In my prior article, I wrote about the concept of the business geek. This article was pretty well received and I got a lot of responses from Business Geeks but hadn’t really thought of it that way. So, as a follow-up to that article, I’d like to now talk about why it is critical for most startups to have at least one of each (a tech geek and a business geek), and why it’s so hard for these people to come together.
First, by way of quick context-setting for purposes of this discussion:
Tech Geek: Someone with relatively deep technology experience that understands the inherent tradeoffs and subtleties inherent in building a working software product. Capable of single-handedly creating something that works out of nothing (with just the three Cs: a computer, a compiler and conviction). [Note: Yes, yes, I know, not all development languages require a compiler anymore, so feel free to replace with “runtime environment”, if that makes you feel better]. Key requirement: The ability to actually ship something to customers within our lifetime and respond to customer feedback.
Business Geek: Someone with experience and talent in all of the non-tech issues that startups have to deal with, including, but not limited to: capital needs, finance, sales and marketing, etc. Basically, this is the “everything else” person in the early-stages of a startup. Done correctly, the biz geek should be just as busy as the tech geek in the early days. Capable of single handedly taking a product that sort-of works and figure out how to make money with it while simultaneously keeping the “machinery” running (i.e. power and Internet connectivity).
Summary: A tech geek is someone who is fundamentally capable of building software that customers are willing to pay for. A business geek is someone who is fundamentally capable of actually getting customers to pay for it.
Interestingly, but not surprisingly, one of the biggest causes for startups going sideways is that the above two people cannot come together. Here’s a quick (and hypothetical) summary of the situation:
Tech Geek: I’m a rock-star programmer and have a really, really cool idea that’s going to change the world. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why the idiot investors didn’t bang down my door offering me money for a piece of the action. That’s OK, but because I didn’t really need investors anyway, because I could build my product while living on red beans and rice and put it out on the web. Now, I’m dealing with the issue that prospects that fail to see how my product can change their world. I think I know how to fix it – there are just these three to four more features that the product needs, that I can crank out in the next version… [Eventually, said technology geek rock-star runs out of money or interest or both]
Business Geek: I’ve identified an exceptionally compelling market opportunity. It’s large and growing at a compounded annual rate in the double-digits. Within this market, I’ve identified a go-to-market strategy that is focused on a discrete group of customers that have a common need. Now, if I could only find a tech. geek that can build the friggin’ product, I’d be all set. Not sure why all of these tech morons are out building yet another social book-marking or photo-sharing site. If I could only convince one of them to get a clue and focus on a real problem that will make real money, I’d be set. But screw that, I’ll just outsource the thing to a contracting firm working for $12/hour in
Clearly, the above are somewhat extreme situations – but not that extreme. The part that frustrates me is that in most situations, both of these people would have been much better off if they could simply have come together and attacked a meaningful opportunity together. Based on my experience, the business geeks feel the brunt of the frustration, because they generally have a slightly better appreciation for the situation and have at least made attempts at attracting technology geeks to their cause.
One of the primary issues is that each side is overly dismissive and discounts the value of the other. Technology Geeks might think that biz geeks just wear suits and peddle software once it’s ready. Biz Geeks might think that technology geeks are now commoditized and products can just as easily be developed elsewhere. Both would be wrong.
Summary of My Point: The probability of startup success goes up dramatically if you have both a technology geek and a business geek in the founding team. They generally have critically important and complementary skills. Even “uber-founders” (with both technology and business skills) are better served by attracting additional co-founders.