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Dear Programmer, I have an idea (mkrecny.com)
325 points by mkrecny on Sept 11, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 134 comments

I'm always looking for a co-founder, whether I'm the geek or the suit. When a suit approaches me to be the geek for their idea, I usually give them some simple technical task to do - like setup a Tumblr or a Twitter account for the idea. Then I'll often ask for something businessy - form a C-corp for the idea or file a provisional patent.

Finally, before I even consider opening my laptop to code their idea, I want some paltry measure of idea validation. Are you selling a product? Good, find someone who will pay you to do the task manually before we program it. Are you looking to give the service away and monetize the user base? Good, get 5000 emails from a landing page describing your idea, or get 1000 followers on Twitter for your idea's account.

If they can do all this in a day or even a week, then they're quality co-founder material. Any longer and it's a judgement call. Most won't get past step one, and you certainly didn't want them as a co-founder.

(Note: I am a programmer.) Being "the suit" isn't just "I have an idea", and assuming the suit must be capable of doing something technical undermines the interesting complexity that that kind of knowledge entails.

Instead, imagine someone who has found a "market opportunity" (not "an idea": everyone has ideas, and assuming programmers somehow don't have enough of their own to work on is part of what makes these kinds of e-mails insulting ;P): in this case, "the suit" is someone who has the knack for turning ideas into formal/defendable contracts and closed/agreeable business relationships in the same sense that you or I have the knack for turning ideas into stable prototypes or scalable production implementations.

I personally then love dealing with "the suit": I love bringing my ideas to him, and I love seeing what he does with them; I love not having to worry about that particular aspect of building a business that I often find tedious, frustrating, or even intractable (a similar feeling, I imagine, to how he feels about what I do).

From this perspective, I can't imagine any of "the suits" that I know (and I now know a bunch) sending an e-mail like the one in this article: it doesn't have any of the properties I'm used to "the suit" having found fascinating about these kinds of problems. (Of course, this e-mail is probably not verbatim, summarized through the veil of this blogger, and I might be reading a bunch into it based on your response.)

I can thereby understand feeling the need to ask someone like this to go off and do tasks like "try to find a customer" and "can this be done manually", but somehow I feel like this is really just trying to tutor the person on the other end to see if they have basic business sense (the same kind I imagine you have): when "the suit" contacts you, you will know it ;P.

Now, you may also have been contacted by many such "the suits" already, and disliked them: sometimes, these people's slavish devotion to business opportunity and formal agreements might cause them to be as alien as someone with a slavish devotion to process and repeatability (as many programmers have) is to a "normal" person.

Alternatively, you might not have been inspired by the kinds of markets they attack: they might not seem world-changing, or challenging, or technical enough to even involve you; but the property of "the suit" that gives him that title is that he didn't just have an idea: he is thinking about how all the people fit together, and is fully intending to be the person who makes it all happen.

I thereby encourage everyone to get to know a real "the suit", get to know his friends, and try to see how they live their lives and why they do so: I think you might be pleasantly surprised. That said: you might wonder how to recognize "the suit" if you feel all of them are like this e-mailer (by which I really mean the stereotype of the guy who has a lightbulb go off in his head, brands himself "the idea guy", and tries to find "the programmer").

I might recommend finding someone older (although my go-to "the suit" isn't), who honestly likes wearing suits (;P), and weirdly knows all of the lawyers in town; he probably also knows about every business operating nearby (and exactly who funded them), is friends with the guy who owns half the buildings, and is respected enough to be invited to give advice to others at local business plan programs.

You might, then, be surprised both at how useful these people are, how unimportant it might be that they are currently technical (although enough geekiness in their past to have at least some feel for what is technically possible is quite handy), and at the same time how the people sending these e-mails are more like a guy who just learned PHP last week trying to start a business with the CEO of General Motors than someone we should be up-in-arms about.

I am with you all the way on this. The great businesses and fortunes of the last 200 years of industry did not come from engineering or technical expertise, but rather from those few, adept individuals who were able to navigate the mysterious world of relationships. If you do not make a dozen friends in every crowded room and instinctively form lucrative relationships on a daily basis, then knowing someone who does is the most valuable asset to your professional goals.

That's a simplistic view. I did almost exactly what you suggested and failed because although my co-founder was good at building lucrative relationships and even had some technical knowledge, he thought that he always knew best what should be done, wasn't really open for discussion, and generally was full of BS thinking he's likely the next Steve Jobs.

Unfortunately I recognized this way too late. Also, he never really proved he can in fact build something really valuable (but there were some smaller successes so I was hopeful).

Sounds like he wasn't very good at managing the relationship with you. Steve Jobs turned on the charm when he needed it - he was so good at reading people that he knew when he could treat them like crap and when he had to really suckup.

Sounds like you're partner didn't have anything like that. That's too bad because there's no relationship more important than the one with your co-founder.

You give the non-technical person's point of view and there is no way it can be correct. All successful tech firms are successful because of their advanced technology created by employees or acquired. In no situation did Apple engineers hang out in a crowded room until someone told them where they can pick iPhones off of a tree. Someone had to actually design and make those, and that is what made the business the largest. It's the airplane effect. Airplanes are so amazing that its difficult to image that a group of people designed and crated it.

Apple is the worst example that you could use. Steve Jobs never wrote single line of code! He didn't solder a single chip into a single iPhone. Nor was he the lead product designer, the lead ad man, or an expert in any field EXCEPT dealing with people. He brought all the people together to form the iPhone teame at Apple, and that was far more instrumental to designing, manufacturing, shipping, and selling iPhones than any technical expertise.

My point stands that the iPhone exists because of the scientists and engineers who created the technolgoies. Just because Jobs was the figurehead does not mean he should be attributed with the success of apple technology, which probably wasn't even developed specifically for apple.

>The great businesses and fortunes of the last 200 years of industry did not come from engineering or technical expertise, but rather from those few, adept individuals who were able to navigate the mysterious world of relationships.

