The Nontechnical Founders Series

Do I need a technical co-founder, and where can I find one?

How long will it take to launch a product?

How do I recruit and interview developers? 

How do I know what programming language to build my startup’s product in?


As a technical startup founder in New York City, I get asked these questions and many like them all the time. There are a lot of smart, young, ambitious, first-time entrepreneurs without any technical background, who seem dedicated to building a tech company. I admire their ambition and their willingness to learn, so I’m always glad to help. 

A large part of building a tech company is the technology. It’s very important. There is of course, a large part completely unrelated to the technology – the strategy, marketing, fundraising, recruiting, and so-forth. These are all great roles that the nontechnical founder can excel at, but I truly believe that the core of an early stage tech startup is its product, and without some semblance of knowledge surrounding the technology piece, you’ll put yourself at a severe disadvantage. 

I have a technical background. A computer science education, a passion for learning and playing with new technologies, and a history of launching products quickly. As such I’d like to write a series of posts dedicated to helping nontechnical founders get up to speed on the technical issues they may be faced with in starting a company these days. Note that I say “starting” a company and not “growing and selling a company.” Unfortunately I won’t pretend to yet have had that experience, and as such I won’t get unsolicited advice about things that I’ve yet to test out myself.


Table of Contents

1. Do I need a technical co-founder?

2. How do I find the right co-founder?

3. What technology should I use to build my product?

4. How long until my prototype will be ready?

Coming soon – What should I do while I’m waiting for the product to be ready?


Every time I add a new post to this series I’ll update this page with the link.

If you’re interested in following along, or know someone who might be, you should subscribe to stay up with future posts, or follow me on twitter.


Viral, Open, and Consumable – Twitter Annotations and the Social API


Twitter’s big announcement this week about annotated tweets and the new metadata that developers will be able to attach to tweets is a welcome one. This means that tweets about music will now be able to contain information about the artist and song name, tweets about finance will now be able to contain semantic information about the stock symbol and price, and tweets about sports will now be able to contain the teams and score, just to name a few examples.

While this will no doubt enhance the information and usefulness of any single tweet, it is also a two way street. There are no declared standards around how to use and interpret this new metadata, and therefore companies and developers can very quickly go down a confusing hole of creating protocols which conflict with those created by other companies and developers. It has been suggested that Twitter itself act as a somewhat benevolent dictator and help standardize certain popular usecases (defining the metadata format for stock based tweets for example), however Twitter has said that it will take a step back and instead look to see what emerges from the community around this role. And I think this is a good thing.

Metadata in tweets is only useful when there are two parties or more who agree to use it in one way. One party can attach this data to any tweet that their applications produce, and another party or product can consume these tweets and use the information in a meaningful way. Sticking with the stock example, someone could build a desktop stock ticker application which scrolled stock prices using current tweets about the stock within a hover effect. This only works if the company building the ticker app knows the standard metadata format that the applications producing the stock related tweets will use. Twitter won’t specify this format, so I believe there is room for the early movers in the space to create the standards themselves, and thereby create a social API in the process.

What is a social API in this context? It’s an API embedded semantically within the context of a social message. In this case, a tweet is a social entity which moves through the internet passed from friend to friend. But when its underlying data conforms to the API specification as well, it is also creating a platform upon which other services can be built. 

It is at once viral, open, and consumable.

What are the advantages to creating a social API in this manner? You are establishing a new content consumption mechanism with your service as the platform. If useful, it is already spreadable purely by existing in the twittersphere. You’ve done all of this without coding your own internal API, access points, error handling, or monitoring.

What are the disadvantages? There are a couple. First off, you’re pretty constrained by a lightweight API. I don’t believe we know the limits yet on the size or structure of the data you can include within an annotation, but it likely won’t be enormous. Second, by outsourcing your API to twitter’s universe you are making yourself replaceable. Anyone else could annotate their tweets with the same standard you defined, and they would be equally as consumable as yours. In this case, your content would have to be unique enough and important enough to remain relevant.  

Exposing a social API via annotated tweets surely won’t be for every service, but I’m interested to see those that step up early and pioneer new ways of consuming content that haven’t yet existed.


