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Ask HN: What's a Non-Programmer to do?
152 points by gsaines 2290 days ago | 78 comments
My two business partners and I have been running our startup for about 14 months, we're ramen profitable, we have a small user base and we're growing steadily. (We've posted to YC a few times before, you can check out our website at www.skritter.com.) By all accounts things are looking very good for us, but we have a somewhat persistant problem that is hurting morale: simply put, I feel underutilized and we all three decided we should ask YC what other startups do about this situation.

To give you a little background, Nick, Scott and I were all three best friends in college. Nick and Scott were CS majors (among other majors) and I was an economics major. When we first started the business we all three decided together that we didn't want to seek venture capital or anything big, we wanted to raise as little money as possible, get to market, and then live (or die) off of the profit. We raised two rounds of philanthropic funding, one for $30k and one for $25k, it was literally free money.

After that the problems started. We didn't yet have any revenue and our service wasn't going to have high margins, so a lot of traditional marketing just wasn't going to have positive ROI (I know, I ran a LOT of numbers). I focused on doing some menial labor, and I also did a lot of design work, but even that wasn't a lot of work. At the same time I was having trouble feeling productive at 40 hours a week, Nick and Scott were working 60 hour weeks consistently and were still behind. To their credit, they were extraordinarily graceful about the problem, always downplaying the inequality in work, trying to find me new productive tasks and the like.

So here's my question: do other small startups have this problem? And if so, what have you done to mitigate the workload inequality and give the businesser meaningful stuff to work on? Put another way, if you're a three person startup or you have a full time business person or designer, how do they spend their time?

I have your role. Here's what keeps me busy:

1. Writing the copy for the website. Mainly keeping the support documents up-to-date.

2. Doing all the business related tasks.

3. Doing all the customer service.

4. Handling all incoming e-mail.

5. Doing all of the social networking stuff (facebook, twitter).

6. Doing all of our marketing. Handling Google AdWords, banner advertising, text advertising, etc.

7. Dealing exclusively with our accountant.

8. Tracking all of our expenses, etc., into Excel and getting everything ready for accountant (see 7).

9. Handling all legal work with our lawyer.

10. Doing all of our networking. I'm the guy that goes to all of our relevant events.

11. We all come up with ideas for product development.

12. Blogging. I do all the blogging.

13. Handling payroll. I do that.

14. Dealing with the bank accounts. I deal directly with the small business rep at our bank.

15. Market research. I find out as much as I can about our competitors, what they do, etc. I also learn about our market as a whole.

16. Handling all incoming advertising requests, setting up their campaigns, etc.

17. Dealing directly with all our merchants (credit cards + PayPal). Dealing with the very few chargebacks we receive.

18. Paying all of our bills (server expenses, software licenses, domains, advertising, etc.) and monitoring our cash flow.

19. Pitching. I handle all of that.

20. Anything that requires a phone call. Incoming or outgoing.

...and many other tasks as they crop up. For example, I'm the point person on setting up our new office.

My job is a lot more "flexible" so I can deal with things as they arise and take the lead. Whereas my partners (one is a designer and one is a coder) usually have to stay on task so they're not distracted. For example, we're setting up a new office as I mentioned above and it's just not feasible for either to spend time dealing with that in the middle of production. I, however, can do that.


I worked as a one-man software consultant, and you have no idea how much I wanted a second version of me to do all of this stuff. There are a lot of unavoidable little tasks that don't necessarily require writing code but do require care and attention.

Rest assured that, even if you don't end up spending 60+ hours per week doing all of this stuff, your partners are not just humoring you when they claim to be grateful that you're doing all of this.

The worst thing about many of these tasks is that they tend to be asynchronous. A lot of them need to be done during business hours, a lot of them involve phone tag or email tag, and even if a given task takes only ten minutes it can be enough to break your flow for an hour. So even if you only do 20 hours of work per week, you are saving some coder from losing more than 20 hours of productive work per week.


THIS is very helpful. Thanks a lot for providing insight into how you spend your time. Scott currently does a lot of our accounting and Nick has been handling feedback, but that's all sort of shifting as each task is taking more and more time. I really should re-write the our user's and quickstart guide, which have been languishing. They're not used that much, but it could be because they are so poorly designed and updated.


