If you’re a first-time, non-technical founder of a software startup, you face a pretty daunting Catch-22: you can’t hire a developer without funding; you can’t get funding without a track record; you can’t get a track record without a product; and you can’t get a product without a developer.
There are a few ways to bootstrap yourself out of this Catch-22, each with its own set of pitfalls.
Find a technical co-founder who believes in your vision and will work for sweat equity. This is tough, because developers are in very high demand from established companies and well-funded startups. There are more ideas for the next great app than there are developers, and most of them will fail; why should they take a chance on you? That said, if you spend a lot of time networking at startup events and with developers who work in your industry, you might find somebody after a few months of looking.
The pitfall is that starting a company with somebody is like getting married, except that splitting up is harder than getting a divorce. Plus, since you aren’t a developer, you’ll have no idea if you’re hiring somebody who’s a great coder or who is going to write a buggy, unmaintainable codebase (hint: asking them or their references if they are good will not give you the answer). Absolutely get a lawyer to help you structure the company and the arrangement with your technical founder. Get a real startup lawyer, not a friend who practices in another field (get a lawyer regardless of which path you go down).
Build an MVP for cheap. Developing an app is expensive, but if you’ve got a bit of money or can raise it from your friends, family, and early believers, you can probably scrap together a minimum viable product (MVP). There are many offshore firms of varying quality that can probably build your product for under $10,000. If you work with an on-shore company, it will probably cost $25-50,000, depending on where you live.
If you go this route, really pare down your feature set to the minimum you need to test whether your idea actually has merit. Read The Lean Startup to learn more about this process (read it regardless of which of these options you pick). After you have your MVP built, work really hard to get customers using the product, even if you have to give it away. You probably won’t have money to build more features to help you close deals or increase your customers’ usage, but this actually can be good thing, as it forces you to get many new customers and listen to all of their feedback, rather than getting just a few and then knee-jerk responding to their whims.
Also, be prepared to throw away your initial product and start from scratch when you get funding; just like hiring a technical founder, you’ll have no idea if the company you’re hiring is any good.
Hustle to meet investors. If you can meet the right people who will introduce you to the right people and get you connected with investors, you can raise the money you need to hire a developer. But you may never find an investor who wants to take a chance on somebody without any track record, and if you do, they’ll probably require your to give up much of the ownership of your company. Again, get a startup lawyer to help you through this process. If you can make this work, it can let you really pursue your vision by opening up the resources to hire developers and build your product. But somebody else will likely be controlling your company, so you have to decide if that’s worth the trade-off. You should also make sure you take money from an investor who will be very hands-on and help you hire your developers.
Learn to code. This takes a bit of time, but many short-term schools have popped up that will teach you how to program in a couple months for a relatively small amount of money (usually less than $10k), including, of course, Epicodus. There are also many websites that will help you learn on your own; I’m partial to our own curriculum, which is at www.learnhowtoprogram.com. Once you know how to code, you can build your idea without having to worry about investors, technical co-founders, or giving up equity. Plus, if your startup doesn’t work out, you can always get a job as a developer.
Work for a startup. You’ll have to defer your dreams for a bit, but working at a startup will give you a chance to see how startups operate, learn about building software and selling it, and, perhaps most importantly, meet developers, founders, and investors.
In reality, you probably won’t pursue just one of these paths; in fact, you’re best off pursuing several of them in some way or another. Getting going as a first-time, non-technical founder is tough, but if you can pull it off, there are few things as rewarding as building a startup to realize your vision.