Can a software developer be a successful entrepreneur?
What kind of a question is that? Google. Facebook. Zuckerberg. Amazon. Microsoft. Yahoo. Dropbox. Twitter. Just name it. All companies where at least one of the founders was a developer/hacker/technical guy (in majority of the cases all founders were). So have I been under a rock for the whole last decade? Nope. It’s very easy to give examples of those who have made it and forget the majority who’re still trying. I’ll make a case for them.
Software developers are modern day rockstars. They create things which other people cannot. These creations make lives of people easier. And we live in a time where software is eating the world so these guys are high in demand. It’s natural for arrogance to kick in. When this arrogance meets high entrepreneurial spirits, it’s a recipe for disaster. We fall into the trap of thinking that other people will rate our product based on how good the technology is, or how we’ve hacked things to make this work, or what great code we’ve written. The truth is that they don’t care at all.
After I graduated 3 years ago, I created a Facebook app that went viral and reached 1 million monthly active users and 5 million users in total. Another product I created got acquired by a company that is public now. All within 5 months of graduation. I had absolutely no clue how it happened but I thought maybe I’ve naturally “got it”. Long story short, it followed by a failure, and another failure and a few more.
After careful analysis, it turns out that while my ideas were good, there were other factors that made the successful ventures succeed. My Facebook app succeeded because back in those days Facebook apps were very viral and pretty much any fun app that shared something on news feeds was able to acquire a lot of new users for free. The other successful exit was an acqui-hire for the most part. So where did I go wrong with the failures and what did I learn?
1. Think Customer: As technical heads, a lot of times our ideas originate from the notion of “doing X on Z platform because the Y APIs make it possible”. While this approach may work some times, it’s not sustainable. That is not how customers perceive products. Their thought process is like: “is X for me?”, “will X solve my problem?”, “will X save me time or money?”, and so on.
2. Think Product: Engineering is the least important part of an early stage startup. So insignificant that a lot of founders feel comfortable outsourcing it to Indian firms, and focusing on customer development, sales and marketing themselves. Of course there are exceptions to this if you are a hard-core tech startup but in normal circumstances, you should be good.
3. Think Critical: You have most likely read Lean Startup already. If not, I highly recommend it. I think it could have prevented a lot of my mistakes but not all. The reason it won’t always work is that you have to be in a flexible mindset to completely embrace those ideas. That is harder to do than it sounds. Ideas can quickly get developer entrepreneurs incredibly excited and coding. Think critical and try to validate first.
4. Think Strategy: A good idea or a good product alone is not enough. “If you build it, they will come” is no longer true. Before jumping into a project, you should give a fair amount of thought in finding who your target users are and how you plan to acquire them.
So can we be successful entrepreneurs? Yes, I strongly believe so. We need to brush up our skills on being better product guys. When thinking product, the focus should be the problem and not the code. If we can do this right, we’ll have an advantage over non-developer entrepreneurs because people who don’t build things themselves greatly overestimate the value of ideas.