On being a proud non-technical founder

I was called out in a recent commentary on the YC Female Founders conference, so I thought it'd be wise to bring some evidence to the discussion:
Then there was Jessica Livingston’s keynote itself… Oh Boy. There was one point where she told us ‘when you’re the nontechnical cofounder, your job is everything that’s nontechnical’ including grocery shopping and errand running. I don’t know why this comment struck me as odd … maybe it’s because the only people I know who identify themselves specifically as “nontechnical cofounders” are women. Male cofounders rarely volunteer that information or qualify themselves that way. Every time I hear Alexis Ohanian speak he is the cofounder of Reddit, as if he wrote every line of code himself. To get a male founder to admit he doesn’t write the code his startup depends on you have to twist his arm. With a female founder it’s the second sentence out of her mouth. As if to say “PS - don’t take me seriously”
You'd be hard pressed to actually find one time where I made it sound like I "wrote every line of code myself."
In my book, Without Their Permission, pg 60:

Steve and I would have brainstorming sessions with pens and notebooks, which I’d take to PaintShop Pro 5.0 so that I could mock up designs and layouts, sometimes even for random ideas that had no chance of coming to fruition anytime soon. We only had one developer, of course, and that was Steve, who was responsible for everything technical. Thanks to him, those pixels I doodled actually became something useful.  

and on page 110:

Long before the glorious day of our acquisition, we were just grateful that Y Combinator had let us into their exclusive program after a dramatic rejection. This program, with Paul at the helm, was oriented toward key developers, who really do have all the leverage in this industry. I was one of only two “nontechnical founders” in the program. Despite having programming experience in high school and college, I was devoting my time to doing “everything else” at the company, though that assertion was met with quite a bit of skepticism. A running joke that Steve had to endure at Y Combinator meetings was “What does Alexis do?” One of the advisers in the program even overheard me speaking German (I’m proficient, thanks to my mother) and remarked to Steve, “Alexis sounds much more intelligent in German.”

I didn’t think I sounded that dumb in English. Fortunately, as a guy who grew up with the name Alexis, I quickly learned that it’s those with the lowest self-confidence who belittle and bully other people. When it comes to put-downs, I ran out of “fucks” to give back in grade school, so now I just embrace it.

I don't expect everyone to have read my book, though, so I took a minute to search "alexis ohanian nontechnical" and found pages of results -- here are a few from my recent speaking tour and interviews:
Here it is in an interview I did with Lambdaphant. I declare myself one comment on my book chapter excerpt on fourhourworkweek.com. It was a common theme during my 200-stop book tour, here's a few instances in interviews from my Syracuse University and University of Waterloo Without Their Permission book events.

In fact, it's even in my linkedin profile.

I'm not sure I can make it more clear: I'm a proud nontechnical founder, but that means a lot more work if you want to be valuable to an early stage tech startup. The reason I've gone across this country encouraging people to code is because in the internet age, makers have all the power.

