The “technical co-founder” model is dead, and building awesome tech isn’t a one-person job anymore. Below is a practical blueprint for building a minimal product team for your venture.
Have you ever heard the following conversation?
Q: “What’s your plan to build your app?”
A: “I’ve got a guy!”
I have. It’s too common and it haunts start-ups and large companies alike, echoing through their later efforts to refactor, rebuild, or redesign their product because of early mistakes made while launching an MVP.
That fateful conversation is also representative of a common oversimplification of building software products and a reckless commodification of the talent that builds them; in other words, to think that some guy (or gal) can build great technology for your company, solo, is simply unrealistic these days. Tech and design have advanced to levels of complexity and nuance beyond what one person can handle. The overly-romanticized “technical co-founder” of tech’s youth is gone and done, and we need a better way to think about building product teams.
To put product development strategy into a more rational lens — and to stop equating its difficulty to that of assembling IKEA furniture — we created the MVPT, a functional blueprint for building a lean software development team (T) that can produce an exceptional MVP.
MVP + T = MVPT. Get it? Nevermind, let’s move on…
Who’s on the team?
1. A seasoned product leader.
An experienced product leader is essential: they elegantly unite leadership’s vision, design (brand, experience and interface), engineering (front, back, and devops), and user feedback to create an awesome product. A product leader is the invaluable glue between all the pieces of your team, and is essential for clean execution.
They ask the hard questions and overlay all the aforementioned perspectives to act as the product’s core decision-maker. They plan, test, learn, coordinate, make decisions, and execute. Most importantly, they let you focus on what you’re supposed to be doing, which is not burying yourself in the day-to-day of building a product.
You’ll be tempted to think I got this or Our team’s small enough to coordinate without, but saying you don’t need a dedicated product leader is the tech world’s equivalent of “Hold my beer.” It’s reckless.
With this person on the team, you will harmonize with your users and other teammates. Without them, you will collectively make bad decisions and create confusion, misalign with your users, cause costly redos of technical architecture and design, and generally piss off your team.
(My team is probably reading this and thinking Hypocrite, but I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve learned firsthand from this mistake. No matter how smart or savvy you are, do yourself a favor and find a veteran leader to handle product delivery.)
2. A dynamic creative leader.
An interface is not a product, a brand is more than a logo, and design is more than superficial. Design has incredible depth that is frequently underestimated, and makes for a tempting yet perilous shortcut. Before you underinvest in design though, ask yourself: is compromising how your users feel, think, or behave when interacting with your brand or product worth saving a few bucks? I wouldn’t try it — it’s product suicide.
A talented creative leader will understand your users better than you: they will design scenarios, experiences, and features that actually solve the problem and yes, they will turn those features into a lovely interface. They will merge all of this into a brand that communicates effectively with your audience, and a product that people love.
(You’re probably thinking my friend [insert friend] is artsy, or Those gig sites probably have a solid freelancer, or These wireframes I whipped up in PowerPoint are actually pretty awesome. Stop thinking this. Having a junior designer make half-baked wireframes pretty will not cut it. Without a true expert, you’ll fail to think through your product and its users in full and fall short of what consumers expect out of great design. Your team will build something nobody wants to use, look at, or buy. Your engineers will be frustrated that the features and flows weren’t thought through well enough. You will be sad.)
A master of experience design, interface design, services design, and brand strategy will make the difference between people using (or better, loving) your product or service, and not. How valuable is that?
(P.S. Finding one person to do all facets of design — experience, services, brand, logo, and interface — is impractical. Find a dynamic leader that can dabble in all of them, but expect to hire more people soon after.)
3 & 4. A full-stack, architect-level engineer…or not.
Engineers are important (but don’t tell them I said that). The problem, though, isn’t that people don’t understand their importance, but rather that they tend to falsely generalize and commodify engineering talent. Thinking that building great technology is as simple as finding an engineer is a grave mistake — you need to weigh engineers’ vastly different skill levels and specialties when assembling a team.
Before you jump into hiring engineers, you should first understand a modern technical architecture (what you need to build). A simplified tech stack these days consists of three parts: front-end (interface), back-end (platform and APIs), and devops (infrastructure…kind of). A full-stack engineer can develop across all three domains. A full-stack architect is a master across all domains (though most architects specialize in one domain and are proficient in the others). Again, it’s extremely important that you understand and weigh domain expertise and skill level in your hiring decisions.
Finding an experienced full-stack architect is easier said than done though — they are rare, and you likely won’t find one at all. (As an aside, beware of the false bravado of some engineers who inaccurately claim full-stack credentials). And, if you do find one, they’re probably too expensive or too picky for you to hire.
The more practical scenario is to hire two specialist engineers for your team: one front-end (mobile and web), and one back-end (ideally with some devops experience). That’s a much more pragmatic configuration, and is in fact what we use for our projects (although our engineers boast true full-stack chops).
Also, if possible, have an experienced technical architect sit in on your interviews. Some early founders and leaders are unwilling to admit their lack of technical knowledge, ineffectively screening candidates and subsequently making poor hiring decision after poor hiring decision—and when that happens, the future failures are just as much your fault as the engineers’.
Even though the cost of shortcuts — not to mention the subsequent deficiencies in user experience, failures in technical performance and reliability, and inefficiencies in development velocity — seems obvious, many founders choose the easy way and hire any old engineer that “kinda made a WordPress site in high school.” In quantitive terms, I’d estimate that considering both speed and budget we see an average efficiency loss of 90 percent (seriously, ninety percent), and unravelling these mistakes can later add up to millions of dollars. Millions.
When speed to market and investment efficiency are made king in determining the success of any venture (in addition to a working, performant product), it’s easy to see how shortcuts in engineering can be fatal.
I know how easy these mistakes are to make, and we are lucky to have found a pattern for assembling elite product teams that actually works. To briefly recap the blueprint, you need the following people:
An experienced product leader.
A dynamic experience and design lead.
An expert front-end engineer.
An expert back-end (w/ devops) engineer.
That’s four people.
And, sure, we’ve seen companies get fragile, ugly prototypes out the door with their recently-graduated-dev-bootcamp friend and 99designs, but we’ve also seen the downstream costs of those decisions. It’s not pretty, and those companies and products either failed definitively or never achieved their full potential.
If recruiting and paying four experts seems impossible (and it is difficult and time-consuming to find qualified people) and sounds expensive (over $500k annually), I’d recommend delaying these decisions and finding a strong agency partner—not to sound self-serving, but someone like us. (Well, okay, maybe a little self-serving.) The partner option provides financial flexibility, on-demand expertise, and avoids a lot of the common pitfalls mentioned above.
We love working with both passionate entrepreneurs and corporate innovators — reach out in the comments, or visit us at panderalabs.com to start the conversation.
Thanks to Ben Madore and Mike Rourke.