My co-founder does all of this, and I am eternally grateful to him for it, because it's stuff I hate and would be awful at. Even if he worked less than me, which he definitely doesn't, keeping my schedule and mind free of these worries would be worth it.


i'm a little late to this discussion but i think it's an interesting topic worthy of chiming in.

this laundry list of tasks gives a good overview of all the things that _could_ be done.

another way to think about it is to ask, what are the most important things i need to do right now to move the business forward?

new business propositions are all based on a set of assumptions that each need to be verified in order for the venture to succeed. as the business guy on the team, my tasks at a given point in time are a function of what the team is doing currently to validate a particular assumption or hypothesis.

for example, in order for us to move forward, we need to validate whether users will buy into our value proposition. we've already done a fair amount of ethnographic studies, user interviews, and paper prototyping to inform product decisions pre-development. the only way to validate our hypothesis now is to actually develop and release our product to a small set of users.

my tasks, then, are to tackle all problems in the path of achieving the goal of developing and releasing our product to a small set of users.

so, my personal laundry list (in order of priority & 'bang for buck') is:

1) research XYZ APIs and terms of service //our product users a bunch of different APIs so i need to make sure what we're doing is legal and technically feasible before i incorporate it into the spec—otherwise, my team is going to have to waste time figuring it out themselves

2) complete functional spec and designs of features ABC //i try to remove as much ambiguity from the spec as possible so my team doesn't spend time disambiguating feature requests

3) get an office space //although we've been working remotely, we all agree we'd be much more productive if we had a shared work space we can commit to day in and day out. we estimated that we'd get an extra hour of productivity per day by working together, which justifies putting this high on the priority list

i hope that helps.


I pretty much do all of this stuff and I'm also the main coder. It changes day to day which I enjoy more, though...


Here are some ideas:

1) Make phone calls to the competition, pretend to be a customer, listen to their sales pitch, and see if there is anything your company can gain from the experience.

2) Have the geeks setup a CMS and designate yourself the webmaster. You get a job title with master in the name which is kind of cool. Use some of your time to maintain your companies presence and give it a voice.

3) Become the social media guy for your company, someone needs to be manning the Twitter, Facebook, Frappr, Blfousajf, and whatever else folks use now. This is very time consuming but if you have time, do it. (at least I perceive it as time consuming)

4) Read the Startup Guide to Guerrilla Marketing and start doing that stuff.

5) Network--become the networking guy. Search for events in your area on meetup.com and other places. Get involved. Find out about different opportunities to get more free cash, chase these opportunities.

This is my wishlist of stuff I'd have someone do if I had them.

It's all about finding your niche based on what's missing. I wouldn't expect the cofounders to always be the one throwing tasks at you. They're stuck in the weeds doing the product.

Maybe take some time, read books, and try to become the big picture guy related to what you're doing and look for small ways to move that forward.


Networking is the number one task as far as I'm concerned. You need to be reading every site in the world about your field, looking for competitors, partners, and customers. Find language learning blogs, forums, training companies, and let them know about you. This is a full-time job in itself, and geeks hate doing that stuff.


Not all of us do.


These are good points, thanks a lot for spending the time to generate them.

Nick was actually monitoring this thread, and read me aloud your comment about "Facebook, Frappr, Blfousajf" and I thought he was kidding around, nice one.

I actually just got done reading "Made to Stick," "Landing Page Optimization," "Supercrunchers," "Word of Mouth Advertising," and "Call to Action." Generally my favorite was Made to Stick, but I'll pick up a copy of that Guide to Guerrilla Marketing you mentioned and read through it. All the books I've picked up so far have been YC recommendations, so it can't be that bad!

Regarding the networking, there are some things in the area I can look into, mostly tech entrepreneurs that get together and talk shop.

Again, thanks for the comments, I really appreciate them.


Regarding the networking, there are some things in the area I can look into, mostly tech entrepreneurs that get together and talk shop.

Tech entrepreneurs are one thing, but find people interested in learning Chinese. Find people who teach Chinese, and give them a free membership. Ask them to "beta test" your product. Learn every thing that you can about your customers and potential customers.


Good distinction. Thanks for that.


I don't know what a full-time business person is supposed to do at a webapp which teaches Chinese. What were you anticipating?

Here's my suggestion: forget "traditional" marketing. You're now Head of SEO. Don't worry if you're totally incompetent at it, most professional SEOs are, too. Set yourself a goal for the end of this year: I am going to learn SEO, and I am going to quintuple the traffic Skritter receives from Google, and I am going to lift our front page to trial conversion by 25%.

Then, that is your full time job. Trust me, you will be able to continually generate value for the business.

(I originally typed "fill the time", then I smacked myself. Filling the time is a self-destructive, useless way to look at working. Don't feel productive, be productive, and then go home. And tell your coders that, too.)

P.S. Let me get you started on lifting the front page conversion -- that huge, ginormous, eye-catching animated thing on your front page? That is getting clicked, I can guarantee it. It is probably being clicked more than every other element on that page put together.

Install CrazyEgg if you don't believe me.

That should be linked to whichever of sign up and try now generates more business value.


