Domain Experts Requested with No Technical Co-Founder

One of the ongoing questions in the startup world is around the importance of having a technical co-founder. The idea is that by having a strong technical person on the founding team, the startup will be able to move faster, make more intelligent architectural decisions, and build a better product. Several days ago PandoDaily published an article about Quotidian Ventures and their focus on “founders who have domain expertise in large, opaque old school industries.”

I agree that having a technical co-founder is great, but is no longer a requirement. Here are a few reasons why it isn’t as important as it used to be:

  • Cloud computing, and specifically Amazon Web Services, are much better understood and have more ready-to-use scripts and tools that remove many of the previous challenges
  • Languages and frameworks, like Ruby on Rails, have significantly reduced the learning curve to not only get up-and-running but to also be productive in a short amount of time
  • Pre-built libraries to build interfaces, like Bootstrap, enable the development of high quality front-ends, and new tools have emerged enabling non-technical people to build interfaces, like Divshot

Now, if the founding team doesn’t include a technical person, the first hire should be an in-house lead engineer. Overall, a technical co-founder is no longer a requirement and domain expertise with an idea in a big market is much more important.

What else? What are your thoughts on the idea that domain experts no longer require a technical co-founder?

10 thoughts on “Domain Experts Requested with No Technical Co-Founder

  1. Most of the non-technical entrepreneurs I’ve run across would have no real idea all of what you have just written. They might know how to log into AWS, but they’d be lost after that. They probably wouldn’t be able to do much after setting up a basic WordPress site.

    If you need any of these technologies to make the business work, you are going to need someone who is at least advanced technically to make it all work. A skilled systems integrator at the very least.

    But on a larger view, I think it’s interesting that the focus has started to fall more on a business competitive advantage (non-technical founder in opaque industry) than having a technical competitive advantage where the non-technical founder’s job is mostly to run the business and grow sales. Seems like all the technical advantages have been used up in the consumer markets where anyone can play, and competitive advantage is gained by moving as quickly as possible. Maybe the next wave is sneaking into old-school industries and transforming them with currently available technology/business processes without having to worry about 500 other startups aiming for the same market.

    I recall reading an article about two Harvard grads who chose not to start a high-tech or financial business, but instead found a small $2M company in an opaque market, learned everything they could about the market as the new owners, then turned it into a $50M company over the next 5 years because they brought the management expertise and desire to satisfy customers and find new customers for existing products. (Actual revenues and timelines are best memory, I read the article a few years ago.)

  2. If you’re starting a cupcake company, sure. But not a technology business. This is recipe for failure. A founding team MUST have two roles at its founding core. The ability to make the product and the ability to sell the product.

    Want to learn about an “old school” market? Customer discovery. You’d be amazed what you can learn in a couple of months of intensive interviews. 100 conversations in and you’ll have a good grasp of it.

    By relying on existing “domain experts” you’ll never innovate. Just build it the way they do it now with a few more features.

    I usually agree with David, but this time, in my opinion, you’re totally wrong.

  3. I have to agree with Paul as well. I’m the technical co-founder for Pipefish. There’s no way my co-founder could outsource this. I’m not doing the coding. (I do some, but I’m not critical path.) But I know what’s possible and what toolsets to use and how. The technical co-founders job isn’t to write code but to understand what is technologically possible. To translate the vision into something that you could outsource requires deep technical skills.

  4. At the end of the day, it’s all about sales. In my previous startups, I tried the visionary partner or the technical partner. We always got stuck on sales. It is far easier to hire technical talent than it is to hire sales talent. For my next venture, I swore I would partner with someone that could sell, and I did! The company has early and sustained momentum, and I couldn’t be happier.

  5. I really think it boils down to what product or service you are creating and solving a need for. If the startup chooses to solve a problem with technology, and that is the differentiator, then a technical co-founder could be a good asset. However, if the startup is solving a need with a service offering, then a technical co-founder might not be needed. As for domain experts, they should be an input into the product/business strategy, but are not needed. Consumer pain points really drive how the need should be solved.

    Also, agree with Paul and Chris in that sales execution and focus is critical for any new startup.

  6. Online resources (e.g., Codeacademy, Treehouse, and Code School) and coding bootcamps across the country are greatly reducing barriers to becoming technical. This is allowing more people to pick up the skills to build prototypes of their ideas, collaborate better with engineers, and make informed technical decisions throughout the journey of a startup. This series of articles has some great content on how to become your own technical co-founder: http://viniciusvacanti.com/becoming-your-own-technical-co-founder/

  7. Anything’s possible, but tech startups are much more likely to succeed when tech expertise is on the team. Product know-how (domain expertise is a part of this) + engineering expertise is a killer combo. Sales and marketing are much easier to learn. (This only applies to companies where the core product is actually technology.) Tech expertise on the founding team may not be required when building companies around marketplaces, daily deals, etc where users are the product.

  8. Reblogged this on Ned Morgens and commented:
    We’re needing a new software product for my current business. We’re old school: health care. Our current commercial software is dated. We found something new, but it doesn’t help us at all with compliance which, after the operations, is our biggest challenge. I’m not a technical person, but we’re going to have to conquer this problem with technology or be conquered by it.

  9. As a technical co founder, I have to agree with David’s thoughts here. If you have strong domain expert founders (with sales experience) it is often easier to bring on technical talent (either as a co founder of lead engineer). A strong sales/domain expert founders instills a sense of trust in the technical talent with regards to sales and reduces uncertainty.

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