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How to evaluate a non-technical co-founder (hirelite.com)
87 points by nathanh on March 28, 2011 | hide | past | favorite | 48 comments

I'll probably get down-voted for this being as though this is Hacker News and the majority of people here are "tech types" as opposed to "biz types". However as a biz founder its probably necessary to speak up:

Common philosophies I hear exposited in tech circles is, "Biz co-founders are a dime a dozen" and “Good ideas, in and of themselves, are worthless”. The argument being everyone on the planet is capable of formulating ideas, thus “good” ideas can be found in overwhelming abundance. One may hear this suggestion advanced amongst mostly “tech types”, such as programmers, developers, engineers, etc. Many of them believe value is derived from the conversion of an idea into a physical product. What group of people are typically required to convert the idea into a physical product? Why the programmers, developers, and engineers of course! In this type of climate, the notion that good ideas alone being worthless or that biz co-founders are worth less than their tech counterparts becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. This notion is advanced by none other than those that stand to gain the most from it: the programmers, developers, and engineers. Sorry guys. I don't buy it. Read more on this phenomenon here: http://thegeoffreyhull.com/post/3767537182.

Part of your blog is a verbatim duplicate of http://www.sebastianmarshall.com/we-dont-get-out-of-bed-for-...

For someone who values original ideas highly, this is a theft of the highest order. Wouldn't you agree?

Interesting how you completely missed the section where I cited Sebastian's blog as a source of inspiration for my article. To prevent any further misunderstandings, I've denoted the origins of the text with a big block of quotes to make it absolutely clear. I reject your assertion of "theft".

I never saw a link to Sebastian's blog in your original article. So, yes, maybe I missed it. However, it was not "inspired". It was a verbatim copy without any indication of it being so.

I am glad you edited the article to explicitly give credit where it is due.

My apologies. I'm hoping its more clear now

Speaking as a technical guy, this looks like a conflation of "idea person" with "biz person". I absolutely think biz people are critical, but I'd be looking for someone who can sell, network, and make deals - not someone with a good idea. It's not that good ideas are worthless, it's that having a good idea doesn't make you yourself particularly valuable. The reason is that tons of people have lots of good ideas, any of which would probably succeed with good technical AND business execution. I wouldn't team up with an idea person just because they had a great idea, but I would team up with a great salesperson who could do actual business development. Business is selling the ideas to customers, investors, and partners - not just having the ideas.

Certainly the execution _alone_ isn't the only thing that matters. The idea _alone_ also isn't the only thing that matters. Both engineering and product/biz types are needed to turn an idea into a good business. That's execution. Engineers aren't the only ones who can execute and pivot.

> Common philosophies I hear exposited in tech circles is, "Biz co-founders are a dime a dozen" and “Good ideas, in and of themselves, are worthless”.

If "the idea" is so valuable, why doesn't it survive first contact with the customer? Why the need to pivot?

You seem to think that "the idea" is valuable, so feel free to point out where "the idea" was a crucial factor in success.

Since it's fair for you to respond with "okay, but you point out where execution mattered", I will.

Amazon, Google, Apple (wrt IPhone and IPad), IBM, Intel, Walmart.

In all of those cases, a competitor had "the same idea", and was first and better funded.

If you think that that's unfair, feel free to give us some examples of actionable "ideas" that biz people had first.

A good way to lose any positive positioning your comment has is to preface it with "I'll probably get down-voted for this."

When some random relative tells you they have a great idea, and it's simply a punchline, that's what is worthless. That's different than when someone with extensive domain experience tells you they have a great idea, shows you they've put thought and research into it, and can articulate why it's better than other things out there.

Afterall, if ideas were worthless, wouldn't having a biz co-founder with domain experience be worthless? Or, really, for hiring anyone to do anything? Experience is important because it helps us recognize what is a bad idea in the given field, allowing us to save precious time on execution.

Execution seems little more than the filtering of good ideas from bad ones that you didn't know were bad.

Execution is prioritizing the good ideas.

I've thought a lot about this "Great Team v. Great idea" and I think what you're saying is partially true. You have great teams failing right this very second, and it's viewed as ok given that they are, well, great teams. But that still leaves them failing.

I think a major problem is that neither the biz nor the tech co-founders are the lynch pin, it's the correct combo of both + an amazing idea + that 'never give up' determination + timing.

I think there are a lot of people getting full of themselves, be it devs, biz people, or VCs. I think it would do us all well to realize that yes, we DO need each other.

Ideas vs execution is a long standing debate around here, and you make a valid point about the bias. All you have to do is a quick search for "Show HN" posts to see what execution of bad ideas look like. Don't get me wrong - Execution matters. A lot. But the worth of an idea matters equally.

Being a biz founder I picked up technical skills and built a crappy (MVP of MVP's) prototype to pitch to tech founders. If the non-tech founder can't even learn enough code to get anything built then I would be concerned for their level of dedication for their own idea.

