They're wrong. You can be non-technical in tech.

Written by Laura Bosco on September 28, 2018

Cul-de-sacs vs. dips and the non-technical journey

In his book The Dip, Seth Godin describes two types of ventures. One is a cul-des-sac, the French word for dead end. Godin says there's a simple way to know whether you are on a dead end path: no one has ever gone from where you are to where you want to be. No one has ever persisted and had success doing the same, or similar, thing you're trying to do. 

You could be the first, sure. (There's always the first.) But the chances of that are astronomically low. 

The other type of venture is one that goes somewhere. And any venture of this type has a dip, a cost to getting where you want to go. It may be a gutter or it may be the grand canyon. Either way, there's a downward sloping valley between you and success.

visual representation of the dip

The Dip.

Non-technical founders, you're not in a cul-de-sac

Building a tech product as a non-technical founder is the second kind of venture. It is one that goes somewhere. 

It is not a dead end, because it has been done before. Not only by mainstream companies like Product Hunt and AirBnb, but by our own clients as well. 

However, this path has a dip – a valley you have to get across before you can "make it." It is a deep valley, too. So deep that a lot of people say it's not a worthwhile option and that no founder should try and make it. 

We don't think that way. But first, let's talk about what you are up against. 

The non-technical founder dip

The valley associated with building a technical product as a non-technical founder is more like the grand canyon than a neighborhood hill. This is true for several reasons.

crossing the grand canyon

It's 24 miles from rim to rim, but many people still cross this each year.

The first reason relates to outsourcing. If you’re non-technical, you have four clear options for building your product:

  • find a technical co-founder

  • build a development team

  • become a programmer

  • outsource the build

The first three are options are great, but they take a level of time and money that most bootstrapped startups don’t have. Instead, many non-technical founders outsource their initial build, for good reasons we’ll talk about later.   

Those startups then face the following hurdles:

  1. They need to raise money to outsource their product build.

  2. Finding investor money is very difficult when you outsource. Most founders in this position bootstrap.

  3. Once a founder has funds, they need to allocate some for now and some for later.

  4. Locating a trustworthy outsourcing partner is challenging.

While these aren't the only difficulties with the path we're discussing, they are some of the most common. 

First things first: make sure the idea is worth the dip

Before we look at the four hurdles you need to jump over, we should talk about whether it is worth running the hurdles at all. 

How do you know? You do some preliminary work with your idea.

This is really important because no idea survives its first test in the market – not in entirety. Your idea may be great, but you might be selling it to the wrong group of people. Maybe your sales pitch is a bit off. Or perhaps you’re missing a couple of killer features. Whatever your holes are, you want to figure out as many as you can before engaging in an expensive build.

One of your best tools for figuring out those holes is a non-technical prototype.

Think of it as a low-key product preview. This preview, if you put it in front of potential customers, can help you:

  • Gauge market interest in your idea.

  • Assess different customer niches
  • Identify what benefits are most compelling

  • Make a few iterations

  • Test your pitch a few dozen times (or more)

We recommend even technical founders start with a non-technical prototype. They’re fast to build, cheap to iterate, and powerful enough to do the things above – without any code.

spreadsheet prototype

The spreadsheet Steve Shulman, one of our clients, used to prototype the B3i Analytics platform. He took his learning from this prototype and used them to build a SaaS application that is now being used by Yale, Dartmouth and more.

For example, you could set up an email list, blog, or manual solution (such as the spreadsheet above). Or you could go use Zapier and Bubble to build connections between existing tools. If you have the budget, you could even work with a designer (👋) to build a clickable prototype in Invision.

👉We dive into all these options in this newsletter edition and this blog post.

The prototype you use will depend on what your idea is.

The hurdles of the non-technical dip 

If a prototype indicates your idea is worth its salt – and an inordinate amount of your time and energy – then you're ready to face the hurdles. 

hurdles in the dip

Once you're past prototyping, cash flow is one of your biggest hurdles. So, let's start there. 

