How To Make It as a
First-Time Entrepreneur

How to Make it as a First-Time Entrepreneur

This is the first part of a series on becoming your own technical co-founder. In 2008, we couldn’t find a technical co-founder for Yipit.  I’m writing about how I became our technical co-founder. Hopefully, I’ll encourage other entrepreneurs with a dream but no technical co-founder options to take their destiny into their own hands.

Disclaimer: If you know a great technical co-founder that wants to work with you, join them. This series is intended for everyone else who has a dream but can’t find a technical co-founder.

We Were Screwed

As the summer of 2007 came to an end, I had one of the most depressing and humbling weeks of my life. Just a few months before that, I had left an office facing Park Avenue making an absurd amount of money for a 26 year-old to start an internet-based company. I was now sitting in my apartment realizing, for the first time (and not the last), that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.

We had been working on a site to help people share links with each other in private groups and had been using an outsourcer to build the first version. We wanted to do something in local but thought this site would be an easy way to quickly test our relationship with the outsourcer and get our feet wet.

After handing them an 80-page product spec months earlier, we were able to finally test the site five weeks later than scheduled– so much for quickly testing our relationship. Nothing worked. In fact, you couldn’t even share a link. As depressing as that was, it was made worse by the fact that the outsourcer told us he had tested out the site and “found no bugs.” I remember reading the email and then looking over at the other tab I had open with 16-pages of bugs we had found in 4 hours of testing. We were screwed.

Learning Python

While we continued to work with the outsourcer for a month and a half, we knew it wasn’t going to work in the long run. It wasn’t even really the outsourcer’s fault, it was our fault. We definitely weren’t managing them well. But, more importantly, we didn’t know what we were doing as entrepreneurs. I started reading Steve Blank and Eric Reis and realized we were going to have to do ton of iterating and having an outsourcer in the middle was going to make it really hard to be successful. We needed to iterate quickly and, thus, we needed someone on the team to do the iterating.

So, it was now October and, after failing to find a good technical co-founder, we knew we had to make a decision. Either we give up or one of us would become our technical co-founder. Since I had taken two intro CS courses in college, we decided I would become the technical co-founder and Jim would help out on the front-end development (HTML/CSS) side.

I was terrified. I had never built a site and hadn’t written a line of code since my freshman year of college (7 years ago). I thought we were doomed.

But, to my complete surprise, six months later, I was able to build almost any prototype we wanted. Really.

Why You Can Become Your Own Technical Co-Founder

It turned out that it was a lot easier than I had expected.  At least it became easier when I realized that the goal wasn’t for me to become Yipit’s CTO.  My goal was to build a prototype that got traction. (By traction, I mean that visitors convert into users of your site, those users come back to the site and they refer their friends) Once we got traction, we had investors and great technical co-founders knocking on our door.

Another way to think about it is that you’re just going to be a temporary technical co-founder. You just have to know enough to build and iterate on a prototype to get traction.

Here’s what I found that makes it much easier than you would expect:

  • Minimum Viable Product (MVP). To get traction, you don’t have to build a complete product. You just have to build some small, core aspect of your idea and get people to start using that. That means you can get something out much smaller, get traction and then bring in a real CTO to help you expand the product. The version of Yipit that got us traction was built in 4 days. It took us a year of customer learning to know what to build. But, from a technical perspective, the MVP that got us traction took us just 4 days.
  • Don’t have to worry about scaling and security. Scaling and security are really complicated technical challenges that you don’t have to actually worry about (this assumes you aren’t working on a project where scaling or security are a core aspect of the business). Getting traction doesn’t involve signing-up 1 million users. By the time you run into scaling issues, you’ll have an awesome CTO to help you fix it.
  • Doesn’t have to be perfect. I used to worry that my code had to be perfect. Guess what? It’s going to get thrown away and re-built by your future CTO. It doesn’t have to be perfect or pretty, it just has to work. I remember playing with an early version of Foursquare and getting MySQL errors. It didn’t matter because they now have an awesome tech team that re-built it all.
  • User interface and experience is more important. You’re not going to be working on your own complex sorting algorithms or MapReduce. Most web startups are CRUD apps. The technology is simple in the back-end, the value created is primarily in the user interface and user experience. UI / UX is a real challenge, just not a technical one.
  • Django and Ruby on Rails. There are amazing advanced web frameworks out there that make building a website much easier. A lot of the stuff that would have been a nightmare 8 years ago is trivial now.
  • Community help. Whenever you run into bugs / issues when developing, do a google search for the bug and you’ll find someone has already posted it and someone answered it. With StackOverflow, that’s gotten even better.
  • Systems Administration help. Setting up your server, dev environment and production environment can be really frustrating and tedious. But, you can hire someone who has already done it and have them set it up for you in less than 10 hours. That’s what I did a year and half ago and that person became our awesome CTO.
  • Open source apps. It turns out that pretty much everything you are trying to do on your web app has already been done by someone else. Want to integrate with bitly, someone built that library client. Want to add comments to your site, someone’s built that plug-in. Best of all, they are all free and open source. Worried you’ll pick the wrong one? Who cares. As long as it works, move on. You can always change it later.