For more unnecessary insight, you should follow me on twitter.

Intuit + Mint made my life surprisingly easier


When Intuit purchased Mint I was pretty worried that one of the most useful web apps was going to stop evolving and gradually get absorbed into the Quicken/TurboTax behemoth. So far, to my surprise, the opposite has happened. Mint has continued to evolve, has rolled out new and useful features, and has continued to make tracking my finances enjoyable instead of burdensome.

Last night I sat down to file my ’09 taxes, and used TurboTax’s online edition. It was impossible not to feel the Mint influence. First of all, the process was interspersed with Mint ads that didn’t exactly feel like ads. Instead they felt like favors. In typical Mint fashion everything was posed as money-saving offers, ranging from tax deductions to IRA contribution offers. Not once did this seem annoying, and instead, it opened my eyes to money saving opportunities. Well done.

The second way that I felt the Mint influence was with regard to the automatic importing of tax documents and tax information. I’m not sure whether the Mint team influenced this (functionally or design wise) within TurboTax, however the process was very Mint like. Instead of entering my W2 and 1099 information tediously by hand like I’ve had to do in the past with other online tax tools, I could simply enter my online bank credentials and TurboTax magically pulled in all the data within seconds. Major time saver.

Big ups to Intuit for taking the ball and running with it. Hopefully the Mint team stays in tact and Intuit looks to it for product guidance going forward on TurboTax, Quicken, and its other products.

Sharing the iPad

Love the iPad. Here’s my biggest feature request for version 2:

I’d like to be able to share it. 

OS X has separate accounts, so that different members of a family or office can log in, sync their email, sync their iTunes, photos, and content. They can save their documents in different spaces, and they can arrange their desktop and their applications to their liking. The iPhone lacked this ability, as there was only one user space. This was completely acceptable however, because people generally carry their own phone, and don’t necessarily care about sharing a phone with their spouse or children.

The iPad on the other hand seems like a device that is meant to be shared. It’s to be used around the house not only as an entertainment center, but also as a newspaper, an e-book reader, and a social media hub. However right now it’s restricted to only one user space. If I sync my email with iPad mail, then my wife can’t sync hers. If I sync it with my iTunes and kindle account, then we can only access my content and not hers. If I sync it with my twitter and facebook, then it’s useless to her in interacting with social media. Sure some of these programs support multiple accounts, but then you get into complexities around usability and privacy.

I’ve heard a lot of talk about people clamoring for background processes, or a built in camera, or flash support in future versions, but I’d just like to put multi-user support on the radar as well. A family of 4 shouldn’t need 4 iPads just so that everybody can check their email.

Making thank you notes modern


Right now thank you notes are necessarily old fashioned. They show that you care. If someone can take time out of their schedule to attend your event, and spend their own money to give you a gift, then it’s important and necessary to show them that you appreciate it. 

The way that we show this gratitude is to write out a handwritten note of about a paragraph in length, stuff this note into an envelope, address it to the recipient, slap a stamp on it, and send it through the mail. This could easily be accomplished in far less time, for far less money, and for far less impact on the environment through a digital medium (like email). However, this just wouldn’t carry the same sentimentality, or indicate as much gratitude quite yet. Society isn’t ready to accept that someone really appreciated the gift and time that were given if the note isn’t handwritten.
I’d like to think that this transition is inevitable at some point however. Many people have always fought the digital migration of things like newspapers, books, invitations, and it’s only a matter of time before the thank you notes migrate as well. Maybe there’s something we can do to speed up the migration. Here’s an idea.
Create a service that makes a digital thank you note more meaningful, sentimental, and valuable than a paper thank you note could ever be. Instead of handwriting a paragraph long note,record a 30 second video personally thanking the person for their individual gift. Maybe attach a photo of yourself using or enjoying the gift. Most people wouldn’t be savvy enough to sit down at their computer to record, edit, compile and attach a video/photo/note, but I think a streamlined online service could be very valuable at automating all of this.
Imagine you have a grid where you enter each person’s name, email, and a brief note. When you’re ready, you press go, and the site steps you through recording your 30 second thank you video using your web cam. After you’re happy you submit your notes, and the service files off a beautiful pingg style email to the recipients complete with your note and a link to your personal video. It’d be interesting to see whether the general public would appreciate this more or less than a handwritten thank you, but I know personally I’d be a lot more entertained by a nice short video than I would by receiving another piece of mail.

