Non-technical co-founder? What do you do while your buddy codes?

You can be more than the tea-boy you know...If your co-founder is the developer/designer, and you’re the hustling “other guy”, what do you spend your time on?

The answer?

Everything else. Anything that could be done by either of you should be done by you.

Some non-technical co-founders feel an air of guilt that they cannot offer assistance to their partners with the nuts and bolts of building product. Finding bugs in code at 3am is beyond them and — bar learning how to code themselves (a whole other story) — there is nothing they can do to help.

Or is there?

Trust me, if you execute on the tasks below, there will be no guilt in the relationship. Cumulatively, what you are going to be doing is more than a full-time role and your co-founder will be absolutely delighted that you’ve taken care of this stuff to allow him to get on with building product.

So what are you going to do?

Customer Development

You should be the go-to guy when it comes to knowing your customer and what they want. What are their problems? As Clayton asks, what are the jobs they need doing? How are they getting these jobs done at the moment? How could your product help?

As part of your daily routine, schedule one-to-two client calls. Every day. Very quickly, you’ll notice patterns in those conversations which can be directed back to your co-founder to help steer product development. Jason Evanish has an excellent article on this.

UX (User Experience)

Given your newly found tight-nit relationship with your customers, you should be the guy championing the experience they have in using your product.

Note that UX is not UI. Designing a User Interface is beyond you, but keeping your customer front-of-mind and ensuring that every touch-point they have with your company is a positive one is not. You can survive with a poor UI, but not with a poor UX.

Customer Service can be a make-or-break area for some startups, and is often absolutely central to a customer’s experience of a product. Therefore it is vital this function gets the attention it deserves at the founder-level.

Storytelling

This is a biggie. I believe one of a founders most important tasks is to tell great stories about how a customer’s life will be made that little bit better by use of his product.

Of course, anyone starting a company will be able to communicate how feature X of their product solves for customer problem Y. But it takes that extra something special to turn it into an aspirational tale that takes the customer’s mind wandering to a better place; a better place made possible by this wonderful and simple product.

In speaking to customers, you should be noticing the features/problems they mention most often and the language they use to describe them. You’ll want to match these priorities in your product and mirror their language in your stories.

Take your customers to a wonderful new place. But keep it simple. Which means you should master the art of…

Copywriting

Storytelling is one thing. Copywriting is another. Copywriting is not just banging out text describing what your features consist of. That’s rubbish copywriting. Honing your copywriting skills will ensure that all written communication — whether it be web copy, email auto-responders, blogging, press releases or investor pitch decks — pack much more of a punch with their intended audience.

Copywriting begins by knowing who you are writing for. Who are you targeting? Do they know about you? What do they know about you? Do they know about your product? Do they know they need your product? Spending 5 minutes answering these questions before writing your piece will give your copy so much more of a focus than otherwise.

While we’ve identified that we must become storytellers, we must also recognise when we should be brief. And to the point. I’m amazed at the number of well-funded startups who do not explain to me what they do when I land on their site.

When a user lands on your site, pick one core thing you have to offer her and make that the main focus of your homepage. Ensure it’s crystal clear what your proposition is.

Of course you have more to say. You have a dozen features to talk about. That’s what other pages of your website are for. Keep your homepage to the point. If I can’t tell what you do and why I should give a monkeys in 5 seconds, you should not assume I’ll expend any further effort to find out.

Joanna Wiebe at CopyHackers offers some great insights for startup founders looking to improve their copy. Sign up for her email list – within a fortnight you’ll have come on leaps and bounds.

Fundraising

I’m no expert on startup fundraising, but by all accounts it is one of the most time-consuming parts of early-stage startup life. Ergo, it’ll take up a lot of your coding co-founder’s time if you let it. Man up and take it on yourself – at least the early stage stuff.

When it comes to VC meetings, you’ll obviously both have to work on your pitch together. And your pitch will warrant a lot of work. But you should take care of the toing and froing that comes beforehand so your man can do what he does.