"I don't know what a full-time business person is supposed to do at a webapp which teaches Chinese. What were you anticipating?"

Nicely put, to be honest, I wasn't entirely sure. I guess I had these visions of high-powered business meetings, a lot of funding pitches/presentations, demo days, conferences, print advertising, and employees. All that stuff still could happen, but it's going to be a while, and we're intentionally keeping things as small as possible for as long as possible to minimize overhead and managerial headaches.

Good idea on the front page too. We're actually A/B testing it right now. The current design is about 8 months old and we realized about 2 months ago that it was probably sucking hard.

I've never heard of CrazyEgg, but I actually just signed up for a $9/mo demo account.


There are a million non-programming things to do in a startup.

* Talk to schools/teachers to get them to try your software - especially study abroad programs.

* Reach out to Chinese community centers

* Write. Write for your blog, guest blog. Do everything you can to find people in your target audience.

* Learn SEO. Hunt down and win your keywords. This only takes time.

You don't have money for traditional marketing. And you are worried about having too much time. Fortunately non-traditional marketing takes much more time than money.


I really like Joel's point about reaching out to Chinese community centers. This gave me some good ideas for what you guys can do at Skritter so let me elaborate.

This is from a Chinese San Franciscan's perspective, so it maybe a little skewed. But there are lots and lots of parents who are worried that their kids are going to grow up to be illiterate. It's very common here for parents or grandparents to pay for Chinese language summer school for their kids or grand kids. One marketing/sales perspective is you could appeal to this demographic (the parents and grandparents of users). This would be one demographic where they will just pay for it and keep up recurring payments regardless of actual usage.

Chinese community centers are one place where you could reach them. Most of these organizations have websites now and contacts.

You could even try talking to some of these Chinese schools to see if they'll buy a few subscriptions.

One weakness that I do see in pursuing this route is you guys lack a Chinese version of your site. If you want to try to penetrate this demographic, you will need some marketing material in Chinese.

P.S.: Ugh, okay I hate to contradict myself in the same post but giving it even more thought I realizes that many Chinese kids not interested in learning Chinese. This misalignment of interests is probably not one that will cause the kind of word of mouth growth you are looking for. But could be worth a try if you've exhausted other ideas. Chinese communities are very tight knit, so any market penetration could have fast traction.


1) Find Deals - Find people who can resell what you have, promote what you have, etc. That's bizdev and sales.

2) Track any keyword possibly relating to you on Twitter, Google Blog Search, etc, and join in the conversation wherever you can without looking smarmy.

3) Design A/B tests. You sound geeky enough to change headlines, swap out images, etc. Figure out Google Analytics and Google Site Optimizer and start squeezing percentage points out of your funnel.

4) Blog and Tweet. Be a social media god.

5) Grok SEO. 95% of the work around SEO is linkbuilding. with low margins, SEO is your friend. Be amazing at it.

6) Go to conferences that might be appropriate (see #1).

7) SEM. Find google keywords you can buy and convert enough to justify the expense. Adwords is hard, but if you can optimize your way to a good ROI, it's gold. If necessary, find long tail keywords (I know companies that bid the minimum on 750,000 keywords and make a killing). Adwords is all about a conversion funnel-- plenty to learn there.

Your job is revenue enhancement. That means you have to live and breath your sales funnel. Acquisition, conversion, retention, virality. Make 5 cold phone calls a day to potential partners/resellers and then get busy testing/optimizing your funnel. (I actually did a presentation on this for a local startup group: Post and slides here: http://www.tonywright.com/2009/software-and-making-money-pre... )

If you can't make a full-time job out of building revenue for your company, go part time and negotiate a fair slice (15%?) for your P/T participation. But the above is enough non-menial work for 2-3 people.


I looked at your homepage and said out loud, "that is cool!"... great idea.

I think there's two main things you should focus on: 1. Working on business relationships (networking, finding potential partners or customers, customer support, etc.)

2. Miscellaneous busy work related to programming. A lot of the work involved in programming can be done by someone who can't program, if you're decently technical. Examples: Testing/QA (help maintain a bug list), research and compilation (finding or creating relevant databases or lists), seeking relevant forums online and posting to them, etc.

Also, you say that traditional marketing isn't going to have a positive ROI. You need to figure out what IS going to have a good ROI, and work on that!

Two suggestions about your website:

1. You need a pricing page on your website... I can't figure out how much your service costs after the free trial.

2. I'm glad you mention that any input device, such as a pen tablet, can be used. I think you should offer a page of suggested devices (and links to buy them -- get commission if you can) because it seems like that kind of investment is a no-brainer for someone who is serious about learning Chinese. Skype does/did that because Skype works much better for people with a good headset microphone. Similarly, someone is going to learn to write Chinese better if they can actually use a pen-like device while practicing.


