In the past two months I’ve been on two different panels with other entrepreneurs. The first was at WTIA in Bellevue, WA (“Cashing in on Web Services“)– the other panelists were very clearly what I’d call “business entrepreneurs”. All of them had relatively successful funded startups, but not a one of them had probably written a line of code, moved a pixel, wrangled a server, or written a line of copy in months or years (some probably never had).
In contrast, the most recent panel I was on (at the O’Reilly Web 2.0 Summit) was with what I’d call “builder entprepreneurs”… All startups with great traction, some funded, but all of the founders were directly engaged with the creation of the product. They designed, coded, played sysadmin, and played all sorts of other production roles for their startups.
The contrast was startling, and it made me think hard about my earlier contention that the “business guy” doesn’t really have a useful role to play in the very earliest stages of a software startup. The first panel had a pile of examples of business guys leading startups to some significant (sometimes dramatic) success.
At one of the other panels at the Web 2.0 conference, Dave McClure (master of 500 hats and 473 font colors– and one of the smartest guys in the game) summed up the life-cycle of a startup in a great way. “There’s the product development phase, the market development phase, and the revenue development– or revenue optimization– phase.” Rings true to me.
So with this in mind, let’s track the value of a “product entrepreneur” over the early life of a company:
Now let’s track the value of a “business entrepreneur” over the early life of a company:
(note: I’m talking about one person’s ability to make a major impact with a startup– I’m not saying that either person is useless at any stage of the startup… And, of course, exceptions abound)
As I’ve said before, the business guy often doesn’t have a lot to do in the early stage of product development– especially if the builders are building something that they actually want themselves. If you’re a bunch of hackers building a simple photo sharing, you don’t need a business guy telling you what the market wants. Of course, if you’re a bunch of hackers building business time management software, you might well need that. Your mileage may vary.
But what I haven’t said before (and what I’m coming to learn) is that the product entrepreneurs have an increasingly marginal role as a startup evolves and becomes more successful. In fact, I’d argue that they are in a rude awakening– they either need to evolve into business entrepreneurs (as Gates and Jobs did, for example– both shrewd business guys) or hire people to play that role (a la Eric Schmidt at Google). Building an asset is the first (and most important) challenge. But finding the customer for that asset and maximizing the revenue/profit is also a challenge (and one that many builders are ill-suited to handle).
It feels like product entrepreneurs are oftentimes “cowboys”. Flying by the seat of their pants, they rally a small team to build a product that people want. It’s no surprise that this is really freakin’ hard and requires a mythical combination of brute force time and effort, insight, customer empathy, and a huge pile of luck. Saddling the product team with a biz guy who chases big customers and locks in the product direction too early can be deadly, as the Wizard points out:
This is one reason I hate to see very early stage companies sign a big customer before the product is baked. You are encumbered by product commitments and customer support before you truly know what the market wanted. You have to be passionate about a customer and the product when you should be laser focused on the product. The customer’s needs and your goals vis a vis the market may diverge. In an effort to show progress, however, the marquee customer is attractive in the belief it will help attract investment (and this may indeed be true). In a previous life before FeedBurner, my founders and I made the mistake of signing a big name customer to a paid monthly contract before we really knew what the product’s place in the market should be. Won’t ever do that again.
The product development phase of company needs product development people and precious little else.
But as the market development phase sets in, builder entrepreneurs are oftentimes increasingly obsolete. It’s no longer time to hurl features willy nilly at your users– you’ve already built something that they like. No you need to measure the hell out of it and turn it into something that they love. You need to iterate on it and turn it into something that confuses 4% of your new users instead of 7%. It means finding a way to tune your viral loop and conquer your SEO enemies to increase the organic flow to your product. And you need to start expoloring the market to figure out who they hell is going to pay for all of this. That means crafted adwords campaigns. That means cold calling. That means price experimentation. That means exploring the world of direct ad sales. Well, it can mean all sorts of things, depending on whether you are a free web service, a freemium product, a pure b2b play or some combination thereof.
But you are firmly out of the world of building products and drifting into the world of iterating a product and exploring a market. And, likely, you’re in the world of sales, marketing, and instrumenting the hell out of your app/site.
As Papa PG says, if you look at the leaders of successful tech companies you see more CS degrees than you see MBAs. That makes sense– geeks are critical to conquer the first (and most important) problem of a startup… Building a badass product. But if you look at these same tech companies, you see CS geeks who’ve actually set aside their geeky roots (though maybe not their geeky instincts) and become very very shrewd business guys. And you also see inferior products kicking the crap out of superior products through better sales/marketing/and distribution.
So to all of you builders out there… Beware! When you reach a challenge in the evolution of your business, the most natural thing in the world is to frame it as a product problem. “If we just build this new feature/product, we’ll be off to the races and we’ll never have to do any of that business crap!”. Keep your eyes peeled for the time when you have to personally evolve and start tackling business problems, or step out of the way and let someone else do it for you.