Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Dual Founders Manage Technology Startups Better

I often hear the qualms of business-smart but non-technical entrepreneurs, wondering if they really have a chance in this high-technology marketplace. I tell them that if their idea or solution is technology intensive, they clearly need technology strength on the team. Then the question becomes “How do I evaluate and attract the best technical talent?”

The simple answer is to find a business partner, not an “implementer,” who already has the technical experience you need, and is willing and able to run that side of the business. Finding that person is not a hiring challenge, since neither of you really get paid until you both succeed. Here the principles of finding any top executive apply, as I’ve covered in a previous article.

If you are an entrepreneur, like Andrew Mason, CEO of Groupon, with a degree in music and no technical business partner to be found, your job is a bit harder. Yet the smart entrepreneur can still bootstrap the technical team, using one or all of the following evaluation and hiring approaches:

  1. Hire an expert consultant for initial interviews and recommendation. This is the technical equivalent of an “executive recruiter.” It definitely works, but may be beyond your budget. On the other hand, it may save you more time and dollars than you will expend recovering from a hiring mistake.

  2. Start with great credentials, and focus on the culture fit. For any technical position, a great resume is necessary but not sufficient for a team fit. Your non-technical interview needs to determine if there is a chemistry match, passion, integrity, and willingness to work with others on your team.

  3. Interview former employers, more than the candidate. This approach only works if you know them, are willing and able to talk face-to-face, or meet them in at a conference or another business setting. Most employers, due to fear of lawsuits, will only confirm employment data and give you positive feedback over the phone.

  4. Ask early candidates how they differentiate themselves from their peers. Then use their insights in questioning other candidates. You might be surprised at how fast you get to be an “expert” on a given technology, and how easy it is to eliminate candidates who don’t have a clue. Evaluate how clearly they answer the question, as well as the answer.

  5. Use questions to test analytical and problem solving ability. Pick a domain you are familiar with, and test the candidates ability to think outside the box and communicate logically. Sometimes brain teasers are a good start. Ask the candidate about things they have built on their own, and what they do to challenge themselves.

  6. Use existing team to find a new manager or peer. If you already have some technical people on board, like software developers, and need a new manager, you supply the candidates based on credentials, and let them do initial interviews and make recommendations.

  7. Outsource your technical requirements. If you can clearly define the specifications for your technical project, and you are willing and able to manage the efforts closely, then outsourcing it to a local or remote technical group beats hiring technical employees. It leaves you with no long-term personnel commitment, but low control of your core assets.

In general, unless you are a quick learner, these alternatives don’t solve your long-term challenge of managing and keeping up with a high-technology business. You need full control of your core technology, so I suggest you supplement your own expertise as soon as possible, to tackle the never-ending technical questions of architecture, competition, scalability, and customer support.

It is just really hard to found a technology company successfully with only one founder, technical or non-technical. Investors know this, and look for two or three-person teams who have the requisite complementary skills. If you are the non-technical one, don’t try to hire your way out of this problem. Focus on finding the right partner to double your strength rather than dilute it.

Marty Zwilling




  1. The blog was absolutely fantastic! Lot of great information which can be helpful in some or the other way.

  2. I partnered with great technical people in our company; I was the business/marketing person, and my partners were the code slingers. It's a good alignment as long as the business person is technical enough to understand what the code slingers are doing and can translate requirements enough to get the code slingers to understand the desired outcomes. Eventually, one of my partners picked up enough of the business/marketing piece so that we could execute a sale and not leave the company in a listless lurch. In our case, it was easier for the technical partner to pick up enough of the business end to take over, as he could inject the passion and the deep understanding that I, as the non-technical partner, never could. I could be the storyteller on the surface, but he could (and did) become the true storyteller.

  3. It's a good point that can probably work the other way around as well, i.e. a technical guy may benefit from a partnership with somebody with more of a business bent.

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