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How technical does a start-up founder have to be?
28 points by ryanagraves on May 14, 2008 | hide | past | favorite | 52 comments
Does a start-up founder have to be a "hacker"? Can the business major who loves the web and has a good idea about a web based business succeed in the cut throat, competition heavy web space? Or, does one, in order to succeed in a start-up have to spend day in and day out coding in order to really understand how to differentiate and how to survive in the web start-up space? Lets here what you think...

I had the same question about a year back, and I'm sure some of you will remember it. I saw myself as the 'business major [I don't have a major] who loved the web and had a good idea about a web based business.' And there's one thing I found out through posting on web bulletins, posting flyers around school, and trying to network - it's extremely difficult to find a hacker cofounder who is willing to jump on board. How could I, a non-hacker, possibly play an equal contributory role has my hacker cofounder? And furthermor, how could I accurately convey my ideas coming from a frame of mind completely different from that of a hacker? I realized that if any sort of relationship was forged for the sake of having a team, these issues would soon arise in the future and cause much bigger problems, and would ultimately hinder the success and growth of a startup. So I started to learn how to hack, and it literally changed the way I think about ideas. I try to conceptualize how I can tackle problems with code, and how feasible it'd be to do so. And it's this newly found understanding that will help me play a more integral role in my team, and allow me to communicate with hacker cofounders on a leveled playing field. Even two of the Auctomatic founders eventually learned how to hack.

At the beginning, I was irritated by the response I got here. People told me left and right that business people are useless and that if you don't know how to hack you can't go anywhere. But, after getting my feet wet and thinking about it, I understand where they were coming from.

So I guess a business guy can in fact lead a successful startup. But do I think that business savvy guy who knows a bit about hacking will have significantly higher chances of succeeding in the web world? Yes.

"How could I, a non-hacker, possibly play an equal contributory role has my hacker cofounder?"

As the hacker co-founder in a shop of two people, let me tell you, you can play an equal role. Okay, so my partner doesn't setup the servers or write the code or design the site; I do all of that. So what does he do? _Everything else_. Ask most any hacker and they'll give you a laundry list of things they hate doing when it comes to starting/running a business or working on a project of any kind. In fact, it's usually easier just to ask them what they _do_ want to do; the answer will almost always be "code." In my case I add design and a couple other items to the list, but I digress.

You're the one out there networking and making deals, finding advertisers, building a list of beta testers, writing up details on the competition, handling the finances and the ho-hum paperwork, handling the customers/visitors/whoever, and _much_ more. My co-founder has been invaluable to the business (I hope he stays invaluable, too, so he never gets paid ;). He describes his job as essentially making sure I am never bothered. I'll take that over another hacker any day of the week because with another hacker I'd end up getting stuck doing at least half of all that stuff that is no fun, very time consuming and highly distracting (in a job where small distractions can cost huge time).

And (briefly!) on the subject of conveying ideas: Hackers may have different mindsets, but unless your idea involves conveying something in code, you're not going to notice too many issues. My co-founder has come up with a lot of ideas and not once did I not understand him... unless he started talking about differences between LLCs and C corps and crazy talk like that.

So, in summary, if you are "just a business guy," don't give up. Sooner or later most of those one-man-band hacker founders are going to realize turning you down wasn't such a great idea; they needed you after all and now _they_ have to search for a CEO.

EDIT: And I'd like to point out that we got into YC this summer, too. I'll leave you to guess who wrote most of the application, did 99% of the talking in the interview and who had the market knowledge to pitch the idea in the first place. (hint: it wasn't this guy!)

Tom, thanks for the kind words. Our team has been fortunate in the fact that after Tom moved away in high school, he decided to become a programming genius. To add a little bit to what Tom said...

Because of the nature of our project, numerous parties and moving parts are involved. For better or for worse, there's lot of "business stuff" to do on a daily basis. Looking at some of the other YC projects, I could definitely understand the advantages of having two hackers or one hacker and one designer. However, for our project, our skills are extremely complimentary of each other and well aligned with the work that needs to be done.

One caveat, I have built a few simple websites from scratch before and taken a couple programming classes so it's not like I know nothing about programming although Tom would probably argue otherwise :).

I have built a few simple websites from scratch before and taken a couple programming classes

imo that's the perfect level of tech knowledge for a non-technical founder

You bring up excellent points. There is a very long list of things I hate to do would likely screw up even if I tried to do (like file my taxes on time). I would be more than happy to partner with a non-hacker cofounder that had a good idea and was willing to take care of the boring parts. (By good idea I mean a business that can actually make money and with market research to back it up, not gamble on M&A).