Hurdle 1: The unlikelihood of venture funding for non-technical founders

Unless your track record is smoking impressive and your network is as deep as the funds you want to raise, securing funding from an investment firm is going to be to really hard. Especially if you're based outside of the usual hubs. You're risky. As we mentioned at the beginning of this post, your path is particularly challenging, and few people make it through.

Most investors prefer a safer bet. 

That's why, if you're a non-technical founder, you'll want to look at bootstrapping. That is where you raise money without venture capitalists or angel investors. This could means raising funds from friends and family, using your own money, or funding your idea via another business. 

Notes and Caveats

We have nothing against investment firms. They have allowed many incredible companies that we promote and admire to exist. 

Several of our clients are venture-backed and non-technical. It is difficult and unlikely, but unlikely doesn’t mean impossible. You’d need to find the right partner and tell a very compelling story. Having built a successful prototype will help you tell a story investors want to hear.

Hurdle 2: Bootstrapping, and everything that comes with it

The benefits of bootstrapping

Bootstrapping is a funny word but a completely viable option

The most notable benefit is you get to build your product, your way, on your timeline. You're not beholden to investors.

Other benefits include:

  • You focus on making money, not spending it

  • Customers are your priority

  • Cash constraints demand innovation and grit

  • Team morale can be higher if you're already earning money

  • You avoid the "raise or die" cycle

  • Undiluted equity

Also, as a monetized business, you will be more attractive to investors later if you do decide to raise venture capital.

The drawbacks of bootstrapping

One of the bigger drawbacks of bootstrapping is slow growth – slower than if you took investor money. Although, depending on your startup, this may or may not be an actual drawback. Not all startups benefit from lightning fast growth because not all founders are ready to grow quickly.

Another drawback is the amount of time you will invest over that slow growth period. If you have a family, this is something that is especially important to consider. 

Slow growth also means a low paycheck (or no paycheck) for a prolonged period of time. Make sure this is either something you can afford, or have a strategy for – such as consulting, workshops, or other revenue streams. Many of our clients built up savings in other jobs before deciding to bootstrap a tech startup.

Hurdle 3: Distributing finances for now and later

Know how you’ll allocate your revenue and/or funds.

This involves two big pieces: (a) outsourcing initial development and, if that succeeds, (b) building an in-house team. 

distributing finances as a non-technical founder

Don't spend all of your money on the MVP build. Save some for building your team, as well.

Outsourcing Initial development

Outsourcing your MVP, while expensive, is much less expensive than hiring an internal team off the bat. Or rushing into a bad co-founder agreement and giving away too much equity. Finding a co-founder can also take years of relationship building. Even then, unless you can offer a decent salary – or they have money saved up – they may work part-time for a while.

Build relationships with potential co-founders and hires. In the meantime, outsource your MVP to get off the ground.

It’s a great way to test the market without the massive time and financial costs that come with co-founders, building teams, and learning to code.

Transitioning to in-house

Outsourcing MVP development is a good way to get off the ground, and make your first iterations while you ramp up revenue. It is not ideal for staying off the ground. 

To stay alive, you will eventually want an internal development team, a technical co-founder, or both. That is something you should know up front and plan for.

Never spend your entire budget on outsourcing your MVP. 

Instead, reserve and keep building a portion of your finances for this step later. 

Hurdle 4: Finding a partner that won't fleece you

You do not have to know code to do this.

Just like you can hire a plumber without any clue what materials make good pipes, or a general contractor without any clue how to lay a foundation, you can hire a developer or agency without knowing code. 

Yes, that makes it more difficult to find a trustworthy outsourcing partner. Hopefully, though, you're not trying to do this in a vacuum. At the very least, your network should include people who are knowledgeable about tech. They may not be able to build your product for you, but they can probably help you with this decision.

If you don't have any network, you may want to hit pause. This is, perhaps, a bigger issue than a lack of technical knowledge. 

