What Kinds of Jobs Exist At Startups for Non-Technical People?

My quora post on: What Kind of Jobs Exist at Startups for Non-Technical People?

My friend Jae asked me to answer a question on Quora with this title – and I ended up writing a decent sized post on the topic that’s currently the top answer to the question. (This is the magic of Quora!) I thought I’d share and expand on my answer for the benefit of my blog readers so here goes:

It’s obvious what technical people do at startups – they write code. More specifically with web app firms, there are usually front-end engineers (that configure how the user interacts with the app) and back-end engineers (that deal with stuff like the database that holds all the app’s information & the business logic of the app that runs core functionality). It’s sometimes less obvious what roles exist for non-technical people. I’m guessing that’s what the person asking this question is wondering.

Startups typically have a high technical to non-technical ratio in their staff. I’d say it varies from 1:4 to 1:10 or greater, depending on the business. For example, a business like Groupon relies heavily on having lots of non-technical people (mostly sales staff) on the ground at various cities calling up businesses to get them to offer these mega deals and marketing people to get consumers to sign up for the mailing list. On the other hand, a startup like Wolfram Alpha will be looking almost exclusively for technical people to help them build this insanely AI-heavy app.

Typically an early-stage startup will have one founder or early employee doing almost all of the business stuff (see Spencer Fry’s amazing post: What’s a Non-Programmer Do?) They’ll focus on hiring technical talent until maybe they’re around 8-10 people and then start adding some more business openings. As the company grows, the ratio of Technical : Non-Technical employees will get smaller. One of the commenters on my Quora answer said that Google is now at about a 1:1 ratio. Interesting!

But enough talk – on to the actual positions.

  • MARKETING – this is an umbrella term to cover all sorts of channel: email, social media (facebook/twitter), blogging/copy-writing, events/tabling, community management (for forums or other user-generated-content focused startups), public relations, SEO & SEM (search engine optimization & marketing) to name a few. This is a big area for non-technical people to get in, especially in B2C sites that need to get a lot of broad adoption by a wide variety of users.
  • SALES – B2B companies especially are looking for people to work in sales. B2C companies, less so, except for bigger ones like Facebook, Yelp, etc. This can be a tough position – you have to be aggressive and get sh*t done as your performance is extremely measurable. On the other hand you learn a lot and are directly responsible for growing the bottom line, which is really cool.
  • SUPPORT – it takes a special person to really like support, but for both B2C and B2B sites, having great, dedicated support people who go all the way for users/customers is essential. Think about Zappos – people LOVE them because they’re support is unusually awesome. This is a great place for non-technical people to get a foot in the door.
  • BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT – People think this is a sexy position/title/department but it’s often a nicer way to describe sales. *Real* biz dev is about forming partnerships with other organizations that augment your business. Think Nike + iPod or Foursquare + SF Giants, etc. Typically these go to people who have contacts and “executive presence” and can charm potential partners while also making deals that add real value to the company.
  • RECRUITING – startups usually start with contract recruiters to help them hire, but as they get bigger, they may look to hire someone to work in house. This role is typically filled by someone who has a lot of contacts with technical people and has some experience in the industry in hiring/evaluating talent. It’s a hard job to do well.
  • ANALYTICS – this role is usually found in more established companies. People to crunch numbers to help sales, marketing or product development  make decisions. Good for ex consultants/bankers but rarely are these decision-making roles
  • PRODUCT MANAGEMENT – some might dispute my putting this in “non-technical” but it is true that most product managers do not *actually* write code. Granted most of them *have* written code in the past. But it is possible to be a product manager without having a technical background. You have to quickly learn some of the language, understand how software development works, write really clear specs and mostly importantly – have a powerfully vision of the product that users will love.

As most of you know, I work at isocket, an 8 person B2B company that powers self-serve advertising for web publishers. I came up with the title myself and it is “Customer Scout”. I do a lot of Sales and definitely some Marketing and Support, plus a smattering of everything else. One of the great things of startups is that you get to do a little bit of everything.

