What I’ve Learned as a Non-Technical Guy at a Startup With No Experience Whatsoever

(x-posted from http://www.seandominguez.com)

(First Things First: My startup’s automatic self-tracking app, Breadcrumbs, is currently in private beta for Android and we’re looking for some awesome testers to provide feedback.

Breadcrumbs keeps track of how long you were at the locations you care about most. While you’re at a location you’d like to track, click the ‘Add Place’ button to save it. Breadcrumbs will then automatically track the time of your arrival and departure for every visit.)

When I walked out of my last final before summer, I was in a funk because I figured all the skills I needed to do something cool were out of my grasp. 5 months later and I’m positive that I understand enough about the tech ecosystem that I could provide legitimate value to any venture that I join. I want to share that experience with you.

Going into Summer 2012, my plan was to work 2 jobs, save money, and try to acquire enough skills to work at any online marketing company that would give me a chance. My end goal was to acquire enough skills to make me attractive enough to court a dev and start something awesome.

I figured that would be a couple of years down the road – minimum.

In June, I decided to do an event called Startup Weekend San Diego and joined a team developing a self-tracking app called Breadcrumbs. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had to just learn as I went along.

After winning a pair of prizes (one at Startup Weekend and the other at Qualcomm’s dev. conference, Uplinq), I now find myself with my teammates at a startup incubator called EvoNexus in beautiful Downtown San Diego. Here, I do marketing, social media, and whatever else needs to be done.


I. Breakdown: Technical/Non-technical Skills needed for startups

Like a lot of dreamers and idea folks on Quora, I had absolutely no idea how I could take my ideas and turn them into anything viable.

As stated by Steve Blank, customer development wizard, there are three skillsets needed in a startup:

  • Technology (build it)
  • Design (beautify it)
  • Hustle (populate it with users/get it funded)

Pretty elegant setup, no? Simply evaluate the skills you have (or would like to develop) and plug in the missing pieces.

So how do you find these people? If you’re waiting for your business soul mate to just stumble into your life, you’ll be waiting for a long time. Who wants to partner up with someone who isn’t willing to make things happen?

You have to go out to events. Fellow San Diegans have an awesome resource in SDTechScene.org that provides a calendar of all the tech events and gatherings around the area. I’m sure your area has something similar.

If not, meetup.com is where it’s at. Another resource is to visit entrepreneurship or computer science events hosted on university campuses. If there’s anyone crazy enough to join a startup, it’s an ambitious college student.


Attracting interest from potential business partners

If you’re non-technical like I am, you really need some sort of credibility that you can add value. After all, what would stop someone technical from stealing your idea? In the Quora link above, the top response by Tristan Kromer mentions getting a landing page up or doing some customer development.

While it takes a lot of practice to get really good at Photoshop and HTML/CSS, it really doesn’t take much skill to put up a nice landing page. In fact, I learned basic CSS from this awesome video and here’s a link to a free and highly rated Photoshop course on Udemy.com. After learning some basics, you can go to a site you admire and mimic their layout. It’s really not that hard – I promise you.

For example, I’ve always loved the simplicity of HighExistence.com and my first project for my newfound CSS skills was to mimic their profile template. After just a few hours of messing around at a coffee shop, I came up with something simple that I can add onto/modify when I have enough time to get  back to it.

High Existence Profile Pic

Here is an example of my super basic attempt to mimic the layout

Sure, whatever you create is useless without a backend, but with Apple-esque minimalism in style, what’s stopping you from creating something utterly intriguing?

On Wander splash page

A quote from the BetaBeat.com article covering Wander, written by Adrianne Jeffries:

How many signups? we asked Mr. Fisher.

“A lot,” he said.

Like, more than Hipster, which got 10,000 signups in two days?

“Our viral coefficient is significantly higher, as is our conversion rate,” he said. “Similar number of signups, but achieved with substantially less traffic.”


Getting educated (without having to pay tuition)

Regardless if you’re technical or non-technical, anything you want to learn is available to you. Chances are, if you’re actually taking time to really learn and network, you’ll be ahead of the 90% of people who sit at their desks daydreaming.

I highly recommend the free/cheap courses on Udemy.com, YouTube if you’re looking for specific tasks and projects, and Lynda.com if you want a comprehensive learning experience ($25/month is a steal if you use it every day – there’s no way I could have learned Adobe After Effects CS6 without it). Also, Learnable.com seems to be very popular for web development skills.

If you’re more technically inclined, there’s also CodeAcademy.com, TeamTreehouse.com, and CodeSchool.com.


II. Startup Knowledge: Piggybacking off of the experience of others

One thing I adore about the online ecosystem of entrepreneurs, investors, bloggers, and journalists is that everyone is very open.

Do you have a startup you’re working on and want to pitch a journalist? Here’s some advice from an actual tech journalist in Philadelphia. Want to know how to increase conversion rates? KISSMetrics has compiled a blog of 54 Quotes from Startup Leaders on How to Improve Conversions – as well as many other weekly insights on attracting traffic and optimizing your online presence.

