a non-technical founder be? Read, write, and network. These will influence your mind and train you to be the entrepreneur your technical partners need you to be.