Posted by Tom Foremski - November 3, 2011
(From the PBS documentary, "Steve Jobs: One last thing.")
I watched the PBS documentary on Steve Jobs last night,"One last thing" and it was well done, mixing a fair bit of the good, the bad, and the ugly about the life of the man.
And there was a lot of praise for the "marketing genius" of Steve Jobs.
Then it struck me: If Steve Jobs were starting out today in Silicon Valley, he would have trouble getting funding because he's a marketeer — not an engineer. VCs generally won't fund startups without a tech lead.
For example, Mark Suster, a popular VC blogger, writes on "Both Sides of the Table" that his ideal type of startup has mostly engineers, five out of six, and "dominance of tech personnel relative to others."
Technology is not a product
Yet technology is not a product, as I like to remind people. Here's Matthew Ingram, writing on GigaOM, Steve Jobs and why technology doesn’t matter:
Gates says he liked Jobs, but that the Apple CEO “never really understood much about technology.” The Microsoft billionaire no doubt saw that as a put-down, but looked at another way, it was one of Jobs’ biggest strengths.
But while Gates saying that Jobs “never really understood much about technology” was probably intended as a criticism, the truth is that in most cases the technology is the least important thing about Apple’s products, and probably wouldn’t appear anywhere on the list of the main reasons why devices like the iPod or the iPhone or the iPad are so appealing.
Someone like Gates, who spent his youth programming and was involved in much of the code behind things like Windows, would like to believe that superior technology wins — but for most users of both software and hardware, design is what wins.
Much has been said about the rarity of Steve jobs and how much Silicon Valley needs more people like him. But the fact remains, that if Steve Jobs were starting out today and were looking for funding -- he'd have a very tough time because he is not an engineer.
Since when are apps startups?
A few of months ago I asked my friend, Paul Mooney, how a tech conference in New York turned out, and he said it was OK but added, "Since when are apps startups?"
This struck and stuck in my mind ever since because he was right. Since when does an app become a business? Surely a business is formed that creates and sells an app rather than the other way around?
Why should a couple or three engineers that have created an app now have to build a business? These are engineers not business builders. They know how to code apps. If they wanted to be business executives, surely they would have chosen that career?
Wouldn't it be better to create a business formed by professionals, including an engineering component, but not make the engineers run the company? A Steve Jobs master marketeer as leader, with a couple of other experienced business professionals, and a couple or three engineers should make for a killer startup.
Not if you are in Silicon Valley. Engineers rule over all else -- even reason it seems, that's how strong the cult of the engineer is here.
Lord Sugar disdains engineers
Lord Alan Sugar is one of Europe's leading entrepreneurs. He also stars in the UK version of The Apprentice. Earlier this year he had to choose between two apprentices, he chose to fire the one that was an engineer, saying, "I have never come across an engineer that can turn his hand to business."
It was a cold comment, coming from a man who knows engineers very well. He was on the receiving end of a lot of criticism, and rightly so, because there are many examples of engineers founding great companies, Silicon Valley is full of them.
But that doesn't mean that only engineers should lead companies.
Silicon Valley's Achilles' Heel
The cult of the engineer is a potential weakness for Silicon Valley. Why try to teach engineers about marketing, business strategies, PR, business alliances, etc, to retrain them for jobs for which there are plenty of experienced hands around?
But that's what happens. Incubators such as the excellent Dave McClure's 500 Startups, are essentially crash-course workshops that try to teach engineers about the business of being a startup, they are trying to turn engineers into marketeers in 60 days or less.
Why not let engineers stay engineers? They'd rather be coding than promoting on social media channels, figuring out design, and evaluating marketing strategies. Let the professionals, the Steve Jobs of this world, who are good at marketing lead the startups.
Surely that's a better formula for success?
Silicon Valley startups have massive failure rates, less than 1 in 20 make it beyond a few years. Maybe it's because they are invariably engineer-led.
We need more people like Steve Jobs but the irony is that even if we had them, Silicon Valley wouldn't know what to do with them, and most VCs would ignore them.