From the June 1999 issue of Startups

We're hyped as the "digital generation," but not all of us embrace technology warmly. If your past experiences with computers at school or on the job were a nightmare of system crashes, "general failure" messages and inexplicably lost files, starting a business based on computers may seem beyond your reach.

But can you afford to feel that way? Between 1990 and 1997, employment in software and computer-related fields increased 76 percent. According to the most recent statistics from the Census Bureau, information technology (IT) had more than $866 billion in total sales in 1996, making it one of America's fastest-growing industries.

Even if you've never studied technology, wouldn't it be nice to grab a piece of this profitable pie? As long as you're open-minded about learning a new vocabulary, you can. Here are four strategies that can put you on the road to success:

1. TEACH YOURSELF. It's easier than you think to learn what you need to know from books, online tutorials and advice from friends. Matthew Picheny, 25, of New York City, could barely log on to his AOL account in 1997, but now he's a Netpreneur. Coming from a theater and music background, he had no formal computer training, but he wanted to get involved in the online theater community. Slowly, he began taking HTML tutorials on AOL as a hobby, for just a few hours per week.

By 1998, Picheny had moved his Web site (http://www.picheny.com) from its spot on AOL to its own domain and started a company, Picheny Productions, that develops and hosts Web sites. Last year, Picheny continued to work part time in a restaurant, save money and concentrate on his business in his free time. His company grossed $10,000. By this summer, he plans to devote himself full time to Picheny Productions.

Some sources Picheny consulted to learn the ropes include the IDG Dummies series of books (IDG Books Worldwide, 800-762-2974, http://www.idgbooks.com, http://www.dummies.com) and tutorials he found on the Internet through the HTML Writers' Guild (http://www.hwg.org) and the International Webmasters Association. When he hits technological barriers, he posts messages to listservs sponsored by these groups. Someone always responds, he says: "Lots of well-known folks helped me out along the way."

2. TAKE A CLASS. If you need additional guidance, taking technology classes can bring you up to speed. In a classroom, an instructor can give you one-on-one attention, says Steve Heckler, president of WestLake Internet Training (http://www.westlake.com), a Web site development training school in Arlington, Virginia. Plus, you'll meet other students you can keep in touch with after you leave the class.

Heckler says most of the students his company trains had nontechnical majors in college. "Lots of them are technophobic," he explains. "They have three major fears: one, that they won't get it; two, that something will happen to embarrass them, and three, that they'll be bored." Heckler empathizes with his technophobic students; he himself has a nontechnical background, with degrees in international relations and history.

"Technophobes should start [getting comfortable] with the computer by using it a little bit every day to learn about things they already enjoy," Heckler advises. For example, if you love to cook, start with a CD-ROM about famous chefs. If you enjoy dancing, visit sites about that subject on the Net.

Paul Levinson, a professor of communications at Fordham University in New York City and author of several books on how technophobes can learn new technologies, agrees with Heckler's approach. "Technophobes become comfortable when they can use technology for a task that gives them tangible results," he says. The classroom provides a good start; ultimately, however, you must learn by doing.

3. PARTNER WITH A TECHIE. Another good way to overcome limited technical knowledge is to find a business partner who understands technology. Such a pairing spelled success for Netcast Inc. (http://www.netcastinc.com), a 2-year-old Alexandria, Virginia, company that provides Webcasting--broadcasting live or archived events over the Internet.

When Blair Fuller, 29, who you won't catch reconfiguring a computer anytime soon, met Michael Ahern, 34, they were pumping iron at Gold's Gym. At that time, 21¦2 years ago, they had no idea they would become business partners, but they did know they both wanted to go into business for themselves.

Then Fuller, who worked in event production, ran into a snafu. A client wanted him to broadcast an event on the Web. "No company stood out that could do this, so I started figuring out `What would it take for me to do this?' " recalls Fuller.

Lacking the technical skills to do it on his own, Fuller enlisted the help of buddy Ahern, who had 10 years of experience as a systems engineer for employers such as IBM.

Today, when they run across technical glitches Ahern alone can't handle, they barter. "We call former colleagues of mine and exchange meals for computer advice," says Ahern. Both keep their skills current by attending industry conferences such as Multicast Summit and Real Networks, and reading publications like Interactive Week (http://www.interactiveweek.com), Internet Week (http://www.internetwk.com) and New Media magazine (http://www.newmedia.com). "We're constantly learning," says Fuller. And growing--1998 sales hit just over $100,000, and Netcast expects sales of at least $800,000 this year.

4. SUBCONTRACT WORK TO TECHIES. Little did Lisa Martin, 36, know when she worked as a sales and marketing manager for a staffing firm that ultimately, technology would be her meal ticket. Her 3-year-old LeapFrog Solutions (http://www.leapfrogit.com) in Oakton, Virginia, provides new media marketing for businesses and trade shows. Her company's services include Web site design, development and management; computer animation and interface design; copywriting and video production.

Martin's move into technology was partly accidental. Wanting flexible hours after having a baby, she got a part-time job as the director of marketing for a graphic design firm. The Internet was just gaining momentum, and the company was taking on more work in that area. "I just jumped right in," she recalls.

Seeking more flexibility and control over her life, Martin decided to go out on her own. She saw how fast Internet services were selling, and decided a marketing business specializing in Web site and technology promotions was a perfect solution.

Though she may know all the buzzwords, Martin doesn't do the technical work herself. Instead, she subcontracts it out to designers, writers and programmers. Marketing the business is her focus; she does so by participating in her local chamber of commerce and networking with technology associations.

Like all technophobes who want to make it in technology, Martin updates her knowledge by regularly attending trade shows. There, she rubs elbows with programmers so she can better understand her business.

She still doesn't know it all--but that doesn't slow her down. If clients talk technobabble, Martin lets her subcontractors answer their questions. "I think people feel more comfortable hearing [me] say `I don't know the answer to that; let me get my technical expert on the line' than trying to pretend I do," she says. The strategy seems to be working: Last year, LeapFrog's sales jumped to approximately $500,000.

"When it comes to technology, no one understands it all," says Martin. But by surfing the Internet, reading trade publications and schmoozing with techies, you'll learn enough to stake your claim in the high-profit world of technology.


Monica Fuertes (mfuertes@erols.com), a writer who specializes in business and technology, knows all about overcoming technophobia. Last year, she relied on a computer expert to fix her PC problems. Today, she can fix them herself.

Work It

Get your tech training wheels at these sites:

  • Association for Women in Computing (http://www.awc-hq.org): A diverse group of women in careers that touch every aspect of computing.
  • Association of Internet Professionals (http://www.association.org): 8,500 members nationwide, from marketing and sales professionals to graphic designers and copywriters.
  • HTML Writers Guild (http://www.hwg.org): The largest international organization of Web authors, with more than 85,000 members in more than 130 countries.
  • Information Technology Association of America (http://www.itaa.org): More than 9,000 members, from corporate executives to start-up entrepreneurs.
  • International Webmasters Association (http://www.iwanet.org): Provides educational and certification standards for Web professionals, and has 100-plus chapters in 106 countries.
  • Webgrrls (http://www.webgrrls.com): Women-only forum for those interested in new media and technology. Chapters nationwide provide opportunities to network and form strategic alliances.