I am not sure how you can say that, considering the dramatic technical advances over the same period. I mean, there is no way to experimentally show what is cause and what is effect, but to me, the idea that we had this incredible technical progress because a few guys figured out how to better socialize, rather than the other way around (what social and organizational progress we had was enabled and really, made almost inevitable by the incredible technology we developed.) We all have opinions, I guess. I disagree with yours.

>If you do not make a dozen friends in every crowded room and instinctively form lucrative relationships on a daily basis, then knowing someone who does is the most valuable asset to your professional goals.

Social skills are extremely context-dependent. The same attributes and actions that mean you are well liked at the sales meeting will get you the cold shoulder at a sufficiently technical conference.

I mean, I'm not saying a 'human interactions' specialist isn't useful... I'm just saying, it's not as generalizable as you think.

Really, a 'business guy' isn't necessarily a social specialist, either. I mean, a lot of what makes a professional a professional is the ability to grab as much of the surplus value in a deal as possible. Being a nice person with a sense of fairness can hold you back at that, sometimes.

A 'business guy' could also specialize in finding inefficiencies in the market.

It's interesting; I primarily sell virtual servers to people that are smarter than I am, people that generally identify as nerds. I seem to be okay at this. But, I go and try to sell bandwidth to co-lo customers? even at dramatically below market prices, I find I am not so good. See, in that case, you are usually selling to some middle manager. different people;

The really interesting thing isn't so much that I am bad at it; it's easy enough to hire a sales guy on commission, and like I said, my bandwidth prices are way below market, so there is plenty of room for commission. The really interesting thing is that even when I do that, and the sales guy closes the deal and I get the customer? they aren't happy with me.

I mean, your nerds? they like transparency. They like to see how the sausage is made; I mean, yeah, I have some serious problems; Nerds want to hear about those, and if the answer to "why are you doing it that way?" is "because I made a bad decision 2 years ago and the contract isn't up" or "because I haven't fixed it yet, I'm sorry. This thing, that thing and the other thing are ahead in the priority queue." - that's usually okay.

Your business people? they want the godaddy response. As little information as possible. short and to the point. They don't want to hear there is a bug in your router software. They don't want you to say "I might be wrong" when you give them something.

It's weird... almost all of my 'organic' customers seem to be pretty happy with me. (Not all of them. I do have problems, I do screw things up, and, well, some people just have high expectations. But the vast majority seem to be pretty happy.) But the customers I've gotten through sales people, through professionals? It's like they are expecting a very different personality on the other side of the phone line. The social skills that serve me well with the first group actively hurt me with the second.

I am not sure how you can say that, considering the dramatic technical advances over the same period. I mean, there is no way to experimentally show what is cause and what is effect, but to me, the idea that we had this incredible technical progress because a few guys figured out how to better socialize, rather than the other way around (what social and organizational progress we had was enabled and really, made almost inevitable by the incredible technology we developed.) We all have opinions, I guess. I disagree with yours.

Technological progress and building a big business/fortune are not the same thing. At the end of the day, to build a big business or fortune is about convincing people to give their capital to you. People who deal well with people do this the best, by definition.

Social skills are extremely context-dependent. The same attributes and actions that mean you are well liked at the sales meeting will get you the cold shoulder at a sufficiently technical conference.

And if I was working in tech, I would want a relationship manager/account man/business cofounder who was good at dealing with people in both contexts.

Really, a 'business guy' isn't necessarily a social specialist, either. I mean, a lot of what makes a professional a professional is the ability to grab as much of the surplus value in a deal as possible. Being a nice person with a sense of fairness can hold you back at that, sometimes.

My original point boils down to one simple thing - the people who are good at dealing with people are more instrumental to creating big companies and fortunes than the people with technical expertise. Getting the most value out of the deal comes back to dealing with people. Selling the most widgets is about convincing a lot of people. People, people, people.

Does this person have to be nice? Does this person have to be everyone's pal? Not necessarily, no. But such a one does have to be able to get people to do some desired action.

So if you're better at selling to nerds than lay-consumers, make more products for nerds. If you can deal with nerds better, you'll be able to build a better business around serving them.

>My original point boils down to one simple thing - the people who are good at dealing with people are more instrumental to creating big companies and fortunes than the people with technical expertise. Getting the most value out of the deal comes back to dealing with people. Selling the most widgets is about convincing a lot of people. People, people, people.

Re-reading the parent comment, I see now that I misunderstood what you were saying. I thought that you meant that 'great men' who created "the modern corporation" and other social structures are what drove innovation over the last century.

I agree that social stuff has a lot to do with an individual's ability to accumulate money, and that a social specialist can still generally go further than a technical specialist (though, both get a lot of mileage out of knowing a little of the other's specialty.)

I do note that the world is dramatically better for the socially unskilled now than it was 100 years ago; the trend is that nerds are more and more valued, to the point now where some of the socially skilled manipulators actually pretend to be nerds.

but yeah, re-reading, I misunderstood your point. I don't really disagree that business people tend to make more money than technical people. (though, like I said, the trend is favourable for the technical folks.)

I love working with the sort of people you describe, but they are pretty rare, and they don't send out emails like this. I've worked with people like the OPs emailer (not because I got such an email, just because I needed a job), and its pretty much the equivalent of this:

"Hey I heard you are an experienced removalist, and I am moving house at the weekend, so maybe you could help me out? I won't be helping, or lifting anything, but I will be giving lots of advice about the best way to do things. Even though I have never moved house before, I believe my advice is valuable because I have watched a lot of episodes of Holmes on Homes"

Really love what you've laid out here and think it's a great description of the relationship connecting both sides of the equation.

I am also always looking for a co-founder. When a geek approaches me (or I approach them) to be the suit for their project, I usually give them some simple soft skill to do - like go out and talk to potential customers and get feedback from say 500 in a day.

