How Do You Build A Tech Startup Without A Tech Background?

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There’s an impressive list of non-technical founders that successfully built technology startups. The most notable being Steve Jobs.

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Now, I have a little experience as a non-technical founder of a technology company. Even though I have a BSEE, I hadn’t designed the products we were developing ( Analog Integrated Circuits) in years.

So there was really only one option for me if I wanted to build a technology company:

I needed to find what you need to find: A great VP Engineering/CTO.


You should put all your energy into finding this person before you do anything else. Just like Steve Jobs needed Steve Wozniak in order to get Apple off the ground, I needed a great VP Engineering/CTO to get my company off the ground.

This person will be critical to your success because, until you find this person, it’s going to be really difficult to get started.

It took me about ten months to recruit Jeroen, the incredible VP Engineering I ended up working with, and it was worth it. Without Jeroen, there was no way I would have been able to get my company off the ground.

I had several challenges that you’ll likely have too that having a great VP engineering/CTO helped solve:

  • Recruiting engineers became much easier with a great VP Engineering/CTO, and…
  • Developing our first products was straightforward with a great VP Engineering/CTO, and…
  • Investors didn’t question the credibility of the team once we had a great VP Engineering.CTO.

Now, you can’t abandon the technical side of the business just because you have a great VP Engineering.  

Jeroen ran the show on the technical side of the company, but I was still heavily involved, and you should be too. Here are a few tips that will help you:


A. You should be involved in recruiting every engineer.


This doesn’t mean you are going to do a deep dive technical interview on each candidate. It does mean you will interview every engineer.

And the candidates are going to want to meet you too because you are the CEO. You are simultaneously selling the company to every candidate, answering questions about the company, and you are determining if you want to work with the candidate.

Your input in the recruiting process is invaluable. Yes, you may not be technical, but you do know the culture you want for your company, so you know if a candidate is a good cultural fit or not.


B. You should be involved in the technical management and engineering review meetings.


I used to go to every design review, and I learned a ton.

You learn about the process your team is following. You learn how well prepared the team is. And you learn about the capabilities of the various leaders.

You will also learn who has management capability too. And finding good engineers that want to be engineering managers is difficult, so it's critical to your long term success to find them and groom them.

By going to the engineering meetings, you’re also showing your engineering team the importance of what they are doing. So this is a pretty important meeting to go to.


C. It’s okay for you to challenge what your engineering team is doing.


Finally, use your intuition and common sense to guide you. If you sense something is wrong, then it probably is wrong.

For example, another key meeting that I attended regularly was our engineering development meeting. This was a review meeting with all the engineers on their projects.

The engineers would report on the status of their projects, so we knew what was ahead of schedule, on schedule, or behind schedule. The challenge is you will have some projects that are behind schedule.

In our case, one of our most important developments was way behind schedule. The engineer, someone we thought was really capable, was floundering. It was clear to me and Jeroen that he wasn’t going to make it.

I pulled the engineer into my office, and it turned out he had a family emergency that was distracting him. He didn’t want to let us down, but his focus wasn’t at work.

So, I spoke with Jeroen, and he agreed we should reshuffle what the team was working on. We put Sid, one of our best engineers, on the project, and we let the other engineer take a leave of absence to deal with his family issue.

Everybody won. Sid successfully completed the project, and the engineer came back to work three months later with his family emergency resolved.


The key to successfully working with technical people when you are not technical is being yourself.


You’ve lost the minute you try and prove your technical prowess. No one is expecting you to be a technical genius.

However, your engineering team is expecting you to be great leader. And a big part of being a great leader is finding a great VP Engineering/CTO to partner with you on your journey.

There you have it.  My tips for how you, as a non technical CEO, can have startup success growing your tech startup.


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