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Finding a Technical Cofounder (alexeymk.com)
71 points by jorde on Nov 15, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 53 comments

I think all these "learn to code" messages to MBAs get it wrong. It should be "learn to think like a developer". An MBA should be able to determine the screens his software might display (thereby specifying the functionality and, loosely, the UI), then build a prototype in powerpoint if he must (heaven forbid)!

Technical cofounders: if an MBA can't even build a clickable prototype in his native language of PPT to sell you on his idea, run. Not because he is technically incompetent, but because he is an incompetent salesman.

But, more to the point, the concept that all you need is business acumen (MBA founder) and technical acumen (technical founder) is unbelievably wrongheaded. You need domain expertise. If you don't have it, you're probably working on something any bunch of monkeys could make, MBA-type or technical-type included.

Don't skip the part of the pitch where you have to say "why this management team can successfully execute this idea." That's what the investors say they look at, remember?

The question I ask myself is why would you want a non-technical founder to learn to code if they will never write production code? The encoded message in most of the replies fall in to a few categories: 1) to understand the technical feasibility of their vision and 2) as a way of showing initiative.

#2 is what code jockeys want to see and the natural way for a coder to measure initiative is in lines of code. What non-technical founders don't seem to realize is that you can begin building the product without writing code: - Make a landing page. - Do A/B testing on marketing and company names. - Talk with customers. (this is huge) - Weigh the pros and cons of different business models. - Tied in very closely with the above but plan features. - Do everything BUT the code.

In other words, execute.

True story. I made my landing page .. Learned html and css from zero for that... I got enough clients to be profitable that way and also got selected for startup chile.

Im now trying to learn python. Much much better than waiting for miracles

Wow, that's inspiring!

I compare with myself: I am a quite good coder and I have lots of ideas, yet I feel stuck for some reason. I'm gonna try to borrow from your can-do ethos :)

Thanks! i will need some coders for my startup on the near future, feel free to send me a tweet (@j_camarena) if you want to talk or just keep in contact :).

why can't they write production code? if it works, it works. deal with scaling problems when you actually need to scale. in lieu of finding a 'technical co-founder' i taught myself to code and built our entire product. I'm now the 'technical co-founder.' JFDI

I never see posts on HN from the perspective of "I'm a technical founder with an idea and a product, and I need a non-technical co-founder who can pitch, market and sell it".

Maybe I should then post on HN?

I fall in to this camp, sort of. I'm not looking for a non-tech co-founder, but certainly open to the idea. However, as I meet people, the ones who seem to be capable are generally already doing their own thing. To a large extent, this is probably a similar problem non-tech people face when looking for tech co-founders - the ones who are most likely to be capable are probably already doing something.

I meet a fair number of people who might be non-tech co-founders - they tick some of the boxes. But when discussing things more, then almost inevitably fall short of my own expectations.

This is hard to put in to words, but the ones I've talked to seem more in love with the idea of being in a startup than actually working on one. There's also seemingly little drive to do much more than talk. Generally, also, there's little financial stability in their lives, to be able to deal with no or limited income for several months while ramping up. And based on discussions with some potential co-founders over the past several years, there seems to be little willingness to be at all flexible with their own ideas - they have tended to think of themselves as Steve Jobs, and me more as a Wozniak to be used and thrown out later.

So... again, while I'm open to the idea, I'm not actively looking. Perhaps I should be actively looking, and would weed through the bad fits faster?

Can you imagine what would have happened if Wozniak hadn't known jobs before hand, and went looking for a "business guy" cofounder?

"Hmm, there's this Jobs guy. Egotistical. Maniacal. A complete sociopath. Takes over everyone's ideas as his own."

I don't see Apple being the same company.

that is because most tech people think they can do sales, marketing and ops while non-tech people know they can't code.

No, I don't think most tech people are under any illusions about their ability. But sales, marketing, and ops scale in a much more linear way than tech does. You don't need a ton of marketing ability to make a few sales and get a bit of cash flow coming in. Then you can hire sales and other non technical staff, rather than bringing them in at the cofounder level.

"You don't need a ton of marketing ability to make a few sales and get a bit of cash flow coming in."

"Then you can hire sales and other non technical staff"

Have you ever run a business? This sounds so naive it's probably the exact thing the OP was talking about.

1. The modal amount of revenue for most payment processors is 0 dollars. The majority of all applications developed and deployed never make a single dollar of revenue.

