Last week my company, SocialPandas, was part of the inaugural class presenting at the Alchemist Accelerator’s demo day. Breaking with the predominantly B2C models, Alchemist is focused solely on enterprise startups.
As we wrap up the six month program, I’ve been looking back at our journey since inception in late 2011. Early on when we considered programs like YC and AngelPad, we knew we didn’t easily fit the blueprint. Two business founders with MBAs [egads, NO!] and a CTO who has been coding for 33 yrs [is he in the computer history museum?], all well over the age of 30 building for the enterprise [oh sorry, I fell asleep]. We’re not standard accelerator material, and frankly, that’s for the best. A group fresh-faced techies need a completely different type of program than a battle-hardened veteran crew turned first-time founders. I’m confident I can learn something from any founder, but I’ll get the most relevant advice from those who’ve already walked a mile in my shoes and lived to tell the tale. I will say Alchemist delivered in spades on that front. (Kudos, Ravi.)
Like most accelerators, Alchemist’s must-have criteria for admission is a “distinctive technical founder.” Even with the new enterprise renaissance where business execution is critical, the highly disproportionate weighting of technical vs. business founders and the debate of education vs. experience remains the same. It confounds me that these discussions exist at all because my answer to “What do I need to create a successful company?” is E) All of the above.
On the education vs. experience debate, I can see merit in both arguments. I feel fortunate to have both. I’m the first to admit I find many MBAs loathsome (and vice versa). And while I don’t go around broadcasting my four-letter word degree, you’ll never hear me apologize for it either. I worked my butt off to get from the trailer park to a Top 10 business school. The only thing I’m sorry for is those who summarily dismiss what that demonstrates about my drive, intellect, and character. Want to invest your time and money in someone who appreciates the value of a dollar and will fight to the death to make her dreams a reality? You found her.
As a business founder, I fully appreciate the impact of a strong technical founder, but I fail to see these skills as mutually exclusive nor can they exist in a vacuum. You can build the most elegant, powerful product ever, but if no one ever uses it or it can’t be monetized in a sustainable way, does it really matter? Someone can mockup PowerPoints and sell vaporware for only so long before investors and customers wanna get their hands on the real deal. Why is this the value of one over the other even a question? You can’t build a sustainable business without both.
To be clear, I am absolutely not suggesting business founders get a free pass to be technically illiterate or should go to business school. Likewise, I wouldn’t work with a founding engineer who can’t do a basic sales pitch. It’s your company, you better be able to sell it to investors and customers. And my advice to anyone weighing business school or starting a company against something else: pick the alternative. If there’s hesitation, it’s not the right time for you to do either, especially becoming a founder.
I will say that my two year investment in grad school was a good one, as was working for multiple startups before founding my own. Business school helped me sort out and solidify what I’d learned haphazardly on the job during the boom and bust. And there is absolutely no substitute for the experience gained sitting in the front car of the startup roller coaster through good times and bad. If all that still lands me in the “nice to have” bucket until I teach myself Python nights and weekends, so be it.