Startup Lean Coffee

Non-technical Founders of Tech Startups

Published on
July 17, 2019

We had another great Startup Lean Coffee at Betaworks Studios; 16 of us enjoyed an amazing breakfast and an engaging conversation. This time, we tried staying together as one large group. I was initially concerned that with such a large group, some would not be able to participate as much as they might otherwise participate in a smaller group. I was wrong - it worked amazingly well! The topics that we discussed included:

  • Fundraising before traction
  • Customer acquisition
  • Creating a consumer brand
  • Navigating an accelerator program
  • Decision making frameworks
  • Finding technical co-founders

We had some incredible epiphanies covering fundraising, marketing, brand strategy, sales, lean product experiments, and building a team, including many resources that participants found helpful. Here are some of the highlights.

When fundraising before demonstrating traction, you won’t have much empirical evidence that your idea will make a great investment; so make sure that you have a credible team.

Convention wisdom is that if you are building a software company, you must have a technical co-founder in order to have a credible team. Some VC firms and accelerator programs categorically pass on companies that do not include a technical co-founder.

That said, many non-technical founders have been able to successfully get to market and raise venture capital without having a technical co-founder.

Some common characteristics of these successful, non-technical founders include a willingness to learn how to manage freelance developers or development shops and access to more experienced technology managers, serving either as fractional CTO or as technical advisor, to provide “guard rails” within which they should operate.

I have often served as fractional CTO or technical advisor, and my founders have always been able to raise venture capital. One founding member of this group, Marc Adler, provides fractional CTO consulting services, which he calls CTO as a Service.

Other recommendations for finding fractional CTOs, technical advisors, and technical co-founders include: Built in NYC, AngelList, and Upwork.

One suggestion for women founders trying to raise initial capital was Pipeline Angels, whose members serve as the friends and family round for entrepreneurs who may not already have support.

For founders who choose to attend an accelerator program (we had one participant who completed a top tier accelerator program and another who was just about to start one), you can generally get out of accelerator programs what you ask of them, so ask for what you need.

To raise venture capital, you’ll need to be able to articulate your brand strategy. In doing, so, crafting a strong brand narrative connects much better than listing product attributes.

In How Leaders Inspire Action, Simon Sinek describes a simple framework for your brand narrative.  In my opinion, Sinek’s talk is the best 20 minutes a leader can spend and a must-watch for anyone involved in startups.

Brand agencies can be very helpful in crafting a brand narrative, but many are too expensive for  unfunded startups. One founder recommended Cultivate Creative and Limone Creative as strong agencies that have startup-friendly engagement models.

We discussed customer acquisition, which yielded  recommendations for Robert Cialdini’s books, Influence and Pre-suasion, and Matthew Dixon’s book, The Challenger Sale.

One of the most common mistakes I have seen in early stage startups is spending too much time and money developing a product before validating the fundamental assumptions upon which the business is based.

Instead of jumping straight to implementing your full vision, identify and rank your fundamental risks and leaf-of-faith assumptions. Then proceed to de-risk your startup by finding the cheapest, fastest ways to validate these assumptions.

For example, if your product is technical, find no- or low-code ways to validate your idea before building custom technology.

Once you validate your assumptions, you will be able to show prospective investors the empirical evidence that your idea will make a great investment!  

About Startup Lean Coffee

Startup Lean Coffee is a monthly gathering of founders, early employees, advisors, investors, and anyone involved or interested in joining the startup world in any capacity. Our sole purpose is to help each other improve by sharing questions and experiences. All you need to bring is your attention, curiosity, and willingness to share.

We follow a Lean Coffee meeting format, a lightly facilitated meeting where participants democratically build an agenda and discuss each topic for a fixed time, voting to continue discussion or move on to the next topic after the time runs out.

Feel free to continue conversations that were started at our meetings and start new ones on our  Startup Lean Coffee Slack workspace. Please treat our Slack space like our in-person meetings: ask questions, share interesting information, create channels.

Startup Lean Coffee is graciously hosted by Betaworks Studios. Participation is free; but space is limited. We usually meet on the 4th Friday of each month, except for this month. Sign up for the next Startup Lean Coffee, which will be on Thursday, August 1st at 9am.

I provide advisory and consulting services that accelerate your growth by streamlining strategy, marketing, sales, design, engineering, and operations.