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Business Cofounders are a Dime a Dozen (joshuavolz.com)
92 points by coderdude on Aug 16, 2010 | hide | past | favorite | 36 comments

The three things listed (money, promise of money and connections) are exactly what a business founder should be able to deliver. Along with customers. Paying customers. Before you launch the product.

If he (or she) can't deliver that, then you've found the business equivalent of a scriptkiddie that promises a business person he can build the next Google from a wordpress install.

People that think they are good at business is as common as people that think they can hack because they installed wordpress on a shared host.

Just like there aren't that many great hackers there aren't that many great business people. If you find one you'll know right away because he comes with either money or customers. Great business people are worth their weight in gold. Just like great hackers. Unfortunately the two don't often meet.

Before customers even, business founders can offer the credible promise of customers. The credibility comes from some sort of market validation. They should be able to convince you that a good execution will actually get traction, and help discover discover early that product X is not what people need/will pay for, but close variant Y is what should be focused on instead.

In my very limited experience, non-technical partners have vaguely done this, but haven't clearly communicated what they're doing or how it contributes value. I think they imagine that I share their background, and automatically understand and value their actions. With no shared background, poor communication, and only a short relationship with them so far, the trust isn't there to really value their work.

My mistake has been looking forward too much to what a product will be, and thus aiming for more than is reasonable in a small, fixed timespan. This inevitably means I can't achieve what I aim for without investing significantly more of my time than the non-technical partner, which makes me feel like I'm getting a bad deal. I have to learn to aim more minimally, and estimate more generously.

It seems that both types of founders need to communicate a lot, and invest more in the personal relationships outside the venture. All that communication will build the trust which eventually makes things flow well and happen efficiently.

Basically you have listed a VC/Angel Investor here. As i mentioned in my reply a business (not an idea) is only 1 part technical excellence and 10 parts business excellence.

Theere's obviously a lot of parasitic business "idea guys" who don't know about technology this article is talking about.

At the same time, there's a lot of business guys who can bring real, tangible value in terms of strategy, customer acquisition methods, marketing, finances, etc. I think there'a huge misconception that all it takes to build a company is a couple hackers who can build a product.

Building the product is NOT the hard part(except the rare case where there are real technical challenges). Building a business is the hard part.

If you really think about it, most startups don't fail because their code isn't good enough. They fail because the founders are absorbed in engineering and neglect the business parts like marketing, monetizing, and so on.

I'm kind of on both sides, as a hacker who's better at the business/marketing elements, so I have perspective into attitudes on both sides.

I may be taking a risk making this comment on Hacker News, but I think in some places, it's actually coders who are a dime a dozen. People who can actually build and grow a business are much harder to find.

I think the takeaway is that "Good business partners are hard to find, and good tech partners are hard to find. Bad partners of either variety are plentiful."

Hackers tend to notice the plethora of bad business types, because we're bombarded by them. Business founders tend to notice the lack of good tech co-founders because all their experience is with bad ones. However, we can observe that there are startups with good ideas, good business partners, and good tech partners. They're out there.

If you're a tech or business type and are looking for a co-founder, but can't find one, consider that perhaps the problem is that you aren't compelling enough to attract the right kind of co-founder. Make sure you're bringing all you can to the table, and you'll find someone to do it with you.

I live in India and from my perspective, everybody is a dime a dozen, until they think hard and work hard to distinguish themselves.

Even in NYC, this is true. The majority of coders are not the mythical hackers of the valley, just as most businessmen aren't amazing. Just partner with people who work hard and are great, as there's enough work to go around in a start-up.

I dont understand why coders have to be mythical hackers. Isn't all it matters is if you can get the shit done? The reason I am saying this is cause lot of times there are comments that for some reason give "hackers" a higher credibility when coders and hackers are essentially same here. Of course there are projects that require real hacking to complete the job, but most of the times a normal coder can do it as well. Maybe I don't understand the difference.

Software development is hard enough that you have to be a mythical hacker just to get shit done. At least, any but the most mundane cookie cutter shit, which is not what startups make.

Sure but, to clarify, by India I meant the sheer population figures of any occupation or other demographic. It's true everywhere if you're competing online, but here we're used to physically seeing it.

Building a business requires quick iteration on ideas. Quick iteration requires building products quickly. One of the qualities that separates good and bad hackers is speed. Not many startups fail because their code isn't good enough, but many startups fail because they run out of time to find the right product because they haven't been executing quickly enough. Lots of those startups might have been saved by better hackers.