I hope this list gives you some confidence that becoming your own temporary technical co-founder is not as hard as it may seem. Of all the reasons I gave above, the most important one is to remember that you just have to hack something together that works. Once it works, get people using it and keep hacking till you get traction. It doesn’t have to be perfect, scalable or secure. It just has to work.

This is the second post in a a series on becoming your own technical co-founder:

  1. Guide to Finding a Technical Co-Founder
  2. Why You Can Become Your Own Technical Co-Founder
  3. Should You Find a Co-Founder, Hire a Programmer or DIY?
  4. Big Picture Overview of All the Components of a Web Service
  5. More to Come…
  • http://hapnin.com/users/2 theschnaz

    http://railstutorial.org/ This rails tutorial is amazing. If you want to learn RoR but have no ruby or rails experience, start here.I made my way through that tutorial and a few weeks later I installed the twitter and bitly gems and got both working!

  • http://viniciusvacanti.com Vinicius Vacanti

    Awesome! I'm gong to write a post in the series about Ruby on Rails and Django and will probably hit up you for some advice.

  • http://hapnin.com/users/2 theschnaz

    cool!

  • http://musarocks.com/users/1 theschnaz

    http://railstutorial.org/

    This rails tutorial is amazing. If you want to learn RoR but have no ruby or rails experience, start here.

    I made my way through that tutorial and a few weeks later I installed the twitter and bitly gems and got both working!

    • http://viniciusvacanti.com Vinicius Vacanti

      Awesome! I’m gong to write a post in the series about Ruby on Rails and Django and will probably hit up you for some advice.

      • http://musarocks.com/users/1 theschnaz

        cool!

  • http://hapnin.com/users/2 theschnaz

    http://railstutorial.org/

    This rails tutorial is amazing. If you want to learn RoR but have no ruby or rails experience, start here.

    I made my way through that tutorial and a few weeks later I installed the twitter and bitly gems and got both working!

    • http://viniciusvacanti.com Vinicius Vacanti

      Awesome! I’m gong to write a post in the series about Ruby on Rails and Django and will probably hit up you for some advice.

      • http://hapnin.com/users/2 theschnaz

        cool!

  • Mat

    Very enlightening article, thank you! One can always use the extra encouragement in this realm if they are non-technical to begin with.

  • Mat

    Very enlightening article, thank you! One can always use the extra encouragement in this realm if they are non-technical to begin with.

    • http://viniciusvacanti.com Vinicius Vacanti

      The biggest step is realizing you’re not trying to be the CTO.

  • Mat

    Very enlightening article, thank you! One can always use the extra encouragement in this realm if they are non-technical to begin with.

    • http://viniciusvacanti.com Vinicius Vacanti

      The biggest step is realizing you’re not trying to be the CTO.

  • http://viniciusvacanti.com Vinicius Vacanti

    The biggest step is realizing you're not trying to be the CTO.

  • Adrian

    What perfect timing … at about the same time I realized I'd rather deal with the frustrations of learning to program than with the frustrations of dealing with people who act like they're some advanced race of elect super-beings (programmers), someone in the vicinity decides to share their experience of “doing it themselves”.

    I applaud your willingness to codify and share experiences and resulting insights instead of letting them make you bitter and adopting a “why should I help others when nobody helped me” attitude I come across all to often.

    Looking forward to the next two pieces of the “lesson plan” (as your time permits) from someone who actually tried it for themselves (too easy to get into theoretical debates with programmers about the relatives merits of complementing/competing methods).

    Good for you.

  • http://viniciusvacanti.com Vinicius Vacanti

    Thanks Adrian. Many more posts coming including one today!

  • Adrian

    What perfect timing … at about the same time I realized I’d rather deal with the frustrations of learning to program than with the frustrations of dealing with people who act like they’re some advanced race of elect super-beings (programmers), someone in the vicinity decides to share their experience of “doing it themselves”.

    I applaud your willingness to codify and share experiences and resulting insights instead of letting them make you bitter and adopting a “why should I help others when nobody helped me” attitude I come across all to often.

