Today I rediscovered an old blog on The Death of the Business Founder by Ben Yoskovitz and as it tied in with some discussions I was having earlier this week with other start-up founders in London, I thought I’d add a few thoughts on this.
I am a Technical Founder. I started programing on a ZX Spectrum as a kid, grew up reading physics/technology books and magazines, studied Electronic Engineering and then went to work as an IT consultant at Accenture before founding SambaStream. And in my experience having the Technical background in the hi-tech/web/software industry gives you a major edge. Although not all Techies have the aptitude to learn the business side of things, for those of us who do, it does give you a HUGE advantage over the Business only founders who can’t code, or understand the technology to the same detail.
I first noticed it in Accenture. As a technical consultant, most of us Techies never had a problem picking up spreadsheets and word documents to do Requirements Analysis or Test Scripts, but it didn’t work the other way around for the Business Analyst Consultants. They couldn’t learn as easily how to code or design complex systems, so as a result most of the business Analysts I know became Spreadsheet Monkies, building up soft skills that were very hard to sell after they left Accenture, at least compared to us Techies. It also meant that us Techies tended to be more valuable on projects, which resulted in us usually getting better, more interesting roles as we were more critical to the success of the project.
Then at SambaStream we had two Technical Founders and one non-Technical. While the two Technical Founders managed to find their roles quickly and were instrumental to building the product we sold, the non-Technical founder found it difficult to find their place and in a lot of cases became the aforementioned Spreadsheet Monkie, doing all the tasks we assigned him that in most cases we didn’t want to do like testing (although there were other reasons for this too but that’s a whole other story…). As a result, he struggled in 3 years to prove his value to us, because the two of us could always pick up what he was doing if needed, but he couldn’t do the technical things we were doing. As a result when he finally left it was far less detrimental to the business than if one of us had left, because without us, nothing could be built or run to sell, but if needed we could also do the marketing and selling (which we ended up doing anyway) as these required soft skills we could more easily learn or at least ‘hack’ until we could afford to hire someone really good to take over.
I also have a friend who has really good business skills and experience, and a great idea. However he’s been stuck for over 6 months now with the product on hold because he doesn’t have a Technical co-founder for his start-up, which he needs to keep the product moving and also get investment. He’s finally found one and things are starting to move again, but it’s been frustrating, he even considered trying to learn to code at one point. Had it been the reverse situation, he could have picked up the development himself, while still networking for new co-founders and investment.
Another common problem I hear from Business Founders is how to work with technical people. When they don’t have technical skills, it really is a black box to them, and Techies can sense this. This means Business Founders struggle to know what a good Developer is, or if they’re building things in a way that will scale for your business, or worse if the Techies pulling a fast one on you (a particular concern for Business Founders using developers on ODesk and other offshore shops). And on the flip side some good coders, maybe with a hint of “coder-arrogance”, may ignore the requests of the Business Founder because they assume they don’t know what they’re talking about.
And its stories like the one above and several other start-ups I’ve met this week which makes me feel really lucky to be a Technical Founder. While being a Techie has its downsides, I made mistakes at the beginning of SambaStream by focusing too much on the Tech/development and not on the Business side of things, or getting too involved in internal facing issues instead of external issues like market and customers, now that I’ve learnt from those mistakes I can see I have a huge advantage over Non-Technical Founders.
Now I’m at Alfresco about 80% of my time is spent on the Business side of things: strategy, hiring, marketing, sales, organisation, budgets, people etc. and while being too Techie can get me into trouble with the Engineers sometimes as I get involved in the details of How to build it, instead of sticking to What needs to be built (I can’t help it, I’m a Geek at heart!) I appreciate the huge advantage it gives me in understanding at least how to work with Engineers, stop bad decisions if needed, and in a future venture, just build it myself without waiting from someone technical to join my team.
Also as I’m discovering with my recent hiring at Alfresco, for every 10 business-type people out there, there is only 1 decent Techie. We have a real shortage of Tech talent in this industry, and ultimately that makes people with Technical skills even more valuable than ever. In a competitive market, where Techies are few and are now moving into Business areas and learning methodologies like Lean Start-up, there is an argument that Business Founders are becoming less valuable to start-ups because while Techies can get their hands dirty across all areas of the business, the Business Founder has a significant gap. In the worst case you could end up like the two Business Founders the Winklevoss Twins who had to depend on and ultimately lose to Zuckerberg in creating their Social Network. Or like Eduardo Saverin who got forced out of Facebook while all the Technical Founders managed to stay on. And to prove my point, the Technical Founder Zuckerberg has acquired the business skills along the way to stay as CEO of Facebook even at it’s present size.
But here’s the thing, the best Founder Entrepreneurs are generalists, they’re not the best developer in the world (I’m good, but I’m not as good as some people out there!), they’re not the best marketer in the world, or best salesmen, but they have enough expertise in each of them to do them to a good enough level to move the business to the next phase where they can hire really good experts in each of these areas to take over. This means all Business Founders really should take the threat of their existence seriously if they want to get involved in early stage hi-tech/web/software start-ups, and at least learn the basics of coding and software development so they can get their hand’s dirty should their Techie leave, or they need to recruit and work with Techies. If Mayor Bloomberg can learn to code at Codecadamy then surely you can!
The fact of the matter is it is easier to move from a Techie background to a Business Background as long as you have the right aptitude, but much harder to move the other way. If you’re still young enough to choose courses/careers and want to Found a hi-tech/web/software start-up, I would strongly recommend you start learning to code, as a degree or internship, because you can always learn the Business skills later. If you are already a Business Founder, then I would be extremely paranoid until you move from the start-up phase to the company phase. The problem as some of my friends have seen, is that without money to hire, or even with, you’re always reliant on your Technical Co-Founder to stick around, and if they don’t, you’re stuck up shit alley! So ultimately spend some time coding on Codecadamy to mitigate the risk of you being stuck or seeing your business getting beat by a Technical Founder like the Winklevoss Twins.