Running a Tech Company without the Tech

Posted: June 21, 2015 by JB Woodruff in People, Startup, Technology

JB-WOODRUFF-BADGEMy job is to help entrepreneurs.  The majority of businesses I encounter have technology-based solutions in the form of a consumer app or SaaS (software as a service) product.  It’s not surprising that we see a lot of founders of tech startups given the media attention and big payoffs. What is surprising is the number of founders that aren’t technology people.  This led me to ask the question, what’s it like to run a tech company without the tech? In the context of this article I consider tech to be a team member with developer skills that includes coding and infrastructure knowledge.  Instead of pulling solely from my own experiences, I decided to reach out to a few entrepreneurs to get their thoughts.  Here’s what I learned:

“How do I find good tech for my team?” You can never start looking early enough for tech on your team.  It can be a lengthy process that involves a lot of networking, referrals, dead ends and reboots. The difficulty is finding someone who has the skills, reputation and equal or greater passion for your business.  Amanda Kranias (Hello Parent) highly recommends, “talk to other companies/teams and listen to what others experienced using the developer.”  Casey Williams (Linkedü) offers another opinion, “I got burned by hiring someone based on a recommendation.  The two developers I’ve hired from within my own network have worked out well.”  Moral: You need to do your homework, meet a lot of people, trust your gut and move on when it doesn’t work out.

“When is the right time to have tech on the team?”  Get tech when you have answered the following questions: Does my product / service solve my customer’s problem in the right way that it provides enough value that they would be willing to pay for it?  Too many startups get too far down the development path before answering these questions. “It’s like designing the packaging for chocolate chip cookies when you haven’t perfected the recipe yet,” says Tarek Kamil, CEO / Founder of Cerkl.  A couple of founders saw additional benefit in waiting.  A tech member may limit creativity by “putting constraints” in the process.  Moral: Prove the problem exists, you have the right solution and one developer’s opinion likely doesn’t reflect what is technically possible.

But I need a working product to get in front of my customers to answer the question.” Many founders worry about not having a working product to show to customers.  The widely agreed upon recommendation is to stop worrying and just do what you can to capture the vision with enough clarity that you can get a meaningful customer response.  How do you do this?  Ask meaningful questions of your customers and listen to their needs.  Create a product mockup using the skills you have with as little money as possible. Time and money are your most valuable assets as a startup so get creative with prototyping.  You’ll have a cheaper “product” in the hands of your customers faster.  Moral: Be creative, be cheap.

“Beyond the obvious, what does tech really bring to a business?”  Here’s what the startups shared:  Reduces your expenses (especially if they’re an equity partner), things move “10x faster”, there is less stress, ability to get more done in all business areas, better able to project costs and timelines, customer response times are increased, undivided attention is given to the business.  Moral: Tech company? Better to have tech on your team.

“What are some of the challenges you’ll face in tech?” Having tech embedded in your team is valuable, but it brings challenges.  Good developers command high wages and it can be very difficult to hang on to them.  If your developer leaves then your development stops, which can spell disaster for your business.  Alex Burkhart of Tixers cautions, “A tech person can bounce on you.  They know they are valuable and can lose interest quickly.  If things get bad they hold the keys and can mess up a lot of things.” Despite these challenges, they are not uncommon or unavoidable.  Having a shared code repository on sites like Github will ensure you don’t lose the assets.  Sticking with popular development languages will ensure you have others who can help in a pinch.  Finally, ensure that your developer has a passion for your solution and business.  Money can influence decisions so make sure your business has a nice upside. Moral: Know the risks and mitigate them.

“What should I do if I’m a founder without tech?”  Start learning.  Now, more than ever, there are thousands of cheap, online courses dedicated to coding and technology.  Even if you don’t go fully into coding, get to know enough to be knowledgeable.  Steve Oldfield (Touritz) learned that “a crash course in programming/design 101, enabled me to learn enough of the lingo to be able to ask the right questions.”  At the very least, consider picking up some skills with applications like Photoshop so you can create strong conceptual designs.  From there, start networking in the tech community by using resources like Cintrifuse, local accelerators and Meetup groups.  Beyond teaching yourself there are 4 options to bringing tech to your business:  1. Hire a development shop 2. Hire a dedicated developer to your team 3. Bring in a developer as an equity partner 4. Teach yourself.  Each has its pros and cons that I hope you’ll explore more.  I asked one founder if he saw any pros of not bringing on an equity partner.  His answer, “Of course – more equity for you!” Moral: If you’re rich, consider acquiring a company instead of starting one 😉 For everyone else, do your best in finding the right tech resources that fit your budget.

These thoughts and opinions are a few of the many out there regarding tech in your business. I encourage you to get out there and give your business a shot and let me know how it goes.

If you have an innovative tech idea and are looking to get started I suggest resources such as Cintrifuse and the ezone. If you’re a little further along then accelerators such as UpTech, The Brandery and Ocean are great.

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