/ Entrepreneurship

Some current reading picks and tips for tech founders

By Peter A. McKay

I've recently stumbled across a couple of those rare sort of items on the web that you immediately want to share with hair-on-fire urgency. In particular, I think these are useful for early-stage tech entrepreneurs, covering some reaaaallly frequently asked questions. So here goes:

The first comes (indirectly) from a tech conference I attended last week at Oakland's Kapor Center, which works to diversify the tech industry. In the event's opening session, entrepreneur and ex-Microsoft marketer Tara Reed gave a great talk on "apps without code."

I don't believe there's video available of Reed's Kapor session per se, but I found a YouTube video of her giving essentially the same talk recently at another Bay Area event sponsored by Google. This is from early March, so she really hasn't changed much since then:

"Apps without code" is Reed's catchphrase for apps made using what developers call WYSIWIG tools. As in, "what you see is what you get." These are all drag-and-drop tools -- most of them web-based -- that non-technical folks can create websites or apps without mucking around with the actual syntax of JavaScript or PHP or some other inscrutable geekery.

If you've ever made a web page with a tool like WordPress, you get the general idea. But Reed's rundown goes waaaaaaay more in-depth, with picks that put all sorts of additional programatic juice at the disposal of non-engineers.

For the record, as any hard-core developer would tell you, the WYSIWYG tools Reed mentions all do in fact generate code on an automated basis "under the hood" of anything they create. So there technically still isn't any such thing as an "app without code." But this is a quibble, ultimately. Reed's broader point -- that you can make apps without having to touch and troubleshoot the code yourself -- is what's crucial.

This is an issue that comes up all... the... frickin'... time... with non-technical founders who have some hot idea they'd like to bring into the world. I know I get asked about it a lot by other entrepreneurs, as someone who's both used WYSIWIG tools and written some code the old-fashioned way on past projects.

Reed's presentation gave me a much-needed refresher on the WYSIWIG piece, opening my eyes to some capabilities that have just recently been opened up in this space. (Her Twitter clone, generated entirely with WYSIWYG tools, was flat-out uncanny.) Whenever a non-techncal founder asks me about this subject again, my go-to response will be to refer them to Tara's presentations and/or encourage them to connect with her directly.

Perhaps ironically, after getting some pretty good development advice from a marketer last week, I immediately came across some great general management advice for startups from a developer.

Writing for TechCrunch, Daniel Tawfik gave his skeptical take on "the four-hour workweek mindset."

He starts by lamenting a certain sort of slogan-spouting person found working at the periphery of the tech industry:

The most blatant example of this are some of the disciples of the 4-Hour Workweek, by Tim Ferriss. The book itself is not really the issue. Ferriss indeed outlines some interesting tips on managing resources to get the highest ROI on your work. What is objectionable, however, is the hack-your-way-to-success mentality it has spawned in entrepreneurial circles.

It’s a mindset that is antithetical to everything I know about entrepreneurship; a mindset that I see when I hear people talk about having an amazing idea that they want to farm out to a young college student who can code, or outsourcing development of a product to a cheap dev house....

What is missed in all of this is the mindset of craftsmanship; that one’s expertise and deliberate focus on one’s craft is actually the primary driver for success — and not some crapshoot of a series of hacks.

As a big fan of Ferriss's work myself, including his podcast, my hunch is he'd probably endorse a lot of Tawfik's recommendation. As Tawfik himself points out, his real quarrel is with Ferriss's legion of disciples, some of whom have clearly truncated and twisted the sensei's ideas in ways he never intended.

Unfortunately, having lived almost four years in the Bay Area myself, I think this is somewhat endemic to the hype machine out here. Once an idea gets put through that, like a meat grinder, it can come out the end other looking quite different indeed. (The same often holds true within the subculture of Wall Street, which I also have a deep familiarity with.)

For an even grander example, check out the 2015 article that renowned Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen co-authored gently rebuking certain fans of his pioneering theory of disruptive innovation.

Christensen originally laid out his idea in his classic mid-1990s management book The Innovator's Dilemma. I'd say that one is also still very much worth a read, by the way, with many lessons that still apply to the world around us.

Most of the ink everyone else has spilled on "disruption" since, often using it purely as a buzzword for whatever investment or company they're coincidentally involved in at the moment, can safely be ignored.

Peter A. McKay

Peter A. McKay

Peter A. McKay, a news technologist based in Northern California, is founder of Indizr. He is a former prize-winning reporter at the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post.

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