What technological know-how do today's startups need?

Ibrahim Maiga finds it helps to be IT-savvy to set up or join a new business

The pace of change in the business world is scary, and the importance of technology in it today cannot be underestimated. Technology-driven new business models threaten to undermine or even eradicate long-established industries. Smart phones and tablets are starting to compete seriously with desktops and laptops as ways to get online. And in this period of shift, there are plenty of opportunities to start and grow a new business.

So, to take full advantage of this trend towards an ever more digital world, what technology skills and knowledge do you need to acquire - or hire - as a potential entrepreneur?

Paul Miller is a partner at Bethnal Green Ventures, a London-based accelerator programme that selects 20 early-stage technology startups every year to take part in its three-month mentoring and investment programme.

What technology skills and knowledge do you look for in a startup as an investor?

We're taking people who are right at the beginning of the process. They won't have a polished, finished product or revenues. So at that stage, we look for a really good understanding of the problem they are trying to solve.

The next thing we look for is the first version of a product to solve that problem - we're looking for technical skills that show there really is a good solution there. The term that gets used a lot is "minimum viable product" - we're looking for the technology skills in the founding team to be able to do that in-house. That probably means they have a mixture of technology skills in a popular web application framework - like Ruby on Rails or Django - but also some real design nous. You must understand a potential user of your service, how they're going to use it, their needs, and how that translates into a product.

What technological skills and knowledge do your startups look for when they're hiring?

The thing that comes out time and time again is the ability to learn on the job. A basic technical aptitude is one thing they're looking for, but quite often they're hiring people who might have to change programming languages, or do something else they've never done before. In those early hires, they're really looking for people who are passionate about learning something new and trying to improve themselves.

Be willing to spend time really learning and getting to grips with technology that's already being used, or something that's really going to be important in the future for the startup. That's much more important than a particular skill set or qualifications.

What's the best way to learn to program?

Pick a project and learn through doing would be my recommendation. Find something you want to do and set about working out how you would do it, and build an assortment of information and advice around you.

You might use something like codecademy.com, forums, or instructional videos about particular aspects of different languages. Also, find a support group and code with someone else. Then there's joining a social group for programmers, but you need to get to a certain level before that's worthwhile.

Case study: Quession

Quession, founded by three Imperial College London and King's College London students is an online professional advice platform launching in the next few months

"We started Quession," says web developer Shuo Chan "because we saw that it was very hard for people to get advice from medical specialists or lawyers in a quick and efficient way. This is especially so when people have only a few simple questions and don't want to go through the hassle of arranging an appointment with an expert." Programming, design and business development are all covered by the founding team, which consists of Shuo, designer Schwann Khaw, and marketer Joan Lim.

We asked Shuo what he thinks an entrepreneur developing a website for a new business needs to do their job well. "Programming skills are a given. You need to know what your code is able to achieve, and the different methods you can take to achieve it. There are many tools out there that have made developing online platforms much easier than before. For example, for the user interface Bootstrap and jQuery are excellent. Many plugins are available for free."

It's not just web developers at a startup who need technical tools. Social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, and Google Analytics are key to marketing today. For design, proficiency in software packages such as Adobe Photoshop and InDesign is essential.

And what does Shuo think is the best way to learn to code? "Learning programming boils down to putting in effort to learn the basic syntax, and the rest is all practice and experience." However, a can-do approach is the secret sauce for a good programmer. "I've seen many people," he says, "who have learnt programming and know syntax well, but they're not able to find a solution when their program fails. This will slow down the development time considerably and make it a frustrating experience. You must adopt the attitude that you can and are able to fix problems, rather than always relying on someone else to fix the problem for you. It's something that's useful in your everyday life too!"

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