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You don’t need to be an engineer to start a technology business

This guest article was authored by Prosper Chikomo, an internet entrepreneur and author of Turning Iron into Gold: Golden Opportunities: How to Spot Them, Create Them, Make Money from Them, and How Not to Miss Them (Available on Amazon.com

codeA while back, I hired European programmers, yeah, you read right, EUROPEAN, paying for their code. They are the only coders I have ever paid in my life, and they were worth it. Proof of it is that a year or so later, I would read that those guys got over US$2 million in venture capital funding. (If I pay you to code or for your code, then take it to mean that you hold great promise. (a laugh))

A few weeks ago, I was reading when I came across a company name I had read in one of International Telecommunications Union’s Telecom World expo’s glossy daily newspaper of some time back.

It turned out that the company which makes hi-tech gear, and is US based, and was even founded by an “all American” American, is headquartered in Silicon Valley but the bulk of the work is done in China. The Silicon Valley headquarters has a few employees, less than a tenth of the total workforce. Such is the truth about globalization.

So what does that have to do with “You don’t need to be a software engineer to start a technology business”?

Well, it is unfortunate that some folks seem to believe that only a degreed engineer of some sort can start a technology business of some sort. That is not so.

Building a technology business

There are many very good programmers throughout the world. That is why we have Facebook (USA), lastminute.com (UK), Wipro (India), Mxit (South Africa), and all others. It is also why Econet has used technologies from South Africa and India for EcoCash.

One Zambian mobile money transfer system even found a market in Zimbabwe! They (Mobile Transactions) went on to receive US$4 million in venture capital funding.

Zambia!

A US social network for teens that was worth about $100 million when I read about it some time back was founded by a teen who had no programming experience at all. It was entirely coded in India.

As if that is not enough, China has social networks that have copied Facebook word for word, colour for colour, and f for f, and they work just like Facebook!

To add insult to injury, in Germany the Samwer brothers are making a living and told riches creating clones of popular US websites which work just the same as the copied US originals. They even shamelessly copy the designs and colours! There is no stopping them!

All I have just said just shows you the kind of technical skills that exist out there – to create, develop, and even copy anything.

There are different kinds of technology businesses but probably the easiest to start is a web-based business.

A wide rage of options (Jahwi! Jauzen!)

Suppose you want to start selling online. Instead of raising millions of dollars to build the infrastructure, servers and all, you have the option of using Yahoo, Amazon, eBay, and others. There are so many options. For as little as US$5, you could have your own online store. You do not need to be a software guru to do that.

Alternatively, you can download Opencart for free, install it in your hosting account and get going. You do not need to know code to do that. You can even hire a coder to do it for you, or even code the entire site for you from scratch, and you would still achieve your goal of selling online.

What matters is results, results, results!

Let me tell it like I’m feeling it

It is sadly a widely propagated myth that you need exceptional coding skills of some sort or a computer science degree to sell online or have an online store or to have a web-based business.

You too, my friend with 1 O’“Levels”, and you too grandma seated at the back with your Standard 2, will be able to create an online store with Opencart and accept Zimswitch payments using a proprietary plugin, just like the “pros”.

In fact, you could start doing it for others too, and charge the industry standard US$250 “website designing fees” per online store. It’s a free world. Who can stop you? You will be unstoppable!

Just watch as online store after online store that accepts vPayments will be coming up now, now that vPayments is live.

You don’t have to know programming languages inside out to start and/or run a software/technology/-based business. Hell no you don’t!

(Another myth that is also widely propagated is that of a lone coder putting Microsoft out of business with a rival product to Windows.)

The start of the art

Bill Gates, it does not matter how much code he knew, hired people who could do what he couldn’t, and even what he could do. Steve Jobs did not single handedly come up with all the nice gizmos at Apple and whatever features they had. The man had a team. Steve Jobs may be the co-founder of Apple, but Steve Wozniak was the one who built the first Apple computer, not Steve Jobs. The Steves had complementary skills. Even Linus Torvaulds had to get a team, paid or unpaid volunteers.

