While teaching history for a cash-strapped school in the Bronx, Charles Best often found himself buying basic school supplies for his students with his own money.
"I figured there were people out there who'd want to help teachers like us if they could see exactly where their money was going," he says. "This was a few years before ‘crowdfunding’ was even a word, but I could sense that backing specific projects would be much more exciting for people than getting a solicitation and being asked to send in a check."
With nothing more than a piece of paper and a pencil, Best handwrote every page of a website he wanted to build before paying a developer $2,000 to bring his idea to life. Fast forward to 14 years later, DonorsChoose.org is used by at least one teacher at 60% of all public schools in the United States, and has provided books, art supplies, field trips, microscopes, and other learning resources to 12 million kids from low-income families around the world.
When Best started DonorsChoose.org, he didn’t have any training in coding or programming, and resources like website-building software and online payment processors didn’t exist. For the first few years, Best had to process credit cards by calling carriers and reading out information provided by each donor.
Today, a wide variety of resources are available for entrepreneurs who have an idea for a tech company, but lack the programming skills to build it. While it has never been easier to launch a startup without a technical background, however, entrepreneurs and industry insiders still debate whether those skills are fundamental to entering the tech industry.
"The ability to get a company up and running in today's day and age is just so much easier than it was a decade ago," said Kraig Swensrud, who founded online advertising platform Kieden in 2006 before selling it to Salesforce later that year.
After spending the following seven years working as chief marketing officer with Salesforce, Swensrud launched GetFeedback, an online survey company in 2013. Though he holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering, Swensrud says he’s "not the one that actually puts their hands on the keyboard and writes code."
"I can get our customer support system up and running in a day without really needing any technical skills," he says. "A lot of the services that it takes to start a company—things that we need for sales or customer support, or for marketing, or getting our payment processor set up and connected to our bank account—really anybody can do that in this day and age."
Over the last 18 months Swensrud has built a product, run a test phase, launched a beta test, and acquired thousands of paying customers, including big-name clients such as Dropbox, ESPN, Facebook, Google, and The North Face.
Swensrud says landing major clients in such a short period of time was made possible by the services provided by his former employer—services that didn’t exist when he built his first company in 2006.
"When big companies do business with a younger technology company, they want to establish a level of trust, they want to know where you are, they want to know where their data is, they want to know what happens if your website goes down," Swensrud explains. "We say, 'We run our technology on the Salesforce platform' and even large global companies go, 'Okay, I trust you guys.’ It would have taken us a decade to establish that level of trust on our own."
According to Ludo Ulrich, director of startup relations for Salesforce, building enterprise-facing tech solutions is no longer reserved for large corporations. With products like Salesforce for Startups, entrepreneurs with little or no programming background can build an application, market it to the 150,000 companies using the AppExchange, and sell it to major enterprise clients.
"There might be a perception that it's only for the big guys," Ulrich says. "In the enterprise you need to deal with identity and security. All of that comes as part of the platform, so people who are passionate about an idea can get started."
Salesforce isn’t the only company offering solutions to help entrepreneurs launch tech products without extensive technical knowledge. Microsoft Ventures also offers a variety of tools and applications to help entrepreneurs bring their ideas to life, including Windows App Studio and Project Spark, which allow users to build applications and games without writing a single line of code.
"Whether a founder has a technical background or not, the opportunity to turn a great idea into a business is becoming a global phenomenon," Steve Guggenheimer, chief evangelist for Microsoft, writes via email. "There are a ton of resources and services out there for young companies to help you get off the ground—from legal advice and access to free technology services, to incubators and accelerators that take a hands-on approach to mentoring young companies."
Guggenheimer says he believes it's always of value to have a team member with technical skills in a senior role. Both Ulrich and Swensrud agree. While it has never been easier to launch a tech company without any coding or programming skills, most in the industry recommend that at least one founding team member should have a technical background.
"If you're starting a technology company and there's no person who really understands the technology on the founding team you could succeed, and there are definitely people who can do that," says Aaron Harris, a partner with Y Combinator, a Silicon Valley-based accelerator. "But to increase your chances, learn to do it yourself or partner with someone who is passionate about what you're doing who can build that side."
Though DonorsChoose.org has 18 developers on its tech and user experience team, Best recently decided to take a crash course in front-end web development.
"After 14 years of running DonorsChoose.org as someone who had never written a line of code, I did do a three-month night school course," he says. "After all these years I could at least speak some of the same vocabulary and have a first-hand appreciation for what my colleagues on the engineering team are doing."
—Jared Lindzon is a freelance journalist born, raised, and residing in Toronto, covering technology, small business, automotive, and music news for every major Canadian publication you've never heard of. When he's not playing with gadgets, interviewing entrepreneurs, or traveling across the continent to music festivals and tech conferences, you can usually find him diligently practicing his first-person bio writing skills.