2. 'a bit of cash flow' is 20 dollars / month. It is not easy to make revenue acquisition repeatable (or, more accurately, by far the hardest problem in any business is in finding repeatable acquisition models)

3. You cannot just 'hire a sales guy' and expect the money to flow in. Regular 'sales guys' need a pitch, a sales script, a leads source, a pricing list, in other words, they need to be told exactly what to do and how to do it. Somebody who can develop all of that is the 'non-technical founder' as it is most commonly called on here. It's like expecting to hire 'a programmer' and thinking he can think of a product, code it up and bring it to market. The vast majority can't, because it's a completely different skill set.

If non-technical founders are advised to try to code, technical founders should be advised to try to do sales/marketing/ops too. Just do not put too much expectations in either way: it will probably always be better to find a co-founder, not just to fill in the abilities gap, but also as emotional support / motivator / POV enriching...

Which is because a lot of the non-tech people have never actually sold anything, marketed anything, or operated anything either.

Not having technical chops doesn't make you good at "everything else."

There's so many skills that go into a startup that you can't have a specialist for each one.

Not that I've seen. Most technical people I know are aware that they lack the requisite sales skills.

What I have seen, however, is a moral judgement about the relative merits of what skills the founders bring to the table. Specifically, I have known many technical people who perceive sales and management as of lower value than technical creation. Consequently, they privately scoff at the notion that the person doing the "hobnobbing", "gladhanding", and perceived-to-be-commodity sales activities gaining equivalent equity or compensation as themselves.

Out of their sense of "fairness", some of these people go it alone or hire out rather than seek an equal partner in their endeavors.

I know this sounds highly anecdotal( and it is ), but I've seen it enough that I suspect it's at least somewhat widespread.

I've seen this too, and it hurts all parties. But I can sympathize with the tech guy---sales and management are other words for value extraction. How is a technical person to be sure they're not the extractee (i.e. getting screwed)?

I think the best answer is what mguillemot suggests---a tech cofounder should learn a bit more about the sales/marketing/deal-making side. He can then gain a better understanding of what the sales guy does, how hard it is (or isn't), and he'll be more respected by a career salesman, just as an MBA who knows how to code is much more trustworthy to the average technical person.

Technical people who look down on sales and marketing generally do not realize that just as in coding circles the FizzBuzz test shows a remarkable lack of coding ability in a large population of self-described "programmers", in sales and marketing circles the vast majority of people who self-describe as salesperson or marketer don't have the faintest idea of those respective activities.

To a first approximation, most programmers are barely FizzBuzz material, most sales people are order takers, and most marketers are brand buzzers.

Speaking as a programmer who learned enough sales and marketing to carve out a comfortable niche out in the market, there is a palpable difference between an order taker and a real salesman. It is comparable to say, watching Notch work and watching someone who can't cut FizzBuzz try to implement a stack data structure. I've learned enough sales and marketing to identify the salesmen "rock stars", or even the non-order takers.

A real salesman will hold complex deal variables and details in his head on the same order of complexity as most good programmers will handle in code. He is amazingly good at reading body language and over-the-phone voices, getting at the real concerns of sales objections put up by the customers in an startlingly short amount of time. He'll juggle all these inputs and transmogrify them into a combination that works for the sale, all on the fly in fractions of a second, without it breaking his composure or his speaking delivery. He doesn't look down on the technical people backing him, and instead pumps them for technical information, extracting what he needs to build the business case and relaying it back to the technical staff to make sure he got it right. If you follow him through the day, you'll notice he fills every moment with sales activity; whether he's cold calling or following up, he always has a list of customers to contact and touch in the minutes he has downtime at various points throughout the day, or he's reading up to prep for upcoming deals he anticipates. His day is typically highly structured, and he plans out his activities weeks and months in advance.

There are damn few of these salesmen, just as there are damn few Carmacks. Most of them are tied up pitching large, multi-million and up deals as this kind of talent and work ethic is immediately recognized in sales organizations and promoted or poached away, so I would posit that most programmers have never met such salespeople. When many programmers do meet them, they typically only see the "coal face" side of these sales people, the gladhanding tip-of-the-iceberg part. In much the same way that when a lot of people watch programmers at work, they seem to be "just" sitting and poking at a keyboard now and then.