TopCoder style crowdsourcing for startups

Back when I was in high school in 2001, one of my computer science classmates introduced me to TopCoder, and there was something about it that I instantly loved. I was very competitive back then both in sports, and in the classroom, and the ability to compete in 45 minute algorithm programming contests felt like the perfect competition for someone who was experiencing a new found love for computer science. The way that a competition worked was that TopCoder would present everybody with three programming problems (easy, medium, and hard), and everyone would work for 45 minutes to submit solutions. If your solution was correct, you’d get points based upon how quickly you submitted, and your ranking would move up or down accordingly compared to other people on the site.

As someone who was young, and very new to computer science, the best I ever did back then was average. I’d occasionally be in the running for a cash prize of some sort, and I’d also occasionally deal with looks of shock and disbelief when I’d tell my buddies that I was staying home on a Friday night to participate in a “programming competition.” It was well worth it though, as nothing taught me more about algorithms and programming during those early years than working through TopCoder problem statements. As I moved on to college, and begun moving away from TopCoder’s compiled languages more towards agile practices and scripting languages, I stopped competing in the competitions frequently. Though I always had an interest in what the company was up to.

Fast forward to 2010. The company not only has algorithm programming competitions, but there are also design competitions, software development competitions, and categories for testing suites and marathon matches. They’ve turned themselves into a crowdsourcing platform where sponsors can submit components that they’d like designed, built, tested, and they attach bounties to each task. Competitors submit their best efforts, and the companies pay the winners the prize in exchange for using the components.

I haven’t used the new platform enough to how well this ends up working out for programmers, designers, and the sponsors, but it appears that in the world of big-co, big-money, long-dev-cycle, and compiled languages, Topcoder may be an easy and efficient way for a project manager to outsource a small project that they don’t have the time or ability to deal with on their fixed in-house team.  

It’s a shame that this model doesn’t quite carry over to the agile development world. When team members have to wear many hats, and you don’t have the luxury of a multi-month plan/design/architect/build/test cycle, it’s difficult to crowdsource your components. Sites like 99designs, elance, and odesk can help fill empty needs, albeit at a pretty high cost of uncertainty about what you’re going to get for your money. I’d love to see a startup build a TopCoder style crowdsourcing service targeted towards agile startups with a rating system that startups can trust, and a high quality community of available freelance hackers.

Am I asking for a lot? Maybe. But wouldn’t it be useful?

HD over 3D


This past Wednesday I had the experience of being invited to attend the Rangers 3D viewing party at the theatre at Madison Square Garden. The Rangers vs Islanders game was the first sporting event being broadcast in 3D, and since no one actually owns a 3D television yet, the viewing party was pretty much the only way to take in the spectacle. Glasses were passed out to the 2000 people in the crowd, Rangers legends were on hand to host the event, NYC celebrities, the owners of MSG, cablevision, NYC media outlets, and the NHL commissioner and executives were all there to take in this potentially game changing event. And although the media would portray the 3D broadcast as a large success, I am less than convinced that 3D is the way of the future for the television industry.

Before talking about the market though, let me recap my experience. It was subpar. There were of course some very cool “a-ha” moments, where the broadcast would shift down to the ice level camera and a player would be skating directly out of the screen and into you as he dug a puck out of the corner boards. But for the most part it actually made the game more difficult to watch. I’m a huge hockey fan, and anyone who watched the olympics this year knows that HD-TV hockey is a thing of beauty. Gone are the days of the casual viewer not being able to track the puck in standard definition, and Fox feeling compelled to highlight the puck with a red tail on every shot. Unfortunately, the 3D broadcast made me feel like I was back in the standard def days again. Maybe it was just because of the awkward glasses not being positioned correctly on my face, me not being centered with the viewing screen, or the half-headache-half-nauseous feeling I’d get from the 3D, but it just wasn’t as crystal clear as it was sitting in front of an HD on my couch.  

