Developers become developers for many reasons, but they all have one thing in common: they love to build. Long before they do it for a living, developers will write code to solve problems and make products for the pure act of building itself.
At a certain point, every developer has probably built something that made them think they have a potential startup idea on their hands. They must then decide if they want to build something else: a business.
On the Decoded podcast, Philip Thomas spoke with us about making that choice, and how little building code and building a company can have in common. Thomas is Vice President of Product and Engineering at Zyper. Prior to his current role, he founded the developer community Moonlight, which was acquired by PullRequest.
For developers who want to become founders, Thomas says that the ultimate key to success won’t necessarily be the skill that got you started in the first place. Technical founders need to know when to take off their developer hat and when to put on their business hat.
“If you start a business, you need to be prepared to not be writing code anymore within a couple of years. Your value to the company doesn’t come from writing code; your value will come from managing people, from setting vision, from setting the standard of execution, from raising money. Your coding abilities are not necessarily the long-term thing you’ll be working,” Thomas said.
Put Customers Before Code
When you’re a developer, ideas are a dime a dozen. So how do you know if a product idea is worth pursuing as a business? Instead of spending time refining an idea and building out the code, spend that time understanding the problem you’re trying to solve. Thomas started Moonlight as a no-code prototype that was no more than a landing page built on Squarespace, allowing him to test the idea with customers.
This can be counter-intuitive for developers who are used to writing code and are hesitant to release something until it's perfect. But one of the most important lessons Thomas said he learned in building Moonlight is that the solution never matters as much as the user’s problem.
“Users will use a completely broken tool if it’s actually solving a problem. The danger isn’t really moving too slowly, it’s moving in the wrong direction, because if you’re moving too slowly that’s something you can fix. But if you’re moving in the wrong direction, that’s really hard to course-correct,” he recalled.
Find the Right Focus
To become a successful founder, Thomas offers the four following pieces of advice:
- Make code a commodity. Too many developers spend their time making their code as efficient and pretty as possible. However, Thomas suggests viewing your code as a commodity that anyone can write, not just you. This will help you spend less time perfecting your code, and more time focusing on users.
- Take time away from coding. You’re building a business, not just a product. At his startup, Thomas scheduled two days a week where he didn’t touch the code base. “Spend the day talking to customers, doing pricing research, writing sales emails,” he said. “That’s really valuable for a founder to do if they’re technical.”
- Read, watch, learn. There is a vast library of books, videos, and blog posts providing startup advice. Learn as much as you can so you can avoid easy mistakes. Don’t forget to go back to review material you read earlier, as it may make more sense the further you get into your startup journey.
- Become a founder for the right reasons. If you are only becoming a founder to strike it rich, you might be disappointed. “The person I’ve worked with who has the most wealth was an early employee at a big company. My founder friends, for the most part, are my poorest friends,” Thomas noted. For the first few years of your company, you may have to take a huge pay cut as the product generates little to no revenue, employees need to be paid, and infrastructure needs to be built. Embrace the process, not just the destination.