Founder Tips: The Technical versus Non-Technical Founder

Yes, I am going to say it outloud: engineers and sales people generally don’t understand each other and might even dislike each other within many parts of the world – especially Silicon Valley. At least this has been my experience over the past decade. The funny part is that they need each other. Yes, consumer product founders, even you have to monetize in a meaningful way at some point; meaningful ad campaigns don't sell themselves.

Why, you ask?

Engineers tend to think that all sales people are dishonest, unethical, and would sell their soul for a buck -- and sales people tend to assume that engineers move too slow, are hard to communicate with, and don't take their feedback seriously. These are certainly only a few of the many reasons.

As a long time non-technical, non-engineering founder who has been in the tech startup game since 2003, it became very clear to me that a) I would need a technical co-founder to launch any meaningful tech startup (outsourcing is dangerous and usually a bad idea; certainly longer term), and b) as more of a hustler/salesperson myself, engineers are very hard to recruit and get bought into my ideas.

I failed venture and after venture because I would recruit the wrong engineering co-founder and they either flaked or were not competent enough to build what we set out to launch. And because I had no clue what the tech stack should look like, if the code was good or not, or even what it actually took from an effort standpoint to build a functional piece of software, it was nearly impossible to launch a real tech company without the right engineering co-founder.

As a non-technical founder we tend to drastically underestimate what it takes to build technology whether it be software or hardware. We provide poorly articulated specs (if we even know what a spec or PRD is) or specs that are always bloated and end up being nearly useless to an engineer who is trying to understand how to bring the concept to life.

And what I have seen happen and personally experienced time and time again is the communication between these parties break down and needless to say this leads to frustration and conflict between the technical and non-technical founders.


So what’s the solution?

Although there are no silver bullets here, begin with the expectation that communication and alignment will probably be in jeopardy at some point and probably sooner than expected. Clearly communicate your expectations and communication styles.

Sit down with your co-founder and plan for these moments, so when you do encounter them you are ready to solve all issues and continue moving forward.

Start small and stayed focused. Build an MVP (minimum viable product) and don’t create bloated specs. You can and should have a longer-term vision but focus on getting the most basic product out there that is obviously useful and actually works.

For non-technical founders: Bugs are inevitable so stay calm and let the engineers fix them.

Balance between Innovation and Customer Requests

One thing that has driven me crazy for years is the battle between continuing to innovate and move the needle on the product side versus building boring features based on customer requests.

I have been on both sides of this argument. However, as a founder of a product I tend to side with the maintaining of innovation side versus only focusing on customer requests. I believe that if you truly know the space you are operating within then you should be pushing the envelope of innovation and disruption.

That said, you can’t obviously ignore paying customer requests so finding a balance between both is critical. During one of my last product experiences I found the product/engineering team selling out, stopping innovation, and focusing only on building customer requests. The product suffered and it was slowly becoming a boring, "me too" application.

Why this is this a problem? – Well, this is of course all my subjective opinion, however there is no way that your customers, especially most middle managers at some enterprise/b2b company is going to understand the vision that you have for your product.

You might encounter a few very savvy folks who get it, but generally they are just looking for features that solve immediate issues related to their day-to-day job. They are not thinking about how to disrupt an industry for you or innovate in ways that perhaps haven't been seen before.

Of course all of this is relative. For example, if you are creating a brand new category like Uber has then the simple fact that you can order a cab from your phone and watch it come to you on a map was pretty insane enough by itself. But if are in an established space where many other options are available adding just another "nice to have" feature that everyone else has just because a few customers requested them, is far from innovation. I admit this is a hard balance to find because customer feedback plays a very important part when developing a product roadmap.

Make sure that all founders understand the careful balance that should exist here and have a plan to be able to execute effectively as it relates to customer features versus innovation.

Have regular meetings that are focused on alignment and communication optimization. I promise you will have a happier more agile and productive team.