Non-Hackers as Founders

This is a continuation of my thoughts about founders that I started in the post on Women as Founders. There are literally thousands of startups out there, most of which you’ve never heard of—either because the solve a problem that you don’t have or because they never got the number of users required to be a sustainable business. I started at the beginning (2005) and looked through the list of startups funded by Y-Combinator. Looking through the list from the first few years, most of the startups solved problems that other hackers had. Part of this is no doubt due to the fact the Y-Combinator was founded by successful hackers. But part of it was not doubt due to the fact that the founders were solving a problem that they had. Most of the startups seem to be other solving technical problems, website design, secure payments, photo editing. Or they solve a communication problem, or social connection problem.

I’ve started several web-based companies. The ones that failed to get up and running did so because I was relying on other people to do the actual development. In 2001 my cousin was getting married and I thought it would be good to put up a website where people could share photos of the bride and groom, exchange anecdotes, and coordinate travel plans. There was even an obvious revenue model—link to hotels and gift-registeries and receive a commission on purchases. We could expand the site to other special events like reunions, golf-events, fund-raising walks, etc. The opportunities seemed wide open.

While I knew a little about programming a website, I didn’t know enough to do the whole thing. So I enlisted a partner to do the coding. The thing about coding is that even if you have a detailed specification, which we didn’t have, there are lots of decisions that get made on a regular basis that affect the final product. And every decision that the coder made was different from my vision. A lot of the things were things that just never occurred to the programmer. For example, if you have several pages on the site that start with a photo, they need to be in exactly the same place on every page. Otherwise when you move from page to page, the pages jump all over the place. And back then, most people were still using small monitors, so we couldn’t design a page that was wider than around 600 pixels or else people would have to scroll sideways to see it. Likewise, we needed to stick with a 65,536 color palette for most of the design. At the end I literally spent more time trying to persuade the coder to do things the way I wanted than they spent coding. I would have been better off spending the time learning how to code myself and then coding things the way they were supposed to be coded.

And I think that’s the difference between a coder and a hacker. The coder just wants to get the project done. The hacker wants to get it done right.

Since then, I have never let someone else be the coder on my projects. I will pay people to help me out when I am first learning a new language, but I do my own coding. And none of my projects have failed because they didn’t get built.

That’s not to say it couldn’t work. I can see how having a non-coding founder would be great for lots of startups, especially those that rely on face-to-face marketing or lots of back-end coordination with other businesses. But the kinds of startups that require a lot of coding seem to me to require hackers as founders.

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