When investors or entrepreneurs express a preference for product-centric startup CEOs, often the implication is that they are looking for an A-grade developer. Someone who knows exactly how to build every part of the product, from back-end architecture to front-end development.
Increasingly, this is no longer the standard. The #1 reason is that building a product that turns into a great company is no longer just about code. A decade or two ago, a huge company like Google could achieve rapid growth on the back of a great algorithm and a simple site. The most recent entrants to the unicorn club, including Airbnb and Tumblr, are much more than code. They are beautifully designed products that are built with a deep focus on the user experience.
In my limited role as an angel investor, I rarely focus on the coding ability of the CEO. Instead, I prefer that the CEO’s core competency lie in the hardest part of the business.
A classic example of this is Reid Hoffman. Based on his own words, Reid can code but is not an A-grade developer. But what makes Reid one of the best product-centric CEOs of our lifetime is that he has a world-class understanding of network mechanics.
The hardest part of building LinkedIn into a $10B+ business was creating a great strategy for building a professional network, and then sticking to that long-term strategy as a stream of social networks from Friendster to MySpace to Facebook to Twitter rose and fell around it.
Identify the hardest part of your business, and master it. If that’s code, then learn to code. Otherwise, focus on your core competency, and get started building a great company.