[edit: I should probably have made a stronger point that I am talking about early early early stage startups. 2-5 people, pre-funding. Carry on!]
There is a tremendous amount of venom loosed towards so called “business guys” or “idea guys” (as I’ve called ‘em) in the startup community. They can’t catch a break.
A big part of the reason is that we’ve all had that hellish experience with the MBA. The guy who has his “big idea” and “just needs someone to build it”, presumably why he stands back and waves his hands a lot (and occasionally plays golf in space). You can find CraigsList littered with ads by biz guys, incredulous that hackers aren’t falling all over themselves to execute on their ideas.
It doesn’t take a lot of hunting around to learn that great technology startups aren’t generally built on the shoulders of a great business guy. Here’s a gem of a quote from a gem of an essay:
If you work your way down the Forbes 400 making an x next to the name of each person with an MBA, you’ll learn something important about business school. You don’t even hit an MBA till number 22, Phil Knight, the CEO of Nike. There are only four MBAs in the top 50. What you notice in the Forbes 400 are a lot of people with technical backgrounds. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Michael Dell, Jeff Bezos, Gordon Moore. The rulers of the technology business tend to come from technology, not business. So if you want to invest two years in something that will help you succeed in business, the evidence suggests you’d do better to learn how to hack than get an MBA.
Take a look at the genesis of your favorite startup and find me the MBA. Find me the program manager. They just aren’t there.
So your startup doesn’t need a business guy. In fact, there seems to be pretty compelling evidence that having a business guy in your software startup has a reverse corrolation with success.
So, take a walk, biz guy. We don’t need you.
Or do we?
It turns out that it’s not so simple as that. Startups are diverse– each startup has different needs. How do you think SalesForce.com would’ve done if it’d been started by a bunch of hackers? How do you think Zappos.com would have fared if it wasn’t started by a zealot for customer service and support? There are plenty of examples of great software startups with a critical founder who wasn’t really a technologist (arguably, Apple is a great example of this). And there’s no denying that for startups that have something that they intend to CHARGE for, a business guy is incredibly valuable– so long as he actually can dive in and do sales largely full-time. Most business guys I know turn there nose up at cold-call style sales– which is really what you need.
So what does every startup absolutely need?
Startups need BUILDERS. People who make stuff. Absolute animals, as Paul Graham puts it. People whose output is positively awe-inspiring.
But startups also need a product genius. Someone who has great instincts about what people want and need.
So what’s to stop a business guy from being a product genius? Not a darn thing. Sure, there are plenty of biz guys who are stupid about products, but it certainly doesn’t take much work to find a hacker who has a truly awful idea for a product.
It’s just not so simple.
But I’ll tell you something that is simple: a hacker or designer’s output is strongly correlative with their sense of ownership. Here are a pile of modifiers that can effect a sense of ownership:
- The builder *IS* the “idea guy”. It’s his idea. (+50)
- The builder isn’t the “idea guy”, but has the problem that the product is trying to solve. (+40)
- The builder isn’t the “idea guy” and doesn’t really have the problem that the product is trying to solve, but can really empathize with the problem. (+30)
- The builder is a principal author of HOW the solution is built, even if WHAT is being built isn’t entirely his baby. (+20)
- The builder stands to make truckloads of money if the product takes off. (+20 * the number of truckloads)
In a world where startups are beset with endless challenges and frustration, anything you can do to heap on a feeling of ownership among the people who are actually building stuff is critical.
If there’s any indisputable advantage that startups have over big business, it’s the insane amount of sheer output that a startup can generate. Part of this is just being lean and bureaucracy-free, but a huge part of it is the motivation that comes with a sense of ownership. I think it’s pretty safe to say that the bigger a company gets and the more pure-play “managers” that get hired, the farther away the builders get from this feeling.
For all the startups out there who have a biz guy playing golf in space while a collection of hackers and designers slave away on the idea that they don’t really love…. Well, I don’t think you are necessarily doomed to failure. But I think you’ve taken an uphill road that’s a bit too steep for my tastes.