It was early in my undergraduate studies when I was first approached by someone with a startup idea. I didn’t know the would-be founders particularly well, but I quickly realized that they had no technical skills whatsoever. They were going to pay me in equity (+ $200), and they were going to turn the world of 3D printing upside down. I was excited to be given such attention, even showing up to the “interview” wearing a blazer. One of the first questions that I was asked while in the upperclassmen’s shabby apartment was if I used LSD. Things didn’t work out–for me or for them.
It turns out that engineers are commonly sought out by “businessmen (innovators, visionaries)” to develop new products. The people who want to found such new businesses end up being clueless. Universally, to the point that it has become a meme, the founders severely undervalue engineers’ time and speak to them in a condescending manner. Maybe you would too if you legitimately believed that 1. Ideas have value (they don’t) 2. Your idea was worth several million dollars and 3. You alone had the skills and expertise (sans programmer) necessary to execute the idea.
The phenomenon has played out, in the same way, thousands of times. It was first typified (to my knowledge) in the Whartonite Seeks Code Monkey blog. The premise is nearly identical: A Wharton (UPenn business school) MBA student has a once-in-a-lifetime idea and hopes to employ a software engineer to work (most likely doing several different jobs) with little actual pay and little upside. Such an arrangement is particularly offensive to engineers because it reinforces the trope of them being a code monkies–having no social skills or ability aside from mindlessly coding all day. Today, that is hardly the case. While engineers don’t make the best salesmen, many engineers I know could go blow-for-blow with the stereotypical business student when it comes to critical thinking, competitive strategy, and implementation details. A potential partner assuming that you aren’t capable is just silly.
Over time, that blog lost steam. But arrogant people were seeking out code monkies in record numbers. A Facebook group was born, named I’ll Handle the Business Side. This tagline is appropriate because, as you might imagine, it consists of engineers posting photos of conversations in which they are told by their prospective employer, partner, or boss that he will be handling the business side. Hm, fair trade.
Here’s the funny part. A year ago, I was approached by two DJs. I knew one of them. I didn’t know the other. They had no coding experience. It proceeded in the predictable way that we quickly satirize. They wanted me to design a simple (kind of an oxymoron–but stay with me) SaaS platform and website for them while they… handled the business side. I thought to myself, hey, this doesn’t sound like a great idea, but let’s see if I can make it worth my while.
As I spent more time speaking with the prospective team, I warmed up to the idea. They already had customers while doing almost everything by hand. They were willing to pay me a modest fee upfront and let me set relaxed deadlines. They weren’t willing to give me equity but were willing to share a non-trivial portion of gross earnings. Eventually, we negotiated to the point that I felt that there was no downside for me. I started work on the site.
A year later, I still get pitched for stupid ideas. Just the other night, an Uber driver offered to “team up” with me at four in the morning. The startup that I became involved with is, believe it or not, quite successful. And everyone is happy. Why did I let two people handle the business side and why am I still happy despite not having equity?
When it comes to starting a business from scratch, the first thing to keep in mind is that it’s usually impossible for a single person to possess everything that’s required to cause the business to flourish. Even if a lone ranger does have the connections, expertise, capital, skillset, temperament, and motivation, there are still only 24 hours in each day. So, even for a superstar, there’s a real benefit to finding someone who you can compensate to take some work off your plate. More likely, there is someone who has more expertise in certain areas than you do (well, duh, this is why businesses grow).
The finer details of job descriptions are usually thrown out the window at startups. People wear many hats. When I joined the team, we each had a specific role. One of the DJ’s, Matt, would handle sales. The other, Ryan, wanted to do… sales (plus some other stuff!). I would work on the technical side.
Before launch, it became clear that we all had useful ideas about business development and competitive strategy. We started collaborating. When I say that, I mean that we spoke over the phone every other day. This was necessary because the niche we were in was crowded and our approach wasn’t particularly revolutionary. Then, it turned out that Ryan was significantly better at customer service than sales. I ended up being better than any of the people we could find online when it came to content writing, so I started writing blog posts and all of our email and ad copy. As the months went on, I realized that the time I spent coding was–to be perfectly honest–overshadowed by the tireless effort of the founders to find new customers and then keep them happy.
Customers are the most important part of most businesses. My code wasn’t groundbreaking; the website wasn’t anything new. Each of the founders employs at least one assistant and they’re kept busy, too. I’d like to think that my sense for developing a business is acute, but I’m outshined as a salesman and customer service isn’t my forte either. The two guys who dedicate themselves to the customers for countless hours each day are getting an appropriate slice of the pie. Metaphorically speaking, mine doesn’t come with ice cream on top, and that’s totally fine.
Contrary to all the hate for entrepreneurs without technical chops, I’ve come away valuing salesmanship almost as much as engineering expertise. I could have coded some stuff, teamed up with a different group, and reached a different outcome. I’ve often said that ideas are useless without implementation. The truth is that a lot of fully-featured software products are valueless without sales and marketing.
After delivering the product and website, my maintenance burden has been minimal. I’m still retained as an advisor and to implement improvements, but it’s simply not a fulltime job. Perhaps I’m using the wrong basis of comparison since this isn’t a zero-to-one project like The Next Facebook, but I don’t think my takeaways are that much less relevant.
I let someone handle the business side and we made it work. I’ve found fulfillment in my role and have newfound appreciation for the business functions derided by engineers. Building teams will never be an exact science, but I’m thankful that I gave this one a chance.