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Recruiting Technical Co-Founders (andysparks.co)
23 points by SparksZilla on Aug 7, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 37 comments

Vision is a word I don't like and gets thrown around a lot. It's not quantifiable. If you are a non technical co-founder you need to be able to bring in the money. That means you're either 1) Able to raise VC/Angel and probably have a track record, 2) Have serious connections/customers in the space you're starting a business in, or 3) Putting your own cash in.

I think Andy would probably agree with you that vision is a component of a "hustler", but does not a hustler make.

I would imagine he would recognize his sales experience as a key component of his start-up value, both in terms of 'stacking cheddar' and also in evaluating the market potential of a product.

The hustler can set the product development vision, but it better be based on a keen understanding of customer need, market readiness, and his team's ability to execute.

I agree, both of you have excellent points. 'Kyt' has a really good point about needing to bring in funding (whether it's your own or others') in addition to being able to make some sales.

Adam, though, you make a really good point of how important a good vision is to sales. A clear vision makes a sale so much easier.

I think Vision is worth something I mean it can easily justify .01% of a company. The real question is what else you bring to the table, this can be money and contacts but again without a lot of money where talking tiny slices of the pie.

I definitely agree with both of these points on vision. I could have done a better job on articulating what a non-technical founder should/could bring to the table. Thanks for the input here guys.

Makes sense. So if the proposition is that a technical co-founder is to work for equity but no salary, perhaps that already shows the non-technical founder has failed the test of bringing in enough money to start the business.

This could definitely be true. That said, I mentioned in a below comment a minute ago about working on the product on the side for a bit while I had a job during the day and they were in school. At one point we were pulling 40-50 hours at work/school and another 20-30 after work / on weekends. None of us were getting paid, but we believed in the idea and were having fun working together.

How would you propose the non-technical founder raising funding without a product? Personally, I can sell the vision all day long, but people want to see a product. Any advice for non-technical founders who want to raise "idea" funding to pay a developers salary?

There are two options and they both sound kind of cliched. 1)

1) The first is two find some way to "hack" together a product yourself. This can be as simple as a "demo" in keynote/powerpoint or something that you can show off to investors as the product initially. Or if you are in a service business, perform the service manually for a few customers (run it from a spreadsheet) and prove the need before plunging into full fledged development. Both of those will most likely also reduce the time-footprint of your development

2) A lot of accelerators seem to be accepting pre-product companies these days and I think this is the strength of a lot of the accelerators is to get you into the product stage. These could be a viable option if you have one in your area

I know it isn't really helpful advice as such, but have a great track record and a great network. I worked for this one, non-technical, guy on a couple of companies (as an employee, not a co-founder), and while I don't know exactly how he did it, he had list of people whom it seemed he could just call up and get a few $100k in investment from whenever he needed it. Of course this was far from his first company, he had years and dozens of companies (of varying degrees of success) behind him.

Honestly, I don't know anybody who has done this. Zach, Carrie, and I moonlighted on LaunchGram before it was LaunchGram. We'd leave our day jobs / school and meet up to work because we were so excited about building this product. Selling the vision means selling potential co-founders on working on the thing at night with you for a bit. Thoughts?

I am a 'technical co-founder' and I can't say how many times I'm approached by people who want me to build some application for them in exchange for 10-20% of equity. What do they bring to the table? In most cases it's just their 'idea'. So usually my question to them is - why can't I just take this idea and execute it on my own?

If you want to find a good technical co-founder - be good at sales. Business is successful when you can 1) build a product 2) sell it. Well, part 2 is the hardest one in 99% of cases. If some biz co-founder can nail it - he/she will have no problem finding a tech co-founder.

LOL, I get that a lot too. "The first version is 90% done.", they say. "I just need to delegate it to a tech co-founder so I can focus on business.", they add. "You'll get double-digit equity, up-to 13%, even.", they conclude. For me, "co-founder" starts at (100 / n)%, where "n" is the number of co-founders.

