How To Get Tech Work Done, a Guide for the Non-Tech Founder

By Isaac Sukin, W’14, Founding Member, Dorm Room Fund Philly Investment Team

You’ve got a great idea, you’ve validated the market—but you don’t have the technical skill to build it yourself. What do you do? As a programmer myself and a member of Dorm Room Fund, one of the first venture capital funds run by students, for students, I get asked about this a lot. The advice that I give depends on how much you need done—and how much you’re willing to pay.

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If you’re a student, the natural reaction is to try to find other students with complementary skills to join you. That’s unlikely to pan out, though, because students who are talented coders are usually not available for work; and the demand is so high that if they were, they quickly wouldn’t be. It happens occasionally, especially if you can demonstrate that you really are pulling your weight on the non-technical side, but it happens infrequently enough that it’s not a reliable approach. (If you do want to go this route, your best bet is to target underclassmen who want to learn more coding by doing real projects, but your risk is higher by taking a bet on someone with less experience. Check Pennlink and attend coder-centric events like PennApps.)

Instead, the most reliable way to get a solid product built is to hire someone on an actual talent market. People you hire this way are likely to be more professional—and less likely to flake when exams come up. Also, marketplaces help you assess skill level.

Here’s where to look when you need to get technical work done:

  • You can find general freelancers (local and outsourced) and some agencies on sites like Odesk and Elance.
  • If you’ve already picked a technology, you can find freelancers and agencies on job boards specific to that software. Try going to the software’s homepage and seeing if they link to any boards
  • You can sponsor hackathons like PennApps to get student resumes. This isn’t cheap, but you’re getting a list of talented coders who have opted in to be contacted about development work (mostly just over the summer though).
  • Contracted consultants or technical managers can help you find and manage programmers, lowering your technical risk. This is a lower and more consistent time commitment than coding, so you can probably find them among product managers or developers in your own network or among student developers who would be too busy to do full-on development work.
  • You can find agencies by going to local startup or coding events or by emailing local startup mailing lists and asking people for recommendations. Agencies are typically the most expensive development option, but you get what you pay for.
  • Finally, there’s always the option of building the product yourself, for only the opportunity cost of your time. There are lots of platforms and content management systems that you may be able to set up without learning to code. Examples include Shopify and Magento for e-commerce; WordPress.com, SquareSpace, and PageVamp for mostly static sites; and Drupal (possibly via Drupal Gardens) for anything more sophisticated. Learning to build something yourself has many benefits: you’ll be able to do it again in the future, you’ll understand better what developers are talking about, and it will be easier to hire developers if you can show you’ve already put in the effort to build an early prototype yourself.

The price, amount of time required for completion, work quality, and degree of your own involvement can vary considerably depending on which option you choose. Students and professional freelancers will be less expensive than consultants who will in turn be less expensive than agencies. Keep in mind, however, that the quality may vary along with the price. Ask a technical friend to help you evaluate the skill level of individuals if you’re unsure.

Expect agencies and really good individuals to communicate with you regularly, whereas you’ll need to actively work with most individuals to make sure their work meets your expectations. Individuals you like working with can sometimes be great hires in the future. That said, it is common to rebuild your entire product from scratch as soon as you have a full-time engineering team capable of doing so. With that in mind, often version 1 should be about getting something working that your customers can use.

isaac-sukinBio: Isaac Sukin just graduated from Wharton with majors in entrepreneurship and information systems and a minor in computer science. He has been programming for 7 years, and has worked with scores of startups as a developer, consultant, marketer, founder, and investor. Isaac is also the first founding partner of Dorm Room Fund, a student-run venture capital fund that invests $500k from First Round Capital into student-run startups. He has worked for Twitter and First Round Capital among other places, and will be joining Acquia as a product manager after graduation. He recently wrote a book about developing games.