Here are two well-known examples of how non-technical founders or non-tech entrepreneurs built multi-billion-dollar empires with a great idea.
1. Brian Chesky, Co-founder Airbnb
Would you be interested in having two strangers stay at your place? Maybe not, but for the founders of Airbnb, this was a recipe for something big! Here’s how this began:
What is Airbnb?
Airbnb is an online marketplace founded in 2008 which connects those people who want to rent out their homes with people who are looking for accommodations. Twelve years hence, Airbnb is now six million rooms strong in over 81,000 cities across the world. From Mandalay to Ulaanbaatar, over two million people book an Airbnb each night.
Who founded Airbnb?
Airbnb is the perfect non-technical entrepreneur example for anyone. Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia were broke roommates who were looking for ways to make extra cash in October 2007. They launched Airbed and Breakfast, a company that has grown into a $100 billion behemoth.
How did Airbnb become so popular?
Success did not come overnight. The founders failed to launch their original tech product repeatedly. They then switched to making breakfast cereals which took off and led to investors’ interest. This led to an inclusion in Y Combinator and seed fundings that led to the success of their business idea.
Do the founders have technical education/know-how?
No. The two main co-founders are industrial design/graphics design graduates from Rhode Island University. Their third co-founder, Nathan is a technical graduate from Harvard who was brought in later to help with the tech bit.
What was their idea?
They put up a website called Airbedandbreakfast.com during an Industrial Designer’s conference in San Francisco and offered a bed in their living room along with breakfast for $80 each night. As all hotels were booked, three people showed up, making them realize that they were onto something big.
How did they manage the tech?
They brought in Nathan Blecharczyk as one of the founders and developed a business model that could work. Nathan is a technical graduate from Harvard University. He built their first website and consequently formed the technical team that now runs Airbnb.
How are the non-tech founders running a tech company?
The founders of Airbnb focus on their core capabilities. While Nathan runs the tech bit, the other co-founders work on business development and product growth. They have been able to make the company grow by trying new ideas and focusing on value addition.
How did they get the funding they needed?
Airbnb is a classic case of a lean startup that innovated using the build-measure-learn loop. They created a product and marketed it. When the product failed to take off, they learnt from it, pivoted and changed their product direction to a way that worked for them.
After being written off by many investors for their tech company idea, the founders decided to pivot from the main idea of renting out rooms to concentrate on the breakfast bit close to the National Democratic Convention at Denver.
They launched presidential-themed breakfast cereals (Obama O’s, The Breakfast of Change, and Cap’n McCain’s—A Maverick in Every Bite) which sold at $40 each. This earned their company $30,000 and kept it afloat for a few months. This pivot also got Airbnb some press coverage and caught the attention of Y Combinator founder Paul Graham.
Although the concept of Airbnb could not convince him at the outset, he was impressed with the founder’s spirit and passion. On being added to the Y Combinator platform, they focused on making Airbnb ramen-profitable by demo day. Ramen-profitable means that your business can be profitable if you live on ramen noodles.
How did the funding help them succeed?
Empowered with $20,000 in seed funding from Y Combinator, Brain, Joe and Nathan moved to New York to focus on customer relations. Their customers helped by putting up reviews and photos of properties. By the end of the Y Combinator program, they gathered a group of customers that loved their idea and helped them grow their customer base. This fan base led to $600,000 funding from Sequoia, and the rest is history!
Oh, and did I tell you that Fred Wilson—the first investor they reached out to after their Y Combinator class thought that their idea might not work, but they kept at it. Fred then wrote an inspiring blog about the opportunity he missed with Brian, Joe and their idea that is now known as Airbnb.
How is this different from other tech startups?
Airbnb’s non-tech founders drove the idea, the innovation and the direction of the company. Although their idea did not work out the first time round, they used innovation to drive interest in their idea and succeed to get funding from investors which led to their massive growth. This alone showcases that although tech is important for a tech company, it is innovative ideas and business sense that will help your company succeed.
2. Whitney Wolfe Herd, Founder Bumble
What is Bumble?
