Do You Need to be a Programmer to Found a Startup?

By Daniel Scocco

Last week I was reading an article on Forbes.com, titled How Good Of A Programmer Does One Need To Be To Found A Startup?. The article became very popular around the web, and here’s a quote from the very first paragraph:

Programming skill per se has nothing at all to do with founding a startup. Steve Jobs (founder of Apple) wasn’t a programmer, neither is Nick Swinmurn (founder of Zappos), Scott Kurnit (founder of About.com and Adkeeper), Ben Silbermann (founder of Pinterest) … or even me (founder of half a dozen companies including Gust.) In fact, the great majority of founders are not programmers, and of course the great majority of programmers are not founders.

As you can imagine, according to the author the answer to the question on the title was a big “No”.

In my opinion such conclusion is both wrong and a terrible advice for aspiring tech entrepreneurs.

Sure, it’s possible to found a tech startup without being a programmer/hacker, but that path is a lot harder. In fact I don’t agree at all with the fact that the majority of founders are not programmers. For every tech company you give me where none of the founders was a technical guy I can give you five back where it was.

The author says Steve Jobs wasn’t a programmer. Sure, but his co-founder was just one of the most talented hardware engineers and coders the world has ever seen (Steve Wozniak, for the record).

He also says Nick Swinmurn of Zappos is not a programmer. Sure, but his co-founder, Tony Hsieh, is.

Google. Facebook. Oracle. Amazon. Netscape. Microsoft. Yahoo. Intel. Cisco. Paypal. eBay. Craigslist. Dropbox. Twitter. Mozilla. Zynga. YouTube. Flickr. Foursquare. Evernote. You name it. All companies where at least one of the founders was a coder/hacker/technical guy (in most of the cases all of the founders were).

It’s common sense if you think about it: do you need to be a tech person to found a tech company? Hmmmm… yeah! Sure, there are exceptions, but the rule remains.

Here’s the main reason why tech people have a big advantage: if you don’t understand where technology is and where it’s heading, you won’t even know what is possible to be made, what kind of products people will want/need in the near future and so on. If Bill Gates didn’t understand how computers work do you think he would have the idea to bet on making money writing software? If Jeff Bezos didn’t understand the potential of the Internet and the impact it would have around the world do you think he would have the idea to start selling stuff online (and I am talking about in 1995, when most people didn’t know what a website was).

And here’s the other important reason: most of the time founding a successful startup is an iterative, trial and error process. You probably will miss it a couple of times before launching something that works/people are interested. Now if you are not a coder/hacker you’ll need to hire workers/freelancers to create the stuff for you, and this is a nightmare. It will take a lot of time, money, the results might not be satisfying, and so on.

Bad news: Yeah, in my opinion having technical knowledge greatly improve your odds of founding a successful startup. I know, if you are not a coder but aspires to found a startup I am raining on your parade here, so sorry about that.

Good news: while you need to have the technical skill, you don’t need to be a genius or a world-class programmer. You just need to have enough skills to be able to build a very simple version of your product. One that you’ll be able to launch on the market and test the customers reaction. After that, if things go well, you’ll be able to raise money and to hire expert programmers to help you out.

Acquiring those skills is not hard these days, and in my opinion it can be done relatively fast (1-2 years). I’ll talk about how to do this on a future post, so stay tuned.



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12 Responses to “Do You Need to be a Programmer to Found a Startup?”

  • Helen Neely

    Most programmers are not good at business that is why most startups are founded by non-technical people. But having a technical person on the team greatly improves your chance of succeeding because they know what can and can’t work in terms of technology.

  • Kunal

    I agree, if a founder knows what to create and how to create he has to have tech skills. Not every one is a great coder but they do become with time when they code for their own start up. When they make their own product.

  • Jame T.

    While you need some basic tech knowledge, with sites like odesk, fiverr, and craigslist you don’t have to have any programming knowledge to be able to build a product.

    Programmers are all over the place, not that expensive, and easy to find. All you really need is the ability to explain the project in a way the programmer will understand and the ability to keep tabs on that programmer to make sure the work is getting done.

  • Galina Vitkova

    I have read the post with great interest. I agree with you, Daniel, it is necessary to have some technical knowledge to better understand what is happening on the Internet and how to continue in your projects.
    All the best
    Galina

  • Vlatko

    Being a tech guy doesn’t mean being a programmer. It is completely true that you don’t need to be a programmer to found a startup.

    What founding startup needs is a good webmaster, which means all-around tech guy who understands coding, design, marketing, server side manipulation, following trends, web security, etc., to a certain extent but is not necessarily an expert in any of those fields.

    The point is to understand those fields to such extent, that it will allow you to delegate tasks to real experts in those fields (when the time comes).

    Of course that doesn’t mean a programmer, or a designer can’t found a successful startup, but certainly that is not a prerequisite.

    For example you have a ground braking idea that will change the face of the Internet and you know how to make it true (you’re a programmer). However if you don’t know how to lunch it, the tactics of it, you’ll be ripped off in a matter of seconds by the big fish. They will copy your product (make a similar version of it) while you say “keks” and you’ll end up with nothing. Or if you plaster a terrible design over it, the product itself will not do good. Or if you allow security holes in it (server side), etc…

  • jorgejacobo

    Let’s not forget marketing and communication skills.

    Even Rich Dad says that Specialization does not guarantee success.

    But, You still have a valid point Daniel.

  • Earl

    Well, technically the answer “No” was correct. You don’t need to be a programmer, but you need to know one. Of course, there’s always the option to learn to code. Still a good post.

  • George@seekdefo.com

    Plus having tech skills will allow one to face any disaster which the company finds itself in. Like being hacked.

  • Trent Dyrsmid

    I believe founding a tech company really needs one or more of the founders to be a tech guy. It could be you or it could be your partners. It could be all of you.

    But other than being techie one or more of you should also know how to market your product/s. Someone should know about PR and stuff that would promote your company’s products to the world.

  • Raj Srivastav

    Being a programmer will surely give an edge fro start-up, its the matter of how you build on that start!

  • Richard Ng

    I personally think that being a programmer is only a slight advantage for start-up, the other major part is having the business and entrepreneur acumen to bring your product/service forward.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Cheers!

  • Houssen Moshinaly

    Agreed with you. In fact, the best solution is to have a very skilled programmer and another person who have marketing skills. But even for this second person, he must know the basics of programming. It’s illogic for a person who don’t have any skill to invest in this field.

    I’m trying to learn to code. I have read your post about to begin to code and the easiness of the Python language. Unfortunatly, i don’t have time to follow a complete course. Book, DVD are goods, but i think that learning to code is a long process and it’s not always ideal for peoples who are already working.

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