Thinking that you can start anything worthwhile is pretty audacious. On top of the technical vs. non-technical debate, what do you honestly know about UX, VCs, SEO, conversion rates, customer lifetime value, or viral coefficients? Probably not much. But that’s okay, because everything you need to know can be found on the web.

Take for example Mark Suster’s amazing blog Both Sides of the Table. I’m not a VC nor have I ever sold a business. Mark has done both and gives his take on what it takes to be an entrepreneur as well as insight into marketing for early stage startups. I can also read about the thoughts of entrepreneur Andrew Chen, read Social Times to understand what social media metrics I should consider, and browse Quora for expert inputs on startup business development.

That’s a lot of specific and actionable information I just linked to right now. Think about anyone trying to create a startup just 10 years ago (hell, even 5). How little was available then?


Entreporn: A Warning

The catch then is not finding useful information, but putting it into practice.

Daniel Tenner wrote an awesome (and indicting) article on his site Swombat.com about how people tend to read all they can about startups without really ever doing anything. He calls it “entreporn” – an entrepreneur’s kinky niche of mental masturbation. He says:

Reading business books and articles, watching screencasts and interviews, is utterly useless beyond the first few weeks where you’re actually learning a rough map of what stuff there is available for you to draw from…

…But beyond that initial sip on the firehose, the rest is mental masturbation. Unless you have something practical that you need to do, reading about startups, business, and so on, is a waste of time.

There are a lot of posts on the web written by startup entrepreneurs that will expand your horizons and inspire you immensely. But what is inspiration without action?

Knowledge in practice, which fosters experiential learning, is the lifeblood of your endeavors, and that’s the type of learning that you should invest your valuable time to.

Takeaway: Read a lot. But when you get to a point where you know exactly what you have to do to get to the next step, you have to act on it. Information can be acquired from anywhere, but experience can only be acquired from doing.


III. Lessons Thus Far

Although I’ve learned a lot by reading, doing, and working with my incredibly helpful and understanding team (Server side API? Garbage collection? Git? WHAT LANGUAGE ARE YOU SPEAKING!?!?) I’d say the most enlightening things I’ve learned are really what I’ve learned about myself. I’ll try to distill those lessons here:

Lesson #1: Stick with your commitments when there’s no evidence to tell you otherwise

It’s extremely easy to read a few articles about effective marketing, drool about your prospects as you draw up a strategy, and scrap all your plans after a couple of weeks of non-response.

No matter how many stories you read about successful marketing campaigns and how long they took to be effective, it’s inevitable that you’ll feel like you can do more.

The feeling of wanting to do something more isn’t the problem – that’s just a sign of ambition. However, you need to quell the desire to scrap plans you feel aren’t working when, in fact, you just haven’t given them enough time to mature.

Right now, we have a content marketing strategy that involves me blogging about my efforts to self-track in order to make lifestyle changes. The subject is something we envision a typical Breadcrumbs user will be interested in using the app for, so we believe it would be convenient to have this body of work in place for users and for SEO purposes.

Will it work? In its current form, we’re not sure. Is it worth trying? Of course. If we keep iterating, improving, and responding appropriately to feedback, there’s no possible way that we’ll end up in a worse position than we were prior.

Only time can tell. Until then, don’t stress, stay with your plan, and spend your time doing the most important activities. When you sacrifice time from customer and business development to do social media outreach, you’re doing it wrong.


Lesson #2: You have to recuperate in your off-time

There’s a mythology surrounding a startup entrepreneur. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about – this idea of a visionary who works obsessively, has given up all earthly comforts and possessions, and is driven to succeed at all costs.

Essentially, the startup entrepreneur is the starving artist of the business world.

Glamorous in its lack of glamor, it’s also a total misconception – depending on who you talk to.

One thing I’ve realized is that you have to have off-time. No, not time where you’re physically somewhere else and yet feeling incredibly guilty about not working. Real off-time where you turn off your brain for a while and enjoy life.

Look, you’re probably a fairly creative person, and it’s precisely this bit of creativity you have that got you into this space in the first place. The thing about creativity and productivity is that they are far more likely to occur in happy people than they are in people who are in a perpetual state of stress. Just watch this TEDx talk given by Shawn Achor and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

I figured out how insanely unproductive this was, honestly, just a couple of weeks ago. I was worrying so much outside of work that I didn’t get to enjoy my off-time. All the worse, this constant worry piled into actual working hours, and it was almost as if my brain couldn’t distinguish being at work from being off.

It was unfulfilling and unproductive. I’m sure a lot of you know what I mean.

I know that this isn’t the case for some people. Some people are so fulfilled with their work that it’s really the only thing that they like to do – which is totally cool.

For the rest of us who do pine for other experiences, however, this is your permission to enjoy a beer, watch a movie, and continue to write your novel.


Lesson #3: You have to give yourself deadlines

In the short documentary 6 Days to Air: The Making of South Park, Trey Parker mentions how it’s good that the team has deadlines. After churning out an episode – from drawing board to TV – in 6 days, he says that if he were to spend a month on an episode, it would probably only be 5% better.