If there are skills or expertise you don’t have that you need to start your own technology business, you can always pay for them. This is true of any kind of business. That is why bankers with no experience in the transport industry end up running successful transport companies while a very successful former mobile telecoms business development manager fails in the telecoms business.

You build the team with the right skills and you are good to go. You do not have to know it all. In fact, sometimes even knowing bits can help because it helps you take lightly the risks you face, while everybody calls you bold and courageous, and even say you have the biggest balls they ever saw.

Just build the right team, a fearless team.

Global indigenization

Globalization being what it is, if you have the money, you can have a team of engineers basically coding and running your “Zimbabwean” internet start up in Europe while you market that “Zimbabwean” start-up in Zimbabwe, which will actually be based in Europe and run by Europeans.

You can even have both Zimbabwean and European contact details on your website.

Which one do you prefer? London (UK) or Harare (Zimbabwe)? Want UK phone numbers? You can get those too.

Events happen in real-time 

In 24, in 24 hours Jack Bauer chases all the bad guys and never gets tired, hungry, or stop to eat, let alone take a shower! But even Jack has Chloe, friends, CTU resources and even the bad guys who make sure he does not die in the television series because their careers would be over! He even takes people’s cars without permission to succeed in his missions. (And what do we call that? Entrepreneurship! Although of the type that gets you a residence at a maximum security prison.)

In the same vein, all you need is to assemble the team and the resources you need to get the business going.

You can hire the programmers for your software-based start-up, or even go into partnership; you don’t have to be a software guru. This is why there are kids who quit school and go on to start internet empires worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

In the end, it is about the business being a successful business, and not just about the calibre of your coding skills. You can have fine coding skills, and have the business fail. There are many dotcom companies like Boo.com that died with their fancy technologies and serious coding skills.

That’s why venture capital companies invest in the business, and not your coding skills. You can die, and employees even come and go with their skills. What matters is the business.

Starving and fasting, a world of difference

Entrepreneurship is about enterprising. Possessing coding skills is not a prerequisite to becoming a software entrepreneur. You do not have to be a software guru to start a software-based business or a web-based business, although it helps, just like you don’t need an MBA to start a successful business, or even just any business. Most of the brilliant software engineers and other educated people in the world, like most MBAs, are not entrepreneurs, but fine employees.

Google itself has two founders, and employs thousands of software engineers. Of course some of those Google employees do go on to start their own companies, but they are very few who actually do. Many even talk and dream about it, “One day” they say. Meanwhile, a teenager in their backyard who knows no code at all starts an internet sensation that goes on to sell for millions of dollars.

Jeff Bezos started Amazon, employing coders, and Amazon today has an army of coders worldwide, and Amazon is doing big things. If Amazon wants a new feature on its website, it calls on the brain power of its thousands of coders worldwide (and not Jeff Bezos) and delivers the feature on its website within days, if not hours.

That’s proof that you, dear entrepreneur, don’t really need coding skills to start and run a technology business like Amazon, but you, dear coder, need coding skills to write code.

It also proves that there are more “coder” employees than “coder” entrepreneurs, and that not all coders will be, or are entrepreneurs. There will always be coders looking for a job. That means you can start your business without any coding skills yourself, employing coders who want to work, and be a technology entrepreneur.

Even at Econet, Strive Masiyiwa is not the one who goes about digging trenches for fibre optic cables, putting up base stations, selling Econet airtime, and counting dirty dollar bills.

Of course when you do start your business and run it, your best critics will be jealous people who will be unhappy with themselves because you will be doing what they should be doing. With all their “tech” talent that is more than yours they will be wishing they were doing what you are doing. If you are really an entrepreneur, you will just do it and never mind what skeptics say. You will even learn a lot during the process of just doing it.

