Today on The Startup Chat, Steli and Hiten talk about how to start a tech business without a technical co-founder.
It’s normal for entrepreneurs these days to want to start tech businesses, be it a cloud-based service, mobile app, or a social sharing platform.
However, when you have an idea for a tech company, but no tech experience, bringing your idea to life might seem impossible at first.
In this episode, Steli and Hiten share some tips for entrepreneurs looking to set-up thriving tech startups but don’t have any coding experience including tips on how to work with a developer for the first time.
Time Stamped Show Notes:
00:01 – About today’s topic.
00:34 – Why we’re talking about this today.
01:35 – Why Hiten is the best person to talk about this topic.
03:53 – Hiten’s advice for starting a tech company when you’re not a techie.
04:15 – What Hiten did when he built his first tech company .
07:47 – Steli expands on Hiten’s point.
08:45 – What to do after you’ve found a developer.
10:52 – Steli highlights an example of an app that was developed by 4 students in Germany.
14:44 – How to work with a developer when you are not a coder.
17:50 – Steli talks about the most useful thing he’s learned in 11 years of working with software developers.
- Make friends.
- Find somebody that can give you advice and guidance while you looking for a developer to build your product.
- Write your idea on paper so that you get a better understanding of the scope of the project.
Steli: Hey, everybody. This is Steli.
Hiten: And this is Hiten Shah. And today on The Startup Chat we’re going to talk about how to start a business that’s a tech business without a technical co-founder.
Steli: Yeah, how do like-
Hiten: Steli, you … Yeah, go ahead.
Steli: Yeah, no, how to start a startup without a technical co-founder, but really what it means is how to build a software product without a technical co-founder, right?
Hiten: Sounds good, yeah.
Steli: Lots of people that are asking us this question.
Hiten: Yeah. Oh, yeah. I get this question a lot as well, just because people are really curious about it because there are a ton of people out there that don’t know how to program and want to start a business and create software.
Steli: Yeah. There was a time, I remember this very vividly, where I think the prevailing wisdom for a little while was wisdom, the fashion insight was like, oh, everybody should learn to code. And if you’re not technical and you want to build a software product, why don’t you invest a year on Codecademy or something and learn how to develop, and then, develop the product yourself, or develop an MVP yourself. I think that was really hot for a hot minute. Then, I know, I don’t hear that as advice as much anymore. I wanted to talk about this, A, because I know there’s lots of people, of our listeners, that are not technical and are building software products, or want to build a software product, or start a startup, but also because you have fucking built five products last year with a new co-founder of yours, that is also non-technical.
Hiten: That’s right.
Steli: And so, who better to talk about how to do this than you?
Hiten: Yeah. I started my first set of software products, even the ones that weren’t successful, back in 2000, I guess we started coding the first one in 2004, and launched a Crazy Egg, the one that worked in 2005. All that, was with no technical co-founder either. I’ve never had a real technical co-founder in the traditional sense that people do. Both of my co-founders for different things are non-technical. Things have changed quite a bit, I would say. One thing that I would say that’s changed more than anything else is going to be, maybe a little funny, but it really helped solve problems is that, it’s very likely that if you’re out there and you’re thinking of starting some kind of software business, you know someone who can program. When I started, now 12 years ago, or 13 years ago, with programming, 14 on the internet, doing stuff while we were running a consulting business doing marketing, that wasn’t the case. I literally don’t remember or think I knew anyone who was a programmer when I started, like personally as a friend, or somebody I knew. Now, it’s like you go to college, you got lots of friends that are programmers because their getting double majors in this, or they just started picking it up for whatever reason, or at least they can design and do front end code, and stuff like that. I think that’s changed a lot, so the advice of learn to code yourself, is definitely died down quite a bit. I used to threaten our engineers that I would learn to code, and they would laugh at me. Yeah, I think that the biggest step that I had was, you probably have a friend that can learn to code, that knows code. I’m not saying that you should go ask them to build something for you. What I’m saying is, then at least as you go out looking for help building something, you can ask them to help you vet people. You can ask them for advice on what you should be looking for with the latest technology is that you should be using, Not even the latest, just what technology you should be using for it, trying to do. You can get a lot of advice for free from people who are probably your friends, or even friends of friends that know how to code. I don’t even think I had friends of friends that I could go to, and be like, yeah, are you a programmer? Do you know how to build stuff. It just wasn’t as much of a thing as it is today.
