Silicon Valley is mean to MBAs
This tumblr, Whartonite Seeks Code Monkey, made me laugh.
It’s full of emails from clueless Wharton MBAs which read like this:
This also reminds me of the famous quote on valuing startups:
Add $1,000,000 in value for every engineer.
Subtract $500,000 in value for every MBA.
Here’s why it’s hard: The nerd perspective is, they don’t need you
Much of the reason why it’s insanely hard to find a really good technical cofounder is that the best ones really don’t need you. Or at least they don’t think they need you.
Because there’s an illustrious track record of engineering-founded companies succeeding, spanning from HP to Facebook, there’s a lot of datapoints that say that a 20-yo Stanford computer science major can do it himself, or at least with his other CS roommates. Similarly, the very best alums out of places like Facebook and Google have lots of access to capital, advice, and people- these are all recipes for making you (the biz founder) completely irrelevant.
So I think the right point of view is just to accept that the amount of leverage strong technical folks in the Valley have is just the facts, and you’ll have to work around that.
They are not the code monkey. You are the biz monkey.
That’s just how it is.
Picking the right idea
One key way to mitigate this is to pick the right idea that doesn’t require ridiculous amounts of technical expertise upfront. You can build a great company that’s extremely sales driven rather than product driven in categories like:
- Enterprise sales
- Groupon for X
- Blog/media sites aka Content farms
- Ad network
I’m sure I’m leaving many other categories out.
For anything above, a lot of the work is in sales, and the actual technical infrastructure doesn’t require a strong engineer to pull together, at least initially. You’ll need them to scale it, but at that point hopefully you’ll have more money and more momentum.
For the kinds of ideas above, they might be easy enough to build in the short-run that you can get a different kind of coder at first. You can get someone who can code up a site and potentially have some visual design background, rather than an “engineer” who has theoretical understanding of computer science, understands performance tradeoffs, etc. There are more of the former than that latter in the world.
At the same time, note that many of the ideas above may not be particularly exciting to an engineer that wants to play with technologies. So perhaps something that combines the two can help – for example, MySQL is a great example of a cool technology (at the time) but clearly couldn’t have been turned into a company without a lot of business types running around.
Understanding and communicating what you really bring to the table
If you read through the Wharonite Seeks Code Monkey blog, you can see that obviously they are mostly noobs and don’t know what exactly is the valuable part of what a biz cofounder can do versus not. This is true of many startups, both biz and geek-led, but there is huge overvaluation of the initial idea.
What do geeks really need help with? It’s very simple- there’s a class of purely business-related stuff that adds value:
- selling stuff and making money
- getting partnerships and marketing/distribution of the product
- funding the company
- scalable marketing/monetization strategy (ad arb / viral / freemium / etc.)
- team recruiting, particularly of other engineers and disciplines (not other MBAs please)
If you are an expert at any of the above and can show it, then there’s a lot more value. Very few business folks, particularly newly-minted MBAs (with the exception of Stanford folks) or industry-switchers can really deliver on these though, which is why they’re not bringing much to the table.
Then there’s a class of things that are much more product-oriented, and while it overlaps with the skillset of some engineers, if you have great skills in any of the following, they are clearly valuable too:
- design, especially visual design
- UI/frontend skills – HTML/CSS/JS – even if mediocre!
- copywriting within the product for help text, marketing, etc
- user research and customer development
- usability testing
Again, it all depends on what you’re really good at and what the particular product needs – enterprise might require less of the above, but a more solid initial product might help.
Worst comes to worst, write it yourself
And finally, there’s a nice track record of technical-enough people writing the first version of something and then having great engineers build it up later. Foursquare was like that, for example. More recently, David Binetti of Votizen wrote the first version of his product. I have immense respect for folks who do this, because it means they’re making “good-enough” progress without waiting for exactly the right technical partner to show up.
Any other thoughts or tips to share?
If you guys have other thoughts on ideas or thoughts on this topic, especially from those who are on the technical side, of how to attract and partner with engineers, write me a note in the comments! I’ll update this post as we go.
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