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The Most Successful Startup Founders Have These Skills (and Hire for the Rest)

New researcher shows the most successful startups have technical founders who quickly hire business-minded teammates.

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BY Jory MacKay - 29 Nov 2017

The Most Successful Startup Founders Have These Skills (and Hire for the Rest)

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

"Business guy seeking technical co-founder."

Spend any amount of time at meetups or startup events and you're sure to meet more than a few entrepreneurs with big product ideas, but no idea how to build them. And while there are more than a few successful companies with nontechnical founders, new research has shown they're exceptions to the norm.

When you're starting a new business venture, the founding team shapes everything from the product to the brand, voice, and culture of your company. As Apple founder Steve Jobs said:

"When you're in a startup, the first ten people will determine whether the company succeeds or not. Each is ten percent of the company. So why wouldn't you take as much time as necessary to find all the A-players?.... A small company depends on great people much more than a big company does."

But what exactly do these A-players look like? In a recent paper, researchers Martin Murmann and Bettina Mller wanted to discover what the exact skill sets were on the founding teams of successful startups.

What they found was that the most innovative companies all start with technical founders who quickly hire business-minded people.

What's even more interesting, is that the reverse scenario--a business-focused founder hiring a technical co-founder--didn't yield the same sort of results.

The top skills nontechnical founders need.

If you're building a product or service, it only makes sense that you need to understand how you're going to actually build it, rather than just how to sell it.

In my own experience working with early-stage and well-established startups, I've seen this theory in action.

Startups that leaned too heavily on the leadership of nontechnical founders had trouble hiring good engineers and executing on a clear product development plan. While those more technically minded founders were able to balance keeping the product development on the right path and bringing in business-minded co-founders to help find product-market fit.

What the paper's authors propose is that it comes down to the hierarchy between idea and execution. Place too much emphasis or importance on the initial idea, and your venture is more likely to fail. Or, as CDBaby founder Derek Sivers explains in a blog post:

"To me, ideas are worth nothing unless executed. They are just a multiplier. Execution is worth millions. The most brilliant idea, with no execution, is worth $20. The most brilliant idea takes great execution to be worth $20,000,000."

Does this mean you should simply abandon your idea if you don't have the technical skill to build it? No. But it does mean that as a nontechnical founder you need to be especially careful in how you build your team early on.

Don't try to hire a technical co-founder without understanding what you need.

As the researchers suggest, you can only hire A-players to your team if you understand what they need to be doing.

For example, if you're building software and don't know a line of code or even the basics of software development, you're going to have a hard time successfully hiring someone to do that.

Instead, non-technical founder Rahul Varshneya says you should invest in building your vision yourself instead of just searching for someone to take orders:

"Rather than spending time searching for a technical cofounder, take the time to invest in building your first version. Through the journey, keep a lookout for the right person to bring on your team. Quit trying to hire a technical cofounder just so you can build your product for free!"

Ditch the high-level spiel for specific plans.

High-level business spiels have their place, such as when you're raising an early round of funding or trying to bring on partners. But when you're working with engineers, they want specifics.

Invest in the time to create as detailed use cases or functional specifications documents as possible. Or, create screen-by-screen mockups of how you see your product working. There are tons of great and easy to use resources for this, such as InVision, Marvel, or Adobe XD.

Hire people you trust (and let them do their work).

As a nontechnical founder, it can be difficult to let go of control when it comes to your engineers. But don't fall into the trap of micro-managing your engineers, simply because you don't know what they're doing exactly. As Varshneya explains:

"You don't want to lose respect and neither do you want to lower the efficiencies of your team."

Instead, set up a clear process of communication and delivery between you and the tech team. Do a daily standup to get an idea of what's being worked on, the challenges that are coming up, and what milestones they're working towards. The goal is to be a partner in the process, helping guide them where you can but not getting in the way of technical work being done.