Does seem to be a pricing page, http://www.skritter.com/pricing , maybe its new


I'm not sure if that's new, but I see the link only in the footer. That's an important page and belongs as one of the main top navigation pages.


"businesser" people can do marketing and user support. use google and twitter search to find people looking for what your product does, but don't know about your particular product. reply to them personally and try not to sound too spammy.

same for user support. reach out to your current users and find out what they like and don't like. gather feedback to deliver to your more techy partners who can do the actual implementation.


reply to them personally

Unless you are automating this (i.e. spamming), it isn't worth your time for their product. Do the math: how many people would you find per hour? How many would you contact, per hour? How many trial signups? How many convert to a paying plan? What is their ARPU? Of that, what is the margin?

I'm looking at their pricing table, and it suggests that a customer is likely to be worth less than $10 a month in profit to them, unless they are an institutional account.

Concentrate on stuff which scales out of proportion to time invested, or you're just buying yourself a low-skill low-value job.


This is a really valid concern. Right now it's really tempting to use my time inefficiently essentially building up unsustainable expectations from our user base. To be fair, I've given in many times, and I write personalized thank you cards to people who pay (we don't advertise that anywhere, so I can stop whenever it becomes unmanageable), but a lot of the things that I could be doing don't make a lot of sense when I run the numbers, which is frustrating. I see all these other businesses running huge adwords campaigns (we tried it, didn't get good ROI, we'll try again later, but not yet), hiring employees, moving into offices, managing payrolls, schmoozing with clients (something that's hard to do in rural Ohio) and generally doing things which the numbers say aren't a good use of my time.


Market your product using videos. Decent video production is hard to do, and takes a lot of time, but Google places relevant videos at the top of certain searches. It's easier to get on the first page of a video search than it is on the first page of a regular Google search.

Blog, blog, blog, blog. Google primarily indexes text for it's search. The more fresh, well written, original content the better. That being said, it will take months before you start to see that have a solid effect on your bottom line.

Find each and every single forum devoted to learning Chinese. Become a member on those forums and interact heavily. Build credibility on those sites by providing valuable interaction, and then feel free to post appropriate links to your software. A lot of forums let you have a link to your site in your sig. That can only help you in the long run. * disclaimer * I'm not suggesting spaming, I'm suggesting good, solid interaction. Geeks don't really use them that often, but normal people use forums quite a bit, and Google loves to index forums.

Connections. Email anyone and everyone that might be interested in your product. Develop relationships with people interested in learning Chinese. Find cross marketing opportunities. Read some business and marketing books, take those ideas and run with them.

Become a sales expert. Start reading books like crazy on sales and marketing. Your technical co founders are going to be working like crazy to get the software side of things up and running. Every idea that you can bring to the table is going to help them out, and make your product better.

Study usability like crazy. A lot of times, technical people can get really wrapped up in making something work. They can often get too close to the product to be able to see it objectively and relate to how a customer uses their product. They need to know what problems the customers are having with their products, and what is confusing to them. Help them do that.

Do usability studies. Find friends and neighbors that have never used your product, and get screen captures of them using your product, and video their facial interactions with them using your product. Meetup.com does this for every new iteration of their product.

Find new uses for Mechanical Turk with your product. You can do some amazing things with Mechanical Turk and a little HTML knowledge. Have Turkers test one or two specific aspects of your software, and get their feedback. Pass that on to your engineers. Manage A/B testing through Mechanical Turk.


Video is something we hadn't thought of, thanks for suggesting it. I'll do a proper ROI calculation and figure out how many uniques we'd have to get to make that worth our while. I also majored in Cinema Studies, and have a lot experience making videos, so it would be fun and easy for me to produce quality material, its just a question of recouping our costs.

We've been trying to ramp up the blogging recently, and it's good to know that it takes a while for it to affect pagerank. We were getting down because it hasn't given us a big quick boost. We're dedicated to continuing a lot of blogging though (most of which I'm doing now).

There are a few internet forums for this, and I'm a member, but I don't participate regularly, maybe I should change that.

Usability has been (pardon my French) a bitch. I thought I had a great UI eye when we first started. After 3 sitewide redesigns, 4 iterations of the vocabulary interface, and numerous leaky conversion steps later, I'm pretty humbled. Do you have any specific recommendations for UI reading? I pay attention to Nielson, I've read Landing Page Optimization, and Call to Action, but I'm only starting to put their lessons to use.


Usability has been (pardon my French) a bitch. I thought I had a great UI eye when we first started.

Usability is really hard to get right. And, companies like Apple spend a lot of money on usability and design. So, don't feel bad that it's hard.

