Technical Talent & Entrepreneurial Spirit

In technology, people talk a lot about how we need more programmers in order to have more innovative companies, and more innovation in general. When I started GuildQuality, it never occurred to me that I needed to be a programmer. I knew I needed to work with programmers, but I never entertained the notion that I needed to be one. Up to that point, I’d made my career in construction and real estate – professions where every player contributed their part, and no one was particularly more valued or critical than another.

And now, more than a decade after launching a SaaS business, I still think the software industry’s similarities to the building industry are greater than its differences. Great neighborhoods are no more built by carpenters than they are by masons. And great software companies are the same way.

Every single day, my team gives me a reminder of their awesomeness. I get sales and marketing reminders; I get operations reminders; I get design reminders; I get service reminders; I get reminders of empathy and emotional intelligence; and yes, I also get brilliant programming reminders. I get these reminders every day from thousands of wonderful acts by all sorts of great people. Together, in concert, the business works. If the business tries to stand on a single leg, it collapses.

Today, the startup rate and the rate of self-employment are at all time lows. That’s a mentality issue, not a skills issue. Simply focusing on creating more programmers isn’t going to change that. To see a real change, we’ll need to cultivate in our children an adventurous spirit, a respect for those who blaze their own trails, and a humble appreciation for the beautiful diversity and value of every artisans’ skill.

Non-technical founders seeking technical cofounders

If you’re a non-technical founder like me, think long and hard before seeking a technical cofounder to help you launch your vision. I’ve found that most people (whether they are developers, designers, salespeople, marketers, carpenters, masons, doctors, soldiers, or pugilists) simply aren’t cut out for owning the responsibilities of building a business.

While just about everyone harbors some dreamy notion of launching their own venture, when it comes down to it, few have the disposition to embark upon the entrepreneurial journey, and fewer still have the temperament to run a business. Programmers are no different. Great programmers are talented craftspeople. They have precious skills that they’ve invested years in cultivating. But, rare is the craftsperson who can build a business.

Perhaps just as important, there is essentially negative unemployment* among developers, which means there are huge opportunities for capable developers and lots of pressure for them to leave for greener pastures if/when things aren’t going so great.

Instead of convincing artisans to leave their gig to help you launch the next great thing, consider hiring them to work on it in their spare time. If your scope is too large for you to afford to hire them, then reduce your scope until you can afford to do it.

I hired an agency to build the first iteration of GuildQuality. At $40,000, I way overpaid them to execute an over-scoped vision. We could have come to market with half the functionality (the half that our first users actually valued) for half of that cost in half the time. Even so, $40,000 isn’t all that much. If you have a good idea and you’re compelling, you can raise that much money on good terms (or even better, you can save it up while getting paid by someone else).

Two years after we launched “GQ 1.0” (“GQ 0.1” would have been a better name), I paid $25,000 to a freelancer with a full-time gig to re-build the second iteration of GuildQuality.

Soon after, that freelancer joined our team, and we officially brought all development “in-house.”

* I don’t know if Negative Unemployment is a real economic term, but I define it as when there is so much demand for a particular type of worker that all the qualified people have work and many unqualified folks do as well. Of note, I think the big demand for programming talent is a major factor driving the disproportionate amount of workplace innovation that’s happening in the tech sector.