Posted by: Will | February 11, 2009

Want To Be A Startup CEO? Better Learn How To Code.


I decided to start a company after graduating from business school at MIT Sloan. After taking courses with industry leaders like Jack Welch and learning the fundamentals of solid management practices, I was ready to run my new company as CEO.

What I did not know is that I would enter the Silicon Valley startup ecosystem just as it would begin to implode.

As sources of funding suddenly become more scarce, I had to quickly adapt to my new circumstances and do whatever needed to be done to move the company forward, and that meant coding.

MBA Skills Not A Priority

At one time I was a hot shot developer, with a computer science degree from Harvard. After some experience as an individual contributer, I began to lead teams and manage large engagements in San Francisco and London. I enjoyed the leadership responsibilities and decided to go back to business school to prepare myself to run my own company.

Through my MBA and work experience, I developed expertise in finance, marketing, and business strategy. These are fantastic skills for constructing a business plan and pitching to investors, which I spent much of the spring and summer of 2008 focusing my energies on.

However, when it became clear that venture and angel money was drying up, I quickly realized that the priority needed to be on building our product, not on being a CEO.

Building A Product With A Small Team

My team has built a fantastic web product – His Catalog.  What few people know is that I did nearly all of the web design, functional development and SEO. My lead engineer built an amazingly scalable back-end and my lead stylist wrote a ton of content for the site. But building a big product with a small team is hard. We didn’t have the resources to hire SEO experts, designers, or testers. We did it all on a shoestring budget.

When push came to shove, my skills as coder were more valuable than my skills as CEO.

Recommendations to New Entrepreneurs

If you’re in business school now and thinking about launching your company, I want you to ask yourself: Will you be ready to get down and dirty in the code if no one else can? Will you enjoy working long hours tweaking your SEO strategy if you can’t hire someone to do it for you? Will you be psyched to attend technical webinars about new services for the cloud?

And do you have the technical background to make a difference?

If the answer to any of these is no, then I highly recommend you focus on a path to funding rather than a path to profitability (topic for another blog post).  Because the market can turn and you, the founder, need to be ready to adapt.

[ photo by dierken ]



  1. Well said Will. You’re situation is like many entrepreneurs. There will be ups and downs when forming a company.
    How fast you can shift gears and adapt to solve a problem is critical especially since we can’t rely on VC funding anymore.
    Stay strong, stay hungry, and press on.

  2. I could not agree with you more.

    Even if you did happen to raise money and such, I think it’s still immensely valuable to be able to dig into the code and deliver a product.

    What hear did you graduate from MIT Sloan? We probably know a few people in common.

  3. This is so correct. I was bootstrapping development of my start-up. I was being prudent with the outsourcing of my development but in the end my lack of programming ability made me call it quits and post this:

    For my next effort I will either build up the necessary coding/design skills or do something outside of the web app/e-commerce domain.

  4. Great post.
    I just can’t for the life of me learn to code and develop.

    I’m a beacon for ideas I think could be great but I suck at development.

  5. good to know!

  6. The cloud, that’s where it’s at.

  7. @Randall The cloud is definitely we’re it’s at. We are in the cloud for His Catalog.

    However, the cloud does bring new challenges like scaling with demand. Typically you need to pay for a SaaS provider like RightScale and are beholden to an expert to maintain it. If you want to manage it yourself, be sure you have some technical mojo.

  8. Hi Noah

    Yes some of us suck at development and you don’t need to code to be a good entrepreneur of course! Will needed to be one because that’s what his product demanded and I think there is a wider lesson (hope this isn’t stating the obvious). If you are heading up a .com then the most important thing to be know about is the business model that the .com supports, if you are building a web product then you should probably know how to code. I run a Project Management Consultancy and you bet I need to be able to manage projects! Who the hell is going to buy from me if I don’t? However, there is a time coming soon where managing projects will be more risky to the business than beneficial because as CEO your business and entrepreneur skill-set becomes more vital as your business grows. Meanwhile, the thing that got you to that place, (whether its Project Management development or making cakes) has to be sacrificed for CEO role – otherwise your business isn’t getting the best of you. One last word though – if you know you are a lazy CEO then by all means stick to coding. No-one said that the owner had to do that particular job!

  9. Interesting read.

    It makes me wonder how it would be coming from the other end of things – being a technical person having to move into a management position. As a programmer, I’ve got (or at least I hope I’ve got) the skills to get down and dirty with the code, but it’s the management end of the stick that seems a bit more daunting.

  10. Hi will! this is a great article!

    it is definitely hard to bring ideas to reality when there isn’t enough cash!

    being an entrepreneur is all about working hard!

    i have a lot of ideas that i want to develop! where would you recommend i start – in terms of developing the web sites (mostly social networking sites) – thanks!

  11. That’s good to know if I ever decide to start a company… Which I never will… But that’s not the point…

  12. […] Article @ […]

  13. I only agree with the part on getting down and dirty into the code when you absolutely need to. However, if you already employ a small team of people to build a website such as yours, and nobody knows how to code, then that means you need to work on your CEO skills and employ the right people.

    Also, I would argue that there’s a difference in knowing how to code and actually being good at it. If it’s the former, and you practice the wrong SEO strategy, you can severly damage your own site.

  14. That’s right and I admire people, fearless people to start up something in this hard time.I wrote about Mandy Moore on our gossip blog, but post was about closing her fashion brand.Her publicity and PR is easier for her famous name than for IT company etc.Bravo.