Blogging

Founders should blog in three different ways. The first two methods should be started immediately; the final tactic can wait until you are looking to staff-up.

Firstly, founders should blog about their experiences as a founder on a personal blog. Blogging is such a great tool for building credibility, clarifying ones own thoughts, growing a network and increasing publicity – all useful pastimes for a founder.

Secondly, you should blog as part of a content marketing strategy. Start a blog on your company site with a focus on your users and their problems. Doing this is great for SEO and can really give your company a personality. Blog commenters can also be followed-up with as part of your Customer Development efforts.

Thirdly, if you want to get great people to come and work for you, you should start a blog informing the world of what it’s like to work with you. Don’t just talk about your culture and the fact that you have beers on a Friday afternoon. Talk about the problems you try to solve on a daily basis. Talk about your rationale behind the decisions that you’ve made. Talk about your vision for the future. Along with your personal founder’s blog, this will give potential hires a great insight into the real you – which can only work in your favour, right? The Netflix Tech blog does this well.

Analysis

Be the Google Analytics guy. Be the Kissmetrics guy. Be the guy to tell your co-founder that the new feature he coded last week is reducing sign-ups by 20% so he can unwind it. Be the guy who keeps the rest of the business up-to-speed so they know where you are. Better still, be the guy who understands that even though you have 348 metrics you could report on, you are only going to focus on that one, ‘cos you know it’s the one that matters more than all the others at this time in your startup life.

Retention/Community/Social Media Management

You should own your Mailchimp account and whichever usage-based communication tool is your flavour of the month. You are also ideally situated to give yourself the honorary title of Chief Education Officer, taking responsibility for ensuring that those clients you do fight tooth and nail to convert actually get the benefits out of your product they were promised.

And it goes without saying that if you have a company forum or Twitter account it needs to be manned. And manned by you.

Learning new skills

If, after all of this, you still have some time on your hands, learn some new skills!

You are not going to out-design a designer anytime soon, but with a couple of days of Photoshop training under your belt you could easily tweak your email templates or spruce up that VC pitch deck.

Likewise, a little CSS chops will have you testing call-to-action layout positioning in no time.

Anything you can learn to do yourself means a little less time wasted for your techy co-founder. And as we are understanding, they take a little bit longer to get back into their rhythm than us non-technical brethren.

Keeping everyone else happy

If you need to take your co-founder’s dog to the vet so he can keep coding – do it! If you need to be the lunch delivery boy to keep his energy levels us – do it! If you need to treat his misses to a night on the town so she’s happy which keeps him happy – do it! (What? You’re co-founders – you trust each other, right…!?)

What else can you be getting up to? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Image credit: David Martyn Hunt

06. December 2012 by Brian
Categories: startups | Tags: , | 27 comments

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  • Thinktank

    First of all thank you for writing such an interesting article.
    One can learn to take control over doing or overseeing the Accounts department.

    • Iwas Listening

      Did you fall in the think tank and drown before you got to “Second of all”? Should we send help?

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  • http://twitter.com/inspiredworlds Matthew Ho

    Great post! I’m a non-technical founder and I can relate to all these things. You have to take care of all the non-technical things so your technical founder can just concentrate on that. There are other things like marketing, customer acquisition, SEM, accounting, legals, pitching, recruiting that are just as important as coding.

    • http://brandrsn.com/ Brian Anderson

      Agree, agree, agree.

      Marketing shouldn’t sit in a silo for some types of business though. The whole Growth Hacker “movement” preaches how businesses can grow more rapidly when marketing and product are deeply intertwined. If you’re the non-coder, this involves getting your buddy’s input into how to the product can drive growth.

      Thanks for the comment, Matthew.

      • http://twitter.com/inspiredworlds Matthew Ho

        agree as well! we realised that product and marketing were going at different speeds/directions. So we had to align product with marketing.