Bumble is a dating app that puts women in control. Considered to be a close second to Tinder—the largest dating app in the world, Bumble helps women be in the front seat and initiate conversations. This reduces the harassment women face while using other dating apps.
Who founded Bumble?
Bumble is the brainchild of Whitney Wolfe Herd—a former Tinder executive.
How did Bumble become so popular?
An innovative idea is what sets a product apart. Bumble relied on the fact that women should be able to control who messages them and who initiates the conversation. This led to women joining the platform in droves as they felt more secure.
Does the founder have technical education/know-how?
No. Whitney majored in International Studies and is not a tech graduate. She does have experience working in a tech company. She was one of the co-founders of Tinder.
What was the idea behind Bumble?
In an interview with Time Magazine, Whitney shared that her idea for Bumble came from an abusive relationship Whitney was in as a teen. That relationship gave her a “deep understanding of what was wrong with gender dynamics”. This is in stark contrast to other tech company founders who focus on technical problems and their solutions. Bumble focuses on human behaviour, which needs a lot more than tech to work.
How did the founder manage the tech?
Whitney had prior experience with a tech company and her investor had already founded a dating app. Together, they used their experience to manage the tech in the company.
How did the non-tech founder run a tech company?
Whitney has experience working with a tech startup that helped her immensely when she founded Bumble. She built upon her experience from her previous venture but used her innovation and branding skills to pivot from the usual idea of how dating apps work to put women in charge.
How did they get the funding?
Whitney initially secured funding from Andrey Andreev—a London-based Russian billionaire and founder of a dating app called Badoo. As Andrey already had experience building a similar app, he helped with the funding and the tech that Whitney needed for Bumble. Whitney has since driven bumble to raise a hugely successful IPO.
How did the funding help Bumble succeed?
Even with funding, Whitney helped Bumble stay thoughtful, caring and appreciative of its employees and customers. This helped Whitney to drive company success and built a brand that is recognized around the world solely based on compassion and innovation. The funding helped Bumble to create the infrastructure it needed to scale and market itself well. While the scaling was handled by the tech, the marketing and branding were handled by Whitney–making Bumble immensely popular quickly.
How is this different from other tech startups?
As a non-tech entrepreneur, Whitney believes that she can drive an app to change behaviour and act as a cultural shift. With innovative initiatives such as Bumble BFF and Bumble Biz, Whitney is bringing her non-tech flair and her understanding of human relationships into an app. All the while her tech team manages the stuff under the hood.
These two hugely successful and well-known startups have non-tech founders who made it big in the tech world. Their journey has not been easy—but their creativity, perseverance and belief in their idea steered them on to reach the pinnacle of success.
Tips to build your startup
Today’s app world is full of startups—both large and small, driven by CEOs drunk on tech. They build their MVP or minimum viable product with their own hands, know what each piece of code does and what they need to offer to their clients. Names such as Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Daniel Ek and Jack Dorsey fill every startup leaderboard that people look up to today. In such a tech-obsessed world, what can a non-technical entrepreneur with a great tech idea do?
Be lost? Not really.
How do I start as a non-technical founder?
I have answered this question so many times that I decided to write an article about it.
My first non-technical client was an investment banker who had come up with a great idea to revolutionize the trucking industry. He had a great non-technical idea development example that needed a team to do the magic and put it all together. He now oversees product direction and the management of his company and is driving growth everywhere he goes.
My next non-technical entrepreneur’s expertise was limited to sending emails and slide decks to investors worldwide. He knew how to network with the biggies, and he knew what he wanted in the product. How the product worked internally was not his cup of tea.
Both these individuals have tasted success and found investors to back their ideas without knowing much about technology.
How do I start a tech company?
It’s actually pretty easy. You first find a problem that needs to be solved. If you already have this idea, then your job is half done. Now all you need to do is get people on board who can transform your idea into a product. If you are unable to hire a team yourself, you might be better off finding a development partner such as Volumetree who has experience in helping non-technical entrepreneurs build successful tech companies.
