Haven't really gotten on a rant in awhile... guess i've been doing a lot of travel lately, but now that i'm back in California for awhile, there's something i've been meaning to bring up that bothers me. It's kind of a dirty little secret of the startup industry, but there are very few good product, design, and marketing people in tech. And hardly any of them that are good seem to make it into the venture capital profession.
Now i say this knowing full well that i'm certainly not a genius on any of the items above. Anyone who has ever read my blog knows what a god-awful mess of turd droppings it is visually, and my font selection and layout are so bad that only a mother could love my pictures & posts. That said, i've spent at least 10-15 years doing coding, database dev & admin, basic front-end visual development (ages 15-30), and another 10-12 doing technology & consumer marketing (age 30-42), mostly using email, blog, search, & social strategies. Throughout both, i spent another 10-15 years managing projects, products, & teams, some of which might be called product management. I don't claim any formal visual design training, but i've done my fair share of mockups and learned the hard way what kind of UX doesn't work.
None of this means anything more than perhaps i'm competent in a few operational areas related to consumer internet startups, or at the very least hopefully i'm aware of & acknowledge my limitations.
However, over the past 5 years i've consulted with and/or invested in about ~50 startups. I've gotten to know a lot of entrepreneurs, and a fair amount of the venture capital and angel investors who are backing these companies, most of which are consumer internet startups. And guess what? Probably more than half of the startups, and more than 90% of the investors have no goddamn clue what the hell they are doing re: user experience and online marketing.
Let me say that again.
More than half of all startups, and easily 9 out of 10 investors HAVE NO F**KING CLUE regarding 1) user experience or 2) internet marketing.
Now many of you might say: aw c'mon dave, you're overstating that a bit don't you think? there are a lot of startups out there with a ton of engineering talent... and design & marketing aren't THAT important, are they? And seriously: investors don't have to be experts in every field, they just have to know how to assess talent & manage money... i mean, you don't expect every football coach to be an ex-football player, right?
Well, actually yes i do.
Or at least, i expect them to be dedicated, lifelong students of their profession.
And to be honest, design and marketing aren't just EQUALLY important as engineering... designers, product managers & [technical, analytical] marketers are usually WAY MORE IMPORTANT than coders. (believe me, i say this with a lot of humility, since my primary area of academic training was software development & applied mathematics & engineering... we just ain't all that.)
What's become appallingly obvious to me, is that in the HEART of Silicon Valley, amongst the ELITE of the elite, we are mind-bottlingly [sic] STUPID about how we build startups... about how we staff startup teams... and about how we structure and select the professionals in the investor community who fund consumer internet startups.
Addictive User Experience (aka Design) & Scalable Distribution Methods (aka Marketing) are the most critical for success in consumer internet startups, not pure Engineering talent.
This seems counter-intuitive, right?
We have this image of space-age whiz kids who are the stuff of legend for most technology startups -- The Woz, Bill Gates, Bill Joy, all those programmer types who could disassemble and re-assemble a transistor radio, a toaster oven, or a mainframe computer, and who grew up writing symphonies of code and wondrous applications before they even lost their virginity. Well i was one of those... or at least i aspired to be. I got paid for writing code when i was only 15, but i was still only a 2nd-class geek compared to the true code jockeys who were writing programs before they even went to grade school. Gates, Woz, Joy, Levchin, Zuck -- these guys were STUDs. they were god-like, and for their businesses -- building computers or advanced software / OS -- that kind of horsepower MATTERS.
And that kind of makes sense when you're building hard drives, or PC motherboards, or consumer electronic devices that require serious engineering talent... big-code cojones. Same perhaps for Google, or PayPal, or Facebook, or Mozilla. If you're building search engines or web browsers or fraud systems or serious CAD software or the movies that Pixar puts together.
