The four commandments of starting a tech product company


by Ry Walker

1. Be a developer.

Since most of the work to be done is development, it's sorta nice to be a developer yourself.

2. If you're not a developer, become one.

Join Treehouse and learn to build. Take a job at a web consultancy to practice. Invest in yourself.

"Getting technical" may not help much for your current product idea. It takes a few years to learn enough to be dangerous, and by that time if someone else hasn't pursued your idea, it probably wasn't that good.

That being said, your growing technical prowess can only help. For example, a developer is more likely to join a founder who is at least trying to learn development and can pitch in on minor tasks like changing copy, etc.

Also, it's not too hard to learn enough front-end development to imitate sites you admire, and if a non-technical founder can execute the front-end and validate the idea with potential customers, that is great leverage to use in bringing on a developer.

If you're running a tech startup, you should at least know HTML.

3. If you're too impatient to become a developer, find one.

Maybe you want to focus your energy on the business side. I get it. This is the path most will take.

I implore you to find a co-founder who is a competent developer, and give them a generous amount of equity. (With a vesting schedule. People don't work out for a lot of possible reasons; accept that going in.)

4. DO NOT happily outsource development.

Don't outsource the core activity of your business.

Compare to this scenario: a developer decides to open a restaurant, but instead of putting in a kitchen and cooking food, buys pre-made food at the grocery store, and serves that to the patrons.

If you are going to outsource a little, limit the scope and duration.


The consequences

If you decide to violate all four commandments — your future is bleak. You'll be understaffed technically. You won't be able to attract or retain top technical talent. Product development will be your bottleneck. You will have talented non-developers staff twiddling their thumbs, wishing the product existed that they need.

Do violators have any hope?

Maybe. There's no time to solve the problem like the present.

Go back to the top of the four commandments. Have you been learning to program? Why not? You're rationalizing. Stop watching TV, stop golfing, stop browbeating your developers. Signup for Treehouse. Start learning to program. It will only help you.

If, for your own reasons, you want to continue to violate #1 and #2, get serious about #3. YOU get busy on #3. Don't hire an external recruiter. It's your job to find your developer soulmate.

Find a strong candidate, get out your stock certificate ledger, and make an offer they can't refuse. At this point, salary isn't enough. You need someone who will treat the company as their own.

The alternative is continued desperation.

Failure leads to an unenviable situation of trying to recruit developers into a weak technical culture.

Warning: Don't defer the equity conversation

Do not defer the equity decision to later — developers get blamed for the reality that bugs happen, big important demos blow up, work progresses slower than hoped for.

So if you wait to give equity, the sheen of the new relationship will have worn off, and you'll make a weak offer, and that'll be the day the dream ends. The developer might stick around for a year or two or more, but with diminished passion.

Let me say it again, for reinforcement

You'll regret building + scaling your product company without strong, equity-driven technical leadership.

  • Pay them well
  • Give them top-level decision-making role
  • Provide significant equity options
  • Make available a generous option pool for use in recruiting other developers

You need a strong technical culture.

It's hard to find and retain strong developers. If you can achieve a critical mass, the sheer strength of skills and reputation can attract developers, who will then look to collect more smart developers into their tribe.

Equity is the glue that keeps them. Without equity, you're just renting developers.

Wait. WTF. Isn't Differential a software development shop?

Despite what we might look like, we are actually aligned with everything written above.

If we must do some programming for your startup, we want to minimize the project, not maximize it. For your sake.

We are building a portfolio of companies with strong technical foundations. We're investing our sweat into our portfolio companies, and helping to get CTOs onboard in a multitude of ways: driving validation of the idea, helping with fundraising, and even by making backup job offers, so wives will approve the risky move of joining a startup.

As a sweaty man once said: "Developers, developers, developers."

Developers, developers, developers.

One of our measures of success is how many new developers we bring into the startup ecosystem.


Thanks to Colin Flynn, Adam Treister, Dov Rosenberg, Tim Brunk, David Pearce, Josh Owens, Gerard Sychay, Brad Kirn, and Tim Metzner who reviewed and gave me feedback on this post.

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