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Founders, Don’t Learn to Code

Startup founders are always thinking about their business. What features do users want? How can I improve my pitch? What’s the best way to connect with an investor? There’s a long list of things they need to do, but when they’ve run out of those they don’t just stop thinking. They think about things they could do.

What could I do to get closer to success?

Startup founder's brain, 3am

The skills required to be a founder are generalist ones: soft skills like planning, communication and networking. The breadth of things they could do with these is quite broad but in building a tech startup there is one skill that is very much specialist and highly valued: coding.

Organising and paying for development is both the most expensive thing an early stage founder will do and the thing they know the least about. It’s easy to see how, lying awake at night, the thoughts turn to “I wish I could code”.

I wish I could code

startup founder's brain, 3:05am

There are two things wrong with that thought…

Firstly, their ability to code is not their biggest barrier to success. It’s also almost always surmountable. You can invest in developers and the return is relatively predictable compared with other investments. For most startups what you are trying to achieve technically will be fairly standard. Your biggest barrier is knowing (not just assuming) what people want.

Secondly, there are ways of building a service and validating an idea available to you that don’t need tech. Tech can provide the efficiency, performance and scale required for a business but you don’t need a business ready product to demonstrate demand. There are several types of minimum viable product that will allow this with no coding skill.

The image of the bootstrapping founder able to both build and market their product is a powerful one due to some high profile examples. But these are developers stumbling across product market fit. They had talent but there is also the right place/right time element to their story. Their skill in identifying and appealing to their customers is the one you should be looking to emulate.

Here’s what happened to the rest of them…

They wasted time. For every famous developer/founder there are a million ideas lying around in code that with 1 min in front of a customer would have come to life or been put out of their misery. Until you are in front of a customer you will be more wasteful. A really bad outcome of diving into development is that you fail slow.

They got distracted. Distracted from their role of founder and their main job of understanding the customer (the role quickly assumed by the successful developer founder as soon as they get their lucky break). Once distracted they built the wrong thing. And even when they noticed they were building the wrong thing the sunken cost meant they kept going.

Both money and time are an investment so Instead of asking What can I do?” ask “What should I invest in?”. Money may seem harder to come by and late nights are a more available option but that’s still time you could use elsewhere. Like any business you have to use your resources wisely and investing in development before you invest in validating the idea is the road to failure. Learn about customers, don’t learn to code.

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