I'd suggest letting Mechanical Turkers find usability problems for you. When I launched my social news site (now defunct), I asked Turkers to use my site, and post a comment if anything was confusing or could be streamlined. They gave me a lot of great feedback for $0.10 a piece. Turkers are surprisingly well educated and tech savvy. I use the service every time I can.


Or find `real' humans to test. You can recruit students or so.


Do you have any specific recommendations for UI reading?

You should read Don't Make Me Think if you haven't yet.


Second Krug's book. It's UI 101 and really well done. I used it as the textbook when I taught.


On a side note, I couldn't find how much your service costs, so I'm going to assume that I can't afford it.


Yeah, this is such a bummer to find something interesting but not have the site be upfront about costs. Bad mistake in my book. I will NEVER sign up for a free trial if I don't know what the paid version costs. Why waste my time?


Point taken. Our pricing is actually really cheap, between $6-11/mo for an account, and it's a lot less for institutions. We were torn about this, because we wanted the front page to be clean and clear (right now it's like a landfill of accumulated patches and additions, but take a look at http://www.skritter.com/frontB for a look at what we'd like to move to). Do you think that on a more simple homepage the pricing information distracts from a conversion goal, or encourages it?


Almost every online service I've seen has a "pricing" tab along the top. The prices don't need to be on the main page, but they should be easily discoverable. It seems suspicious to me when it's not there. My 2c.


Keep the animation. 10 seconds -- I knew what your website did, how it worked and why I would want it.


In a way, you're in a great position in which you can make a real difference to your business. While your partners have to go on every day with the same programming tasks, not always able to see how they make a difference in the immediate term, you get to wake up every day, consider what's the best thing to do right now to advance the business ... and do it. Sometimes it will mean working on funding, other times it will mean filling different roles for which you're not yet ready to hire an extra person (marketing, sales, user support). Sometimes it might even mean just getting out of the way and making life easier for the developers (someone needs to cook those ramen - make sure they're delicious).

I think the main problem you have (I can only imagine, I was never in that position myself) is that you need to remain very confident that you're pulling your weight. Do that by deciding to not worry about the division of labour and simply doing the absolute best you can all the time.


Thanks for the picker-upper. I've actually been personally emailed by one HN member to thank me for the frankness of this post, and responding to everyone has been very therapeutic. I'm the pessimist of the group (always have been), and I think you're probably right about the mentality being a big part of ongoing internal decisions about how to feel about my part in the company.


Your role is to figure out who wants to buy your product, and how your product can be more like what they want to buy. Hint: If you're not rich yet, you haven't answered this question correctly.

What's your story? Are you selling Chinese characters, or are you selling worldliness and adventure? Or time-saving? Or maybe profitability due to Chinese-reading employees? Hint: you started this as college students learning characters and thinking about ninjas. College students are poor. Business people who want the fastest way to learn something that makes them rich, are rich.

You need to be watching LOTS of other people use the product, and thinking every minute of every day about why your Skritter is actually a totally essential part of their lives. Hint: this means you're almost never in the office. So it's your job to find out what that is, and fix it.

Finally: Can I use it on an airplane? Language products that I can't use intensively on a flight to the country in question are a waste of time.


Thanks for the input. It's actually really frustrating to hear about the airplane use, because everyone and their mom wants an iPhone version, but Nick and Scott are seriously tapped out right now making features we've all agreed need to come before we can fork the code and get Nick learning objective C. Man, waiting for that really really bugs me. Everyone on the site right now wants the features we're developing, and our first mission at present is to please our current customers, but we could convert a lot better if only we had those kinds of nifty gadgets.

We'll be going back to Oberlin College this semester and doing in person testing with first year students and positioning is something we're struggling with.


Just get Adobe Air working. Doesn't have to be on an iPhone, just needs to work offline, and re-upload my progress. I study Japanese, but only on my way to Japan.

The flight takes 9 hours. So I bring my Casio e-dictionary with stylus and audio, and for 9 hours I intensively review JLPT words, sentences and kanji. By the time I land, I've regained about 90% of my abilities from the previous visit 6 months ago, and a sleep and then 2-3 more hours the following night get me back where I was.

But .. I have an Asus EeePC that lasts for 7.5 hours. Your product seems much more efficient for learning characters than my Casio. If I could use your product for 7.5 hours and learn as much as I get from the Casio in nine, that'd leave time for peanuts and a movie. So .. put it on Adobe Air (and get Japanese support!)


I think this is a phase all startups go through. Initially there are several roles, tech, business development and planning (project management).

During the execution phase the focus will shift, temporarily to tech and project management. But once you really start to take off business development comes back to the top, and if you play your cards right as a company it will stay that way, pretty much forever.

