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!



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