Why Founders Shouldn’t Be The Developers

"If you plan to be doing the coding in a year or two, you're doing it wrong," one of the advisers told me when I was starting my first startup a few years ago.

501 as in the server either does not recognize the request method, or it lacks the ability to fulfill the request.


Ha! What a silly notion! The whole point I’m doing this is so I get to hack on interesting technologies all day, learn a bunch of sexy new tools and get to work on something I care about.

Startups are often built using the latest and greatest technologies. A while back it was PHP in favour of static HTML, then Python in favour of PHP. Lately it’s been Ruby on Rails or node.js in favour of Python … in the future, who knows. I hear Scala is becoming very popular.

It seems, then, that a lot of technical founders start with the same romantic notions of coding freedom as I did. Seeking coding nirvana – that wistful notion of being your own boss, setting your own deadlines, choosing your own technologies. Solving only important or at least fun problems.

Reality for a founder is a bit different. Far from coding nirvana, it makes being a good programmer nearly impossible.

Mind share

  • A founder must be pitching 50% of the time.
  • A founder must keep the lights on.
  • A founder must do customer development.
  • A founder must tend to company vision.
  • A founder must keep tabs on their industry.
  • A founder must take responsibility.
  • A founder is often _the_ customer support.

There’s a lot going on in a startup and because there’s nobody else to take care of it all, these things fall on the shoulders of founders. All of them take a lot of attention, if not time.

Programming is hard.

There’s no getting around that, no matter how good a programmer you are, no matter how experienced, it’s just hard. Programming doesn’t require a lot of attention, it requires all of attention.

After all, you’re dealing with vague ideas. Ideas that are hard to remember. Ideas that interact in delicate ways. Ideas you have to keep in your mind all at once.

The entire system must fit in your mind at least on some level of abstraction – you can’t code if you forget what a function does, or forget what your data looks like, or which file something is in…

Programming takes a lot of concentration. Period.

Have you ever tried concentrating when your mind was full of Important Stuff(tm)?

It doesn’t quite work, does it? You want to focus, you want to get real work done. Just that there’s this giant pink elephant in the room. It’s staring you right in the eye. No matter how hard you look the other way it won’t leave you alone.

In the end, after hours, you are left with no real work done and a giant pink elephant. Except now he’s taken a dump as well. Sure, you could take care of the elephant first, but then you aren’t producing any code. Sometimes for months.

There’s a reason why a lot of products stop dead in their tracks while the founders raise the first round.

Another thing programming requires is time. Plenty of it. Long, uninterrupted chunks of time.

Four hours is a good chunk to start with. Plenty of time to load everything into your brain, get in flow for an hour or two, then wind down before your next thing. There’s even enough time for a break or two to make sure you don’t go mad.

Two hours… yeah, that’s okay. If you’re using the pomodoro technique and have found a way to get in flow five minutes after the clock starts ticking – then two hours is perfect. Marvelous even! Otherwise it can be a bit short.

An hour… well maybe you can fix a quick bug or two. But you won’t get anything hard done.

Half an hour… laughable.

Now, as the founder of a startup, one of the people in charge of keeping the place running, perhaps managing a coworker or two… How often do you think you will get four hours of pure uninterrupted time? With no meetings, no skype calls, no urgent emails, no servers crashing, nobody asking a question?

You will be extremely lucky to get two.

And remember, those two hours are useless if there’s something on your mind. An important meeting right after the two hours? Right before the two hours? Forget about it, you’re not getting anything done.

A good question. I don’t have a real solution.

Your best bet is conceding you are no longer at your most valuable as a programmer. Spend 30% of your time or less in the code just to maintain a feel for everything. Mess about with some light bugs when you have the time, otherwise leave it to your rockstars.

That doesn’t really work for fresh startups. The ones that can’t afford to hire programmers yet.

Then you must have a team of cofounders big enough so you can have one person worrying about things. The technical founder must be as free as a bird.

