This is the third 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.
You have the next big idea but don’t have a strong technical background and you don’t have a great technical co-founder lined up. Sadly, that represents over 95% of potential entrepreneurs out there and it’s a very frustrating experience.
Not all is lost. You don’t need to build an amazing scalable company right away. You just need to get a prototype off the ground that gets traction. Once you get traction, you can attract a great technical team. So, how do you build that prototype?
You have three options all of which are hard, frustrating and risky:
- Keep trying to find a technical co-founder. We tried this at Yipit and couldn’t find anyone.
- Pros: If you have a great technical co-founder, your startup now has a real future.
- Cons: You won’t do any work on your project till you find someone. Worse, you’re probably not going to find someone and, if you do, they’re going to be less than ideal.
- Advice: I wrote a gude to finding a technical co-founder.
- Hire a programmer. We also tried this at Yipit and it didn’t work.
- Pros: You’ll have someone working on your project right away.
- Cons: It will cost you money. You’re not going to manage them correctly. If that initial prototype doesn’t get traction right away (and it probably won’t), it’s going to be a real struggle to quickly iterate and you’ll end up spending even more money.
- Advice: See this great article on how to hire a programmer.
- Teach yourself to build it. After failing to the above two, we decided we would teach ourselves. Six months later, we could build almost any prototype we wanted. We got traction with Yipit and now have an awesome technical team working on it.
- Pros. You’ll have full control over your destiny. You can iterate your project quickly and you’ll have way better interactions with your future technical team. You’ll have this skill for your future ideas.
- Cons. Your project is going to have to wait till you teach yourself. It will take a serious time investment from you.
- Advice. I’m writing a series on becoming your own technical co-founder based on my experience. See my first post on why it’s easier than you probably think.
Which Option Should You Choose?
Okay, so which option should choose? There’s a lot of ways to think about it, but I think it really comes down to where you think your startup is going to create real value.
Tech startups create real value in one of three ways: (note: for example companies, I’m referring to their initial prototypes):
- Technology Innovation. Your service has to be secure, it has to scale immediately, you need PhD’s to help you develop algorithms and you’re probably applying for a few patents.
- Examples: Initial prototypes of Google, Twilio, SimpleGeo, Aviary, Hunch
- Advice: Keep trying to find a technical co-founder. In fact, unless you have serious domain expertise, you should reconsider why you are trying to build a start-up that has a very serious technology component.
- User Interface / User Experience. This represents most startups we see today. The tech aspect is mainly writing and reading from a database and you might build on top of an API. You won’t need to scale right away and it doesn’t need to be super secure.
- Examples: Initial prototypes of Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter, Yelp, Yipit
- Advice: Teach Yourself. Your main challenge won’t be the technology but will be getting the interface right. Getting the interface and experience right will require you to iterate the product several times and you’ll want to be in full control over how quickly you can do that.
- Sales / Marketing. The tech stuff is *really* easy and replicable by many. The key to your startup’s success is your sales, editorial or marketing operations most of which will be mainly happening offline. In fact, you’re initial product isn’t a real tech company, it’s a tech-enabled company.
- Examples: Initial prototypes of Gilt, Groupon, Thrillist, Gawker
- Advice: Hire a Programmer. The prototype’s functionality isn’t going to determine your success. It’s your ability to create great content, build a great sales team or execute on marketing channels. Just get something out there and recruit a great technical team later.
As a personal experience, if we had been building a Groupon competitor, we would have hired a programmer. But, since Yipit, an aggregator of all these services, involves more user interface / user experience challenges, it made more sense for us to teach ourselves so that we could iterate on the concept till we got it right.
So, for all the 95% of us who don’t have a great technical co-founder lined up, I hope to encourage you that you can get started on your dream today. Assuming you are not trying to innovate on the technology, either hire a programmer or start teaching yourself.
This is part of a series on becoming your own technical co-founder. In the next post in this series, I will delve into becoming your own temporary technical co-founder based on my own experience staring with a big picture overview of all the components of a web service.