But seriously, do you need that much geek when designing most basic input-output forms for consumer internet software? How much tech does it take to collect data & present data, when so much of the underlying infrastructure has been built into the OS & browser platform? We stand on the shoulders of these giants, but do we actually require them in every startup? well, it certainly doesn't hurt to have code jedis at the helm of your starship, but there are other areas that deserve at least equal attention... if you're building consumer internet sites & services.
Because while it's actually pretty easy to write a web 2.0 friendly front-end app or website these days, it's still MOTHERF**KING difficult to create visually-appealing interfaces, and beyond that to design them in ways that are compelling, engaging, drive calls-to-action, and are MEASURABLY beneficial to getting more customers using your products. figuring out game mechanics and activation, designing reinforcement schedules, visual imagery, copy writing, and landing page tests -- all of this is not trivial, and only recently are there starting to be good resources for learning how to do it well.
And if -- IF! -- you cross that hurtling Engineering chasm of Minimum Viable Product, and get to the promised land of appealing, useful Design, then you still have to chase the scalable, predictable, profitable channels of customer acquisition... otherwise known as MARKETING. and these days, most marketing isn't traditional PR & product placement, it's actually a very technically-intensive discipline filled with SEO, SEM, Social Platforms, email, widgets, social media, viral marketing, blogging, video, user-generated content, etc, etc, etc. it's a traditional marketing person's worst nightmare... tens if not hundreds of potential marketing channels & campaigns with unknown costs, techniques, and payoff.
Yet, these days marketing has become very MEASURABLE and very integrated with user experience & product development ... and for folks who know what they are doing, they can build amazing services with awesome native product marketing features that cost little or nothing to drive massive adoption.
In summary: i suggest to you that Engineering for consumer internet startups need only be competent, and that the real challenge is in finding designers & product managers who can build an awesome product experience, and marketers who can figure out effective scalable, integrated distribution strategies (whether organic or paid, whether technical or creative).
* Assertion #2:
If investors don't have operational backgrounds in design, development, or marketing from proven consumer internet companies, you probably don't want their money (or it better be the best damn termsheet on the table)
this one is a bit more controversial than the earlier assertion. and i'm probably pissing off most of the other VCs and angel investors in the valley by saying so, except that i'm not really that worried because most of the folks i do deals with DO have backgrounds in these areas.
now if you already have money from clueless investors, or you know that you've got a good clean termsheet from someone who is just offering you a check to get rolling, maybe this isn't that big a a deal. but honestly, if you're taking money from investors, why not try and get the best experience you can along with the 20-40% equity you're giving up? why not find people who actually have a shred of intelligence about consumer products and relevant skills, when you're going to be sitting in board meetings with them every month for the next 3-5 years of your godforsaken sleepless, work-like-a-dog excuse for a life listening to their mindless opinionated VC bullshit when they have no real clue?
do you REALLY want to be taking product and marketing advice from someone who has spent most of their life without ever having designed a web page, coded a simple program, written a blog post or email, or hell even have a f**king facebook or twitter account they know how to use with any amount of intelligence whatsoever?
When you do background research on your investors, see if you can find them online. Do they have recognizable web presence? do they blog, do they tweet? do they have a profile on LinkedIn, Facebook, Flickr, or YouTube? do they rank first for their own name? do they appear to have experience in the internet industry, or do they just have an MBA some big-name school, and no relevant operating roles?
Seriously, life is too short. Your startup too important. And your chances at the next Google, PayPal, or Mint are already tough enough.
Hire people smarter than you. Find a decent designer who understands human psychology & sexuality, game mechanics, SEO, and conversion analytics. Find someone in marketing who understands how to send an email, write a blog post, use search engines, social platforms, social media, and has done landing page A/B tests. Find investors who have a clue about the products and services they invest in, who use the products, and maybe even write/speak about them frequently. Find people as advisors, mentors, and investors, who have the same operational experience you'd hope to hire into your startup.
If we all take this to heart, we might just build a few more useful consumer internet products.