Did this get you psyched up about joining a startup? Read the mega-blog post me and Derek Flanzraich did on how to get a killer startup job – it’s specifically geared towards non-technical people!

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Jason Shen

Jason is a tech entrepreneur and talent expert. He is CEO of a performance hiring platform called Headlight, a Fast Company contributor, and an advocate for Asian American men. Follow him on Twitter at @jasonshen and subscribe to his private newsletter.

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  3. Wolfram Alpha is a project of Wolfram Research, maker of Mathematica. AFAIK, it’s not any kind of spin-off or subsidiary. Hardly a start-up, though I know from personal experience their staff is very heavily loaded with advanced degrees in math, physics, and computer science. Some insanely qualified, if not over-qualified, folks working there.

  4. Oh, whoops: “The core long-term content development of Wolfram|Alpha is being carried out by Wolfram Alpha LLC, a spin-off of Wolfram Research—itself a company with a 23-year history of outstanding technical development centered on its flagship product Mathematica. Around Wolfram Alpha LLC are several Wolfram startups focused on commercial opportunities made possible by Wolfram|Alpha.”

    In most ways, I’m still correct. These are still under the umbrella of the original Wolfram Research, using the same facilities and likely the same staff. Stephen uses any of his resources as he sees fit. He re-purposed a lot of staff to help create his “world-changing” book, A New Kind of Science, for example.

    • Thanks for the clarification and comments. My use of Wolfram was more of an example of the kind of organization that would have a higher techie to non techie ratio compared to something like Groupon.

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  6. Nice thoughts and echoes many of the ideas from Spencer Fry’s article (thanks for link by the way, great read).

    What do you think about web analytics (KISS metrics, Google Analytics, Omniture, etc.)…who do you think should own this, the technical or non-technical?

    • Good question Matt – I think it really depends. You obviously have to be a little technical to use these products. We’re starting to use KissMetrics now and there’s definitely some tricky areas where I collaborate with our engineering team.

      • I like that you listed analytics as its own position, but it is true that this role is usually only becomes available when the company is a little more established. True you collaborate with your technical team, but as far as ownership I sometimes find that the marketing person ends up owning this if there is not a dedicated person. So it helps to have some technical background so you can help your engineers figure out how to implement 3rd party code or explain to them exactly what you need to track. That said, it is a lot to ask of one person (assuming there is only one marketing) especially when you have to analyze data AND then do other marketing or PR tactics.

    • I currently work in the building right next to Omniture; I know a lot of people that work there and have even participated in some of their case competitions. I would say that Omniture, for example, would require a real “hybrid” non-techie. Much like Jason’s description of a Product Manager, there is a definite learning curve for your average non-technical employee to become well-versed in the tool itself. While Biz Dev positions and Analyst positions at Omniture don’t require a programming background, they do require a good understanding of Omniture’s tools, which can become quite technical in and of itself.

      Take, for example, SiteCatalyst, which is an extremely robust tool for tracking and understanding important information in regards to customer’s interaction with a website. While your average marketing professional could quickly learn the basics of the tool, Omniture’s Analysts must possess an understanding of not only the technical abilities of the tool but also business process and what decisions/impressions can be made from the relevant data captured by the tool.

      Ultimately, it comes down to the ability that the non-technical individual has to quickly learn and understand some key technical concepts of a very specific tool in a very specific industry.

  7. Hey Jason,
    I came across your blog while researching the SF job market and got hooked. I realise this post is a bit out of date, but I would like to get your opinion on the chances of a non-technical foreigner getting a job with a SF-based startup, especially with the H1B visa situation (you probably know the drill: company decides to sponsor you, application in April, you can start working in the US in October).
    Having worked for Istanbul startups for 3 years (sales/business development) I am now planning on moving to SF and looking into opportunities there – any comment you have will be greatly appreciated!

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