Founding a tech startup without technical skills

 

 

The idea of starting your own business is daunting on its own, but creating technology without ever writing a line of code can make the entrepreneurship mountain seem insurmountable. Only a few days after seeing the prototype of my company’s mobile app, I want to share how I built the confidence to found a technology-focused startup without technical skills.

If you asked me a year ago, I would tell you that owning a business was not part of my career plan.  As the VP of Customer Experience at a Fintech in Charlotte, I had seen firsthand how stressful it is to own and operate a startup. The uncertainty can be overwhelming and the stress can be crippling.

With that being said: startup life is unbelievably exciting. You learn more than any class could ever teach you. You become a jack-of-all-trades, because you don’t have enough hands on deck to get necessary tasks done. My dad, who is also an entrepreneur, still likes to say he is the CEO and the janitor.  Losses are more intense and successes are sweeter because your very livelihood hangs in the balance. You feel a certain amount of pride just by saying, “I work at a startup,” because it means that no matter your position you are essential.

Starting a company was never my goal. But one day I found myself searching for green nightstands… and Vishion was born.

 

The idea hit me July 5, 2017

I was grabbing a drink with my husband at Kindred after purchasing a new bed. Looking at the beautiful green cabinets on the bar, my husband suggested nightstands in that shade of green would go perfectly with our new headboard. He was absolutely right. Sitting at the bar, sipping my wine, I Googled “green nightstand.”  Two weeks later, I was still searching the Internet for anything available in the beautiful color.

Kindred in Davidson, North Carolina

I looked for companies that would help with my search and found absolutely nothing. Whenever I’m frustrated, I usually vent to whoever is closest about how things can be easier with the proper technology in place (don’t get me started about how we can improve TopGolf). I began thinking about all of the other times I couldn’t find items based on color and got even more worked up.

Almost every free moment was filled with daydreaming about how I would fix this problem.  I couldn’t sleep at night because I couldn’t stop think about the company I would build. I wrote a 20-page business plan over a weekend about what the application of my dreams could do. It got to the point where I couldn’t live with myself if anyone but me fixed this problem.

Should I?

When I had the idea for Vishion I was half way through the MBA program at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. I had four weeks to decide if I was going to drop my classes and start my own company. I’ve never taken on a new venture without 100 percent certainty that I would be successful. More importantly, I had my husband to consider.

Me with my amazing husband and best friend, Steve.

Starting a company is just as hard on your spouse as it is on you. Relaxing date nights start to disappear, because you feel guilty when you’re not working. It becomes difficult to talk about anything but your company. No matter how much they love you, your significant other does not want to talk about work as much as you do. They take on more of the workload at home and stop doing things they love to save money. They have to take a backseat and watch as you deal with uncertainty, stress and self-doubt about a project you promise will be a success.

If you have the right partner, they will never make you feel guilty for being selfish with your time and attention. Make sure to show them appreciation whenever possible (even in a blog post) because they deserve it.

Understanding what it takes to start a company

The first thing I did was research potential competition and opportunity in the market. I read books and articles to see what it takes to start a business, as well as how other companies and their founders got their start.

I examined our personal financials to see how much we could invest in a company and how long we could go without my salary. Resources like Mint are extremely helpful to examine past spending. Determine what you can’t live without, then see if your budget can support a small business.

To feel confident in taking the startup leap, learn what it takes to build your company, research the competition and market, examine your finances and test how others react to your concept.

Take a look at Eventbrite and Meetup to find all startup related events.  I went to networking events just to pitch my idea to strangers. During this first month I met with a TechStars manager to see what it would take for my company to meet the standards of their accelerator. I would highly recommend attending Pitch Breakfast to see if you could withstand the Shark Tank-style atmosphere.

Don’t dip your toe, dive in

If you haven’t had two full-time jobs at the same time, you should see what it feels like to work an 80-hour week. I wake up at 4:30 a.m, go to my other job at 8 a.m., then come home eight hours later to work for another three hours. Then I work the entire weekend to make up for the time I’ve lost. If this feels too difficult, startup life isn’t for you.

Hygge coworking space at Camp Northend
Hygge coworking space at Camp North End

You’ll notice instantly how hard this transition is for the people around you. You’ll get comfortable saying “no” to going out or spending money on frivolous things. You won’t have as much time and you’ll prioritize how you spend your time based on what’s actually important. Eventually, you’ll start to lose friends. Not because they’ve changed, but because you’ve changed. I’ve found the best way to find people that can relate to what you’re experiencing is to start working at a coworking space like Hygge. You’ll randomly meet inspiring entrepreneurs, but Hygge also does an amazing job of bringing everyone together with special events and lunches to discuss the startup life.

Another thing that will become blatantly clear as you get started are the 1,000 ways you’ll fail. People love to recite the “90 percent of startups fail” mantra. If you’re a woman or minority, you’ll be hit even harder. Headlines like “Female CEOs get only 3% of Venture Capital Money” are a dime a dozen. After all of this, if you still feel the undeniable pull to start a company, do it.

I’m the founder of a tech startup. No, I don’t code.

