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From side project to startup: How developers can transition to founders

Look to others who have made the transition and learn from their successes and setbacks, says a CEO who made the journey.

From side project to startup: How developers can transition to founders
[Photo: Nubelson Fernandes/Unsplash]
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I always knew I wanted to start my own company someday, and many developers have the same aspiration. Developers tend to have countless product ideas that turn into side projects, and some of those projects can turn into the real deal. 

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But transitioning from developer to founder is likely the hardest thing you’ll ever do—and it isn’t the right move for everyone. I’m a believer in offering more senior technical opportunities for developers, because stellar technologists shouldn’t be thoughtlessly promoted into management roles that don’t make sense for them. One of the first projects I worked on as the head of engineering at Salesforce was creating and elevating the technical track within engineering alongside the management track to convey the value and equal importance of the technical individual contributor route.

That said, the journey to founder can be rewarding—and if you decide the entrepreneurial path is for you, look to others who have done it and learn from their successes and setbacks. Here are some of my top lessons.

Don’t underestimate the value of time in a technical role

Spending more time in a technical role can give you a unique perspective as a CEO. Earlier in my career at PeopleSoft, I wanted to move into a management position much sooner than I did. My manager at the time, Peter Gassner (also a dev to co-founder and CEO of Veeva), persuaded me to spend more time as an engineer in the trenches. I wasn’t initially happy with that decision, but it ended up being a blessing—the identity projects I worked on at PeopleSoft informed my vision for Okta and gave me the time I needed to hone my engineering skill set. 

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Technical experience will also set you up to create and execute the right R&D culture and rhythm. Innovation and investment is nonlinear—and as a founder, you’ll need to convince your board and non-technical teammates of that. 2x the cost isn’t 2x the engineering output; doing it right can give you 10x the output and doing it wrong can be detrimental. You don’t want to save half the cost if that risks decreasing the chance of a 10x innovation. 

Developers also understand that money isn’t a replacement for time. You can throw all the money in the world at a problem, but it won’t slow down the clock. Building a great product requires the right resources and patience.

Know that you’re not just building for devs 

In the show Silicon Valley, a group of engineers create a platform called Pied Piper. It’s portrayed as revolutionary, winning first prize at TechCrunch Disrupt and receiving rave reviews from fellow developers. But the early product ended up being a bust—the interface was far too complex for the average user. 

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This is all too relatable for many engineers. When you’re living and breathing code, it can be hard to remember that most people don’t have the same technical expertise. You have to build for a broader audience, and this even applies to developer-focused companies. Developers aren’t always the ones writing the checks at the end of the day, so you have to be able to sell to the executive team, which requires a simplistic experience and a clear ROI. 

One way to ensure you’re building for the right audience is to seek out partners and a founding team with different experiences than you. My cofounder Frederic Kerrest has a strong go-to-market background—he’s an expert salesman and has a gift for understanding exactly what our customers need. This helped balance out my technical perspective.

Prep for a day-to-day that looks different

I can remember thinking when I was an engineer, “why would anyone need a calendar?” It was easy to keep track of the one or two meetings I had per day. Needless to say, I had to get accustomed to relying on a calendar when I moved into management and juggled meeting after meeting along with other new responsibilities. Another change: you have the final say on higher-stakes decisions in the CEO role, so your decision-making process slows down as you spend more time considering the downstream effects of your choices.

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It’s hard to let go of a familiar day-to-day, but it’s even harder to know what you should still hold close and when you should just let your team manage. I let go of code reviews and coordinating projects, but I’ve always maintained a deep understanding of product capabilities. A CEO should know what functionality and customer experience will look like and why setbacks happen. You can do this by maintaining relationships with people in lower-level management, and having a technical background as a CEO actually helps make those relationships stronger. Because you come in with a baseline understanding of that team’s work, you can better communicate with them, address challenges, and create realistic goals.

Don’t let setbacks take you down

When making the jump to a new role, especially to founding a company, you won’t get everything right on the first go. Marketing, sales, HR, finance, and other functions will all be brand new to you, and it’s impossible to know everything you need to know right away. Understand that you’ll probably fail at first, so get comfortable shifting out of what you know into unknown territory.

The founder ride is also invigorating and exciting—which is what keeps most entrepreneurs coming back for more. If you can take pride in the intellectual challenge of moving into the CEO role, you’ll have a much better shot at surviving the inevitable setbacks along the way.

About the author

Todd McKinnon is the CEO and co-founder of Okta, the first cloud-based identity management platform. Founded in 2009, Okta helps companies of all sizes secure their users, applications and data — both in the cloud and behind the firewall — so work gets done, from any device, anywhere

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