My point is that you are right to say that building a business is the hardest part, but you are wrong to suggest that "building the business" is something separate from "building the product", or that success in the former does not crucially depend on the latter.

Look at some of the customer development stuff that's come up recently, though; I've seen companies with very very little actual code/product (in some cases, none!) iterate extremely quickly through wizard-of-oz smokescreens and the like.

I agree that fast execution and the ability to turn around and change what you've done (some hackers I know are very change-resistant, note) is important - that's why my last startup didn't do as well as it could. But a lot of that could have been saved with more customer-development methods as well as faster, better code.

Building and growing a business often require that a person be able to go without making any money for a quite a while, so by definition, these people are rare. I don't think people with the talent to grow a business are that rare, but people with the talent and a conducive life situation are.

And actually, even building a technically mundane product is quite hard, but more for the same reasons building a business is. It's a prototype that's easy to build, but buckling down to cross all the t's and dot the i's, and perform the boring work to make it a real product takes perseverance.

absolutely agree. I think your take on the "conducive life situation" is cool.

I completely agree here. I learned long ago that if I built something that I thought was cool, it didn't turn to dollars.

The best hackers absolutely need to find a great business partner. Unless they can wing it on their own. But personally, I hated the doing all the BS it takes to bring a product to market. I just want to build cool shit.

That's why a business guy and a hacker is the best team. I love creating new marketing strategies, building campaigns, writing sales copy and doing customer development.

But writing code bores me...I hate slogging through coding and debugging whenever I have to do it.

il, I'm the same, but I think it helps to at least be on that side of the fence - a hacker turned to the dark side - than be the proverbial "Here are my mockups in PowerPoint, now build me a website" clueless/exploitative 'business guy'.

If you hate coding you're not a "hacker", in the same way that I am not a vegetarian just because I eat salad before my dinner. We both do it because we "have to".

I used to think marketing was BS too, but I've come to think it's just a different sort of hacking.

I get approached from time to time by people who think I'd be the perfect person for implementing their Big Idea. (That should be red flag number one, since if I'm the best you can do, you clearly don't have good skills at identifying programmers.)

Almost universally:

1) They want full-time effort out of me (often, in the exploitative sense of "full-time"), but they're not full-time on the project themselves.

2) There is zero evidence that they have produced a deliverable for the project. Not even a Powerpoint deck or a napkin.

3) They have no conception of what the BATNA for a talented engineer sounds like. My way to discourage them quickly without being impolite is to quote my consulting rate, which typically causes sputtering.

if I'm the best you can do, you clearly don't have good skills at identifying programmers.

Aren't you underestimating yourself?

Most businesses don't need Knuths. They need "smart & gets things done". By my reckoning, you're way ahead of the average HNer (and myself) at this game.

FWIW, I think Patrick has shown far more business sense than actual programming.

If I were to hire him, I would make sure he stays from actual coding as much as possible; that would be a waste of his talents and our time.

Not "underestimating" his coding skills, it's just that his business sense far eclipses anything else he might be good at: programming, Japanese language, or competitive Polka dancing.

Most businesses don't need Knuths. They need "smart & gets things done".

This can't be said enough. I so often see people get caught up on which technology, framework, or paradigm is right for a given idea (or worse, constantly revise them) that they get slowed down dramatically, or in extreme cases, deadlocked. I do it myself from time to time. Start by grinding something out and going from there.

To the list of things business cofounders could bring, I would also add "deep domain knowledge." For example, if it's a site on selling foos to wumpats, you'd better have spent all of your years before bschool in either the foo industry, working for wumpats, or hopefully some of both.

As a tip, though, I usually just ask bschooler-types a few basic questions like 1) how many foos are bought today 2) how do wumpats make their purchasing cycle (i.e. enterprise, individual, etc.) 3) who are the existing competitors in this space... Most bschoolers, despite having these questions drilled into them over and over during their 60k/year schooling, don't bother doing the legwork to investigate them before looking for a "technical cofounder."

I think that's a good point. So many business decisions are made on gut feeling, and then we make a spreadsheet of wumpats sales to back up our gut.

If all someone brings to the table is "I think this will work" that's essentially nothing.

I'm a software engineer. After spending a few years in Silicon Valley, I have also have met many "business people" who'd pitch me their great idea and try to recruit me.

