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Ask HN: How to evaluate potential non-technical co-founders ?
19 points by ig1 on June 8, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 11 comments
There seems to have been a spurt of recent posts of non-tech co-founders asking how to find tech co-founders, but I'd like the pose the question from the other side.

As a tech person how do you evaluate a non-tech person as a potential co-founder ?

I recently met someone with a marketing background at a startup weekend style event, and we chatted a bit about cofounding, but I'm at bit of a loss as how to decide if it's a good idea or not.

On one side they're clearly smart and get things done, our skill sets seem to be quite complementary and we get on.

On the other hand from what I've seen on HN people generally seem to have a negative attitude towards non-tech cofounders, is it justified ? - what should I be looking out for and taking into consideration ?

From my years on the NY scene which is filled with non-technical "entrepreneur"-types

5 points: Has been in executive team at a startup before

5 points: Has been involved in raising capital at a startup before, or is 1-degree from a VC or a few angels (real 1-degree not Twitter/LinkedIn 1-degree)

5 points: Has been in product marketing, biz dev, ad sales at a startup before

5 points: can and will write code

4 points: can get shit done, is well-organized and understands the software development process as opposed to say, selling and shipping widgets

2 points: Has been in product management at a startup before

2 points: Has worked in any biz role at a large tech company and rose to some form of executive post

-5 points: Has an MBA and has only worked at Hedge fund, Consulting company, or iBank

-5 points: Is an idea person and has never shipped a real product.

Your ideal person will score above 10 and close to 20 points on this test.

That's a good list. I don't have any particular love for MBAs, but I wouldn't necessarily rule them out, as I've known a rare few who do well in startup environments. (It seems rare though.) But before this gets into yet another MBA debate, let me move on.

I think the exact list of traits you'll want will be determined by your particular needs. aditya's list is a great starting point though. Start with this, then modify the points accordingly. For instance, I might give "has never shipped a real product" -10 instead.

Another factor to consider is how well the person gets along with you. That might be +10 or more right there. Like myoung8 said, you have to know if you wouldn't mind working and debating and arguing with this person for months on end.

Also, this person's connections may play a part, depending on your needs. In the B2B world, business connections can mean a lot. And connected with respect, I mean. There are plenty of schmoozers without any true respect.

Finally, I'd recommend checking the person's references. You may not need to do this formally like you're at an interview. But if you can somehow contact this person's former colleagues somehow, that would be helpful. Maybe a LinkedIn check to see if anyone you know might know this person could help. You basically want to find out how others have liked working with him/her.

support the -10 for consulting + ibank + hedge fund. they're all smart guys, but watch out for the ones who have never built a product OR don't like getting hands dirty. although there are always exceptions, jeff bezos came from de shaw.

if this sounds strange to west coast people, at startup networking events in the east coast it is pretty likely you'll run into the 'i've done my gig at mcK/harvard mba and the next step of my career is a CEO position so let me find my awesome tech cofounder' type of person.

Joshua (of delicious) and Jimbo (of Wikipedia) both have ibanking backgrounds as well I believe.

Great list. For me the last two points would be show stoppers.

If you can't code (and I'm one of those, btw), then your driving a startup to success is significantly dependent on your level of experience in shipping products, doing sales, iterating, working working working.

One can learn to do this on the job, but do you want to pay for the mistakes they're bound to make the first time around?

I've been through the process of finding non-technical co-founders, growing companies, and raising money. Along the way, there have been a lot of lessons learned about non-technical co-founders.

First, remember that as a technical co-founder, you will likely be the CTO/lead engineer. Your non-tech founder will probably be the CEO. The CEO has to manage early customers, investors, and partners. Most of their time is spent communicating the vision to these people, and hence they naturally end up directing the vision more.

On the flip side, you will spend a lot more time heads down coding. This relationship often makes it feel like you are "working" for the CEO, and you kind of are. Such is the nature of CEO/CTO dynamics, and I think this is why a lot of technical people resent non-technical co-founders. So ask yourself, are you comfortable working for this person who will probably be your CEO?

As a corollary to the previous question, have they managed or worked with engineers before? Have they ever been in a technical role? If not, you will run into typical Maker vs Manager problems. It's hard to work with non-technical co-founders who don't understand the mindset of technical founders.

As mentioned, watch out for consultant/banking types who have no real experience running companies or in startups.

Also watch out for people who are divorced from the product/passion and don't really get the pain point. This is the guy who has a friend who has a buddy who made money in a startup, and now he wants to do one. All they see is dollar signs. They might as well be pushing another hedge fund, "strategic partnership", or snake oil. They don't really care, and they suck the life out of startup.

My favorite non-technical co-founders are people who were engineers in a previous life, but have since found their strengths in product or customer development. They are well connected from having worked in startups before (which probably means access to talent) and possibly have an MBA (which often produces connections to funding).

You want to ask yourself: is this the kind of person I wouldn't mind being stuck in a foxhole with? (metaphorically, of course)

At the end of the day, you need to figure out if they are self-motivated, can take the initiative, and most importantly, can get shit done.

Unfortunately, there aren't really good substitutes for figuring those things out other than experience working together.

A "trial period" where both of you collaborate on a project has worked well for me in the past.

Oh, I just noticed the "trial period" suggestion here. Great idea. Wish I had thought of that.

I had worked with a co-founder who I thought was going to be fantastic. And in the beginning, he was. However, after our business started getting rough, he pretty much bailed. I'm glad I hadn't sunk too much time or money into that venture, but it was a great trial run with that guy.

One question I would ask myself is that "Does he/she share the same passion as me on what the startup is trying to accomplish?" If he share your passion as well, it is all good. Plus it is important not to have too many technical people on board, having a marketing guy would be useful to help you translate what the startup is trying to do to its potential users.

If you get along give it a shot. No one else can really tell you who you will connect and work best with (despite the point rank system comments here).

Oh please hash out the splite before hand though. I did a small startup for gaming and at the end my co-designer/graphics partner tried to make me believe he deserved a mysterious extra cut of the profits outside of actual hours-committed.

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