The entrepreneurial world loves nothing like a good meme. One of the more recent ones making the rounds from Palo Alto to Paris is that a startup simply can’t get off the ground without a technical founder. Investors, entrepreneurs and tech journalists alike will tell you that if you’re not a whiz kid fresh out of Stanford’s CS program, you are essentially not fundable — entrepreneura non grata. Well, I am here to tell you that they are right.
Soon, however, I believe we’ll see a marked shift in who holds the cards in the startup world.
First, let’s flesh out the current argument a bit more. It starts like this: to be successful, a startup requires a founder with a deep technical skillset. This is so a functioning beta can be built that attracts users and demonstrates traction. In some cases, the driver of new user acquisition may in fact be a unique new technology itself (example: Sphero or Lark). Users and traction attract investors. Investors inject capital that then accelerates growth. A fast growing startup can eventually be a target for an acquisition or IPO, which completes our argument that a strong technical founder leads to a higher likelihood of startup success. Oh, and if the startup doesn’t grow fast enough? Then the core engineering team forms the foundation for the new exit: the acq-hire.
So, for the moment, the technical founder is in the spotlight. So much so, in fact, that they can often be funded without the presence of their natural counterpart: what we call the idea person, the product visionary, the business founder. But, soon enough, the business founder’s time will come. Here’s why.
If Moore taught us anything about technology, it’s that it advances at an exponential rate. And that includes the tools that we use to build it too. It’s not a stretch to deduce that there will soon come a time when new development tools and environments eliminate some or all of the technical hurdles required to properly execute a startup in preparation for traction and funding.
After all, those technical hurdles are already obscenely low compared to where they were even a decade ago. During the Web 1.0 era of the late ’90s and early ’00s, massive teams of engineers were required to build even a basic content-driven startup, one that could now be built by a single engineer today. Actually, that’s not entirely true. A rich content-driven startup can be created by zero engineers today. Thanks, WordPress!
But who cares about a content-driven startup, you say? Good question. Let’s ignore how the Cheezburger Network, TechCrunch and Groupon all started, and focus on apps instead. A decade ago, your app would have been built using the LAMP stack, Perl or Java. If you were serious (and you raised a ton of capital), you might have even dropped MySQL and used an Oracle database instead (which meant hiring an extremely expensive and extremely crotchety Oracle DB admin).
Today? You’ll build a better app in less time and with fewer people using Python with Django or Ruby on Rails. Easier, but still not the domain of the business founder. But this, too, will change. The same leap that took us from LAMP to RoR will happen again, reducing the amount of people, skill and time required to build a robust web or mobile app. I have no doubt that – at this very moment – there is a talented engineering team busily building modular, drag-and-drop development environments so that those without their skill sets can develop with nearly the same ease that they can. In a way, they may be coding themselves into irrelevance.
In this future state, where the technical hurdles required to build a robust app are virtually eliminated, we’ll experience even more app overload then we do today. When that happens, what separates the winning startups from those that lose will primarily reside within the domain of the business founder’s traditional areas of expertise: optimizing the user experience, executing innovative marketing, and hacking traffic and traction.
Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom for the technical co-founder in the future. For one, many of the most successful technical founders also happen to be great business founders (Drew Houston from DropBox, for instance). And smart business founders will always recognize the benefit of teaming up with an awesome technical partner as well. After all, when any tech-focused startup proves traction and viability, then it needs to ensure that its technical foundation can scale efficiently and reliably to support rapid growth. Then again, if my theory proves to be correct, finding that technical co-founder shouldn’t be nearly as hard in the future as it is now.
So take note of the business founders’ plight today. See how they are slighted by the Valley’s tastemakers. Feel their frustration as potential technical co-founders ignore their ideas and instead execute their own. Encourage them as they clumsily try and learn Python the hard way. Most importantly, however, start to pay attention to them. If the past decade is any indication of what the next one will be like, then it won’t be long before the business founder has the advantage that today’s technical founders enjoy. And, when that time comes, they’ll refuse to be ignored.