What Is the Role of a Non-Technical Startup Founder?

August 23, 2016 - 9 minutes read
Jobs and Wozniak: the ultimate template for co-founder relationships.

Jobs and Wozniak: the ultimate template for co-founder relationships.

Non-technical startup founders often get a bad rap in the tech world.

This is partly because there’s simply a scarcity of quality technical talent — and partly because many non-technical founders try to jump to the top of the ladder without proving their value.

Take a look at Hacker News, Quora, Reddit, Medium, or anywhere else where app developers hang out and you’ll notice a consistent trend: non-technical founders seeking technical co-founders. This scene from the show Silicon Valley sums it up nicely:

The secret to forming a strong co-founder relationship, as a non-technical professional, is to have a strong understanding of your role.

Far too often, non-technical founders see their role as the “boss,” delegating work to everyone else and reaping the rewards for themselves.

If you can get around this stereotype and demonstrate incredible value to a founding team, you’ll have no problem finding code-savvy app developers who want to partner with you.

In this post, we’ll look at the role of non-technical founders and strategies for making yourself indispensable to your startup — without writing a single line of code.

Understand: seed-stage startup team members where many hats

One founder. Many hats.

One founder. Many hats.

It may not be obvious from a non-technical perspective, but a technical co-founder has to juggle a variety of roles under the “coding” category to get your app idea off the ground. Back-end engineer. Front-end developer. UX prototyping. The list goes on. First and foremost, don’t make the mistake of underestimating the workload facing technical talent.

With that in mind, a non-technical founder has to do the same thing: wear many hats. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Boston iPhone app developer or startup founder who’s never done someone else’s job out of necessity. Whether the initial team is two people or twelve, you should have your hand in every non-technical aspect of the company: sales, marketing, business development, design, hiring, project management, company culture, finances, fundraising… again, the list goes on.

In short, your job is to make sure your technical co-founder doesn’t have to worry about anything other than the programming challenges in front of them. In an ideal partnership, both roles are equally important.

Supporter vs delegator: slicing the pie

startup

The stereotype about CEO/CTO relationships is that the CEO is an outgoing people person driving the public-relations side, while the CTO is a non-social introvert type who keeps things running in the background.

Whether or not this is true in your relationship, the stereotype is a decent summary of your respective roles.

You can think of the roles in a startup as slices in a pie. As the startup grows, you can slice those pieces more thinly so each team member has a narrowly defined specialty. In the beginning, those slices will be quite thick. In the case of a two-person team, it’s simply sliced in half.

Delegation will be part of your role as a non-technical founder, but it shouldn’t be the task that your team associates with you. Instead, treat yourself as a “supporter.” Don’t put a job on someone’s desk without reminding them that you’re there to support them, and always check in to make sure nothing is blocking them.

Be prepared to jump in and help, even with non-glamorous tasks like customer support and budgeting. Being intimately familiar with each role in your company will make it exponentially easier to work with specialist team members in the future.

Managing the front-end

A startup is like a busy restaurant. One co-founder handles the social front end — the other handles the technical back end.

A startup is like a busy restaurant. One co-founder handles the social front end — the other handles the technical back end.

Even if you don’t have a head for coding, you should acquire at least a basic understanding of UX and UI practices.

Whether this means attending a short-term program or finding a personal mentor, you should have at least as keen an understanding of the user-facing element of your app as the technical talent has of the back-end code.

Chances are you’ll be working with an app development studio rather than working photoshop or Xcode yourself, but having literacy in this area will make you infinitely more valuable in the early stages.

Fundraising

Pitching venture capitalists is an invaluable skill for non-technical founders.

Pitching venture capitalists is an invaluable skill for non-technical founders.

Getting venture capital is one of the top three challenges new startups face. It’s also something that takes an enormous amount of time, skill, and finess (not to mention good business connections.)

If you can take the reigns on venture capital and keep the company bank account stocked, no one is going to question your value to the team.

Be an evangelist

The startup lifestyle is tough, discouraging, and tiring. It’s easy to loose sight of the “big picture” that inspired your app idea in the first place.

Being a cheerleader isn’t easy, but taking on the responsibility of maintaining team morale is an obvious pick for non-technical co-founders. This can become especially challenging when team growth and user growth lead to logistical growing pains.

Balancing management with positivity under pressure isn’t easy. Those who master this skill, however, avoid team resentment issues that can easily tear down a seed-stage startup.

Concentrate on business models where strong non-technical skills are valued

Startups with strong real-world operations can be a great fit for non-technical skillsets.

Startups with strong real-world operations can be a great fit for non-technical skillsets.

Last but not least, don’t try to force yourself into a vertical that’s ruled by coding wiz kids. There’s a reason technical founders often insist they don’t need a business guy — in many cases, they simply don’t.

Tech is quickly becoming crucial to services and products across the spectrum of consumer needs. When you’re brainstorming your app idea, concentrate on industries where whatever unique skillsets you have will be highly valuable.

Background in cuisine? Look at on-demand food service models. Background in grant writing? Perhaps there could be an “Uber” for that. Creativity and strategy are key.

The ideal non-technical co-founder

The ideal non-technical co-founder has strong sales skills, a project management background, and some “wild card” talent or experience that’s applicable to their app ideas.

Sounds like you? Then finding a technical partner to make your app dreams a reality should be no problem.

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