Should non-technical founders learn how to code?

Elisha Tan
8:08 pm on Sep 11, 2013

Elisha Tan is the founder of Learnemy, a web application that finds you instructors for anything you want to learn. Find her on Twitter as @elishatan.


Since launching Learnemy last April, I have seen more than 450 learners and 100 instructors come on board. I started without knowing how to code. I started Learnemy with zero programming knowledge and didn’t manage to find a suitable technical co-founder. And so I picked up programming.

The issue on whether non-technical founders should pick up programming has been widely discussed. Some reasons why non-tech founders shouldn’t code is that the founder’s job is to inspire others, and that the backbone of a successful startup is not just coding.

My take?

You should learn basic programming skills, but you don’t need to become your own CTO. By basic I mean to say that you know how to edit and push your codes onto the server. You roughly know what a piece of code is supposed to do and, most importantly, you get the confidence and aren’t afraid that you will break something if you touch the code.

Here are three main reasons why you, the non-technical founder, should learn how to code:

While your programmers or CTO are fighting bugs that affect the user experience, it is really counter-productive to say, “hey I don’t like what this email says. Here’s the updated write up, can you change it for me?” Not just typos or text-related fixes, other aspects of coding that are not related to technical features include minor design-related fixes (changing the font-sizes, colour or layout using CSS and HTML), and SEO-related fixes (making sure you have the right link structure and keywords).

2. Test out ideas quickly

It is true that code is not the most important thing in a startup. But as a founder, you get to understand first-hand your users’ problems and what kind of possible solutions they need. Knowing how to code means that you will be able to test out these different ideas cheaply and quickly, therefore saving you both time and money. I coded a simple website back in 2011 to test out Learnemy before hiring someone to build the entire app. Knowing how to ship helped me learn quickly and cheaply whether an idea is worth the money to code.

3. Understand realistic timeline

Knowing how to code helps you in making startup decisions. Knowing how long a feature takes to be created will ultimately affect how feasible the feature is. And who makes the decision on what needs to be built? The founder.

This is even more so important when you are outsourcing your product. You will need to understand how long coding takes so you can know if the contractor is taking more time than he should. Remember, every day delayed costs an opportunity. It could be missing sales, traction, or even being out-hustled by your competitors.

Where to learn programming?

There are many ways you can learn programming – paid online courses, hiring a programmer to teach you how to code, or learn from free online resources. If you want to start with online resources, check out this list I’ve compiled a list of 25 sites where you can learn programming for free.

(Image credit:

(Editing by Steven Millward and Paul Bischoff)

  • Sastranesia

    Thanks for your sharing, and i like the link that you gave, 😀

  • Mimi

    Your “first website” isn’t coding, its just putting together a bunch of HTMLs and a static website. Your traction calculates to 30 new users per month – that’s kind of dismal for the publicity you’re getting! I suppose your advice isn’t sage.

  • Momo

    My advice to Elisha: It’s time to pull the plug. It’s been 2 years since you started Learnemy, you’re still a solo founder, you don’t have traction/growth, revenue is probably close to zero, it’s clearly not going anywhere. Think about this seriously. Stop treating this like a side hobby. Do you really think 30 users a month is sustainable for a marketplace platform? LOL. WAKE UP girl.

  • mootivated

    Hi elisha.thanks for sharing! Despite challenges,you have still managed to create an interesting market space. its also gutsy to follow your passion when young.your site can only get better and stay on course!:)

  • Dianne

    I still think you’re a great person! You can do this alone without any cofounder, staff and programming knowledge. Perhaps you should think of going into the lifestyle business and work on being self-sustainable because you don’t have any costs except perhaps $800 per month!

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