Steli: I agree. At the same time, honestly, Hit, I think that most people around the world still are in that place. I do think that, if you leave the US, and especially the coast, and especially Silicon Valley, right, where we live, I do think that there’s still lots of places where people are growing up and eventually they say, hey, I want to do a fucking startup. I want to do a software product, but they really don’t know anybody who is in software, and they don’t have any friends. What do they do?
Hiten: Yeah, that’s fair. I guess I extend friends to online friends too.
Steli: That’s fair.
Hiten: Back then, it was much harder to go find someone even online. I’ll tell you what I did. I still did it, but I was literally, I guess this just goes to the point of what advice I’d give anybody. One big piece of advice is, make friends. The way I did it back in the day was I literally talked to everybody that was part of the, that put their name as a programmer on the Ruby on Rails website. Ruby on Rails is now a very popular programming language. Back then, it wasn’t even in version 1.0. I knew that it was the hot thing because I’d been following 37 Signals, now, they’re called Basecamp, back then, and they were writing a lot of stuff about product development and design. They were an agency at just kind of launched these products, Basecamp specifically, and a bunch of other ones. They build this framework on how to build base on Ruby called Ruby on Rails on how to, it made it easier to build products like theirs. I hit up literally everyone on that list via email or even phone call because their phones numbers were listed. They responded to me, and I talked to them, and asked them if they would help me build what I wanted to build. At that point, I actually already had, I wouldn’t say, a bad experience, but a mediocre experiences with a set of developers, of a whole set of developers actually across many different products, and really had one specific problem that I was looking to solve, which is expertise in Ruby on Rails. Very few people had it at the time because it was such a new language. And so, I had hit everybody up, the whole list. I got lucky finding somebody who I still work with today. I made friends. Some of the folks, there’s a senior person at Airbnb that I talked to back in the day who’s had his own startup since that. There’s a few people outside of the country that were co-contributors to Rails that I still know, that I hit up back then, and a number of other people that probably remember me. I’d say, make friends. Now, it’s easier than ever. It’s not just Ruby on Rails. There’s so many other technologies. There’s so many others you can reach people who know how to program. You could probably send out a message on Facebook, and get some help if you want to. You could probably do the same with Twitter, or wherever you have some level of your friends hanging out online, or you can even just join a certain SOC community or group, and start asking around. I think back then it was much harder to ask around, and find trusted advice on engineering and programing, and so, I had to go basically hunt people down that I thought were good, or good enough to help me.
Steli: I think that’s a super, super piece of advice. I think you’re absolutely right, today. I had the same scenario when I grew up, like, all my friends had nothing to do with startups or software development, or anything like that. But, in 2006-7, when I started to want to get into that area, it was not as easy as it is today. Today, you can just go on fucking Facebook and lookup a number of groups, and go on Twitter and follow a bunch of people, and just find friends, but I think the important thing is to highlight here is to, you’re not saying to people, go and try to find your technical co-founder, as step one. What you’re saying is, make friends, technical friends, developer friends, and find somebody that can give you advice and guidance as you’re trying to find somebody who’s going to build your software, your product, right? I think it’s a very, you said it very clearly, but I want to underline and highlight it because I could easily imagine people mishearing you on that point.
Hiten: Yeah, exactly. Find help. Help comes in the form of advice from people that you can learn to trust. Or, programmers, there’s more of these people out there than ever, and that’s my point, right? I had to do a lot more work than I would have to do today, if I was the same person. Right. Exactly.
