Starting A Tech Startup With Nontechnical Founders
Introduction & Purpose of Series
Sethau5 v2.0 (above) is now deprecated. No more living, working, and sleeping within the same 20 feet (at least, for now).
For four years we failed forward.
From our initial music festival app (Stredm) with zero business initiative & programming experience, to the current SetOcean, a product agency-incubator with a focus on mixed realities, react.js & blockchain technologies on the way to a healthy $500K annual recurring revenue rate.
Out of those four years, we spent the last two years on the edge of extinction (read: bankruptcy); mainly scrambling & learning on the fly, sometimes cramming upwards of ten people in a three bedroom house in the dead South Florida summer heat. Appropriately, moving into our own office in downtown Fort Lauderdale with our own cash flows is a significant milestone.
We spent the last few years taking a jump and piecing together an airplane on the way down that we haven’t taken the time to look back, breath, and reflect on what we’ve learned.
Now that we’ve built a glider, I’d like to take time to bridge the story of our last four years to explain who we’ve become, where we’re going, how we got here & why we’re moving forward.
We set out to write this with the following purpose in mind:
- At the highest level — answer the question: “ How did we go from Setmine, a pet project used by friends & distributed by guerrilla street marketing to SetOcean, a development studio growing in the heart of South Florida?”
- Narrate a series of at least five critical time periods from our journey with entrepreneurial lessons that we will use to refine our values — hopefully these lessons will also help circumvent whatever obstacle is in your way of creating (sprinkled with some sweet template attachments we’ve accumulated or open-sourced).
- Provide a quick paragraph summarizing those lessons from an applicable standpoint with a follow up article written with a different perspective from our good friend, Alex Moskov.
With that out of the way, let’s go wayyy back. I’m talking mid-2013, the year I met the mysterious Moskov in a business speaking class.
From A Drop of Tech to An Ocean of Ideas: Part I — Starting A Tech Startup With Nontechnical Founders
March — August 2013
The prologue starts deep in the corridors of Lib West at the University of Florida. One day, early on in my spring semester of my sophomore year, I blasted UF students on social media about the new startup I was interning at, Market Loco. To my surprise, my social media hustle made Market Loco go viral around campus — I remember obsessively refreshing ChartBeat (a metric dashboard), fascinated at how accessible this was to someone nontechnical.
Less than a month later I found myself named “the marketing cofounder.” I literally had zero idea what that meant. But it didn’t matter. One of my closest friends from high school (the CEO & real founder) was living THE dream. He had taught himself how to code, threw the largest hackathon ever, dropped out, & started an extremely promising Facebook college groups market solution…all before ending his freshmen year! I was enthralled, captivated and ready to hustle & learn all that I could.
His far-from-traditional learning path seemed uncapped
Except I hadn’t dropped out. In fact, I was doing quite the opposite. My sophomore year I applied to UF’s Masters in Finance program. This opportunity with Market Loco opened my lens to the world of hacking, hackathons, & creating ideas with nothing but your friends & a laptop. I straddled both school & Market Loco the rest of the year.
The real founders of Market Loco snagged a prestigious Y-Combinator interview & suddenly I was contemplating taking a semester off while applying to grad school, while applying to banking summer internships, while recruiting for summer UF on-campus internships (yes I realize how terribly unfeasible this all seemed).
And just like that, as quickly as it came, it ended.
YC rejected us & the original founders concluded that their hearts weren’t really into it & wanted to shut down. In a panic, I volunteered to keep it going with one of the senior programmers. A few weeks after trying to learn & decipher an entire live frontend web app, I came to that same conclusion & called it quits.
Admittedly, before my Market Loco experience I was THAT business student. The “I have a billion dollar idea want to build an app for equity in my company” finance guy that apparently programmers hate (seriously, there’s a Facebook group dedicated to this: http://bit.ly/ICHTBSFBGroup). Zero product knowledge. But it was ingrained throughout my time at Market Loco:
No one wants to build an app for you, you need to put in the legwork to get people to want to build with you.
Apparently the best way to accomplish that was by building a “static MVP” — I eventually learned that this was tech speak for really simple website that confirmed an idea/market hypothesis. This meant I’d have to learn, at the very least, wire-framing, html, css & jQuery (sad react for React fans I’m old).
Fast forward to that summer (2013). Fortunately I managed to snag a summer banking internship in my hometown; unfortunately I had already drank the tech entrepreneurial kool-aid. I had now known that it was possible, with enough work, to teach yourself how to code & build a company. I spent the day at my banking internship brainstorming ideas, phoning my friends for feedback, & spending the rest of my time home delving headfirst into the world of front-end development.
W3Schools & TreamTreeHouse became full-time summer classes.
One of those friends that I phoned daily for idea feedback was another high school classmate, Oscar Lafarga. Wickedly intelligent with a ferocious attention to detail that he applied to everything from parkour to math competitions, Oscar & I competed & collaborated consistently throughout high school. We went off to USC & UF respectively, but as fate would have it, he was also interning in South Florida as an engineer at a telecom company.
His intro & quick tbt to high school serves to highlight the following point: we not only trusted each other, but we were familiar and comfortable with each other’s ability to learn.