Jessica is absolutely right when she says "when you’re the nontechnical cofounder, your job is everything that’s nontechnical’ including grocery shopping and errand running" and it's the same advice I've given for years and especially in the last five months on tour, using myself + Steve in founding reddit as a casestudy. 
28 responses
It's a spectrum, and the label you give yourself, or someone else, depends on who you've partnered up with for a particular project and how motivated you are to get it done. Some projects that I work on, I am the technical half, pulling out my dusty PHP skills and learning what I need to get a prototype built. On other projects with better coders, I am the "everything else" guy, but I still make the effort to educate myself about the tech behind the product , so that I can explain it to someone. If you're someone who wants to build something, you'll do what you need to to get it built.
In any project I've worked on, having that "non-technical" person there can be invaluable. As the developer, you might make assumptions about how your audience will perceive and use your product that just aren't accurate. Having someone there to go "so.. why is this button over here?" or "why is it so difficult to get to this page?" can make or break your site in terms of user experience. I really hope people aren't underestimating the power of a "non-technical" eye.
Do you regret not learning coding? Do you know coding now? What advice would you give someone in a similar place starting "now"?
I've been curious about how you then go about deciding how to distribute income in cases where roles aren't detailed. For example, why does Charlie Watts (technical) get paid less than Mick Jagger (non-technical)? Who is really essential for the band? I'd argue both should get paid equal ... that it is the energy that comes with the bonds that is the most lucrative - not the individual. In this case who is more essential, or who gets paid more, the non-technical person (Alexis) or the technical (Steve)? How in the early stages of a company do you talk about this?
So as the author of the original post in question, I want to point out that reference was in no way intended as a "call out" or a put down of nontechnical cofounders. Quite the opposite actually! I used you as an example because I knew you were a nontechnical cofounder that the hacker crowd respects. I was not the one who implied that nontechnical cofounders are less valuable than technical ones, Jessica was. She repeatedly talked about how unqualified she was to start YC. No one could possibly have been less qualified than her. These were her exact words. Why? Because she wasn't a hacker? Why is someone with investment banking experience, who is smart and well connected enough to secure interviews with some of the top luminaries in tech for her book not qualified to start an investment company whose principle advantage to the companies it invests in are the connections it can easily facilitate? Yes, I found it disturbing that a smart, accomplished woman thought it was inspiring to repeatedly diminish her accomplishments and put herself down on stage in front of 300 women vulnerable to the same sort of "I don't deserve to be here" thinking. I'm not sure why this critique got interpreted as 1) an attack on Jessica in need of defense or 2) a criticism of either you or nontechnical cofounders in general. I was merely pointing out that Jessica's style of telling her story (repeatedly downplaying her experience, credentials and accomplishments) is extremely common among women and contributes to the reason why we are not taken seriously. By-in-large MEN DON'T DO THIS. Yes, you are honest about the fact that you were the nontechnical cofounder. But you do not go "...well I was just the nontechnical cofounder" when someone singles you out for praise regarding Reddit's significance. There's a HUGE difference between those two things.
Hi Marianne, This is Elli, Co-Founder at HireArt. I was one of the speakers at the conference. Two notes: 1. It's important for women to hear someone successful talk about their own insecurities and self-doubts. We all assume that someone as accomplished as Jessica must always have know that she was amazing. But her talk lets us in on the fact that she too struggled immensely with her own fears and insecurities. It lets us know that when we have self-doubts, we're not alone. I had dozens of women come up to me after the talk and tell me how important it was to them to hear that it's hard for everyone, not just them. 2. Non-technical co-founders do do everything (I can attest to that myself). But many first time founders don't quite understand what goes into building a start-up. It's important for them to hear that menial tasks like running errands and delivering ACs are part and parcel. You can't build a start-up if the founders think they're "too good" to do that stuff. And yes, when the technical co-founder is building something and you're not able to help, you better be out there doing whatever it takes to make your users happy, acquire more of them or make a better team.
Hey Elli, 1. True. Except if we never actually got to the part about being successful. Contrast it to Jessica Mah's talk which in my opinion accomplished what you're describing. She went from depression and doubt to ultimately figuring sh*t out and optimism. By contrast Jessica transitioned from doubts and insecurities to "don't be afraid to be ignored" and this slightly awkward aside about dating/marrying your cofounder. So we never really get to the "how I overcame all this self doubt to become successful" message... we get something that sounds weirdly like "well I just gave up on myself and thanked my lucky stars I married a smart man" Granted I don't actually believe that's what Jessica believes about herself or what she intended to say ... if I did I would have gone after her much much harder for it. But just as Jessica has a right to tell her story the way she wants to, I have a right to my reaction, which was "wow, this is depressing" I actually would have really liked to hear her talk more openly about marrying your cofounder. That would have (to me) have been a really compelling story. As a female founder with a male cofounder we're constantly being asked if we're dating/married/etc and when we say no there's always this wink-nod from people as if "yes... I know why you're keeping that a secret" This is something that has negatively affected our relationship, no question. It would have been so powerful to hear Jessica talk honestly about that, because I think what she had to say here actually *was* empowering. She just didn't give herself enough time and space to say it. 2. As a result of conversations on Twitter about this, I've decided the term "nontechnical cofounder" itself is complete bullshit. Since when do people define themselves by what they DON'T do in an organization? I don't go around calling myself the "nonbizdev cofounder" or the "nondesigner cofounder". People would look at me like I had three heads.
@Marianne: YES. To your original article and your replies here. @Elli There IS a difference between saying something like "although I had investment and other experience, I was sometimes insecure about X, even today I am overlooked, but I maintain by" vs "I was/am sometimes insecure about X" which unconsciously communicates that you're not worthy of and/or landed into your current role by luck/marrying right.
Hi Alexis! It's Maria from Miami! Greetings. What the heck is wrong with this industry? While I understand that the role of women is challenged in *many* industries -- not just tech -- why is anyone even questioning being a non-technical founder? That is just ridiculous! Every enterprise has several cooks in the kitchen. You know, like Noah was the non-technical found of the ark, but he probably hired carpenters, LOL. And Rome wasn't built in a day and certainly not by one person. OMG could I use more cliché phrases? I am working on building an app for caregivers and I PROUDLY declare myself a non-technical founder. Nothing wrong with that. I just don't want to deal with the coding part and that's OK, because it's time consuming to be an ambassador/evangelist for your project. I just don't care to wear so many hats. I don't know, maybe I'm missing something, but is this a first world problem?
Alexis, if you haven't seen this yet, here's a great documentary about Industrial Light and Magic, which shows perfectly well how a team works together with both non-technical and "technical" people. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1657302/
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