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Stop looking for a cofounder (swombat.com)
114 points by vanni on Jan 12, 2012 | hide | past | favorite | 53 comments

When it comes to cofounders I'm greatly influenced by PG's advice. If you find the right one it does increase your chances of success.

However settling for a less than perfect fit for a cofounder can actually decrease your chances of success over going solo. Once you're out of school a few years the best candidates have careers, wives and houses and just won't take the chance no matter how great the potential payoff.

I've found that "looking for a technical co-founder" often means:

"I had my father's colleague's son build a prototype for us. It does almost everything the final product needs to do. It took a couple of months and only cost us $4000. But he (the son) is now going out on tour with his band, and we need someone to get us to launch."

This is almost inevitably a set-up for disappointment for all parties. Non-technical founders have no idea what software development costs and how long it takes. They will be shocked at reality and blame it on you, the tech co-founder.

Potential tech co-founders will waste a lot of breath explaining things to the non-tech co-founders that they (the non-techs) will struggle to understand.

Eventually, everyone will be mad at everyone else.

Problem is, much of this also applies to hiring free-lancers. They are going to cost far more than the non-tech founder predicts. The only difference is that the free-lancer will get paid for (some of) his/her work.

Though I'm no huge fan of the VC/start-up model, it's no wonder that it evolved to its current state, where potential ventures are judged largely on their teams' proven ability to deliver.

that's why you need to find a strong technical co-founder (which is really tough to do well). Because going as a single founder on your own will be tough, and it's always good to share the road with someone you trust and has a similar purpose.

Wrote a blog post on 5 creative ways to find a technical co-founder - http://bit.ly/rQdvpK

There are just a few very simple steps to decide whether or not you should "look for co-founder"

[1] Take a good look at what needs to be accomplished to build and scale your business

[2] Identify critical missing pieces you do not have expertise with or do not want to do

[3] Estimate how hard/easy it would be for you to manage these pieces yourself, with some hired help

[4] Weigh pros/cons of possible dilution / distraction / misfit vs. likelihood of acceleration / risk reduction / strength in numbers

[5] Make up your mind on what is the right way to go and GO FOR IT!

IMHO, saying "you always need a co-founder" is a cargo-cult-like mindset. There are plenty of successes and failures doing it with or without one.

The only thing that ACTUALLY matters is whether you can put together something that will make money. Whether or not you had any co-founders along the way is about as casually related as whether building an airstrip attracts cargo planes (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cargo_cult)

Just determine what you actually need and do not get distracted by people trying to mold you into their perception of the "ideal".

I still have huge cognitive dissonance regarding this.

Not to mention that it's much easier to attract a cofounder if you've actually made some progress.

Only a bad one. A good cofounder will want to own the idea. Making progress is counter-productive.

However, having made progress on something is a good way to attract a cofounder for something else later.

This might be true of an equal partner, but bringing someone on board with, say, a 20% stake is easier if you're further along.

Hiring a freelancer is not that expensive. You can hire someone for a month --for a couple thousands dollars--, and a month is plenty of time to build a prototype if that’s all you’re doing.

Seriously? Customizing a WordPress Theme costs between $1,000 and $2,500. Building (Design+Front End Programming+Back End Programming) a fully-fledged WordPress magazine theme can cost between $15,000 and $20,000.

If you are not a software developer, and your start-up core product is software: just don't do it. Don't take OP advice. This might work out if your product is physical and you are using the web to deliver. (Also there are cloud services that will help you and are cheap).

Anything that involve software requires co-founders to be technical. Web Development is as expensive as hell. Small features requires lots of time and Freelancers bill hourly. I'm telling that because I just finished some custom slider for a client costing him more than $1k. Yes, just an image slider.

I used to think the same. But now that I'm spending more time freelancing for startups than I am working on my own stuff:

Freelancers aren't that expensive when you look at the grand scheme of things. A single freelancer can maintain an app serving thousands of users - provided you know exactly what you need.

Don't hire freelancers unless you:

1. Have done your customer development

2. Know which features you need

3. Know how much these features are worth to you

4. Already have something

So, freelancers might not be the best option for building your first prototype, but they are very good at polishing up your first prototype into a MVP.

Polishing a design, may be. But polishing a crappy code base? I don't think so. Starting from scratch is cheaper.

Is this slider viewable by the public? I'm honestly curious about what a $1k image slider looks like.

$1k for an image slider strikes me as completely reasonable. As csomar relates, lots of work goes into something as "simple" as an image slider. That's why (as I mention in a separate comment) non-tech folks will always struggle with the cost of development. If it were easy/fast/cheap, they would do it themselves.

$1k also sounds cheap for an image slider, assuming that it was made from scratch, tailored for the client's specific purposes and had all the related issues (cross browser, graceful fallback, etc etc) taken care of.

If the task could've been solved by configuring any of the 9000 free image sliders out there (I've opened sourced a dojo-powered one too), then $1k is really expensive.

