This might sound like a trick question, with 'No, not really' as an answer. After all, we rarely see any of the start-up bibles out there saying anything about programing languages, MVC framework, map-reduce, or other things that geeks talk about.
In addition, there are many other tasks demanded from an entrepreneur that seem more important: managing resources, hiring good people, motivating the team, ensuring a good product market fit, and so on.
Yet when you look at successful tech start-ups, most if not all of them have founders who coded, at least when they founded their companies. Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, Larry Page, and Mark Zuckerberg are just a few notable examples. Steve Jobs is a rare exception, yet he is still very technical and can converse with engineers with ease.
In fact, the ability to write codes helps you as a tech entrepreneur in many different ways. Being able to code enables you to create a prototype of yourself. Even if you have cash to pay for programmers, which often times you don’t, it is usually faster for you to create a prototype yourself if you can. You do not have to explain your ideas to others. A good prototype can give you the funding you need to create an actual product.
In addition, if you can code, you will have a better idea about what is and is not possible in terms of the product you are trying to build. You will be able to give a better assessment of the cost and time of doing something than if you don’t know how to code at all.
The ability to code will make you speak the same language as your engineers, who will represent the majority of your team. Even if you cannot code as well as they can, you will command more respect if you can talk intelligently about their work. It is widely accepted that technical employees are more likely to follow founders with technical expertise.
During the life of a start-up, many decisions look “technical”, but are in fact “business”. These are technical decisions that have big impacts on business, and can make or break the company. If you do not have good technical understanding, you will not recognise these as such. You will most likely delegate these critical decisions to people who will look at it solely from a technical point of view – a recipe for disaster.
However, the importance of technical expertise varies according to the types of products you are building as well. Some products might compete primarily on technical features. Other products compete on domain knowledge, viral marketing, or other non-technical matters. In latter cases, the ability to code might not be as important as the former.
To sum up, even though it is not critical in all cases, the ability to code will make you stronger as an entrepreneur. But if you really cannot or will not, there is another option. “If you cannot become a Gates, then do what Jobs did – find yourself a Wozniak.”