3 Tips For Tech Start-up Founders Who Can’t Code


Elisha Tan is the Founder of Learnemy, a web application that finds you instructors for anything you want to learn. The content of this post was shared in the recent Barcamp entitled “Hey I founded a tech startup…OH SHIT I CAN’T CODE”

cannot-codeThe Internet is a great place to start up. The overhead costs are much lower, it is easier to scale and you can operate your business from just about anywhere. But when I started out, the only big problem was that I can’t code!

Admittedly, in my short working experience, I’ve only done social media marketing and I have zero web design or development skills. So I jumped into learning Ruby on Rails, CSS, and HTML to develop Learnemy.com — the site that I’m running now.

And boy, that was really quite a task.

Having gone through this experience — from a non-techie to a somewhat tech-capable founder — I have three tips to share with fellow non-techie startup entrepreneurs.

1. Understand the tech but don’t be a CTO

Will the time spent learning how to code pay off? If you’re thinking this way, I’ll remind you that the goal here is not to become a CTO. It is for you to know enough and ship a minimal viable product out into the market. Putting out a skeleton product will definitely pay off. It will tell you know whether your product rocks or suck.

Plus, you can’t hire someone for a job scope that you don’t understand. And because you don’t know the exact job scope, you can’t tell if you’re getting bullshit when you outsource product development to third parties.

The most important outcome of learning how to code is that I’ve learned to respect programmers and their work. Too often, the calls of a marketer looking for a technical co-founder ends up on the very entertaining Whartonite Seeks Code Monkey site.

2. Learn CSS and HTML first

This is something I regret not starting earlier. If I could begin again, I would learn CSS and HTML before jumping into rails. Just by knowing how to manipulate the look of a website, you can create a really watered down product using static HTML.

Since Learnemy finds instructors based on learning needs, I made a static HTML page and used Wufoo to collect information on what my customers want to learn. With just that, Learnemy could be considered a working product.

Knowing CSS and HTML don’t make you an artist. As Picasso says, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” So feel free to take inspiration from existing layouts and styles. Firebug is a great tool for you to do just that.


Learnemy’s homepage was inspired by Google’s homepage.

3. Learn from someone who can teach you personally

So now you’ve picked up CSS and HTML, and proved that there is a demand for your product. It’s time to dig into the back-end. When I asked people what language should I learn, the responses were something like this:

“Python is so easy! Look at him, he picked up Django in 3 weeks!” – a Python programmer

“Learn Rails! The syntax is so simple!” – a Ruby on Rails programmer

“Definitely PHP. Because Facebook uses PHP.” – a (you guessed it) PHP programmer

All these are extremely confusing to a non-techie. So my advice to you is this: learn whatever language from someone who can teach you personally.

Learning from someone who can explain to you anything you don’t understand is a great time saver. I found my Rails instructor by hanging out at places filled with programmers, like Hackerspace or tech-related events. Alternatively, you can also use Learnemy to find them.

Starting up is hard. Starting up with tools you’re not familiar with is harder, though not impossible. In addition to the steps above, always remember not to give up. Good luck, fellow entrepreneurs!

(And yes, we're serious about ethics and transparency. More information here.)

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