What is More Important To Succeed Online: Business or Technical Skills?

By Daniel Scocco

The answer to this question obviously depends on how we define success. Most of the people that work on the Internet, in one way or another, could be considered online entrepreneurs, though, right? In that case, I would say that we can define success as “having a profitable website or online company.”

Who never dreamed about creating the next Google or the next TechCrunch?

Daring to dream is something that we all should do. Apart from conceptualizing our dreams, however, we also need to work hard and smart to achieve them, and that involves making sure that we have the most suitable skill set. And this leads us to the main question:

For someone that aspires to have a profitable website or online company, what is more important: business skills or technical skills?

I know that having both would be ideal, but we don’t live in an ideal world. When people get out of the school they will inevitably need to focus on either one or the other. Some people go to study Computer Science and learn to code, while others go to study Business Administration and learn entrepreneurial skills.

Technical Skills

People that pick the technical route will usually create the first version of the websites or of the software themselves, and once it takes off they will move into a managerial role and hire coders to handle the technical part. Here is a list of companies and websites where the founders had technical skills and were directly involved in the early developments:

  • Google (Sergey Brin and Larry Page studied Computer Science)
  • Yahoo! (Jerry Yang studied Electrical Engineering and David Filo studied Computer Engineering)
  • Facebook (Mark Zuckerberg studied Computer Science)
  • YouTube (Steve Chen and Chad Hurley studied Maths and Computer Science)
  • Digg (Kevin Rose studied Computer Science)
  • Amazon (Jeff Bezos studied Computer Science)
  • Technorati (David Sifry studied Computer Science)
  • Netscape (Marc Andreesen studied Computer Science)

The advantage of choosing this route is that you will be able to create the code yourself, which gives you a lot more control over the final result. Additionally, you will also not need to hire anyone early on.

The disadvantage is that the lack of business skills might compromise your coding efforts right from the start (should you pick a wrong business model or fail to lay down a marketing plan, for example).

Business Skills

People that follow the business route will usually conceptualize ideas, products and business models, and will then hire programmers and a technical staff to implement it under their supervision. Here is a list of companies and websites where the founders had a business background (they have a wide have of academic formations, but they all worked with businesses and entrepreneurial projects):

  • Skype (Niklas Zennstrom studied Business Administration)
  • LinkedIn (Reid Hoffman studied Symbolic Systems and Philosophy
  • SalesForce (Marc Benioff studied Business Administration
  • Wikipedia (Jimmy Wales studied Finance)
  • Broadcast.com (Mark Cuban studied Business Administration)
  • Mahalo (Jason Calacanis studied Psychology
  • TechCrunch (Michael Arrington studied Law)
  • Gawker Media (Nick Denton studied Journalism)

The advantage of this route is that you will have more experience to understand the market and the customer needs. The disadvantage is that you will need to rely on other people to execute your ideas, and you will be limited to their expertise and technical abilities.

Over to the readers

If you had 15 years and needed to decide what path to follow, which one would you choose? Have your say in our poll and leave a comment too:

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34 Responses to “What is More Important To Succeed Online: Business or Technical Skills?”

  • the Blogoholic

    I would follow the business route, but I’ll never really know till I try starting my own business one day. (Can a website be considered a business?)

  • Matej – HEROES TELEVISION

    Just this summer have choose economics & business faculty instead of electrical engineering and computing.

    Why I choosed business education? I’m good at computing, my whole high school was about that but there was no passion. I really don’t know why but I find leaning about business skills, ideas and everything about that so much interesting. Since I was 12 ( or less?) I always have find a way how to make some money on my own.

    When I got into “make money online” thing little more than a year ago I knew nothing absolutely nothing about websites, didn’t even knew what was HTML and CSS because we only started to learn about that in 4th grade of high school. Now I work around 4 hours a day or less and I earn almost 1000$ a month, which is pretty good when you consider that most of my college friends are also working not-full time job is some coffee or grocery store and earn less than me! I must say that internet marketing helped me to learn a lot more about business offline, and being in this field I have found new resources to learn from, like Seth Godin and his books I read now lol

    I was worried that I picked the wrong way but now after 4 months of going to economics & business college I believe that if I have picked the other college – I have picked the wrong life for me.

