I am a Female Sole Founder with no Dev Experience… Yeah, it’s a Tough Road!

I am a sole founder (my startup is http://www.Swayable.com) and I don’t code. It’s not that I believe going completely solo is the way to do a startup (I have an Advisory board with some amazing, and experienced, folks). I just haven’t been around a lot of engineers in my career and haven’t found that great technical co-founder match…you know, that person you just click with, have a great working relationship, and decide to start a company together? Nope that’s not me. I have met amazing people: Marketers, PR, Project Managers, you name it…but no engineers!

I’ve been told to go to networking events, which I do, but I am not willing to give up equity, or settle on my vision with someone I met at an event for 2 days, or jump into bringing someone on board just because they can do the job, but not find out if they are a good fit. To me, finding someone I am willing to share equity with is a lot like finding a spouse – It has to be right, has to click and they have to really be a great compliment to my work style and passion.  I am not going to find that after meeting someone or chatting for 2 days.

I had 1 of 2 options, with Swayable – give up on the idea, or project manage it and outsource the work and hope that eventually I’ll meet the right people to help build a great team.  I went with option 2.

So here I am, outsourcing the bulk of my site, getting creative with crowdsourcing for the busy work and at the same time working my “day job” which is a co-owner of a marketing project management business. I am also a mom of twins and a wife.  Needless to say, it’s a bit challenging but having a startup as a “hobby” (I define hobbies as something that doesn’t pay the bills) truly is my passion, some people chill in front of the tv at night, and I am reviewing new builds, sending feedback testing and documenting future dev needs… crazy as it is. I love it!

The hardest part for me has been some of the ups and downs of development. I have a fabulous outsource company (www.beyondsoft.com) that truly is making my vision a reality. However, the challenges with outsourcing your development is that you have to first find a great team/company to work with, then you have to know how to write a good specification document and you have to know what you want to build up front as if you go out of scope it can often cost more, (typically you can get a little bit of flexibility, but if you start changing scope to much it costs money).

You also have to stay on top of this daily, providing feedback, testing everything to death, and being super detailed in how you provide the feedback as you are the PM on this, you have to be the one finding everything that needs to be fixed/updated. As a sole founder this is all you.

I also learned a very good lesson during some of this. Design is clearly not my forte. I hacked together a design with my rudimentary Photoshop skills.  I found that it was great for this beta version to get testing and feedback, but it was horrible at actually helping communicate visually what my site is about.  I finally brought on a great designer to help bring the site to life. That design revision will be live hopefully by end of December.  The design portion can help so much to make the difference between interesting/sticky and just plain boring.  I am excited to see this new design come to life.

I am also learning that everything takes WAY longer than you expect. I am used to working on projects that I control the outcome, or there is a set date, like an event. But with development and outsourcing, you have to tack on a bit of time.  If you are a dev and outsource you probably have a better idea of timelines for development, if your from a marketing/project management background wit no dev experience, your concept of how long things take is probably off like mine has been.

Swayable is not where I want it to be, yet, the next updates coming shortly will get it to a great place and with the iPhone application launching in a month or so, I’ll be getting closer to my initial vision. I just keep chugging along!

Most of all, I like the challenge of being a sole founder, but look forward to the day that I can hopefully have some great people on my team that can compliment my skillset, bring ideas and fresh perspectives and be strong where I am weak. I have faith that if I just keep building, testing, building that I will find the right team….

<SelfPromotion> Check out my startup –  http://www.swayable.com and give me feedback anytime.  Follow me on Twitter </SelfPromotion>


27 responses to “I am a Female Sole Founder with no Dev Experience… Yeah, it’s a Tough Road!

  1. I’m a single founder too (http://sproutrobot.com) and I totally sympathize with these issues. I’m not against sharing equity, but it’s hard to find good people you trust. I’m going on a tour for the next couple months to try and find a cofounder, but I haven’t had much luck so far.

    Feel free to email me if you want someone to commiserate with, bounce ideas off of, etc. I’m a developer/designer so I can help sanity check your development strategies too.

    Good luck!

    • Wow, really nice to meet another single founder in here.

      I’m always available to listen too and oh, I’m a developer (frontend / backend) with a little design skill so if you need ideas, feedback, you can get in touch with me anytime.

  2. “Finding a co-founder is going to be like finding a spouse”.

    I had a partner at my previous startup attempts and things didn’t work out too well. We did not share the same level of enthusiasm or passion towards what we were working at and it was tough moving forward. And we didn’t compliment each other when it came to technical know-how as well.

    Things were getting done at a snail’s pace and i even developed an inertia to discuss things with him for i started wondering if he even cares. Eventually, we ended up shutting down the website.

    I’m still very passionate to do a web startup and yup, i’m starting up again after taking a short break. But this time i’m going solo, at least for now.

    Good luck to Swayable and thanks for the article.

