Should non-technical founders start companies?
Should non-musicians start bands?
Should non-writers try to write for a living?
What it is to be technical shifts wildly with each generation of invention. In the early days of the web, a debate about whether or not non-technical folks should start businesses extended easily to whether or not non-designers should be allowed to have their own GeoCities pages or whether amateur retailers should have their own storefronts. And just as eBay and ViaWeb opened up web retail to people who only knew their brand, companies like Heroku and Amazon have built platforms which largely obviate the need to understand hardware to start. This “platform-based approach” makes the arcane approachable, meaning that there are more potential businesses for non-technical people – and also that they’re shockingly cheaper.
When I started our company, I was a non-technical solo founder starting a technical company. Not only was this challenging, but I was only able to code a crude alpha and raise initial funding because I stood on the shoulders of giants. My inherited techne stretched back further than I can understand or model – Rails runs the app, which was written in Ruby, hosted on EngineYard, which in turn is hosted on Amazon, which runs Linux with Oracle, with C++ and Perl and Mason and Java and Jboss and Servlets, each processed by chips fabricated by Intel and AMD. And beyond, and beyond, and beyond.
Despite these advantages, I still struggled. I spent at least a day figuring out how to get “hello world” to appear as a web-page on my own machine. I spent much longer figuring out harder problems. I became a sort of Google-driven developer; I’d code something, then search Google to figure out why it wasn’t working. I worked long hours, and struggled to avoid doing anything else for months to help my brain twist into new patterns and behaviors. At the end, I had a working proof of concept, a basic site which allowed users to sort items based on their preferences.
Even with this, I was clearly still the “non-technical founder.” I understood what it felt like to work on technology, but after hiring a couple talented developers it was immediately clear that I shouldn’t write another line of code. In fact, I now regret that we kept using any of the code I’d written and wish instead that we’d just used the site to learn lessons about how people use the code, not as a basic architecture.
But this isn’t a unique challenge for any founder – no matter how technical she or he may be; there is so much which is un-knowable in start-ups that no-one may hope to master it all. We might instead ask if non-accountants should start companies or if non-lawyers ought to. The skill that seems to trump all is the ability and instinct to seek out help and source capabilities. In the course of a start-up, we’re all non-technical – if you’re not stumped by code, there’s still accounting, hiring, law, and fund-raising to give you pause.
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