    IMO being business entrepreneur is a little riskier because it’s unpredictable but chances for success are higher. Being in technical, if you are good you can have pretty great life just working your job because this knowledge is needed everywhere nowadays. Being business entrepreneur you need to stand out for success because you can end up working in ticket-office in a bank which is something I don’t find like a dream job. Here in Europe people with computer science diploma are getting really really good salaries.

    I say choose the one where you think you can easier stand out, where’s your passion, where you think you are better at. If I choosed computer science I won’t be bad but I’m sure I would never stand out in this field because I’m not a “technical guy”.

  • Dave

    Daniel,

    Great question, and one I’ve been examining (sort of) on my blog (yes, shameless plug).

    I work in a business incubator coaching and mentoring high growth potential technology startups. On my blog, among other things I’ve been surveying leaders and entrepreneurs as to the entrepreneurial qualities that are critical to success.

    We could debate what it means to be an entrepreneur for the next couple months and probably not come to a consensus. Heck, if you’ve been following the comments on the “Fork in the Road” post that Rael made about shutting down I Want Sandy and accepting a job with Twitter, there are people saying IWS was a success and he didn’t get a cent!

    But if you assume being an entrepreneur and being successful is somewhere wrapped up in taking a risk on building something yourself with the hope of attracting stakeholders and customers, and making it your sole livelihood, then I think we could get close to a basis for an answer.

    Personally I don’t think it’s either – technical OR business skills. What I and a lot of people believe, is it comes down more to personal qualities that match well with the challenges of being an entrepreneur. I would invite you to pop over to my blog if your interested, but we’ve been talking about qualities like:

    Passion
    Self-Reliance
    Initiative
    Reslience
    Commitment
    Character
    etc.

    Just as you indirectly point out in your post, regardless of whether you’re a geek or a suit, you can build a successful company. I would add to that lots of notables throughout history that were neither, some even dropouts, that also built successful companies.

    So the point is your success has more to do with YOU and your makeup, than your educational or professional background. They can certainly help you from time to time, but they aren’t major determinants IMO.

    Great post and I’m looking forward to some of your other responses.

  • Daniel Scocco

    @Dave, I believe you are referring to what I call Knowledge, Competencies and Attitudes.

    I covered that extensively here: http://innovationzen.com/blog/2006/09/25/knowledge-competencies-and-attitudes/

    I also think that attitudes are the most important factor for any project or business.

    That being said, you will also need competencies no matter what. Business acumen is a competency, and so is programming.

    Which one is more important to succeed online?

    But overall I agree with your comment 100%.

  • Nurseb911

    Book smarts vs. Street smarts in my opinion. While its great to study from the books, a successful business always needs someone with the common sense and vision to build out that dream into a successful enterprise.
    I voted Business Skills 🙂

  • Ted Murphy

    Uhh — why is that the technology founders have created so much more economic value than the business founders? Seems like 100:1 at first glance.

    I’d say that means technical skills have been a lot more important than business skills on the internet. Please note the past tense.

  • [12]

    Generally speaking, those having technical skills have much more chances of finding the right niche on the Internet, cause they understand how it works and what it lacks.

    On the contrary without the proper business skills you will not get far. Also if you have a good business plan you can always hire some technical specialist to fill in the lack. I guess it will not really work the other way around.

  • Ryan McLean

    By the looks of it both are fine. A mix of both would be best.

  • Dave

    @Daniel – interesting post. I think what you are calling attitude I call qualities. But in essence I think we are saying the same thing.

    So in direct answer to your question, I would say neither business nor technical skills are critical, and I would stress critical. If I were to answer which skill set is more helpful starting out, then I would definitely say business skills. If I see one thing missing with many of the entrepreneurs I work with it’s a basic understanding of business. I often tell people “You’ve got a great idea, but not every great idea is a business”. So to think through the process of whether your great idea warrants the time, money and patience to turn into a success relies in part upon business skills.

    Talking within the context of developing an online business, I would say that there are simply too many free or cheap tools out there to take advantage of. Even if you are a complete technical idiot, it’s fairly simple these days to get a blog or website up and running to test the waters, and then to find reasonably priced technical assistance when/if you need to expand upon the site.