  • http://twitter.com/kevindewalt Kevin Dewalt

    All great advice. When I read your blog title a number of items started ticking off in my mind…you nailed them here.

    I’m glad you put copyediting. This takes a huge amount of time, and if you also make it part of the UX (which it is) you can create a lot of value by just getting feedback on it.

    Great stuff, bravo.

    • http://brandrsn.com/ Brian Anderson

      Thanks Kevin.
      I completely agree that it takes time, but it is time well invested.

  • http://twitter.com/Michael_Wills Michael Wills

    A lot of good points there, Brian! I am not a coder, but I can code… and obviously enough to intimidate others enough at times (it seems to me?) that they wonder what they could possibly contribute to the project. All of these things are so crucial and are things I want and need to get around to doing, but as you point out, “with a coders hat on” find it hard to get the time to do them. The other dilemma for me personally is that I enjoy doing all these other things too – connecting with real people is awesome! Working out what may lead to a winning outcome is exciting. Articulating genuine thought is an art. Here’s a question lol… What do you do while your buddy codes and your other buddy does everything else? :) Room for three?

    • http://brandrsn.com/ Brian Anderson

      You can appoint yourself Chief Caffeine Officer. most important role in the company… ;-)

      Thanks for the comment.

      • http://twitter.com/Michael_Wills Michael Wills

        Sheesh, then i’ll never get any work done :)

  • http://twitter.com/garinickson gari nickson

    Great post Brian! Some really good tips there. I had never considered learning and perfecting copy so thanks! Best of luck.

    • http://brandrsn.com/ Brian Anderson

      Thanks Gari.

      Yes, copy is such a big deal. I’ve only recently come to realise the importance it has. As I said in the article, the CopyHackers email list is worth a subscription.

      Once you learn the basics, it’s astounding (and kinda fun) going around them web wondering why such large (and well funded) companies say absolutely nothing with their websites.

      In fact, that might be the topic of a future blog post… ;-) Can’t be sitting around with only one post for too much longer!

      • http://www.garinickson.com/ Gari Nickson

        Thanks Brian, I signed up for the copyhackers list and I have been impressed by the content so far :) thanks! I read this book the other day about UX for startups – it’s such a good read and free at that! Hope you enjoy. http://uxpin.com/ux-design-for-startups.html

        • http://brandrsn.com/ Brian Anderson

          Cool, thanks. I’ll take a look.

  • http://www.blossom.io Thomas Schranz

    Incredible article and awesome material for further reading.

    • http://brandrsn.com/ Brian Anderson

      Thanks Thomas.

      For a new blogger like myself, it’s very pleasing to see in the stats that people are coming back to read the one and only blog post!

  • TechGuy

    Cookin’ and Cleanin’?

    • http://brandrsn.com/ Brian Anderson

      Only if you’re not going to give anyone food poisoning… ;-)

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  • tom_m

    Great tips! There’s DEFINITELY a lot almost anyone (with any background/experience) can do to help a coder. Aside from the great ideas you mentioned here think about testing and QA. It might not always be glamorous (don’t forget there’s a LOT of not so glamorous parts of coding) but there’s always so much useful feedback and testing that can be done to help a coder. You brushed on the UX element which ties right in with this.

    • http://brandrsn.com/ Brian Anderson

      Thanks Tom, and great points about QA.

  • a co founder

    I’ve done one startup as a Founder but I had a technical Partner (ie they use their company resource to provide services to me in kind in exchange for a set agreement) and now with my current startup I have a technical Co-Founder. Both of us have agreed going over all responsibilities including development but with the tech Co-Founder taking the lead in this area. It is not at all possible to be a Jack/Jill of all Trades and I do believe that people need to specialise and eventually have control over the quality of their work within the startup including the realisation that a Founder can’t be an infosec ninja with PCB skills that can also specialise in energy efficient nanotech and balance multinational taxation requirements at the same time. The main thing is to get the product right and be one step closer to your exit strategy. Learning the ropes of coding or copywriting or board building is just part of the journey.