Rory asks:

Is there any hope for designers in the online entrepreneur world? As in, people who can for concepts sketches and design layouts, but who can’t program themselves? Or would you say that the ability to program is an absolute must?

I’m a designer who can’t program worth a shit. But I’ve always loved designing interfaces and I’ve always loved building a business. With passion, curiosity, and ambition, there is always hope.

Getting started

I got started by designing text-only interfaces for BBS’s way back before the web. Then I moved to graphical BBS’s when NovaLink Pro was introduced. Then I moved to making music, book, and video organizers in FileMaker Pro. FileMaker Pro allowed a designer to make a product with barely any understanding of programming. Just pop in some fields, set up a few buttons, add a few conditions, and wrap it in a nice UI.

Audiofile in FileMaker

My first foray into product-based entrepreneurship was a shareware product I built in FileMaker Pro called Audiofile. Audiofile was $20 and I uploaded it to AOL. This was the early 90s. A few weeks later my parents gave me an envelope with my name on it that came in the mail from Germany. I didn’t know anyone in Germany. I didn’t know what to do with it. But when I opened it there was a crisp US $20 bill wrapped in a printout of my Audiofile order form. That was my first customer and the moment I realized I can do this.

So over the next few years I released a few other products. BookBin for organizing your books, Videofile for organizing your videos and DVDs. The $20 bills came flooding in. It was really exciting. It bought a lot of beer (and other stuff, ahem) in college.

I met a lot of folks and made some great lasting business contacts through my FileMaker Pro products. Richard Bird, now a great friend and colleague, was one of my first customers. Richard even hired me to design an experimental (and vaporware) project management tool called Sightrope. This was probably around 1999.

Every once in a while I hear from Basecamp customers who connected the dots all the way back to Audiofile. They were Audiofile customers back in the day.

Singlefile on the Web

Eventually I wanted to move these products to the web. I had tired of using FileMaker Pro and tired of building software people had to download. I wanted to build web-based software. I decided the first product I’d take to the web was BookBin, the book organizer. I decided to rename it Singlefile (wayback machine archive).

So I started learning PHP. I never took any programming classes or went to school for any of this. I just got a book on PHP, followed the examples, and wrote some code. It was shitty code, but it mostly worked. But I was stumped. I couldn’t figure out pagination.

Enter David

So I wrote a post on SvN asking for some help. I got a lot of responses, but the best one was from this guy named David Heinemeier Hansson. He was friendly, helpful, and patient. We traded some emails and then I decided to hire him to help me with Singlefile. This was when David was a PHP programmer, a few years before he even discovered Ruby. Remember that?

David and I got along well, our working styles meshed, we both enjoyed swearing, and our general outlook on simple software was the same. So we did a few client projects together. And then we started on Basecamp. The rest is history.

You can do it

Yes, there is plenty of hope for a designer who wants to build a product business. Having business sense will help. Being able to spot and attract other talented people will help. Having a knack for spotting the right opportunities will help. But being curious enough to just figure things out on your own will help the most. If you can’t program today it’s because you haven’t tried to learn yet. Just a little effort may pay serious dividends down the road.

Who knows where things will lead. My story started with designing text-based interfaces for BBS systems.

So, yes, you can definitely build something great if you’re “only a designer.”

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