The Rise of the Product Founder

Published May 15, 2018

We’re all familiar with the story of the technical founder who, through some combination of preternatural skill, ambition verging on obsession, and capacity to turn caffeine into code on little or no sleep, single-handedly designs and builds the first few iterations of some important new product.

Zuck, Sergey and Larry, and Bill Gates all fit this profile: deeply technical founders who set out to solve a technical problem, stumbled upon a large commercial opportunity, and went on to become the titans of their industry.

This nerds-to-riches story has become the archetype in places like Silicon Valley, yielding something like a pattern matching algorithm for venture capitalists and others looking to sniff out the next Facebook or Google inconspicuously hiding in plain sight.

But there are flaws in this (and every other) model, the first being the tendency to reduce the irreducible, to confuse correlation with causation. Technical skills yield certain advantages in new venture formation–not least of which is the ability to write code when hiring others to do the job might be cost prohibitive–but technical skill does not a great founder make.

If the Hoodie Fits

First, let me make this absolutely clear: I’m not arguing against technical founders. I’m merely suggesting that, in the effort to simplify the world around us, we’re often overly reductive in our view of this founder archetype. And in doing so, we end up perpetuating the sort of mythmaking that leads to all sorts of false positives in the search for the next Zuckerberg.

Maybe you’re familiar with Silicon Valley’s Nelson “Big Head” Bighetti, a clueless, yet lovable young fellow who unwittingly invites outsized opportunity by simply looking the part. Big Head is the classic Gumpian antihero. His giant Big Gulp cup, hoodie, and endearing social awkwardness are enough to signal that this guy, to borrow the VC phrase, is highly fundable.

Big Head has found every opportunity–or more precisely, every opportunity has found him–simply because he looks the part. This is what happens when we reduce the irreducible.

It’s an absurd example, I know, but it also reflects a certain level of truth. We put a lot of stock in the archetype of the technical founder. In my opinion, the model has run its course.

No, most technical founders are not clueless rubes like Big Head (and I say that with nothing but respect; I do love that guy). But, that doesn’t make them Zuck, either. A penchant for math can only get you so far. To be a great founder, you also have to have a ruthless determination, a singular focus, and an instinct for customers and markets.   

The Rise of the Product Founder

The problem with archetypes is that, while they may offer a coherent narrative, they cause some attributes to stand in bold relief, while others fade inconspicuously to the back.

When you consider the attributes of the best technical founders, for example, you quickly realize that their technical skills are rarely what sets them apart in the first place: it’s their grit, determination, and keen understanding of customers and markets; it’s their focus on finding solutions to some underserved market need.

And when you consider these less obvious characteristics, you quickly realize that many of the attributes that made these entrepreneurs great are also the distinguishing attributes of the best product managers. So, in all of our mythologizing of the vaunted technical founder, perhaps what we really meant was something more like the product founder.

Finding Founders

As I write these words, I recognize the irony in my own logic:

  • Reducing humans to archetypes can blind us to certain truths;
  • Case in point: consider the myth of the technical founder;
  • As an alternative, here’s yet another archetype: the product founder!

Actually, I am not arguing in favor of any single archetype, here or elsewhere.

In fact, what sets product people apart is precisely their irreducibility: they come from different backgrounds, they have different strengths, they are living, breathing modern renaissance men and women.

What’s more, while there’s still room for innovation in solving deeply technical novel challenges, the frontier for this sort of thing has shifted out considerably. Today, the mainstream adoption of open source, cloud platforms, and development frameworks make it much easier to focus on solving customer problems by building on others’ technical innovations.

Solving these problems requires creative, innovative, broadly-skilled entrepreneurs. My bias is to suggest that, more often than not, these founders look a lot like the best product managers. Then again, that’s a reductive conclusion. So there’s this: you know them when you see them.