Here on the east coast and the events and circles I hang in, developers are a rare thing and hard to come by!

For instance Startup Camp in NYC had one or two hackers/developers not involved in a startup already. The remaining 70 people in the room were creative/business people. Same goes for the DC startup community. Business/creative people population is higher then available developers!

As for me I taught myself web design(html, css, photoshop) and hired a developer from India. He does good work and is inexpensive.

I don't think it matters either way. Rather how focused and driven you are!!!

"How could I, a non-hacker, possibly play an equal contributory role has my hacker cofounder? And furthermore, how could I accurately convey my ideas coming from a frame of mind completely different from that of a hacker? I realized that if any sort of relationship was forged for the sake of having a team, these issues would soon arise in the future and cause much bigger problems, and would ultimately hinder the success and growth of a startup."

Indeed. I'd add that you risk being at the mercy of your staff.

while i havent founded a company yet i have had talks with a friend of doing it at several occasions and while he has a lot of ideas and is very outgoing and got people smarts he didnt really fathom that the tough part is still writing the application and not him giving me a rough idea of how it should be then me doing all the work and we splitting the profit to his favor lol.

For the last ten months, I have been working on my most recent startup, http://www.LoveMyTool.com, which in time will become an online marketplace-of-choice for network monitoring tools (sniffers, IDS, etc.). The business model is old fashioned (no Google ad here). My vision is that we will become a virtual tradeshow (a zero carbon footprint version of Interop or NXTcom, which are million dollar physical events).

In the future, our revenues will come strictly from participating vendors (same as if they were buying a booth, but now they rent the front page for an hour). We are a long way from that. For now, I am concentrating on building a community.

To guide me towards success, I am following the advises given at the Startup School by Paul Graham, Paul Buchheit and David Heinemeier Hansson, which can be summarized as follows …

“Make something people want … don’t ignore [people’s] advice … listen [mainly] to yourself … don’t worry too much about money … the secret to making money … is to ask for it.”

Notice that there is nothing here that says that you have to be a hacker. It just says that you have to find a problem that is worth solving, keep solving it while listening to your instinct and when you are ready, just ask the customers to pay.

In fact, I believe there are two worst things that you can do to ensure failure of a startup which are heavy reliance on VC money and heavy reliance on technology. The focus should be on customer needs. Hacking is just another means to the end.

In my case, I use no special software and therefore have no need for a "hacker" as a co-Founder. Every piece of software that I am using are off-the-shelf (Typepad, iLife suite, Slideshare, Youtube, Blip.tv, Omnisio, etc.) and I have managed to build a site with 350 visitors a day and rising (who are interested in buying products that I am showcasing and have spending authority from tens of thousands to millions). And I did the whole thing for $180 ($150 for TypePad and $30 for URL's).

Anything is possible here. So if you have a killer idea on how to make money on the web, then go for it. Hackers will follow; they always do.

Denny, I'm a bit confused. What you've built for $180 is a group blog, with a somewhat heavy emphasis on talking to vendors. I'm in your space --- quite directly --- and with an order of magnitude more visitors, I have no idea how I'd go about monetizing my site.

I guess it's true that a smart businessperson can create value out of content --- look at John Batelle, Federated Media, and bOING bOING. But:

* They actually did have to build stuff

* It took them years and years and years to get there

* The content they've created is probably harder and riskier to build than software.

I'm not disputing the validity of your idea, just the assertion that you're likely to make money with a business plan and $180.

tptacek - thank you for the comments.

One other lesson that we learned from Startup School is that "advice=limited experience+generalization" so clearly I am not trying to give advice here. But I am trying to answer the original premise of the post which is that "can anyone start a startup without having a hacker as a co-founder?" And my answer is yes and what I tried to do is equate over-reliance on technology with over-reliance on money. In other words, if the original question were "can anyone start a startup without having $500K from a VC as seed money?", the answer would have been yes as well.

Keep in mind that I am talking about the initial stage of a startup. In other words, I am talking about going from nothing to something. Once you are done with the initial concept stage and you have a working model of your product and services and you have a workable business model, then everything changes and you are going from something to something more, which is very different again (in other words, I will need a lot more than $180).

What I have learned is that success of a startup requires both vision and peripheral vision. Having lots of money and lots of technical talents in the beginning help a great deal in terms of executing your vision, but unfortunately they tend to cloud your peripheral vision. In other words, if you have too much money in the beginning, you are going to spend it pushing the market as opposed to finding an opportunity to get the market to pull you. And by the same token, having a strong "hacker" as a co-Founder also can have the same unintended consequence which is that you are going to hit every nail with the same hammer (in the first year of my previous startup, I had to change out the technical team when it was clear that our initial business idea was incorrect).

