Tech Startup, Schmech Startup

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(Part of this post originally appeared on Medium, but I’ve since added to it.)

What exactly is a “tech startup” anyway? Is it a new business that relies on digital…well…anything? Is it a startup delivered through the Web? Or a mobile app? Some recent snark on a reddit post of mine (shocking, I know) has me a bit snarked myself.

Confession: I’m a non-technical founder (ZOMG!!!!!) who sees things a bit differently on this topic. In building both MusicBox and Collabo, my co-founders and I have spent as much time addressing social dynamics as we have server traffic. And of all the reasons we listed in Why Collabo Will Fail, none were overtly tech related.

Saying a non-tech founder can’t build a startup is like saying a non-architect can’t open a brick-and-mortar store (click to tweet)

Is Treatings a “tech startup”? From one of its founders, on research performed in its initial phases: “Paul found that he was surprisingly comfortable messaging ‘strangers’ because he knew everyone on OKCupid had opted into the site. Of course this didn’t mean everyone was guaranteeing they’d accept his date request. But, just knowing that everyone was open to receiving introductions eased his fear of reaching out. This change in our framework has opened up lots of potential connections.”

How about Snapchat? From its founder: “I think our application makes communication a lot more human and natural.”

Now, I’m not dumb; I can handle things…I’m smaaahht!!! But am I being naive here? Overconfident, perhaps? I’ll tell you this much: our next major challenge on both MusicBox and Collabo is quite “technical” (finding the right development partners), and I respect the hell out of the know-how needed to get things like this off the ground and into the hands of people who will benefit from them. It’s a critical piece of the pie, no doubt.

That’s not my point, though. It’s understood that we’ll need backend and frontend and sideend experts involved in this thing of ours. But we also need growth hackers and biz dev pros and channel partner establishers and drip campaign creators and content publishers and behavioral psychologist wannabes and…well, you get what I’m saying.

As a growth marketing adviser, I’m seeing a trend recently of extremely capable and skilled “technical” people launching startups because, well, they can. And as the folks at 42Floors admitted, their engineer-first mentality may have set them back a bit:

Our first ten hires, including the founding team, were all great product engineers. Before we had a single listing secured in our database, we had already iterated many times over the interface. It’s a preference that many of us in the startup world have. Our talent is for making beautiful, simple products. And so that’s how we choose to attack each problem.

Those folks didn’t press the flesh, get out of the building, do things that don’t scale. At least, not enough (by their own admission). Would a non-tech team member have altered their course? Maybe yes, maybe no. But I like to think that a well-rounded startup team serves the greater purpose best. You need me on that wall, remember.

Should I feel inadequate because I don’t code? Is my value to startups minimized, or perhaps my potential capped, by my non-tech skill set?

Fuck if I know. We’ll find out eventually. But you got another thing coming if you think that’s going to keep people like me out of the ring.


Today’s Beats: Maggot Brain by Funkadelic, which I first heard in the amazing indie flick I Melt With You

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