Life of FBi | Non-Tech Start-up Founder

Looks like a Chinaman, Sounds like an Aussie, Utterly Confusing

3 Lessons in 12 Months as a Non-Technical Founder

with 7 comments

It is honestly a little scary to think that 12 months ago, someone came across a tweet, that linked to this very blog, that led to an email exchange, that six weeks later launched www.blank-label.com. Zee and I had our first conversation in September last year, and with Alec (who designed the site) and Danny (our marketer) built and launched the site on October 31, 2009. I was still in my Babson dorm room at the time.

I like the familiarity of talking to young, first-time non-technical founders of tech start-ups. I’m often reminded of three characteristics we all share, that we often all fail at.

1. We know nothing about technology yet we think we can control programmers

Reading TechCrunch or HackerNews doesn’t mean you understand technology (referencing here specifically to consumer web tech). I wish I had read Don Rainey‘s 8 Lies Developers Tell You before I started any of this. That’s in no means a dis to the programmers I’ve worked with on Blank Label, but more a reflection of things you should generally be aware of going in.

There are some strange dynamics: you have to trust your developer(s) but can’t trust them completely, your designer and developer may only sometimes get along, you have to be patient with the development but also enforce frequent time pressures. Something I’d highly recommend reading is 37 Signal‘s Getting Real. My favorite quote; “Fix time, flex scope” in reference to launching a web app.

The best lesson I’ll give is be extremely empathetic: things always take longer, there is no quick fix, and there will always be bugs. There’s nothing that ticks of a programmer more than a ‘business guy’ who doesn’t get it.

2. We know nothing about tactics or strategy yet we want to call ourselves the ‘business guy’

So at the very least if we’re the ‘business guy’ then we should know how to set the short-term tactics to set the path to the milestones of the broader strategy right?

Granted I’m an undergraduate dropout, but unless the two dozen Harvard MBA students I’ve met are the ones in the bottom quartile, you don’t know tactics or strategy until you actually have real experience in acquiring customers and building product, whilst simultaneously managing money and building your own team. You know much less than you need, and worse, much less than you think.

This is an area where you can really use the help of experience. It is with regular conversations with advisors analyzing business metrics and customer development that you can really gain some insight as to what the next steps of your company should be. And remember, you’re decisions will almost certainly be wrong, and that’s okay. Just make sure they don’t kill you.

3. We know nothing about being a CEO yet we love to think of ourselves as the CEO

There’s been a bit of buzz around the blogosphere around what a CEO’s role should be. Fred Wilson kicked it off with What a CEO Does and Mark Suster followed up My Life as a CEO (and VC) with a really quality piece.

So as a titan of industry, I thought I’d chime in. When I’ve had moments to myself in the past 12 months, when I haven’t been working on day-to-day operations or spending time communicating with my remote team, I’ve asked myself, am I really being a CEO? If I know less about technology than our programmer, and less about customer acquisition than our marketer should I just be the operations guy rather than the CEO.

Something surprising that I’ve learnt is when you build a team, you get instant kudos from the team, even though you’re not sure why. A few things you can rely on are your charisma and leveraging the CEO title to speak with business development partners or potential investors, i.e. bring the big bacon home once a month. But you get even more respect when on daily basis you do a ton of homework and connect the dots between what your selling, how you’re selling it and how people are responding to it, i.e. bring bread to the table everyday.

Written by Fan Bi

September 10, 2010 at 1:37 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses

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  1. I feel that a lot of the challenges you describe for a “non-technical” founder (like number 2), are still there for technical founders. To build a company, no matter how technical you are, you have to build and motivate the team, manage a long-term software project, create strategy and execute against it, the whole nine yards. Being able to write code makes the software dev move faster, but doesn’t make any of the above easier.

    Michael Raybman

    September 11, 2010 at 2:54 pm

    • hey mike, thanks for commenting. i guess i’m always a little more hesitant to speak on behalf of young first-time tech founders, mostly because i will always feel deeply inadequate. through the last 12 months my appreciation of user design has increased quite a bit, probably due in large part to a commitment in customer development. my knowledge of how software works, still pretty negligible.

      Fan Bi

      September 11, 2010 at 3:39 pm

  2. I completely agree with your points. Just because someone follows the tech scene that doesn’t mean they can consider the intricacies of technology in a specific context when it’s absolutely necessary (i.e. trying to be CEO of a tech and consumer web company). While there needs to be a bit of ego-checking at the door when you try to start a company, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t at least try to execute off of what we know and hopefully learn what is truly needed as we make mistakes.

    Jonathan Jaeger

    September 14, 2010 at 7:09 pm

  3. I didn’t even realize BL was under 1 year old…such progress for such a short time period.

    “you don’t know tactics or strategy until you actually have real experience in acquiring customers and building product, whilst simultaneously managing money and building your own team.”

    Question: would you agree with taking it a step further, suggesting that consultants, specifically those that have never bootstrapped or worked at a startup, shouldn’t be advising on tactics and strategy for startups? (this is something I strongly believe)

    Matt Daniels

    September 21, 2010 at 4:08 am

    • def agree matt.

      start-ups who don’t have buckets of cash or aren’t profitable shouldn’t use consultants. start-ups should in all circumstances get educated advice from advisors.

      we get strategic and tactical vertical advice (china manufacturing, web technology, customer acquisition, etc) from people who’ve done it before, otherwise i might as well go back to school and learn from the academics.

      Fan Bi

      September 21, 2010 at 8:41 am

  4. [...] most recent piece is a reflection of the biggest lessons learned, specifically for a non-technical founder knowing nothing about online marketing, nothing about [...]

  5. [...] are many notable entrepreneurs that realized their ideas couldn’t wait and that “standard” career [...]


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