200. Five lessons from building Tech for Non-Techies

business strategy career strategy founderstories innovation Apr 24, 2024

Five years ago, I was selling tickets to my classes for $20 on Eventbrite, and today, my company works with governments, corporates and successful leaders around the world.

I have taught my course at London Business School, Oxford and Techstars and written for the Harvard Business Review.

On this anniversary episode, I’m going to share how I built Tech for Non-Techies, and the entrepreneurial lessons I learnt along the way.

Listen to learn:

  • How TFNT went from $20 ticket sales to six figure corporate contracts
  • What to do now if you want to build a venture
  • How to scale without investor funding
  • The difference between success and failure that you won't learn at business school

Resources mentioned in this episode:

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Episode Transcript

Hello smart people!

How are you today?

I am brimming with excitement right now, for two reasons:

  1. tomorrow I am going to Barcelona! I’m going to teach a class there on tech for non-technical founders, at an event organised by a VC fund called Quo Vadis. This is cool from a professional standpoint, but have you been to Barcelona? It is truly one of the world’s most amazing cities, so put it on your bucket list.

And another reason why I’m excited is that this is episode 200 of the Tech for Non-Techies podcast. Oh my god. This means, that I have created an episode every week for 200 weeks, and that’s almost four years.

For those of you who have been with me from the start - thank you.

And for those of you who joined me recently - thank you to you too! I love to see our community grow and every single one of you matters to me, because we are doing something great together.

By listening to this, you are investing in your own success, and by making this for you, I am investing in mine. This is a symbiotic relationship and it’s a beautiful thing.

And if you you’ve been enjoying this show, how about an anniversary present? And by that I mean - how about leaving this show a rating and a review on Apple or on Spotify? It would really make my day to hear from you, and you would be doing a good thing, so you can feel warm and fuzzy about yourself all day. Thank you in advance.

In this episode, we are going to have something different to the usual programming. To celebrate this anniversary, I am going to tell you about how Tech for Non-Techies evolved as a company: from inception to today.

And then, I’m going to share five entrepreneurial lessons I learned along the way. So this episode is going to be especially useful for entrepreneurs and people who work with entrepreneurs, like the investors, bankers and lawyers.

But, I really think that having an entrepreneurial attitude is useful in your career, because jobs for life aren’t really a thing anymore. And, when you get to the upper echelons of a corporate, you have to be entrepreneurial to succeed.

For example, if you’re partner in a law firm or in a consultancy, you have to bring in your own clients and manage your own P&L, so the more you learn to think like a founder, the easier that transformation will be.

Let’s start with a summary of how I built Tech for Non-Techies:

There are basically four phases to the company so far, which have taken me from selling $20 tickets to my classes on Eventbrite, to working with major corporates and governments around the world today, and charging a lot more.

I formally registered the company on the 9th of March 2020, so it has officially existed for just over four years. And I started the podcast in June 2020, so the podcast and the company are almost the same age, and you can actually hear the evolution of the company and me as a business woman throughout these episodes.

But unofficially, Tech for Non-Techies has been around for a bit longer. It was conceived as an idea when I was running my first tech company: Enty.

Enty was a retail tech platform, that I started with my classmates during my MBA at Chicago Booth. I previously worked in the media and in private equity, so literally had no idea about tech whatsoever, and I didn’t learn anything about it at business school.

I’ve told this story in other episodes, and if you want to learn about the early days, listen to episode 100 called: 100. My story: ambition, tech and the camel incident

But in summary, as a first time non-technical founder, with a background in finance, I literally had no idea how to lead a tech business. Despite that, I managed to raise money from investors, and hire developers, and this is when I basically had to learn how to be a tech founder on the job.

I was writing for Forbes about my entrepreneurial journey at the time, and I covered what I was learning about tech as a non-technical founder in my column. These articles did really well, and many more people read them and tweeted about them than I ever expected.

I saw a demand for this knowledge, so then, I decided to do an experiment: I decided to host a one hour training on tech for non-technical founders.

