The developer to tech entrepreneur gap

Being able to make something doesn’t mean you’re an entrepreneur, being able to make a business out of it does.  

I’ve met many great developers across Africa, some who would be considered “top of class” in any country in the world.  Unfortunately, some confuse starting a company for running a business.  It’s easy to get a legal entity, a company name and even a prototype out into the market.  It’s hard to earn money off of that idea, even enough to make it self-sustaining, much less profitable.

I can think of a couple reasons why this might be.

Sometimes I wonder if this problem comes from the current eduction system, where you’re trained to be great employees but not independent thinkers with an entrepreneurial bent.  That could be it, and it’s no surprise that the tech entrepreneurs who are making a living, building businesses of their own, weren’t the top students in their class.

I then look out at the many pitch competitions and challenges that are being presented to the young tech entrepreneur in Africa, and I realize something else.  The ability to communicate what you do and what value it brings to your market are missing.  There is an extremely small number of presentations that I’ve seen that would sway an investor or business executive to engage with your business and its products.

Again, maybe this is a matter of academic style and lack of business training in school.  It probably has a lot to do with the fact that developers are generally not businessmen, therefore they have a difficult time pitching their product, even if they have the desire and fancy themselves in that role. 

We need a couple things to happen.  

First, more companies formed by a combination of 1 businessman and 1 tech.  Start from there and see what happens when you each concentrate on what your strengths are – your competitive advantage.  As a programmer, put your ego to the side and realize that an experienced businessman with good business acumen will take you far.

Second, I hope the local high schools and universities will offer basic business classes that are made open to young people in the technical field.  Having a basic understanding of economics, marketing and incentives means a better chance that aspiring tech entrepreneurs will make it.  Equally, we need more business schools to have introductory classes in technology so that they know what the gaps are and can exploit them.  

14 thoughts on “The developer to tech entrepreneur gap

  1. This is a great post, and something I feel has been missing from the East African tech-entrepreneur community for a while. Being able to demonstrate and prove the commercial viability (market research, hard data), and prove the ability to execute and drive revenue is vital to any pitch. I can tell you from experience in Uganda that cross functional teams are more successful (which makes sense as they’re more scalable).

    Of our two finalists in the ASEC last year, one was a team of technologists and business people with an “average” idea, the other was a single, yet talented developer with an “awesome” concept. The “average” idea beat “awesome” because the team members brought diverse an complimentary skill sets together in commercializing their Bplan. The idea of pairing business (marketing/sales) specialists with technologists is almost a prerequisite for success!

  2. Michael Pedersen says:

    To build a product you need engineering skills.
    To build a business you need business skills.
    To be an entrepreneur you need to build both a product and a business.
    If the full skillet is available in one or two persons are less important (although I agree two is most likely better).

  3. Erik, as always a great post. This is truly relevant to what I see a lot in Kenya. The business skills and tech chops need to intersect to make serious headway. Otherwise, the true potential will never be realized.

  4. Here is an insightful article on this topic, specifically referring to U.S. universities, but probably applicable around the world: http://www.theamericanscholar.org/solitude-and-leadership/

    The author is talking about developing leaders. Some quotes:

    So what I saw around me were great kids who had been trained to be world-class hoop jumpers. Any goal you set them, they could achieve. Any test you gave them, they could pass with flying colors. They were, as one of them put it herself, “excellent sheep.”

    …for too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going. Who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them. Who can fulfill goals, but don’t know how to set them. Who think about how to get things done, but not whether they’re worth doing in the first place. What we have now are the greatest technocrats the world has ever seen, people who have been trained to be incredibly good at one specific thing, but who have no interest in anything beyond their area of exper tise. What we don’t have are leaders.

    What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction.

    Perhaps part of the issue is that an entrepreneur must be a leader. And education tends to produce those who follow existing processes.

  5. “A friendship founded on business is a good deal better than a business founded on friendship” – John D. Rockefeller.

    For developers – Find someone who has the skills that you don’t and work with them! You’ll see that they need you just as much.

  6. wes says:

    Let all the geeky tech gurus pitch in their awesome technical-ness.
    Let all the business gurus pitch in the awesome business ideas with market charts and polished presentation skills.
    Then pair them up.
    Tech guys might not know how to identify the right business partner and vice versa.

    8~)

  7. beautiful write up,i am personally a combination of a technologist and an entrepreneur.i am starting up a youth foundation to run along side my magazine(alien bridge student magazine) and marketing company(fresh marketing and management) to encourage and close the gap between this the two.because as said above,our institutions only teach us to be followers,if the schools can not train leaders,it will become the responsibility of the community and private individuals to create strategies to train leader,because that is one of Africa biggest problem,the lack of leaders.

  8. edis90 says:

    This is a great post, and something I feel has been missing from the East African tech-entrepreneur community for a while. Being able to demonstrate and prove the commercial viability (market research, hard data), and prove the ability to execute and drive revenue is vital to any pitch. I can tell you from experience in Uganda that cross functional teams are more successful (which makes sense as they’re more scalable).

  9. maqtim says:

    Couldnt agree more! I saw this at Uni too. Pals with great concepts, very smart with thorough know how in their technical field.
    Guys who will take you through every step of how it all comes together and operates. Even where it can get implemented. Trouble is, making a case for the solution! A business one that goes beyond sustaining the first implementation. Whether there was a need in the first place is another story! Creating both a need and a solution to the needless. Either there was never a need or it was already eliminated in which case devs end up re-inventing the wheel, burning time, since no hard research was done.
    There are devs who have done well to push out a great idea and one of the most important decisions they have made is to stick to what they are good at. Letting go of full ownership for the sake of growth with someone else on the biz reigns. I realized collaboration is easiest between developers, the agenda is the same anyway, until you introduce a third guy to step into the shoes of the potential customer and drive the agenda!
    Equally surprised how many of us devs equate accounting skills to a full entrepreneur. The numbers are good to crunch but the vision and biz acumen to match a real need and a worthy solution will bring the numbers! I should have been taught this!
    I agree, we should churn both content creators and guys who can show the value of the content in monetary terms..better still create an independent system around it. Ratio should be 1:1. That may not come from the formal education sector though. Not because the institutions lack, but because of emphasis on being the “expert”. I still find myself thinking withing the parameters re-inforced for the good of my final year exam in college! Not to say experts are a bad lot, it already seems we need an expert “gap bridger”. Introducing some of these skills in places where innovation is encouraged, formal or informal and soft as they may seem, will go a long way to help two or three different ‘experts’ work together to grow wholesome innovators.
    Its good to note that lots of us are increasingly becoming aware and doing something about this gap within the dev community. :-)

  10. Indeed you a very right, “Most of the Techies are smart but lack a sense of direction when it comes to business and venturing into their own idea. That is why most of them have ended up selling their innovation to people that have understood the market trends and how to penetrate it.” Supa Shack.

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