(Originally published in iMediaConnection, March 2011) by Eric Picard
Recently I was part of a fascinating discussion among some luminaries in the online advertising and media space. The conversation was kicked off when someone mentioned that a friend was starting an internet company. This led to a rollicking debate about the role of technologists in a startup.
This conversation was interesting because it’s an issue at the heart of my personal passion. I believe that technology has the power to transform business and to transform industries. I suppose that belief is founded upon a lot of evidence. But I found the discussion fascinating because people who wouldn’t argue with the idea that technology has the power to transform industries and businesses often don’t take the next logical leap in their thinking.
Powerful technology — the kind that can transform the world — only comes from the minds of amazing technologists. People who are rare and valuable and extremely creative.
I’ve been fortunate to work with many amazing technologists in my career. The kind of people who create new products and businesses and services — who invent as they breathe. I’ve viewed their willingness to work with me, to aim their big brains at ideas that I brought to the table, as a fantastic gift. And I am incredibly grateful for their collaboration and their partnership. (Thanks John, Phani, Brian, Tarek, Mike, Alex, Wayne, and oh so many others!)
Too often when a business is started by business people who bring technology people in behind them, or as an afterthought, a huge opportunity is wasted. There’s some kind of bad meme at work. There’s a common misconception about how best to build a technology startup. Many entrepreneurs believe that the right way to utilize the engineering resources of their team is to simply dictate to the team what they should build. This bad meme works itself out as something like this: Business team says why the product will be built and what it will be (the market requirements and product requirements), and the engineers just figure out how to build it and when it can get released.
In thousands of companies around the world, this is the path that is followed every day — the path of engineering as a solution provider. It is possible to build products this way; it’s been happening for a long time. But rarely does something world-changing, industry-changing, or even company-changing come out of this kind of process. Don’t use process as a fence. Don’t use process as a way to control your engineering team, or you’ll get crappy products without any spark of inventiveness. Give your amazing technologist room to breathe and experiment and invent.
There is a reason that technology companies tend to trade at much higher multiples than service companies. Technology has the ability to act as an incredible multiplier. It can supercharge a business. It’s the difference between recreating a process that existed in paper on a computer screen, and inventing a new recommendation engine that helps you find flavors of ice cream you never realized you might like. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that because you’re a smart business person that you can remove all the thinking from the development process.
So, what direction can I give you to ensure that your business is not creating business solutions rather than game-changing technology?
1. Don’t hire a programmer to work for you; partner with an amazing, creative, and capable technologist.
I wasn’t kidding: I mean a partner, not an employee. If you can’t invent the future without a technologist, don’t be stingy — find the best you can, and invent the future together. In my experience, amazing technologists tend to be amazing at a lot of things. You might find that they were a race car driver, or a musician, or a professional cyclist. Or maybe they just write amazing code.
2. Only hire A+ people.
Once brought on board, your amazing technologist (unless he or she is just inexperienced and not quite as amazing as you thought) will not hire anyone who is not an amazing developer. So why are you going to hire a B- marketing person and a C+ sales person? A+ people will simply not work with people who aren’t also A+ players. Will not.
When you hire the niece of your VC’s sister to be a marketing assistant, you’re quietly killing your company. I’ve seen a lot of situations where amazing technologists simply refuse to listen to business teams because the business team is made up of idiots. Hiring anyone on any of your teams who is below the quality bar you’ve set for the engineering team will alienate the rest of the team. It will drive them nuts. Only hire people who are amazing, creative, argumentative, and who seek the truth. And I promise you harmony and success.
3. Don’t be stupid and set up the corporate structure with the product people reporting into marketing or sales.
If your company is making breakfast cereal or toasters, then maybe it makes sense to put product management under a marketing leader. And if you’re a media company, maybe it makes sense to put product management under the VP of sales (I don’t think so — but I won’t argue the point).
If you’re building a technology company, product management probably isn’t even necessary. But since nobody is going to listen to me about that, do the next best thing. Put product management under the right other person. If you listened to me with No. 1, then your amazing technologist is probably good enough to own product management as well as the developers and test team. But if for whatever reason that doesn’t work out, then you should keep product management reporting into the CEO or the COO.