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How to be a Tech Entrepreneur Without Knowing How to Program

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By Laura Forrest (Marketing Manager, Mozilla)

Don’t have a computer science degree? Don’t worry.

Don’t let that stop you from founding your own start-up. There are many examples of successful non-technical co-founders who didn’t let the lack of knowing a programming language stop them from creating something great.

In this case study, we look at Victoria Ransom who co-founded Wildfire along with Alain Chuard in 2008. Together they took an idea and transformed it into a thriving venture-backed company 140 employees strong. Enter Victoria Ransom:

Victoria Ransom (Co-Founder & CEO, Wildfire Interactive)

Victoria has proven business acumen, having founded two other companies that are currently still operating. She earned an MBA from Harvard, and participated as a entrepreneur-in-residence at Highland Capital Partners. As such wise sages as Bradley Horowitz and others advise: if you’re not a world-class computer scientist you should be a world-class at something — most likely, business. So if you’re not bringing technical chops to the table, you’ve gotta bring something. It’s clear that Victoria does.

However, being dependent on other people to build a product is exceptionally difficult. So let’s dig deeper.

Here are three key lessons on how to successfully build a product if you’re not a developer:

#1 — Focus on Your Strengths

Victoria could have learned to program. She could have spent weeks, or months, learning Ruby on Rails herself.

Instead, she decided to focus on her strengths, which meant developing the core product and recruiting the first enterprise clients. She wisely chose to let expert developers build the initial product.

She advises, “In a start up is it critical that you hire top notch performers for every key role and an exception shouldn’t be made for the founders. So if the founder is not a rock-star coder, or designer, or marketer she should find people who are and focus on the areas that she can add the most value to the business.”

#2 — Don’t Skimp on Development Costs

Because Wildfire started as a bootstrapped start-up, hiring US developers was prohibitive. That left two options: working through a outsourcing company or finding remote developers directly. Since working with outsourcing firms adds an extra middle-person and increases the chances of developer churn, Victoria decided to find developers herself.

She found two amazing developers that lived in Estonia through the website Working with rails. This site conveniently rates developers, making it easier to discover possible candidates. While this option was more expensive than going the firm route, the money was worth it; Victoria was able to work directly with a team of two high-quality Ruby experts.

Victoria reports, “We were told when we first started Wildfire that a great coder can be worth tens times the value of a mediocre coder. In reality, we’ve found that a poor coder can actually do more harm than good so it is without question more cost effective in the long run to pay for smart, reliable, productive developers, even if they cost a lot more.”

If she has skimped on developer costs, it could have cost Wildfire a lot more time and money in the long run.

#3 — Thoroughly Vet Technical Candidates

Website peer reviews only go so far. To make sure this dev team truly lived up to their rankings, Victoria hired a local web developer to interview the team for her. The developer interviewed them and checked examples of code they had already developed.

This vetting process resulted in quality remote developers that are now a core part of their team.

The Bottom Line

If you’re better at business than bug bashing, don’t be deterred. Crucial skills like management, fundraising, and product design are needed within start-ups as well. You could waste hundreds of hours only to become a mediocre programmer. Don’t!

Instead, work hard to find technical co-founders or outsource your tech, and focus on taking your existing super-powers further.

Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.

About the guest blogger: Laura Forrest is a Marketing Manager at Mozilla. She is an Internet professional based in San Francisco, CA. Laura specializes in on-site optimization, inbound/outbound marketing, site analytics, e-commerce, product marketing management, marketing communications and project management. She’s worked at startups, e-commerce companies, and large open-source projects. In her spare time, Laura surfs, travels, attends hackathons and builds apps. Follow her on Twitter at @lforrest.

  • http://momentusmedia.com Anna Billstrom

    Awesome post- I think good product definition is honestly not a big part of lots of start-ups, and should be.

  • http://www.blackgirlscode.com Kimberly

    Agree with Anna above, this was a really great post. Very informative and motivational for all of us “non-technical” founders. Plus I think Wildfire is an awesone company with a brilliant founder.

  • Sophia

    I hadn’t thought of hiring a local developer to vet out remote employees / contractors. Interesting. Did you also vet out the resulting code output? I’ve always wondered how non-techs dealt with code delivery. Which iPhone apps did you create?

  • Sheryl V Morales

    Truly great article. Great to know that women who are facing these same problems are as much needed as the developers that are widely needed. I myself specialize in marketing/business entrepreneur and thought that not being a hacker/coder/developer would leave me in the corner on my own. Thanks!!!

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