    • Thanks for sharing your story, that is exactly why I am being very cautious and patient trying to find the right fit. I wish you the best! If you have any questiosn about going solo, definitely drop me a note lindsey (at) swayable.com I am definitely learning a ton.

  3. May be a tough road – but the result looks good!

    How did you go about finding your outsourcing company? Has the time zone difference (I am assuming it exists) an issue?

  4. Or, rather, has the time zone difference *been* an issue…

  5. I have two questions.

    1) Why not learn to be a (more of) a developer. That’s what I did, and I’m so glad I did it. I’d done a bit of programming in high school, but hadn’t touched it really in 10+ years and things seem very different now. I picked up some books on Ruby/Rails and got to know some people. I jumped in on projects that were over my head, got frustrated and lot, but learned a lot more. Now I am doubtful that many companies would hire me as a lead developer, but I can communicate much more effectively with developers and even jump in and help quite frequently. It didn’t take long either to start getting usable results- maybe a month of working hard on it? It could be done in more, or less. It’s taken a year for it to sink into my brain and become something that I’m comfortable with, but the usefulness of the learning was almost immediate. The new Agile Programming in Rails v4 (covers Ruby 1.9 and Rails 3) is coming out in January and you can get a beta draft pdf now.

    2) Why not give up minor amounts of equity? Most people won’t work for it solely if they are good, but eventually at some point in your startup you’ll end up giving up equity in the form of employee stock options and to other high level people anyway.

    But I do appreciate your drive, creativity and wanting to just go ahead and do it against the odds.

    One small tip to make your startup flourish a bit more. I’d look into making more of your text on your page… text. Right now most of it is done as background images, which are neither accessible to the blind using screenreaders or to Google (which may be of more immediate impact to you). This is roughly what Google sees on your page now: http://bit.ly/gZ2inI Not much text eh? You might be fully aware of this, and just in progress for implementation, but I thought to point it out in the small chance you weren’t. There’s some great SEO resources online like seomoz that provide no-bullshit/fluff SEO advice about building a site that Google will like.

    Best of luck and keep it up.

    • Hi David,

      Thank you so much for your great feedback. I guess the only development I’ve done is with HTML/CSS and I don’t count that really as understanding development. But it did give a bit of foundation for understanding a bit more about the project. I would LOVE to learn code, and am actually looking at some classes and stumbling through learning a bit, but it would take me years to get to a place where I could develop the application that I wanted.


      • Hi Lindsey,

        I didn’t see this comment before posting my previous comment. I convinced myself that learning to code would be a long, arduous process but it actually happens fairly quickly. David had entirely the right idea: keep trying stuff that’s a little bit out of your reach, and get involved in open source projects. You’ll be amazed how fast you learn, and how incredible people can be when you ask for help. StackOverflow.com is pretty darn incredible.

        I finally ended up actually returning to school, but when I decided to tackle learning to code I found a great starting point with MIT’s OpenCourseware site. They’ve got a full intro to computer science term available as video lectures here: http://ocw.mit.edu/courses/electrical-engineering-and-computer-science/6-00-introduction-to-computer-science-and-programming-fall-2008/

        A great addition to that class is Google’s “Code University” class in Python, which is aimed at people with minimal development experience and taught by Nick Parlante, who is so excited about Python it’s impossible not to enjoy it. http://code.google.com/edu/languages/google-python-class/index.html

        Good luck. Swayable does look like a cool idea.

      • Lindsey Harper

        Thank you for the links and resources, how do you decide what language to start in though? I definitely would love to learn and jump right in, but any recommendation on what language to start with to get my feet wet? Sounds like from your comment that the Python class may be a good start?

      • I do think Python is an awesome first language. It isn’t C-style (with a zillion curly braces and semi-colons running wild) so it’s easy to read (and the more of other people’s code you read the better), can be used for either object oriented or functional programming, and has awesome online docs and community. I also like that it’s compiled at runtime, so you can get into a nice groove of change, test, change, test quite rapidly.

        You could just as easily start with PHP though, and that might be more relevant for your actual needs. I’m sure there are decent PHP resources online but I never found anything approaching the quality and scope of the MIT and Google offerings.

        Definitely watch the Google videos, they cover a 2-day teaching session so if you watch one video every few nights (most are 30-40ish minutes) it doesn’t take long to complete. If you never do anything else to learn to code, you’ll still have a strong enough grasp of how programs actually function to write amazing spec documents and more informed decisions about development timetables and priorities.

        If you do pursue it, let me know. I’m trying to figure out what to do with codegoddess.com, and meeting savvy female devs always makes me happy.

