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Bootstrapping and knowing how to make things  

Rob Fitzpatrick makes a very valid suggestion to non-programmers:

If you want to get into startups and you don’t already know programmers who enjoy working with you, then I seriously suggest you start learning to program immediately. It’s not as bad as it sounds.

Too many people go around looking for a "technical cofounder" to build out their idea (which, usually, at that point, exists on the back of napkins and business plans - both more or less equally worthless media).

One of my best friends, who used to be one of those "non-technical" people (i.e. he didn't know how to program), taught himself how to build a simple site with ASP back in 1998. He made a few hundred pounds from it. He then built a more complex site and made a few thousand pounds from it. After that, he built an even more complex site that made him hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Recently, he's taught himself Rails, server administration, has learned to manage a team of developers (outsourcing to Russia works if you're a competent programmer yourself). He's now building out site after site, trying out many different ideas until he finds one that really takes off. Those are not trivial sites - they're the kind of applications where most people would say "you need a technical cofounder".

The fact is, you're not going to get to that level instantly, or within a few weeks. But once you start the process of learning how to program, several things will happen:

  • You will have started a lifelong process that may well get you to the point where you don't need any technical cofounders.
  • You will know a lot more about what "technical people" do, so you can both recognise the good ones and "talk the talk" (which makes you a better person to work with).
  • You will be able to build simple things to test your ideas without any outside assistance! This dramatically lowers the bar to testing ideas.

It's worth finishing with a note that "programming" is a subset of "making things", one of the key skills in the startup skill set. Programming happens to be an insanely useful skill these days, but there are other ways to make things. With sites like Kickstarter, we're seeing a resurgence of people being able to build companies based on their ability to make physical things, for example.

More from the library:
Friends, Family and Fools: the worst investors
Get a VC to mentor you
How to approach an angel investor
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