When HD was emerging in the late 90’s I don’t remember being aware enough of the market to make a prediction about it’s success (around age 15), but I would assume it was clearly agreed upon that HD was an improvement over SD. Anyone who compared the two side by side could tell which one looked better. Add to that the fact that the FCC was in the process of mandating television upgrades to digital enabled, and since people were buying new televisions anyway they would go with HD as soon as the costs came down. It seemed clear that HD would be prevalent in the near future.

Now compare that with the forces driving 3D television adoption. The experience right now doesn’t seem like an improvement to me in the case of hockey broadcasts. Maybe the NFL or NBA could benefit from it, but I can’t imagine there’s a huge value add to watching a drama or sitcom in 3D either. The equipment is expensive ($2500 television, $200 glasses). There’s a need to wear uncomfortable and awkward glasses. The standards in the industry are not clearly defined which is a problem for production and broadcast companies. And is there really demand for this? Does anybody want this?

ESPN will launch a 3D channel later this year, and it will be interesting to see if people purchase a 3D ready setup just to take this in. I’d rather save my money, and enjoy the better, easier, more relaxing experience that we currently have with HD television. 

One interesting area to watch will be glasses-free 3D which a number of companies are already working on. At my old startup workspace, Soho Haven, there was a company called 3D impact media which produced these. When I would walk by their demo I’d often be shocked at their content jumping out at me. I’d like to think that this tech will eventually get as cheap and effective as the glasses required version, and when it does I’d be loathe to wear the glasses again. It seems like buying a glasses required setup now would be akin to buying a remote control connected to a television by a wire shortly before the wireless remote would be released. Hold off, and make your decision after the market plays out a bit.

* Setting iCal reminder for 10 years to look back at this post and find out how right or horribly wrong I was about mass 3D adoption

Glad to be part of JumpPost

I’ve made passing reference to a startup called JumpPost on this site, I’ve posted my status as JumpPost co-founder to the internets, and I’ve been shamelessly plugging away at everyone I know to give JumpPost a try for the past few weeks. I figure it’s about high-time to explain what exactly JumpPost is.

Renting an apartment in New York City is hard. JumpPost makes it easier by allowing you to browse, view, and apply for apartments that have never been accessible in the market before – apartments that will be coming up for rent months in advance. 

Not only that, but if you’re planning to move out of an NYC apartment that you’re renting, you can make $500+ through JumpPost simply by listing it on the site. If someone wants to rent it, you earn money.

The NYC apartment hunt has always been an inefficiency that has affected me directly. It’s wrought with expensive fees, lying brokers, craigslist bait-and-switch offers, and the necessity to collateralize your first born child to prove your worthiness to rent. It’s always been a problem I’ve wanted to help solve, and that’s why a couple months ago I jumped at the chance to join Jordan Cooper as co-founder at JumpPost.

If I were from Boston I’d probably describe Jordan as “wicked-smart”, or if I were from Northern California I’d probably describe him as “hella-smart”, but since I’m from New York I’ll just tell it like it is: the man’s got vision, creativity, intellectual prowess, and he’s unwilling to see this thing fail. All qualities I was looking for in a co-founder. I’m super pumped to be working with him on JumpPost, which he had been plugging away at for a few months before I hopped on board.

There’ll likely be much more to come, re: JumpPost, on this site in the coming months, but for now if you’d like to learn more check out the site, or drop me an email at As you’d expect, we’ve released early and are iterating quickly, so what you see now might not be what you see tomorrow or next week. If you know people living in NYC apartments you can even invite them to post the apartment on the site through our invite tool, and you’ll earn $100 if their apartment rents. 


My thoughts on Rework by 37Signals


Sometimes just being reminded about what you already know is the best advice you can receive.

