If you look at many of the giant tech “unicorns” —private companies with over $1 billion valuation — and the major players in the public markets such as Apple, Microsoft, IBM, Google, and Amazon, you will find that the founders were often software or electrical engineers.
Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com, graduated from Princeton summa cum laude with two Bachelor of Science degrees in electrical engineering and computer science. In a study, IBM researchers found the 33% of the S&P 500 CEOs’ undergraduate degrees were in engineering and only 11% were in business administration.
So what if you are not a technical founder, engineer, or software programmer? Should you quit now because you’re wasting your time?
To be fair, first we must realize that everyone started out as a non-technical person. Through education, experience, passion, and training, these people learned a specific “hard” skill.
You can do the same.
There is nothing stopping you from taking online courses to learn how to code, going back to graduate school for engineering, or reading books and practicing graphic design.
Okay, back to the point. This post is for the non-technical founder who has no time, money, or desire to become a technical founder. In other words, you are an entrepreneur, business(wo)man, or, what I like to call a “generalist” — someone who has many passions that to choose just one would be anguish. The opposite of a generalist is a specialist. The specialist tends to be a technical person, with one passion/skill.
To launch a startup as a non-technical founder, you will need the proper mindset and skillset.
You must understand that the technical person needs you as much as you need them. But what do they need from you?
Inspiration. You’re the ideas man; the guy with all the answers because you can’t sleep most nights due to your constantly racing mind on how to solve the next puzzle piece in your elaborate plan. A person that can do that is not only invaluable, but irreplaceable. It rubs off on people. You will create excitement with the people you talk to and interview and they will become incredibly loyal because they believe in you and your vision.
I honestly feel that a lot of people struggle to find a technical co-founder because they’re lazy. They think they can put some initial thought into an idea, pass it to a tech guy and poof, they have a product. Very few people can solve problems and think like a true visionary.
Your technical co-founder needs your ideas and thought process as much as you need them to help execute it. When you realize that and can portray that attitude, it will be a lot easier finding the right one.
Travis is right. Your mindset is full of ideas and execution plans. Growth opportunities. Designs. Products. Pitches. You see the future. You see how you can help people and because of this, you cannot sleep. Often, a designer or developer “specialist” does not see the big picture like you do because they are so focused on syntax and strokes.
From Travis’ answer above, we see the four “assets” a non-technical cofounder brings to the table:
- Creative ideas
- Contagious passion
To hone these skills, we are going to look at the four things an entrepreneur should do, constantly:
Grant Cardone, American entrepreneur and author, said, “The average CEO is said to read 60+ books a year and makes 319x the income of the average worker who reads 1 book a year but finds the time to watch 700 YouTube videos a year.”
Just as a programmer researches new SDKs, or a graphic designer watches tutorials, an entrepreneur reads business books, especially the stories of other entrepreneurs.
For a short reading list for entrepreneurs, I recommend the following:
- A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink
- Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
- Show Your Work by Austin Kleon
- Smartcuts by Shane Snow
- The Four Steps to Epiphany by Steve Blank
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Stephen R. Covey
Reading, for me, is not about knowledge growth. It is about getting practical ideas and inspirations I can apply to my current projects as I read. I hold the book in one hand and a pencil in the other. As I read, I write down the ideas that come to my head for my startup, my clients, and my full-time job. I think laterally. If the author sold on Amazon, what would I sell on Amazon? If the author wrote an ebook in three weeks, what would the title be of the ebook I write in three weeks?
Reading, for me, is about idea generation.
Ideas begin in your mind, but will end there unless they are written down. Keep a business idea journal. Jot every idea down in a notebook app in your phone using Evernote or OneNote. You never know when the idea will resurface later in life.
In today’s digital age, writing is the number one way to build a community online. An entrepreneur needs to bring an audience to the table, or the ability to grow an audience. This is something the technical person probably will not have or enjoy doing. Building an audience requires excellent communication skills and an entrepreneur who writes will have this.
“If you are awake, and you’re an entrepreneur, you should be writing. It’s the single biggest skill I think you could develop.”
@oligardner, CEO of UnBounce
The strength of an entrepreneur is reflected in the strength of his/her network. While technical people can build or design on their own, and entrepreneur needs to find the right people. Often, an entrepreneur is the one that knits a project together; he finds the “right people to put in the right seat on the right bus.”
Josh Chandler, a young UK-based entrepreneur, said a strong network is critical to the success of a young entrepreneur. In his article, How Young Entrepreneurs Can Build a Thriving Business Network, He said:
As a young entrepreneur I know there are two factors which have made a huge difference to my success. They are determination and a great business network.
As a non-technical founder, you may believe that it would be so much easier if you were able to build the product yourself. But there are plenty of non-technical entrepreneurs-now-billionaires who did not lift a finger to build.
Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, studied philosophy but jumped into entrepreneurship to “best influence the world.” His net worth is estimated to be $4.7 billion.
Richard Branson, serial entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin brand, had dyslexia and performed poorly academically. His first business venture was the high school music magazine Student which experienced overnight success. Branson lives on his own island and is valued at $4.9 billion.
Whether you have a background in philosophy or media, it does not require a technical or academically prestigious background to be successful as an entrepreneur. Branson and Hoffman will be the first to tell you that people are the key to capitalizing on any opportunity.
There are lessons you will only learn by failing. Of course, to learn from failure means that you have to ACT. If you call yourself an entrepreneur, and tell groups of people all about your ideas, but never act… then you are merely a thinker and a talker. An entrepreneur earns his stripes by executing.
The fear of failure winnows the thinkers and talkers from the doers. The entrepreneur has this fear, too, yet soldiers forth.
Failure is a skill of the entrepreneur. She learns from it, builds relationships from it, and develops strategies from it to use in the future. My first startupfailed. But the lessons I learned from it will stick with me for the rest of my life (article coming soon) and were well-worth the lost investment.
One of my favorite quotes in the last year was spoken by an entrepreneur on Reddit. He said:
You will learn more in three days of acting than in six months of researching.
Talking about ideas is easy. Taking action is difficult. Failing is more difficult. Taking action after failure is the pathway to success.
Do you need a technical degree/skill to succeed as a founder? No. But it would not hurt.
What should the mindset of a non-technical founder be? Inspiration. Have a strong vision with creativity and passion.
What should the skillset of a non-technical founder be? Read, write, network, and fail (act). These will influence your mind and train you to be the entrepreneur your technical partners need you to be to launch a startup.