This is when I literally began creating classes and teaching them at the co-working space that my start-up was based in. At first, I charged £15, which is about $20 per class.

One day, a current MBA student from London Business School came to one of my classes, and then asked me to teach his classmates. And this is how I started teaching Tech for Non-Technical Founders at London Business School.

This is also how I ended up teaching at Oxford University’s Said School of Business, a bit later.

Anyway, the main point here is that even before I registered a company officially, I was already making money by sharing my knowledge with a very specific target audience: non-technical founders.

When I registered the company, my revenue came from consumers, so people rather than institutions, and in the first year of my business, I had only three institutional clients: London Business School, Oxford University and the Techstars Blackstone Launchpad, who all wanted the tech for non-technical founders training.

And now we’re going to enter phase 2: I began to see that some people who took the non-technical founders coursehad no intention of becoming founders, but they were non-technical professionals, whose jobs interacted with tech a lot.

This is when I realised I needed to make something specifically for these people, so I created the How to speak tech for business leaders course, which is shorter and focusses more on working in a corporate.

So phase 1 was one product to one specific target customer: a course on tech for non-technical founders.

Phase 2 was expanding that offering to adjacent customers: non-technical professionals, who didn’t necessarily want to become founders, like corporate leaders, lawyers, investors and so on.

By the way, you can still buy these courses today, and lots of people have used them to build businesses, and transition career. In fact, you’ve heard many of these people on this very podcast.

And now let’s move on to phase 3: the more people took my courses, the more I saw that people wanted my help to apply what they were learning to their unique circumstances. So to grow their specific business or transform their career. This is when I decided to offer Executive Coaching, which included the learning tech and innovation concepts, and also business and career strategy.

The target customers were the same, but the product offering got deeper.

And now we are in phase 4: today Tech for Non-Techies gets most of its revenue from major institutions like governments and big companies: that’s about 70% of the revenue. The remainder: 30% comes from people buying our courses and executive coaching for themselves, I.e paying with their own cash, or if they are business owners, using their company’s cash.

That’s the basic summary of the business so far. I am keeping this section short, so we can move on to the lessons that you can apply to your own careers and businesses.

Today my vision for Tech for Non-Techies is to help smart non-technical professionals succeed in the digital age, however they are working: in a corporate or in their own business. I genuinely do believe that learning digital innovation concepts and knowing how to work with technologists is a necessary career skill today. You will simply hit a ceiling if you don’t know this stuff.

And I have also learned, that to in order to use this knowledge to have a career that you find fulfilling, both intellectually and financially, only learning concepts is not enough. You need to include mindset work, and understand power dynamics, so you can turn situations to your advantage, and be seen the way you want to be seen, not how somebody else decided to brand you.

Make your own reality. You only live once.

This is why, Tech for Non-Techies today offers education and coaching, and that’s a combination that works really well.

And now, I’m going to share my entrepreneurial lessons with you.

  •  Number 1: Follow the money. Always. That’s what I did to go through these four phases.

The point of a business is to make money, so don’t be shy about it. If you are interested in running a business, you are interested in making money.

You make money by providing value to people who can pay for that value. So the game is figuring out: what value you can provide and who can pay you for it.

This is how I went from non-technical founders, to business leaders and non-technical professionals, and then added executive coaching and expanded to corporates. I kept seeing: ok, here is a market that wants the value I am offering, and they can pay for it.

I’m going to make something for them and see if it works.

For me, following the money means following demand. It’s like a breadcrumb trail: it is your entrepreneurial map.

Entrepreneurial lesson number 2: if you want to do something, just start. Just get going. You will see the way as you go.

When I was teaching tech for non-technical founders in a shared office space for $20 a ticket, I didn’t envision that just 5 years later my company would be advising two government agencies on how to upskill their populations for the Digital Age. I had no idea how to even get those clients to know that I existed, what to propose them or what to charge.

As you do things, opportunities open up to you that you could not have seen just from doing desk research.