Even though my prototype was terrible and even made the other founders laugh, they could see my level of dedication and my ability to get something done.

To me being a biz founder we need to be the scapegoat of the startup, no pride all humility and can sell the shit out of anything.

If the non-tech founder can't even learn enough code to get anything built then I would be concerned for their level of dedication for their own idea.


I think thats a little much.

Part of being a good business man is knowing where you weaknesses lie, and knowing how to plug those holes in your game. So why would you waste valuable time trying to pick up a skill that you're probably not interesting in having and will probably not put to use, when you can spend that time raising money to hire a developer or get one to come in with you and handle the development?

There's as much skill involved in managing/leading a software development process as there is in actually doing software development.

I've got a lot of respect for somebody who can scrape up some dough, envision a product, and get somebody to make it. Unfortunately, too many people think that their skills as a salesperson, manager, hairdresser, chemist or whatever empower them to lead a software development effort and too frequently they fail.

Right, but you can learn enough about the software development process without getting into the nitty gritty of how anonymous functions in Javascript work.

I'd argue because it's really not that hard.

Prototyping a product, and implementing said prototype, are hallmarks of people with vision and determination. If you have an idea but can't execute, why bother?

Bare minimum reason: You understand how the product is created, and can empathize / call bullshit when something is delayed.

You can prototype a product using Axure RP, Powerpoint, Illustrator, Blasamiq or Mocking bird ... you don't have to spend time learning html, css, javascript and or PHP just to do that.

I think this is where I'd set the requirement, rather than requiring writing code.

If they can make (and talk through) a mockup that demonstrates a grasp of the problems of real-life UI/UX design -- including the little details that normally just get hand-waved over, like "when & where exactly will we get all of the data that's required to build this screen?" -- that counts for quite a lot.

Writing code for someone who doesn't have the background has a huge learning curve -- if someone sets them down with the exact language(s), libraries, editors, references, etc. to use, it's not so bad, but someone who doesn't know the landscape will go down a lot of very time-consuming dead ends on their own, and the lessons they'll learn will very likely not be worth the time wasted (assuming they have no plans to change careers...).

Cause we're building startups. Period.

If you were to open a farm in the midwest, would you really hire an IBM sales rep to sell your farm products who never milked a cow before?

Not quite the same. If a non-technical founder is looking to pitch a website idea to developers and they have they are choosing to spend time picking up HTML and JavaScript or throwing together detailed mocks for each page, the mocks would probably be better use of their time.

He's at the very least set himself apart from other potential non-tech founders and demonstrated that he's willing to be a janitor even though his degree didn't give him any training on how to mop the floor.

Right ... no argument here, what I take issue with is the idea that if a non-technical guy doesn't start learning how to code to build his idea, it'd be a cause for concern. It simply isn't.

You're missing the point - it's about proving dedication. Building a prototype, no matter how crappy, tells potential tech cofounders that you're less likely to bail when you see something shinier.

That said, raising money (or investing your own) would indeed serve the same purpose.

Actually I think you're missing the point.

What I was responding to was this -----> If the non-tech founder can't even learn enough code to get anything built then I would be concerned for their level of dedication for their own idea

Just because a guy doesn't go to learn how to code doesn't mean you should immediately get worried about their dedication to their project.

I see the point you're trying to make, and I agree with it, but it quite different from what I was addressing.

1) Non-tech co-founders need to really understand their target segment on an intimate level. They may not be able to write all the code, but they should be the masters of the user domain and/or business domain that the product is going to serve. They should know what the right strategic goals of the business should be, given their target user. They should know exactly what problem they're trying to solve, for whom, and (roughly) how.

2) They should also have strong, well-informed opinions about UX. Take them to task on what makes a good UX or even a good UI. Press them for examples of good and bad UX design, or have them walk you through a mockup of something you've done in the past. You should be interviewing them just as much as they're interviewing you. They should have theories and opinions on how UX affects business strategy, and vice versa, and not just opinions on what looks pretty or simple. You want to get the impression that this person would have made (or was) a great product manager at a big company, had he or she not been a founder.

3) They should be great salesmen (or women), but not bullshit artists. There's often a fine line here, but the red flags are usually obvious. Look at his or her track record. Look at the realism of his or her vision. Look at his or her ability to model and properly account for risk, competitive threat, etc. If you can pinpoint a critical dependency or risk to the business that he or she can't, that's a bad sign.

4) They should be willing and able to bust their asses and constantly learn. They should not expect to kick back and let you build the product for them. Sort of hard to suss this out in conversation alone, but track record evaluation -- and careful probing about the vision -- should tease out some hints in this direction. A sense of entitlement, or of learned helplessness, usually outs itself under polite conversational fire.

As a non-technical guy, I'd like very much to be evaluated on those criteria. I think ya'll should be looking for something else though: Will this guy need to hire a ton of employees?

If you're looking at someone with a history, that history needs to be evaluated both in the context of the corporate resources available and the size of his team. Be aware that managing a large team might mean helplessness in a small one.

