Ideas, Meet Skills! Not.

Posted on by ejames

There’s this idea that gets passed around a lot in the entrepreneurship clubs in NUS. The idea goes that technical people need ‘ideas people’, and that entrepreneurship clubs exist to matchmake the two.

Take, for instance, the recent Ideas Meet Skills event by the Startup@Singapore team. The event is made in good faith, but the assumption is there in all its glory: ‘Have a great idea you want to realize or the gumption to excel in a start-up … but not both?’ the poster declares. ‘Register Now!’

(An organizer told me that such events are almost entirely full of business people; it has been very difficult to get technical people to come. And no wonder - with a mistaken premise, is it any wonder when technical people fail to turn up?)

This assumption is more pervasive than one would expect: in my short time in the NUS Entrepreneurship Society (NES), I have heard all sorts of people express it. What took me by surprise was the number of Engineering students who subscribe to this belief. One would think that people from Engineering would be careful about making such assumptions, given the number of jokes engineers make about working under the tyranny of a technically naive, pointy-haired boss. But no, they express it all the same.

The idea is wrong on at least two assumptions. The first assumes that technical people have no ideas (or that they have bad ones). The second assumes that technical people need ideas people to do things. Disprove the first assumption, and the second automatically follows as false.

It is easy to show that technical people have some proficiency with ideas: if they were no good at them, they would not have entered a technical course in the first place. Getting a programmer to come up with ideas for startups is no more than one conversion process away: you simply have to show him how.

What is more interesting to ask is this: are business people better at coming up with ideas than technical people?

The answer to that is: not usually. The key difference between programmers and business people is that programmers can test their ideas, and business people can’t (or at least won’t). That testing process is called hacking.

Joshua Schachter said it best in his Founders At Work interview:

Livingston: What do you think about technical founders versus businesspeople founders?

Schachter: I have never had a great deal of trust for people who don’t execute on core ideas. I understand the value of needing someone to deal with that kind of stuff — someone’s got to do the VC pitch and there’s got to be a CFO, etc. But the guy who says, “I have a great idea and I’m looking for other people to implement it,” I’m wary of — frequently because I think the process of idea-making relies on executing and failing or succeeding at the ideas, so that you can actually become better at coming up with ideas. It’s something you can learn. It’s a skill, like weightlifting. That failed; that worked; continue. You begin to learn how to make ideas. So if you are someone who can’t execute and all you can do is come up with ideas, how do you know if they are any good? You don’t really know if it’s a good idea until you’ve executed it. You need to understand the cost of execution and so on.

Schachter’s logic is rooted in experience: was the last in a string of random hack projects he had done while working at Morgan Stanley. Zuckerberg had hacked up at least two other projects before doing Facebook; Evan Williams did Pyra, Blogger, and Odeo before doing Twitter. Dennis Crowley did Dodgeball before Foursquare (which he admits is an execution of the ideas he had while working on Dodgeball). In fact, most successful tech companies are founded by people with several past projects. This should not surprise us: in science, the most prolific scientists tend to be more successful. The more ideas you’ve tested in the past, the better you get at coming up with new ones.

When seen in this light, a majority of NES’s entrepreneurship efforts fail to make sense. Ideation workshops are exercises in futility, as they have no hope of real world verification; ideas-meet-skills events fail to attract the people with skills, because the people with skills don’t need such workshops.

It is true, however, that you don’t have to be a technical person to test ideas. Hacking is simply the easiest, cheapest way to do so. You can - like Derek Sivers (CD Baby) and Jason Fried (37signals) - test ideas by hiring programmers to implement products for you, and then learning from those successes or failures. Or you can spend an adolescence tinkering with electronics like Steve Jobs did. But because such methods are more expensive than simply hacking something up, business people tend to stay idle.

In truth, I suspect that the people in NES don’t really believe that technical people are bad at ideas, or that they are lousier than ‘ideas’ people. I suspect they keep at it because it’s much easier to attract large audiences with the lie (‘come do a startup if you have an idea, it doesn’t matter if you can’t execute on it!’) than it is to convince hackers to do startups.

What is the solution to this? The answer is obvious: grow the community of hackers, and then tell them to start startups.[1] Every year, Y Combinator does something called Startup School - an invitation-only event for technical people, designed to inspire them to take the leap into startupdom. The talks are amazing. The effects even more so. (The sign-up page states that ‘Many founders have told us that this event was what finally made them take the leap.’) And while business people are allowed to attend, hackers have priority.

Perhaps it’s time to start focusing on hackers in Singapore. After all, there are already too many ‘ideas’ people out there: attending workshops, sitting in conferences, pitching business plans - and going nowhere.


[1] The first is hard, something we at NUS Hackers are still trying to figure out. The second is easy (and can best be done by NES) but will probably have limited effect until the first problem is solved.

This essay was prompted by a recent request to get NUS Hackers to promote more ‘ideas + skills’ events - in particular, to get our members to join such workshops. The coreteam - myself included - reacted with knee-jerk negativity. This reaction, to me, was curious: we could not articulate a proper reason for it, yet we all felt very strongly against it. This essay is written as an attempt to figure out why.

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