Don’t Learn How To Program
Aaron Schaap recently wrote a great post on why you, as a non-technical entrepreneur, don’t need a programmer. What you really need is a technical co-founder.
I completely agree, and have seen many good ideas go down in flames because the entrepreneur spent more time on the phone with the “coder” they hired off Craigslist to build their web sight than they spent getting out and creating a business.
Other Side of the Coin
However I’ve also heard the following story a lot, and I think it’s just as damaging to would-be non-technical founders. I’m sure this sounds familiar to many of you:
“I’ve got this great idea for a business - it’s a marketplace that facilitates peer-to-peer lawncare equipment rentals, including payment processing and built-in messaging. I couldn’t find a programmer to work with me, but I bought this book called Let’s Learn HTML!. By spending a few hours a day with that I think I should have the first version out myself in a few weeks, a month tops.”
I’ve heard quite a few of variations of this, but it all boils down to “Well, I couldn’t find a technical co-founder, so in the meantime I’ll just learn how to program it myself.”
Every time I hear this I want to squirt the person with a spray bottle like a misbehaving cat. Imagine you went to this same person and said, “I’ve just bought this great lot for my house. It’s location is perfect. But I can’t find an architect to help me build it, and I don’t want to hire one, so I went to Home Depot and bought some lumber and nails. I also got a book on carpentry, so I think I’m pretty set”. They would tell you you’re crazy, and you should go get someone who knows what they’re doing before you’re crushed to death by 2x4’s. But learning to create a website somehow seems like a good strategy.
Building a full-fledged web app is complicated. It’s so hard even programmers consistently underestimate the time it will take. Trying learn how to build on, while simultaneously building your business, is a recipe for disaster (well, not disaster, but usually for a product marketing job at google which you take “just for the moment, to keep me afloat. I can totally do the startup in my spare time”).
Sometimes you just need a lemonade stand
The flip side is, many founders think they need a mansion when what they really need to start with is a lemonade stand. And almost anyone who knows which end of a hammer to use can build a lemonade stand.
When someone comes to me with their 20-page mockup for a website that sells art sourced from the local community, I tell them they’ve managed to over-engineer the problem without even having an engineer. They can vett their idea without needing to sink months into web development.
There are lots of platforms that let you get content onto the interwebs without any programming knowledge. Tumblr and Wordpress are great. You can easily create the lemonade stand equivalent of an ecommerce site with wordpress, google checkout, and yourself manually filling orders. You could do it in a week, in a weekend if you buy a coder friend some pizza and beer.
Your lemonade stand let’s you learn a ton and figure out what business you should actually be building (are you Jack Dorsey? No? Then I’m afraid you haven’t conceived of a brilliant business right from the get go. Oh, you are Jack Dorsey? Wow thanks for reading my blog).
Programming is awesome
I don’t want to disuade anyone from learning to program if they truly have the itch. I love programming and the feeling of creation it brings. It’s also a great feeling to know how the technology behind your business ticks.
It can also be very handy to be able to do some things yourself. And many things are not that hard. At my last startup, I had all the business people using git & fabric to update the static content on our site and push the changes live. Life was much better for all of us when they could decide to change some language, edit the page, commit their changes, and push it live, all solo. And really, that workflow is easy enough for anyone to learn in a couple hours (although my co-founders were ballers who took to using the terminal like pigs to mud, so YMMV. I take no responsibility when your VP of Marketing accidentally issues a
But only dive deep into programming if you have the inner passion to learn. It’s an awesome profession and a sweet hobby. But it’s not a shortcut to launching your business.
One hint on finding a programmer
Last point, as this is getting longer than a Steve Yegge intro paragraph (oh burn LOL). After I put the squirt bottle down, lots of people say “But I keep asking around about programmers, and they all have jobs! None of them are looking to jump onto a startup!”