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“Want to start a tech / web business? Please, please learn to code first.” by @domjackman

I started Escape the City with Rob over three years ago now. Before this I was a Management Consultant with an interest in technology.

For the past 3 years we’ve been spreading the ‘do something different’ vibe by building a global online tribe at www.escapethecity.org.

I spend my days as product manager (responsible for the website) and before now I didn’t know how to code.

Biggest founder lesson learnt to date…

If you are considering escaping your corporate job and starting an online business please, please do one thing as you start out.

LEARN TO CODE!!

It will save you money, make you immeasurably more valuable and ultimately make success (in a world full of risk) a lot more attainable.

After 3 years of working with 18+ developers and releasing countless updates to our various sites, I am learning to code. I can’t believe its taken me this long.  I am now on a crusade to encourage anyone who is on or contemplating the same journey, to learn to code.

[I also think that the most painless way to get started is to enroll on a week long course at Steer.me. NOTE: Esc doesn’t get any affiliate fees from this course! I just think its great.]

Rik Lomas teaching us to code

Rik Lomas teaching us to code

Why learn to code?

There are countless reasons but these are my top 3.

1) You won’t have to pay yourself (and developers are expensive)

If you have a computer and coding skills, creating an online startup these days is virtually free. Non—technical folk have to find someone else to do it for them and developers are not cheap. Freelancers range anywhere from £20/hr to £50/hr for a good one and take my word, good ones are worth x10 mediocre ones.

As with any new business, revenue in an online startup comes after you’ve built your product. This makes bootstrapping your business hard. So, if you’re not going to build your platform yourself, where do you get the money to pay someone else to do it?

This is tricky. Sources of cash include self-funding via savings / friends and family / external investment. All of which are a headache and in an ideal world you want to avoid. My recommendation? Build v1 yourself!

2) You’ll be able to speak the language if you bring in developers

Even if you don’t end up coding the whole thing yourself, being able to speak the language to the developers that you end up hiring is invaluable  They will respect you more, not take advantage and it won’t be a case of the blind leading the sighted and the sighted ultimately getting frustrated.

3) You’ll know what is within the realm of possibility…

…and, from this, knowing how to prioritise features.

Success in online startup depends on how quickly you can validate your learning (i.e. get a product out to people and see if it resonates with them).

Doing this is a case of prioritising the million different ways in which your idea can be implemented and then figuring out a way to learn which will work.

To do this you need to know what it actually takes to build stuff. Not just a vague idea, an intimate knowledge of what it is actually going to take.

And to be able to do this you need to have done it yourself!

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For me, knowing what is possible, is the biggest learning I took from the course at steer.me. We built 4 very different websites in a single week.

We coded each from the ground up, step by step. It was not hard to follow, very logical and my mum could have done it (hi mum).

Knowing exactly (not just ‘roughly’) what is involved is so important when it comes to either doing it yourself or asking a developer to do it for you.

Important so people don’t bull sh** you.

Important so you, as the product visionary, can decide on what to do next.

Learning to code at Steer

What else did I learn from the course?

You can do a lot very quickly with Ruby on Rails

Context: There are lots of programming languages out there and Ruby is just one of them. I’m not going to go into the merits of ‘why Ruby on Rails’ and its not something to get hung up on but the important thing to note is how unbelievably quickly you can build a totally custom site with Ruby on Rails.

Take Medium.com for example. A business worth £Ms. We recreated the functionality of this site with enhanced features in less than 1 day. One day for a complete beginner following an expert to show you how all the individual features are built.

Day 2. We built a basic version of Basecamp. No styling – took us a day…

…and so on.

Doing this course you quickly realise that it doesn’t take long to build stuff and it’s a case of things take hours / days rather than weeks / months.

It is then you’ll realise how powerful this knowledge is. All those previous ideas you’d had for businesses start flooding back as you realise anything is possible.

How to get started?

I think a week-long intensive intro course is the best way to get started.

Sure you can signup to treehouse.com or codeacdemy.com and learn by yourself but going offline and getting someone to explain things and answer your questions is crucial. Plus you get someone to do set up your coding environment on your computer and you always have someone on hand to trouble shoot when things inevitably go wrong. I also think its better than spreading the learning over a 10 week period. You learn a lot in a short space of time.

Why Steer.me?

Please note we really do not get commissions from Steer! I just think that their passion for teaching people to code is brilliant. Rik Lomas, the instructor, is one of London’s hottest developers, is patient and makes learning to code a joy. I honestly think anyone can do this course as previous coding knowledge is not a prerequisite. That said, it’s also good for anyone with existing knowledge to brush up their skills and develop best practice.

Which course is best?

In my opinion, the backend ruby on rails one is the one to do. That’s where non technical founders (Product Managers) need to have intimate understanding of the processes involved. People may argue that the Frontend Web Development course is a good place to start but I think that is something you can pick up later once you have the understanding of what goes on under the hood.

Will I actually be able to code my site when I finish?

Yes – although you won’t be an expert. As with any language it requires practice. I have now got myself a treehouse subscription and am reaffirming what I’ve learnt at the same time as building my own app. The great thing is if you get stuck after the course, Steer run drop in sessions where you can get help.

Final thoughts…

Most people harbour ambitions for a startup until they realize the tech involved is too much of a blocker and the idea quickly gets shelved. Rob and I almost did the same when we started, but decided to charge on regardless!

The road for non-technical founders is SO much harder. Please take my advice and make it easier for yourself. Do not be afraid of learning to code.

Yes it will take time, yes there is an initial outlay of money (and time) but it is a heck of a lot cheaper in the long run than all the mistakes that I guarantee you’ll make. £1500 is the equivalent of just 30 hours with a good developer (and you will easily save this in the long run).

Please learn to code!

Then go start something amazing with your newfound powers…

@domjackman

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If you want to receive Escape the City blog posts directly into your inbox just click here. We write about leaving big corporates, pursuing alternative careers, building businesses, and going on big adventures. The Escape team are hard at work over on the main site building Escape Profiles that help people make big career changes.

  • Charley Darbishire

    I completely agree with this. Before starting Educake (www.educake.co.uk), I taught myself basic coding, even though I hired developers. You’ve got to be able to understand what you’re asking for. And now I can do the front end and much of the back end changes, it means it’s cheaper, and Educake can move faster.

  • Alex L
  • Niki

    Couldn’t agree more!

    I borrowed a friends copy of Dreamweaver, downloaded a few free CSS templates off the web and basically spent a few days pulling them to bits and creating something new. (You can download a free 30 day trial of Dreamweaver from Adobe – more than enough time). You will be amazed how satisfying it is to design your own website and publish it. It’s improved my knowledge of working with developers and saved us loads because I can just go ahead and make changes to the site.

    It also helps you avoid getting ripped off. There’s nothing worse than being billed loads for a simple text or image change when it would have taken you five minutes.

  • Lola Askarova

    great post! i am now seriously considering doing it. i am not in the UK currently, otherwise would have given steer guys a go, but will see what’s possible.

  • Lola Askarova

    great post! i am now seriously considering doing it. i am not in the UK currently, otherwise would have given steer guys a go, but will see what’s possible.

  • meee

    Anyone got a hot tip for a good course in Berlin?

  • Toby Sims

    @meee Keep an eye on General Assembly (generalassemb.ly), I think they are opening shop in Berlin soon. Great bunch. Just done their 3 month full time course.

  • Jerry

    Something I probably would not have done without reading such an article. Very practical, and the satisfaction of knowing and doing it yourself must be immense. Thank you.

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