One of the most common startup myths in Silicon Valley is that you need a product-focused founder to succeed.
Facebook has Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter has Jack Dorsey, and Dropbox has Drew Houston.
But Yahoo cofounder Jerry Yang, who has an engineering background, doesn’t believe in the idea. He thinks it’s more important to find your strengths, whether its sales or people skills, and double down on it.
“I think the Valley has this idea that, ‘Oh, if you don’t have the great Mark Zuckerberg product technology founder, you’re not going to be great.’ I totally disagree with that,” Yang said in an interview with BetterWorks, a business performance software maker he invested in.
For example, Yang said that Cisco is primarily built around an exceptionally strong sales culture, while Alibaba’s Jack Ma is best-known for his emphasis on building partnerships and trust with other people.
“At the end of the day, a great sales company will do great. A great technology company will do great. If you’re mediocre across a bunch of stuff, that’s when you’ll fail,” Yang said.
Yang makes a pretty strong point. Some of the most successful tech companies all had visionary founders that weren’t necessarily product-centric, although they usually had a technical cofounder.
Apple’s Steve Jobs wasn’t best known for his technical skills, while Salesforce’s Marc Benioff is better known for his sales techniques. Some of today’s most valuable startups, like Uber and Airbnb, aren’t led by technical founders.
In fact, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer had a great run at Google with her product management skills, yet she hasn’t been able to translate that success to turning around Yahoo’s business.
And that’s the kind of thinking Yang wants his portfolio companies to have. Yang has stepped away from all Yahoo-related positions, and is now an active startup investor with his own VC firm, AME Cloud Ventures.
“What I say to a lot of our companies is, ‘Pick what makes you strong.
Pick your strength and build around it. There’s no right or wrong,” he said.