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How a Non-technical Solo Founder Got Into Y Combinator


Two years ago I quit my full-time job, and declared myself an entrepreneur (inspired by the 4-Hour Workweek). At the time, all I had was an idea. And so my first goal was to find someone with a technical background.

I suspect that many of you are in similar situations. There’s something you should know: it’s never going to happen.

Don’t wait around trying to find that perfect technical co-founder. A real entrepreneur doesn’t sit around for someone else to take the lead. A real entrepreneur makes things happen in spite of being under-equipped.

You’re not expected to become a brilliant developer (or even a mediocre one), but you’d better learn how to code well enough to put together the first version of your product yourself.

In a Quora question on the “Top 5 Pieces of Advice for Entrepreneurs,” Dennis Crowley (founder of Foursquare and Dodgeball) says:

“1. Stop sketching and start building. Pre-Dodgeball I went thru 3-4 years thinking I was going to meet
some magical engineer who would build all the stuff I was thinking about. But I never met that person,
so I taught myself ASP and MS Access (yikes! eventually PHP and MySQL) out of a book and got to work
just hacking stuff together. I’m still a really shitty programmer but I know enough to hack a
prototype together” (Click here to tweet this quote)

The problem is that not knowing much about coding makes it especially scary to jump in. I had heard just enough about all the different programming languages – Java, C++, PHP, Python, Ruby, etc. – to have no idea where to start.

But I spent months looking for a technical co-founder with no luck, so a month before Y Combinator’s Winter 2011 application deadline I decided to pack my bags, move to San Francisco, and learn to code. At the recommendation of a good friend, I chose Ruby on Rails.

Almost two years later, I look back at that month as one of the most simultaneously enjoyable and miserable experiences of my life. I’ll never forget the first day: locked inside my bedroom just trying to install the damn thing on my computer! And do you want to know why it wasn’t working? I was missing a comma. (I wanted to cry.)

Someone once tweeted one of the truest statements about coding that I’ve ever read:

“If you like oscillating between feeling like the stupidest person on earth and a fucking genius,
you’ll love coding.” (Click here for the original tweet)

Then one day, it actually works.

It’s one of the most beautiful feelings I’ve ever had.

Unfortunately, I didn’t end up getting into Y Combinator that winter. But I left San Francisco with something much more valuable:

I recognized a real demand in the market: the materials available for learning to code online are awful.

So I decided that someone needs to do it better. I created an online course called One Month Rails designed to help total beginners learn to code. It was simple:

  • a handful of easy to follow video lectures that people could watch in their own time
  • a real project to build (a Pinterest-style photo-sharing website)
  • and a straightforward set of resources that would help people build their web apps faster.

I recorded the first version of One Month Rails in three hours on a Saturday. When I launched the first class on Skillshare, I thought that if I could beat my friend Trevor Owen’s class size of 100 students, it would be a success.

On the first day of announcing the class, One Month Rails got 150 signups. By the time it had officially started, I had 2000 students and was freaking out worrying that everyone was going to hate the class. But the feedback I got was incredible:

“Great class. I’ve spent a lot of money and hours trying to learn how to code.
This was the first class that actually gave me the foundation I needed. This class is invaluable.”
– Keisha Manning

Wow :)

Six months later, One Month Rails is now more than 7,000 students strong. And I’m excited to announce that we’re now officially part of Y Combinator’s Summer 2013 batch!

So where do we go from here? In my next post, I’m going to talk about our plan for growth. One thing that’s true: we’ve validated a huge problem, and the solution is way bigger than just education (more on that later).

  • http://httpd.co/damn_quick_mvps/ Quick MVPs

    >…if I wanted to build something I needed to learn how to code.

    Absolutely. This way, even if you don’t end up writing the (production) code yourself, you still have two great advantages:

    1) You can communicate much more effectively with the coding team, resulting into faster (and cheaper) development cycles and
    2) The coding team can’t take you for a ride ;-)