Steli: Now, I found somebody who’s a friend who give me advice. What typically would be my next step? Is it finding a developer that I can outsource a version one of my product?
Hiten: Yeah. Typically, I’m looking for, here’s the thing, right? This is funny, I mean, it’s true, you can go, come up with your idea, write it down in whatever way you’re able to. You can even learn how to do that if you want to go deeper, learn about how do I spec out a product, or how do I write requirements for engineering, and write something out that is cohesive and coherent. Then, you can go to a bunch of, either individual free lancers, development shops, or even something like, Gigster, and go actually get a bid for how much it’s going to cost to get what you want done. I’m not saying that you do that because you have the money or you don’t. What I’m saying is, that will start helping you get an understanding of more information that will help you figure out how does this thing get built, how do I actually get into this? I would do that even if you have somebody who you’re considering to join you as a co-founder of something like that, or even want to work with.
Steli: I love that. I mean, the other thing you could also just use tools today, that weren’t available a long time ago, like Bavomack is a great tool, right? You could use a tool that requires zero development skills, where you can just mark up what you want to have, like, how should the app look like, what does it do? You could fuck around, play around and create a, four, five, six screens to then take and talk to a developer about, like, this is the app I want to build, and this is a few screens I’ve put together on how it would look like. Maybe your developer friend, hey, what’s your advice? What’s have I not thought about? What’s messed up about this? You can do things to create some progress. The other thing, I think we mentioned this in a prior episode, but I want to bring this up again because I love this story so much. There was startup that has became very, very successful, and sold for a ton of money, and was basically a mobile app for doing body weight exercises. It was built by four student kids somewhere in Germany. They were all kind of like body weight workout, fitness dorks. When they had the idea first, they were wise enough to not just go, oh, we want to build an app, let’s go and find some web development agency, or mobile development agency, let’s pay them a ton of money, and develop some kind of an app. They said, we know nothing about apps, or software, but we love doing body weight exercising and workouts, so why don’t we just start a Facebook group for our university, and we’ll do body weight exercise groups on weekends. They started that and they did that really successfully. The group grew, and then, other universities started joining the Facebook group, and so, Speckhardt, Germany. They built a really big Facebook group. Then, eventually they said, wow, we have this big audience, all these workouts are happening that are organized on our Facebook group, why don’t we write up a little e-book on body weight exercising and all that stuff, and we’ll sell it for a few euros, and we’ll promote it on the Facebook group, and then, the email list that we’ve built up over the last year or two, and make some money with it. They did it and they made, I don’t know, 30, 40k selling their e-book. Then, they said, shit, now, we have some money and we have an audience, and we have a much better developed idea of what people want, and what people would use the app for. Let’s go now to a web development agency and build a mobile app. And, that’s what they did. They took the money they made out of the e-book, and then build a mobile app. Then, they launched it because they already had a big audience. It instantly was ranked number one in a bunch of online stores and mobile app stores. It became a huge success. Two years later they sold it for, I don’t know, an insane amount of money, a 100 million or something a long those lines. To me, that’s a beautiful way of like, four people, they were all non-technical, building an incredibly successful mobile app, and selling it for millions, but they did it. Their first step was not even going and finding a developer friends. Their first step was trying to find a way to get started even without building an app, and build some traction. What they did was, they built the audience first, and then, they built the product, which is something we’ve talked about many, many times before. I find that often times, as you build an audience, it’s going to be much easier for you to convince developers to come and help you build an app. As you build an audience, you might learn a lot more about and get customers insights about what people want. It might morph your ideas from what kind of an app or product you should build. That can be a really beautiful way to get started. You don’t have to wait around necessarily for somebody to develop and code a version one to get going. But, here’s a question I have for you Hiten, one, the first software company that I built in Silicon Valley, I didn’t have the technical co-founder, and so, I started, I hired, I was not smart enough to look for friends and all that, so I just found a developer that was very inexperienced, but a really cool person, and I basically hired that person to be my first developer, and pay him to develop my product. One issue that I had from day one was that because I didn’t know how to code, and because I didn’t have a friend that knows how to code, I was always unsure about if the ideas that my developer had, or the timelines that my developer gave me, or if the technology, the tech steps that my developer wanted to choose, I could not weigh in on if these decisions were good or bad. I think this is a problem that a lot of non-technical founders have is that, as they work with developers, they don’t know how much to push them. They don’t know if the decisions and recommendations these developers make are good or bad. I understand that if you have a developer friend that’s really experienced that might help. How do you and Marie, how do you guys deal with it. You’re both non-technical and you’ve built five software products last year. You work with developers. How do you deal with working really productively with them, although, you don’t have the technical backgrounds to always understand if the code is good or not, or if those decisions are good, or if the timelines are realistic or not?