Exactly, equal share[1] and then dilute (again, equally) as other non-founder shareholders come on board.

[1] and equal equity share means everyone needs to bring an equal amount of value to the company. If they want me to build the entire thing and they sit back and watch the money roll in, then they are not adding equal value, so why would this be worth equal (or, god forbid, less than equal) equity to me?

How often do you know these people prior to these offers?

I was in this exact situation recently with my employer. They offered me equity and capital in order to bring one of my nascent private projects under their roof. After 6 months of "getting the paperwork ready," they offered 13% of the new company. All of the capital went to the old company to pay for my work.

I immediately quit when the terms were revealed but reconsidered after negotiating a bit.

Although it isn't quite what I had hoped for, they are paying me a salary, the work conditions are great, the other partners are entrenched in the industry, and I'm not the one taking a risk. They also removed all strings attached to my stake.

"In most cases it's just their 'idea'. So usually my question to them is - why can't I just take this idea and execute it on my own?"

Which is why so many of them want you to sign an NDA. :)

Awesome question to ask. What are some of the best & worst responses you've gotten?

I typically don't sign an NDA when it's just someone's idea. If they've already invested a significant amount of their own money and look to have traction, I may. If it's a situation where I'm more like just a contractor coming in to an established company, I'll sign an NDA (and have signed short-term non-competes as well too if need be).

When I don't sign an NDA, often (this doesn't happen every day, but on the order of 6-8 times per year) I'll get some line about how this is a great idea and I'm a fool to let it pass. Or that the other person has to do this to protect themselves because I could just steal the idea and make all the money. Or some variation of one of those. I simply state that if they're looking for a true partner, starting off on by distrusting me that much, and making the relationship extremely one-sided (based on the language in the NDA as it may be), is a recipe for failure.

Recently someone approached me with an NDA, and had a business for something that millions of people need (not a want, mind you, a need), and they'd each be willing to pay $100/year for it. I wasn't told what it was until I signed the NDA, which I didn't. But I asked "how will you deal with the competition?" and was told "there won't be any". "Really? You're creating a market that doesn't exist right now, and generating hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue within a few years, and you think there will be no competition at all?" "Correct".

I politely declined at that point, and pointed out that even if I'd signed the NDA, I wouldn't be able to 'partner' with someone that naive about business.

To be honest in most cases people just laugh. I guess that means they don't really have a good answer ;)

Getting technical cofounders is pretty tough if you don't know much about tech. Too many non-technical founders are interested in technical cofounders to "Build their idea for them". I don't think this arrangement is a co-founder arrangement as much as it is a work-for-hire agreement. The key with getting a technical co-founder is that you actually "co-found" the idea together. It is just as much as his idea as it is yours. If you keep this in mind, finding the right technical co-founder will become easier.

I completely agree. People need to approach with "What do you think about this idea" not "I've got an idea and now I just need someone to build it". Thats a quick way for me to decide rather there will be a follow-up conversation when I'm being "courted" by someone with an idea.

I like this approach, Josh. Lots of us non-designer non-dev. types need honest and brutal feedback on ideas/product more than anything else.

But you have to make sure to ask the right questions[1]! For examble, asking feel-good questions (questions that give positive answers and make you feel good about your idea, rather than questions that give you actionable feedback) doesn't add any value and at worst could even be harmful.

[1] http://hackfwd.tumblr.com/post/23669383330/rob-fitzpatrick-h...

That's a really good point. Adding this point into my next post.

Yep, that is typical. 90% of the time, I am approached by someone who says "We have 90% of that things done and ready to go, we just need you to come on board and make it your own."

The problem is that I cannot make "my own" something I had absolutely no part in, from its inception. I guess there could be some odd situation where someone comes up with something in the exact same manner I would have, but the chances of that are low.

