The Technical Skills That Every Founder Should Learn
Expectations on founders have never been higher — not just from investors but from talented employees too. Here’s how to create your way into business.
Ten years ago, I raised money with a PowerPoint presentation. Today, the expectations of investors are much higher. Investors want to see working products with paying customers before writing you a cheque.
But what should you do if you’re a non-technical founder with no way of building your idea yourself? Recruit a team? Hire a freelancer? Beg friends and family for their savings?
I was in your situation five years ago. Here’s the path I took:
Sleepless in San Francisco
Five years after my first venture, I moved to San Francisco to pursue a new startup idea. I prepared my PowerPoint and went optimistically to investors. This time, the track record and pitch deck weren’t enough — they wanted to see a team, with a prototype.
When I started looking for a technical co-founder, I quickly learned that competition was fierce. With new business resources available online, many technical founders wanted to work on their own startup ideas. So, after months of fruitless networking and pitching, I took my fate into my own hands.
If my vision was going to become a reality, I needed to learn how to create it myself.
Empowering yourself as a non-technical founder
Over the last five years, it’s been my mission to acquire any creative skill that can help me build my businesses; coding, design, email marketing — you name it, I’ve learned how to do it.
Many new entrepreneurs ask me whether they should learn to code. While I recommend that everyone should understand the basics of coding, there are other creative skills you can acquire that will give you faster returns:
Build and test wireframes
Wireframes are simplified versions of your product design, consisting of boxes, lines and simple text. I use Sketch to create wireframes. It’s easier to use than Photoshop, and if you can already use PowerPoint or Keynote, you’ll be fine. I transfer the finished designs to Invision in order to create a clickable prototype. Seeing how real people react to these basic designs helps me better understand customer needs.
Design high-fidelity prototypes
Once you get the hang of wireframing, it’s not a huge leap to add colours, fonts, and images to make the design more functional. I take inspiration from the design of other products and use resources like The Noun Project, Colour Lovers and Unsplash to help me achieve a professional look. Then, I use Invision to get feedback on the visual designs and iterate from there.
Write better copy
Can’t everyone write? Sadly, not. Good writing takes a lot of practice and there are lots of tricks of the trade — like using concrete nouns, active verbs, and vivid metaphors.
On Writing Well by William Zinsser was the first book on writing that I read. I’ve since gobbled up many more, including those by the father of advertising, David Ogilvy.
Create a landing page
With a basic foundation in design, I was able to build my personal website in Wix in just a day or two. Today, you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to website builders, with Squarespace, Leadpages, Instapage —just choose one and learn it thoroughly. Building landing pages helps me validate new ideas, by seeing if people actually sign up.
Learn email marketing
Email is easily the most undervalued skill in tech today. Think about it. Most businesses couldn’t survive without using email properly. We all write hundreds of emails a week, but email marketing is an art. The ability to cultivate a readership for your new business idea is extremely valuable. I use MailChimp — it’s cheap and covers the basics.
Simplification is key
When you start learning Spanish, you can’t use fancy words like ‘delectable’ to describe your fish taco. So you make do with ‘good’. Similarly, you’ll need to simplify your solution, to something you can actually build.
To find a simpler solution, first write out the need that your solution addresses. Next, brainstorm 15 different solutions that would also solve that need. Don’t worry about scalability . . . just keep going until you figure out a solution that you can build quickly. In other words, marry the problem — not the solution.
Creativity is your competitive edge
If you want to win as a founder, you need to be able to create something. When money gets tight, founders who can’t create are more likely to get desperate and make bad decisions . . . like hiring the wrong person, or committing to a product that isn’t working.
I also believe that learning creative skills makes you a better leader. It’s a humbling experience to see your design confuse users, or to get incisive critique on your copy, or to see your emails’ open rates. When you understand the struggle of creation from the inside, it will help you as you scale your business.