How To Ignite Your Technology Startup[i]
I feel I have been distracted lately. I have strayed from my original focus on topics that have a practical relevance to African entrepreneurs seeking to build technology startups. Lately, I have taken on topics of a more broad and general nature. That was the case in the 4-part series How To Make Africa More Innovative and Entrepreneurial and again in How Can Africa’s Governments Harness Mobile Technology To Engage Rural Parents In The Continent’s Drive To Improve Educational Outcomes?.
This week’s post is the beginning of a course correction. I’m going back to the basics – writing about some of the practical issues that entrepreneurs grapple with everyday. First, an update; in On Startups, Business Plans And Failure I told you I was studying for a test. Well the results were communicated to us on July 24. I passed, and have already registered for the next and final exam in the series. I have a year to get ready. Please wish me luck. I am told, by potentially unreliable sources, that only 20% of the candidates that begin this particular series of professional exams make it through to the end.
Before I jump into the topics of today’s post, some coming attractions. Two weeks from today I’ll start using The Startup Owner’s Manual[ii] to guide our conversations. Generally, we will consider one chapter of the book every two weeks. By my reckoning that should take us pretty much to the end of 2012, and possibly even into early 2013. Now, back to our regular schedule.
While contemplating the topic for today’s post, I started reflecting again on my recent experience as a volunteer MBA Consultant to a team of entrepreneurs-in-training at the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology in Accra. That got me thinking about how startup teams come together, and about the decision making process that leads to the formation of these teams. I found inspiration in two articles. You can read them for yourself by following the links at the end of this post.
The first article[iii] discusses a topic that I am certain many people with an idea that they believe could form the basis for a technology startup think about frequently; how do you become a technology entrepreneur if you are not an engineer? How do you succeed in building a product if you are not an engineer, or do not know how to write software code? The author is a marketing manager at Mozilla, and this is her advice.
- First, focus on your strengths – do not spend a lot of time trying to become a programmer, or an engineer. Attend to those areas of the business in which you excel, and find people who can attend to other areas of the business. I should point out that not having a technical background should not prevent you from contributing meaningfully to product development.
- Second, don’t cut corners on development costs – find and pay for the best engineers you can locate. Work with them directly. Avoid the curse of trying to save money on development costs only to find that you must return to square one because you have had to jettison work that was poorly done.
- Third, thoroughly vet technical candidates – you might need to get creative. Ask someone knowledgeable to vet engineers and other technical candidates on your behalf. If your startup has technology at its core, your vetting of the engineers and developers you will be relying on has to be absolutely and completely thorough.
The second article[iv]continues the theme of forming a startup’s founding team. Dr. Douglass Merrill, former Google CIO and now co-founder of a loan underwriting technology startup called ZestFinance, spoke with the author about how he went about finding a co-founder for his technology startup.
- First, look for someone very much unlike you. The people around you should not think, look, or act like you because you want them to ask different questions. The entrepreneur seeking a startup co-founder or co-founders must fight the psychological tendency to gravitate towards people with whom they share similar traits. Instead seek people whose traits are complementary in nature to your strengths. Of course, this does not mean a hard worker should seek the opposite, but you get the idea.
- Second, choose co-founders with whom you share common values. It is important to maximize diversity amongst the co-founders. However the co-founders should not be complete opposites. It is important that co-founders share similar deep-seated beliefs about the world; family, work, communication, integrity, honesty, and politics for example.
- Third, don’t create silos based on duties. There is more than one way this can play out. It is not clear that having silos within the co-founding team is the only way to go. In certain cases, it may have to work that way simply because there’s just no other way to make things work – e.g. a political scientist with no engineering background invents and designs a brand new financial exchange and launches the company with a software engineer who then builds the system on which the company’s business is run. In the article the co-founders find that there’s a significant amount of overlap in their skills, and it works in their favor. Dr. Douglas Merrill is quoted saying “I’m a believer in overlapping circles. While the degree of overlap is a case-by-case basis, I think [having] no overlap is unlikely to work out.”
- Third, don’t be afraid to get social – this is a topic that Tayo Akinyemi touched on inCareer Building – Remember Where Your Heart Is. Co-founders need to have a strong relationship, one that goes beyond work. In this case the co-founders of ZestFinance have built a friendship, and spend time together in social settings related to work, and outside work. According to Dr. Merrill: “In the event that we’re arguing over something, we know that it doesn’t really matter, because at the end of the day, we’re still friends. That gives you a lot of room to disagree, because you know at the end of the day that everyone’s still buddies.”
So it seems to me that this is the bottom-line; if you have an idea you believe can form the basis for startup don’t spend too much time fretting about your lack of technical know-how. Find a co-founder, or team member who brings to the table what you lack. At the same time, make sure you are teaming up with some one that see’s things from an angle different from yours, with whom you share certain fundamental values and with whom you can share a laugh when times are good, with whom you can commiserate when times are tough, and with whom you can debate issues related to the growth and success of your startup without anyone getting bitter and personal enmity creeping into the picture. In a sense, pick your co-founder as you would pick your spouse.
Let’s talk again in two weeks. On deck? Contemplations about The Path to Disaster: A Startup Is Not a Small Version of A Big Company – chapter 1 in The Startup Owner’s Manual.
[i] Any mistakes in quoting from my sources are entirely mine.
[ii] Steve Blank and Bob Dorf, The Startup Owner’s Manual Vol. 1: The Step –by-step Guide for Building a Great Company, Pub. March 2012 by K and S Ranch Publishing Division.
[iii] Laura Forrest, How To Be A Tech Entrepreneur Without Knowing How To Program, accessed online on 5 August 2012.