Block off time to research common pitfalls and how to evaluate potential vendors. Doing so is a lot less time-consuming than partnering with an agency who is a bad fit for you.

Note: we wrote a 5,000+ word guide outlining how to outsource development without losing your shirt. Whether you work with us or another team, do your research and make sure your technical partner is the right fit for you.

Why we're convinced you can be non-technical and build a tech startup

The four hurdles above trip up and weed out a lot of startups. However, we wouldn't be in business if these hurdles weeded everyone out.

Below are some of the reasons that non-technical founders do make it through the dip and onto building incredible companies.

Your startup won't live or die by code alone

You have a very valuable set of skills.

They may not be coding, but they might be sales, marketing, strategy, or team-building. Maybe you're stellar at acquiring customers or product management. If you have deep industry knowledge on top of that, you're doubly equipped to do big things for your company. 

Don't get me wrong: the quality of your product is very important. But so is your ability to sell it and recruit a team. Don't shortchange yourself if you excel in the latter. Krit started with 3 technical founders. We still wish – to this day! – that we’d had a non-technical founder with us from the start.

You can learn along the way

If you want to train yourself to be an engineer, that's great – go for it. Keep in mind, though, that it could be a big distraction. It would also delay getting off the ground for at least a year. 

As mentioned above, you have powerful skills you need to be leveraging. Learn enough to be dangerous in the technical arena, but don't spin your wheels working from your weaknesses.

To glean a few tech smarts:   

  • interview technical friends

  • learn from your outsourcing options

  • take quick online courses 

  • attend local meetups or luncheons
  • follow online teachers and blogs *cough, cough*

As Hiten Shah reinforces, you don't have to be able to build your entire product. You do need to be able to ask the right questions. (Fun fact: he still doesn't know how to code.)

Your first steps don't have to scale

You can outsource your MVP without outsourcing the entire product; your first steps do not have to scale.  

It’s okay to do something one way to get off the ground, then switch to another way as you start to grow. There is no rule that states everything has to scale. In fact, scaling too early is a massive (but common) mistake.

We’re speaking from experience

We're not speaking from theory here. We're speaking from experience.

We've helped several companies do exactly what we've described and we're incredibly proud to have been a part of their success. 

Building a technical MVP as a non-technical founder. Client proof.

We worked with Case Status to launch their MVP, raise a friends and family round, and close their first customer – all in the span of about 3 months. They're now going through the TechStars accelerator program, and are halfway to closing their seed round.

It’s true: Non-technical founders are capable of building incredible tech products

We believe this because it's been done before and we've helped several founders do it since. 

Non-technical founders who want to take this path need to be aware of the big challenges ahead of them. They face all the hurdles of a starting a business, plus some unique ones as non-technical founders.

To jump over those hurdles, Krit recommends that non-technical founders:

  • Start cheap and simple. Find affordable and effective ways you can build a no-code prototype and iterate your idea, before building a technical MVP.

  • Raise funds or revenue – enough to outsource your initial MVP.

  • Identify a trustworthy partner who will help you build and iterate your MVP.

  • Leverage the MVP to generate more revenue and build an in-house team.

  • Keep working toward product-market fit.

With this model, you’ll notice our clients eventually outgrow us. That’s intentional.

Krit provides direction, a MVP build, startup advice, and support (including iterations) as our clients build up revenue. At some point, we expect them to move away from our services and toward their own team.

We get really excited when we see that because our goal isn't to own your product. Our goal is to get you off the ground. It’s also to help you build up enough momentum to make it through the non-technical founder dip.

You may not know how to code, but you’re entirely capable of building an incredible technical product. 

Since we exclusively work with non-technical founders, you could say we believe that enough to bet our business on it.

Laura Bosco is a web copywriter and people person. She helps small businesses explain what they do and create fun messages. Ping her on Twitter to start a conversation, or just say hi.