Again, I am not trying to offer advice here (by generalizing my own limited experience). I am merely trying to answer the original question and my answer is a resounding yes. Anything is possible ... entrepreneurship is the great equalizer.

Thanks again.

Slightly offtopic, but the name


is just chock full of double entendre for the native english speaker. Hopefully that was your intent.

I get this comment at least once if not three times a week. It is a problem but it is a one-time problem and it does have the side benefit that no one would ever forget the brand. Being mildly controversial is actually a feature for a startup.

On the other hand, I have done three different startups in the past. My first one was a component startup and the key to success was in creating a unique socket. My second startup was a system startup and the key was in creating a permanent footprint in the network. This one is online media and I believe the key of success is in creating a unique genre.

In other words, National Enquiry was the first of a new genre (gossip in prints) and so was the movie Matrix (gung fu fighting in blacks). My hope is that LoveMyTool will be a new genre as well which is what I call "Advocacy Marketing". It is about customers and industry experts giving advice and testimonials on TOOLs that they LOVE. And it is slowly catching on.

By the way, (American) English is a very flexible and tolerate language and in some way, I am fortunate that I am not a native speaker because I don't see words and sentences, I see a canvas.

"By the way, (American) English is a very flexible and tolerate language..."

Sure, but that sentence immediately marks you as a second-rate English speaker. Many will take that as a reason to doubt your thoroughness in other areas.

stcredzero - I don't disagree with you.

There is no excuse in not learning to speak and write properly in spite of the fact that for many of us, English is not our first language. And we should try the best we could to make up the difference but it is just one more thing that we have to overcome in our journey as struggling entrepreneurs. But interestingly, my personal experience is that it wasn't until I learn to stutter and I learn to take notes that I start to succeed in startups.

In general, people are suspicious of perfection. You have to show flaws or they won't stop looking for them. I actually had better luck when I don't act perfect. "Strategic Stuttering" turns out to be an important skill.

Also, people don't understand that I have perfect recall (not perfect memory, just perfect recall) and they think that I am not paying attention when I am not taking notes. So I take notes and now everyone seem much happier.

$180? does that include hosting?


You can actually start at $89.50 per year instead of $149.50. The ability to have your own URL is important.

I majored in Business (with marketing) in 1994. The one thing I learned from business school was problem solving. When I accidentally became involved in software, and more later web apps, it was obvious to me that I needed to learn to code at least to the point where I could converse about it. This ended up being one of the best things I've done and I garnered more respect from the team by doing so. My not being able to code was an obstacle - a problem - that was overcome by rolling my sleeves up. And guess what, I enjoyed it and still do to this day.

If you're no hacker, be good with photoshop so you can mockup what you have in mind. Then outsource the hell out of your product, and micromanage it to death. I've done this, and I have a nicely working website, and absolutely no idea how the code that runs it looks like.

This all sounds fabulous until you start putting out fires and possibly start to have troubles with scaling.

Not to downplay your development choice, but it's always nice to be intimate with what you rely on.

Depends on your market. If you ever get to the point where you need to scale your software significantly, you will have people throwing money at you, and you can hire good people. Till then, russian hackers do an excellent job at SQL optimisation.

I don't think that being a hacker in PS is necessary as long as you can provide the designer(s) links/jpegs of things you do like. I think adding PS as a req't/suggestion is completely a waste of time for a lot of people. Bottom line: you want people to be in a position to succeed and taking someone who may not be a visual thinker and telling them they must learn+use PS is a real easy way to lose a lot of great people.

My perspective is that of a person that focuses on the business side and no longer programs but has in the past:

The thing you do in entrepreneurship is essentially 'solve problems' day in and day out. You are constantly resource constrained so you must figure out how to maximize efficiency , whatever that may be in each respective case.

You have an idea (let's assume it is a good one for simplicities sake) but lack the ability to implement. This naturally brings up the question of how to implement - you can learn to do it yourself or hire someone to do it for you. Hire may mean trading equity for the "co-founder's" time or compensating them monetarily. If you cannot afford to hire (try elance, guru, etc) you are left with trading equity. This means that you must now convince someone that you are competent to direct the implementation process ("you bring something to the table").

This is meant to be a pretty straightforward explanation because your question is vague in the sense that the situation you allude to has multitudes of variables.

“Does a start up founder have to be a hacker”- the answer is, NO. The purpose of the founder is to execute. The secret to a start up isn’t the “original idea”…it’s whether or not your founder can execute - never mind the idea. If the founder can’t code a page is he resourceful enough to “execute” and find someone who can…etc.