    So if I have to pick one – I’m picking business skills.

    @Ted – good point, but economic value is only one success metric and the great thing about the Internet is the relatively low cost one can startup, and the “hockey stick” scalability that can almost instantly create that 100:1 payback. The downsides are there are orders of magnitude more failures in this space than some others. Also, many times that economic payback is mostly in dollars not jobs. Job creation is another important success metric which isn’t always present in success Internet ventures.

  • MMA Gear Blog

    Go with business. All the tech stuff you can learn pretty easily. Also, there are tons of freelance designer/coders looking for work and for a reasonable fee too.

  • Jackie Jackson

    Very interesting topic. I feel that having business skills is more important, especially nowadays where u get ready-made coded stuff for free. if u want to blog, u have wordpress, u want to customize it u have free plugins. Additionally u got lots of free ebooks to learn the basic technical skills. Even if u have to hire the coders it is pretty cheap nowadays, alternatively u can’t hire an entrepreneur to create a business model for u.

    Having business skills will help a guy to innovate, understand the concepts of demand and supply, adopt market oriented behaviour, know the exact product development steps, etc… He will be able to use his resources effectively and efficiently. Also, his investment decisions will be much more sensible and systematic.

    Thats all I have to say.

  • Ben Moreno

    Ever since I was 12 I was fascinated by computers. I realized even at a young age the potential computers had. That is when i knew I found my passion.

    Now at this point in my life I am steering toward the business role. I still hold tight the technical role however. It will always hold a deep place in my heart.

  • Luca – Reach Success Online

    One of my Sales directors in a previous life had 2 sayings
    1. sales is 20% aptitude and 80% attitude
    2. just do it

    In my line of work (on-ste computer service) I see many young people that are very skilled technically but lack the business or customer service side of the business. I on the other hand beleive that cutomer service and building a buisness is number one and the tech knowledge second. So even though I may not know as much as the younger techs my customers trust me more and I get repeat cutomers as a result.

    Since starting my online venture it’s apparent that the same holds true.

    Education and applying a business plan in oline marketing is key.

    Most people that get into the online business start on their own and don’t have a lot of money to outsource the tech side of things so learning about web site design is seconday but also important.

    I guess the answer to your question depends on where you are with you business

  • JoAnn Donahue

    I think both would have an advantage..

    However I think it takes the person

    With spine and a knowing inside that say’s

    they can do whatever

  • PublicRecordsGuy

    I would have to say Business skills. You can hire the Technical people and by parsing out their responsibilities you can control how much of your “BRAND” they have access and control over. You can control the access to company secrets that way.

    If you hire the business mind then they may just be smart enough to beat you out of your market. Sure it’s nice having both skill sets, but like most professions, stick to one strength and enlist the support of others. I know photographers who hire enhancers, complete photoshop geeks that could tell you EVERYTHING photoshop can do. I as a photographer can’t even get near their level of mastery. I can provide them the photograph to work on though.

  • JoAnn Donahue

    I believe both can be learned if one wants.

    To be successful in anything I believe one has to

    Have spine to live what they see in their heads..

    To have a knowing that this or that is what they know

    They should do. And then just do it!

    Mistakes will occur and that’s when the lessons appear.

    Anything can be learned!

    JoAnn Donahue

  • Hariesh

    it should be a combination of both, but in my opinion it should start with your “inherent strength” first and then enhance it with the other.. some people like for example Richard Branson did not start off based on his education but his business skills and later on picked up on all aspects of the business..

    in terms of online business also i would assume that a similar situation would exist.. in my opinion you would need to have the technical skills FIRST to be able to set up something that would be worth converting into a business..

    regards
    Manaadiar
    http://shippinginsouthafrica.wordpress.com

  • Laura Christianson

    I vote for business skills, and I believe the most important business skill to possess is the ability to communicate — both in writing and verbally.

    I’ve met many a techno-whiz and Web site developer who possess zero communication skills. While those folks may be brilliant, they’re almost impossible to work with. Introduce me to a person with stellar technology skills who can deliver a bang-up presentation in common English, and I want to hire that person instantly!

