Why is “Learn to Code” the Most Popular Advice Given to Aspiring Entrepreneurs?

Posted March 16, 2017



“Learn to code.” You hear it constantly at Verge and other startup events. As a programmer myself, I think everyone should learn to program. It’s valuable in many areas of life and business, but I also think it’s generally bad advice to give a startup founder.

So, why do people give this advice anyway? There are three primary reasons for its popularity:

  • It’s easy and cliche. It’s a cop-out answer for when there isn’t more specific advice to give or time to better understand a founder’s situation.
  • Many people in the startup ecosystem are programmers. It is easier to launch a startup if you’re a programmer, which naturally leads to a large number of technical people at startup events. They see the strong benefits of knowing how to code and want others to reap those benefits.
  • The advice-giver believes this great advice. Why? Because they’ve heard it so many times and they don’t fully understand the ramifications of their suggestion.

But isn’t knowing how to program a big advantage for a startup?

Let’s be clear—Programming knowledge is very useful for startup founders.

Due to shared terminology, you’ll be able to communicate better with your technical team. Understanding the tradeoffs of certain technical decisions allows you to iterate between feature ideas faster, without involving your team and slowing them down. In addition, evaluating your first few engineering hires and their performance will be easier. As a programmer yourself, you’ll have the option of putting off development hires, which are often time consuming and expensive.

Most importantly, being able to write your own software lets you build prototypes, and maybe even a fully functional application. With working software, it’s easier to get sales and gain traction, or merely demonstrate your idea in high fidelity to investors.

Those are great benefits, but is halting everything, including your business, to learn to code really worth it? 

Nothing is more important in a startup than knowledge. Knowledge about product-market-fit, your initial product vs. your long-term product, and which VC firm from which to raise money. Learning to code often wastes time and energy that could be devoted to actually moving your business forward by gaining this knowledge.

When is learning to program worth investing the time?

There are several good scenarios where learning to code, even just a little bit, may be beneficial:

  • If your startup can be prototyped by cobbling together existing APIs. Building a prototype of this nature doesn’t require a complete understanding of programming concepts and can often be achieved quickly with a minor amount of knowledge. Alternatively, consider just building your prototype on top of the Zapier platform which already connects many different APIs and has webhooks for customer integrations.
  • If you’re not fully committed and ready to work full time on your startup. Are you still at the idea stage? Is this more of a side project? Maybe it would be worthwhile for you to learn to program since, unlike most startups, speed isn’t your primary concern at the moment.
  • You want to bootstrap instead of raising money. Bootstrapping is definitely easier if you know how to program, as you don’t need to immediately hire and rely upon someone else.

Even if you decide to learn to program, you’ll probably want to stop working on your application after raising money or proving product-market-fit. Like most trades, it takes years of practice and making mistakes to become a proficient developer capable of working on a large application. Once your startup is ready for the next level, step back and focus on growing your business, not your code. Having a founder as a junior developer on an engineering team isn’t good for you, your business, or your team.

Learning to program is fun and incredibly useful, but it won’t make your startup take off faster. Ignore the advice, and don’t feel bad about it.