Early stage software businesses are usually heavy on engineering and light on sales and marketing. This tendency to overweight the importance of engineering has been the case since at least the mid 1980s and has become more pronounced post 2010. The reasons are obvious: it takes software programming mastery to create computer experiences people will pay for. The most popular software applications are like icebergs: offer users a dumbed down set of features requiring little in the way of programming mastery while the same features are supported with a highly sophisticated set of programs, beneath the surface and far away from user attention.
Built on top of this snapshot of the reality of how software is built and functions is awareness of historical precedence: the most successful businesses over the last 35 years have all been software companies. None of these success stories has been headed by a leader heavy on marketing, but very light on engineering. If you argue Lou Gerstner’s tenure bucked this trend, I would argue the result of his work has not protected IBM from slipping out of the top echelon of companies. If you argue John Sculley filled the seat for Apple and he had no experience, I would just point to the shortness of John’s tenure, Apple’s stock dive and, inevitably, the return of the original engineer who started it all — Steve Jobs.
Despite history and the process of creating product in the enterprise software market, enterprise software startups like yours need enterprise management experience on their boards. There is no way around it.
If you need some background on the hurdles software businesses like yours face when they try to sell to enterprise business, check out this article from Harvard Business Review: “Salespeople Need a Strategy for Selling to CEOs”
OK but… despite running the most successful companies, winning engineers have had the foresight (or the VCs behind them have had the foresight, take your pick) to add people with deep experience at management levels within target markets to the board of directors of their companies. Without such individuals it is highly unlikely these companies would have succeeded at their efforts to dominate target markets. These board members can and do open doors otherwise very difficult to open.
To put it simply, if I am the decision-maker for a business employing more than 1K people with a market cap of $100 million or more, There is a custodian aspect to my role. I am here not only to lead the enterprise forward, but also to protect it from a deep set of risks. Your software looks great, but if I have no familiarity with your business the risk of purchasing your product and deploying often will not be acceptable.
How to cross the chasm from not acceptable to acceptable? Include on your board of directors people with 10 years of more experience at C level positions of responsibility within the very same industry you are targeting with your software. If you don’t have a board of directors (no excuse, regardless of how small you business, you should have one), then you need someone on your team with the requisite experience. Someone not with a software coding background, but someone with past experience managing businesses in the industry you are targeting.
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