A Founder’s Limits

When a new product is in the build and launch phase, the founder—especially a solo, bootstrapped founders, like myself—can easily find themselves doing everything. Literally.

From customer research, to product design, development, sales, support, marketing, and all the little things in between.

Every founder’s specific experience and skill level are different. Yet every founder finds themselves getting their hands dirty in every aspect—especially when things are still in that build and launch, zero to one, phase.

A few years back, Rand Fishkin shared the idea of the “T-Shaped Marketer”, which I think applies perfectly well for founders too. The idea is that a person can have a wide breadth of basic knowledge across all of the important areas, plus one (or a few) areas where their knowledge and experience goes deep.

I think it’s perfectly fine for a founder to embrace this concept, as long as they remain aware of which areas they can “dabble” in, and which areas they are truly the best person for the job.

I’ve heard two commonly held beliefs that never quite sat right with me:

  1. If a founder only has a “dabble”-level skill, they have no business doing that sort of task. It’s better to leave that to a professional expert.
  2. If a founder has an expert-level skill—particularly a technical skill like design or development—they should put that skill aside, outsource the technical work, and just focus on selling.

I think both of these arguments are flawed. They run counter to these truths of the early days:

  • Nobody knows the customer and their needs better than the founder.
  • Nobody has a clearer sense of what the solution (the product) should be than the founder.
  • Nobody can sell the value proposition to the very first buyers more effectively than the founder.

When to outsource vs. do it yourself

Again, I want to clarify that I’m speaking to the mindset of the bootstrapped, (probably solo) founder who’s still in the build and launch phase.

Here’s how I think about how to tackle key areas in the early days:

First, the non-negotiables:

These are the jobs of the founder and nobody else:

  • Talk to customers, early, often, and ongoing.
  • Decide and direct the early product roadmap (i.e. what should go into the minimum viable product).
  • Write the very first pitch for the product. The first draft copy for your sales page.

If you have deep knowledge in an area:

Then, if you have deep knowledge, experience and skill in any particular area—such as design, front-end or back-end development, copywriting, marketing, etc. By all means, lead the charge!

Don’t outsource something you feel confident in doing yourself—even if it’s a time-consuming role. Nobody cares more about your product than you, so nobody will execute better than you.

Personally, I felt so strongly about my products that I invested more than a year (and counting) learning full-stack development so I could build them myself.

As it turns out, my products are better-built, more streamlined, and easier to maintain than when I used to outsource development. Not because my hired developers did a bad job, but just that they wouldn’t be able to care as much about every detail of the product as I, the founder do, and I wouldn’t expect them to.

The rest, you can (and should!) “dabble”:

Not an experienced copywriter? As a product founder, you should learn the basics.

No idea how to code? You should spend some time learning about the tech stacks and terminology so you can better communicate with developers.

You’re a horrible designer? You should at least be able to point to sites that feel right to you. If it’s easier to sketch your ideas on paper, in a powerpoint, whatever—do that!

The bottom line: As the founder, you need to be able to take things at least to 50% “good enough”. From there, you can decide when and where it makes sense to hire a true expert to take your vision to 100% polished.

If you’re bootstrapped, budget constraints can be a factor. So you’ll need to decide which investments will get you closer to liftoff, and which ones can wait until later.

If you have capital to do it all — I still recommend you take time to hash out your vision for each area — design, product, marketing, support, etc. —before you ask others to run with them.

In the early days, nobody will nail the strategy, tone, and direction better than you, the founder.

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