Finally, before I even consider hustling customers and investors I want some paltry measure of ability. If you can hack something together in 24-48 hours or even a week, then they're quality geek co-founder material. Any longer and it's a judgement call. Most won't get past step one, and you certainly didn't want them as a co-founder.

I have learned this the hard way. I raised money only to find out my tech co-founder couldn't push code in a timely manner. This street goes both ways and that is why teams of 2 work best, one to build it and one to sell it to the world. The question for me is, can the geek cut it?

Talking one-on-one to 500 customers in one day to get feedback doesn't seem possible. If you only spend 5 minutes talking to each customer, and you have them lined up back to back so you don't waste time in between, it would still take 40+ hours.

I guess you could do 1 minute conversations and get it down to about 8 hours, although even assuming you can get 500 people to queue up for this, I'm curious what will come out of 500 x 1 min. back to back conversations.

It seems to me that the only useful way to get feedback from 500 people in one day involves sending out some kind of survey. Then again this isn't really my area of expertise, so I'm curious, how would you go about gathering feedback from 500 people in one day?

The entire post was a satirical response to the GP comment. It was meant to show how, depending on your point of view, the same logic can be applied to either the tech or the business side and maybe even "look good" but seem unreasonable to those on the other side of the table.

Not saying I am in full agreement, but it's pretty clearly the purpose of the parent comment.

I had a feeling that might be the case when I started reading about the 500 people in one day bit. The second half however, about assessing whether the future technical co-founder can actually build a prototype over a weekend, seems like reasonable advice.

Programmers aren't immune from overestimating their competency, and if you are about to get into a venture with someone you don't know well, I think it makes sense for both sides to do some due diligence.

>Programmers aren't immune from overestimating their competency

I would actually phrase it differently: programmers quite often overestimate their competency. I am not sure if it is unique to programmers or just an instance of the general inability to objectively analyze ourselves, but I do notice that the vast majority of programmers I have met (myself included :)) have a tendency to consider ourselves a smidge more capable than we actually may be from a purely objective standpoint. Then again the stretching is what grows great developers, so that overestimation that spurs you into attempting things just outside your current grasp is probably a net positive.

The reason is because the skill appears as magic to others, whereas business skills are something that anyone can at least imagine themselves doing. This is completely orthogonal from how difficult these jobs may be under varying circumstances.

Except that it is possible to hack together something in 24 - 48 hours, or a week, assuming you are willing to pare it down to essentials and fake parts of the demo.

Satire aside, it's enough to make me wonder if talking to 500 people is as trivial as setting up a twitter account. Setting up a twitter account or a C Corp is really not that hard to do.

I am curious about that too. I'm taking it at face value that "talking to 500 people" is as trivial as setting up a twitter account.

Only way I can think of is to do a survey and enlist the help of bored college students to stand in front of of a busy intersection. I'm guessing part of the "soft skill" is recognizing that > 90% of the people walking by won't even be interested in stopping and talking. (Or send an email/twitter/whatever blast somewhere. Or something). But essentially, "talking to 500 people" is not necessarily "talking one-on-one".

I think that says a lot more about the difference in mindset between the geek and the suit than anything else.

But the difference is that the 'software geeks' are the ones in demand in this senario.

A geek does not typically approach an outsider and say 'I've got skills can you come up with an idea for me?'. But on the flip side 'you have skills, I've got this idea' is a -very- common occurrence. If you are the one doing the approaching applying your own quality control is a given.

If against the odds you are being approached by an unknown geek wanting to partner with you, then testing their skills should be part of the process yeah, you both have to be confident in each other; though I would consider the above methods to be a truly terrible interview...

Isn't 5000 emails a bit steep to ask for in a day or even a week?

A conversion rate of 5% is pretty respectable, that means the landing page needs to be seen by 100k people to collect 5000 emails.

That's quite a bit for having nothing more than a landing page to offer, I can see that happening for a MVP, but not for just a landing page.

It is quite a bit to get from a landing page, but I think that's the point. If something can get 5000 people on a mailing list in 1 day then it shows that there's a strong interest in the idea, so it's worth investing time in developing it further.

Man, if you can get 300 in a single day, you have my attention!

I got 300 in 1 hour - I used HN! :D

Well congratz to you sir!

A post on Reddit, HN, etc, can get plenty of views for an interesting idea.

Yeah, but it can't get that many. Not for a landing page.

Being #1 on HN for a few hours will bring you 20 to 30k views (cumulative with getting up and drifting back down). The reddit frontpage frontpage will get you the amount of views you need, but you're not getting there, I can almost promise you that.

Views are not email addresses. Worse, views are not real people expressing real interesting (e.g. would pay or be willing to change their habits) in your product. Views are a pretty meaningless indicator, overall.

I think the point was the parent post was saying you'd need 100k views w/ a 5% conversion which would be challenging. Evbn was saying reddit could get the 100k views.

I think you are completely correct. I think @evbn is, well, not wrong, because you can get the 100k views. I just don't think those views are going to net your (incredibly high) 5% conversion. The value of a view from a bored redditor is generally less than the value of a well-earned, targetted view.

I'm kind of curious what the 'etc' are to which you refer?

Websites specific to the niche you're targetting or well known sites in the native language of the target audience. Perhaps Twitter or more closed communities like Something Awful.

Any early stage startup where there's so much polarization between geeks and suits at the outset is in trouble. Basically geeks need to learn to sell and suits need to learn to code. I could elaborate on this in a longer post. But I have to go back to working on some new channel capacity ideas. Stay tuned.

Honestly the suits don't need to code, but they do need to be comfortable discussing software and the limits/possibilities of technology.

Similarly, the geeks don't need to know all the aspects of selling, but they do need to know how to tell a customer that their product is awesome and all the advantages it has and why it's silly to not have use it.

Tell me the limits of a miter saw as they relate to project X without ever touching one...

I don't actually think suits need to learn code either but the knowledge is worth its weight in gold if they can.

