The awkwardness of being a nontechnical tech founder
I am the co-founder of a technology company, and I never learned to code. Oof.
We can celebrate the role of the nontechnical co-founder all we want, but let’s be honest. It’s a little awkward when you are starting out. The team is cranking code at a crazy pace and shipping product at all hours of the day and you are . . . talking to people. At a busy restaurant, you are the guy wandering around interrupting diners to ask them “How was everything?” It’s important. Doing it is better than not doing it, but if you skipped a day (or a month) no one would notice.
Before there is a product to sell, implement, and support it’s easy to feel like you aren’t pulling your weight. (Heck, you might not be!)
In order to survive and thrive during this period, my advice is to embrace the awkwardness.
You have a critical role to play, it just looks a lot different than your technical counterparts. A LOT DIFFERENT. Pre-product life for a nontechnical founder = bouncing between knowledge acquisition* (where you discover how much there is to learn) and user conversations (where you discover how much you still don’t know).
*In this article knowledge acquisition means reading, all online research, and competitor analysis.
The sheer complexity of building, launching, validating, and implementing a technology solution is overwhelming. You quickly realize it’s impossible to know everything about your chosen space and you find you rarely have all the answers for curious prospects. Unfortunately, asking people to give you money for your solution makes you feel like you need to.
You don’t. You need to know enough to build real relationships with people who have the problem you are trying to solve. That last sentence is really important. Read it again. These people are users, they just aren’t your users. Yet.
The most important thing you can do pre-product is build relationships.
You knew this before you started the company. You read it in books. You read it in articles. You heard it said at conferences. But, you didn’t really know it. (I didn’t at least) You have to be in the seat to really understand the primacy I am trying to convey.
So, fellow founder, stay hungry for knowledge and acquire it tirelessly, but not at the expense of building relationships. Because unless you have a sales background, your natural instinct will be to prioritize knowledge acquisition and company formation/establishment.
Your brain will push you towards safe activities to protect you from embarrassing yourself. This is a huge mistake. Those safe activities will expand to fill the volume of space they are given.
Go hard in the other direction.
Prioritize building relationships with potential future users above all else. Create a simple forcing function like “have at least 10 conversations per week.” Let that serve as your only measure of success.
Your conversations will inevitably become the forcing functions for knowledge acquisition and company administration. You will also find that you are more effective in these areas because your efforts keep pace with what is necessary and appropriate vs. front-loading a bunch of work that may not stick (i.e. you get better knowledge retention with less wasted effort).
Knowledge acquisition is a crutch. It feels like a worthy time allocation, but it just isn’t. Time scheduled for knowledge acquisition is time not available for talking to users.
Stop setting aside time for knowledge acquisition. You will find a way to get those things done because you have to. It doesn’t need space on your calendar.
You have to treat user conversations as your most important priority. If you aren’t talking to a user then you should be doing something that will lead to talking to a user. Send emails. Post interesting things on LinkedIn. Write articles about the problem and publish them.
They know something you don’t.
Every person you talk to knows something you don’t about the problem you are trying to solve. Your job is to get them to educate you. You desperately need to know what they know. Understanding how they experience your problem on a daily basis might be the key to getting to market with a solution people actually want.
Never enter a user conversation for the purpose of explaining your solution or idea. Instead, go in with the intent of getting them talking about their problems. You should only speak about 20% — 30% of the time. Your role is to ask questions and confirm understanding.
You just need to point them in the right direction and get out of the way. It’s pretty simple really. For me, it usually looks like this. “Most people I talk to are frustrated with their office phone system. Tell me about your phones.”
Sometimes it’s horribly awkward, but that’s a good sign.
Prospect conversations come in a lot of flavors. If you are having prospect conversations at the rate you should be then you will inevitably have some awkward and unproductive conversations. Sometimes you don’t know the person well and they are suspicious. Sometimes they ask you questions you don’t have an answer to. Sometimes they want a solution you don’t have and will never have. Sometimes you just can’t get them talking no matter how hard you try. Sometimes you just blow it trying to make a connection. It’s ok. It happened to me yesterday as a matter of fact.
Here’s the point: If you aren’t leaving a meeting or getting off the phone muttering “that was awkward” at least once a week, you are not having enough conversations.
My advice to pre-product nontechnical co-founders:
Be humble, but bold. Stop setting aside so much time for knowledge acquisition and start having lots of awkward conversations immediately.