It’s easy to suffer from Imposter’s Syndrome when you start, especially when you’re trying to create a mobile app without any developer experience. You hope you are seen as more than a lady with a great idea during early conversations. Don’t think you lack value because you can’t build the technology yourself. One thing I learned from all of my reading: most successful startups have a business-focused founder and a technical founder. After working on Vishion for six months I can tell you for a fact that this is true. Every company needs someone focused on the companies image, legal standing, strategy and fundraising while the product is being built.

I thought I would feel like a business owner the moment I cancelled my MBA classes, but the sensation never came. I discovered that it only feels real when it’s your only job. That might not seem fair because your working unbelievably hard, but until it’s your only job a part of you is always hiding. You’re hiding behind the security of a steady income. More importantly, you’re hiding any visible sign of your side hustle so you don’t risk that steady income.

As a founder, you must figure out how to make your side-gig your full-time job. It sounds scary, but no one will take the risk to invest in a person that isn’t willing to take the risk themselves. It’s hard to explain how you can be so excited to work full-time on your company, but also feel unbelievably nervous because of the uncertainty of your next paychecks arrival.

 

Creating a team outside of Silicon Valley

If you’re an aspiring entrepreneur, feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn

I signed up for every startup event in town and bought the premium version of Linkedin to find potential cofounders. A few lunch hours were spent with friends that happened to be recruiters, to see if they had met anyone with an entrepreneur vibe. I did use other tools like Cofounders Lab, but didn’t find much success. My calendar had a startup, networking or developer-related event scheduled for every night of the week. If there wasn’t an event, I booked meetings with prospective co-founders, advisors and entrepreneurs.

During my cofounder hunt,  I learned about languages like Go, platforms like Docker, machine learning capabilities and development best practices. Many evenings were spent at events examining patent law, fundraising, pitching and grant proposals. I wanted to find a cofounder organically through these events, as well as improve my technical knowledge to form a more sound opinion when it came to company strategy.

Finding cofounders is hard

Finding cofounders was not easy. Oddly, it felt a lot like dating. It’s putting yourself out there to be rejected. You’ll realize that you’re not just interviewing a potential cofounder, your showing that you are capable of getting the company your pitching off the ground. In addition to having the right skill set, I was looking for someone that loved the concept and would challenge me when they had a difference of opinion.

Remember not to bite at the first prospect, but the best prospect. Waiting is tough when you want to see your company move forward. It’s tougher in an area like Charlotte, where there is only a handful of tech talent with the entrepreneurial spirit. My key advice would be to stack the odds, reach out to hundreds of people all over the country that meet your criteria.

How I met my cofounders

Continuing my cofounder search, I invited over 250 women and men to connect on LinkedIn. I used the “Add a Note” option to explain why I was reaching out. I looked for exceptional technical experience and “startup potential” on their profiles.  Startup potential candidates have:

  • Existing experience at a startup or experience managing a team at a young age
  • An about section that shows passion and pride
  • Endorsements from other LinkedIn users
  • Experience in your companies industry (for Vishion it was retail experience)

 

If you’re wondering what a good “About” section looks like, here the perfect an example:

After meeting with about 15 people, I came across my cofounder Michael’s profile. The description you read in the picture above was from his LinkedIn page. I connected with him using a simple LinkedIn message.

 

The week before I met Michael I was speaking with a fellow flag-footballer about my company. I was telling her that I was looking for cofounders that filled my voids, which were tech and finance. Just my luck, Kayce explained she was a financial analyst with the right experience to push Vishion forward.  A few meetings later, within a two-week period, I secured my two cofounders.

Surround yourself with the best

I cannot stress enough the importance of finding the best people to work with on your startup. Do not settle for a candidate because you’re excited to get started. I wouldn’t recommend being a solo entrepreneur either; investors prefer multiple founders (what if you die?!) and when you surround yourself with smart people you increase your likelihood of success.

The Vishion founders (from left to right): Sam Smith, CEO, Michael Benning, CTO, and Kayce Hunt, CFO.

I am unbelievably proud of the people that make up the Vishion team. As of February 2018, we have two awesome developers working on our technology and two amazing writers contributing to our blog.

You’ve already read how difficult it is to start a company. It’s important to remember that you’re recruiting others to go through one of the hardest things they’ll ever have to do. To get through the stress, celebrate small wins and go out of your way to recognize each others’ hard work. It makes the journey of building a product from scratch a lot more fun.

 

Get to know us

We founded Vishion to make the online shopping experience meet our expectations, providing a way to search for products by color across retailers and find matching items to complete your outfit or room. We are using our blog, Vishionary, to better understand retailers and consumers needs in the Charlotte market. Our goal is to create a product that recognizes our users’ unique preferences.

If you’re interested in fashion, stories about Charlotte or startup life, follow us on social media or join our email list. Get to know our amazing writers and see the local shops that are working with us.

If you have a question about starting a company or want to learn more about Vishion, tweet me or connect with me on LinkedIn. I will always respond. This leads me to my last piece of advice: no matter how busy you are, go out of your way to help others. You’ll be shocked who you meet and how helpful it can be down the line.

-Sam, Founder and CEO of Vishion

 

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