As a digital product development consultancy that delivers more than 30 projects a year, we get to work with a lot of founders: technical and non-technical alike. Over the last 17 some-odd years, there are a few traits we see time and again in successful non-technical founders. And really, these six traits benefit anyone trying to create a successful new product.
Maybe it should go without saying, but if you are setting out to build a tech startup, you ought to like technology. Successful non-technical founders tend to share a trait that could be described as a technical confidence, balanced with a curiosity and willingness to learn. This is true even if you have a technical co-founder – you still need to understand the process of building software enough to get the dynamics of development. If you cultivate this mindset, you can nurture a great relationship with your technical team, which pays huge dividends.
Instead of coming up with an amazing product idea and trying your hardest to make it a reality, the most successful founders doggedly pursue the problem itself, without locking into any one solution. We first learned this concept from lean startup hero Ash Maurya, but you’ll hear it repeated by other successful entrepreneurs (and intrapreneurs), like Waze’s Uri Levine, and Intuit/Google’s Suzanne Pellican. And what do these folks have in common? They all have non-technical (business or design) backgrounds.
What does it mean to fall in love with the problem? Often it means picking a domain you are already working in, or returning to something that you found really interesting you when you were younger. For instance, Deborah & Jake Anderson-Bialis were already deeply immersed in fertility treatment research well before they started FertilityIQ, and when David Rogier & Aaron Rasmussen founded Masterclass – with its online classes taught by the likes of Serena Williams and Christina Aguilera – they may have been in part inspired by the idea of working with some of their childhood heroes.
Why is falling in love with the problem so important? Because you are (hopefully) going to be living with this problem for a long time. And not just the problem, but the people (like you) that have that problem, too. This mindset sustains founders through the inevitable ups and downs and, most importantly, will keep you from falling in love with a product that nobody wants.
Great non-technical founders tend to be already solving the problem they fell in love with: either because they were working professionally in the domain, or are running product experiments and doing customer development before building any software.
There are some classic examples of this in Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup, including Aardvark, who we helped move from people-power to software back in the day. More recently, folks like Kim Scott & Russ Laraway of Candor fame built a profitable consulting business, and Kim wrote the book on Radical Candor, before doubling down and leveraging technology to help more people. And Shop-Ware’s Carolyn Coquillette had been running a successful auto repair shop on home-grown software for years before launching her software platform.
Solving the problem without technology, whether by bootstrapping a services business, or by doing some concierge or Wizard of Oz experiments, will let you explore product-market fit quickly and more efficiently before you raise funds sufficient to rebuilding the now-more-validated solution hypothesis using some technology.
You need the raw materials to create your business. For early-stage tech startups, this is often skilled software developers (and designers and product managers) along with enough time to apply that skill to design, build, and test multiple iterations of the product. Your choices are adding a technical co-founder who can hire a team – in exchange for serious equity – or try and remain more closely held and either build the team yourself or work with an consultancy like ours.
Folks ask us how much money they should raise in those early seed rounds where you may still be searching for product-market fit. Although it’s a vague answer, you’ll need enough money to fund a runway to both prove you have achieved that fit, and to identify key milestones, the validation needed at each milestone, and the specific bottleneck that more funding would solve. If you haven’t made one yet, a Lean Canvas is a great way to identify these. For most software-only projects, a four-month window of intense product development should yield a first version. Plan on a few pivots from there and a year of funding a team of around four is average. If your product has a two-sided market or a physical component, this can vary substantially. Either way, it’s worth a conversation with a few folks to help with estimation.
The startup life will hand you lots of ups and downs, so having a good support system is crucial. If you are a non-technical co-founder creating a technology company, this is often compounded by a feeling of being out of your depth.
When we are working with solo-founders, the successful ones seem to share a curiosity, humility, and courage that gives them a resilience that helps them through those early periods of deep uncertainty until they reach a place where they can more easily make sound decisions about their product. And if you do go the solo-founder road, consider creating an advisory board early on. Even the lone wolf sometimes needs a pack.
Those ups and downs are one of the main reasons driving most startups to have multiple founders. And if you’re creating a technology company, a technical co-founder seems to make a ton of sense. You want a representative for each major area of expertise: typically someone leading building the product, someone leading revenue or user-generating activities, and someone out pitching the business and raising money. That said, you can sometimes delay adding co-founders until an A-stage round by outsourcing those functions. But if you can, add them now.
Instead of siloed specialists, innovative startups tend to grow out of balanced, cross-functional teams that are able to collaboratively design, build, and test solutions using diverse means. These teams power so-called full stack startups – like our good friends at Stitch Fix – and these efficient, motivated, fast-moving teams can change the world – and a diverse team will help make sure your successful startup is changing it for the better.
If you are interested in hearing more about how Carbon Five helps early stage startups along this path – from running early product experiments; to designing, building, and testing your first solutions; to helping hire & train your cross-functional team as you camp out in one of our local offices – please drop us a line. We’d love to help out any way we can.
David is the Director of Design at Carbon Five. He joined the company in 2004. Before that he was a freelance illustrator and a co-founder of the web development firm Fire Engine Red. David lives in Alameda with his wife Jenny, their dog Daisy, and a tiny dinosaur named Dorothy.