Should “Great Athletes” Start Internet Companies?

One of my favorite work topics is the whole question about the role of the “best athlete” in small, growing companies. If you want a good summary of the “best athlete” debate, I’d recommend you check out this post on Dick Costolo’s blog – he sums it up well. The basic argument is about the role of the “best athlete” in startups. Typically, this term is used to describe someone who’s useful in a number of areas (product, business development, marketing, sales, etc) but does not have deep domain expertise or professional experience in any one field.

I think there are lots of interesting arguments as to the right thing to do with “great athlete” types – they’re not right for all organizations at all stages of development. I think Dick and others have done a good job of summarizing the arguments for and against hiring these folks to join your company.

I have a somewhat selfish interest in a slightly different question. Do these “great athlete” types make good founders of Internet companies? I am narrowing my scope to talk about Internet companies because I specifically want to avoid talking about companies pursuing deep technical innovation for reasons that will become clear below.

At the end of the day, the founder or founding team has to do a ton of work. I’ll break it down into what I view to be a simplistic view of the core steps (in no particular order):

  • Define the product – What exactly are you building, what problem are you trying to solve, and for whom?
  • Design the product – How will you go about solving the problem? What are the key features and attributes?
  • Develop (code) the product – Someone actually has to write it and reduce the PRD to software. And make it look nice.
  • Market the product – Even the greatest product can’t succeed without users. Some products grow themselves. Most need some help.
  • Grow the team – Hiring, hiring, hiring. It’s not easy and takes a lot of time and energy.
  • Do all the “business stuff” – Take care of the front and back office tasks that need to happen to make the company run.

Historically, I’d argue that the biggest impediment facing a “great athlete” in starting his or her own Internet company has been the need to have software development expertise in house. While the value of having an architect or other smart person in house is difficult to deny, the prevalence of services like oDesk, RentACoder, and other 3rd party development houses at least allow a product-oriented generalist to find a cost-effective way to bring life to an idea or product vision that he or she has. So the need to have technical expertise is no longer a hard constraint – it matters, but it is no longer an absolute bar to progress.

So why don’t you see more companies started by “great athlete” types? You could argue that I have a blind spot and that there are lots of these companies out there today. I’d concede that point with a good set of examples. I am of the mind that the real impediment is hiring. While you can build a prototype or proof-of-concept using only 3rd party development resources, there aren’t many “successes” that have shown the ability to grow to be meaningful without some in house technical talent. The challenge for the generalist is simple – how does he or she source and evaluate technical talent if he or she has never been in that role? The other critical needs that an early stage company has are somewhat fungible compared to hiring and sourcing technical talent.

To keep this post short, I’d argue that sourcing technical talent is much harder than evaluating it. People who have developed software side by side with peers have a natural advantage when it comes to recruiting technical talent – they’ve directly observed the work of their peers and have the knowledge to make an assessment as to the level of quality associated with what they’ve seen developed.

Thoughts? Comments are open. This is something I’ve been thinking about for about a week so it’s still a bit raw.

  • JJ

    How appropriate. These are exactly the issues I’m dealing with. While I think I have drawn solid conclusions we’ll have to wait a year or so before we’ll know whether they will prove to be wise.

    You are correct that to be meaningful in-house talent will at some point be required. However, I’m taking the approach that if the concept is a good one and it addresses a large existing market, and you can get a quality application/site launched (built by 3rd party), you can then gain the visibility/buzz/funding to source a greater pool of talent.

    But on a higher level, yes I do now believe that a “best athlete” can be a good founder of an Internet company. After all, “best athletes” are usually smart people who make good decisions.

    Perhaps I’ll be your first example…