Do whatever it takes to get your mind off of things, meditate, partake in violent sports, go on long walks, anything that lets you focus on the code instead of worrying about the proverbial farm you’re betting.

Hire more programmers as soon as possible. Shield them from Real World Concerns(tm) at all cost.

Other than that… I hear some people can be founders during the day, programmers during the night. This leads straight to burnout and madness, you can’t do it for long.

Good luck.

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What is your experience? Do you agree with Swizec? Let us know in the comments below.

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  • mony


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  • http://www.facebook.com/jameswandreson James Williams Anderson

    Swizec how many startups have you launched? How many of them have made into IPOs? Have you ever heard of MBA, do you know why the allow anyone with a degree in any field to pursue it? You must be really mentally retarded.

  • http://twitter.com/lucianapostol Lucian Apostol

    Most people here got the wrong message.

    First of all, let’s try to understand why people are buying your product:

    A) Because it is built on ruby on rails instead of php ? Because it has the function names written correctly and it on MVC structure ? Because the files are very well arranged into folders ? Because you are using node.js library ? Because you never wrote the same code twice ? Because you have 1000 lines of code than any other competitor ?


    B) Because your product has more features than all competitors ? Because the user interface is better than the competitors ? Because the landing page is well written ? Because the website receive 10 000 visitors a day ? Because 10 000 people are sharing and liking your product on facebook ? Because people retweet your product ? Because clients understang what it is about easily ?

    I am a deceloper. I believe than I can come up with better ideas and I can project a better product than a non-developer. However, If I am going alone, I have to pay much more attention to the second part. I have to think how can I build a product that is better than the competition, how can I build a product that attract people to use it. How can I build a product that people will like. How can I bring visitors to the product website. How can I convince them to buy the product. The founder is the one responsible with the projection, and the one who will connect the development with the marketing. Marketing can be outsourced, as well as developing.

    If the founder tries to do everything, he will have less time, and product will take much more to launch, and there are more deep problems that will appear. Some features will be posponed due to lack of time or concentration. Everything can be outsourced, but the outcome of a startup depends much more from the time invested in projecting or marketing, than the time invested in developing.

    The author tried to outline that if the founder also lose time developing, then everything will be slowed down.

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  • http://www.postlinearity.com gregorylent

    the linear nature of the programming exercise doesn’t suit the holistic requirements of management.

  • http://blog.thecodewhisperer.com J. B. Rainsberger

    “This doesn’t work for me, therefore you shouldn’t do it.”

    A less sexy, and less bullshit title for this article: “The risks associated with founders remaining programmers”. I feel bad that this absurd conclusion obscures some very good points of the article.

    Read “The E-Myth Revisited” for the longer version.

    One big risk when founders retain programming as a core part of their work: this gives them comfortable, interesting work to which to retreat when the Hard Parts–usually marketing and sales–go horribly wrong for them. It becomes too easy to retreat. If you delegate all the programming work, then you will have no choice but to read 20 books on sales and get out there and sell. This is a real problem with serious consequences for the erstwhile entrepreneur.

    Of course, if you experience the pain once, then learn from it, then you can adjust. Of course, after feeling much more comfortable with marketing and sales, after having a solid understanding of basic finance, and when you find a solid product/service to sell, most of that risk disappears.

  • http://www.facebook.com/apperceptions Markus Sandy

    Why Opinions Shouldn’t Replace Real Data.

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  • Ana

    Don’t agree. The whole point of doing my own thing – is to build it, not watch someone else build it. If I am not to code, I might as well work for a nameless large corporation.


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  • viktort

    turning coca cola to pepsi can be easier than teaching geeks to sell i think.

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  • Dorna

    The main cause of stress and “important meetings” seems to be caused by fund raising (50% of the time “pitching”). This is self-fulfilling:
    You have to hire a developer because you can’t code because you have to raise funds because you need money to hire a developer.

