How Technical Do You Need To Be As A Startup CEO?

technical genius

I’ll never forget my cofounder and VP Engineering, “John”, telling me (and I’m paraphrasing here), “I don’t see what value you bring to the company.”

I was focused on the marketing, strategy, and building the company. None of that mattered to John because he saw me as someone that wasn’t technical.

But where is it written that you have to be technical to run a tech startup?

I am technical. I have a BSEE degree. And I even have a few patents to my name.  However, my involvement in the technology development for my company was minimal.

It wasn’t the expertise that I brought to the party. My expertise was in strategy, marketing, and knowing how to build and run a company.

And, as long as I didn’t try and pretend to be a technical genius, then I would be fine. That’s where non-technologists blow it (more on this later).

The idea for the company was mine. The original product strategy, go to market strategy, and business plan was mine, but John just didn’t see any value I had.

So John quit, stole the company’s IP, and started up another company with the exact same plan and strategy. In fact, they used my original slide deck to try and raise money.

John the technologist failed to build a company because he didn’t understand that there’s more to building a technology company than the technology.

Being a technologist is not going to help you with many of the skills necessary to run a company. In fact, technologists are at a disadvantage in two key areas of building a company:


A. How are customers going to become aware of your product?


Your go to market strategy is difficult even for experienced marketers to get right. Technologists who’ve never marketed or sold a product to customers are many times at a distinct disadvantage.

For example, I was involved in deal recently with a private equity firm to remove the CEO. The CEO, a technologist by trade, explained to us that his go to market strategy was, “Build it and they will come.”

And the company’s performance reflected this by underperforming the stock market during his tenure by over 60%. Ouch.


B. A lack of intuition or “feel” for the market.


Technologists have a tendency to demand the same certainty from the customer facing world that they have in the engineering world. Except things don’t work that way in the customer facing world.

You get partial data and conflicting data. How do you decide what’s real and what isn’t?

The trap that a technologist falls into is waiting for certainty where none will ever exist. The waiting leads to delays and being late to market.

Great technologists recognize the value that non-technical people bring.

Jeroen, who replaced John as our founding VP Engineering, and I used to have the following conversation:

Me: “I think the toughest thing to find is really good engineering talent.”

Jeroen: “I think the toughest thing to find is really good marketing talent.”

I was in awe of the technological prowess of great engineers. Jeroen was in awe of the skill required to do great marketing.

I never professed to be a technical genius to the team. I was comfortable with what I was and what I wasn’t.

The team respected me for what I brought to the table. I suspect if I tried to be something I wasn’t we would have had huge turnover in our engineering team.

For more, read What Are The Five Skills You Need To Be A Great CEO?  None of the skills are technical, btw.


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