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Can't Code? Start a Tech Company Anyway

The co-founders of sales-alert start-up Hukkster explain how they managed to get a tech-heavy idea off the ground when they had no technical skills.
Erica Bell (left) and Katie Finnegan.

Erica Bell (left) and Katie Finnegan.

Tech start-ups couldn't be hotter. The only problem: You think Python is just a scary snake and Ruby on Rails a lesser-known Agatha Christie mystery novel. But if you're convinced that your complete lack of technical know-how is an insurmountable impediment to getting a business with a significant technological component off the ground, you should look to New York start-up Hukkster for inspiration.

Co-founded by Katie Finnegan and Erica Bell, a pair of former J. Crew merchandisers with management consulting experience and a shared passion for a good deal, the site, which will be relaunched in September following a private beta, allows shopaholics to specify what they wish to pay for a certain item and be notified when it's available at that price.

How did a couple of entrepreneurs with deep experience in retail but none in engineering manage to get this tech-heavy concept off the ground? Inc.com spoke with the pair to get their tips.

Network. Hard.

Think you've networked enough before starting your business? If the Hukkster team is anything to go by, you probably haven't.

"We talked to anyone and everyone that we knew or maybe grandma's uncle knew that was in the start-up space," says Finnegan. "We did that for three or four months. Like, every weekend." 

Plugging in to the buzzing New York start-up scene with a fervor for networking was key to getting their idea off the ground, both co-founders agree.

"We reached out to everyone we knew who had a start-up in New York," Bell says. "Through that network, we were introduced to VCs who were able to give us feedback early on. We were introduced to some later-stage start-up founders who have been mentors along the way. We spent long hours talking to anyone and everyone who would listen to us." 

Applications aren't just for applying.

Start-up accelerators are great for entrepreneurs accepted into the programs, but the Hukkster team believes they can provide a boost to any founder looking to clarify a business idea-–whether he or she actually sends off an application or not. "We pulled up some of the applications for those incubator programs like Y Combinator and TechStars, and we actually went through the process of answering all their questions very early on in the life of our company," Bell says. "It forced us to answer some really hard questions."  

"That process was just hugely beneficial," agrees Finnegan. "Some of those questions are very long and hard to answer, but it made sure that 1. We were aligned; 2. We were thinking about the right things; and 3. We really had a vision [that could] go forward versus an idea. I think that's what really helped transform this idea into a company."

Passion is nonnegotiable.

Stellar technical talent is great, but it's not enough. Insist on finding technical partners who understand the big picture of what you're building and are excited about it. "When we were vetting our technical team, it was more about finding people that could relate to our project and also have a passion for what we're doing, versus just having a great resumé," says Bell. "Your whole team really needs to understand the big picture. It's not just about having the coding skills." 

You want technical folks who bring ideas to the table instead of simply sitting at the table taking notes, Finnegan adds. "You want the person who's thinking and not just executing. Don't jump at the first person you meet. If you wait until you find someone with that passion that really does understand the big picture, you get a much better product," she says.

Be courageous enough to look silly.

Sure, asking people to explain technical terms to you might make you feel foolish, but not as foolish as you'll feel if you end up with a product that doesn't meet your expectations.

"It's very easy, especially if you're in a technical meeting, for people to just bust out into technical jargon, and you're kind of lost," says Finnegan. "Don't be afraid to say, So what does that mean? You can always explain it in layman's terms, and we found that oftentimes we've uncovered, 'Oh, wait; I actually don't want to do it that way, and here's why.' Being comfortable digging into the details is really important, and quickly you'll learn the jargon as well, but from the beginning you shouldn't just say, 'Oh, they're the experts,' because this is your company, and at the end of the day, you're accountable for the decisions made."

Offer engineer catnip.

Attracting great tech talent to your project isn't just a matter of waving cash, the Hukkster co-founders believe. It's also key to provide an interesting engineering problem to solve, so don't opt for the simplest and cheapest way of doing things just because that might ease your nontechnical nerves. Being cutting edge has advantages.

"The product that we're developing, we're 100% developing it so that it's in the languages that are exciting and cool for engineers," Finnegan says. "We know that that's what's important for engineers. It's not necessarily about the paycheck all the time. It's really about, Is this an interesting and complex problem to solve?

"We could have easily spent less money on development and done something kind of ad hoc but in a language that wasn't exciting, but we made a strategic decision to create a company that fosters intellectual curiosity in our engineers," she says. "Making that investment has really helped us gain credibility with engineers." 

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IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Aug 20, 2012

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in Cyprus with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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