Much has been said about the classic “Hacker + Hustler” dynamic, but I think a lot of the discussion misses the subtly of what both bring to the table and some of the other critical archetypes that need to be filled in a successful startup like the Designer and the Operator. I don’t think people need to be pigeonholed into a given role – everyone will find they resonate to varying degrees with each role – but if a team lacks competence in a critical type, they’ll likely need to fill it quickly to succeed. Here’s my take on the core personalities needed for success:
Look, if you’re building a technology business, you are going to need a technologist. And here I mean someone who loves learning and building technology. You can learn how to code. It’s actually going to be pretty important that you do have some grasp of coding regardless of your particular role at a company, so you should probably learn to code this year. Napster was Shawn Fanning’s first Windows program – he was teaching himself how to code on his uncle’s couch so the early betas had lots of atrocious bugs. The company didn’t need a longstanding Windows expert to put the tech together, it needed someone who was willing to put in the elbow grease to figure out how to do it. In other words **if you’re looking for a technical cofounder consider becoming one.** It’s just too hard to find random technical people who don’t know you, are highly competent, and are happy to work for no pay and very little equity on your idea. (surprise!)
The worst interview question I was ever asked was at a tech job fair in college; a recruiter enquired if I was the sort of person who loved to be locked in a dark closet for days on end with pizza shoved under a door. Seriously. For non-technologists, the important thing to recognize about the Hacker role is that when deployed well they are not just a code monkey who can take specifications and implement them like some kind of digital bricklayer. They can shape the product to do things that didn’t even occur to you to ask for because you didn’t realize they were possible. This is why it is critically important for your Hacker(s) to understand what the end user is actually trying to do. Otherwise you will get a very elegant but useless system.
A great example of this is PBworks’ CTO, Brian Kirchoff who two years ago dropped in drag-and-drop file uploading with inline image support into our editor one afternoon because he thought it would be cool. Nobody would have considered asking for this because the assumption would have been that it was not possible in a web browser but Brian knew it was not only possible but a Great Idea. So he did it. Brian’s a great Hacker.
If the Hacker role is misunderstood by business folks, the Hustler role is not merely misunderstood by engineers but loathed and derided as slimy, sleazy, lying, ignorant, petty, foolish, and to be avoided at all costs. It’s really astonishing.
What a Hustler brings to the table is a story. And this is critical because stories are how humans understand things. A story explains to a customer how the product is useful, to recruits why the company is awesome to work for, to employees what the company is trying to achieve, and to investors what the company stands for. If you are not able to tell a compelling and memorable story about your business you’ll find yourself mystified as to why the “idiot masses” are having trouble understanding your amazing technical invention or throw up all over it (as happened to me when I launched my first service).
The Hustler also brings a network to the table. Many Hackers understand Networking as “that sleazy thing that sleazy people do to pretend to connect with each other”, which was basically how I saw it post-college, too, until I realized I had built a real network by focusing on helping the people around me (e.g. by starting a nerd non-profit colo, suing bad guys, helping start hacker parties, and building a hackerspace). Helpfulness is actually the best currency; nobody cares about someone who just throws their business cards around, but if you pay into the karma bank by investing in the community around you, the community will take care of you. That is True Networking.
If you are going to produce something that humans are going to have to look at and use, then you are going to need someone who can design a high quality experience. There are three important parts of providing good design – in larger companies these will often get broken out into separate roles but in a startup you often have to make do with these being mashed into one person:
The User Experience Designer (UX)