Sunday, August 10, 2014

The learning curve of non-technical founders

An experienced VC or tech entrepreneur may look at what I've been doing, and based on my lack of progress in relationship to what they would consider to be the norm, go perhaps as far as declare that I shouldn't be an entrepreneur at all — too slow. They may even want to call my startup a zombie.
My personal view on this is that one has to walk before they run.
If you’re like me you’re not a developer — you are what is referred to as “non-technical” — but you nonetheless want to build a website of some sort, a mobile app or a startup of some kind.
Well, you’re just as crazy as I am then :-)
Seriously, if you’re doing a startup for the right reasons, I personally believe that you don’t need to ask for anyone’s permission, or secure the approval of others.
There will be limitations to what you and I can do. I believe it’s safe to say that we won’t be able to to invent the next generation of technology, but there is plenty that we can still do.
And understand, of course, that you will be facing a much larger learning curve than someone who has been immersed deeply in technology for a long time — for example, a web developer or a computer science graduate.

And that learning curve might add many months spent at the beginning of your journey on orienting yourself, finding your way around.
Let me share how I personally went about trying to tackle that learning curve.
First of all, I understood that I would have to concurrently learn several different topics, the main ones being technology, startups and getting funding.
1) Technology.
I've first envisioned what kind of web platform I wanted to build and then I've created it on paper and put it into wireframes.

Then I've searched the web and found the site CodingForums as a place to potentially find a developer. I met one there from India. We did Google Chats for many hours to iron out what I wanted. I then made a contract and he went on to build it. It took months (closer to a year, actually) and required many really late nights of internet chats, oversight or involvement of some kind, while I still had to work the next day at my brickwork restoration company. 2010 was hard on my body!
As soon as I would encounter a technology word I didn't know, I would go to sites such as Webopedia and define it, as well as thoroughly study the meaning of any other word within the definition itself which I didn't understand — a process which would initially result in long study sessions; but this approach has been really effective in allowing me to learn enough about the technology to be able to function in the capacity of product manager.
So if my developer would communicate some such term, or if I would encounter it on a podcast or article, I would study it as soon as I had a chance until I had enough of a conceptual understanding about how it fitted in with everything else I knew up to that point — not to the extent that I could start building the site myself of course, but to the point that I could communicate to a functional degree with developers and designers.
Eventually, my grasp got better, and when that particular developer could no longer help me with implementing a new design I had had a designer create for me, I found another developer on Odesk, but one that understood scale, Agile, Scrum, reverse engineering, refactoring, etc.
By that point (3 years in), I now understood how to get a site properly built (I pretty much had had three of them built already and we were now fixing and optimizing the most recent one while implementing a brand new design for it), and had found someone I could rely on to do so moving forward.
I’ve arrived at a place, as a product manager, where I can provide requirements, can direct the project in the direction I want it to go using a technology of my choosing (node.js or Ruby on Rails over PHP, for instance), have reasonable expectations of how long it takes to get coding done, coordinate between the designer and developers(s), know to demand code properly written which will not have to be re-written later (code refactoring), understand what’s involved to scale the site and avoid technical debt as much as possible, etc.
As a non-technical founder, it feels to me like this is a substantial accomplishment.
So, by itself, the practice of studying definitions as they are being thrown in my direction has been very powerful for me. 
I’m also currently in the process of reading a book on programming.
2. Startups, getting funding and other business-related knowledge.
a) First of all, I have setup my Twitter account (@mariocantin) to follow many VCs, well-known entrepreneurs as well as tech journalists and other news sites. I read my feed whenever I’m able to fit in some Twitter time, and it’s been a fantastic source of information for me and it has led me to read countless articles that were linked in the tweets.
b) Secondly, I read the following blogs religiously:
The first three are usually daily and fairly short to read, and I get them done over breakfast.
The other three occur with less frequency, but can be longer, especially Mark Suster’s — much longer in his case, but usually incredibly useful.

c) I listen to every episodes of the following podcasts:

"This Week in Startups" by Jason Calacanis

"Bothsides TV" by Mark Suster (This is a fairly new one, only a few back episodes)
d) I have signed up for Audible and have purchased the following books over the course of several months and have listened to all of them, and some I will listen to over and over again:
“Drive” by Daniel H. Pink
“Inbound Marketing” by Dharmesh Shaw
“Linchpin” by Seth Godin
“Crush it!” by Gary Vaynerchuck
“Made to Stick” by Dan Heath;
“Ready, Fire Aim” by Micheal Masterson
“Rework” by Jason Fried; “Switch” by Dan Heath
“Tribes” by Seth Godin

Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell
“Blue Ocean Strategies” by W. Chan Kim
“Little Bets” by Peter Sims
“Start Something that Matters” by Blake Mycoskie
“Start with Why” by Simon Sinek
“The Ultimate Sales Machine” by Chet Holmes
“The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries;
“Startup Weekend” by Clint Neilsen
“Venture Deals” by Brad Feld
“Do More Faster” by Brad Feld
“The Hard Thing about Hard Things" by Ben Horowitz
“All Marketers Are Liars” by Seth Godin;
“Permission Marketing” by Seth Godin
“Startup Communities” by Brad Feld
“Startup Life” by Brad Feld
“Purple Cow” by Seth Godin
“The Founder’s Dilemmas” by Mark Mosely
“The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell
“The Launch Pad” by Randall Stross
Makers” by Chris Anderson
“The Innovator’s Solution” by Clayton Christensen
“The Referral Engine” by John Jantsch
“Startup Boards” by Brad Feld
This process takes time, obviously, but it's my way to lay a foundation onto which I can build.

Without this "catching up" exercise, I consider that I would have no chance whatsoever to "make it"; but as a result of this regimen, I am progressively becoming more and more confident that I will; and by that, at this time, I mean at the very least building something useful -- and obviously not the next Facebook.

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