05 12 / 2012

5 things a non-technical founder can do

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Photo courtesy: thetaxhaven

For all intents and purposes, I’m the non-technical co-founder of my internet company LaunchBit, an ad network for email.  I barely write a line of code anymore.  So what do I do?  I sit around and boss people around. I’m the ideas person.  I write strategy docs.  I manage products. 

When I started my failed startup Parrotview, I had no idea what to do.  This is a primer that I wish I’d received myself.  Moreover, if you are a non-technical entrepreneur looking for a technical co-founder, showing that you can do these things effectively will set you apart from nearly everyone else.  

Customer Development

It can be easy as a non-technical co-founder to sit around and do nothing in the beginning, because no product has been built.  But, actually, this is when you are MOST needed.  

When there is no product, your job as a non-technical co-founder is to somehow get customers AND keep them happy.  (tweet this)

At the beginning of a potential business idea, I would meet with random people of our target demographic to ask them questions about their pain points and problems.  When I first started customer development, it was really daunting.  I would often have to cold-call and approach random people I didn’t know to do these customer interviews.  But, it was absolutely necessary to make sure we were solving a problem, and it was a my job.  

Wizard of Oz Customer Validation

Then, after figuring out what problem to tackle, my co-founder Jennifer and I would figure out the minimum viable product (MVP) we’d need to create.  Since speed is everything, we forced ourselves to do MVPs in 2-4 weeks.  This meant there wasn’t a lot of time to build much technically.  So, most of our MVPs have been very concierge-style.  To put it bluntly, the product was just us doing operations manually behind the curtains.  

For example, with LaunchBit, our advertisers emailed us their creative, and our publishers would copy and paste it into their newsletter.  Advertisers would send money to my personal PayPal account.  There was no ad server.  No dashboards.  Virtually no technology in v1.  Once we started getting more advertisers and publishers with this approach, things started becoming chaotic.  We needed to keep campaigns straight and keep track of who paid and who needed to be paid.  Sometimes, because there was no technology, mistakes would be made.  A publisher might inadvertently leave off the last couple of characters in an ad campaign.  Or an advertiser might forget to include an image.  And, I’d have to sort out those mishaps.  

Customer Service

As a result, both advertisers and publishers would get frustrated or angry, because this concierge-style service was tedious — not just for us but everyone involved.  It both hurt *a lot* and was incredibly exciting to hear these complaints.  

Complaints are our #1 indicator that someone even cares about what we are doing.  Indifference is our #1 enemy.

Doing customer service was also my job.  (In parallel, after we had all these customers clamoring for a non-manual product, my co-founder Jennifer started coding like a madwoman to address the most complained about issues.)

Direct Sales

In parallel to Jennifer’s product-building, we needed to keep getting new customers to keep getting feedback to make sure we were improving.  So, I would do a lot of cold-calling, cold-emailing to keep a pipeline full of customers.  

I’d never been a salesperson before, so much like with customer development, it was difficult at first to work myself up to emailing/calling random people to do sales.  It still is sometimes.

Growth Hacking

Lastly, once you have product/market fit, it’s the non-technical co-founder’s job to figure out how to grow.  It could be through business partnerships and direct sales.  It could be through online marketing: advertising, content marketing, built-in product virality, etc.  Since, your particular company’s growth could come from a number of different channels, the most important skillset at this stage is to figure out a) how to test lots of growth channels quickly and b) how to measure those tests both qualitatively and quantitatively to see what is working.

I’m certainly no expert on all of these things, but these are the skills I’ve found to be the most important as a non-technical founder.  This is what I think non-technical co-founders should be doing in a startup to make themselves useful.  What does the non-technical co-founder of your startup do?  

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