Can I Start a Business Without Knowing How to Code?

I don’t know how to code. Is my startup idea dead in the water?

You have a background in law, or medicine or teaching (or anything else) and you have a great idea for a startup. You want to start a business. That’s awesome! You don’t know how to code…Not so awesome?? Actually, don’t go back to your day job – there is still hope for you. These days, while most startups (although not all) have a significant tech element, there are things you can do to fill the tech gap and still start your dream company. Check out some of the options below.

First of all … while you may not know how to code, I guarantee there are people you know who do. So, when you are in the stage of trying to get your MVP – your minimum viable product – figured out, you can try to take advantage of the knowledge of people around you who can get you going.  There are great young people coming out of programs at universities, coding schools, startup programs, engineering companies, etc, who might be really excited about getting involved in a startup. Even a shorter-term opportunity looks good on a resume and might lead somewhere else. Go to Meetups to find out about programming groups, check out UpWork for low-cost coders for hire (and other freelancers for hire sites), network and generally put the word out about what you are looking for. You might be surprised at the quality of the people you hear from.

Secondly … you can use low-code and no-code development platforms. These platforms are specifically for someone like you. They allow you to develop a simple concept and even some of those early modifications you’re sure to need with almost no coding knowledge and not a lot of time or money. Just keep a few things in mind.  Low/no code platforms lock you in. So if you see that your business might, in future, need to build out something a lot more sophisticated, you have to make sure you can migrate what you’ve got into that new model as you may not be able to build your ultimate product fully in these platforms – although in many cases, they can accommodate pretty sophisticated algorithms. Often, data migration can be a limitation of these platforms so make sure you investigate that before going all in. While you’re investigating, find out about the security of their platform, and the tech support they offer. You’re going to need both. However, if your business idea looks like a good fit with these platforms, they really do offer a great solution for those without coding skills. Check out Salesforce for Startups, Microsoft Ventures which offers Windows App Studio and Project Spark (lets you build apps and games) and, depending on your business, e-commerce companies like Shopify and Etsy.

Thirdly … find a partner who has the tech skills you’re missing. There are lots of pros and cons to having partners and great coding skills are not enough to justify handing over half the company, but it may be that one of the people you meet will do the work for free in exchange for some shares. There is a lot of that “work-for-shares” stuff going on in the startup community and you never know which of those opportunities is going to hit big, so some techs do it as a side hustle and some do it in between full time gigs.

A few things to consider…  some industries are super-techie, top to bottom. If you don’t speak the language, you don’t get the keys to the kingdom. Part of launching a startup is knowing the customer and making sure you are offering something they actually need and are willing to pay for, and part is knowing the industry you’re trying to join – your competitors, your suppliers etc. Some customers and markets don’t need you to have the tech background to play in their sandbox, but others are going to lock you out if you don’t know all the words they want you to know. Before you use one of the low/no code platforms and launch into one of those markets on your own, do the research to minimize your risk of failure. If you DID choose one of those super-techie markets (like an idea for a new app), you’ll have to find a CTO or a tech partner who can be your intermediary/translator. Think pretty seriously about entering that market if you are going it alone and know nothing about coding.

Regardless of what your market needs tech-wise, you will have to learn enough to ask the right questions. You’ll need to be knowledgeable enough to understand what tech people are telling you and to make sure that you can clearly convey the needs and objectives of the business to your tech suppliers in a way they understand. You don’t need to be an expert, but you probably should take an intro to coding course or a get a ‘coding for dummies’ book so you don’t get left out of conversations you should be intimately involved in.

The world is definitely changing – all those tech geeks who may have been picked on in junior high are now making millions and running the world. But just because you weren’t one of them in high school, doesn’t mean you will be locked out of the startup world now. You just have to surround yourself with some of those people to ensure that your company can check the tech box, even if it isn’t being handled by you directly.

Many successful startup founders are not techies and do not code. You can be one of them too. Just surround yourself with smart people whose skills complement yours. 

Elisa Palter

About the Author

Elisa Palter

Elisa has co-founded and successfully exited 2 small businesses, written business cases for Harvard Business School, and was part of the team that founded a prestigious Liberal Arts College overseas. She assists select NFP organizations with their messaging and strategy, and coaches women who are looking to become entrepreneurs. Elisa is passionate about entrepreneurship and its ability to empower individuals, particularly women.

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