  15. @Mike You make a great point. Picking the right team (with the right roles) is critical early on in a company. My team rocks, but we have been very resource constrained in this environment and couldn’t hire additional engineers when we wanted to. That’s when I had to jump in.

    To echo @David, most startups shut down when the cash gets squeezed. Those with technical founders will have a better chance of persevering.

  16. timely advice in the current economy, everyone on the team needs to get down and dirty in the minutia of the business in order to keep things moving. So this will also apply to pure tech founders that now need to get out from behind the screens and get in front of customers.
    its rough out there for everyone so there is a lot to be thankful for in terms of being small and agile.

  17. I think CEO skills are also very important. It always depends on the situation but for me it’s understanding code and having the skill to hire the right programmers to effect your changes / additions that counts.

    If you can’t evaluate a programmer you’ll be stuck (in many cases) with folks who live inside boxes. But if you understand enough, even if you don’t write code much yourself, you can pull together a good team.

    Good luck mister! Start-up mode is the best-worst memory of my adult life (wedding, kids excluded of course).

  18. @Yopi That’s a good question. Help me understand what you’re trying to do. Are you thinking about leveraging some of the social platforms like OpenSocial and Facebook Platform? Or building something new?

    Many people are “socially saturated” and don’t want to join another social network, so you have to reach them where they already spend time online. Facebook Connect, for example, is really helping sites accomplish this.

    First thing I would advise is to read a lot of tech blogs (TechCrunch, ReadWriteWeb, GigaOm) to get an understanding of what people care about and which sites are doing well. Good luck!

  19. It’s a brilliant site idea and I’d love it, but it needs to be Hot-or-Not easy to click through and vote on outfits/pieces. For the new users, all the “my stuff” pages are blank and there’s no obvious place to start looking through clothes.

  20. @attempted_user Thanks for the direct feedback. We love hearing from our users. We’ve been working on a hot-or-not feature. Maybe it’s time to get that out the door.

  21. Yes.. Same experience here. Being an entrepreneur does a lot of work. But it worths it though. A continuous learning process till it gets perfected.


  22. Great words on the trials and tribulations of starting up in a ‘depression mode’ kinda global business scenario, Will. 🙂 But your willpower and strong determination will get you through the thick and thin of the action, including ‘coding’ trivialities.

    Will, if I may suggest, you might as well either make critics like me pay to log on to your blog or get advertisers to give you the extra side income to supplement your TIME is gold (money) spent on this brave and bold blog to share with the world… 😉

  23. very well said. I run my own lesbian blog (can be said as a lesbian mini-CEO) and coding is the most important thing, rather than marketing

  24. Will- I agree with you 100%. Having gone through much of what you went through, I realize the importance of having a skill that directly contributes to the building of the company.

    One of my goals for this year is to learn how to code- I know it’ll be difficult, but I’m going to do it.

  25. […] CEO” Post Caught On Fire. Find Out Why. Yesterday I posted a blog article called Want To Be A Startup CEO? Better Learn How To Code. It caught on fire and was viewed more than 4,500 times in a few hours. If you google for […]

  26. Interesting post and I agree with the roll-up your sleeves attitude, but I honestly believe that sales skills are WAY more important. If your product is perfect, but no-one buys it, do you have a product? Isn’t that the mistake web 2.0 taught us?

    The CEO needs to know how to “make rain”, how to get the message out, how to get the BIG deals closed so that the product CAN get built. Super, if he/she can also help bang out some lines of code, but being able to get money in the door organically (not only from investors) is, in my opinion, a much more important skill.

  27. Learn it by doing it. Not by going to business school.

  28. it’s two different skill sets

    CEO is for managing
    Coding is to get things done.

    When you have no time, no money, no one to manage. . you have to get it done.

    You can be CEO when you have a team.

  29. Thank you for sharing this very useful information.

  30. Nice blog you have. Keep it up 😉
    check the my weblog out , you might like it.

  31. I could not agree with you more. Startups are all about the product at the end of the day and its critical that the founders are super hands on with respect to every bit of it.

  32. Spot on. I’ve seen MBAs and management types start up companies and they fail. The ones that work are those where the CEO is also intimately involved and hands on in development. What you also point out though is having people there that also know more than you to fill in the gaps.

    Active participation, good management, expert support, and good guidance make it work. Oh yeah, good idea!

  33. […] Want To Be A Startup CEO? Better Learn How To Code. I decided to start a company after graduating from business school at MIT Sloan. After taking courses with industry […] […]

  34. hi……………….i love you

  35. hey there.. watsUp..

  36. I hear you! I was a business student at USC and turn web developer because I saw opportunity in this field. Being able to brainstorm with business sense and being able to create what you have in mind is powerful and rewarding!

  37. @Mark_LaRosa Sales skills are vitally important, you’re right. However, that’s typically true for companies that have a product and funding to build a sales organization. I focused the scope of this post on really early stage company development.

  38. @robscott2007 Actually, the business school experience is incredibly valuable. There are core management and business skills that are best taught in an environment like b-school as opposed to the trial and error path of the real world. In addition, the network one builds at business school is a life-long asset. In this post, I’m suggesting that a business school education alone is not enough. But “learning by doing” is also not always enough.

  39. […]  Want To Be A Startup CEO? Better Learn How To Code.Posted by maheshcr via Google Reader   […]

  40. […] Image: Will O’Brien […]

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