The article oddly seems to be a converse of the often asked "how do i find a technical co-founder?" It seems to assume that you're a technical person who is looking for somebody else's start-up to join.

Personally I'd like to know what to do if you're a technical person with some technical ~AND~ business ideas, who's got a product that's got a little traction and is looking for someone who can help with marketing and execution.

I think it depends on what type of marketing you need, e.g. online ad sales? B2b? Where you're trying to go with your startup or business probably should determine what type of help you need.

A lot of good points in there, but it seems to be a little bit on the "developer centric fantasy" side of things, particularly on the Traction section.

Non tech cofounders that are getting 30 users before trying to find a technical cofounder aren't having trouble finding tech cofounders. Non tech cofounders that have 10 people committed to paying up to 1000/mo and signed letters of intent from the 5 of them (120k/year, 60k guaranteed) before building a product are few and far between.

These guys are gems, and betting on them is a good bet. Its like non-tech founders trying to partner with proven Facebook employee #13. Unless you're equally proven as a dev, its hard to justify asking for that level of accomplishment from your cofounder.

Much of the "find a cofounder" game is about making good decisions when its not such an obvious call.

"This is not just speculation: from our position (Hirelite connects developers with companies looking to hire them via speed interviewing over video chat), startups value a developer about 50% more than a non-technical person with a similar level of experience/skill/etc"

They have some basis that developers are more valuable based on market forces alone, which means that you need to set your expectations accordingly.

"Non tech cofounders that have 10 people committed to paying up to 1000/mo and signed letters of intent from the 5 of them (120k/year, 60k guaranteed) before building a product are few and far between."

What? I would suggest that the abovereferenced set of cofounders is equal to the null set.

I can't imagine anyone dumb enough to commit to a $12k annual contract for vaporware from a company whose very existence is contingent on finding 9 other suckers just as dumb as you are. The closest model I can think of is games software publishing, but that exists in an area with a known customer base. Nobody in the real world, running a real enterprise, with real money on the line, would gamble like that - at least none of the people I work with.

Well definitely not the null set. Bloomberg had Merill Lynch basically fund his entire development before the product even existed.

Merill Lynch also took an equity stake in Bloomberg, which isn't the scenario under discussion here.

I know of a couple of specialized financial product companies where development was funded entirely by the first customer.

This is an interesting use case, but I don't understand it.

Why fund the development of new software to a third party who will then resell it to your competitors, versus hiring a software shop to develop it and deliver it to you for internal use?

Equity split? lower maintenance costs? I can't really grok such a decision.

If you hire a software shop to deliver it for your internal use, then you're also on the hook to pay for any and all future versions, or they won't get built. If the software isn't going to be your advantage over your competitors, then keeping it to yourself just increases the amount you'll pay for upgrades.

Didn't Oracle and every other enterprise software vendor start out by securing contracts like this?

that was my point. the part you quoted from my comment was an idea from the original post.

Good points. The contrary is way more difficult i think... (me being a biz founder, finding tech partners or employees can be really tricky).

For the non-tech guys, in an early stage startup, i would definitely look at :

- product skills => can the guy understand what customers/users need ? and if he doesn't, will he ask them?

- tech skills => you guys need to speak the same language. even if he's a beginner, has he tried coding in RoR, php, python, ...? will you speak the same language?

- network => does he know investors and bloggers? or at least know people who know them?

- traction and community => can the guy move heaven and earth to get people on board?

- recklessness => is he okay with the risk, the absence of salary, the non-benefits, ...?

And actually, the most important thing: he crashed a startup already, and one of the reasons, he reckons, was the lack of a tech cofounder. You got yourself a jewel in that case :)

As a technical founder, should I bring in a business co-founder? I think the article is pretty good. I'd want someone who is:

- Can sell without BSing.

- Knows how to get in touch with important people

- Good at pitching to investors

- Real personable and good at communicating with customers

- Can write well

- Has an eye for UX

- Has enough technical knowledge to communicate technical issues with customers

- Understands startups

A non-technical co-founder needs to have skills. They just aren't technical. I think the term non-technical co-founder is misleading because it defines someone but what they can't do. I'd rather say sale founder or biz-dev founder.

I'm a NT co-founder trying to become a technical founder, so this is an interesting read. To be honest, I think the most value that someone like that can bring is a network. If you can get introductions, some PR, and some buzz, then you can get enough cash from sales to buy some of the other necessities.

Easiest way: what have they done in the past. Past performance and future performance and all that.

I am curious here. Does a UI Designer fall in the category of a Non technical co-founder? If so how do the dynamics change when a designer approaches a developer to co-found a team for an idea that the designer came up with?

In my opinion the following 3 key traits will get you at least 90% of the way..

a. the "right attitude",

b. someone that can "challenge you" and

c. "know the industry" which your competing in really well.

The rest can be learnt on the job.

To answer the question, I would advise you to go on a startup weekend.

(54 hour hackmarathon, but not just developers, but marketing and biz people also)

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