How I survived being a non-technical founder and CEO of a SaaS business

Daniel Marcus
5 min readNov 20, 2020

Written for non-technical people in tech businesses

“How am I supposed to know the unknown when I am a non-technical founder, and should I know these things?” a question asked by a mentee I am working with when discussing my understanding of the technical and product arms of our business.

For context (and not a shameless product punt), I’m Dan Marcus, Founder, and CEO of Magnetic Software recently acquired by Silversoft. We help agencies become more profitable by providing actionable insight into their business data, and we do this through our SaaS workflow platform.

I’ve been a non-technical CEO for the past 10 years, and up until our acquisition, worked alongside my founding partners Korak Kuhnert (CTO) and Jan Pickard (CPO), who both come with many years of product and technical experience.

Overcoming feeling isolated

In the early days, having zero technical experience, I felt extremely isolated, and often out of the loop in our management meetings, unable to provide real value to what would be the backbone of our business, our product. Ok, who am I kidding, the early days, meaning there were just 3 of us, so management meetings were every day chats about world domination. You know the saying, there are x100k companies in the world who could use us, if we get 0.00001% we are billionaires, easy….sure!

I quickly realised, that if I was going to succeed in leading the business, I needed to have enough insight into Jan and Korak’s worlds, so that I could at least hold a conversation and understand what they were talking about when words like sprint, commit, java, sql and so on were thrown around.

To ramp up my knowledge, I started by taking on the project of building our first go-to-market website on WordPress. This was pre all the wonderful drag and drop templates, so it took some time to get going, harassing Korak daily on various CSS elements, but in time and with trial and error, I got it right. I started and continue (when I can) to join our tech team stand-ups and ask all the dumb questions to ensure I understand at a high-level what they are talking about.

Having this knowledge empowers me to be able to make educated decisions and support development and product discussions at a board level.

If you don’t know tech, then don’t pretend you do

“Can you just change this to that?”
“I’m sure this is a quick fix”
“I don’t understand why this is taking so long”

If you’re reading this, then you are definitely guilty of the above. I know I have been, many times over. In case you don’t know, let me be the first to tell you, there is no quick fix/change in development. Every change big or small requires an engineer to consider the impact it will have throughout the rest of your app/product/platform. Then coding needs to happen. Then testing. Then some more coding and more testing before it is ready to go live.

It took me a good number of years to truly understand the impact of every request, as being client facing naturally, I want things to happen quickly so I can make the client happy.

I spent considerable time with my team to help understand their processes and all that went into the development of Magnetic. This gave me enough knowledge to engage with our clients and act as a first-line defence before bombarding our dev team with new client requests.

Having this insight helps me provide our team with a fresh pair of eyes from an outside point of view when sitting in on standups.

Tip: As a tech startup, it’s very easy to get stuck into a vicious cycle of saying “Yes” to every client request. The sooner you learn to say “No” and focus on your core reason for building your product, the better. Don’t get me wrong, client feedback is imperative to your success, but not every request will lead to a better product, and if your vision is clear, your clients will understand why you sometimes need to say no.

Understand, but don’t be the guru

It is possible to run a SaaS business without being the one developing the product. It is important to understand what goes into the tech in order to make your product function the way you envisaged it to, but you don’t have to be the jack of all trades — ensure you have the right team, who trusts each other to make the right decisions in line with your business strategy.

I’ve always found not being the most technically proficient in the team an advantage. It allows me to focus on the greater plans for the business and product from an ideas angle while my partners use their technical problem solving skills to come up with the best approach in solving the challenges we want to build for.

What I wish I knew before I started

  1. Speak to your CTO / head of product, or just do some general research on a development process, and understand what needs to happen from idea to scoping to sprints to developing to bring a product to life. This will be invaluable in high-level discussions with partners/CTO’s/board members/shareholders etc.
  2. Know the tech stack your platform is built on, what it means, and how it enables your technology to scale. This is often asked in sales pitches, and you don’t want to have to say “let me get back to you”
  3. Sit in on a few weekly dev standup’s — this will help you understand what goes on in a developers world, and importantly, help you get a grasp for how your product is actually built
  4. If you are just starting out, make sure you hire/partner with an experienced and solid CTO who shares your vision
  5. Pay attention to your development team, no matter how junior they are. Developers are incredible problem solvers, and there is a ton of insight to be gained just by having 1–1 sessions with the team

--

--

Daniel Marcus

I have a passion to grow the industries I focus on, and give young aspiring entrepreneurs & startups knowledge from my past and present experiences.