Hey Non-Technical Founders. Protect Yourself.

By Zach Kirkhorn

For a non-technical MBAs, one of the most intimidating and high-risk decisions is finding technical resources to build your web-based product.  Jessica Kim at BabbaCo described her troubles with development in the early stages with outsourcing and finding a technical cofounder.  Adam Metros at TripAdvisor asserted that there is no acceptable reason to lack basic technical skills.  And David Vivero at RentJuice learned to program MVP himself.  I’m a strong believer that any entrepreneur with a web-based business needs to learn the basics of programming.  I’ve spent much of my free time at HBS doing just that and wrote on this topic last semester (Stop Whining Learn to Code).

This year, a classmate and I decided to monetize our coding skills by building web app MVPs for our HBS classmates.  I want to share a few things I’ve learned working with non-technical teams, hoping that you will avoid those pitfalls in the future.

Lack of understanding of what’s possible:  Teams see fancy websites like AirBnB or Yelp and strive to replicate that quality and complexity for their launch.  They have inflated expectations on what can be built for a few thousand dollars in only a few weeks.
Lack of control of the product:  Without an understanding of what’s possible, teams are struggling to articulate what they want.  So we end up proposing to the team what we think they want.  After a 30 minute meeting, we’ve now become their VP of Product and are building the visions we have in our heads.
Lack of ability to evaluate developers:  Teams are trying to develop criteria to select prospective developers, but lack the knowledge to evaluate developers against those criteria.  So they end up choosing solely on the “do I like these people?” factor.
Lack of due diligence:  Only a few teams asked for links to our prior web development work.  Not a single team has asked us what functionality we’ve built into those sites and whether our experience in developing that site is relevant to their project.  Teams take our word when we say we’re qualified.

Most founders will choose not to become technical and I understand all the reasons we tell ourselves that’s the right decision.  And that may be the right path, depending on what you’re starting.  But most teams are mismanaging the development process and are exposed to being taking advantage of.  Don’t worry - we’ll take good care of them.  But not everyone will be that generous.

The reality is that you need to protect yourself.  I can’t stress this enough.  Here are a few thoughts on how to do that:
Learn the terminology of coding:

·         You need to know what server-side and client-side mean. 
·         Familiarize yourself with server-side languages (e.g., Ruby, Python, PHP)
·         Familiarize yourself with client-side languages (e.g., HTML, Javascript, jQuery vs. AJAX, CSS)

Learn the basics of coding:  Spend a few weekends running through the lessons on CodeAcademy and W3Schools.
Learn how to communicate your vision to the developer:  Words are good.  Pictures are even better.  Use wireframing tools to unambiguously describe the layout of your website.
Own the code:  Signup up for GitHub and ensure that the developer saves their code to your GitHub repository.  You never know when you’ll need to take the code and find another developer.
Communicate regularly:  Set milestones with dates.  Track and review work.  This will prevent some surprises down the line, or at least alert you when it’s time to bail.
Contract locally and through connections:  While it’s possible to have success with international and unknown developers, I don’t believe it’s worth the risk.  Save yourself the hassle by finding a development team that’s local and recommended by someone you trust. 
Be on the lookout for a CTO:  In the MVP stage, hiring a CTO may seem like a long way away.  But that day will come eventually and likely sooner than you think.  Keep your eyes peeled for a CTO starting now, so you’re prepared when you finally decide to bring one on board.

And most importantly:
Find a technical mentor:  You need someone who can help you navigate through the technical aspects of building a web application.  There’s a lot to learn. 

You have the power to enable yourself to be successful from the beginning, so make sure you invest the necessary time to learn.  And remember that a great way to earn the respect of a developer is to show an interest and be knowledgeable about their craft. 
Best of luck!


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