by • May 8, 2012 • Founders, ProductComments (22)7055

I think bootstrapping might be impossible for non-programmers

(Note: In this post I’m talking specifically about tech startups, and especially non-sales-driven tech startups)

Clever landing page tests and interviews can tell you whether an idea is bad, but not whether it will work. There’s still a big leap from “problem exists” to a product that delights while fitting into someones life and being able to attract new users.

It’s simply too expensive to outsource your way through the initial uncertainty. Each additional product tweaks are too painful. It’s a slow bleed.

If you want to get into startups and you don’t already know programmers who enjoy working with you, then I seriously suggest you start learning to program immediately. It’s not as bad as it sounds.

The basic level of code literacy (getting a webpage to exist and look roughly how you intended) is within reach in a couple weeks. Getting it to do stuff (e.g. offering features beyond showing text, pictures & videos) will take a couple months. This is assuming you take on learning as a serious–but part time–endeavour.

That might seem like a lot of work. However, it will take far more than a couple month’s worth of time to find a technical cofounder if you don’t already know people. And it will take more than a couple month’s savings to pay someone else to get you through that first bit.

If you’re sincere about getting into startups, start learning to code today. It will pay dividends.

You don’t need to go back to school. Use free online tutorials &andwork toward building concrete projects. I suggest the following:

  1. Learn enough html/css to build a personal portfolio site. Make it look nice.
  2. Start using github and put your code there.
  3. Buy a domain name and a hosting service and put your portfolio up at a real address, using git.
  4. Attach google analytics to your site.
  5. Learn enough javascript and jquery to make your portfolio images appear with a nice lightbox effect when someone clicks on them. Make sure they work on all major browsers and behave really well (e.g. you can close them by clicking on the background or an X button or by pressing the Esc key)
  6. Learn enough python and Google Appengine to build your own simple blogging system. Add it to your portfolio site. You should be able to log in and write posts which will appear on your blog page.
  7. Blog for a while, adding features to your blog system as you decide you need them.

That’s it. 90% of programming is figuring out that you can google the answer to just about every problem (and having a broad idea of what you might be looking for). If you’ve successfully learned that much, you should be able to start chipping away at most webapp ideas. Now you can bootstrap.

(Ff you’re in London, I’m helping to host a founder-centric series of workshops for new founders. Come work on your company with us!)

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22 Responses to I think bootstrapping might be impossible for non-programmers

  1. Jonny White says:

    Nice post Rob.

    I totally agree that bootstrapping is impossible without the tech ability within the team. I also like your suggestion of learning by creating a blog.

    One thing that jumps out at me is that without a full understanding of the programming language you are using or best security practices you are likely to have big security holes. So if your product goes viral you could potentially be putting a lot of peoples data at risk.

    I would suggest that if anyone does learn this way you should ask your tech buddies for a 101 on security and google the top security holes for the programming language you are using.

  2. Ryan Wilcox says:

    The answer seems simple to me: if your a “business-ey person”, do what you do best: business.

    So, can’t bootstrap a startup because you aren’t a developer? Rip off 37 Signal’s “start a consultancy with an eye towards building products up” model.

    Use your business skills to start the consultancy: doing marketing, sales, hustling or whatever you’re really good at. I’d say that 80% of consultancy shops (mine included) don’t have skills of an actual full time business person. So our marketing tends to be rushed/non-existant, we don’t pursue deals like we should, and we don’t hustle. Learn about agile project management.

    Charge enough per hour so you can bill 3-4 days a week and build your product with the remaining time.

    Between it being expensive to outsource things, and the fact that it must be really hard to find a technical co-founder worth their chops, whose also willing to work for free and put meaningful hours into your startup, I’m sure non-technical founders have a problem. You either get someone whose skill you _really_ don’t know (because you can’t judge technical merits if you’re also not technical)… or someone who can work on your product 3-4 hours a week for free (maybe workable, maybe not).

    But if you can actually _pay_ someone, the equation changes. “Here, come open a consultancy shop with me – I’ll do the business stuff, you do the programming, we’ll charge enough so we can get paid full time, and we’ll bootstrap a product in the background and ditch the service part of the business when the product is viable”… that sounds like you’re bringing ideas, knowhow, and a sustainable path forward to the table, instead of simply bringing your idea.

    • robfitz says:

      Hey Ryan, thanks for the thoughts. There are definitely an awful lot of business ideas which don’t depend on programming from day 1. And as a bonus, they tend to be easier to start making money with too :)

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  4. @mattwheelr says:

    Thanks Rob, great post. I definitely agree it’s hard (but not impossible) to bootstrap these days without tech knowledge. I started working online 7 years ago and back then you could stick up a landing page, drive traffic from Google and cash in on the gold mine. These days you need to code to get even the simplest of ideas live. You can’t even be a decent social marketer without knowledge on how to hack together test apps that use the Facebook Graph API.

    So I’m learning to code at the mo! For any “business people” (thats a horrible description by the way!) thinking about learning, it’s not as hard as it looks. Although having some developer mates helps.