1. "loves the web"

2. "has a good idea"

3. "cut throat, competition heavy web space"

4. "spend day in and day out coding"

5. "how to survive in the web start-up space"

Nowhere do you mention "building something people want".

Nowhere do you mention the "utter joy of manifesting something out of nothing".

These 2 things are so overwhelmingly important that they really do overshadow everything else, like the 5 details you do mention.

If I wasn't nice, I'd say, "You just don't get it."

But since I am nice, I'll simply say, "You just answered your own question."

This probably sounds fatuous, but hacking experience will make you a better business person in the same way that a daily column will make you a better writer. The reason is that while we are farting about with bits & bytes and star trek jokes, what we're really doing is translating human imagination into a system that is not capable of self-delusion. It does not believe, it does not miss details, it blows up at the smallest inconsistency. Dealing with that is unspeakably frustrating, but it trains you to think more clearly about how systems, any system, actually function. If you are really paying attention you can start using that capacity in other parts of life. The closest business-school type classes to this training would be probably logistics and quantitative analysis

So then I would assume you would also argue that hackers need to know the business side of things for the same reason - yes? Either way, you're choosing a strategy of "Strengthen your weaknesses." There are other strategies like "Play to your strengths" that a lot of people will advocate very strongly. Personally I cannot think to advocate one and only one strategy; I think you have to fit with the dynamics at hand and go with the optimal strategy at the moment.

I'm a generalist, so I suppose that's right. But I am saying something a little more than that.

Computer Science is the first serious attempt to study process as a concept in and of itself. It's the study of how to do things, and how to learn how to do things. A lot of things in life, from business planning to washing a sinkfull of dishes, can be done better if you apply a little process analysis.

It depends on what else you bring to the table

If you have biz dev connections that will get deals made, successful experience marketing or fundraising, a design or creative background, experience in the vertical your product serves, etc, these all can add, um, invaluable value to a company

Exactly. PayPal would have never succeeded without Peter Thiels' ability to close fundings left and right.

However, I do think one of the founders should be technically savvy, and it doesn't hurt to have the business guy to know some hacking either

yep but it would be bleeding without the security algorithm

In all my years working for small to mid sized startups, I have never seen a situation where two people founded a company based on one being the "tech guy" and the other one being "the business guy".

Rvery startup I've worked for was founded by one or two technical people and one person who raised the money. Generally the situation was that someone who had been working for years decided to start a company with a friend and used the reputation and contacts he'd built up over the years to raise money to finance it.

I've never worked at a company with more than 10 employees where there was a non-technical founder who didn't provide access to capital.

With that being said, I think as the "business guy" there will be a lot of pressure on you to work extra hard and really produce (especially if you aren't providing the financing). It's usually not enough to have "good ideas" or "the idea"...you should be bringing something so valuable to the table that the other founder(s) says "Thank god this guy is here!"

It almost seems that a business guy will have to put in more effort than a hacker as a founder. The hacker doesn't have to be an exceptional hacker...he merely has to produce a working website. However since the business guy doesn't have a lot of measurable output, he will have to work extra hard to show that he's carrying his weight.

I come from the realm of web dev.

In this realm, not knowing how to code will make sure somebody else usually has you by the balls. While an extreme micromanaging alpha type can probably get others to do the job and do it acceptably, the level of work and commitment from employee-developers is hard to maintain.

While I agree there is room for non-technical founders who bring a lot to the table (like Thiel) the benefits such a person brings (like fund-raising and market strategy) are often only realizable when the product already exists (i.e. created by the technical people). Therefore it is questionable whether it makes sense to bring biz-only people on board at an early stage unless fund raising and specific biz dev is an essential part of the biz strategy.

Finally, as technical and associated biz changes occur more rapidly, an inability to understand the core technologies will leave more and more biz-only people crippled. Consequently, unless one is close to technical people who share a common vision, my recommendation to anybody interested in the web space is to gain real experience with the relevant technical tools.

Technical enough to learn to program.

The majority of what is considered a web startup these days, appearing on TechCrunch and other such blogs, do not require the complete skills a CS major brings to the table.

If you are going to give it a go, and still in school, consider taking a couple of c++ courses or python if offered. Of course if you are a self starter you can jump right into python - diveintopython.org.

I learned on my own after getting my econ degree at UCLA, and I found that programming for the web is trivial compared to the c++ coursework I took.

I spent many days and nights over a few years learning how to program, setup servers, model my web apps with postgres, manage postfix mail servers etc. But these days, a good framework will get you off the ground and solve most of your database modeling. And a good hosting company will take care of your sysadmin stuff.

