My good friend, Brad Lindenberg, writing in The diminishing value of technical founders in startups talks about the value of the super technical people needed to perform the heavy lifting at the beginning of a startup.
This value of technical people in startups diminishes quicker than you think and entrepreneurs need to be careful not to give away equity to developers who are super valuable in the short term, but end up twiddling their thumbs in the long term.
I absolutely agree with Brad that you need a bunch of super techs at the start to build the initial product, create the initial architecture and ship the first version. Disclaimer: I am one of these people.
But after that – sorry, mate – but I think you have it wrong. If your super techs are twiddling their thumbs, then either your product plan is no good, or your business has stagnated and you’re losing value.
The first version of a product is never good enough, but the product is worthless until you ship. So you ship it. You need these techs to fix the edge case errors in the first release, to scale the product to meet demand (scaling is hard), to tweak the experience to meet user expectations, to add the missing features and to optimize all the new bottlenecks you will find. For the first few iterations (ship, update, ship, update), there is always work for them to be doing and significant value for them to add.
Products that are made and never enhanced lose value over time. The example Brad uses is that you do not need an architect to build a house. True, but you do need one to add rooms, a second floor, and replace the bad structural elements in the house when subsidence sets in. A software product is a living thing, not a static item like a house.
Both Twitter and Tumblr failed to scale and enhance in their early iterations because their super techs left. It took a new generation of super techs (and a lot of money) to fix the original mess and to add the features that keep these platforms growing. Myspace and any Yahoo project would be a great example of what happens when not keeping or replacing them.
Ideas are great, people like Brad who turn ideas into businesses are even better. But software is not like a house, it requires continuous and significant improvements and changes to delight its users. Otherwise they will just spend their dollars elsewhere.