Summary: Programming is becoming a new form of startup literacy – a language you need to effectively communicate with the team. Start learning this lifelong skill today and you’ll get more startup opportunities, will build better products – and you’ll enjoy it a lot more.
This post answers this week’s Startup Edition Question: What advice would you give young entrepreneurs?
I Wish I had Spent More Time Programming
What a great question. After helping nearly 100 Entrepreneurs worldwide in the past few months, so many answers came to mind. Pick your market first. Stop looking for a co-founder. Believe in Yourself. Stay Patient. Bootstrap. Enjoy the journey.
I started programming computers when I was 12 years-old, more than 30 years ago. Unfortunately for most of my career I didn’t do much programming except for side hobby projects. People noticed I understood tech stuff and could communicate, so I was quickly put into jobs like Project Manager. When I started my first company in 1999 I raised Venture Funding and hired programmers – I never wrote a single line of code and would have never dreamed I’d be writing software in my 40s.
In retrospect, this was a big mistake – I wish I had always kept coding. Fortunately in 2008 I started coding again and plan on doing it forever. Here are some reasons why.
Programming is a New Form of Startup Literacy
10+ years ago you could work in software startups without really knowing how software worked. You could sell by simply knowing features and value propositions. You could market online by knowing how to write Ad copy. You could be a “Product/Program Manager” and deal with project plans and meetings.
Today? Software is involved in almost every aspect of working at a startup. Good luck developing a Growth Hacking marketing strategy without knowing how APIs work. Product teams communicate through software like GitHub. Sales itself is now largely done by software or people powering software. Services like Stripe are changing how product companies talk and think about accounting and billing. Even HR will become software driven as startups increasingly become virtual and global.
The trend is unmistakable: unless you understand how all this stuff works it becomes increasingly hard to work at – much less found – a startup. You simply cannot communicate with people. And the only way I know to learn this stuff is to use it yourself.
You will Execute Faster – Even if it Feels Slower
I’ve been mostly building the SoHelpful MVP myself these past few months – even though I could hire a team to help me. Even while I was investing in other startups. Why in the world would I do that, you ask?
It is faster.
Let’s put programming aside for a second and compare MVP development with a more familiar managerial activity – creating a Powerpoint Presentation. Even Fortune 500 executives create their own Powerpoint Presentations today. Why in the world wouldn’t they just ask their team or the graphics department to build them? Certainly the graphics department could make a more beautiful, visually stunning presentation. They do it themselves because they don’t always know what they want to say until they start trying to say it, so it is actually more efficient to work alone. Creating it helps them discover what they want to communicate. Their goal is communication – not building a presentation.
It turns out the same is true with an MVP: My goal is discovery, not building a product.
I can take vague concepts gathered from a few months of Customer Development discussions and pull them into a feature without having to communicate to other people what I want. Looking at the code I can see what is – and isn’t easy to build quickly. I see ways to hack things temporarily to see if they are really needed. I get inspiration from the code – seeing things work helps me discover better features I hadn’t considered.
At times it feels agonizingly slow working alone, knowing that an experienced developer could build so much faster than me. But experience has taught me that constraints force discipline and creativity – I can only do what is most important, so I have to build less. Less is easier to communicate to customers, easier to maintain and easier to rebuild. The product may be built slower, but the discovery happens faster.
You will be Creating New Products for the Rest of Your Life
Most of us have a romantic vision of entrepreneurship that goes something like this: I found company X and it gets bigger and bigger until I either sell it and do something else with my riches or continuing running X as the managing CEO.
Reality looks nothing like this. If you have the passion to be entrepreneur, you will always be making new things. Always. You startup will build 5 products before one works. You’ll start 4 companies until one starts making money. You’ll start working on a side project that unexpectedly turns into a startup. You’ll make lots of money and realize you enjoyed making products more than spending money. The best friend you’ve always wanted to work with will want to start something with you. You’ll raise a B Round of financing, get kicked out by the board, and decide to bootstrap your next product.
Face it: this is who you are, a person who wants to change the world by solving problems. That’s why you’re an entrepreneur, that’s why you build products. Until we run out of problems you’ll always be building products. Learning to code is a lifelong skill, one you will appreciate and value through the decades. Start learning today and building products will start to look like an opportunity instead of a challenge.
20 years ago there were not enough programmers. Today there are still not enough programmers. There will NEVER be enough programmers because our imagination outstrips our ability to execute. You’ll enjoy entrepreneurship a lot more if you can build stuff without having to look for one every time you’re inspired.
I Know – There are a Lot of Good Reasons Why YOU Won’t Learn to Code
You may have good reasons for not learning how to code – for instance if you’ve tried it and hate it. Or perhaps you’re so insanely good at selling and raising money that doing anything else is a waste of time.
But most entrepreneurs I talk to wish they could code – and want to code. But they don’t think they can do it, don’t know how to learn, or for some reason don’t think they should. I had many of the same excuses for much of my career and gave myself lots of reasons why I wasn’t coding.I hope you’ll reconsider.
You don’t have to be great – or even good – at it. You can be incredibly effective with a wide range of basic skills. With such skills you can build most MVPs to the point of figuring out whether you’ve discovered an opportunity. You can talk about anything. There is enormous value from knowing nothing to having basic skills. There is actually less value in going from basic skills to expertise – and in some cases probably lost value.
You don’t have to do everything yourself. Of course there will be things you can’t do yourself. Paul Mederos did an awesome job with the SoHelpful profile design. Devin Zhang is 10x the programmer I am. These people are experts – I’m a generalist. It is a whole lot easier (and cheaper) to bring in experts for specific problems than to hire generalists.
What you studied at college doesn’t matter – plenty of great programmers never even went to college.
It is easier than ever to get started. It is easy to pick the programming language for your startup. And if you tried – and gave up – I urge you try a different approach to learning such as learning to code after you’ve decided what you want to build.
Need Some Help Getting Started? – I’ll be Happy to Help You
I’ve helped dozens of entrepreneurs talk through the challenges of learning how to code. I’m happy to help you as well, just grab a 30-minute slot on my schedule.
About the Image
I found this photo by Nik_Doof of his “Portable Office”. This type of freedom is one of the most amazing parts of being a technically-competent entrepreneur today – the ability to be mobile, live anywhere, and create products that reach the world from tools you carry on your back.
We live in amazing times, don’t we?
- For some reason people sometimes get angry with me when I make this suggestion. I suppose some people really feel it isn’t a skill they can ever hope to have. Suppose I suggested that programmers that they should learn how to sell – would anyone object as strongly to this advice? ↩