So a good co-founder would be someone who compliments your newfound skills and who is the opposite of you - a risk taker or conservative. This should help you better evaluate the difficult decisions that come up.

Of course it is possible for a business major to succeed in the web. There are real-world examples of business majors who won't get into the way of hackers (or techies in general) and give them room to think and play and listen to their feedback and suggestions.

There are also enough who just outsource all technical stuff and only care about their very own 'core competencies'.

But in "feelings" of probability:

Mindset, theoretical background knowledge, and experience are essential to understand what is (not only technically) possible and to see what parts need more effort than others and why. To know hacker culture one should live it, otherwise one won't feel the way hackers do. That doesn't mean that you need to code every day. Thinking about problems and trying your solutions is more important. Couple this with (formal) business knowledge and I am pretty sure an entirely new world unfolds with options unknown before that will outcompete the pure business major in most cases.

What happens when Business Majors enter Web is, they end up reinventing wheel most of the times and most of them are not visionaries. They don't know what is possible and what is not. They come from a place where they think Web as place to make money. But what they don't understand is "no amount of money can buy you audience or position". Some start up from someone's bedroom will change the the whole dynamics of business, look what happened to Music Business. The clash between Business Majors and Hackers is like a Clash between Old Age Media and New Age Open Media. Hackers were pissed with the way Business Majors handled the business with their bureaucracy and high-handedness and hence they started a parallel industry by inventing Internet and a Industry which could thrive upon ideas and openness. This is a Hackers world.

To state the obvious: Not every founder needs to be a "hacker", but every tech start-up needs one "hacker" co-founder.

In other words: yes, the business major who loves the web and has a good idea can succeed-- if he has a "hacker" as a co-founder.

I don't know why this is obvious. I certainly don't agree. History has seen way more successful startups started by "business people" than those founded by hackers. Don't get so myopic that you when you think "startup" you only think about cool things on the internet...

Take a look again-- I said "tech startup". And I maintain that any startup that is focused on "tech" (internet or otherwise) needs somebody who is a true "hacker" on the appropriate "tech".

If you're doing a web startup, it helps to know how to hack, in the same sense that if you're a football coach, it helps to know how to play football.

I realize it's a somewhat flawed analogy, but I like to think of startups that way.

If you're talking about a one-person startup, you need to have some level of technical understanding. In order to turn your idea into a business, you need someone to implement the idea, and that's where the hacker(s) come in. A trusted technical person is your first choice. You can also try to hire contractors to implement for you, but without technical know-how, how will you be able to judge if they're any good?

To OP: If you and I were talking, I would turn the question back on you and ask you: What do you think? If you are the business major in your post, do you think you can? What would it take to make it work? What would make it fail?

I firmly believe the adage that "What you think about, you bring about." Another that comes to mind is "Whatever you believe, you can achieve." I think it's all in the prepwork...

Here's a great post from Joel about exactly that. It doesn't start off like it's answering the question, but it does:


"Watching non-programmers trying to run software companies is like watching..." and you'll have to read the article to find out :)

He's talking about software companies, not businesses on the web in general. Moreover, he's demonstrably wrong: many successful software companies are run by people without developer backgrounds.

For a tech startup, that is, a startup that wins by technology, and not, say, location, connections, or a powerful sales force, one should be at least technical enough to inspire and befriend a highly technical person. In other words, one should be 'hacker compatible'.

It depends on the team, and how tight they are.

A business type alone is full of fail, but a business type with a strong technical partner (emphasis on partner, not employee) could work (if the communication is good enough).

At least one of the co-founders should be in a "computer wizard" level. But almost every startup also needs a business guy.

Programming is one of the easier aspects of founding a successful web startup. Perhaps there is greener grass elsewhere?

as technical as possible. i think a business major has little chance.

_Can the business major who loves the web and has a good idea about a web based business succeed_

Yes. Kevin Rose.

It s very funny to see your reactions. "do we really need a business guy?"

Do you know what business guys say about techno/hacker/super ego hacker guys? They ll always find a dumb one that will do the job for them for few dollars.

It s interesting how you return the situation with so much pretention in a tentative to build yourself a legitimity.

You re just a tool.You re just missing the context. keep dreaming about the 20 successful heros of your tribe that could make it by themselves. Tell me about ego fishes that discuss about freedom inside their glass..

Good luck anyway .

When we talk about startups on this forum, we are only referring to the kind of startups done by hackers, it is fundamentally different from the arrogant MBA school.

Basically, hackers can learn business pretty easily. I'd like to see you hack.

Try http://hacketyhack.net

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