    Looking forward to the next two pieces of the “lesson plan” (as your time permits) from someone who actually tried it for themselves (too easy to get into theoretical debates with programmers about the relatives merits of complementing/competing methods).

    Good for you.

    • http://viniciusvacanti.com Vinicius Vacanti

      Thanks Adrian. Many more posts coming including one today!

  • Adrian

    What perfect timing … at about the same time I realized I’d rather deal with the frustrations of learning to program than with the frustrations of dealing with people who act like they’re some advanced race of elect super-beings (programmers), someone in the vicinity decides to share their experience of “doing it themselves”.

    I applaud your willingness to codify and share experiences and resulting insights instead of letting them make you bitter and adopting a “why should I help others when nobody helped me” attitude I come across all to often.

    Looking forward to the next two pieces of the “lesson plan” (as your time permits) from someone who actually tried it for themselves (too easy to get into theoretical debates with programmers about the relatives merits of complementing/competing methods).

    Good for you.

    • http://viniciusvacanti.com Vinicius Vacanti

      Thanks Adrian. Many more posts coming including one today!

  • Pingback: Should You Hire a Programmer or DIY? | Vinicius Vacanti

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  • http://twitter.com/Clarkebar Clarkebar

    Vinicius, I'm in the same place today that you were 2 years ago. 26 yrs old sitting at a wall street firm contemplating the leap into my own startup full time. I'd love to talk if you're ever looking to grab a beer in NYC.

  • http://twitter.com/Clarkebar Clarkebar

    Vinicius, I’m in the same place today that you were 2 years ago. 26 yrs old sitting at a wall street firm contemplating the leap into my own startup full time. I’d love to talk if you’re ever looking to grab a beer in NYC.

    • Highsmith

      Should I continue the list of people who has gone through this cycle? Clarkebar and Vinicius, did you ever get that beer? If not i’ll buy if I can join in. I’m in NYC too.

  • http://twitter.com/Clarkebar Clarkebar

    Vinicius, I’m in the same place today that you were 2 years ago. 26 yrs old sitting at a wall street firm contemplating the leap into my own startup full time. I’d love to talk if you’re ever looking to grab a beer in NYC.

    • Highsmith

      Should I continue the list of people who has gone through this cycle? Clarkebar and Vinicius, did you ever get that beer? If not i’ll buy if I can join in. I’m in NYC too.

  • Pingback: 6 Things You Need to Learn To Build Your Own Prototype | Vinicius Vacanti

  • Highsmith

    Should I continue the list of people who has gone through this cycle? Clarkebar and Vinicius, did you ever get that beer? If not i'll buy if I can join in. I'm in NYC too.

  • http://twitter.com/niknir Nikhil Nirmel

    I have to call bullshit here. According to your bio you “served as a teaching fellow for Harvard’s Computer Science department for two years.”
    um…. you hadn’t written a line of code since freshman year? if that’s the case then what exactly does a teaching fellow do in harvard’s cs dept for two years?

    • http://viniciusvacanti.com Vinicius Vacanti

      My first negative comment!

      You don’t write code as a teaching assistant but it did give me a solid foundation in Java and C which I promptly forgot. Here’s what I didn’t learn: server administration, HTTP requests, Python or Ruby, Django or Rails, databases, model view controller paradigm, setting up a dev environment, javascript, etc.

      That’s why I always tell people that getting a degree as a CS major doesn’t actually prepare you very well to build CRUD websites which is what most prototypes are.

      You’re not going to make many friends with comments like that. For instance, I would have written it like this: “I noticed in your bio, you served as … Don’t you think that gave you an edge when teaching yourself to build websites?”

      • http://profiles.google.com/guerrilx Leah Guerrier

        vinicius this is the type of information i’ve been relentlessly searching for. the terms, ” server administration, HTTP requests, databases, model view controller paradigm, setting up a dev environment, javascript,” sound familiar but it would be awesome if you could elaborate on how they fit into your end CRUD website.
        Moreover, a post detailing a general outline on what you needed to know would be awesome ie:
        for the front end i needed: html, ajax, and css because….
        for the back-end i used rails because…
        what is server administration? you need xyz to set it up

        idk how to further elaborate because i don’t quite understand whats needed lol

  • http://twitter.com/niknir Nikhil Nirmel

    I have to call bullshit here. According to your bio you “served as a teaching fellow for Harvard’s Computer Science department for two years.”
    um…. you hadn’t written a line of code since freshman year? if that’s the case then what exactly does a teaching fellow do in harvard’s cs dept for two years?

    • http://viniciusvacanti.com Vinicius Vacanti

      My first negative comment!