    Here is my todo list so far.

    1. Setup your computer – Very hard without help from a mate.
    2. Setup Heroku
    3. Setup Github
    4. Learn basic Ruby with some basic Sinatra so you can serve up pages. I used
    5. Deploy a site with Twitter Bootstrap
    6. Learn CSS & HTML while playing around with bootstrap.

    I will chuck up my story so far on my blog if anyone is interested?

    • Emmanuel says:

      Great I am also a self learning developer it took me about 3 years to reach the level I am now taking in account 2 first years really don’t learn much because of school (business mayor) and work. Once I get out of school I had a lot more free time so last year I learn ruby rails and javascript. I would also recommend working for a rails shop or agency you really boost your technical knowledge :)

  5. Pek Pongpaet says:

    You couldn’t be further from the truth. If you are a nontechnical person, this is just defeatist talk and if you are a technical person, this is just to stroke your ego and pat yourself on the back.

    I can illustrate plenty of examples where you can start a company not needing to be technical. If you are focused only on tech startups, sure you may not be able to build the next Facebook bootstrapping.

    From what I understand, even though Groupon came from the Point, but the inception of the Groupon widget was a WordPress plugin. – who I am not in any way affiliated with were running classes every day and people were signing up – it’s a wordpress site, with a wordpress contact form. AngelList started out as that – a mailing list. You start somewhere – get users get traction and build up from there.

  6. Rosie Sherry says:

    I’m not sure if we should be expecting non-techies to become technical. I mean, I’m technical to a certain extent. I can put a website together. I plug in different bits of this and that to make a website. WordPress Plugins. PayPal.

    But when it comes to doing things properly. Proper design. Proper html/css. Javascript. PHP. Proper backups. Bah. The list is endlless. Mind boggling and somewhat depressing if it’s not your area of expertise.

    I’m kind of inbetween deciding whether I need a tech cofounder at the moment, but it hasn’t stopped me moving forward with stuff. Ideas. Projects. Trying to validate my ideas and where I want to be personally.

    I mostly know what is needed to pull stuff together – so what I do is hire people to do specific jobs. For example, I do some design stuff, but to get something looking nice, then I ping off specific tasks and website updates to him. It takes him a couple of hours what would take me a couple of days to do. But that’s only possible because I am making some money through the business…

    I do think anyone involved with any kind of technology related startup needs to understand technology, but not necessarily go out and learn how to do the stuff in detail.

    Of course, it depends :)

  7. Nick says:

    Depends on what you mean by “programming”. Do you mean putting together a simple webpage with a few nice things on it? Ok, that is doable with a little experience with Ruby on Rails or some other high level tool. But does your startup idea call for some serious computing requirements (big data analysis, machine learning, etc.)? Then you might be getting over your head if you think you can learn enough in a couple of months.

  8. “(Note: In this post I’m talking specifically about tech startups, and especially non-sales-driven tech startups)”

    Soooo.. you’re planning to make money how?

  9. Bob Cavezza says:

    Hey Rob,

    1.) Your RSS Link is amazing. I encourage everyone reading this comment to scroll near the RSS link, and when you do that, you will be forced to subscribe, lol.

    2.) I have seen a lot of people bootstrap successfully without ever learning to code. I 100% agree that everyone should learn to code if they will be running a tech startup, but being the full time CTO as a software newbie can very difficult. Usually, building these landing pages, validating the market, and outsourcing an initial prototype is what it takes to find a full time CTO. If you are willing to take these steps to prove your business model, you are far more likely to attract a talented CTO to work on your startup.

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  11. Gabriel C. says:

    “90% of programming is figuring out that you can google the answer to just about every problem”

    As a programmer, I cannot decide if it’s horribly wrong or spot on :)
    Programming is easy, doing it right is really hard…

  12. I am a business founder who is on his second bootstrapped startup. I am not a programmer and avoided the call to “learn to code” as I focus on B2B applications.

    The post above may be true for simple web apps for b2c but it isn’t in b2b. You can not learn the subtleties of back-end that will pass muster with enterprise architects. Having some background in coding helps one think logically and engage with your Dev team, but please don’t assume knowing bootstrap or HTML will get you in the door of Fortune companies.

    • Bernhard says:

      If you had all the technical people to start with, lucky you then, but some don’t. For those who don’t it can be incredibly time-consuming and thus frustrating to find good developers – keeping in mind that good developers can outperform mediocre ones by orders of magnitudes.

      Rather than going out and hunting for these people, your time might be better spent working on the product. It’s not like you’re building the whole thing though. Just as much as you can do, hoping that it will put you in a better decision when it comes to finding technical people. That’s what I think it’s mainly about.

  13. [...] So why is Rob Fitzpatrick telling us to learn to code? [...]

  14. [...] with me so we can find out together. I want to prove that it doesn’t require a huge amount of skill or knowledge or cash or time to start a company. That you don’t have to take on a huge amount [...]

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