How long that phase starts is up to you, I'd use my 'idle hands' to get busy making as many contacts as you can with potential gateways to large number of users as well as the press. Eventually that will morph into a business development department, but right now that should be your role.

An important side effect of performing this function is to keep the tech department up to date with a steady stream of customer - and would be customer - feedback.


Thanks for the reinforcement. As I mentioned above, sometimes it really gets me down that Nick and Scott are blazing away at programming and I sort of have to wait for stuff to happen. I should talk to Nick about having me keep up with all his blogs. . .


I really like that website! I've had two pushed to learn Chinese which both failed. I think I will try Skritter for #3.

I coded in the very early days of my website and moved to the business side as we grew. Other HN users have posted big lists of good stuff. I want to say that you really have two big goals based on those lists:

1. Keep ONLY user feedback flowing to the coders and handle anything else that would otherwise fall to them. They are the engine of your company; respect that by keeping them healthy, focused and productive.

2. Find the next big source of growth for your company. As the business guy, although coders often contribute, this is really on you.

I've played around with the bulk of lists others have written in answer to your post. Here are the time intensive, low cash things that have worked for us:

a. SEO. The cheap place to start is long tail keywords that are highly targeted to your service. Make sure your H tags and falling paragraph content align with the terms you want. After that, you'll need inbound links from non-spammy website. $100 a month can from textlinkads can help. If you are too poor for that, you'll need to convince bloggers to write about you - and to use those long tail keywords. Hard but possible.

b. Newsletters. These are surprisingly effective, but they are also time consuming and require a "I am going to work this hard for 3 months" approach to gauge true results. There are a wide range of email service providers, from ConstantContact on up. Many will let you send a few freebies out, others will let you send always free under a certain limit. This is great if you have a small list. Shop around, call the owner of one, explain your situation and negotiate for a little more head room. Remember, they make money on volume, so if they can show you ROI free early, they'll win too.

My parting advice is, dig in. Give whatever you decide to try your full effort. At the start it will feel frustrating and ineffective. Let it snow ball. Come in with the mindset that "this will work" and "I will not let my company down by failing to make this work". Then it will.


Nicely written. Thanks also for synthesizing the above posts.

In response to 1), that's one of the reasons why we're trying to address this. Even if I'm passive, it bugs Nick and Scott to keep me occupied, and that's not fair to them. As you put it, they are the engines of the company and although I want to remain busy and productive, that goal doesn't preempt respecting them.

Regarding the SEO, I'm working on that. Our login system is currently being redone which is indirectly foiling our attempts to use Google A/B testing, but as soon as we are no longer splitting the site between two domains, that should be resolved and then I can start working the minutia of the site that hasn't had any attention paid to it.

I'm also working on a newsletter, which we had at first discounted, but everyone has told us that they're great for business, but as you said, they take a lot of sweat equity. Hearing it reiterated makes me more prone to dump the time in and actually do it.


Plus, if you take articles from the newsletter and archive them on your site, that becomes a great long-term SEO advantage, giving people even more ways to find your site from search engines.


Outreach and business development. I'm actually learning Chinese, so hearing about your site here was very useful for me and I just checked on chinese-forums.com (my other recent discovery) to see if the folks there have heard of you and what they think and I see that you've posted there and received good feedback. So I think you're on the right track. Have you looked at partnerships with other operations like italki, livemocha and chinesepod?


Heh Heh, you can actually check out our partnership announcement with ChinesePod at our blog (http://blog.skritter.com/2009/08/teaming-up-with-chinesepod....). Glad to hear you like it.


It's fabulous to have someone around who takes the noise away from projects so that I can focus on writing code, and since that's what I love to do I'll happily do it for 60 hours a week. I'm near the end of a three week holiday, and the two most relaxing days were the ones where I just sat down and hacked away on personal projects, without having to try and steer colleagues to good practice or deal with customers or deal with management or write project plans.


Well, I am just starting with YC and I just came up with a product. None of us, are programmers. At first, I wasn't looking for funding meant for software. Our product doesn't have to be software. I started to count myself out of the YC. But then I realized that my product can be in the form of software. So I am designing the software, but I am going to contract someone to write it. But it's a little more complicated that CS, so I have to contract everything technical. I don't feel bad about it. If I want to I can learn it, if need be. I don't have a degree, but my potential co- founders have a PHD and Masters, but they say I'm the genius.

I have taught myself everything online. HTML website design and a little flash and I play with digital 3D animation. I design every site I own. People pay me to design websites and I didn't finish school. Even in school my major was Mass Communications and Journalism, later Music Theater.