In just about every business relationship I have with a vendor, there are two people talking to me. A sales guy who doesn't work on the product, and an engineer who does. The sales guy sells me the product, and the engineer gets me to buy it. It's far from standard to have suits get their hands dirty.

My experience is similar but with a key difference.

The sales team often consists of a sales guy who has barely seen the product (as you said) and a "systems engineer" who should not be confused for a developer. The engineers are often technically skilled members of the sales team that are experts at deploying the product and using it in customer environments. That said, they often have development skills (from previous experience) but they are certainly not getting their hands dirty with code in this role.

The "suit" co-founder of a start-up should be playing the role of a systems engineer and the account exec rolled into one because the "technical" co-founder rarely has the right personality/sales experience to be involved in sales.

Obviously, if you do manage to find a technical co-founder who has the systems engineer skills then you can change up the roles a bit but, in my experience, such people are incredibly rare (even in successful start-ups).

HN has novelty accounts now?

It would be interesting to correlate the numbers in your post with numbers that measure a developer. For example, the ability to get 5,000 email list subscribers in a week could be equivalent to creating a project that gets 200 Github watchers in a week. Both parties in this arrangement are classifiable.

Why spent everyone's time?

Usually it is clear from the beginning what people are made of and the quality of their thinking. Just say "No, thanks, good luck" and in 99,999% cases your decision will be the right one.

Making decisions based on conventional wisdom prevents you from "farming black swans." By asking the other person to do some basic tasks, they're at least passing the equivalent of fizzbuzz in execution ability and motivation.

No offense, but how many exits have you had to date?

Does the suit ever give you some technical task to do to test your execution or some other criteria (what if he actually wanted to see some code you've written)? What if the suit has some preferences on the technical side, sort of like how you have preferences on the "businessey" side of things? (e.g. C corporations and provisional patent applications)

Mostly, I want to hear that they know that their idea is not the end of their contribution -- that they are going to spend as much time as I spend on technical things getting market validation, building traction, creating content, acceptance testing etc.

Usually, I get the sense from these kind of emails that they think the idea is so great, that just by itself, it's more valuable than the time you will spend implementing it (or even comparable).

They usually understand when I tell them that "Equity isn't tasty".

Some of them then offer money, which can be traded for things that are tasty. They are the ones I usually end up working with.

I don't think I've ever received the kind of email the poster is talking about. Is there something wrong with me?

Edit: I do get a reasonable number of cold(ish) recruitment emails, but they mostly seem to be for real jobs. I'm not seriously worried about not receiving lame proposals, although I appreciate the sympathetic thoughts :-)

How many people know that you are a programmer? For a while, every social occasion I went to someone wanted to talk to me about building their startup idea. I eventually started hinting at things similar to this post.

Some people get a kind of "shocked" look when you tell them the "I could just build this myself, what do I need you for?" line. Of course, I never meant any disrespect (though some did get quite defensive: "You can't just take my idea!"). Most people are simply unaware of what it takes to start a business, much less a tech startup.

There's nothing wrong with you. You probably don't have enough visibility on the web. Having said that, these emails are annoying and uninteresting 95% of the time.

That just means you're not hanging where the cool kids are. Then again, judging by the quality of most things on github it is probably better. You may catch a GTD (Git Transmitted Disease).

Well, even the "create a wordpress blog for $100" kind of programmers get this kind of mails these days.

Don't dishearten him. I think this is more location based. As someone in Tel Aviv I get a lot of these. Friends in less "Startupy" regions in Israel don't.

To be more general - these "founders" know they have a bigger chance to find a technical-co-founder (I'm using that very liberally) is in a place with lots of programmers.

actually i was refering to entrepreneurs, not programmers. some of them think "important thing is founding the idea, any programmer can code it".

With that I can agree. Ideas are worth nothing. Execution is what matters. And luck. Mostly luck.

I get them, but not on a weekly basis. Possibly 3 per month, usually not phrased explicitly like that. But I'm not in the Valley and not that well-known. (If you're outside of California, it cuts the number you get in half, at least.) It's becoming a star economy where if everyone knows you're a 6, you're golden. But there are 7s and 8s and 9s out there who few people know about. In New York, you find a lot of them doing high-frequency trading in quant funds.

Cold-calls don't mean much and you shouldn't take a lack of them to be indicative, especially if you're far away from that scene. Hot girls get a lot of mail on dating sites but it doesn't make their lives easier. Same principle.

Probably. Everyone gets them.

The people inhabiting your part of the world is not everyone.

Apparently the people inhabiting your part of the world don't have any sense of humor.

I am surprised [may be even amazed] that these kind of articles are making it to the HN's front page on a regular basis.

There are tons of people with muddy wishful thinking that can not execute even if you put the gun to their heads. This statement covers both commercial and technical side. If these people approach you, say no... unless they can offer money for your efforts.

Only the minority have required knowledge, experience, focus, will and smarts to execute on any kind of idea and build a proper business. It easy to recognise such people [based on hiring 101] - look at their past successes. If these people approach you, say yes... even if you are offered shmequity [but check the legal docs].

I have a feeling that most of such articles are driven by the ego thing, and help people to validate their self-worth. Not sure this the most effective way for self-validation.

My another feeling is the SV people are living in a kind of rosy bubble and are constantly patting each other in back to help their view of the world hold together. Well, may be do something of value?

P.S.: of course the above does have certain generalizations, but smart people shall have not hurt feeling, yes?

It's a little like having an idea for a book or a movie, and going to an author or director wanting to "collaborate" to make the idea a reality. The simple fact is that it's hard to render ideas into any form that is widely digestible. Just like directors and authors, programmers "prechew" ideas. There are some surprising rewards to learning how to do this, in that much like a sculptor or a painter one realizes that the medium is actually rather influential, and how pleasant it is to "go with the grain" for any given project. But still, it's hard to learn how to prechew software ideas into reality, it is often not a pleasant task, which is probably why emails like this one have such an unpleasant character.