Here's another reason: if you are a single technical founder working on a great technology, but lacking business skills, you don't even need a co-founder -- the best option for you is to find an angel investor, who will bring cash, but if they're interested and dedicated enough will also provide the missing skills.

There are a few - I think I've seen two or three, including myself... but they tend to be met either by deafening silence or lost roar of people/companies looking for technical people.

Thanks Alex. I gave up after trying to find someone magical for 2 months and I now have a demo site with a fake back-end. Slogging through Ruby on Rails and I realized this is really fun and not very different from solving puzzles.

Great deck. You are being generous with the one green stick dude.

Glad you found it useful! Credit to David Tisch for making a room full of Penn entrepreneurs raise their hands. Made the point better than I ever could.

This is a small thing, but its huge for me. As a technical guy, seeing that the entrepreneur has actually tried to code gives me the re-assurance that they'll actually appreciate my contributions when I come on and not just think that throwing instructions over the wall for me to build will even be remotely okay.

For example, I want a guy that knows that I'm using a nosql datastore and why, even if they can't write a query. Someone smart enough to grok things enough that it'll be tough to bullshit them unless you're skilled at it (bullshitting). That way, they'll have some shot of having things continue to run okay if I get hit by a bus or am otherwise unavailable for some period of time.

> Co-founders are looking for competence and traction

You could boil it down to this and scratch the "technical" in the title.

I sat awkwardly around for a year and courted two technical co-founders..the first left to take his dream job with one of the valley hottest start ups. The other decided his own project took precedence, for good measure..its a good one.

But there I sat. Idea fleshed out..and I was ready ready to sell it.

I finally finally took option 2. I understand code and can manipulate wordpress enough to get by, but it certainly isn't my strength. I searched forums and reached out the top commenters and contributors of one in particular. Out of the 3 folks I connected with 1 was a fit. In four hours, he had the previously crafted code live on the net for us to refine.

I plan to be to market in a couple months and could not be happier. I enjoy paying my developer exactly what he wants and look forward to making him a partner sooner than later, if he wants.

The proof is in the pudding.

My vote is for the learn to code approach.

Founders new to coding write horrible code. And that is ok!

At the beginning the biggest risk is not writting terrible code you will regreat having written, let alone give maintance. The biggest risk is making something nobody wants.

From my experience, the biggest issue comes after you get enough traction/money/funding to hire a team. This is where things can get really bad, when the founder thinks he actually knows how to solve CS problems, and says things like: "This Machine Learning thing is not that hard: I wrote the landing page for the startup in 3 hours without any programming knowledge".

Hubris is one dangerous trait that will get anyone in trouble. Founders, due to their natural Reality Distortion Field[1], can be a victim of it[2].

Kent Beck, creator the agile methodology XP, discussed some of this in his The Flight of a Startup[3]

[1] http://www.startuplessonslearned.com/2010/09/visionarys-lame...

[2] http://blog.paulbiggar.com/archive/why-we-shut-newstilt-down...

[3] http://www.threeriversinstitute.org/blog/?p=251

As a Computer Science TA (and author of this post), I'm just not sure learning to code is a one-size-fits-all approach. Some of my favorite founders (Evan Reas at LAL, Joe Cohen at Coursekit) are not technical, and it's just not their thing. It remains to be seen whether things like Codecademy are going to open the possibility of coding for more people, but still - to each their own.

This is exactly right. People don't choose their passions; their passions choose them. Specialization is a Good Thing.

Fair enough, Steve Jobs serves as a prime example for this. Wozniak was a far better engineer than Jobs. I guess I should have elaborated, you don't need to be a coding ninja to run a startup but I do honestly feel that a solid understanding of coding and computer systems is essential for any tech entrepreneur.

Steve Jobs could code. He was a technical founder.

Can you show me where that's written somewhere? I never heard Steve Jobs coded and his Wikipedia page doesn't seem to mention it.

Jobs had a hand in making event loops standard programming fare, and was there when Apple and NeXT pushed languages such as Objective-C and Dylan and various software frameworks, and decided to cease supporting others. - http://lambda-the-ultimate.org/node/4372

I can't find the link but I also read about Jobs going on a tirade to his employees about some aspect of Objective-C while at Apple.

