Why some technology companies fail and others succeed

Many folks speculate why Google has overtaken Yahoo! in search or why Facebook has dominated in social networking, versus Friendster. I believe there’s one key factor— if you’re running a technology company, you need a technologist at the helm.  Larry and Sergey of Google were Ph Ds (or about to be) in Computer Science.  The last few folks who have run Yahoo! were anything but technology people– one was a film executive, one was a financial analyst, and another is a professional manager.  Running a technology company requires a deep understanding of what’s coming next in a rapidly changing world.  And to not have a keen pulse is to drive in a dangerous fog.

Facebook was founded by Mark Zuckerberg, a young computer science genius– not a 55-year-old male who is good at manipulating spreadsheets.  If you see a social networking start-up being founded by 55-year-old males who are probably not even on Facebook– run in the other direction as fast as you can.  The folks who can best guide a company are those who connect deeply with their customer base.  How can you start and manage a company if you don’t use the product yourself?  Even the guy who runs Hair Club for Men is also a client, so the commercial goes.

Of the technology companies we see fail, it’s not just age.  Often it’s also a lack of a balanced core team.  Salespeople hire salespeople.  Engineers tend to like to hang out with other engineers.  It just works that way somehow, as people hire folks who are like them.  But to operate a technology firm, you need folks who are experts in sales, engineering, marketing, finance, and other disciplines.  And the technologist should be king in the technology company, in the same way, that Nike was started and run by a star athlete, Phil Knight.   Does Frito Lay have a technologist at the helm?  No, they have a marketing person, since that’s the firm’s core expertise.

So watch out for technology companies that don’t have any engineers in sight or believe that engineers are commodity products that can be contracted out or hired offshore.  If you are a business person and are thinking of starting a company in the Internet space, my advice to you is to quickly find a technical co-founder.  You’ll thank me later for this advice.

A great entrepreneur knows what he knows- and more importantly, knows what he doesn’t know– finding someone to complement him or her.  If you’re an engineer, find a strong marketing/sales ally and make him a business partner.  Your freelancer will give you great results for a couple of months, maybe longer– but eventually will flake out on you, which is why they’re freelancing.

Are you a technologist— and if not, do you have a technologist that is part of your founding team or is at least a CTO-level person?  If you are one of these companies that’s lacking a technologist, but wondering why you may be having trouble executing, I hope this article helps shed some light on why.

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