A start-up should solve a problem. But where to find this problem?
If all you know is software development, your opportunity space is limited: you only know about problems that developers have. This is why many developers create businesses that serve other developers.
Knowledge of other industries — preferably first-hand — vastly expands the number of problems that you are exposed to. Without this intimate knowledge, it’s difficult to appreciate the true nature of a problem or the nuance of how it should be solved.
(Working in an industry isn’t the only way to discover opportunities or problems to be solved, obviously. You can discover problems through a hobby or from friends or family members. The closer the relation, the more motivated you will be to help them.)
Start-ups are hard; you need the staying power to be able to sweat out the hard times. Someone with the passion for solving their problem will persevere much longer than someone just in it for start-up glory. Lots of people just want to start a business; Paul Graham calls this “playing house”.
Developers solve their problems with code, even when the code isn’t the problem. Developers fixate on speed of delivery and test coverage, both of which are useful or even necessary, but neither of which should supersede the problem the start-up is trying to solve.
Just because a developer knows how to make something, doesn’t mean that they know how to run it. A construction worker might know how to build a bank or a hospital, but this doesn’t mean they should start issuing loans or practicing medicine.
Why developers make the best founders
A developer, coming in with an outside perspective, is perfectly placed to identify and challenge an industry’s “self-evident truths”.
Too much industry knowledge holds you back: when you are steeped in the status quo — “this is how things always have been done” — it is difficult to imagine how things can be different. Insiders resist change because they are vested in the way things are.
Unburdened by received wisdom, developers bring experience from other fields and are free to reimagine an industry through the lens of software.
Developers know how to write software. In the early stages of a start-up, you want to have as much making ability as possible — everything else can be learned on the job. It’s easier to learn the ins and outs of a new domain than it is to learn how to program.
When making The Sims, Will Wright said that they found it easier to teach game developers about psychology than teach psychologists game development.
Software is a means to an end, making software engineering a complementary discipline. Part of a developer’s expertise is the ability to understand and serve audiences other than themselves.
Really, both of these statements should be qualified with an “outside their field of expertise”. Even so, neither is unequivocally true, nor are the arguments exhaustive.
Humans are blessedly more complex than a job title or a stereotype of a profession. We have our own individual experiences and motivations. There is no blanket answer to whether a developer is well or ill-suited to start a business. More important is to acknowledge our strengths and weaknesses, and be aware of the challenges we might face when embarking on such an enterprise.