I fully admit that I hang out with nerds, geeks and so on. I have only a handful of friends who have even undergraduate degrees in business, let alone MBAs. I don’t have a problem with people who pursue an MBA — just as I don’t have a problem with people who pursue a Ph.D. in underwater basket weaving. To each our own.
But when it comes to entrepreneurship, I’m seeing some very interesting trends. In my circle, the more successful entrepreneurs have some impressive technical skills, first and foremost. Just about everyone picks up business skills along the way, but it’s not necessarily what comes first.
The MBA Mindset
Last fall, I had the opportunity to have several conversations with an MBA student who I worked with on a project. Once he realized that I operate a business of my own, he kept wanting to pick my brain (his background was military, followed by a stint with a government contractor). I try not to judge anyone by stereotypes, but I think our conversations highlighted a problem with the mindset of many people who want to have MBAs.
The guy would not shut up about passive income. He worshipped Tim Ferriss, the author of The Four-Hour Workweek. He wanted to find some nice apartment buildings. He wanted to make investments. The man clearly was willing to put some effort into amassing money, but he wasn’t interested in building a business — just income streams. And yet, one of his goals was to be an entrepreneur
This mindset bothers me on a fundamental basis. I was brought up to believe that you make money by offering people something they want: that may be housing, labor or the fanciest new smartphone on the market. Straight up investment can be important, but it’s not the same thing as entrepreneurship on any level.
Technical Skills Change the World
Successful entrepreneurs these days all seem to have at least decent technical skills. At the most basic level, if you can’t figure out the concepts behind ecommerce well enough to hire the right person to work on your website, starting up a new business that will grow is virtually impossible.
But the skills that seem to make a difference — make it much easier to succeed these days with a new business — go a lot deeper.
First off, the ability to program, even just a little bit, is making people stand out. One Java class, or even a few days of playing around with HTML, is enough to get an entrepreneur thinking in the right way. It’s my personal belief that programming forces your mind to work in a slightly different way than it would otherwise. You’ve got to be willing to tinker to create something that works; there’s no expectation that you’ll get it right the first time around. You can get the ability to tinker from other backgrounds, but they’re all at least a little technical, from monkeying around under the hood of a car to sewing your own clothes.
Something as simple as being willing to crack open an HTML file and play around with it also means that you’re far ahead of the game when it come to technology. If you’re reading this blog, it’s probably hard to imagine that most people don’t even know that opening an HTML file in such a way that you can see the code is an option. Technology is just a specific type of black magic, at least to most people out there. Running a search on a search engine isn’t even an easy process to a lot of people. I guarantee that, if you’re here, you live in a magic internet bubble. It’s nice here, isn’t it?
Technical and creative skills go hand in hand. These days, every creative profession has its own required technical skills. Even as a writer, there is technique (from the same root word as ‘technical’) I have to know. To get my writing in front of people, I have to know a lot more.
That’s a good thing. When you’ve got creativity and the technical skills to use it, you can build all sorts of things. As it happens, building new things that people want is an excellent way to become a successful entrepreneur. Sure, you’ll have to iron out the business nuts and bolts, but the simple formula is this: create something cool and trade it for money to the people who want it. Without the skills to build your ‘something cool,’ you’ll never get to the point of doing business.
And before you start pointing out to me that people buy a lot of things that aren’t ‘cool,’ let me point it out for you. It’s true that renting an apartment or buying toilet paper is rarely a case of paying for something you really, really want (though I’d like to point out that there’s plenty of differentiation in those markets — ever tried to rent an apartment in a really popular neighborhood?). Those sorts of markets are catering to needs. It’s hard to break into those markets, especially as a brand new, bootstrapped entrepreneur. The only way to do it is to have something that really sets you apart from the competition. Trying to compete with Band-Aids on cost just ain’t gonna happen, even if you are comfortable tilting at windmills.
Good technical skills mean that you’ve already learned how to learn. Can you name me one skill you’ve picked up entirely through book learning and managed to implement perfectly the first time around? Yeah, me neither — as a general rule, most technical work requires practicing, the ability to hone your skills and a willingness to continuously learn more. If you want to run a business, you’ve got to be able to pick up new skills (including business-oriented skills, like bookkeeping). You’re not going to have time to go get a degree in accounting every time you need to do something new.
Want to Start a Business? Start from the Technical Side
If you want to be an entrepreneur, you will find a use for a business degree at some point, I promise. But it’s not necessary for a starting point. You’ll get a lot more traction if you’re willing to focus on where your technical skills can take you, especially in terms of figuring out what product or service you’re going to sell.
I can think of a million different examples of people who have let their technical expertise lead them to entrepreneurship, but before I go blasting through my list, I’d love to hear who you think of. Share any examples you think really exemplify what a little technical background can do below, if you’d like.
Image by Flickr user Alpha