This idea of iterating quickly shouldn’t be new to you if you’ve read anything about Lean Startups. However, putting this into practice is far different when you have this thing in front of you that you’re putting your heart and soul into that’s almost done but not quite there.

I’m not a dev, but I am a lover of words and communication, and it definitely irks me knowing that I will publish this knowing exactly what I could improve.

It’s tough, but it has to be done.

Unless you’ve got excellent discipline, this will probably take a few failures before it really hits home. For me, the fact that this blog took 1.5 weeks to write is unacceptable, and addressing this failure is one of my highest priorities.


IV: Closing

I have a lot more to learn and I’m getting a little better everyday. As mentioned above, I love the whole startup ecosystem and would love some feedback, so please don’t be shy to post a comment below.

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11 Responses to “What I’ve Learned as a Non-Technical Guy at a Startup With No Experience Whatsoever”

  1. Carlos D

    Fantastic post Sean! Truly enjoyed reading it!! Keep it up!

  2. Irwin

    Very nice post. There was a lot I didn’t know about your journey thus far.

  3. Bernard

    Oh man what an awesome read. I’m leaving with a newfound perspective on the tech industry and enjoyed the useful tips! Thanks!

  4. Will

    Dude, Sean, wow! What a freaking great post!! I literally just had my balls busted the while driving home with my wife, who works with me at my startup, about how it looks like my partner and I waste an ungodly amount of time. It was so funny cause she was trying to be nice, but basically saying that it drives her nuts because my partner and I take FOREVER to get stuff done.

    Tomorrow morning hopefully will be when it all changes. Btw, I’m the guy that has to do lists in Google Docs, on paper, in Evernote, Notes on the iPad you name it and there is a to do list there somewhere.

    Here’s my idea after reading your article. A big board in the office with categories (administrative, marketing, development, sales, etc.) on it. Is like to have sticky notes, color coordinated of course, with action items in them. The most important items go on the top half of the “bucket”. Everyday after a quick standup mtg the team will go to the board and pick a days worth of to do’s and knock them out. No discussion, planning, meetings, etc that waste time… Just doing.

    What are your thoughts?

    • Sean Dominguez

      Sorry for not getting back to this! I was responding to comments in reddit and didn’t see any comments here!

      At Breadcrumbs, we use the awesome task manager Asana. I think it’s extremely useful and very elegant. With what I’m reading about your situation, I think it’s a definite improvement. Being able to do things and cross them out gets so much more done than floating from idea to idea, task to task, without a definite end goal. The amount of time that humans can spend on non-value adding activities is unfathomable, so you just gotta make sure you ship what you start.

      I read productivity blogs and my favorite is at scotthyoung.com. He has some fantastic advice about getting things done that’s actually ACTIONABLE, so give it a read.

      Today, my tasks are to write a short blog post on self-tracking, do some research with a concrete end point, and finish the press release we’ll have ready. I’m giving myself a deadline of 7:00pm that I must finish by – no extensions. It’s imperative to create that sense of urgency (at least that’s how I’m motivated).

      Good luck to you and keep me updated!

  5. Brandon Hernandez

    Lengthy but necessary read. Completely relevant to how I feel. Not the most tech savvy person ever, but I’m slowly building confidence to branching out to the tech biz. Thank you for sharing Sean.

  6. Cam

    <<<<< Entreporn fanatic here. This is quite possible the most insightful amazing article I have read in the last month. Kudos to you and thanks for sharing! I cannot express enough how much I can relate to your situation. AWESOME!

  7. John Schneider

    Absolutely love that you wrote this, I think it’s very well done and points out quite a few things I’ve been dealing with lately, most specifically: entreporn.

    I’ve been reading books, magazines, and internet articles on small business and startups for YEARS now, but have been struggling to find an application for most of it.

    There have been a few ideas for software and applications that I’ve had over the last few years, but I’ve spent so much time thinking about them and how to make them perfect that I haven’t actually done any real WORK on making them a reality.

    Take my blog, for instance. I’ve had the domain name purchased and concept in my head for three months, and am only just now starting to develop it. It’s now an actual work in progress, and I want to thank you for the reality check.

    Once again, an excellent blog! Good luck in all of your endeavors!

    • Sean Dominguez

      Hi John,

      I know we connected on Twitter but didn’t see the blog comment ’til now. Thanks for that.

      I think we’re all guilty of this at some point in our lives – this sort of “I’m waiting for the stars to align in my favor, and THEN I can FINALLY implement what I’ve learned” attitude. It perpetuates itself because we know the future we want but have no idea how to connect that future to our present mindset/skillset/confidence level.

      I’m sure you’ll learn a bunch this time around doing and learning instead of consuming. Though, of course, that extended period of consumption/inaction should give you confidence every day that these new and perhaps difficult habits you’re establishing are worthwhile.

      Good luck and keep in touch!

  8. Kendall

    This is a phenomenal write up. I find myself in the same position as yourself – I’m currently interning at Artist Growth, a music tech company. Thanks for your insight, keep on the good fight.

  9. Nikola

    Keep up the good work. Entreporn is a maddafakka. :)


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