Although, wanting to have a pet geek to do your bidding is entirely understandable. Heck, I've been guilty of wanting that myself! And, I guess if I had the dough (or the charisma) I could have one. But an idea is an insulting offer - like offering $20 for your house.

There is a remark about that in Robert Makee's Story, a screenwriting manual.

He describes a similar situation and points out that the reason why the scriptwriter got into the profession very likely was to learn the difficult craft of translating their own abundant ideas into scripts.

I'll throw in my 2 cents as typical HN 'suit'. For background, I do have a technical co-founder and am working on something currently and we've been working together over a year and are on our second project.

First, I think the OP's response was perfectly acceptable. Its important as a technical co-founder to determine quickly what the "suit" can bring to the table although I do think he left out some valuable skills like marketing, user adoption, team building. He did include 'industry experience' which is critical. (edit: I also recall my co-founder then asking me situational questions like how I would market x app, who would use it, pricing, etc to see if I've thought through the process)

Second, one aspect that I see missing often is chemistry. Over the last few years I've attempted multiple projects with several different people and I can't stress how important chemistry is with your co-founder and/or team. I actually really enjoy hanging out with my co-founder and consider him a friend and we regularly hang out (with each other's families) and that kind of trust carries over to our work. Trust is something you can't quantify so for those in search of co-founders, don't just look at credentials but look at the person too.

My last thought is that although you're a 'suit' like I am, you need to make an effort. There is a general curve that says in the idea phase the majority of the workload is done by the technical co-founder. While true, I do my best to try and offset that. It gives me no joy to sit on my ass while my buddy is coding to 3am every night. How would it make you feel if you're busting your ass pitching, getting customers, and doing cust dev while they are at happy hour? So to respond to this I do my best. I've picked up basic design skills (PS/AI/FW), I've gotten his help to install ruby and learn basic HTML/CSS so I can make easy changes. I alternate every few days from doing something design centric, customer oriented (get feedback/lead gen), to thinking about our product direction.

So my take aways are: ask questions, figure out if you can work together, and make sure everyone is willing to put in the work to make it happen.

Partnerships are harder than marriage. I have learnt so much about successful friendships and relationships from successful partnerships.

Getting on the same page, and staying on the same page is the defining challenge of partnerships.

If reports of how much YC focuses on the co-founder relationship are true, I think it's a big part of the secret.

The healthiest partnership that I enjoy is based on a tough/fair love approach of mincing no words, but having a deep, deep respect and trust for the others abilities and judgement based on one thing: We know what we know, and we know what we don't know, and we don't bs.

We work to get the hell out of each others way and instead support and push each other forward so we keep moving, inward, onward, and upward. I want to make sure in partnership, that 1+1 = 11, not 2. If our collective footprint isn't larger than any two normal people coming together, the leaps we have to take will take that much more work.

When finding a partner, one relationship for me has been forming since high school, through university, and now a friend doing some consulting for me. We have solved complex problems with differing opinions for over 15 years. I have found the bliss of knowing everything that we build will be built at least as good as I would have imagined to do it. (I code or can sell, but not both at the same time very easily). If he's hell bent on doing something a particular way to be kinder to ourselves in the future, great. He's usually hell bent on avoiding premature optimization, though, so again, the balance is there in a way we both agree. Having the chance to work together on in consulting, with one of us

I don't care to argue details that my partner understands better. If there's a scenario I need explained until I get it, I focus on asking for input and teaching on that. Likewise, my partner treats me the same.

Partnerships reveal not just the good, but the bad and ugly. You need to know how your partner will be at your side and have your back in times of challenge, stress, trouble and disagreement. Stress, and disagreement is guaranteed. How you both approach resolving and being in a place of mutual agreement is critical. Really, it's about learning to communicate early, often, and openly. If you can't do that, like any marriage, the relationship suffers from what it could have accomplished. You need to know how to disagree and be able to constantly say "You might be right / I don't know / Let's find out." without fear.

Most of the "ideas" that come to me in this way are not really ideas. It's more like "a blog network", "streaming audio" or, in a few cases, more like "a blog". If it's someone I know, I discuss with them and try to give them some advice on what a situation would look like where I might be interested. Usually, I try to give some tips on how to start small. Usually, they don't, but keep on trying to build a team, or get someone to give them money.

There was a post like this on HN some time ago (a few months or perhaps a year) which I found well put, not too harsh while shedding light from the author's perspective. Does anyone remember this article?

Edit: I found this[1], it might be the one but I think I remember a better one. This one[2] about NDAs is also good.

[1] http://martingryner.com/no-i-wont-be-your-technical-co-found...

[2] http://blog.jpl-consulting.com/2012/04/why-i-wont-sign-your-...

Hey, at least he told you the idea. Most of the time when I get this email, the project is suuuuper secret and I'm just supposed to take the senders word on the awesomeness.

And sign an NDA,before he could tell you his suuuuuper awesome idea.

Once someone says "NDA" the conversation is over for me, unless they're representing an established company.

I'm a non-tech founder (second startup) and I've had a hard time finding a tech co-founder. So I worked with programmers who are partners on the project, ie they get paid much less than they would in a normal gig, but they get their price cut "risk" paid several times down the road if it works. And since it's always a big if, I think this is the most genuine form of risk and revenue sharing short of being real co-founders. (feel free to get in touch on sversille@flirtatiouslabs.com if you'd like to see a contract template for this kind of partnership)

This being said, programmers tend to be the tiniest bit too full of themselves. So, besides the idea, here's a few things I've done as a non-tech founder: fundraising, algorithm writing, iterative design (with playtesting from recruting testers to analyzing results quantitatively), marketing, debugging. Also, hey, I managed the project, which with 3 devs, 1 graphic designer, 1 sound designer, and 2 creative writers accross 3 timezones does require a bit of work. Here's the Facebook game we've done on 20k€ FYI, and for which we're approaching launch: apps.facebook.com/flirtati

It's obviously far from perfect, but my point here is that "suits" can have valid ideas and should not just be seen as wantrepreneurs, especially by developers who are good but might still for example need me to do a search during debugging and tell them why nvarchar should be used at some point instead of a simple varchar. End of rant.

