The Myth of the Technical Cofounder

There is much discussion on startup sites like Hacker New and Quora revolving around the idea that every software startup needs a technical cofounder. The idea is that outsourcing engineering rarely leads to a quality product and investors are not likely to invest money if the tech-engineering isn’t done in house.

This may well be true. But it GREATLY overlooks the value of other roles in a startup, primarily sales. Paul Graham (of Y-Combinator fame) had a good post last week talking about how it is virtually impossible to code your way to success. He says – and I agree – that at some point, someone in your company is going to have to find customers and partners and negotiate contracts. For some reason, these vital roles are often put on the backburner. My guess is that many technical people simply don’t want to do them or are scared to dive in to sales and marketing – so they hide behind code instead of getting out there to sell the product.

A recent startup, Convore, recently changed their model because they couldn’t make any money despite a decent product. THe founder was quoted as saying (paraphrase) that they were in a fuzzy area because without a million users they couldn’t get advertisers interested.


They built a product/business and the way they planned on succeeding was by getting a MILLION users (or more) and selling ads? If you know 100 people who will use your product then you would need each of them to get 100 people to sign up and each of THOSE people would need to get 100 people to sign up to get to 1,000,000 users. Think about how unlikely that kind of adoption is. And to base your entire/sole business model around it is not only foolish, but shows an utterly ridiculous avoidance of doing the hard sales and marketing work.

Conversely, if a company had a skilled salesperson capable of selling the product for $1/month to each user then it would be reasonable to imagine that getting 50 companies with 1,000 users each would result in a solid business with both the time and money to continue to grow (or 500 users at $50 a month or 100 companies at $200 a month, etc.)

While having technical expertise is of course vital in any software startup, you absolutely MUST avoid thinking that simply producing a great product will result in success. In fact, having a great product is only marginally better then having a crummy product if you still have no sales support. It’s like having a cruise ship sitting at port compared to a rubber dingy – neither one is going to sail across the ocean without fuel to run the engines.

Being technical is great. Having superior code and security and a dazzling user interface that provides value is all well and good. But if you don’t have people on board that can get someone else to give you their hard earned money in some way (whether it be customers, investors, advertisers, etc.) then you will be dead in the water.

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