Monday, 30th January 2023
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The business vs technology prioritisation dilemma

It has become very common in our part of the world to hear people say that they have this “tremendous” product idea and they are looking for someone technical to help them build it.

It has become very common in our part of the world to hear people say that they have this “tremendous” product idea and they are looking for someone technical to help them build it. Usually, the person with the idea has some money or access to it, and the person they get to develop it is likely a technology freelancer. 

Negative outcomes are a widespread occurrence with this process because of poorly defined scope and lack of professionalism due to inexperience. Most of these projects either end in conflict or never achieve potential because the requirements keep changing and the freelancer can’t keep up or decides to deprioritise the project.

A lot of times, these “great ideas” are sold to third parties as solutions to existing problems or through a corporate to consumers. The plan is frequently to use a freelancer to get the minimum viable product out so that the “man in the middle” gets paid quickly by the contracting third party. If it succeeds, the next step would be to hire a team to work on selling the product to make more money. Technical support is an afterthought which causes further conflict.

This short-term mentality is why there is a massive graveyard of unfinished Nigerian corporate projects. As a result of problems with professional inconsistency with local technology resources, larger companies got smart and started outsourcing to foreign companies with better professional standards until currency devaluation forced them to begin hiring developers again locally for strategic in-house projects and products.

A lot of these corporations have also learned to use dirty trick tactics to get product ideas from smaller companies outside.  They get them to pitch ideas and features to them without having any intention of awarding contracts or buying their products, and they then replicate these ideas internally. 

The Rise of the Technology Startup
Unethical practices by corporations and the rising profile of technology startup founders have encouraged a lot of people to strike out on their own and build products for the consumers directly rather than to go through corporations. The problem is that they still want to use freelancers or hire developers without any plans of giving them any equity. I see this far too often.

For most of the startups that have failed locally, it has typically been as a result of “technical debt” accrued at the onset of the business, which could not be paid off later as the companies had the wrong founding structures without technical co-founders and lacked the resources to attract technical talent. Most sensible investors would not invest in startups without a technical founder who has a stake in the business. 

When the partners of the Silicon Valley accelerator YCombinator visited Nigeria, they kept stressing this requirement for a technical co-founder at every opportunity. They also insisted that it was necessary for the founders of startups to have healthy relationships that will ensure that the startup would remain viable for at least the next ten years. This relationship dynamic is a critical yet overlooked characteristic. Even when teams are technical or have technical co-founders mixed with business founders, the strength of the relationship and future of the company depends on how comfortable and trusting they are with each other. Mutual respect is key. 

The Business or Technology Dilemma 
Building a technology company is hard work, the first price most founding teams will have to pay to be able to grow is “Technical debt”. Most ideas begin via a prototype, and they are usually crude but satisfy enough of the immediate requirements to make them viable. The quick and dirty approach to starting a product and company creates a “debt” which the company will have to pay in the future by doing things correctly and building a more stable product. The debt typically remains to some degree in companies who are continually experimenting and searching for market fit.   

For a startup trying to solve a business problem with technology, experimentation and iteration are also very important. For successful tests to happen, there has to be an intimate relationship between understanding the problem, designing a technical solution and understanding of the relevant technology. 

It is usually easier for technical founders to learn more about business and work with their business co-founders than it is for co-founders from the business side to do the reverse. I have however seen some passionate non-technical co-founders become technical rapidly when compelled to; I was one of them. I left my MBA knowledge behind and became technical very quickly when my co-founder had to move to South Africa to get married. 

Some founders who are initially technical take on more business related roles when it is strategically important to do so and lapse back into more specialised professional roles when things are stable. This type of arrangement works at the very early stages of companies when resources are limited but becomes impractical at growth stage when there are more demands, and specialist skills required. 

As companies navigate the path to growth and stability, the business and technical dichotomy sometimes becomes blurred or distinct depending on resources available. Things may change, and people move on, but the ability to keep navigating both areas successfully as a versatile team is what creates sustainably growing businesses.  

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