Entrepreneurial lesson number 3: when you start, make small investments. Do not hire a big team or an expensive consultancy before you have tested demand.

Make a small investment, see if it pays off and learn from that. It’s one small step after the other. As you get more used to doing this, you will learn how to take bigger risks and how to recover from failures.

But in general - avoid expensive experiments.

I have never ever created a course before I knew there was demand and before I had payment for it, or at least had a signed contract. Ever! You can take the same philosophy and apply it to other products too.

When I ran a tech company, we tested demand with a bunch of no code tools first. That gave me the confidence to get to the next step: build a prototype and test that. And that gave me confidence to get to the next step: turn the prototype into a minimum viable product.

You learn by taking one small step after the other. Sometimes you will go around in circles. It is better if those circles are small and cheap.

By the way, this is how I’ve scaled audience globally and managed to hire a team, without raising any money from investors. I got good at testing demand and getting paid up front, and then using that cashflow to invest in the product.

Entrepreneurial lesson number 4:

Becoming a recognised thought leader in your field pays off, not just in accolades, but in actual cash.

But, becoming a recognised expert does require free work up front. And sometimes, this really sucks.

I remember when I was writing an article for the Harvard Business Review and I submitted my final draft to the editor, I literally lay down on the floor on my stomach (so basically face on the floor), with my arms splayed out and I felt like any life essence I had had just been drained out of me.

I was like a juiced lemon. I had nothing else to give to the world.

That Harvard Business Review article took four revisions, and a lot of painful work. And I did it all for free!

But, that work is still paying off today, because people either read it and find my work, or I send it to people I meet at networking events and they then understand that my company is one that should be taken seriously.

Thought leadership and becoming known for your ideas is something I cover a lot with my Executive Coaching clients. It is not enough to know about tech to be a digital leader, you need to be seen as digital leader in order to become one.

Perception matters, so learn to manage how people perceive you.

And now let’s get to entrepreneurial lesson number 5: your mindset is the difference between success and failure.

In this episode I told you about the four phases my company has gone through, and mentioned some fancy clients and impressive publications. So, you might be thinking - she had it easy!

This could not be further from the truth. This was not a string of successes. I would say it was mostly a string of failures, where I skulked away shrouded in shame.

I have hired the wrong people and held on for them for too long, I have had advertising campaigns totally bomb and cost me a small fortune, I have joined two business coaching programs, both of which cost $4,000, so that’s $8,000 down the drain. I have also embarrassed myself publicly on more than one occasion, been trolled on the internet, and wondered if I should leave it all and get a real job.

The only way you get through it is by managing your mind. This is what allows you to get up and give it another go. This is what allows you to try again.

If you want to do something difficult, and creating something out of nothing is difficult, you have to manage your mind. This is why, I have mixed education programming with executive coaching at Tech for Non-Techies, and this is how I want to carry on building it.

So if you are working on something new and difficult, managing your mind is one of your key responsibilities.

And these are my five lessons for you. So let’s recap:

  •  number 1: Follow the money. Always.
  •  number 2: if you want to do something, just start.
  •  number 3: when you start, make small investments.
  •  number 4: Becoming a recognised thought leader in your field pays off
  •  number 5: your mindset is the difference between success and failure.

I am really excited about what the future holds for Tech for Non-Techies and for me personally.

And I have you to thank for getting here. You make this possible. Just knowing that you are listening makes me want to keep teaching. So thank you for being here with me today, and for learning from me.

If this episode inspired you, and you are curious whether Tech for Non-Techies could help you, just get in contact via the link in the show notes.

Our programs can help you:

  •  learn how to build a tech product as a non-technical founder
  •  Succeed as a business leader in the Digital Age
  •  And our corporate trainings will help your team work with tech clients and thrive during digital transformation

If the sounds exciting to you, just get in touch via the link in the show notes.

And on that note, I wish you a wonderful day and I shall be back in your lovely smart ears next week.



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