The slider is certainly not a typical one or the one you can find in free/open source. That's not what makes it expensive, though. I bill hourly. There is a lot of overhead

- Writing the right HTML structure.

- Doing CSS work

- Solving some math. equations (fun time)

- JavaScript coding (around 600 lines of code)

- Cross-Browser issues (IE8+) (not so fun)

- Integrating with the client back-end

- Communication (charge for that too)

I can't show you the project as it's private and I'll need his permission, but you get the picture. I'm very comfortable with HTML/CSS/JavaScript. I have a lot of skills and use the best tools available there, and yet, I can't find a way faster.

May I ask how many hours you put into it and what the requirements were? I've done quite a bit of custom development but have never had to bill $1k for something as (seemingly) simple as an image slider. Perhaps I'm not charging enough!

While I bill/quote hourly, I usually do my estimate with how many days this will take me. It took me around 2 days to finish this slider. The requirements are not long, and some sliders will take weeks to finish (if not months).

I'm going to disagree from experience. I'm a non-technical founder (admittedly versed in tech, but not a coder) and I've managed to build a stealth company that's in a very successful invite-only beta with the help of two talented freelancers. The company is on track to be cash-flow positive even before I find the mythical co-founder, and we've built an architecture that scales.

This is the second time I've created a site with freelancers and it's not easy - I've made plenty of mistakes.

But it is very doable.

Anyone who's interested in what I'm up to (making news sites better for readers and publishers) or how we operate, check out my profile.

I'm not denying that. If you end up with the right freelancer, you'll get a good product. I'm here arguing about the cost.

I agree although it is great to make the difference between a technology company and a technology-enabled company. The cofounders of Birchbox, which falls into the latter category, launched their mvp as a wordpress site. Now I am sure they have a bunch of engineers and a software product built from the ground up.

I totally agree, I have done something similar to this. Instead of waiting to find someone I just got started on my own.

Tough at first not having someone to bounce ideas off but after the first hire it's fine :-)

When I started my little idea 7 months ago, I was really scared about this reality of looking for a cofounder. Now, I not only have a kickass co-founder who believes in my vision, but also have a team of 6 people who are driving our product to launch, all of this without getting a single penny or equity in exchange (not yet, but something I am changing as I want these people longterm).

What I am trying to say is that, I think looking for a cofounder depends on what you are trying to build. If you are trying to build a long-term sustainable company, then the fact that you can influence and motivate someone to join your vision is very powerful. Therefore, getting a cofounder to join your cause is a huge testament to how well you can succeed, something that should not be discounted.

That being said, its also important to evaluate the skillsets you need to have a successful company and to slowly enlist a cofounder based on those needs. I hung out at every tech event, spoke to as many people about what I was doing and slowly started to see that there was an ecosystem of people that started believing in my story.

So, its doable, thats all :)

So, is this just an article advocating outsourcing? Because I don't know how else you could hire a programmer for a month for a couple thousand dollars

So, is this just an article advocating outsourcing? Because I don't know how else you could hire a programmer for a month for a couple thousand dollars

I think the implication is that if you can't afford to hire someone to code for you, you aren't going to succeed at running a startup.

Why? Because you should be good, really good, at something, whether that's your current day job, being able to sell your plan to others - friends, family, acquaintances, bank managers... - or having the self-belief and determination to fund the entire venture on credit cards.

Although that last one might be... risky ;)

Good point, i just think the author is a bit off on how much it would actually cost to hire someone

For a simple prototype, you shouldn't need more than a few thousand, and you should be able to cajole a decent freelancer in building you something for that amount.

If you can't afford that amount, then either learn to code yourself, or pick a different idea that is actually within your reach.

If the MVP for your idea would cost $100k to build, and you don't have $100k, pick a different idea.

There are so many ideas out there, you need to pick ideas you can actually implement with the means at your disposal.

Is "cajoling" the path to victory? Perhaps you mean something different, but this reminds me of a common, sad type of Craigslist post. Frequently you see ads posted by people with ideas for software who think they ought to be able to get somebody to be their code monkey for $25/hr or so. Many of them are completely clueless as to why they get crappy software and must spend so much time replacing people who quit. Most frequently they seem to blame the situation on bad developers.

Going rates aside, one thing many people (including freelancers!) do not realize is that paying somebody $30/hr gross for a 2-month contract is not even remotely equivalent to a permanent salaried position that works out to $30/hr. Contracts frequently include billable hours and there's tons of negotiation for jobs that fall through. There's generally less security and there are fewer benefits. I've also noticed that there tends to be more time pressure on a lot of the little contracts.

I think it's reasonable to multiply hourly rates by a factor of 2 or so for contract jobs. This is why you have a market with $90,000 salaries and $100-150/hr contract rates. If you try to get somebody for $3000-4000 per month you'll either be lucky and get a student or something or you will get the sort of person who couldn't find anything else. If you do get lucky, your freelancer will not stick around very long because they will find much better opportunities.

Agreed. This is definitely true, unless your product is so trivial that it can be done in a few days, it will take some investment from them.

