A few weeks before Drop.io sold to Facebook, founder Sam Lessin met with New York Tech Meetup’s Nate Westheimer.
“We are always going to build subpar products because neither of us can code,” the two discussed.
Lessin explained: Idea people who can’t code have to relay their vision to others, and part of the vision inevitably gets lost in translation.
Lessin said non-technical founders like he and Westheimer fail slowly.
Westheimer, who had been considering founding a new startup and already had an investor on board, took a step back.
He had assumed learning to code in his late 20’s was impossible. “Maybe in another life I would have been a good developer,” he used to think.
Speaking with Lessin made him change his mind. He called off the investor and told him he wasn’t going to pursue the startup. Instead, Westheimer took to books and started to learn back-end development. He was fuelled by a product he wanted to build — an online meeting management system called OHours.
Two years later, Westheimer is working on another startup, Picturelife. Instead of being the product manager like he used to be, Westheimer is the back-end developer. He’s working on Picturelife with OMGPOP founder Charles Forman and Threadless co-founder Jacob Dehart.
Forman told him, “I’m glad you learned to code, otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to work together.” Forman and Dehart are both technical guys with a lot of ideas and designing talent, Westheimer explained. They didn’t need another idea guy, they needed a developer who could pull weight.
Now, even if Picturelife becomes a big company, Westheimer wants to stay a developer. “If you had asked me one year ago, I would have said I’d go back to product management, but this is my thing now,” he says. “I love being able to push things live immediately instead of filing a ticket for a release four weeks out.” He’s able to instantly help customers with product ideas they have, which he finds rewarding.
Westheimer offers some advice for non-technical founders:
- If you think you don’t need to learn to code, think again. Westheimer receives a lot of requests from non-technical founders looking for developers. To them he responds, “I run a 22,000-person group full of technical people so I’m pretty well connected. I couldn’t even find a technical person right now. And if I can’t find a technical person, neither can you. You need to learn to code.”
- If you don’t learn to code, accept that you won’t be as successful. Westheimer was driven to learn to code by the notion that he’d be a failure as an entrepreneur without that skill. Failure for him wasn’t an option.
- Have an idea in mind when you start learning to code. If he hadn’t had known he wanted to build OHours, Westheimer thinks he’d have quit learning to code. Ideas are motivating.
- Don’t focus on coding “the right way.” Westheimer says the first time he showed Forman OHours code, Forman laughed. “It was so poorly written, but you know what? It worked. And that’s all that matters,” says Westheimer. Like anything else, the code you write will inevitably improve with time and practice. Things Westheimer developed six months ago embarrass him now, but it’s all part of the learning process.