What Non-Technical Founders REALLY Need To Know About Tech

If you're reading this, then you are an ambitious self-starter, and probably an aspiring tech entrepreneur.

Being a smart ambitious woman is a double-edged sword: we tend to focus on all our weaknesses, at the expense of our strengths.

Non-technical founders, especially women, get so hung up on their non-technical status, that they over-compensate by signing up to coding courses and trying to build the entire product with their bare hands.

Often, this is not a smart investment of your most precious resources: time and energy.

Your job, as a founder, is to set the vision and inspire others to help you build it.

For non-technical founders, this does not mean learning to code, but successfully managing the technology production process and aligning it with business goals.

If you have an idea for a tech business, but no tech skills to build it, here are four tips to help you get started:

1) Learn product management

A non-technical CEO of a tech start-up is most similar to a product manager in a bigger company. In fact, the product manager is often known as the CEO of the product.

The product manager’s job is to keep the team of developers, designers, analysts and community managers focussed on the product’s main metric. The beauty of working with a team with diverse skills, is that by setting a target metric, the product manager is challenging each discipline to find its own solution.

But do not get tempted to sign up for a six month intensive product management course if your ultimate aim is tech entrepreneurship. As a founder, managing the product will be just one of your jobs, so do not over-invest in it.

2) Delve into Design for Technology

If you have an idea for an app, the first step is to work with a designer, not a developer. This is because before ideas turn into code, they become wireframes and prototypes.

Understanding user experience and user interface principles is easier for non-technical founders than learning to code from scratch.

It also becomes part of the founder’s regular job. Updating designs based on user feedback and testing new prototypes is a constant aspect of the product life cycle.

Product design is where non-technical founders fuse their knowledge of their target customers, with the expertise of designers, to create products people want to use.

For example, if you have a background in education and are working on a education app with a designer, it is your responsibility to point out the needs of the student and the designer’s job to turn these needs into screens and buttons.

3) Learn concepts, rather than skills

Non-technical founders do not need to dive into the specifics of coding, but should understand the basic concepts of how their technology is built. This is what I call learning to Speak Tech.

“You have to understand the difference between acquiring digital context versus digital fluency. Context means seeing the bigger picture of how things connect together, but not necessarily understanding the detail,”

- Jennifer Byrne, former Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft US told me on the Tech for Non-Techies podcast.

Concepts such as back-end vs front end development, APIs, and cloud computing are vital for you to grasp, but no single coding course is going to teach you what they are.

This is why, as a non-technical founder, the wisest choice is to get a holistic understanding of how a product goes from idea to scale.

4) Learn from other non-technical founders

The myth of coders in a garage creating a billion-dollar company is persistent. The story of non-technical professionals driving technological change is not often told, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

For example, non-technical founders like Katrina Lake of Stitch Fix and Brian Chesky of Airbnb have created innovations and massive shareholder value driven by technology.

Robyn Exton, the founder of HER and Y Combinator alumna, began her career in branding before creating a global dating community for queer womxn. (Hear her journey in this podcast episode)

Each of these people had to learn how to collaborate with technology teams, make the right investments, and lead people who did jobs they themselves could not do. Learning how they did it — and what they had to learn about technology on their path — will give you the knowledge and confidence to apply their lessons to your career.

The story we most often hear is that of male engineers-turned-developers, like Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk.

This is why, on the Tech for Non-Techies podcast, I’ve focussed on telling the story of how non - technical founders have built businesses, raised millions and succeeded because of, not in spite of, their non-technical status.

Remember, as a non-technical founder, your job is to lead your team and be the visionary, not to build the entire product with your bare hands. To do this, you need to select and manage a team, ask the right questions and make the business viable.

Learning concepts, rather than skills is the best use of your most precious resource - time.

If you want to learn how to go from idea to app, check out these resources:

1) The Tech for Non-Techies podcast

2) Tech for Non-Technical Founders course

"Non-technical founders, especially women, get so hung up on their non-technical status, that they over-compensate by signing up to coding courses and trying to build the entire product with their bare hands." In a way, I think this is true among techies, too! I work as the community manager for a technical company (Render!) and our product is focused on allowing developers to deploy without having to delve into DevOps. Still, there are tons of people looking to launch something and thinking that they aren't doing it "all the way" if they didn't have to tinker with the fine-tuning of provisioning and balancing and all the little knobs that go with that. It's certainly a philosophical question that anyone building something new needs to grapple with: "How much of this do I need to build to make it mine?" I'll be bookmarking the podcast. A quick scan through the episode list and I can tell it's really full of good insights!
Thank you for this insights. It made me think of the unattainable desire for perfection that ambitious people have, whether they are technical or not. It is this fear of never knowing or doing enough.I also think women experience it more, because we've been socialised to try to be perfect. Seems we are both trying to solve the same problem from different ends.