Young Upstarts

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Why All Business Founders Should Learn Basic Programming

by Lee Shen Han

If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone mention that he/she’s got a fantastic idea for an Internet startup, I’d probably have about eight bucks. (I guess I don’t have a lot of friends)

The conversations usually start with hushed tones, furtive glances and proclamations of that million dollar idea just waiting to get off the ground. All they need is a technical founder… I’m not usually one to judge but based on the number of times I’ve been sworn to secrecy, it seems that these budding entrepreneurs place too high a premium on ‘ideas’ and not nearly enough on execution.

The time has passed when you could just outsource the coding and build the next big thing on the Internet. It’s long past the point when everybody was building a content driven startup. In this day and age, everybody who wants to start an online business has to know how to code, and not for the reasons that you might think.

It’s highly unlikely that you’ll be able to code anything noteworthy after a three-month Ruby on Rails course but that’s not the point of learning basic programming. A business founder should learn how to program because code is the language of the Internet. It helps you communicate better with your technical founder, and if you haven’t gotten your technical founder, it makes it that much easier for you to convince a technical person to join your team.

When you demonstrate that you’ve taken some effort to understand their lingo, it separates you from the wannabe business founders with their million-dollar ideas. Good technical guys are in ridiculous demand nowadays and they’ve heard it all. Yes, they know you want to build the ‘Zappos for Flower Arrangement’ but what else are you going to bring to the table, aside from an idea?

The technical founder will be the one putting in the hard work and burning the midnight hours during the early days of the startup. He’ll need to know that you’re not going to bail on him after he’s expended all that effort. Learning how to speak his language, no matter how badly, is a great way of signaling that you’re committed to the cause. It also helps you get some geek cred, and prevents you from sounding like a naïve wannabe when discussing your ideas.

A lot of business founders like to trivialize the role of the technical person, and get up in arms over the importance of their own roles. They claim a widespread range of intangible skills like managing people and being a strong leader. They talk about user acquisition and product management.

While I’m not denying the importance of the role of the business person in a startup, when you distil their job into a single sentence, that sentence would be – “Getting other people to buy what we’re shilling.” It’s really not really as complicated as all that.

If you’re an aspiring Internet entrepreneur and you don’t know the first thing about coding, start off by with the basics by taking an introductory course on html/css. If you want to go deeper, there are some terrific resources on the internet, such as Codeacademy and Codeschool, that make it easier than ever for you to learn.

There’s really no excuse for you not to. Learn how to program, and become a better business founder for it.


Lee Shen Han has just returned from a half-year travel sabbatical around Europe and South America. He is interested in entrepreneurship, small business and the expanding tech scene in Singapore. You can drop him a line at shenhanlee [ a ]




This is an article contributed to Young Upstarts and published or republished here with permission. All rights of this work belong to the authors named in the article above.

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  • Abednego Setyawan

    I agree. Becoming a founder requires multiple skills, both technical and non-technical. A basic understanding about programming is very essential, no doubt. 

  • Knilson97

    Lee – I’ve been considering learning programming and now that I read your article I think I’m actually going to do it!  My question is for a total newbie (computer savvy but a non-coder) which programming languages would you suggest I begin with, and in what order?  I have a startup idea that has a database element and would possibly be built to sync with Evernote.