The greatest obstacle to starting a tech company in 2012 will be the shortage of entrepreneurial tech talent, says Andy Young, who explains why there appears such a shortage of qualified people around to help you get your idea off the ground – and what to do about it.
It’s long been observed that the barriers to creating a technology start-up have been falling over the past decade or so. Smart people with a lot more experience than me have been observing how the amount of capital required to start a tech company has reduced dramatically.
But it’s not only cheaper. Recently, my friend Harjeet Taggar, partner at US seed fund YCombinator, tweeted that, increasingly, the problems faced by start-ups they fund are being addressed by other start-ups.
What does this mean in practice? Well, a few months ago, I migrated the hosting for my Selective Tweets app to Amazon’s AWS cloud hosting platform. Since then, I’ve had to pay a grand total of $4.88 in hosting costs for an app with nearly a million registered users that serves several million requests a month. This should be a great example for anyone struggling to understand the concept of cloud computing.
In another example, at GroupSpaces we use services from Recurly to power our subscription billing engine and Assistly to power our helpdesk, which helped us to get up and running within a day.
Others leading the pack of “start-ups serving start-ups” are companies such as Twilio and London’s Pusher – each providing a service that would otherwise take many man-months to construct from scratch. The upshot of all of this is that today’s startups can concentrate maximum time and resources addressing the problems they set out to solve.
The Talent Squeeze
But if tools are plentiful and costs resemble rounding errors, what stands in the way of the would-be entrepreneur of 2012? In short, talent. Just last week, start-up supremo Naval Ravikant of AngelList wrote how the “oversupply” of founders starting companies is making it harder to hire for the average startup. Certainly few would argue that hiring is easy, however in my experience the most significant startup talent shortage – certainly in London – comes at the earliest stage: the number of technically-minded founders.
Here’s a selection of entreaties from my inbox:
- “Hi Andy, I was wondering whether on the off-chance you know any programmers…”
- “I’ve been sent a random email from someone who is “founding” a business, who needs a technical co-founder.”
- “Are there any ‘Founders Dating’ events coming up?”
Sometimes it feels like I can measure the state of the economy by simply counting how many times in a given week I’m asked whether I know anyone willing to be someone’s technical co-founder. I’ve had countless meetings over lunch and drinks where I’ve heard the same tales and recounted the same advice. I can confirm first-hand the challenge plagues many different backgrounds, ages and experiences and hinders many of those with great ideas.
It’s important to point out exactly who we’re looking for here. There are certainly many talented technical people out there. But there are equally as many – if not more – extremely well-paid technical roles with interesting challenges, good perks and relatively good job security.
You see, a technical cofounder needs to be a founder too: someone with entrepreneurial drive, an appetite for risk and limited desire to be a slave to someone else’s whims. That’s if they’re driven by money at all.
We need a fix at the earliest stage of the ecosystem: education. Does anyone recall which prominent technology executive was described earlier this year as “flabbergasted” that computer science was not taught as standard in UK schools?
An increase in tech talent wouldn’t be a bad thing when hiring for established companies either, but we need minds to be both technical and entrepreneurial. Organisations such as NACUE and EntrepreneurFirst are doing a great job in promoting entrepreneurship as a career path within universities, but they need to focus on fostering those with technical abilities, not the ones that need funding to employ agencies to make their costly first mistakes.
Until then, most first-time – and many experienced – entrepreneurs will still struggle to find someone with the necessary technical skills to get their bright ideas off the ground.
Something you need to know first. People waiting to be someone else’s technical co-founders don’t exist, and they’re certainly not on “founder dating” sites or hanging out at networking events. Not to say anything against those with great ideas, but it works like this: the best geeks are also the ones full of ideas. They tend to have a multitude of side projects, Github portfolios and hacking workshops on the go at once. Plus, any entrepreneurially-minded techie’s starting point is to build something themselves, not sit waiting for an “ideas person” to instruct or inspire them.
Before I continue, you should have read the following three posts.
- Jason Freedman: Please, please, please stop asking how to find a technical co-founder
- Derek Sivers: How to hire a programmer to make your ideas happen
- Please design a logo for me. With pie charts. For free.
OK, just kidding about that last one. (Though it is definitely required reading.) To summarise the above:
- Start anyway by teaching yourself what you need to know
- Prototype, earn respect for yourself and your idea
- Earn yourself a technical co-founder when you can convince them your way is a better option than theirs and you’re not just some fool with a pet idea, wanting a logo and some pie charts
A good shortcut to that last accomplishment might be someone you know personally, perhaps who you’ve worked with before. Is there a junior or senior developer from a previous gig who will respect you for a previous role and be ready to build their own baby with you?
For good passports to the prototype, it comes down to old-fashioned hard work. Start your own marketing research and customer development, get backing if you can leverage your own network, create mock-ups or wireframes and nail down a realistic description of your minimum viable product.
Finally, a top technical dating tip: you’ve no idea how much more motivating it is to someone technical to look at the shitty prototype you had built for $500 on Rent-a-coder, or painfully clubbed together yourself, and say, “Obviously I can help you build that much better,” than it is for them to listen to a shitty pitch.
Remember, the best startups don’t die, they commit suicide. Perseverance is key, as much when you’re just getting started as it is along the way. So, while you’re slaving away on your customer development while keeping an eye out for your technical match, you could do worse than read Paul Graham’s 2007 essay, How not to die. Good luck!
[Editor's Note: GroupSpaces, of which Andy Young is co-founder and chief technology officer, and Twilio, which is mentioned in the copy above, are both launch sponsors of The Kernel.]