The Downside of Being a Technical Founder

We frequently hear non-technical entrepreneurs lament how hard it is to find technical co-founders (especially in the current environment). It’s a commonly held belief that it is better to be technical yourself if you are starting a tech company. This is probably true, but I’ve been thinking about the other side of the coin and I want to present the downside of being a technical founder.

I’m mostly reflecting on my own experience. I have a masters degree in engineering from Stanford and I love to code, but I’m also attracted to all areas of running a business and wouldn’t be happy as a pure software engineer. This has always been the case–I did both an engineering and a business degree for undergrad. So my ideal role in the companies I have started is Founder/CEO.

The crux of the problem is this: writing code creates a feeling of very tangible progress, whereas other business tasks like meetings and planning and recruiting etc don’t. If I spend a week taking meetings, and then look back at my progress at the end of the week, I find it difficult to point to anything concrete that I have achieved (even though these meetings often yield important results in the future). However, if I spend a week coding, I can very easily point to features that I’ve built and shipped. It is therefore very tempting to spend time writing code even though it is probably not the highest leverage thing for a CEO to be working on. For this reason, being a founder who can’t code may be a blessing in disguise. Such founders are forced to hire/outsource coding tasks and thus better leverage themselves, since they don’t have the option to just fall back on writing code themselves.

I often observe friends who are non-technical entrepreneurs, and who treat coding as just another task that needs to be done for the business. The best of these entrepreneurs seem to have a ‘hustle’ about them and just seem to get stuff done. They are free from the diversion and distraction of “oh I’ll just code that up myself” and so they are able to operate at a higher level and apply their time to all areas of the business that need it. I sometimes wish I had the discipline to do this, but then I oscillate to another conflicting mindset where I’m glad I have the ability to quickly prototype new ideas and don’t need to rely on anyone outside of myself. I fantasize about coding up dozens of prototypes of all the ideas in my head, eventually finding one that resonates with customers and becomes a business.

I guess my conclusion is that I’m glad that I can code, but I need to have the discipline not to code when I will gain greater leverage by applying my time to other areas of the business. As much as I envy those who can’t code because they don’t need to consciously make this decision, they probably envy me just as much when they need to spend hours, days or weeks working with an engineering team to get something built that I could just do myself.

 
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