    Would you write the same article if you hadn’t raised money? Why so many software start-ups (with developer founders) need to raise money is beyond me. In the development phase you barely need any money, just some money to eat and pay your rent for 6 months, which you probably have in your savings account. So unless you need a sales team or customer service right now, and you REALLY can’t find the money in your own accounts, I think raising funds is not a good idea. For some types of businesses yes, but most software start-ups are extremely cheap to start.

    We are only going to start spending any time and mental energy on fund raising once we are ready to scale, at which point the product is fully developed and we have steady growth. In fact, fund raising distracts you from your product and your code. Also, I find working simultaneously on product idea and code much more interesting than doing either by itself. This is why I wanted to be a founder, not to spend my time pitching.

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  • erikpp

    The average business managed by non-programmers who needs programmers can only manage them if they are smarter than them; which usually means, that they will get programmers who are not that smart and therefore incapable of programming.

  • http://swizec.com Swizec

    This is correct, yes. Notice the “the” in my title. It implies a different meaning than saying that developers shouldn’t be developers. It says that founders shouldn’t be THE developers. As in, the main/only developers … at least not for long.

  • http://www.smutchings.com/ Sam

    Steve Jobs did no programming, he was all about getting people on board. He did all the stuff outlined here, and left the technical stuff to Woz.

  • erikpp

    Yes. A multi-disciplinary approach probably has the most potential. Someone with impressive domain knowledge, experience, and passion (!) is in my opinion an excellent choice for a cofounder, while another programmer may otherwise just bring more of the same to the table… I have quite often met domain people, though, who were not particularly interested in their own field but only in money, money, money, quickly, quickly, quickly. That kind of co-founders are unlikely to be particularly useful; while another programmer is less likely to be just a money grubber …

  • http://kmilo0.blogspot.com/ Camilo Uribe

    But at the same time maybe the founders should be looking for someone with talent and experience as a business cofounder.

  • http://kmilo0.blogspot.com/ Camilo Uribe

    Another title for this blog post: Why the business cofounder shouldn’t be the only developer.

  • http://kmilo0.blogspot.com/ Camilo Uribe

    For accounting and law you should hire third parties

  • eMBee

    you know about a language that frees you from understanding all of the code you write? please do tell!

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  • http://swizec.com Swizec

    And yet, eventually, you will have to transition from building a product to running a business.

  • http://swizec.com Swizec

    Developers should definitely be founders.

    But founders shouldn’t be _the_ developers. As in, they are eventually going to have to transition from the role of being the developers, to the role of running their business.

  • jlturner

    Definitely agree. I find exercise to be the perfect rest from coding (as well as work in general). Makes me feel refreshed, both mentally and physically.

  • jlturner

    While I’d never expect someone working for me to work as hard as me, I firmly believe that what you get out of your work is proportional to the work you do.

    Theres no room for haters in our line of work anyway.

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  • http://borasky-research.net/about-data-journalism-developer-studio-pricing-survey/ M. Edward (Ed) Borasky

    +2**53-1 😉

  • http://borasky-research.net/about-data-journalism-developer-studio-pricing-survey/ M. Edward (Ed) Borasky

    It’s bad because *all* founders need to be skilled at the A – A+ levels in *everything* – the technologies, if it’s a tech company, the marketplace, sales, time management, accounting and finance, and in some areas, law. A two-person company with just a biz dev superstar and a programming superstar is doomed.

  • oh man

    The ways of programmers are inscrutable.

    If you are having such a hard time keeping a large system in you head, why do you insist on using programming languages that can’t encode that information for you and enforce its correctness at compile time?

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=125158 Romy Mimi Ilano

    “Women shouldn’t be founders”

    “People who do art can’t code”

    “You can either be creative or a developer, choose one”

    This is very extreme advice, and it comes from a good place. I can see where it is true, I’ve watched a lot of start-ups. But as with all advice… there are many many data points at which this advice is COMPLETELY WRONG.