For the past 5 years, it seems like every day I kept hearing about an exciting new startup that was launching into the marketplace.
First, it was AI, then it was blockchain, crypto, and cybersecurity. Recently it’s been nearly everything - from dog walking to local food-delivery - that has been disrupted with technology, as new websites and apps popup seemingly every day to solve a problem and to take their slice of the market share.
It felt like more startups launched this year than ever before. Maybe it’s because I’m more connected to the entrepreneurial community now and have more exposure to these sorts of news. Or perhaps launching a startup became easier so more people are doing it.
Every one of those tech founders has their own unique and interesting story to tell.
Some came from a corporate background and were frustrated with the lack of innovation. Others were running a successful consulting business - and decided to scale it with the help of technology. There are also developers out there who were hacking interesting things for fun - until one of those inventions struck the chord.
With the rise of remote work, the proliferation of entrepreneurship, and diminishing barriers to entry, the question that is asked frequently is whether or not it is possible to run a tech company, without having a tech background.
It’s a question that many inspiring entrepreneurs entering the scene ask every day, and I wanted to share my own story of launching a tech company in 2015, without having any prior experience developing software - as a way to answer that question.
My first interaction with software development
The first two years after graduating from college, I was working for a high-net-worth wealth management firm in Toronto. When I finally decided to leave my career in finance, and launch a software company, I had no idea about web development, apps, how to code, or even what it took to go from having an idea to launching a product into customers’ hands.
My aspiration at the time was to bring the real estate industry into the 21st century, by connecting office properties with prospective tenants, practically using technology to replace a middle-man broker.
After reading about the companies like Uber and Airbnb, and becoming familiar with the marketplace concept of connecting customers with providers of service over the internet - I knew that creating a marketplace for real estate would be a perfect implementation of my idea.
There was only one problem: I had no clue how to do it.
I started searching online, hoping to find an easy way to build a marketplace without having to hire a developer.
There were a couple of really good platforms for building responsive landing pages (Squarespace, Wix), and plenty of options for starting an E-Commerce website selling products online (Shopify) - but nothing that would help me create a platform for Real Estate transactions.
The more I searched the more it became clear that the only way out would be to build one from scratch. But hiring a developer just wasn’t within my budget.
One thing I heard a lot about entrepreneurship is that startup founders end up wearing multiple hats. I guess that was the time when I felt I had to level up my skillset, if I wanted to see this real estate idea become a reality.
So I put my head down and got to work.
Choosing a Programming Language
First, I needed to figure out how someone without a technical background can learn web development. I started my investigation on Quora, asking questions about technology, and trying to understand what it took to build a marketplace. I quickly realized that in order to build a tech product, I needed to learn a programming language.
With that in mind, I narrowed down my research to answer a few specific questions:
- What is the best programming language for web development?
- How can I learn a programming language?
- How long does it take to learn a programming language?
Initially known as a language for creating basic on-screen animations, JS was then transcending to being used as a multi-purpose scripting programming language. All of a sudden, almost anything could be done using this one language: building web servers using frameworks like Express.js, crafting graphical user interfaces using React.js, making use of Machine Learning and AI tools through TensorFlow.js, and even interacting with hardware via the IoT framework called JohnnyFive.
Learning a programming language
I didn’t have the money to hire a tutor or afford to attend a bootcamp. So I resorted to what every self-respecting DIY enthusiast on a thin budget tends to do: I went on YouTube.
One by one, I watched all those videos. It took an enormous amount of patience to deal with the frustration of not knowing what’s going on. For example, I had to pause every 5-10 seconds to replicate what was going in the video in my own code editor. Early on, I was literally living on StackOverflow, and was consuming dozens of articles on Medium from publications like Hackernoon, for the first 12 months.
Building my first tech product
It was a slow ramp-up. In the beginning, I wasn’t comfortable writing my own code. So I had to search for existing projects on GitHub to integrate their code snippets into my own project.
One by one, we put together those features and our real estate marketplace started to take form. When we ran the codebase in production for the first time, I was shocked that the whole platform was actually working. The only thing that kept it together was our never-ending optimism.
I had a co-founder (also a non-technical business person) helping me out - so we divided up responsibilities and were both contributing to the project. We would be working on our business, fielding sales calls, writing emails, and scouting for funding opportunities during the day-time, and building a prototype during the night.
Both of us pushed the boundaries from an endurance and mental health standpoint. It wasn’t glamorous nor easy. It was a lot of hard work and sleepless nights. And a lot of burnout. But looking back, I’m glad we did it. Nothing feels as rewarding as being able to create a product from scratch, using your own two hands and a laptop. Testing just how far we can go, and learning new skills as they were required, set us up for the rest of our entrepreneurial journey.
Starting Over Again in 2020
Fast-forward to 2020: a lot has happened since those scrappy early days. I went on to co-found a series of startups in PropTech, MortgageTech, VC Tech, and was involved in a myriad of advisory and consulting gigs. Sitting in isolation the majority of the year, and struggling to turn around one of the underperforming startups I was involved in at the time, I started questioning whether I was at the right place.
Deep in my gut, I knew I was overdue for a change. So I took a plunge and began working on a new company in the industry that was completely new to me: legal services.
The idea was simple - to allow users to ask legal questions and get answers from licensed lawyers. Instead of looking for a lawyer, signing an expensive retainer, and then visiting a law office to get some legal advice, we wanted to provide that same benefit online - and for a fraction of the cost.
The reason for creating this product was to scratch my own itch: plenty of people in my network, myself included, were having terrible experiences hiring a traditional law firm. Long delivery times, inflated legal bills, terrible support.
The time was right to change the way clients consumed legal services. There was only one problem: I didn’t have a background in law.
It was 2015 all over again - only now instead of learning how to code, I had to understand the intricacies of the legal profession
It was an uphill battle from day one: trying to understand how the legal system works, how lawyers interact with their clients, what motivates them to provide legal services, and most importantly - regulations around publishing legal advice online.
But we did it anyway. We launched a coSquare successfully in September 2020.
How did we do it?
First, we spent 6 months interviewing over 100 lawyers, consumers of legal services, and other entrepreneurs in the industry - a rule I’ve put in place a while ago, to help me validate the problem and find the best solution to address that problem.
Then, we surrounded ourselves with lawyers and legal practitioners that were eager to change how the industry worked. They helped us understand the shortcomings of traditional law firms, and empowered the company to navigate a complex regulatory landscape
Finally, we spent an enormous amount of time listening to our customers and early adopters. Consumers are the driving force of every industry - and it was important to incorporate every bit of their feedback into our product.
By now, I hope you’ve noticed a common thread. I didn’t start my first tech business being fully equipped with relevant technical skills. And I didn’t launch my latest legal tech startup, knowing the law inside-out.
If you’re hungry, curious, and eager to learn - lack of certain skills or gaps in your knowledge should not prevent you from starting a business - as long as you’re willing to dedicate an enormous amount of time and effort, filling the gaps along the way.
So the answer is “Yes”, you can absolutely launch and successfully run a tech startup without having any technical skills. You just need to be ready for a similar journey I’ve described in this article, and to compensate for your lack of skills and knowledge with your work ethic and perseverance.