I think the point is that everyone wants a non-technical co-founder to be more like yourself. But the emails from the "idea" people fail in a more fundamental way -- imagine writing a cover letter to an employer that basically told the employer only what you got out of employment. Suddenly that sounds like begging for charity, not a potential business relationship, and so the email gets ignored. Ignore enough of those emails and you get posts like the OP.

That was not a rant. That was a cogent example of the usefulness of a non-tech founder.

It also sounds like you don't need a tech founder, now or in the future. You've proven adept at navigating the CTO-type skills already; you can skip ahead to hiring and managing tech employees without substantially diluting your equity on a CTO who provides little additional value.

Don't fall for that idea trap. Just ask for money. If they don't have it, tell them to get funders and hire you as a first programmer AND equity if they really want you.

It is always better to have something in your pocket than 50% of nothing.

To be honest I might consider some sort of profit/equity split with somebody who had a really good idea (and had done the research to prove it).

Sometimes between reading stuff like HN and working on code all day I feel like I'm a bit too close to everything to really evaluate ideas rationally. Every time I've had I can usually think of 100 reasons to shoot it down and make it seem like more effort than it's worth.

The problem I guess is that most of these ideas aren't really that good because the person thinking of them hasn't really considered the effort and cost involved.

Reminds me of being back in school where a handful of us had learned very basic BASIC programming. Naturally we decided "shit, let's make an awesome game and be rich!". Of course such a project attracted entire legions of hangers on who wanted to be "game designers" or "level designers". Nobody thought that making a few shareware text-adventures or sprite based games would be cool, everybody came with ideas about how to make the next Doom or Sonic except even more ambitious.

> To be honest I might consider some sort of profit/equity split with somebody who had a really good idea (and had done the research to prove it).

Why wouldn't you just take the idea and execute it yourself with 100% equity? The guy with the idea needs to bring something else to the table, whether it's a particular skill set or something crucial to the deployment of said idea such as a patent.

1. Because that research has value, so it would be unethical.

2. It takes more than code to make a business.

3. A partnership will be more fun and less likely to suffer from technology myopia.

Some of those points are valid (#1 especially). But when you run a business it's important that all parties are happy and feel like they have a fair deal.

You need to ask yourself that 6 months down the line, when the other person really isn't contributing much because they can't, and you're working long days sweating, working hard and putting a career on hold, and you've got 50% equity, are you going to be happy? It's not going to be a sustainable relationship for very long and has a good chance of being doomed to fail before you've written any code.


> 2. It takes more than code to make a business.

Like culture, marketing, market validation, generating press buzz, interviews, recruiting, and so forth. If the idea guy can't do a lot of those business-y things, you don't have a business so the 6-month question is premature.

I don't think it's premature, a lot of people will want a product (MVP) before they go ahead and formalise the entire thing. You're going to be the guy doing all the work in that department. Up until the MVP is developed there's really not much else to do.

Pretty much everything you listed is most effectively after you actually have a product.

Up until the MVP is developed there's really not much else to do.

As a guy that straddles the line between "tech guy" and "business guy" (I've done both of them), my opinion is that there is a lot that can be done before the MVP is developed. In fact, if the business guy isn't out validating what the tech guy is building from day one, it is almost guaranteed the MVP is going to be wrong and/or it is going to land with a resounding splat.

As the business guy, my job was getting out, meeting with potential customers, understanding what they would buy, what they wouldn't buy, and why. My job was getting early interest in our idea that could translate into (eventual) early use of the product. My job was making sure we understood who else was in the space and how we were going to differentiate our product.

In short, if you practice "throw some code out and start selling", you are going to have a really hard time getting traction.

Wouldn't you want to see that the idea guy had done his legwork before even thinking about MVP? I sure would. The lines-of-code to hours-talking-to-people ratio in the early weeks would be something crazy like 1:400.

Good point. Just to addd to this - I find most "hacker" types don't realize how much work goes into building a business. Execution is much more than just product build (but can, or cannot be a large part of it).

I find a lot of "idea" types don't realize how much work goes into building a business.

In their mind, they are already running a successful business where they just come up with ideas and delegate anything that resembles work. And everything everyone else does is "easy".

To an extent though couldn't that also be an argument against an investor buying equity in a startup rather than picking up a bunch of contract programmers and building the idea themselves?

Yes it is, which is why being skilled at what you do, establishing a brand, getting traction are all key ingredients in raising the barrier to entry for investors.

At one point in time I was the person writing these emails. Now, I'm the person getting these emails.

It is hard to be an entrepreneur when you can't make things. If you're good at selling, you still need something to sell.

>>It is hard to be an entrepreneur when you can't make things. If you're good at selling, you still need something to sell.

If you find yourself in this scenario, step one is selling yourself.

I have been through this a lot with a music/art interactive platform I've been working on for the past year and a half or so. My gut take on this is that programmers have the same problem musicians have; although they may be in demand, they overestimate their ability to evaluate potential enterprises. (great players have about as much trouble evaluating whether a band is worth joining as A&R people did picking winners)

I started not only with an innovative and fun product idea which is fairly contained technically, but also very significant technical ability of my own (working professionally as everything from an SEO guy back in the day and a UI/UX guy for 10 years), niche expertise/perspective and very hard to get connections, marketing experience, a fairly coherent business strategy with potential customers expressing interest, and although I don't have a ton of funding I have never asked anyone to work for free or "just equity" ... ever.

And I still can't hire objective C developers. What's wrong with this picture?

Did I mention I live in a major US city. And I'm friendly and (usually) easygoing?