So, you are and economics major. That's awesome and very important after the product is finished. You will know how to market it to the economy, among other things you know.

You feel left out with the CS crew? I use to feel left out to every educated friend I have. But my abilities exceed paper and yours really exceeds your degree.

Keep your head up.


My business partner had this problem too and sold it. Once he stopped designing the site and explaining its features to me, he did SEO/SEM, paid Indians to bring up tiny sites doing tiny functions, did bug testing for me, and did all the marketing. Now he's bootstrapping with the other sites in order to bring in more cash for the marketing of our co-produced website.


Wow! Damn that's a cool website.

Sorry I don't have anything useful to add, just saying I wish I had that site around back when I was learning Chinese.


Thanks losvedir, we (of course) always like ot hear that we're creating value for people!


Mind if I asked a similar question, but in a quite different context?

So I'm working for an outsourcing startup which provides development services for startups. We're doing Agile development on RoR.

My eventual role would be a scrum master but my college major was international business. No SC background whatsoever.

At the moment I'm still in training and playing a role of a "front-end developer" in which I do all the HTML markup and CSS design in HAML and SASS.

My pair is a coder who handles all the back-end coding and so there's really inequality in our time spent.

What should I do to keep up with stuffs? A lack of CS foundation really prevents me from doing all the back-end stuffs but after a while I'm now able to comprehend most of the code.

Should I spend more time on stuffs like SEO, analytics, design, or invest more in RoR and tougher things? I'm still pondering over this everyday and I really hope you guys can share your opinion about this. :-)


Just learn some markup and CSS stuff, there's always plenty of that to do and most programmers I know would rather be writing code. The nice part about this is that it's pretty easy to pick up, a month or so and you'll be able to at least look-up anything you need to do.


Good idea here, I actually just talked to Scott, and I think I'm going to start taking over all the web implementation stuff. Up till now I produced a mockup and handed it off to him, but it would ease his workload substantially if I could carry a design from mockup to implementation.


Good stuff. A word of advice, leave the Javascript to the other dude for a while until you're 'seasoned' a little. Ugly Javascript is really ugly :)


I strongly recommend you read 'Four steps to the Epiphany' by Steve Blank. As a business focused founder, you need to be handling customer development - really going out there, talking to customers, understanding who is your core market, getting paying customers, validating this into a proper scalable business, and developing your company positioning. That's a LOT of work - but it's ESSENTIAL for the success of any company. I'm on my 3rd business, and the 2nd one crashed because I didn't understand this. No business exists in a vacuum - what your product-focused founders are doing is important, but your role in developing the customer understanding and scalable business model is equally so.


Take responsibility for revenue & profitability. This should be the #1 concern for at least one person in your team, sounds like you should take over this piece.

Quite simply assign a number you need to bring in for '09 -- that should keep you busy for 60+ hours a week.


I'd point you to two posts, the first is about a role I call "Everything But Code" http://jonsteinberg.com/post/67043520/everything-but-code

The second is an extension of the idea, which I call Hackable Business Development. http://jonsteinberg.com/post/170568831/hackable-business-dev...

You can also handle a lot of the product management and the interfacing and deals that can be built upon your API and those of prospective partners


Nice idea firstly, there's no question of the growing importance of Chinese language and culture especially.

In regards to your intial question, like others have mentioned, a team requires a variety of skills. I am too an economics grad. and whilst I can write some code, I think we can excel in business related issues like marketing for example.

With my current startup, I am working on business development issues like partnerships as well as finance, marketing etc. )In addition to writing code and designing the user interface.)


If you're ever out of things on your to-do list, you have a big one still left: make your site #1 for the search query "learn chinese".


If I were you, I'd spend lots of time talking to users, including sitting alongside them (virtually if necessary) as they use the product.

This is a great thread, and I applaud your attitude in searching for ways to add value. Most people would simply try to defend their existing position. If you apply any of these suggestions, you should post a follow-up in a couple of months.


That's not a bad idea gruseom, I hope that I can come back with excellent examples of all these ideas being put into practice.


You appear to have deeper problems than just finding work for a single non-technical person. Your app seems to be an example of an unworkable product idea that was a ton of fun for someone to code.


I disagree. It has a market. A small market, relatively speaking. But it's there.

From what I can see, the largest gap is lack of support for other languages.

To the OP: Seems obvious that you should know off the top of your head which western countries have the highest population of people learning Chinese as a second language. Why not order that list descending and then build sites in those native languages, one by one?

To answer your question, the obvious answer to me seems to be Network, Network, Network.

I've read some of the stuff you've posted here before and I remember (i think) about you having some University deals. Those are great. And I'm sure you'd agree that signing those deals is entirely about relationships and not about egalitarian ethos of the best way to educate. So make those relationships.

