Why You Shouldn’t Learn to Code for Your Startup : Under30CEO Why You Shouldn’t Learn to Code for Your Startup : Under30CEO
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Why You Shouldn’t Learn to Code for Your Startup

| July 24, 2013 | 14 Comments

Learn to CodeI get emails like this one all the time:

I am wondering if I could ask for help for a friend. Mike, a good friend of mine, has been working on a startup idea. …He is looking for really great co-founding developers who can help him build out the product in a short period of time. I am wondering if you could tap into your network for leads. Many thanks in advance!

I wish I could help. It can be very difficult for a non-technical entrepreneur to find a technical co-founder if he/she doesn’t already have friends who code. And these days, just about everyone would tell Mike to skip the talent search and learn how to code himself.

Journalists in TechCrunchBusiness InsiderFast Company and dozens of other publications, including VentureBeat, write frequently about how you, as a non-technical founder, are up a creek if you don’t learn how to code. Even Harvard Business School students are learning how to code – despite paying very good money to learn business skills. In short, if you’re starting an Internet company, you can’t go anywhere without hearing about how important it is to know how to code.

Silicon Valley has followed suit. In the last two years alone, online education companies have developed a variety of courses to teach programming skills. Companies like CourseraUdacityUdemyTreehouseCodecademyEdX, and Lynda, are just a handful of the many companies serving the programming education market. For those who prefer to learn in person, there are now a wealth of choices in developer training camps too, including Hack ReactorCoder CampsDev Bootcamp, and the Hackbright Academy. These camps hold class every day for several weeks, teaching basic front-end and back-end skills.

The real reason startups fail (hint: it’s not bad code)

On the surface, it would seem the solution for finding a technical co-founder is to become one yourself.

But you have to question whether turning non-technical entrepreneurs into developers is really the best solution for starting a company. Startups become successful when they have users and customers — and they die when they don’t. Tech startups don’t fail because they have poorly written code.  If you look at TechCrunch’s deadpool of startups, almost all listed companies failed because they ran out of money.  They didn’t have enough users to make their business model work.

I started my first company, Beat the GMAT, without knowing how to program at all. Didn’t matter: I built a loyal following of prospective MBA students for my blog first, which was focused on solving GMAT problems. Later, this audience became active participants in my first forums. Finally, I hired developers to build the most recent version of my site before selling it to Hobson’s. Had I focused on building the site first, I’m not sure that’s how things would have panned out.

Don’t get me wrong: Increasing the opportunities for people to learn is great, and those who want to learn how to program definitely should. But if you’re learning how to code merely to launch a startup, you’re wasting valuable time.

The economic tenet of comparative advantage suggests that people should become really good at their core skills, use them effectively to make money, and then hire others to complement their skills. So, if you are mediocre at acquiring customers and know nothing about programming, shouldn’t you work to become awesome at customer acquisition rather than become a bad developer? I would’ve expected Harvard Business School to understand this better than anyone.

Paying it forward

In the Valley, entrepreneurs and investors often talk about how so many seed startups fail because they can’t get enough customers to become profitable. But we shouldn’t just talk — we should do something. That’s why Elizabeth Yin and I started Hustle Con: to teach non-technical entrepreneurs tactical tips in acquiring customers to build a sustainable business. Others, such as Noah Kagan, have done the same in creating his course called “How to make your first dollar.”  And, there are a smattering of meetup groups trying to teach marketing and sales for startups.

But we can do better. If you know something about lead generation, sales, and marketing, I encourage you to pay it forward and teach other entrepreneurs to improve their customer acquisition skills. And finally, to the would-be founders out there: Stop talking about learning how to code, and instead, start hustling.

Eric Bahn is the co-founder of Hustle Con, a one-day conference on July 9, 2013 in Mountain View, CA. Hustle Con features successful entrepreneurs who will talk about how they grew their companies from $0 to $5M in just a couple of years, how they raised money, and how they grew an audience before releasing a product. Join us with this special code to get 25% off: yec-hustler 

The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, the YEC recently launched #StartupLab, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses via live video chats, an expert content library and email lessons.

Image Credit: Shutterstock.com

About the Author: theYEC

The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world's most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, YEC recently launched StartupCollective, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses.

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Category: Entrepreneurship, Startup Advice

  • Pingback: Why You Shouldn’t Learn to Code for Your Startup | StupStep

  • http://www.callboxinc.co.uk/ Oliver Scott

    Whether you’re a technical business owner or not, you should focus on where you excel. It is true that there’s no harm trying to learn programming languages, but business startups should not be the reason for it. Forcing yourself to code would be counter-productive. Being a passionate programmer on the other hand, is a great quality to market yourself for a business opportunity. Think about it.