Hiten: Yeah. That’s a great question on something that I’ve gotten good at over the years, myself. I think this year, I’ve gotten even better at for a bunch of reasons. One, Marie and I, on our producthabits.com, our newsletter, we share what we’re learning about the process because we always want to get better. We’re documenting a lot of things that I started to learn previously that weren’t documented about, how to do technical research, how to do it right if you’re more on the business product side, so there’s a tone of content we’ve written. I think, today, what I’d like to share though, is something that I find really important. I’ve shared it before, and I say it a lot, but it’s, look, act like you can understand anything, would be my first tip. It’s one of the reasons I work with Maria because until this year, literally, one year ago until last year, literally probably until January, she really didn’t have much experience building software, and much meaning none. She worked at a company that built software and she was doing a little bit of consulting around marketing and social media and other things like that before she started working with me, before that she had a corporate job. What’s been fascinating is, just having that attitude of, I can understand it. I can learn how to ask the right questions. I will Google what I need to when I need to. I don’t rely on someone else to tell me about these concepts or these ideas. That’s really all it takes. That was my attitude many years ago. That was my attitude back in 2003, which is, all right, I don’t know anything about this, but it’s just like learning anything else. Here’s a wonderful thing. If I don’t need to learn how to code, I can be much better at helping the engineers. The reason I say thing is because I’m not sitting there, spending that year or two years, or however long, how to code. I’m spending my time leaning how to understand their world and help them do their jobs. That’s really important because what I found is that, the scrutiny around planning, and timelines, and milestones, and decision making, and trade offs, and all these things that are actually business problems, Steli. They exist in programing. No offense to the programmers because I understand that they’re in code all the time and think very literally and binary. Man, most of them don’t know how to think logically enough around the business use case, the product use cases, and all these other things because they’re in code all day, right? It’s like a writer. If a writer never read, guess what? Their not that good of a writer.
Steli: I love that. The most important part here is attitude, right?
Hiten: Yeah, good way to put it.
