Today, some hold the attitude that coding talent is all that matters, and without coding ability, one does not have a clear value-add to a founding team. “All my MBAs and non-developers for a single coder.”
Those that I have seen who hold this attitude include:
- Certain angels who think that a founding team of just a roomful of engineers and developers equals success;
- Certain developers looking for co-founders who don’t see the value add in non-developer skills sets;
Coding talent, just like a business background or numerous other skill sets, are not essential in a great founder. What is essential in those who start great businesses is that they have the ability to formulate, create, and articulate visions and follow through on making this vision into a reality. These people come from various different backgrounds, and the common thread is that they are rare.
Indeed, Vivek Wadhwa has an interesting piece on how entrepreneurs transcend educational background or skill set. He quotes Steve Jobs, who talks about the important of different backgrounds:
“It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing, and nowhere is that more true than in these post-PC devices”.
What’s essential for entrepreneurs is that they can figure out what the customer needs and deliver it in a format that the customer will want it and use it (“makes our heart sing”). These folks can envision a reality that customers will embrace, are able to describe and sell that reality to others to join them in creating it, and then are able to execute on creating it.
Rightfully so, one of the archetypal storylines today is that of Mark Zuckerberg. This may have given some the misimpression that any young guy in a hoodie who can code is the next Zuck. Similarly, it may have given some the misimpression that if you can’t code, you can’t succeed as an entrepreneur. But Zuck was not primarily successful because he was a coder. The key to Zuck is that he had a vision of something people would be drawn to and how to start that rolling (the latter was probably the important part in the beginning given existing social networking sites); he had people around him who shared and helped develop that vision (Peter Thiel and Sean Parker); and this team made a lot of good business choices toward that vision. While it helped Zuckerberg that he could code so he could turn that vision into a reality, many folks can code, but most folks will not ever formulate and pursue a truly compelling vision. An ability to conceive and execute a truly compelling vision is much rarer than coding ability or business development ability or financial ability or legal ability or any other ability.
In the late 1990s, I saw a lot of similar hubris about MBAs or certain business experience as the necessary skillset, and there was among some quarters a condescension toward the tech side. That was incorrect then, but it’s missing the point to draw the wrong lesson now. The right lesson is that entrepreneurial genius comes in all flavors and is not inherent to a specific educational skill set. In other words, in looking for another Zuck in the form of an irreverent coder in a hoodie, you might actually be missing the next Zuck who comes in a different form as your co-founder or someone to invest in.
I have a nuance to add to this about hustle in a future post, which is an essential part of vision.