One conclusion is that I have an unrealistic view of what I'm offering, or that I am terrible at looking for people (probably both true) but another factor may be unexamined assumptions on the part of developers when they evaluate a potential opportunity. Perhaps they already "know" what a cofounder looks and talks like, without realizing their preconception exists. Perhaps they have a picture in their head already of what a "good" or "successful" product will be ... or perhaps they really want to be working on a idea of their own but are having trouble getting started, which creates semi-conscious ambivalence about working on the ideas of others. I don't know that any of this is true, but having spent my life around talented creative people of widely varying levels of "success" that's what occurs to me.

Just an outside perspective.

Your biggest problem is probably that Objective C developers are in extremely high demand. They can make a lot of money, or if they have an interest in start-ups the barrier for entry is so low to get in the app store that they probably don't see a need to partner. Everyone has a dozen ideas for cool apps.

It sounds like you have a pretty compelling pitch, but you are pitching to a very small market with tons of competition.

Good luck!

Yeah, that's kind of the conclusion I came to. But that just makes me ask the question: Then why doesn't every developer with a related skillset just learn Objective C already and try to charge me lots of money? I mean, if I didn't already have two jobs on top of spending months of the year on tour, that's what I would do. Sometimes capitalism doesn't work.

Thanks for your well wishes!

The first app I ever recruited technical people to was thecityswig.com. It required a ton of industry knowledge and foot work, all of which I provided, so we all felt like we were equal.

Now, when I present ideas I come at it from this direction: if you want to work with me, you're the boss. You decide how much I'm worth and we'll go from there. I know you're going to be more valuable, especially initially, so your ownership should reflect that. However, I'm going to work my ass of to make sure you don't have to worry about anything but building the product. What's that plus my experience and hustle worth to you?

thecityswig is impressive. Any plans to expand outside of VA?

I wish! Thank you for the kind words, we've run out of money. Couldn't quite get the proof of concept traction we needed. Great user base, no revenue (bc of restrictions in VA that could be overcome with an investment). Too bad!

Definitely goes both ways. "Dear Business Person, I have a side project" and I heard you are good at getting customers/funding/partnerships/employees - can we get coffee for an hour so you can tell me how to achieve these goals so I can raise some funding, or maybe you'd like to be an advisor and we can meet a couple times each week for free. Sometimes a polite no works, but often I am surprised by the degree of entitlement people seems to feel when making this kind of ask, and have to decline multiple times before they get it.

Incidentally, i had a discussion with a colleague(non techie) of mine, who wanted to learn programming so that he could make apps and earn money. People actually think if they learn programming or have an app out there in the market will get rich. At least this has been the reason I have seen quite a few people drifting towards programming, they see it as a shortcut to realize their million dollar dream overnight. But the story out here in market is tough, bro! "It takes 20 years to be an overnight success."

Honestly, someone's willingness to learn programming just to implement their idea (if they stick with it) would be a huge positive to me. It is the people that think 99% of the work is having an idea that dishearten me. "Oh, if you implement my idea I will let you have 10% of the profit." Great...

"Yep, the only reason I'm not rich is that I couldn't think of the idea for a social photo gallery for cat pictures. I am just not creative enough to think of such amazing ideas."

If you're the ideas guy--"the suit" or whatever slightly condescending term you're calling us now--I think you're almost always better off learning to program on your own. Once you've learned enough to build a prototype, and are actually on your way or have created an MVP, you've indicated a) that you're serious about this project, b) whether it's viable going forward, and c) that you're not a complete technical neophyte. Most importantly, you've flipped the script to a certain extent -- you can now be selective about who you choose to work with, and you've qualified yourself enough to be an arbiter of quality.

Just my two cents. I can understand why the developers here might hesitate to work with someone who hasn't proven that he's willing to put in the work. But on the other hand, if you're a serious non-technical co-founder, I'm not convinced it's a great idea to just pick the first developer who's willing to work with you. Seems like a recipe for disaster.

That is a really great response by the programmer! I think I will copy it verbatim.

Or simly send a link to it and to this discussion :)

you should really cite your response :)

Imitation is the highest form of flattery!

I hate that font, unreadable.

There's a lot of blogs with bad fonts that show up on HN. Readability chrome extension is my savior (no affiliation)


Change it!

Idea guys these days don't even bother, it used to be that they would make a serious attempt, make documentation, mockups, a .ppt, etc...

These days I get emails from people who don't even know how to make an executive summary, how am I supposed to believe this guy can take care of the business side while I get 5 hours of sleep a day trying to code the app?

And that's the problem, if your pitch email is less than three paragraphs long I don't even bother, because I know it's probably the same one you sent some other coder and you couldn't even bother to write a proper personal request.

Regarding your 4 bullet points :

1) Why do you assume that he is asking you to code for free or equity and not for pay ? Did he say it explicitly in email or you just assumed ?

2) There is not enough info here to say anything.

3) On the flip side, do you have considerable leadership skills as a technical person to complement this non-technical person's considerable technical skill you expect him to have?

4) Do you have considerable communication skills to complement this person's considerable design skill you expect him to have?

[Note, I have been programming since last 20 years.]

Greetings Idea Person,

To proceed, please sign a Retainer Agreement.

Kind Regards, Programmer.


There's one more thing I would like to add. Apologies if it's already discussed... Non-techie guys with ideas should not think that by offering nice stock options/equity to a techie, they can get them on board.. A simple thought - there's no value of your equity.. So, do not make the mistake of thinking that you're obliging the techie by offering him/her a considerable stake in your idea/company...

Pitching to a programmer is the best from of natural selection. Someone should make a webform that directs non programmers through The Wax on Wax Off of being an effective non programmer. There is equal contribution that can occur with non programmers but it takes quiet a bit more effort than most non techs think.

Next up, I'd like to read.