      You don’t write code as a teaching assistant but it did give me a solid foundation in Java and C which I promptly forgot. Here’s what I didn’t learn: server administration, HTTP requests, Python or Ruby, Django or Rails, databases, model view controller paradigm, setting up a dev environment, javascript, etc.

      That’s why I always tell people that getting a degree as a CS major doesn’t actually prepare you very well to build CRUD websites which is what most prototypes are.

      You’re not going to make many friends with comments like that. For instance, I would have written it like this: “I noticed in your bio, you served as … Don’t you think that gave you an edge when teaching yourself to build websites?”

      • http://profiles.google.com/guerrilx Leah Guerrier

        vinicius this is the type of information i’ve been relentlessly searching for. the terms, ” server administration, HTTP requests, databases, model view controller paradigm, setting up a dev environment, javascript,” sound familiar but it would be awesome if you could elaborate on how they fit into your end CRUD website.
        Moreover, a post detailing a general outline on what you needed to know would be awesome ie:
        for the front end i needed: html, ajax, and css because….
        for the back-end i used rails because…
        what is server administration? you need xyz to set it up

        idk how to further elaborate because i don’t quite understand whats needed lol

        EDIT: and then i went to part 4 lmao

    • Rajkanwar Batra

      Good work man. This puts it in perspective

  • Yash

    Quite inspirational. I am one of those “bitten by the entrepreneurial bug but still churning ideas after ideas without any action yet”. But after reading your blog especially about DIY part, I feel I am ready to take action with 1 idea that I have had for a while. Being a techie myself, it won’t be too difficult to pick up Django (I have been reading about it for last 3 days since visiting your blog :)). Five stars from me!!

  • Yash

    Quite inspirational. I am one of those “bitten by the entrepreneurial bug but still churning ideas after ideas without any action yet”. But after reading your blog especially about DIY part, I feel I am ready to take action with 1 idea that I have had for a while. Being a techie myself, it won’t be too difficult to pick up Django (I have been reading about it for last 3 days since visiting your blog :)). Five stars from me!!

  • http://twitter.com/aledalgrande Alessandro

    Did you use Rails in the end? And did you do UX yourself? #curious

    • http://viniciusvacanti.com Vinicius Vacanti

      no, used python / django and did the UX myself. Spent lots of time exploring and using every new service that launched.

      • http://twitter.com/aledalgrande Alessandro

        Thanks for the answer. Will remember in the next months!

  • http://twitter.com/aledalgrande Alessandro DalGrande

    Did you use Rails in the end? And did you do UX yourself? #curious

    • http://viniciusvacanti.com Vinicius Vacanti

      no, used python / django and did the UX myself. Spent lots of time exploring and using every new service that launched.

      • http://twitter.com/aledalgrande Alessandro DalGrande

        Thanks for the answer. Will remember in the next months!

  • Frank

    Im loving your articles. It’s exactly what I needed to read.

  • Frank

    Im loving your articles. It’s exactly what I needed to read.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Gil-Duzanski/100001033571995 Gil Duzanski

    Great article. I agree that it is very hard to find a technical co-founder and outsourcing usually does not work. In my case I’m looking for a co-founder for an educational startup and seems that not many people are interested in education since it can’t buy you a Porsche tomorrow. So far my team is two business people and one tech.

  • Brian

    Great post and 100% agreed! I too was a wall street guy before (in Boston); wish I read your blog and learn about lean startup before I outsourced my 1st version, although that did help me learn PHP much quicker, since I can look at what the existing code does and leverage that into building new features. I was also stunned by how easy front-end programming has become since the birth of JQuery.

  • Shaan Batra

    Awesome. Very inspirational. I faced a ton of issues in getting my first product up and running and dealing with outsourcing issues. Now, I’ve become my own technical co-founder as well. You’re right. It’s all about getting that prototype out there and getting feedback versus being an amazing engineer. 

  • http://twitter.com/stanmarion Stanislas Marion

    seriously awesome post, I started reading your blog a few hours ago (after putting it off for far too long), and jesus, this was probably the best read in months! thanks for all of this!

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    Awesome post! Please keep this site up and running, its a valuable resource!

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  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.feng.3766 Michael Feng

    Great stuff.  Two years ago, I quit my Wall Street job, got a master’s from Stanford and just built a prototype site that will hopefully disintermediate investment consultants.  Needless to say, I wholeheartedly agree with everything you wrote.

    • http://viniciusvacanti.com Vinicius Vacanti

      nice!!

  • http://naushad.me/ Naushad

    4 Years later, this is still relevant. Ive learned most of this part in different contexts and in different times never together as a bunch,

  • mony1