Christoph Schiessl's Blog

Software Start-Ups without Technical Co-Founders

Software start-ups are everywhere. Every single day, you can read about dozens of new and ambitious start-ups in the news. There are many special websites to report about start-ups and other topics that entrepreneurs and developers might be interested in – yes, I’m looking at you HackerNews.

It’s great to see that so many people are trying to invent new stuff, to improve people’s lives, to make business more efficient, and to earn their living without depending on established companies. However, those things are just idealism and apply to all start-ups. This is article is supposed to be about software start-ups. So, what’s the distinguishing feature of software start-ups? You hardly need any money to get started – all it takes is time, a bit of talent, and most importantly dedication. Or so it would seem…

An increasing fraction of these so-called software start-ups in my environment are created solely by non-techies – all the co-founders have a background in business or some other discipline, but none of them have the technical skills required to turn their idea into a product. To compensate for this short-coming they have to hire developers to implement the actual product based on their idea.

I’m writing this article, because I’ve recently been interviewed for the position of lead developer in a munich-based software start-up. The two guys who conducted my interview, were the two co-founders – both of them with a background in business. By the way, it was instantly clear to me that I was talking to businessmen, when they asked to me sign a non-disclosure agreement after about three minutes. I guess clichés don’t exist for no reason :)

So, I signed the NDA and they explained their idea to me. I’m always trying to be critical with regards to new business ideas, but they convinced me that theirs had at least some potential. Even though, I have to admit that I’m certainly not an expert and my opinion is therefore of limited value (and I’m known to be occasionally wrong about such things).

Back to the article’s topic. Let me make two claims about the problems that arise from the lack of technical co-founders:

  1. The probability of a start-ups success is significantly higher with a team composed of developers and business people. Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating that all co-founders should be developers. Quite on the contrary, I learned the hard way that business is just as important as technology. After all, your company won’t survive very long if you’re not making sound business decisions. What I’m saying is that at least one of your co-founders should be a developer who’s success is directly tied to the company’s success. Why is this important? Firstly, you don’t need to hire a developer right-away – your first developer is your co-founder and he can develop the first version or at least an early prototype of your product. Secondly, he has a better understanding of the purely technical aspects of the product you’re trying to build – he speaks the same language as the developers you’re eventually going to hire later on (which is extremely useful for evaluating potential candidates). Thirdly, your co-founders are your peers – they have the ability to say no and can thereby stop you if you are about to make a foolish decision. Whereas, your employees pretty much have to do whatever you tell them to do – even if it is a nonsensical idea.
  2. Since start-ups usually have very constrained budgets, hiring a decent team of developers is difficult to say the least. Developers want to and deserve to make a decent living – their compensation should be appropriate for their skill-level and the number of hours they are putting in. You simply can’t hope to hire a competent team of developers, if don’t have the money required to pay them in your bank account.

All in all, the exclusion of developers from your founder team is bad for everyone. The co-founders don’t maximize their probability of success and the employed developers might not be able to get the same compensation they would get from your competitors.

At the end of the day, the quality of the code you are producing is going to be one of the deciding factors about your success or your failure. There’s no way around that: Even the most sophisticated business- and salesmen can’t make up for a crappy product.

Let me conclude this article by summarizing as follows: To maximize your probability of success, you need businessmen and developers – both disciplines should be represented by at least one co-founder. If you are a businessmen and can’t (or don’t want to) find a developer to co-found your company, you should at least try to pick up as much as you can about your start-ups technology. Just don’t forget that there has never been a successful software start-up that didn’t produce quality code.

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