    Laura Christianson
    Co-founder, http://www.HeBlogsSheBlogs.com
    https://twitter.com/HeBlogsSheBlogs

  • The Geek Entrepreneur

    Coming from someone who got a degree in computer information systems, I have to side with Business skills or technical skills.

    Technical skills DO help but I have found that having a solid business background and knowledge in business has helped me more so with my online ventures.

    It’s relatively easier to find someone with the necessary technical skills to work with than it is someone with a good sense of business.

    Wesley
    The Geek Entrepreneur

  • Rico Crivelli

    Hi, i loved your article and i want to translate to portuguese may i? i will leave all credits for you.
    Thx very much…
    if you leave me translate i be sure that i will ask to you again… =D

  • Shrihari

    I’d choose the technical route.. I’m amazed that majority of people chose business route..

    Isn’t the administration skill something that is learned through experience ?

  • Dave

    @Shrihari

    By “business skills” I don’t think we’re talking about simple administration. I at least am talking about the perception and ability to form, grow, and run a business out of nothing. That includes identifying your market, making sure you have something to sell your market, figuring out how you are going to make money, crafting marketing and PR plans, forming partnerships, negotiating, managing growth and potentially hiring employees, etc. etc.

  • Nick Stamoulis

    I def. think that a combination is the best approach but if it comes down to one you need a business sense to you because a smart business person can easily find someone to fill the technical void.

  • logiteq

    Hi,

    Your concept of leaving the choice to users is the best part but as per my knowledge I don’t think that we need not struggle much on this. For example as a professional SEO I know the methods to bring out the visibility of a website into Google and this purely requires a sense of knowledge about SEO. And truly my skills in technical platforms are depended on other people. I have now got a chance to overcome this. Anyhow I would like to conclude that one can be many and its vice versa depends on their skills.

    Thanks.

  • Daniel Scocco

    @Rico, OK.

  • Aleksandar Ratkovic

    Voted for business skills. You have to have both, off course, but I think Sergey Brin and Larry Page had business skills, too. They couldn’t make Google what it is now if they didn’t.

  • Lito | TheFilipinoEntrepreneur.Com

    Google will not become Google today if the founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page doesn’t have business skills. Their decisions and business plans leads them to become the king of the internet. So it is evident that they have business skills or entrepreneurial skills. If Yahoo! thought of a business model like “Adsense” in the first place, then I’m sure they will lead. In my opinion, Sergry and Larry have more business skills. BTW, where will you categorize Bill Gates?

  • Jonathon – NicheSiteTips.com

    I believe that you need to have both, technical skills and business skills. Of course, I do believe business skills may trump tech skill since so much work can be contracted out, but it’s still important to understand the basics of how it all works.

    Unfortunately I know a lot of talented programmers and website designers that can build great looking websites, but can’t see how they can turn that skill into making a lot of money.

  • LEADSExplorer

    You need both.
    Probably the best is to have 1 Businessman and 2 Developers/CTO
    The businessman needs to set out how to make money and sell it.
    The developers/CTO need to design and make a product or solution that works.

  • Shirley

    You really need both. However, I’d probably opt for the technical route. If you’re technical, you never have to worry about startup costs, and you can afford to fail.

    For example, if you are hoping to build the next big website, all you need to invest is $10 for a domain, and $100 a year for basic hosting.

    If you’re just a business guy, you need to invest your own cash or pull in some investors which will likely have a lot to say in the final product, and breathe down your neck if the idea isn’t taking off.

  • Market Secrets Blogger

    Business skills definitely…you can always jv or hire ppl with the technical skills. Now techies may claim the same thing -that they could always hire those w business skills- but in actuality they can’t get too far and will sooner or later need someone to manage things just so they can keep pumping out the “gadgets,widgets,etc.”

    Of course, a good balance of both skills is ideal 😉

  • medyum

    Go with business. All the tech stuff you can learn pretty easily. Also, there are tons of freelance designer/coders looking for work and for a reasonable fee too.

  • john plott

    I know a lot of talented programmers on your sites
    Email marketing seems easier for some folks.But it is rewarding only when carried out in the
    most proffessional.So I would advise you to find a good email marketing program that can help
    you in your email marketing campaign right from a scratch(with a clean slate).

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