One of the mailing lists I’m subscribed to had an interesting post on whether or not a business person has a place in a tech startup.  My involvement in Notice Technologies should indicate where I stand on that issue.. seeing as I have an MBA and we are early stage.  While I don’t agree with the author’s conclusions (more on that later), I do think the author in his comments makes an interesting distinction about the difference between an "idea guy" and a "product guy" that I think rings true.

The "idea guy" is a person with business strengths who has a good idea of something that needs to exist, but likely no idea whatsoever of what it takes.  This person may be a power user of software, but he/she has probably never built software and has no idea of what the process requires.  This person may read about technology or Web 2.0, but he/she likely has limited context as to how the idea fits into the broader industry, what the real & imagined competitive threats are, etc.  IMO, there is only so far a person with this background can take a company or idea before others will be called in to run the business.  This is also likely the same person who seriously overvalues him/herself to the overall business, because he/she doesn’t realize that ideas are indeed cheap and opportunity is ultimately discovered in most cases.  Execution is paramount to getting something off the ground, not just "having great ideas."

On the other hand, a "product guy" has a laser focus on mapping what the development team can provide to real customer needs.  These needs are sometimes reflected in customer data, but often times are not.  In fact, I would contend that the innate skill in knowing what will/will not resonate with customers is perhaps the most important skill someone can have.  Think of the product guy as having superb traditional product management skills first and business sense second.  In my experience, this person always tends to undervalue him/herself because he/she is insanely focused on the problem at hand — getting product into customers’ hands.

MBAs (or folks with strong business sense) can and often do play great roles in a few critical areas:  networking, sales/business development, operations.  And what I like to call "business engineering" — the art of creating artificial business rules to maximize revenue/profit — is a *highly underrated* role in the startup community.  But in an early stage company, you’re trying to build products that people need.  That means more than any idea, any spreadsheet, operational efficiency, or any financial model.

In our case, Bob and I are the perfect tandem.  He’s the hardcore technologist… he loves building, tinkering, testing, etc.  He has a grasp of computer programming like nobody I’ve ever met.  He strives for perfection.  He isn’t really fond of shaking hands and rainmaking.  He loves the code and he loves interacting with other coders.  He’s the perfect CTO, and I know he’ll thrive in that role.  On the other hand, I am a natural extrovert.  I love interacting with people, and getting to know what they like and dislike.  I love showing off our product & telling people about the possibilities of what we can build over time.  Perhaps most importantly, Bob and I compliment each other in every way.

So if you ask — is there a place for the business guy/gal in a startup?  Sure.  I believe the combination of business (PM, business development, etc.) & developer talent is the only way to go.  Without a good business/development collaboration, your venture runs the risk of being irrelevant to the marketplace or delivered late without the necessary technological foundation to build from in the future.