The Business Geek: Not An Oxymoron

Written By: Dharmesh Shah June 9, 2006

When most of us think about a geek, they automatically think “technology geek” (or computer geek, or programming geek).  This is particularly true of us geeks.  We think our type of geek is the only type of geek there is.  I’m here to tell you that there is such a thing as a business geek, and it’s probably important that you learn how to detect them and work with them.  In fact, the best way to increase your chances of success as a startup is to find yourself a business geek (if you’re a technology geek).  And, if you’re a business geek, and you’re reading this, you already know that you need a technology geek if you stand any chance at succeeding at a software startup.
First off, the definition of geek that I’d like to use for purposes of this is article is:  “An intellectual who is bent on a particular profession.”  I’m definitely not referring to one of the Princeton Dictionary definitions of geek:  “A carnival performer who does disgusting acts”.
So, here are the things I think make a great business geek (particularly when it comes to one that might work for a startup).
What Makes A Great Business Geek
  1. Constant Learning:  Much like the technology geek,  business geeks stay current in their profession by reading and learning new things.  Bonus points if they’ve actually read some of the more software or technology content like “The Business Of Software” (Michael Cusumano) or stuff by Paul Graham, Eric Sink or Joel Spolsky.

  1. Uses Technology For Advantage:  The true business geek knows technology and leverages it to her advantage.  For example, she knows what RSS is and what its benefits are.   When she uses Excel (the equivalent of a compiler for business geeks), her assumptions are in cells that can be changed and then “trickle through” the rest of her model.  Seeing this happen actually makes her happy.  Bonus points if she uses formulas that cross multiple worksheets and knows why you would use $A$5 instead of A5 for a cell reference in a formula.

  1. Balances Strategy and Execution:  Just like a great developer knows that to succeed you have to spend time doing both design and coding, the business geek knows that strategy is important to make sure you’re doing the right thing, but execution is important so that the right things get done.  You want business geeks that are not reluctant to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty.  

  1. Professional Networker:  Technology geeks (if they’re really good) can often get away with being somewhat reclusive and introverted.  Business geeks likely need to be much better at connecting with people, seeking out opportunities and doing something about them.  In fact, they should enjoy this.  Note:  I’m not talking about the annoying types that approach people at social events and try to sell them stuff.  I’m talking about the genuinely likeable types that are capable of having an intelligent conversation without expecting money to exchange hands.

  1. Analytical and Inquisitive:  Just like a great developer likes to think  and analyze and solve problems, the business geek is the same way.  She wants to understand a problem, analyze it, weigh the tradeoffs.  Technology geeks say things like:  “I’m trading memory consumption for performance here, but it’s the right thing to do.”  Business geeks say things like:  “This is a good decision, when it is risk-adjusted”.  Business geeks are always curious and asking why.  They are not always looking for the easy path.  They are not satisfied until they’ve made an effort to understand what is actually going on.

  1. Intellectually Honest:  In tech-geek land, there are few things more irritating than the geek that tries to show off more knowledge than he actually has.  The good thing is that amongst other tech-geeks, these guys are easy to pick out (it’s hard to fake out another tech geek, and simply trying to do so is the quickest way to prove that you’re not one).  There’s a similar notion for business geeks.  They shouldn’t be trying to use big words and fancy concepts to impress you.  They should be able to explain things in terms that a relatively smart person like you will understand.  Most business concepts are not rocket science.  Basically, a great business geek should be able to increase or decrease their level of abstraction in order to increase the understanding of those they are talking to.  

In the really good startup teams I’ve seen, the technology geek tends to become more and more business savvy and the business geek becomes more and more tech savvy.  I’m not suggesting that he should start writing code, but he should definitely be involved in the product at some level to really understand what the business is about.  One of the favorite activities I like to see business geeks engaged in is product testing and passing that feedback to the development team.  One of the first milestones for many startup companies is to be able to make the resident business geek happy with the product offering.  If you can do this, you’ve come a pretty long way.  But, I digress.  [Note to self:  Write future article about the powers of business geeks doing product testing].

Summary of My Point: 
Startups take a mix of talents to succeed.  Most of the successful startups I know have at least one technology geek and one business geek.  Though rare, this can sometimes be the same person.  However, it’s important to remember that there are still only 24 hours in the day so it’s still often helpful to have more than one person on the early team so that each can focus on their strengths and get meaningful work done.

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