Dave McClure of 500 Startups calls it the holy trinity of startup founders. The frequent mantra in the startup space is that there are three primary types of founders: hackers, hustlers, and designers. The prevailing wisdom is that you should have one of each of these on your founding team. But we don’t often talk about what constitutes each of these archetypes.
Hackers are not simply code monkeys. They need to be able to do more than just code well. Comfort with ambiguity and an understanding for coding in that context is invaluable for the hacker-founder. Many programmers are happier simply building what they’ve been told to build, but the good entrepreneurs are those who think about what happens when the requirements change – and code as if they will. This means building some things quick and dirty, and accepting that there will be some technical debt incurred in favor of rapid iteration.
Communication skills are also critical for hacker-founders. To achieve company success beyond personal success, you need to be able to communicate a vision to other technical team members and to translate for your non-technical co-founders. Likewise, some comfort with project management is valuable. Finally, any good programmer should understand how their outcomes tie to the success of the business. For programmers working for others, this is the way you communicate your worth; for hacker-founders, this is how you prioritize, test, and iterate for your startup.
Hacker-founders are not the only ones who need these skills, but the reality that there is far less supply than demand for excellent technical co-founders may tempt many non-technical folks to overlook these gaps in their search for a technical co-founder. If all you’re looking for is a code monkey, don’t make them a co-founder; just hire them on a contract basis until you can attract someone who has the complete package.
Hustlers are usually the business development specialists in a startup. It is important to note that this is not the same as an “ideas person.” Ideas people are thinkers; hustler-founders are doers. In a startup, anyone who fails to contribute anything beyond ideas is dead weight and should be cut loose at the earliest opportunity. Hustlers are the ones making deals happen, talking to customers or partners, raising funding to extend the runway, and generally removing obstacles for the rest of the team. Hustler-founders need to be resilient in the face of an endless stream of “no” and tireless in their pursuit of opportunities to promote the company.
When we talk about designer-founders, most people think about web design or mobile app design, but these are not the most important skills. What startups really need is UX designers, not graphic designers. This point gets lost because many designer-founders have both sets of skills. But make no mistake: this role is not about making your product pretty. It’s about making your product enjoyable and effective. Designer-founders should have extensive experience with problem solving and a disciplined approach to understanding the customer’s problem and designing for the customer’s interactions and experiences with the solution.. Designer-founders might approach this task from perspectives including design thinking, lean startup, user experience design, ethnographic research, or some other school of thought. The important part is that the designer-founder focuses on creating an complete end-to-end experience for the customer, not just the gloss that covers it.
A little of column A, a little of column B…
Few roles fit squarely into one of these categories without overlapping with the others, and any early startup employee needs to be prepared to tackle any challenges that arise. However, if your founding team has the right mix of skills to cover each of these three areas, it will give you a better chance of overcoming challenges and ultimately building a sustainable company.