What will my role be in a tech company?
- Your job as a great founder/CEO is to make intelligent business decisions. These business decisions will eventually translate into tech decisions as they affect the product that is being built. Founders and CEOs must also know the actual cost of a product and decide its selling price to ensure profitability and business continuity.
- However, making uninformed business decisions is as bad as making uninformed tech decisions. As a founder/CEO, you drive the vision, mission and product strategy to best suit your potential customers.
I have a lot of questions about my first tech startup. Who can I turn to for answers?
I meet highly motivated, yet technically challenged entrepreneurs nearly every day. I help them by validating their idea and putting them in the right direction with the right team. This strategy has helped many individuals become clients, close friends and even investors for some of my other non-tech clients.
Here are the questions every non-tech founder/CEO should have the answers to:
Have I made the right choice?
Decide this at the outset – are you an engineer or an entrepreneur? If you have chosen option 2, do not look back.
How can I get funding without a product?
Although many investors may prefer companies led by engineers, do not worry. There is a world of investors who prefer great ideas and excellent execution over technical skill. If your idea makes sense, these investors will help you raise the money you need to create your product.
How do I start a technical startup without a tech background?
As you will be working closely with your team to create your product, you must understand how everything works. Here’s a great course from Stanford University that will help you learn the basics of tech and not feel embarrassed in meetings.
How do I find a technical co-founder or CTO? Do I need a CTO or a technical cofounder?
A CTO or a technical cofounder you can trust will help you find and lead a development team to drive success. Your CTO will also help you to understand the nitty-gritty while helping developers know what you want. Great CTOs are technology buffs who understand business. If you cannot lay your hands on one, do not worry. Finding a great technology partner is as good as finding a fantastic CTO.
Ensure that you do the research and validation yourself
If you have done your groundwork for your product, you will know what it will take to build a successful product. An excellent way to do this would be to talk to your potential customers and see if your idea makes sense.
Have you learnt how to build compelling visuals?
Imagine this—you have just found your dream CTO, and you go on a long, 20-minute monologue about what your product should be. The chances are that your CTO will need to ask you to write all this down or explain your idea visually. Apps such as Photoshop, Balsamic, Figma, and Miro can help you create wireframes and mockups for your product user experience and visually explain what you mean to your teams.
Do you understand how to give specific and high-quality feedback?
It would be best if you gave feedback that is descriptive and focused. Understand that you are dealing with geeks and nerds. They need to know what is to be done so they can fix it for you. Saying things such as “Make this form bigger with less clutter and make the button stand out more” might make no sense to your development team, and you might end up with half a form that might not do much. Instead, give high-quality feedback such as “Let us remove the links to our e-Shop, blog and product descriptions from this form. Please increase the size of the submit button by 50% to make it more readable. Change the color of the button to blue.”
Do you know the project management or productivity tools your team likes to use?
Developers use tools that help them to be more productive. Instead of doing things your way, try to learn the tools they use and incorporate your feedback in the tool itself. Writing a user story instead of a long email will add feedback seamlessly to their workflow and will not impact their productivity.
Have you learnt to do everything else?
As a founder/CEO, you need to put your ego aside and do anything to help your development team become more productive. NO matter how big or small the task is, let them do what they do best and do everything in your power to make their job easier.
Ensure that you keep learning new things
If you are a non-technical entrepreneur, there is always something new on the horizon for you to learn and understand. Stay up-to-date with the tech world and know what’s happening with your competition and the industry.
Are you ready to be the motivation when times are tough?
The last thing you need is someone telling you that you have no chance of making it in the tech world. This demotivation is a challenge that you and every other tech founder will have to deal with. Understand that your team will look up to you for motivation. Be the one who cheers them on to success.
As a non-tech founder, you may experience dozens of roadblocks every day, but understand that no roadblock will matter once you find the right team by your side and the right idea to make it big. At Volumetree, we love working with non-technical entrepreneurs as they give us a fresh new perspective on ideas that work and might even make it big in the tech world.