There’s a popular book on entrepreneurship called The E-Myth which claims that bakers shouldn’t run bakeries, plumbers shouldn’t run plumbing companies, and everyone else should think about how they could turn their small business into a franchise. On the face of it, there’s a lot of good advice about how you can’t just be a good baker if you don’t have a business bone in your body and expect commercial success.
Problem is that the reverse is also often true. If you just put MBAs in place — or other professional managers without deep subject matter expertise — you’re equally likely to end up with an uninspiring business that fails to be passionate about the right things. To stay on the ball you need to know what’s a good pass and the best way to do that is to be able to make one yourself.
Many of my favorite companies are driven by people at the top who intimately know how things should be because they could make them so. The obvious example is the detail-oriented nature of Steve Jobs at Apple. But a few other examples I like are Ulrich Bez at Aston Martin who’s not only the CEO but also part of the company racing team at places like Le Mans. Or Thierry Nataf at Zenith who’s CEO and head designer of their luxury watches as well.
But what made me think about all this was Joel Spolsky’s tale of a technical review with Bill Gates back in the 90’s:
Bill Gates was amazingly technical, and he knew more about the details of his company’s software than most of the people who worked on those details day in and day out. He understood Variants and COM objects and IDispatch and why Automation is different than vtables—and why this might lead to dual interfaces. He worried about date and time functions. He didn’t meddle in software if he trusted the people who were working on it, but you couldn’t bullshit him for a minute because he was a programmer. A real, actual programmer.
For people who love what they do, whether that’s programming, design, designing watches, or building cars, that’s a great motivation to not grow your company too quickly. Enjoy the time when you can actually be a full participant in the actual activities themselves, rather than just managing them.