  6. Good on you for your courage & determination. Been there & done that & failed but coming up for another breath, this time determined to find a cofounder for my next startup! I have been interviewing vcs & female founders on the shortfall of funding for women entrepreneurs as a project for the community. Check out some of the interviews if you are interested http://www.ezebis.com

  7. I agree the matching process is critically important with a cofounder but also with a venture capitalist! Good luck!

  8. Lindsey – Good plan waiting for “mr. right engineer” but outsourcing product development is usually a recipe for failure in a startup. You shouldn’t give up equity to someone you’ve met 2 days prior, but how about you start getting to know them. Go grab coffee and start talking startups every week. Talk about your idea, he/she will talk abou theirs. The intention is to woe them into your vision. After a while, that engineer will start saying “Lindset, that’s a great idea…” It’s a lot like dating. After 2 months, if things click, you should be ready to give up 30% of your company. And it will probably be that much.

    This actually worked on me in the way I described it.

  9. Lindsey,

    Find a good and local developer. A good one will cost a lot of money (think $70 to $130 per hour) but will be totally worth it. BA’s, marketers, and (in general) non-technical founders think that going cheap and outsourcing will help them go but it rarely will. You are building a technology startup in the social space; technology is your bedrock, do not skimp on that. I have, in fact, turned down many offers to work for a startup because they had started out by outsourcing all of the technical work – one look at their code and their team processes and I could feel the fingers of Hades crawling up my spine.

    It is much harder to go from bad to good than it is from good to good (even this is difficult!) in the tech industry.

    Plus, if that person turns out to be a really cool person, you could offer them equity and make them a “partial” co-founder if the relationship meshes and they are into your idea.

    Good luck.

  10. I usually lurk and consume content, your post resonating with me for some inexplicable reason. I’m a developer, 26, spent 4 years working the profession and becoming and expert (self proclaimed, not validated by anyone of significance or certified by anything other than an arts and crafts degree in CIS) by failing in every way possible. Deadlocks, poor project planning, poor functional specs, over engineering for the future (my fault, also, the future never needs what I write), and generally trying to balance the creative vs functional aspects of what I build (I have to ship SOMETHING at SOME point, regardless of how I feel about it).

    I’ve gotten out of my comfort zone and into other areas of software: some pre-sales demos, user conferences that I present at, training end users (other programmers sometimes) on how to do what I do in certain aspects (enhancements), ending up as point man (accidentally) on large projects, freaking estimates, budgets, etc. I’ve even gone so far as to delve into the realm of Helvetica designing, god help me 😉

    What I’ve learned is that I’m smarter than the average bear and if you give me 65 deadlocks a day, or an angry client, I will solve whatever problem (or attitude) that comes my way.

    I guess from your outlook and what you’ve done, all I can say is that you are smarter than you give yourself credit for and you will overcome everything as well. You’re not familiar (from what you described, sorry if I’m assuming) in what you’re getting into (the most complicated profession known to mankind – self plug), but you’re passionate, in love with it, and you’ll figure the rest out as you go.

    I like the idea of swayable, yes it needs work, but so does everything else I currently have built or will ever build 😉 My current site as example (font way too small, images to thin, content way too over the top for the average joe, and everything based on a language I hate – on a server I don’t even own… etc).

    But, I’m having fun, it looks better than when I started, and if you’re not embarrassed a little you didn’t release early enough 😉

    I think you’re doing great and if anything, you may be your harshest critic, which is a good thing, but something you need to be aware of 😉

    Keep up the good work and best of luck!

    You have a solid idea.

    • Jim – your awesome!

      Loved reading your story, hmmm you looking to get involved in yet another startup :).. interested in chatting?

      • Sure, e-mail away 😉 If nothing else, we can share failures and help one another not go down the same road twice. Always looking to get another perspective.

  11. Don’t rule out secret option C, becoming a developer. I got so tired of asking devs to do little things for me (like collecting/parsing stats) that I started teaching myself to code, which evolved into going back to school at night.

    Single female developer founder, you’d be almost as rare as a unicorn.

  12. Mitch Constantinescu

    Finding a partner is like finding a spouse….

    Wanna date :-)?

    I am very open to coding / discussing technical things with you … and if you think I would be a good startup partner we can work together more formally.

  13. Pingback: Top Posts — WordPress.com

  14. Was looking for this – so I just tweeted your site on our account – thanks

  15. I read your post and I think you found the right balance. I am also running a startup as a hobby in parallel with a software company. Learning and coding are very time consuming and not as profitable as the time you spend promoting your venture, specially since you already have this skill. Your approach in defining your needs, selecting components ad outsourcing seems excellent until you get funding and then afford a team, then and only then it will be beneficial. Continue the good work.

  16. I found your Amazon MTruk article motivating to start conducting more research on it. I have some case studies on other examples of Mturk uses.

    I’m working on my own start-up as well, without much dev experience either. On top of just reading up on various development related subjects, I’d speak with any programmers I ran into and tried to increase my conceptual database of terms, techniques and tools. One site that really helped me was http://news.ycombinator.com/ in understanding start-ups, bootstrapping and even programming related knowledge.

    I definitely would like to exchange more techniques, insights and knowledge with you and any other founders here.

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