Startups Anonymous: Everything you need to know about being a non-technical founder
[This is a weekly series that brings you raw, first-hand experiences from founders and investors in the trenches. Their story submissions are anonymous, allowing them to share openly without fear of retribution. Every Wednesday, we'll run one new story chosen by Dana Severson, who operates StartupsAnonymous, a place for startups to share, ask questions, and answer them in story-length posts, all anonymously. You can share your own story here.]
I'm a technical founder with two non-technical founders. We have worked together for over 15 years, but our current business has been around for five (this is our first company).
BS statements are a part of any tech person's arsenal, but the main purpose is always to deflect blame away.
When I was younger (I'm in my upper 30's now), I would compensate for my lack of understanding of the full-stack (UI, UX, back-end code, databases, servers, etc...) by attributing failures to any of the following:
- Weak servers/hardware ("We need stronger servers!")
- Rogue memory leaks, the process ("I'm waiting on <insert small needless business function>")
- Resource limitations ("We don't have enough resources to properly test)
- Blaming the end-user was an easy one too, but I always felt cheap with that one, knowing full well accounting for the back button, a double click submit, or some user with a super long email address is on me.
- And of course, "the new guy."
To know progress is being made on an MVP, I would look for and watch out for a few things:
- A) Common sense. Is the web form being created from scratch yesterday, functional today? You should be able to see progress on a daily basis. It's not that hard for web-based platforms.
- B) I would look out for excuses in seeing progress like, "I'm optimizing libraries" or, "I need to setup this (alpha, dev, beta, stage) environment before we move forward." Servers can be set up today with a click of the button, and code libraries are already created and "optimized" for anything you could possibly want to do in all major languages.
- C) Yes there are bigger challenges that might take a few days/weeks of frustration to solve without visible progress, but your technical person should be able to articulate those challenges into something that makes sense to you, provide a solution, and give you updates on progress in English each day. Dealing with a lot of data that needs to be massaged is always a challenge that is hard to visualize progress on, but again the technical person needs to be able to see that and articulate it to you before they are sitting there for a week with nothing done.
- D) Watch out for the person who can't get you through the finish line. For whatever reason, a large number of technical people can't actually finish a project. They can get it 80 percent of the way there, and then stall out, trying to make everything perfect. You might see a lot of code, which looks like progress, but at some point you have to see a working site. If you are sitting there two months later with nothing visual to show for your vision, then you have a problem.
- E) Your technical cofounder should know modern web development from both a front-end UI/UX perspective and backend. A technical founder shouldn't be just some coder, they need to know how to take verbalized visions and get them down to a loose set of requirements, to a first draft/prototype, and to a workable MVP.
What I want from my non-technical cofounder is trust. I'm lucky enough to have worked with my partners 10 years prior to our launch of this business. We don't always agree on things, but we trust one another enough to put each of our families' futures on the line. When something goes wrong, I want the other founders to be calm and know:
- A) I take it as seriously as they do, if not more …
- B) I'm going to work my ass off to figure out what's wrong and provide a solution.
I honestly can't imagine how some people find others they never knew before and bring them on as cofounders. Trust is involved in every decision of a startup and through the life of the business.
One other issue that you might find is that on average, I would say most technical founders are somewhat introverted and non-technical business partners are extroverted. From a technical introverted perspective, this just means the business-side founder is going to want to talk more than you really feel is necessary (you know the task at hand and want to be left alone to complete it). This can get even more complex when you want to get away for some R&R. I haven't been able to fully enjoy my honeymoon, birth of my first child, and countless other getaways. At some point a non-technical founder seemingly feels helpless when you, the technology guy, are off the grid. They can't resist calling you to discuss how important some (non-important) issue is to get resolved. It comes back to trust (if it's an issue in my mind, it will be fixed ASAP), and usually just talking to the business side founder will calm them down.
They just want to know we're here and available.
[image adapted via thinkstock]