Technical Skill: How Much Do You Need?

by Colt Stander

While I am in the works of creating my own accessories company, I have been questioned countless times, why aren’t you doing the designs if you were once a designer?  Similarly, often, entrepreneurs launching a website believe it best to learn how to code and then develop their own site rather than outsourcing this need.  In response, I question the focus of the entrepreneur and her evaluation of what she brings to the table in a founding team and promote her to do what she does best.

Similar to the comparative advantage of one country over another in worldwide economics, founding teams need to consider what skills and assets they have and the most efficient way of fulfilling their startup needs.  If I am able to make $50/hr doing strategic work, it is incredibly inefficient for me learn a new technical skill so I can complete a project which may have cost me $45/hr.  Even in the situation where the founder doesn’t have the funds to hire work to be done, other sources of payment (services, equity, etc.) remain which can be traded for this work.

Founders often believe it is better to learn a technical skill than give up a portion of their equity but I disagree.  At the beginning stages of a business, is it more important to move quickly or own more of the entity?  Often, speed is a main component of success and, later, of growth.  Consequently, the founder is likely to be better off with a smaller portion of a successful venture than a larger portion of an unsuccessful one.

As I look through my experiences in the fashion, medical device, biotech, and farming industries, I ask myself how much my technical expertise and experiences have impacted my success or failure.  Without a doubt, my experiences provided me with an advantage, but with diminishing returns.  Whether I was working with engineers, designers, chemists, or manufacturing experts, the ability to communicate my needs and issues was most important.  Outside of this core, I have been able to add to developments of these partners, but only marginally.

If this hypothesis is correct, that a level of technical knowledge is primarily needed for communication, what is the best and quickest way of gaining this?  Raw industry experience or formal education are typically seen as the most common way of achieving this goal, but both are time consuming and large commitment for a moderate gain.  Rather, the best way to fill these communication goals is to build your team carefully, knowing what third party groups you may need to work with along the process.

If this basic knowledge is still unreachable, I absolutely promote founders to teach themselves the needed technical skills, but only to the point of being able to converse proficiently.  Any extra education is only detrimental to the overall goal of launching the best venture with the quickest agility and risks an inefficient use of the founders’ time.