How to go from a non-technical employee, to a technology CEO

Posted:
8 November, 2022
neoplants

Founders come to Entrepreneur First to build technology companies. However, not all of them are technologists. Many have their skillset rooted in commerciality and business acumen. This means they tend to face a technical learning curve when they start building their startup.

Lionel Mora is one such founder. He joined EF in 2018 with a business background, having begun his career at Google launching new products at scale. Here, he met Patrick Torbey who has a PhD in genome editing from Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, plus three published papers.

Together, they co-founded Neoplants: producing the first generation of bioengineered plants to fight air pollution. They’re building plants that can efficiently capture pollutants, and use them as a carbon source to recycle them. Now, they’ve announced their first product: the world’s first houseplant bioengineered to remove pollutants from the air in your home.

Here, Lionel shares his perspective on the journey from non-technical employee, to successful tech company CEO, and his advice to founders aspiring to do the same.

How to upskill on the tech

In the early ideation phase, Lionel, whose background was in marketing, had to ensure he had in-depth knowledge of how the technology worked, if he was going to build a company in that area.

His method? Learn as much as he could independently, then each week come up with a concept he could explore with his co-founder. “For the first two years, I had a document where every time I would hear a word that I didn’t know or understand, I would write it down,” says Lionel. 

I would start doing a little bit of research on the side – basic definitions, YouTube videos. And then I would go to Patrick, pick one or two of the ten questions I came across and ask him to explain them to me a bit more.”

This approach became even more valuable when it came to applying that knowledge to building the product. “I would come to Patrick and ask ‘can we build feature A? How much time would it take to move from feature A to feature B? What’s the level of performance we could expect from feature C?’

Sometimes the questions I asked required a six-month review of the scientific literature, and I needed to get some initial elements of answers within a week. But I was undeterred – and Patrick is amazing at explaining.” 

This, Lionel believes, was one of the greatest benefits of having a co-founder who was strong technically. Lionel was smart enough, and fast enough, to pick up most of what he needed to know. Patrick’s expertise was valuable in supporting his growth where there was a challenge, ultimately leaving him with the knowledge he needed to build the company.

Lionel confesses that the ‘learning while building’ approach has left him with an unusually specified knowledge set – but that this doesn’t pose much of an issue, nor should it to other founders. 

“I have a very weird knowledge of biology,” he says. “I can tell you some very specific super technical stuff that is related to what we do. But at the same time, if you ask me some very basic Bachelor’s-level question in biology, I might not be able to answer because I don’t need to. I need to understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. That’s it.”

How to deal with fear and stress

If you want to found a tech company, you need to deal with fear,” reflects Lionel.

At the beginning of EF, Lionel’s biggest problem was fear of missing out: Was he co-founding with the right person? On the right idea? 

However, in Lionel’s view, these fears are a sign that you are likely working with the wrong person; and when you’re working with the right one, they don’t come into it. “When I started working with Patrick, very quickly, things aligned,” he recalls. 

Therefore, if these fears are at the top of your mind, it may be time to try working with a new co-founder.”

When it comes to stress, Lionel feels this is a trade off he has to make. “As a person, I’m ready to work a lot, and I have a lot of energy. I’m willing to put all that into something that can have maximum impact,” he says. 

What motivates him is the conviction that he is achieving that impact through his company. 

In Lionel’s view, founders should always keep one eye on the bigger picture and the difference they could make when the going gets tough. This willpower is the ultimate founder resource – and further down the line, has proved invaluable when it comes to hiring his early team. 

I feel excited to be working on something where I can have a positive impact, tackling big planetary problems with a sustainable solution. 

I think this drives people, and that’s why people have left their amazing academic career to come work with us. They can endure a lot more uncertainty when the pay-off is building something game-changing.”

How to validate the traction of your idea

So you’ve found your co-founder. You’ve developed your idea. You’ve upskilled to understand your technology. How do you then validate your idea, and learn whether or not it’s something people want? Lionel offers two very practical pieces of advice for founders:

1. Talk to Experts: find people who kill the idea

One counter-intuitive piece of advice he shares is to deliberately try to invalidate your idea by speaking with experts – in his case, biotechnologists and regulators. I remember telling Patrick, ‘let’s just find the people who are going to kill this so that we don’t have to work on it. Then we can work on something better.’” If there’s a problem with your idea, or another founder has tried and it hasn’t worked, it’s critical you know why, and you know early.

In their case, fortunately, the experts they talked to did not kill the idea, but validated it.

But nevertheless, Lionel recommends all founders take this approach to assess traction both on the scientific side, and commercially.

2. Pitch on the street

To evaluate commercial traction, Lionel suggests something simple: pitch on the street to get feedback directly from end users. There is nothing better to confirm the interest of those who you want to use your product than speaking with them – and this sends strong signals to investors:

When you go pitch to investors and you tell them you’ve spent 100 hours in the street pitching to random people, and that you gathered thousands of emails, they understand that you’re really going for it”, says Lionel. “Not only that – but there’s clear initial evidence that your product has traction.”

How to keep up motivation and urgency, on a longer timeline

Impatience is a virtue in founders; wanting to get things done, and get them done fast, is rocket fuel to a high-growth, global company. However, Lionel offers one final piece of advice for founders who, like him, have this critical trait – but haven’t been through a research and development process before. 

Make peace with your timeline.”

Lionel’s building a biotech company – and if you decide to build in biotech, even working at maximum pace means taking more time than your counterparts in software. He admits this was an adjustment for him, “Just assume it is going to take two times longer. And that’s normal, because you’re doing something radical no one ever built before. Pioneering something takes time.”

He uses SpaceX as an example, which started twenty years ago, and is still far from bringing life to Mars. Their team wasn’t working slowly – they were working as fast as they could, over a long period, faced with a high likelihood of failure, at the cutting edge of technology. For Lionel, a focus on the long-term vision of the company, and what they could achieve, is what makes or breaks your willpower as a founder – and that makes all the difference:

Remain motivated by the idea of being at the origin of a breakthrough technology. That’s how you’re going to achieve what you set out to do.”

To find your co-founder, and build an ambitious technology company together, apply or register your interest in our upcoming cohorts.

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