It’s almost a rite of passage of South Florida adult-hood to attend Ultra Music Festival — yet, respectfully, no music platform at that time focused on maximizing a “set” listening experience. It was a problem we could both relate to. One random weekend, on a burst a of passion, I decided to wire-frame (or what my idea of a wire-frame was at the time) a mobile app for streaming EDM sets: StrEDM.
Of course looking back the whiteboard wireframe & accompanying sketches that I presented to Oscar the following week I can acknowledge that they were absolutely ghastly scribbles, but that didn’t matter. They weren’t zero. Which meant we had some semblance of initiative or momentum — a spark.
Demo > Design > Pitch — doesn’t matter if you’re recruiting or fundraising
So there we were, crammed in Oscar’s parents house in a corner in the guest room. On July 13th Oscar googled “how do you make a website?” while I opened up Photoshop for the very first time. You’re probably familiar with Wordpress right? Well we chose to go with a similar CMS (content management system) named Joomla! I’m not sure if the exclamation point is officially part of the name, but I always thought it made it look a lot more friendly & inviting. It wasn’t. Opening & editing the HTML modules felt so foreign (yes I missed the MySpace formatting train).
We spent 6–8 hours, every single day for three months straight, learning how to deploy a frontend website, sprinkled with business logistics here & there. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the set: Kaskade at EDC Las Vegas 2012 — opened with Lessons In Love( https://setmine.com/play/230). It was the very first set that Oscar managed to conjure up through a Soundcloud Joomla! integration. I played it on repeat all day at work, on the ride & everywhere in-between.
It had a god awful design void of any serious user considerations & was glued together by appropriately mediocre code — but holy hell were we excited. For two non-programming undergrads it meant so much to us!
Despite a few of our few tech friends’ honest digs that ranged from “…are you serious?” to “this is scary, I have no idea what to do,” we held our heads up proudly. We had turned an idea into something tangible, something that we could now touch & share with our friends — and that turned out to be an intoxicating feeling, the fuel source for years to come.
We iterated on Stredm again & again until summer came to a halt. Realistically, with zero business direction, Oscar & I knew that we weren’t dropping out anytime soon — Stredm would have to grow alongside our academic transcript.
We chose to adapt the fuck it, ship it mentality with a strict focus on acquiring users first, deciding the business later. For obvious reasons this is a terrible idea if you’re starting a business full time; but, for us, as current undergraduate students, this turned out to blessing in disguise because it provided us with a “sandbox mode” that allowed us to jump from role to role without fatal pressure & discover where our strengths really lie. So for now at least, it was back to school.
Part I — Lessons Learned
1. Don’t Wait For The Perfect Co-founder
The roles you take on Day 0 will look nothing like your roles on Day 100 which will look exponentially more foreign by Day 1000. You will grind it out shoulder to shoulder (sometimes literally) for the remainder of your company’s life — fact, for the majority of the your waking days. But looking forward to working with said person is one thing, going to sleep at night knowing without a shadow of a doubt that every decision is now made for the betterment of a whole, is another level of trust.
It’s unlikely that this is person will be outside of your immediate network as years of relationship building is required to build this level of trust. The goal is to help each other discover exactly what role is at the intersection of every founding team members passion & innate strengths.
And then keep each other accountable through at-times brutal feedback that is most effectively taken at face value when it’s coming from someone with whom one has genuine trust. Moments spent second-questioning other founders character or intention is a silent & fatal waste of time. Moments spent not starting because you can’t find the right person to start with? That’s either a lack of imagination or an unearthed insecurity.
2. Build The Skills Necessary To Create A Demo
What do you bring to the table? I can only speak for software-based startups & apps (the type every high school skiddy & undergrad business student), but you can’t expect to start & lead a tech company without understanding tech. Outsourcing your core competency doesn’t scale — embrace this. In the earliest days the product IS the company so you’d expect the founder to at least contribute to that overall effort in some form. Open up a new browser tab & get cranking.
At the highest level, assuming no founder has any product experience, simply decide what you think you’ll like best: designing or developing. If you see yourself as a designer, fire up Adobe Design Experience or Sketch. If you see yourself as a programmer, download Sublime Text 3 or Atom & go through the Facebook React documentation.
3. Creating Is Addicting — Get The Wheels Turning
Few moments compare to the first time you deploy working software, especially in the form of a product. This holds even more true if you come from a nontechnical background. There’s a change in personal philosophy that comes with it as you start to acknowledge that, yes, you can take ideas & make them tangible. You’re no longer desperately waiting or seeking for someone to help you, but you’re now enjoying the climb & looking forward to the next obstacle that you’ll have to go around. This momentum is the secret sauce: ship, & stay shipping.
In a world where the dropout statistical anomalies are revered, is running a startup in college worth it? Or does it lead to half-assing two things? How do you raise a seed round if you’re not in SF & have no connections? Do you even need to raise a seed round?
Stick around for Part.II for the answers to those questions as well as a wild story that entails driving a pickup truck with a literal palette-worth of water bottles through rush-hour-like Miami traffic. For info on our contracting services visit setdev.io. For personal questions, feedback, or job openings, hit me up directly on my IG, FB or Gmail: