Advice for finding a technical co-founder

So, you’re a non-technical founder. You have a great business idea. You have some market validation.

You’re ready to find a technical co-founder who can help build out your startup. You’ll need some coding done, and you imagine there are a whole host of other technical things that need doing. You want a partner who can help you.

You start looking and realize a few things:

  1. Anyone you pick is going to have a huge role in the success or failure of your business.
  2. You don’t have many developers in your network.
  3. It is hard to find technical people willing to work for equity in your unproven startup.
  4. Any time you post looking for a technologist co-founder, agencies (many offshore) respond, happy to help for $$.

I have had the “how can I find a technical co-founder” conversation a few times in the last week so wanted to share my perspective. This is based on my observations and reading, as well as having been a founder (two times, one successful) and early stage employee or contractor multiple times.

Where are you trying to get

Knowing this is important, as it affects the rest of your search.

Are you trying to get to an MVP you can raise money on? A partner you can work with for a long time (if so, consider the 5 Cs)? An application you can sell to someone? A refinement of your current vision which may have technical uncertainties? Advice if what you are trying to build is possible? A technical network so you can hire quickly?

All of these are valid answers, but different ones shift where you look.

It could be because of who I am rather than indicative of the larger need, but most of the folks I’ve talked to really don’t need a CTO. They need a founding engineer. I wrote about the difference between the two; the latter may grow into the former.

What do you have

You also need to get clear on what you have. The people I talk with often have the following situation:

  • no money (raised or in savings)
  • no tech skills/network
  • an interesting idea
  • a no-code or partially coded solution proving out part of their vision
  • some level of market validation

If you aren’t in a similar spot, you can read the rest of this post with some skepticism. Immediately below I give advice on what to do if this doesn’t apply to you.

If you have money, it’s easy: hire someone.

If you have a network, reach out to that network. Most people are happy to help. It won’t guarantee you a partner, but it can lead you down the path.

If you don’t have an interesting idea, well, you’re in trouble. That’s one of the key things you can bring to the table to interest a tech co-founder.

If you haven’t proven out some aspect of your idea with the tools you have at hand, that’s worrisome. Why not?

What can you offer

Being realistic about what you have means you can be realistic about what you can offer.

Here’s a fact: right now, technically competent people can be hired by companies willing to pay them money pretty quickly.

The idea that you are so passionate about that you’ve quit your job or are working on it full time off hours (if not, that’s a serious red flag to any developer)? That idea is exciting and unique for you, but it is one of many ideas the developer has heard about from passionate would be founders. In addition to not being bought in to your vision, technical talent has the following other considerations:

  • there is significant opportunity cost to joining a startup for equity only. It depends on market and experience, but call it a net swing of -$150k/year ($100k in foregone salary and $50k of debt/savings drawdown for living expenses). Yes, you might raise money, but will you pay market salaries to a co-founder then?
  • the risk is front loaded. I know tech folks who joined a startup, worked their butts off to build something, only to discover that their partners were unable to market or sell what they’d built. Whoops! That was a waste.

So, how can you mitigate those risks?

Don’t stint with the equity. Double digits for sure. Make sure to leave some aside for dilution and/or an employee pool.

In fact, thinking intelligently about equity is a subset of something else you should offer: understanding the business. The Nolo books are great for the fundamentals of business, but you should also understand the domain. If you’ve thought deeply about the domain and the business, you will stand out from the “idea folks” who just have, well, ideas.

Be flexible on working arrangements. In one situation where I was the tech co-founder, I worked full time on the company for the first four months, then half time after that because I contracted to pay the bills. Bring finances up in your initial discussions. Be honest and upfront about living expenses and how everyone has different needs. This will filter out some folks, but that’s ok. Better to do that early.

Push forward on your own. You can get a long way with no-code tools and manual processes. This is a grind, but a tech founder will be impressed by this effort if you get results. If you don’t get results, that might be the market telling you something. You can also start an accountability email list for $0 to share your progress.

You may even decide you want to code. Depending on the complexity of your idea, it may be possible for you to build something using free resources. Or buy a book–you are going to invest years of your life, so buying an intro book on coding is cheap. I’d suggest the Rails Tutorial if you are building a webapp.

I, and other devs, judge non technical founders by their ability to get sh*t done. Show that you can.

Know who you are looking for

Based on where you are trying to get and what you have to offer, you should be able to narrow down who you are looking for. Think about the following factors:

  • risk tolerance, including emotional and financial
  • experience
  • domain expertise
  • personal chemistry (you are going to be spending a lot of time with this person, they’ll know your triumphs and low points like no one else)

Write this down. It’s the start of your job description. You should flesh it out with your vision, experience, and what you’ve accomplished so far.

You want a written job desc because you’ll want to share it with anyone who is interested in helping. That’s the first thing I ask for. Put the job desc at at a URL. It doesn’t need to be fancy, a public google doc is fine.

This lets people easily help by sharing the job with anyone or any group they might think a potential co-founder frequents.

Where to look

Share that job desc with your network. You never know who may know someone.

Tech folks congregate in groups. This is often in a slack. Google for “<your area> tech slack” and you should be able to find something. Join, but watch for a while before posting your job desc. There may be certain channels where it is appropriate. And you’ll get more response if you aren’t a “drive by” poster.

There are also meetups. Google for “<your area> tech meetup”. Again, these are communities, not bulletin boards. Be prepared to join and interact for a while before making any pitches. Could be months.

Angellist is a good site on which to create a company listing and post your jobs. They have an email that goes out to interested folks. That’s how I first made contact with one of my co-founders.

Another option is targeted outreach. Tech folks, as mentioned above, congregate in online communities. They often comment. You can search for comments related to your idea/business and see who is talking about it. They may have contact info in their profile.

For instance, I had someone reach out to me because I’d commented several times about agriculture, and that was the domain of their business. This is a bigger time investment, but can lead to interesting connections. Reddit and Hacker News are good places to start. Doing this helps you build your tech network, because even if the commenter isn’t a fit for a co-founder position, they may pass along the job desc to someone else who is. They may also be interested in remaining in touch; if the company grows or their circumstances change, there may be a possible fit in the future.

When you find the person

Great, you think you have found a co-founder.

Have their skills validated by other technical people. You don’t have the knowledge or perspective to evaluate the co-founder. You are excited about possibly working with someone who can help make your dreams a reality. Sometimes an incubator can provide these advisors, other times your network. (As an aside, you should be trying to build your tech network. When you talk to someone who is helpful, see if you can add them to your startup accountability list.)

When people share equity in a business, it’s like getting married without the sex. Date first. See if there are a couple of projects you can work on before jumping in. Offer to pay them something for these, even if it isn’t full market rate.

Set up vesting for founder equity. Everyone should be on the same page if you are starting a true partnership. This will save you heartache if someone has a change of perspective or goals two years into the startup.

In general, plan for the worst, hope for the best. Discuss exits, future roles (do they want to build a team or continue to be an IC), co-founder departures, and long term vision. Do this even though the business model and organization is imaginary at this point. Having these conversations while everyone is excited about the company will make the inevitable tough times just a little less tough.

Make sure you discuss who will be in control. If you are partnering with a childhood friend, maybe 50-50 ownership will work. I’ve definitely seen it blow up because there’s a tension between the “owner” role and the “CEO” role, so even then I’d be hesitant. But if this is someone you just met, you should stay in control with more than 50% of the shares. Make that clear from the get-go so there is no confusion. That said, you aren’t partnering with this person to micro-manage them. Be clear about the areas they’ll have autonomy in.

I know I had issues with my lack of control when I co-founded companies, but that’s all the more reason to have that discussion earlier rather than later.

When it comes down to it, the technologist is crucial for many companies, but the non technical founder is even more critical. It’s a bit like the product and company is a racecar. The technical founder builds the car, but the CEO drives it. Both are important, but you can often find other car builders once the car is running (to mangle my metaphor a bit).

Conclusion

It’s going to be a long haul to find the right person for your startup.

It might be easier to try to raise some money to pay those ravenous agencies (I’ve worked there, so I can call them that) or hire a freelancer.

But the right co-founder will be someone you can trust, someone who will experience the depths and heights of startup life.

Best of luck finding them!


Why you should have a startup accountability email list

I mentioned this to some friends a while ago and thought it was worth writing up. I think if you are starting a company, you should absolutely have an email list of interested folks. Mailchimp makes this free. You can email to this list:

  • Progress you’ve made
  • Help you need (hiring, funding, finding customers, anything else)
  • Things you are proud of
  • Things you are bummed about
  • Interesting topics in your space

We used this at a startup I was at a couple of years ago and found it super useful. Even if no one reads the email (and people will!) just the act of putting it together will force you to acknowledge how much you have accomplished (or let you know what you haven’t done, which is even more useful). Some of these people will want to help, and this gives them a low effort way to keep in touch and possibly help when you have a need. I think it’s easier for you, too, to ask for help if it’s a regular newsletter that you’ve been sending (that has been providing them some value), rather than a one time ask.

How often should you send this? I think that every week is good at the beginning, when your startup is especially fragile. Then, as things get going, you can dial it back in frequency, but I’d have it happen every month if possible.

Who should you put on the list? Friends, family, possible investors. Anyone who you trust who you want to keep in the loop with your progress. You may share financials or pretty vulnerable asks on this list, so I’d avoid anyone who you wouldn’t ask for assistance from face to face. But if you are chatting with someone at a party and they are interested in and seem like they could help your startup, just say “Hey, I send out a monthly newsletter about our progress, would you mind if I added you?”


Things I wish I knew as a new developer

I’m participating as a speaker or panelist in my third annual Boulder Startup Week. This year I get to talk about my current passion project, Letters to a New Developer. I’m presenting on “10 things I wish I knew as a new developer” including tips like “learn version control” and “remember, it’s about outcomes, not output” It’s a free presentation on Monday May 13. I hope you can join me.

If that time or subject doesn’t work or interest you, check out all of the other awesome presentations happening in Boulder during the 2019 Boulder Startup Week and see if any of them tickle your fancy.


What is an MVP and why do you care?

I was recently published over on the Go Code Colorado blog. I wrote about what a minimum viable product (aka MVP) is. When I talked to teams at last years competition, one recurring theme was how much people wanted to spend time building rather than talking to users.

I have been there! I know it is much more fun to build something than it is to try to find people of whom to ask questions.

But it’s much better for the long term viability of your project to build something people want poorly than something no one wants perfectly.

More over at the Go Code Colorado blog.


What makes you a better developer, working at an early stage startup or working in a team?

Bike courierI gave a presentation at Boulder.rb last night about my experience being the technical co-founder of a startup for two years. After the presentation, someone asked a really interesting question. Between working as a solo co-founder of a startup or working in a larger team at an established company, which experience makes you a better developer?

First, a digression. I often commute around town by bike. There are many benefits to doing so, but one of the ones I think about a lot is being on a bike gives you the ability to move through streets more freely. Specifically, you can switch between acting like a car (riding on the road) and acting like a pedestrian (riding on the sidewalk). Used judiciously, this ability can get you places faster than either (hence, bike messengers).

In my mind, a true developer is like that. They can bounce between the world of software (and across the domains within it) and the world of business to solve problems in an efficient manner.

Back to the question at hand. I think that the answer is based on what you mean by better. Are you looking to gain:

  • customer empathy
  • ability to get stuff done through barriers of ignorance and resource constraint
  • a wide set of experience across a lot of different software related domains (security, operations, ux, data modelling, requirements gathering, planning, bug fixing, etc)

If getting these skills make you into the better kind of developer you want to be, you will be well served by being a technical co-founder or founding engineer (more thoughts about the distinction here).

If on the other hand, you are looking for:

  • deep knowledge of a smaller subset of the software world
  • the ability to design software for long term maintainability and performance
  • experience working with a team of stakeholders, each with a different perspective on the problem you are solving

then you are seeking a place on a team, with process, code reviews, conference attendance and free snacks (most likely).

Who is a better developer? The person with experience working with (possibly leading) a team and deep knowledge of a subset of technology? Or the person who can be a jack of all trades and take a product from an idea to something customers will pay for?

I’m going to leave you with the canonical consultant’s answer: “It depends.” The former I’d call an expert programmer and the latter a true developer. They are both extremely valuable, but are good in different companies situations.


Startup COOs: What do they do?

I really enjoyed this post about what startupo COOs do. It was interesting because it wasn’t just opinion, there was also data. I particularly enjoyed the evolution of the author’s role over time, and the percentage of COOs that owned various responsibilities. To be fair, it was a small set of respondents in one geographic area, but still interesting.

However, the money quote was:

I actually have [simple way] of explaining what I do, and I would sum it up this way: taking things off my CEO’s plate, and figuring out how to thoughtfully scale the company.

Of course every company’s different, but I’ve seen the pattern of a visionary and an operator in a couple of companies, and it’s powerful.


(Links To) Advice For Someone Selling a SaaS Business

Sold signI ran into someone at a meetup recently who’d built a SaaS that had a pretty decent MRR. Enough to support one person. Which is a huge achievement!

He was wondering what options he had to either grow or exit the business. This is something I’ve been reading about for a number of years, so I had some advice. I thought I’d write it down so that others could benefit (or chime in). These are resources I’ve found insightful.

This is a great first hand account by patio11 of selling a software business (it wasn’t SaaS, rather a one time digital product sale, but I think there are a number of common themes). He mentions the broker he uses, the due diligence process, and what you can do now to set yourself up for success (have separate accounts, for one).

I can’t even talk about SaaS without telling folks to raise their prices. It’s a reflex now. Amy Hoy has two great posts on this: grandfathering and new features (with a lot of communication mixed in). I experienced this myself at a previous startup, where we almost doubled our monthly subscription price in 18 months.

Finally, here’s an interesting post from a venture capitalist about how private equity is a new exit option for SaaS companies. In that vein, I chatted briefly with one such PE firm, SureSwift Capital, about part time work a year or so ago. I don’t know how they are to work with (the position wasn’t a fit) but at the time they were focused on acquiring SaaS companies with good MRR and helping them grow.


Farewell Boulder New Tech Meetup

Girl letting go of balloonI, along with many others, received this email last week:

Participating and watching the Colorado tech community evolve has been an amazing experience. Over the past 12 years we have had so many people engage and support our efforts. This includes the attendee’s, presenters, organizers, and sponsors. Give yourselves a big hand, IMO you are the reason Colorado has such a vibrant startup ecosystem.

I’m saddened, but it is time for me step away and stop organizing/hosting the Boulder chapter of New Tech Colorado. I’ve attempted to find a replacement over the past year, but no one has stepped up. I think thats ok, we have many other pitch events happening throughout the front range, including other New Tech events.

The Boulder New Tech, starting with the June event will no longer accept reservations and I’m going to shut down BDNT.org.

Thank you for giving me your attention and for sharing your experiences over the past 12 years. See you around town.

It was from Robert Reich, the moving force behind the New Tech Meetups here in Colorado. After over a decade, there will be no more Boulder meetups (though it looks like other cities are going strong, at least from the meetup page). I totally understand where Robert is coming from. I’ve been to many of these meetups, but over the last couple of years attendance was definitely down. However, every time I attended I met interesting people and saw a different slice of the Boulder ecosystem. I will say that it seemed like BDNT was a welcoming initial introduction to that ecosystem, but once a newcomer understood the landscape, I think they were better served by a more focused meetup. I know Robert experimented with a number of different formats and concepts–I hope he writes them all down for future meetup organizers.

I also had the opportunity to speak a few times at BDNT. Once I presented on GWT, which was my first experience talking to a group of over one hundred people (note to self, don’t present a technology at a pitch night 🙂 ). I also spoke in Denver with Brian Timoney–that was fun because of the 3d google earth submarine navigation demo and because Josh Fraser met with us and gave us some tips. And in 2016 I presented the startup of which I was a co-founder. Each time the community was very supportive and helpful.

I want to thank a few folks:

  • Robert and all the other organizers over the years.
  • The speakers, who made the night interesting every time I went. I never left without learning something new.
  • The hosts. I know the event was hosted for many years by Silicon Flatirons, but also attended events at Galvanize Boulder.Also appreciated the snacks!
  • The community. Always supportive and present.

Institutions don’t have to live forever (especially those that survive on the efforts of volunteers). It’s OK for them to end. I will miss the BDNT event, but I know the community of support for entrepreneurship in Boulder and the front range is larger than ever.

Fare thee well, Boulder New Tech.


Hipster Hosting at BSW, Tomorrow Only

Lady with computer mouse

She doesn’t look like she needs hosting, does she?

I’m doing a short presentation with a few other people at Boulder Startup Week on hosting. Tomorrow, Thur, at 10am MT.

Would love to see you there. Feel free to heckle.

If you can’t make it, here is the salient point of my presentation: startups are hard, so you should host your code and infrastructure at the highest level of abstraction that you can, so that your developers can focus on delivering business value through new features rather than doing ops. In practice, prefer hosting options in this order:

  • serverless
  • platform specific hosting (wpengine, etc)
  • general purpose PAAS (heroku, elastic beanstalk)
  • cloud VMs
  • colo
  • server in the closet

Of course, all advice is context dependent; my advice is aimed at small startups and the more flexibility your developers need around aspects of technology the lower on the list you’ll have to go.

Anyway, looking forward to a good discussion.


Boulder Startup Week Begineth!

Thumb upBoulder Startup Week is this week. If you haven’t been, it’s a great opportunity for a number of reasons. You can get a flavor of the Boulder tech community (though it’s worth remembering that there are numerous firms that don’t play in the startup world that are in Boulder). You can learn a lot about startups from folks who are actively building one, or have built one in the past. You can learn about new technologies and trends that are up and coming, including data science, blockchain and cannibis. And you can meet a lot of great folks.

I’m a bit burned out on startups at the moment, but am still planning to attend a few sessions, mostly on the development track. I’m especially excited for the Boulder Ruby Meetup on Wednesday, where experts will speak about interviewing. I’m also speaking at a session on hosting.

My tips for Boulder Startup Week:

  • go to at least one session in a different area of focus than you normally would.
  • arrive 5-10 minutes early and plan to stay 5-10 minutes after. Use this time to chat with folks. (This is hard for me, but I’ve found that having a canned opening line like “what interesting talks have you seen” or “is this your first time at BSW” is a good way to break the ice.)
  • the above tip will prevent you from trying to attend too many sessions back to back to back. This is a Good Thing(tm).
  • bring business cards, or prepare to exchange emails.
  • thank a volunteer and/or sponsor when you see them. There’s a tremendous amount of effort that goes into this week.
  • be prepared to help someone you meet out, with an intro, feedback on an idea, or even just an interesting article.
  • if a session is full, I’d get on the waitlist and then I’d show up anyway. Because every session is free, I’ve found that oftentimes folks are … over committed and there’s often space for other people.

If your interest has been piqued, please check out the schedule. Hope to see you out there.



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