As far as prototyping, well not sure exactly what is meant by this as it could mean hiring a designer who knows some javascript to hack together some pages that act and feel like a real app but that is just a hollow shell. In this case, sure you can get this done somewhat cheaply but it can only then be a bridge to getting funding as its still going to take an investment to build the actual application.

I would like to point the basic misunderstanding what MVP means.

MVP does not means cheap.

MVP means "Minimum Viable Product". It is very hard to make viable part on cheap using only contractors. You might end up with "Minimum Crappy Product".

Building of MVP requires a lot of interaction with early adopters and evangelists and that is where contractors really cannot help you. Unfortunately, they require the exact guidance.

Some might say that MVP for some SocialNetwork ver. 245 might be cheap to make - but I think MVP in that space if does not have something very unique it needs to have very very nice interface which you cannot get for couple of thousand dollars.

Perhaps a real world example of who has done this and has actually MADE money???

I know several people personally who are non-technical, and have successfully built and sold technology businesses. Sure, they had to put money in them, but they did "succeed". The point is, those startups were within their reach, because they had the funds and management knowledge to make them happen.

I am not at liberty to disclose who those companies are, however. Some, I've signed NDAs with, and others I haven't asked them if I could disclose that they used subcontractors.

Worth adding that I was the first to be surprised that they managed it. I don't believe in outsourcing your core business processes. However, whether or not I believe it, they did it.

I'm not actually advocating this as a standard model, btw. I think if you're not technical, you should start a business that doesn't require lots of technical knowledge. There are plenty of those opportunities out there.

Groupon is an example of a huge technology business that didn't require all that much technical skill to get off the ground.

Aren't all freelancers outsourced? Do you mean offshoring?

yeah, sorry, thats what I meant.. I don't know if he meant just part-time or what, but no decent programmer in the U.S. would work for a couple thousand a month full-time on a project.

I was frustrated in looking for a cofounder, so I built the very basics of the prototype myself, then continued to talk to people about it and show what I had done. Pretty soon, people became interested enough to ask about getting involved.

Engaging a freelancer might help you get to that proto-prototype that will get you real engagement.

I love Daniel's thoughts and advice, it always seems to hit right at the "excuse of the month" I'm telling myself about not starting up.

My only question is: What's a "swombat"?!

A mythical animal filled with wisdom, compassion, and skittles.

Does anyone here have stories about how they have looked for a co-founder and actually found one? How did it work out?

I have been "cold-called" via email a few times from non-technical people looking for a technical co-founder. I'm still a student at the moment though, so I feel like anyone that I should be working with in the near future should lead in the technical aspects.

I have no idea how it has worked out for these people.

yeah, I get these too from time to time, they go straight to my trash folder. I have my own ideas for startups so I would never just "hook up" with some random person to join their venture for equity only unless I already knew them well and respected them. Of course, if they are actually willing to pay money then its a different story.

I actually wrote a blog post about it - 5 creative ways to find a technical co-founder - http://bit.ly/rQdvpK

The original^2 post: http://sachagreif.com/stop-looking-for-a-co-founder/

It wasn't linked from the OP, so I had to trawl for it on Twitter, where it is sure to get lost within a few days.

It is linked - the whole title is a link to the OP on all my linked posts. I often refer to the post in the article body too, but forgot in this case. I've fixed that now.

I'm used to looking at linked post titles as permalinks, so I missed that. Thank you for the correction, and the insight in your post.

No worries, you're not the first one to get confused! Funny thing is, I copied John Gruber's model (see http://daringfireball.net ), and it seems to work very well for him. Not sure why people get confused on my site and not on his (but maybe they get confused there too!)

I want the title to be linked to the destination article so they get any link-juice I may have to give associated with the article. The little star thing next to it is the permalink.

I agree with this article in terms of a non-technical founder looking for a technical co-founder, but I'm not totally sold on the converse situation -- a technical founder looking for a business/marketing co-founder...


And speaking at least for myself, I've found that I'm just as capable of underestimating the difficulty of marketing as non-tech folks are capable of underestimating the difficulty of software development.

Something else worth mentioning is the 'cargo cult cofounder'. In other words, "I read that you're supposed to have one, so I'd better get one".

I've heard that single-founder startups are frowned on by investors. Is it harder to raise money without a co-founder?

Exactly why I started apphammers.com : )

Interesting, I think it depends on your situation which route you take if you're coming straight out of college I think it's much easier to find a classic "co-founder"

Once you're in the "real world" with an income etc. You have more options as to how you approach things.

For example I happen to work inside of a old media industry that my company is going to bring into this century. I have access a support network, industry contacts and advice from people who will be my future users and supporters. I can't express enough how valuable it can be to sit down and speak with people who have been working in the field for 20, 30 or 40 years over a cup of coffee. it gives you a different perspective and it helps to get paid while getting the experience that will be helpful in growing your business.

Everyone has a different path to get to where they want to be I think the most important thing is that you commit yourself to the journey.

Thanks, added!

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