Whither the front-end technical co-founder?

One startup trend I’ve noticed over the last few years, purely through anecdotal evidence, is the rise of the front-end CTO - a technical co-founder who has a skill set focused more towards the top of the stack.

Back when I first worked for a web startup in 1999, tech co-founders focused most of their time on the back-end. It was self-evident that you needed someone with good skills in this area to lead technical aspects of software development, because most of the product value was realised in server-based business logic. Front-end developers were people you hired to make the forms and tables look better and work well across different browsers.

All this has changed now. Market forces ensure that software-based solutions to common problems are eventually commoditised. Custom-written web software is increasingly being eaten by third-party services, low-code platforms, frameworks and libraries, on the front and back-ends. There are examples of this at every level of the stack from data storage and hosting (serverless anyone?) to developer tooling to authentication services and UI component libraries.

The great impact of all this commoditisation is to lower the bar for entry to the market. If you’re trying to find customers for your generic office productivity SaaS product in 2019, you’ll know what I mean. Competition is fierce.

Where at one time it was far easier to corner a small-ish market with a basic product, users seem now to expect far better quality and are able to exercise these expectations by voting with their feet and switching to another offering.

A great user experience is now seen as ‘table stakes’ for SaaS products. Not long ago, investors used to talk about great UX as a good ‘moat’ for protecting the product against competitive pressure and fast-followers. Anyone entering a busy market with a sub-standard experience is going to find it tough.

This is why SaaS startup advice is now so focused on product management, user research, design and market segmentation. The job of the technical co-founder in this context is less focused on building a stable application platform architecture, and increasingly directed towards supporting rapid product experimentation and validated learning. Early on in a new venture, back-end application logic and data storage approaches only need to be ‘good enough’ to support rapid development of the user-facing parts of the product.

Sure, it’s easy to make a mess of a back-end while focusing energies elsewhere. But my job for many years seemed to be ‘sort out the front-end mess created by technical co-founders’*. It’s about time we turned the tables!

Are you a front-end specialist who harbours ambitions to be a startup co-founder? Hit reply and tell me all about it.

All the best,

– Jim

* - For the benefit of any ex-colleagues or co-founders out there, I want to make it clear that all startups create a mess of code at all levels of the stack. It’s a natural and healthy by-product of any startup.

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