The Bare Minimum

…tech skills that every entrepreneur needs to succeed

This article has been reposted from Alex’s personal blog at alexpear.com. It is part 1 of a series of posts about basic tech skills in the workplace.

A recent trend in the world of outdoor adventuring is the idea of Ultralight Backpacking. It’s the art of venturing into the unknown with the barest of essentials, maximizing the usefulness of every piece of one’s kit, and creatively adapting to situations as they arrive rather than packing a cumbersome or heavy tool for each possible emergency. This bare-bones approach should sound familiar to the entrepreneur or small business owner: How should we allocate funds? Where should I spend my time? Which products are best built in-house and which needs are best met by third-party solutions?

This got me thinking about the “Ultralight” kit of the modern entrepreneur. What is the minimum skillset that every entrepreneur should develop before they start a business? What pieces of knowledge or expertise should be a part of their kit when they hit the winding trail of business ownership? Some of these skills are obvious: basic accounting, ‘networking’, time-management, public speaking, and so forth. But in this post, and forever and always, I’m going to add a set of skills that might be more controversial. I’m talking about tech literacy, and specifically, understanding the following, listed in order of importance (IMHO):

  • HTML
  • basic CSS (especially in-lined styles)
  • basic web hosting management (DNS, FTP, SSH, and SSL)
  • programmatic thinking (as taught through imperative or functional programming languages)

For most non-technical business owners, that’s probably a surprising amount of technical baggage (if we’re continuing the backpacking metaphor). To make this list even more provocative, I’d add the caveat that this is, in my opinion, the barest of minimums for the modern business owner, before any customers are acquired, products prototyped, or hires made. There are, of course, many tech skills that I could have chosen to highlight, but these are the workhorses that will get you your first website (at the lowest possible cost), blog posts to drive traffic to that site, your first email and social media campaign through Emma or MailChimp, basic automation through tools like Zapier or IFTTT, and secure processing for your first online payment portal. These aren’t just luxuries for your new business; these are the foundational tools, the lifeblood of your fledgling venture. And as a responsible founder, you should have a hand in them!

Post-launch, I would also add the following skills:

  • remote project management (for outsourced technical talent)
  • technical hire vetting (through GitHub or other portfolio work)
  • understanding of the modern development process

And this is not a skillset reserved for the ‘technical co-founder’. This is the skillset for the non-technical CEO. It doesn’t matter if you’re in charge of a lumber company, a quilt shop, or a mobile application development team: you will, at some point, need to manage hire or manage some form of technical talent. More importantly, it’s more and more likely that your employees and customers will be part of a generation that interacts with others primarily through web-based tech, and that tends to be frustrated by inefficient use of technology in both the workplace and the marketplace. That means communication, marketing, distribution, payment, and sales will all depend heavily on web technologies. All businesses, but especially new businesses, will have to adapt quickly or fail spectacularly.

Realistically, learning HTML, CSS, DNS, FTP, and basic programming can be daunting for the non-tech-savvy self-starter. It can take months (or years) to develop some of these skills. But I would argue that these skills ought to have been taught to us as middle-schoolers, and it’s up to business owners today to close the gap between the needs of the modern business world and the education that we may or may not have received in more formal settings. This shouldn’t be a terribly foreign concept; schools rarely teach personal finance, networking skills, or product prototyping, and so it is the responsibility of every entrepreneur to learn these things on their own. I would argue that the tech skills listed above are worthy of just as much time and effort outside of formal schooling as the other essential elements of the entrepreneur’s toolkit.

Another way of thinking about this argument is in the form of 4 basic premises:

  1. Every company is a tech company. More specifically, every company depends on web technologies to survive and thrive. Even in seemingly non-technical fields, web-based applications are critical to the success of a company.
  2. Every entrepreneur should be familiar with each of the critical components of their company. Large companies may have the luxury (for now) of propping up the tech-illiterate through specialization. Small businesses and their owners don’t have that luxury.
  3. Knowing these tech skills nets immediate returns. Knowing these tech basics will save you thousands as a business owner within your first year of business.
  4. Knowing these tech skills nets lasting returns. The tech-savvy will always be more productive, efficient, and responsive than their less technical competitors, and the results will show up in their business’s balance sheets.

Assuming the above premises are true, then the idea that self-starters need these specific tech skills should be fairly obvious. But if you need more convincing, we’ll go through each of these premises in parts 2-5 of this ongoing series on tech skills in the workplace.

Disagree with me? Post it to the comments! But most of all, best of luck with your own trek towards a thriving venture.