  • cesar romero

    Knowing how to code is an essential skill in today’s information age and it’s definitely a skill that will be in high demand for years to come, but to start a business, you do not necessarily need to know how to code; I would suggest sticking to your strengths and concentrate on developing skills on leadership, sales, marketing which will ultimately help you build a community and attract customers to your business. I would say coding is definitely a complimentary skill, but it’s not the answer to your problems; what good is it that you know how to code, build this amazing platform, but have no idea how to attract people to it? it’s not that you shouldn’t learn how to code, but if it’s not your stong, outsource it, and stick to what you are good at.

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  • Andrea Francis

    There is one paradox – how do you know coding is not a great skill of yours if you don’t give it a try? Apart from that, a good argument on building customers. As long as your startup isn’t SaaS :)

  • Shon

    This is a great article, and it has me thinking a bit differently. I may be the person you discussed in your article. I am currently in school for programming, but instead of doing this solely for my start-up I tell people it is because “I want to create.” What? I don’t know. But I do know learning how to program will give me the ability to create whatever I am dreaming about at the moment. And in the case my start-up idea fails miserably, I can happily work as a developer. I just want to add that some people try to learn how to develop, because hiring someone could be too expensive at the time. It seems that when you are thinking like an entrepreneur, you do not let “not knowing how to do something” stop you. Even if it takes longer, learning “how to” is still doing something instead of “nothing” because you don’t have the money. I know people who piece together their code, and contract developers to close any gaps. If you do not have the money, you could have bad code and a good product. I personally do not believe in acquiring money until your business is bursting at the seams, and you need capital to fulfill demand. My perspective is to build small, as much as you can, and as your business acquires cash contract developers to add on whatever client/customer asks you have pending. Just my $0.02.

  • Melissa Krivachek

    Cesar I agree with you I think there is an intricate balance between finding customers and having a platform for them to utilize and coding is a huge part of that. As a young company myself I had to learn how to use CSS, HTML, and iXML5 to build my website and save money so I could put it towards more important aspects of the business like marketing. While the argument is good there are pros and cons to both sides but the bottom line is I believe you should do what’s right for you and your company.

  • Mike Darche

    I have to admit, as a student who has spent the last 4 months nailing down the fundamentals of a few programming languages in hopes of launching a technical idea, this article is pretty discouraging.

    I agree with some of your points–if you want to start a business, you should amplify your strongest skills in ways that can benefit your organization. But if you want to start a technical business with very little programming experience, it will be hard to do so without an understanding of your idea’s structure and limitations. I find that knowing the way the code works shifts my thinking into a much more practical vision. Previously, I could only outline the beginning and end result of my idea. But now I have a general idea of how to get from point A to point B with a real process in between. And this will make my life a hell of a lot easier when I try to explain it to somebody who can help make it work.

    I think for nontechnical founders with grand ideas nowadays, it’s certainly helpful to have a down to earth understanding of your product and not some glorified, creative hypothetical. It also doesn’t hurt to understand programming because it can change the way you approach problems. I find that it’s a lot easier to break challenges down into smaller parts now.

  • Daniel DiPiazza

    I’d have to concur with Mike here. I disagree that learning at least the basics of coding isn’t essential.

    Let’s define terms here:

    An entrepreneur is a business professional and visionary committed to making an idea profitable.

    A developer is someone who interprets an idea into code.

    When I started learning programming (I’m still not that good, but I can hack around) I thought I wanted to become a world class developer – and that the skill would enhance my business potential. What I’ve now learned is that I don’t have to be amazing to make the strides I need – but I do need to have concrete, functional knowledge of the programming space so that my contributions to the conversation are more than just wireframes. Much like Phil Jackson could never dunk better than Kobe, but he can still outline the best strategy to get him to the hoop because he knows the game. It also helps to know what you’re talking about, so that if you have to outsource, you can call BS on someone when they try to tell you something that you know isn’t true.

    You want to have enough knowhow to still run your own ship, even if you aren’t the strongest developer. AND you have to know how to get customers. It’s both, really. That’s being an entrepreneur.

  • Mike Darche

    Lovin that Kobe comparison! I think you’re spot on about making helpful contributions. It’s not enough to just be the ideas guy– you need to bring some solid skills and knowledge to the table.

  • Coder Camps

    We have a lot of entrepreneurial campers that learn to code and then go on to start their own businesses and web projects. Some had their own businesses and then came to camp to learn to code. Thanks for mentioning us in the article. I think we have a valuable process to get people in the fast lane to success at http://www.codercamps.com

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  • Hector Moreno Bravo

    Great point, couldn’t agree more.

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