The “Learn to Code” meme appears to have reached its zenith, recently gaining coverage in such mainstream publications as the Wall Street Journal and Forbes. Though not unanimous on its recommendation, the sentiment is clear: knowing how to code is important.
I took the message to heart. My start to Musubi followed the Lean Startup principles: I set up a landing page, marketed for some eyeballs, and got initial support from customers. Since then, I’ve spent the last four months learning how to code, building up my skills to push out the hallowed “MVP”, or Minimum Viable Product. It’s been an incredibly rewarding journey, one where I learned how to design and build a product.
But what I’ve now realized is that learning to code wasn’t the right thing to do. Instead of learning to code, I should’ve been learning to sell.
It’s a trap
Here is the list of things I was not doing while I was learning to code:
- Validating my market beyond the first 30 customers
- Discovering where my customers discussed their problems
- Creating clear channels of feedback for customers to talk to me
- Discovering the value of my proposed product, and taking time to test pricing
- Making real progress
Learning to code is seductive in the same way that answering email is seductive. You have quantifiable units of progress, you are doing something interesting, and anyone you talk to knows that you’re “getting work done”. In both cases, you feel engaged and productive just cranking away.
But learning to code is hard. It requires an incredible amount of effort and focus, to the point where I was reading, hacking, and debugging for nearly all my waking hours. And because of that, I got sucked into the same hole that many non-technical founders fall into - I stopped talking to customers.
Don’t code. Sell.
What happened? I did everything the articles said: I created a landing page, I validated the need, then I got to work on the MVP. It was Lean Startup at its core, wasn’t it?
The fundamental dichotomy is this: it’s simply not possible to learn your customer’s needs while learning how to code. Perhaps if you are superhuman. But the cognitive demands are simply too great to do both at the same time.
I don’t regret learning to code. I’m passionate about fixing email, and scratching my own itch has been incredibly satisfying. But for my start up, it was a mistake. The four months of coding effort would’ve been better spent getting out of the building and getting more feedback.
I was afraid of getting too deep into discussion about a product that didn’t exist. But the bigger problem I have now is that I have a product and no one to discuss it with.
Non-technical founders: please learn to code. But don’t try and code your start up. Sell, sell like your life depends on it. Beg, borrow, sneak, pester, lure, whatever. Do what you must to ensure that the people running around with their hair on fire know you’re the only one in town with a hose.