Now here is the tough question (for engineers): yes, we have the superior ability to execute any idea because we can code. But are we actually going to? This might be generalizing, but most fellow engineers I met prefer working for a stable paycheck -or- prefer hacking a prototype project that never ships. And pet projects started by the above mentioned people (without that business person who pushes them) never get to see the world -- even if the prototype website, iPhone app, etc. is finished, they spend no effort on marketing and give up when no users come.

Again, this is generalizing. There are many examples of hackers who have built very successful ventures (Google, Facebook, et cetera.) But my general observation makes me sad -- many engineers just don't seem to make good founders. What can be done in the engineering community to make hackers more "business-minded" or "shipping-minded," so to say?

As with writing code, just get your hands dirty. Once you start making things happen (making money) you'll get interested quick.

I'm always surprised by the hard lines people draw between technical and business cofounders. 'Technical founders' mock the business side's naivite and reject the notion that any less than 50% of the work in building a business is programming. 'Business founders' think they have all the right stuff and see 16 year olds building facemash or yousquare, then assume anyone can program with a book and an afternoon.

Truth is, if you can slot yourself into one of these classifications that easily you're probably not going to be a very good startup cofounder. A startup requires people to wear lots of different hats, with some being in the technical side and others being on the business side. While normal people, aka business and technical founders, can wear one, maybe two hats at a time, start up founders need to be 12 headed hydras.

I'm not saying that there's no specialization on a startup team; it's necessary. But how will your programming ninja respond when an investor asks about how your branding fits the specific niche you're targeting? Or what will the business dude say when questioned about what stack you're going to deploy on?

Maybe it's time we stopped thinking about business/technical cofounders and started evaluating people as startup cofounders.

My issue with both of the articles, true though they are, is they don't represent the partnership model that most often succeeds: you know, people who are actually friends, who work together and trust each other.

The blind "hello, please believe in me" model seems commonly believed in, but I've yet to hear of tangible cases where it actually worked. (business person recruiting techie at an event).

Great points on both sides. I think a top in the world business person is as helpful for a company as a top engineer, but this doesn't have to be a co-founder. It can an advisor or later hire that has a transformative effect on a business.

Also I would point out consumer internet business people might not be able to have the same impact as a top bd person for an enterprise software company as ES companies have greater needs on building real sales organizations while consumer internet relies on marketing a social phenomena.

Disclaimer: I have not read all the comments below. I was too enraged by this post.


This post is so short-sighted that if Joshua doesn't already have glasses he should buy a pair. I am a little surprised that someone that runs a business actually posted this. Joshua are you aware of all the activities that actually go on in a business? I can enlighten you: - Sales - Marketing - Partnerships - Legal - Design - Customer Service - Business Strategy and yes - Development

The reason this post is short-sighted is that you are forgetting about what ACTUALLY makes a business (not an idea) successful. OPERATIONAL PERFECTION

Some supporting evidence is looking at a business plan or even a pitch deck, how many slides are dedicated to the technical aspect? 1 of 10.

"What you business guys should be thinking about is this: what am I bringing to this business?" THIS IS A QUESTION FOR EVERYONE IN EVERY BUSINESS. If you do not directly contribute to the success of the business then you are not valuable it doesn't matter if you have technical skills or business development skills.

I am not a developer! I said it, i'm proud of it and i never want to be a developer. I could never be successful as a developer and i would be doing my business an injustice if i tried to code anything more then a simple webpage.

Startups need to be higly efficent in the way they do work, each of the team members need to be very focused on what is important and what they are good at. Yes, a smart developer can learn to sell and a smart business development person can learn to code, but WHY would do that business development and technical development are two very different skill-sets.

Maybe you should refer some of the "idea junkies" to this guy http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1608315

"Business Cofounders" in the HN context implies that these people should be of real value. Perhaps the title should have been "<fake;pseudo;micky-mouse>Business Cofounders are a Dime a Dozen".

bottom line: finding great partners of any stripe is tough. it goes beyond mere competency to chemistry, empathy and passion. a bad choice and it sinks the business and leaves a trail of tears. a good choice and, assuming a truly good idea, the potential is hard to quantify. social intelligence and patience on both sides is essential for success. a good match on paper does not necessarily make for one in the real world. it's similar to finding a good investment: personal recommendations, e.g., an effective reputation filter, help winnow down the possibilities immeasurably. but the only thing that matters if whether coder and business dude click. everything else is noise.

The sad thing is that all these co-founders try to pass them selfs off as tech guy but in reality they just bad middle management at best.

Sounds like the relationship between Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson.

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