Another case supporting him as a technical cofounder(although not a programmer) is when he worked at Atari on 'Breakout'. From wikipedia: "The same year, Alcorn assigned Steve Jobs to design a prototype. Jobs was offered US$750, with an extra $100 each time a chip was eliminated from the prospected design. Jobs promised to complete a prototype within four days. Jobs noticed his friend Steve Wozniak—employee of Hewlett-Packard—was capable of producing designs with a small number of chips, and invited him to work on the hardware."

Jobs may not have done the job himself but he was clearly working in a technical position at the time.

Woz's book describes a fairly technically involved young Steve Jobs back in the day. I can't recall if it was code exactly, but deep into technology. Not your stereotypical "sales and marketing" guy.

I often hear that non-technical founders have a hard time finding hackers and the hackers have a hard time finding a good sales/marketing co-founder. I think these two groups just live in different circles. The middle of the venn diagram is where both groups need to be to meet. Just get out there and go to events not-geared toward your tech/non-tech skills. Most people aren't comfortable being uncomfortable but that's what you need to do to grow (and meet people outside your current orbit).

I'm apparently the green guy. Yay. I still lean towards someone who's got a good sense of the technology. Someone that labels themselves as non-technical has already missed the point. I love learning business, there's nothing I don't want to learn about running a company. I think any founder should feel the same way, especially about the technology. Learn to code or at least learn to read the code.

Reading these comments I am reminded a thought i had sometime ago. It was that in a not so far future computer languages may well but so easy that they would be taught to everyone, at school, along mathematics and French.

Working with python recently I think it could be the closest to that aim. I have a friend who taught python to his 13yo boy, i plan to do the same with mine.

I'm not looking for a technical co-founder. I'm not even planning on starting a company per se. I am looking to try to figure out where to start with creating a "game" (aka simulation) to more effectively share what I know about getting well. So far, I remain stuck (though that's partly because getting well continues to take up a lot of my time and energy).


I'm a non-technical founder but I decided to teach myself PHP (via CodeIgniter), jQuery, CSS3, how to play with LESS CSS, Amazon S3, source control and countless other small things.

What I learned from using 'race to the bottom' oDeskers is that if you're going to be a non-technical co-founder, you better at least be sure what it is you're asking for.

If you can't find a technical co-founder, you gotta narrow your business idea to something that doesn't have a huge technical focus. Something like DailyCandy... Start a newsletter, build a mailing list, build the content, talk to advertisers, and outsource the HTML and design. No need for technical co-founder.

Why isn't there kind of a "dating site" for this? Ie, take me as an example: I am in Sweden, am technical, and am interested in meeting a business co-founder with whom I can get to work on an e-learning startup (btw, if anyone is out there, get in touch).

Someone should create a site with that kind of granularity.

(Yay, HN posting cherry lost!)

There have been attempts at such sites.

From experience though, they tend to fill up with "need technical co-founder to build app/social networking site. Don't want to mention what it is in case someone takes idea. Have mockups and list of other sites I like" type posts.

Maybe there could be a voting system to prevent this? Ie like halfbakery.com uses

I created a survey about what people would like in a site that solves this problem (posted: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3209163 )

Got some interesting feedback and information, haven't yet done anything with it.

I'm looking to start an e-learning start up. Been involved with some start ups on the business side and I can code enough to set up a web app / social app, but looking for a technical cofounder who has better chops than me.

Contact me if you're interested.

Great slides. This really resonates with the experience I've had recently too. I'm a grad student doing a dual-degree MS in CS as well as MBA. A lot of MBAs don't really "get it" when I talk to them. I'll be sure to pass this along. Thanks Alex.

Glad you found them helpful! I really need to write the actual article version of this talk.

Does the reverse (finding a business cofounder) also apply? What resources do you recommend a technical person gather (beyond things like Rework, which I grok, and Four Steps to the Epiphany, which I need to reread and try to grok)?

Honestly, the odds are so skewed in your favor that the only thing you need to do (if you're happy being the tech guy) is meet quality business co-founders. Let it be known that you're available. Go to meet-ups like Hackers and Founders. Go to founder-dating events. Build a cool sample app and post on HN.

Business guys will seek you out (at least, they do for me) - assuming you can hack, you're that one guy in green.

Are many non-technical people here here looking for a technical co-founder?

Awesome slides. I think this is one of the hardest parts to launching something. It's hard to find someone that is aligned with you as well as someone who you can trust enough to start a company with.

Fellow Penn student, I was there for Tisch's talk--well done. I agree entirely. Build, build, build. And if that's not possible: learn, learn, learn.

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