Technology is so key to every business these days that experienced business-smart but non-tech entrepreneurs are falling deeper and deeper in the hole. Even if they realize that they need real technical strength at the top, they are not sure how to attract and select the talent and expertise they really need. Should they go after high-tech nerds for partners, or professional technologists?
The right answer for a good business partner today is neither of the above. Startups succeed most often when the founding partners know how to build and run a business, rather than how to build and run technology. Only one component of running a business is managing technology, but it is a critical component, so no entrepreneur can afford to ignore it or totally delegate it.
That means every entrepreneur needs to learn how to attract, hire and manage technical people for their team. Just like you don’t have to be a financial guru to recognize a good CFO, or a marketing genius to hire a VP of marketing, you can find the right technical partner or team member by using the right evaluation and hiring steps, including the following:
1. Engage a technical advisor to assist with recruiting and early interviews. Much like executive recruiters recognize the best executives, a technical expert in your business domain will recognize the right combination of skill, creativity and experience you need for a co-founder or key team member. Don’t fall for a technical pitch you can’t comprehend.
2. Look for a match in culture and values, as well as technical strength. A great technical LinkedIn profile is a good start, but not enough to assure success in your environment. The non-technical leadership attributes of excellent communication skills, high integrity, passion and perseverance are critical for the success of the whole team.
3. Spend time informally with candidate peers and former employers. This approach works best with business associates that know you, peers that you meet at industry conferences, or technical gurus that have no business connections to the candidate. Former employers will normally only give you candidate employment dates or good news.
4. Let candidates educate you on attributes you need. The key here is to do more listening than talking in both formal and informal interviews. I find that many entrepreneurs are so passionate about their own idea that they can’t stop selling it to potential partners. They are attracted to people who agree, although may not be able to help.
5. Evaluate their problem-solving ability in the context of your business. A business startup is not an academic environment, or a big company research organization. Practical problem solving and communicating to business people is often a big challenge for technical experts. Test them with problems outside their comfort zone.
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6. Challenge current team members to bring in the best and the brightest. Start with existing co-founders, extend the request to advisors and investors and finally to existing team members. Make them part of the interview and decision process, since they all have a large stake in the ultimate success of the new venture.
7. Continually ramp up your own technical competence. Although technology is getting more pervasive in business, it’s not rocket science. If your kids can use computers by age six, every entrepreneur ought to be able to stay current with the latest social-media marketing and ecommerce technologies. You can’t manage a technical team or negotiate with technical partners without understanding their view of the business.
8. For non-core technical strength, look for outside partners. Outsourcing to expert freelancers or business partners is often a better solution for startups than managing everyone into the inside team. You may not have the breadth of technical challenge, or the budget, to lure in and keep motivated the caliber of technical expert you need.
Even if your company doesn’t sell high-tech products, for example, Zappos, having and using the right technology in the business, for distribution, marketing and customer support, can easily make the difference between winning and losing in today’s high-tech world. It’s no anomaly that Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh graduated from Harvard with a degree in computer science.
On the other hand, there are many technology companies successfully started and run by non-technologists. For example, Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin Group, with no technical background at all, has started and run many technical companies, including the futuristic Spaceship One and a new orbital space launch system, and reportedly does his own social-media work.
Thus non-technical entrepreneurs must not shy away from technical issues, and must also learn to find and effectively work with technical partners, inside their company and outside. Street-smart today means the ability to survive and prosper in a technical world. Are you there?