And another big thing, naturally, is corporate training. Chinese is now the most valuable second-language for American executives. And I'm sure it ranks high for European executives.

But a larger point is that I think to really get a toehold there would require a more comprehensive approach to learning the language. My guess is that an educator designing a corporate training program isn't going to want to design a program for 6-figure executives a'la carte.

So I would find a way to get my product in bed with complimentary products. And this, too, is about networking and relationships.

I think you're right that traditional marketing is not really going to work for you. As a casual observer, this market seems rather inelastic. And as far as I know, it's not as if you're just trying to snag share from a weaker product. You have to instead compete with the beliefs of people who are making decisions about how to teach Chinese. You have to compete with their beliefs about what works best.

I know this isn't the advice if you were going for. But really all you can do is be the best damn front man for your company that you've ever seen or even imagined. That is a skill you can sharpen, and it's a role that is every bit as valuable to a software company as the programmers themselves.

And one last thought in my grab-bag of a post... Have you thought about social integration somehow? Maybe like head-to-head competition between 2 friends, giving them symbols to draw and a countdown and a score? Random, but I thought of it when i was watching the video. And that video is the best thing on your site, by the way. Watching it is what convinced me that your product and concept isn't complete crap. Without that video I'd have up-voted the parent to this post and called it a day.


The number of people seriously studying Chinese outside China is tiny. Unless you can sell the product within the educational system, there's no market for it.

There are other issues with the demo (drawing characters on a laptop mousepad is very painful and slow compared to practicing on paper). But even the perfect app would struggle given the tiny market, and the fact that drilling characters with flash cards is a pretty good substitute.

I'm in my second year of studying Chinese and endlessly drilling hanzi, so I think I am somewhere in the target market for this thing.


Before posting I did a quick search and saw that Chinese was said to have about 200 Million "second language" speakers.

Clearly those aren't people inside China?

That was the extent of my "market research" and haven't claimed any authority on the subject, but my feeling was that the audience here would be smaller, but focused. If I'm serious about learning Chinese it's going to require such an investment of time that I wouldn't be shy about throwing some money at the problem if the CW held that this would be a good way to learn.

The demo impressed me. And in my head I made the connection to learning how to type.. I can learn just as well on a typewriter, but PC software can give me feedback and instruction that wouldn't be possible on a typewriter without an instructor watching over my shoulder.


Hey idlewords, since you are indeed in our target market and you didn't dig Skritter, would you mind sharing why exactly? Perhaps you could give us some information about how to make it better. Feel free to email me personally (george at skritter.com) or post here. And no need for censoring your response to polite banter. Maybe you just don't think it's a worthwhile service at all, but if you had some specific ideas, we'd be keen to hear 'em!


The basic problem is that it takes forever to draw any character using a laptop trackpad. If I could trace with finger on trackpad, or draw with my finger on a mobile device, I would consider evaluating the app further. But the massive slowness and discomfort of the input method is what throws me. It's like trying to write your signature with a mouse.


You should try to bundle or partner with a tablet maker like Wacom. Or get bulk discounts of their cheap 'bamboo' tablets and sell a package on your website.


We just finished getting the reseller license for this, actually, and plan to do exactly that once we can set the billing page up to support it. We do want to encourage people to buy and use them, because it makes them much better, so we were planning on selling them as cheaply as allowed; good idea?


Hey encoderer, thanks for spending the time to reply in such detail. I guess our demo video IS useful for something other than distracting people from our conversion actions!

That last bit about the gaming aspect has been a thought we've been entertaining for a while. We've actually thought about implementing it as a facebook app so that you can challenge people in facebook to character-offs. That would be sweet, but Nick hates the idea of programming a Facebook app. We'll see if I can't wear him down. :)


Become a programmer.


I wish. I tried that really hard in college, but I was terrible at it. Granted, they start off with Java at Oberlin (stupid in my opinion), but it wasn't the syntax that got me, it was the logic. So I scrapped that. If only my brain were more scientific!


I have been in a situation where this was the case: myself and another guy were the devs, and the non-programmer was the public face of the company: he did customer service, marketing, PR, specs, QA, research -- pretty much anything that we didn't have time to do. Once we got up to a significant amount of users he became overwhelmed so we hired more business people. OR you could use that time to learn how to program.


It's great to know that someone else has experienced this, and hopefully I'll have the same problem you're business partner did! Sometimes its really frustrating and downcasting to feel less valuable than my partners because I can't be constantly programming. Thanks for sharing this.




It would seem we have some competition. We welcome it, hopefully it'll make use better!


Using MySQL and WordPress for the startup? Not necessarily :)


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