For the first time in two years of working on startups I took over a full week off this past week as I got married and went away on my honeymoon. While I wasn't doing any coding or checking in very often on startup life, I couldn't pull myself away completely, and I decided to take in 37Signals' new book, Rework, as a little light beach reading. I always recommend taking vacation and time off every once in awhile to help regather your focus and motivation for the grind that is startup life, and it turns out that Rework was a great companion read in support of that goal.

I really enjoyed reading Rework despite learning very little "new" information from it. Generally I read books to learn something completely new that I wasn't familiar with before. Rework is a bunch of simplified and restated agile startup lore that's prevalent on VC and entrepreneur blogs, hacker news, and greater startup-related internet. But it was the simplicity, verbalization, and centralization of all the restatement that really made it great. I have yet to read a business book that felt like it was reminding me of everything that I knew deep down and truly believed in. 

Rework starts off a little bit broad, which is probably a good thing to attract any non-startup-world based reader. However it quickly gets down to the meat and provides nearly 100 1-2 page essays which really hammer home valuable lessons on specific topics. I particularly agreed with the chapters on Progress, Productivity, and Hiring. While I'm a vocal advocator for launching early, iterating quickly, and staying cheap and lean for as long as possible, it's easy to stray from some of these ideas along the long road of building a startup. I'll go back to Rework every once in awhile to set me straight when I feel myself veering off the path. 

The book doesn't take that long to read, and the 1-2 page essay format makes for plenty of breaking points, so I strongly recommend throwing it on your e-reader or into your backpack and taking in an essay or two whenever you have a few moments. I emerged from each chapter feeling energized and eager to get back to work on my startup and my product – to get back to doing things the right way.

Thank You Heroku, or “How To Eliminate Sysadminning”


I need to take a couple minutes here to do something I've been meaning to for along time: Thank Heroku for being so baller.

For those of you not in the know, Heroku is an all-in-one Ruby platform built on top of Amazon web services. If you're a Ruby developer, and you are creating a web application, I highly recommend checking it out.

I've been using Heroku on two applications, including JumpPost, which officially launched today via a nice writeup on the Thrillist NYC site and newsletter. I'd like to share a couple reasons why I love the Heroku platform and would advise any agile startup to consider using it to get their product launched quickly.

Heroku is fast
The same could be said for any well configured EC2 instance, but don't underestimate the words well configured. The smart folks at Heroku have fine tuned every layer of the stack from using the fastest web servers (nginx), caches (Varnish, Memcache), and load balancing strategies.

Heroku is scalable
At the core of Heroku's architecture is a pre-compiled version of your application called a "slug" which is ready to be deployed in seconds to as many instances as you desire. Expecting a big press hit, or noticing your request queue filling up, just type a simple command and add more resources in seconds. Your users won't even know.

Heroku is easy
To deploy you literally type one command at the command line. They provide add-ons for caching, email, DNS, performance monitoring, custom domains, etc…many of them free. 

Heroku provides killer support
Not only does the staff respond to tickets and support requests within minutes, but they go overboard to support the latest and greatest Ruby features. They're very active on the newsgroup, and they even provide sample code for how to best utilize their architecture. 

Heroku is cost-effective
People may argue me on this one, because at face value the cost is actually rather expensive (think 2x the regular price of AWS). But these people aren't taking into account the cost of their own time when it comes to sysadminning, troubleshooting, not the mention the cost of downtime. Heroku never goes down, and it eliminates the need to pay a sysadmin (or the time value of sysadminning yourself).

Heroku is beautiful
Don't believe me? Check out their pricing page (yes they know their demographic are samurai loving programmers). Navigating their site to manage add-ons, monitor performance, and scale up and down resources is a pleasure.

With all of the above, there are a couple downsides that people should be aware of. Proper SSL is expensive, and should your app face custom scaling needs or challenges then you are locked into their stack. Fortunately their stack is designed for large scale use. The Heroku folks are well aware of these concerns, and they're very open about what they're doing to improve the experience for all of their customers. For startups getting their product off the ground, the time savings early on far outweigh the cost of figuring out a custom solution later should your product achieve grand scale. In case you couldn't tell, I'm a big fan.

If you have any questions about the platform, don't hesitate to email me at