Gurbaksh Chahal

Gubarksh Chahal started his own high-tech performance-based pay-per-click business with zero coding skills and no riches. He started his business from scratch and went on to sell it for US$40 million at the age of 18. How did he do it? He bought the ad system from a coder for $30 000.

He was an entrepreneur, and not a coder, and there is a huge difference between the two. You do not have to be an engineer to start a technology business. If you are asking about the $30 000 and where it came from, bit by bit he bought stuff he would sell on eBay for 6 times more. That’s how he built up his capital. No coding skills there.

Of course there will always be “talker coders” or “talky techies” – sounds like “walkie talkies” – who will say he is no coder, true, but today if you ask him technical questions, although he may not have every answer, he would be able to answer some of them because he has learned from experience.

Besides, he is a technology entrepreneur, and not a technology inventor, nor a coder.

“Code is poetry”

While Picasso will take great pride in the fine quality and hidden meaning of his paintings he sells himself, an entrepreneur will take pride in how much profit she makes buying those same paintings and selling them for ten times more. Picasso may say the art entrepreneur is no artist and a “cheat”, but while they are both connected by art, our lady will be a better entrepreneur than Picasso. Just because she is no artist, it does not mean she must not deal in artworks. It is up to the art entrepreneur whether to take Picasso’s disapproval to heart or continue making money, no matter what Picasso says.

Rupert the journalist

Rupert Murdoch, the global media baron who controls News Corporation which owns Twentieth Century Fox and Fox News among others, may look like a cold-blooded capitalist but he knows the printing business inside out. He is a trained journalist, and in journalism school at Oxford they don’t teach you how to operate printing presses or mechanical engineering.

In one of his biographies I once read, it was said his very experienced and highly-qualified engineers told him it would take months and cost millions of dollars to switch from printing broadsheets to tabloids, and he went into the factory and adjusted a mechanical part in the same printing press and they were good to go.

To set up BSkyB in the UK, he partnered with technical companies that knew the cable business and could manufacture and provide the set top boxes and satellite dishes, the technology.

Good on you Gary

Finally, Gary Shayne who founded Cellular Systems, later renamed Celsys, which he listed on the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange when he was only 27 years old and went on to sell to Lonrho was a chartered accountant, and not a telecommunications engineer.

Sure there were many telecommunications engineers who knew telecommunications, and who could boast more experience in telecommunications than Gary, even 27 years of experience, but what did they do?

If you are interested in a technology business and you really want to do it, not even not being an engineer can stop you from starting and/or owning a technology business.


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11 thoughts on “You don’t need to be an engineer to start a technology business

  1. There’s what is called an “entrepreneurial spirit” which dont care of much operational knowledge of the business, but focuses only on whether the business can make money or not. Thats what successful entrepreneurs are like.

  2. you better watch Triumph of the Nerds my brother prosper. nerds/engineers/programmers rule for show. Gates was a programmer and of course he was suppose to hire programmers, sales people etc as the company was growing. Wether an engineer or no engineer u still have to hire skilled people in your field! if you are not an engineer better learn one or two things about coding and join us fully. Check out ….

  3. Ingredients to succesful entrepreneurship
    1. Opportunity
    2. Money
    3. Sufficient knowledge of domain to make good decisions
    4. Luck

    You don’t need to have a PhD in the field you’re venturing into, but you need to know enough to make sound decisions. If my granny were to start her online shopfront after just reading your article, she wouldn’t know she would also need an SSL certificate. Which your average CS graduate knows (or should know, depending on the calibre of instructors).

    If I had to bet a domain expert against an outsider, in any field, from agriculture to zoology, I’ll go with the expert every time. That doesn’t mean the outsider’s wont get it right sometimes. Sometimes the expert only has (3) from the list above, and nothing else

    1. Which your average CS graduate knows (or should know, depending on the calibre of instructors).

      +1 lmao!

  4. u cld have said this in a whole lot less words. Nic Rudnic founder of Liquid is a lawyer by profession

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