Steli: Right. Understand that you don’t need a technical co-founder to succeed. If you find somebody that eventually grows into that role, that’s awesome, right, but you don’t have to be needy. You don’t have to be lacking confidence. You don’t have to be thinking, oh, I cannot do anything I want because I don’t have the technical skills. There’s hundreds and thousands of examples of people that have built amazing software products without having a technical co-founder when they started out, and being incredibly successful. You can do that too. Whatever you don’t know, you can learn or find out. I went through the exercise of trying to learn to code for half a year or so. It was useful, a little bit, but the most useful thing that I’ve acquired as a skill over the past decade or more so, 11 year of working with software developers, is learning how they think, and learning how product development works, so I can communicate effectively with them and I can work really effectively with them, but also, understanding that product management, and development, and software development, that’s not my strength. It takes decades and decades to get really, really good. I can bring a lot more value, be amazing at other things, right? Embrace the fact that you hopefully have strengths in other areas instead of beating yourself up over it, and thinking that you cannot accomplish your goals just because you’re lacking this mythical technical co-founder. I’ll give one more tip before we wrap up this episode because you have been given some gold today. My one last tip I want to share with people, because this is a mistake I’ve seen many people make, and there’s a simple solution to this is, if you meet somebody that you think could be your technical co-founder, first of all, I don’t think that you should go out and try and find an instant technical co-founder. I understand there is examples of people that have done that and succeeded. Just like there are examples of people playing the lottery and winning, but it’s still not my recommended strategy, like, you’re not a technical guy or gal, you have an idea for a product, and you go, I’m going to find my technical co-founder right now. It’s like saying, I’m going to get married. I’m going to find the man or woman of my dreams, and I’m going to be in a relationship with x, getting instantly married, and going bar to bar, which would be meet up to meet up trying to find that person. That’s usually not going to work. Try to meet developers and technical people. Try to become friends with them. Try to get advice from them. Eventually, if you meet somebody you really want to work with more closely, don’t instantly offer the co-founder a role. Try to date them for a little bit. Try to move in with them for a little bit, and then, offer them, you know, propose more formally. In this world, what I would suggest is, hang out with them, become friends with them. Then, maybe work on a project, but not your project. Work on a throw away weekend project. Come up with some kind of idea and go, hey, I want to work more with you. Here’s some random, cool ideas. Maybe we should just, you know, we can just rent an Airbnb, or go to this co-working space for a week, and let’s just work on some projects together. Work on something that you can throw away, so that you can learn how it is to work with that developer, and that person can figure out how it is to work with you. If you get along really well, and things are awesome, you can then say, hey, let’s work on this main idea I’m trying to build together. If it doesn’t work out, if you don’t like each other, if the relationship isn’t jiving, then you can part ways with no problems. There’s no children, so to speak. They didn’t work with your software for two, three days or weeks or months, and now, when they want to leave, they claim ownership over your software, the product you want to build. Now, you have all kinds of issues and problems and complications. You built something that had no commitment to it to really just learn if you can work well together. If you can work well together, then you can work on the main product or company together. That would be my biggest tip for people that start working with a developer for the first time, and get really excited, unless you find that, you go to a really big store, or something like that, and you’re going to outsource it to somebody. That’s a totally different use case.
Hiten: I got one last thing just to double down, and then I think we can wrap this up. I totally agree with you. Testing the relationship is super important. I’m sure we’ll have an episode on testing relationships at some point. Yeah, I really like that topic. It’s one of my favorites. You just reminded me that I talked to so many people about that in almost every scenario. As we were talking, Marie is completely across the place that we’re in right now, and I’m loud so I’m sure she can hear me. She basically was saying, and she wanted to double down on the fact, and she texted me and she said, look, the reason that she thinks that people prevent themselves from building these business or software, or any of that, even thought they might have a great idea, or think they do, is that, they create conditions where they fail. They fail because they think they need to know x, y, z thing in order to even start, and that’s incorrect. You don’t need to know how to program a line of code. You just need to know how products are built. I think that really undertone is really a big deal because, don’t prevent yourself from starting just because you think you need to know everything about programing. You literally just need to know about 20% of it, and you can literally work with programmers and get whatever you want built.
Steli: Amen. How beautifully said. I like that we’ve talked about potentially, and this is a little bit of inside baseball to people that are interested. This year, we might bring in some new voices on the podcast. We might not, but we’ve been thinking and talking about it a little bit with Hiten. Marie might be somebody you’ll hear in a future episode. I love how she’s already part of this episode via text message.
Hiten: There you go, exactly.
Steli: Our first guest on The Startup Chat via text message. I love it.
Hiten: That’s right.
Steli: Also, man, that’s it for us. For all of you that are listening and enjoying The Startup Chat, please do us a favor and go to iTunes or stitchel web, or you’re listening to us, and give us a review. Give us some rating. It really helps more people discover The Startup Chat, so we highly appreciate it. If you’ve got any feedback, or stories, or ideas, or tactics to share, on how to build products without a technical co-founder shoot us an email, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org. We always love to hear from you. That’s it. Wrap from us for this week.