The other typical behavior is business people who believe "the idea" is everything and that the building of "it" is a trivial task that a tech co-founder will want to tackle because they are unable to formulate ideas on their own. [The reality is that ideas are a dime a dozen and execution is 99% of success. And tech co-founder will be as much business-oriented as any entrepreneur must be.]

Okay there have been so many comments in here the echo this and I'm just fascinated by this point. I think somebody should write a "before you look for a technical co-founder, make sure you're not planning on making any of the following amateur mistakes."

Would anybody want to help contribute if I do a post on that?

My company did a pivot last year but before that, we did a survey on this topic.


I apologize that in migrating our blog to Wordpress, things seem to have gotten a little mangled.

Dude. It's like Open Source. If you've got an itch, scratch it. Write the post and submit to HN, you'll get contributions out the wazoo.

Haha well I just wrote this one today, but touche. I'll get to work.

I've yet to start my own company, but you better believe I have a working list of "co-founder" candidates in mind. I've been building the list for years and I believe the opportunity, and the components necessary to execute, will drive my choice when the time comes.

Agree 100% with the college entrepreneurship club comment. The connections I made with entrepreneurial-minded, passionate people while still in school have been hugely beneficial.

That's definitely something I wish I had joined. It's definitely one of the major things I regret not doing while in college.

My tactic for winnowing non-technical potential founders who respect what you bring to the table versus those who likely do not is the following. I point out to them I am already engaged in my own company using my extensive technical background to successfully market and sell on my own, and am quite busy and happily successful, but could carve out the 10 or so hours per month to provide my expertise guiding their technical decisions as a board member, even helping them find technical founders who have the time to implement. I give them a quick "taste" by describing what kinds of technologies and APIs someone implementing their idea would need to be involved in, and after some quick Googling, their top 2-3 potential competitors in either the same or adjacent spaces, and key decisions that straddle the business-technical spectrums they will need to make that they haven't thought of yet that can dramatically impact the technical architectural decisions an implementor would have to subsequently make. If some numbers are available, I give them a development budget and time line "rough sketch", and tell them I can work up a set of potential MIRRs for their implemented product/service if they have some available numbers from potential customers. I describe that board members with this much due diligence before board meetings typically receive a 2% stake pre-seed, then step back.

In every case so far, they have gone radio silent, and months later I always find out that their ideas still go unimplemented, which does not surprise me. I believe an authentic counteroffer for a genuine board position (if you already have a track record that aligns with the counteroffer) is a positive and non-combative response. If they genuinely appreciate what you bring to a potential team, they would believe it fair to exchange 2% for that value, or at least they will start dickering. If on the other hand they are just looking for Work For Hire on the cheap, they'll move their pitch onto the next technical persone they run into.

I would be willing to work w/ a non-technical founder if the product is in a niche that few people have access to. Like medical, financial, business operations, etc. The reason technical people focus on consumer apps is because we don't have insight or access to niches with paying customers.

>we’ve known each other for between four and five years

Probably the most important line for me. This one line wraps up all the jargon about liking, trusting, respecting, etc. No, you don't actually have to know a cofounder for many years, but I do think that it should feel like you're long time friends / colleagues by the time you're making the plunge.

I completely agree with this. I've only known my cofounders for ~five months (we formed during the previous local startup weekend; never met before that) but it sure feels like we've known each other a lot longer. People have even been telling us that from watching us interact, if they hadn't known different, they'd have assumed we'd known each other for many years.

This really makes a huge difference. It makes working together easy.

Interestingly enough, I'm the technical cofounder and they're the non-technical (using the usual definition, not the one in the article) cofounders, but they bring a lot of value to the table. Between them, they bring a massive network (both in the industry and in the startup scene in general), many years of experience in their areas and a track record. I've also (obviously) seen them work and its impressive. Before I teamed up with them, I was squarely in the only-technical-founders camp, but now I couldn't imagine starting a company without them.

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