From programs to people: How engineers can make the jump to founder

Glenn Elliott is the founder and former CEO at Reward Gateway. In this article, he explains how we went from software engineer to startup founder and how you can do the same.

I was eleven when I started coding on the Sinclair ZX81 – a home computer produced by Sinclair Research and manufactured in Dundee.

I coded all through my teens and university. When BT unexpectedly gave me a job in project management I was still coding, building test tools, websites and databases in an attempt to make the work smoother.

By the time I founded Reward Gateway my coding skills were obsolete. Ten years at the business end of life meant I never become a PHP/MYSQL coder so there was no chance of me building our platform hands on. You never forget the principles – once an engineer always an engineer – but there were younger, better and, to be honest, lower cost people to build our software by then.

Programming is intense, satisfying, frustrating, exciting and highly creative. There are infinite ways to build something, so many ways to interpret a need, and when you’ve been up all night thriving on coffee and cigarettes (hey, it was the 90s), you can’t beat the satisfaction of producing really elegant code that you’re satisfied with. That strive to be creative and solve problems helped me a lot when I founded Reward Gateway, the HR tech business I’ve led for 11 years as CEO and grew to 400 people and $1bn in revenue.

But my product and engineering skills were only one part of the overall story because what no-one tells you at ‘founder school’ is that building and growing a business is much more about people than it is about programming.

Of course product is key – if you don’t end up quickly selling something that works and people actually want to buy then you won’t be in business for long. But it’s understanding and caring about people that actually makes businesses thrive more than the lines of code that you write.

So with that in mind, here are my top tips for software engineers making the move to founder.

  • Product vision is more important than engineering prowess. You need to see something that is broken or needs to be radically improved. But most importantly you need to be able to see the buyer who will want to pay to have that problem solved or improved. You need to really get to know that person, learn to think like them and really embrace their world. And you need a lot of respect for them as you’re going to be obsessing about them for the next 10 to 15 years, assuming you’re lucky enough to be successful and around for that long.
  • Whilst your product is key it only gets you to the starting line. I’ve seen dozens of businesses fail or plateau, despite very good products, because the Founders never got to understand how sales should work, how marketing should happen or how clients could cost effectively be serviced. You might think you can buy in these skills as you grow but the most successful founders I know have their arms wrapped around all parts of the business. Being the smartest nerd in the room doesn’t mean squat if you can’t drive sales and scale service to handle it.
  • Your software is going to suck at times and it will let people down. That’s where your relationship skills and diplomacy will be needed. Get good at a grovelling and sincere apologies, it’s a tool you’re going to need a lot as you navigate the years ahead.
  • You’re used to building software but you’re going to need to get good at building teams. Teams, not code, build companies and they’re demonstrably harder to build. So put the programming books down and immerse yourself in books about people, leadership and company culture.
  • Make sure you leave the party at the right time. The best accolade a Founder can get is to build something that is sustainable without needing them. So look forward to the day that your creation doesn’t need you.  For me, that was 11 years in, last summer when I knew there were better CEO’s than me at running a company of our size. I still work for the company full time but in a non-exec role with no power and no authority and it’s wonderful supporting the team from the sidelines.

Don’t be daunted. You’re a huge step ahead understanding technology in a tech centric world.

You know what is possible, how long things should take and you can get your engineers unstuck when they need help.

Those skills are priceless.