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I’m often asked what a tech company such as an Internet agency or a tech product startup needs to be successful. After consulting for a number of such companies and also having worked at a few I think there are a number of factors that are very important. However, they are of a more general nature, for example good employees, quality awareness, time to market, rationalization before technology, and so on. But, what is of prime importance is the duo of founders.
If you compare companies, including the large and well-known ones, that have been extremely successful in the past years, it’s conspicuous that they always consist of two leaders who mutually complement each other and need to work together to be truly successful. I call them the bottle and the cap. And, even though bottle and cap make sense independently – at least to a certain extent – it is only the combination that truly resounds.
I think these two elements belong to the leadership of a tech company:
One of the persons of such a duo is a talented businessperson. He derives his motivation out of the way in which the business develops (not to be confused with money). This person likes to form organizations and enjoys watching how people grow into teams. He also recognizes possibilities and limits in the market and knows how to apply these insights to his company.
The other part of this duo is a talented techie. He enjoys technology, challenges and – even more so – solutions that he and the team arrive at. On a theoretical level he would have no problem if his solutions wouldn’t produce cash flow. He finds answers to the businessperson’s questions and provides solutions.
There are numerous prominent examples of such duos, e.g. Jobs & Wozniak, Gates & Ballmer, Hewlett & Packard, Page & Schmidt, Zuckerberg & Sandberg, and so on. It’s almost a recurring theme in the tech industry.
And it’s a theme which is not unique to the big players. Just take a look a lesser-known firms: Nearly all larger agencies developed from such combinations. And those agencies that remain rooted on the spot despite the massive, protracted boom, have constellations where bottle and cap just don’t fit – at least for the most part. For, as soon as one person lags behind the other in talent, effort or drive, it begins to become difficult.
This doesn't mean, however, that the companies don't function. But they don’t really shoot through the roof, either.
If someone asks me today why their agency isn’t moving forward, the first thing I do is look at this constellation. If it’s not ideal, then most other efforts are futile. No one likes to hear it, but it’s a fact.
I’ve deliberately chosen the “bottle” analogy: In German the word “Flasche” not only means “bottle”, but can also stand for “loser” or “deadbeat” – in other words, the term doesn't really represent excellence. Why do I use it then? Even in today’s economy where, luckily, tech and business don't usually battle each other (greetings at this point to the Waterfall), most techies feel they are superior to businesspeople – and vice versa. And, they are basically right; after all, one can’t really make inroads in the territory of the other. It is in this way that everyone feels he is the cap and the other is the bottle.
What makes the partnership successful, despite all this, is that they have found a way to respect and understand one another, to make the necessary compromises to reach a common goal. I think this is a sort of secret to success.
Even if it sometimes seems when viewed from the outside that there are people who can unite superior technical as well as business skills in one person, I for one don’t believe it. I’ve simply never seen it. Yes, there are businesspeople who, given time, are capable of understanding technical correlations, just as there are technical people who can make good business decisions after having gained the necessary experience.
But neither will really become expert at the other’s endeavor. I think this is because for both areas different predispositions are needed. In a way it’s the traditional introvert vs. extrovert discussion. With varying degrees and exceptions, of course.
If the company grows, leaders such as this don’t really have to worry. Employees learn intuitively how to work in this environment and sooner or later they act in a similar manner. The team is inoculated, so to speak, with this culture. Like so many other things as well.
Through the accompaniment of startups, in the non-tech sector as well, I know that such partnerships can also be successful in traditional handicraft businesses. How many small businesses are there which were founded by a tradecraft expert, but where the spouse is responsible for administrative tasks? Many of these craftsmen wouldn’t get really far without their wives, who take care of pricing, calculations, reminders, customer service and advertising.
The answer to the question about the fundamental success factor for starting a tech company is therefore quite simple: If you’re the business-oriented entrepreneur look for a technically-oriented person. If you’re a techie, look for a salesperson. In this way you lay the foundation for all that follows. Of course it’s not a guarantee of success, but rather the basis on which you have to build everything else. Things such as “employees, quality awareness, time to market, rationalization before technology, and so on.”
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