Dear Investor, I want some money

Wasn't this just an intro email? I occasionally get emails from friends or friends of friends who are looking for marketing advice and while most of the projects don't interest me, I at least send back another email asking a few questions before rejecting them.

unfortunately being beginner , i also came across same people as mentioned here, just offering idea and just seating next to you, doing nothing and asking for percentage in project/start up.Soon after i realized, people should be credited depending on their contribution and not just for sitting. We famously call this people as "Associate Percentage Partners" :D but this time lesson learned !

>In the current tech environment, any programmer worth their salt and known to be somewhat available is also getting these emails.

Is this actually true?

It's a bit of an exaggeration to get the point across. I don't get many emails, if any at all, but I do get friends or friends of friends every now and then proposing ideas.

The bit about being, "known to be somewhat available," is pretty important. If nobody knows who you are or that you're open to such proposals, you won't get calls.

The best kind of non-coding cofounder is a brilliant showman.


there's another route. break down what you want to do and you can basically get it done for free. For example:



1. requisition an Amazon EC2 instance for me.

No other steps.


then a tech guy on IRC will do it for $5. Next, you want to get someone to do the following. I need a programmer to put a plain rails installation on my amazon ec2 instance.



1. Install rails on my amazon server.

No other steps, no configuration.


Then someone from IRC will do it for you, shittily, for $10.

Next, you want to do the hard part. "I need someone to create a page in my rails installation that says Enter your email address in the box below. It doesn't have to work. Like this: http://www.w3schools.com/tags/tryit.asp?filename=tryhtml_for...


Requirements doc:

1. The following code translated into a rails app that doesn't have to do anything:

- http://www.w3schools.com/tags/tryit.asp?filename=tryhtml_for...

There are no other requirements.


Someone will do it for you for $5. Next you would say:

"I need to get this rails form working." and link to the page showing the non-working form.


Requirements doc.

1. Whenever a user submits their name and address on the following rails page __________ it should be added to a database connected to rails.

There are no other requirements.


Someone on IRC will do it for $10.

Next you would requisition a non-working table of other names who have used that field. Next you requisition someone to get the table working.

Next you requisition a change from "name and email address" to the REAL point of your form. Maybe you're building an online trading platform where people can enter information about collectable turds, and you will be monetizing this.


Requirements doc.

1. Change "name" and "email address" to two different fields I give you, keeping the application working.

No other requirements.


Someone will do it for you for $10.

In this way you can boil the chicken slowly, and by the time you've blown through $85 you'll have a complete turd-trading platform with built-in recurring billing and a % commission your turd platform takes on every transaction.

Yes, not everyone can pull it off. Your main risk is that you have to kind of screen the fifty-sixty programmers who will be comming in and out of your amazon instance.

But with a little dedication, you can pretty much get unlimited work for free and get to keep 100% of it. The point is to only do one super-simple thing at a time.

I guess you have to have some technical understanding of what's happening behind the scenes to pull this off though. Maybe enroll in a quick seminar :)

Good luck with your turd platform.

That seems like a clever idea, but really each step you're describing would take about five minutes for someone who knows what they're doing.

If you can enumerate your requirements so precisely, I'm sure you can find someone decent for less than $60/hour to execute them.

> I guess you have to have some technical understanding of what's happening behind the scenes to pull this off though.

I think this is the major problem. If you have enough technical understanding to explain the problem in that much detail, you likely have enough technical understanding to do it yourself. Most of those steps you can do yourself faster than you can write out the detailed requirements for it.

sure, this will work if what your doing can be generated essentially off templates.

this will start breaking down when you start building components which are inter-related. every incremental change now requires understanding of the ball of spaghetti that exists.

which is why the guy above is so very, very wrong that these steps actually take five minutes, as opposed to just looking like they do :)

But you don't have that problem if you used a single competent coder.

a competent coder will not build a person's turd-trading platform in five-minute increments for $60 per 12.

No, but you can pay them to work for an hour making an ugly form attached to a database.

This is a neat way of doing this, thanks for sharing! I'm going to try this out if I get the chance, any irc network in particular you found effective?

Sounds like something you could do through Odesk for about the same cost and probably more conveniently than IRC.

That's fair, but on irc you filter out people who don't get it much quicker and not necessarily looking for work.

>> Have some way to pay the developer.

>> Have an impressive track record of expertise / success in the relevant industry.

>> Have considerable technical skills.

>> Have considerable design skills.

If I have all that, why do I need YOU to execute this idea?

It said you need ANY of those, not ALL of them.

My bad, I misread it. Still, I would ask the same for the requirement of "have considerable technical skills".

Conversation with a very technical friend of mine about filling positions in my bootstrapping company:

HIM - you need a technical cofounder

ME - don't I know it ... perhaps you could learn objective C and not only work with me but have tons of high paying freelance work available

HIM - that's a huge time investment. Maybe you should learn objective C and then you wouldn't have this problem any more.

ME - I would genuinely enjoy that. But then who will go out and talk to bands (my first target customer) not to mention doing all this design work, architecture for the product, finding more staff, managing projects, marketing the product ...

HIM - Lot's of people can go talk to bands. Get a college kid to go talk to bands. Developers are what's hard to find.

The thing is, he's probably right ... but there is a structural problem in how we make these decisions about working with other people ... it is nearly impossible to assess expertise in something that you are not knowledgable about. So we often either massively overvalue stuff other people do; i.e. "set up a C corp" is quite a small undertaking and isn't how I would evaluate a business cofounder, or undervalue it "anybody can go talk to bands" displays a lack of specific understanding of the music industry.

Rant warning...

Since when are computer programmers too good to want ideas to work on from people who may have valid business domain knowledge?

In my opinion software and programming skills are worth LESS THAN NOTHING if they don't have a business idea to monetize them... And last time I checked, my programming colleagues rarely possessed valuable insights into what problems non-programmers are willing to spend money on.

Tell you what, if anyone wants has ideas like the one posted above, please send them to my email address because I would be more than happy entertain your start-up ideas in my spare time. If its not a good fit I would love to take the time to discuss it with you as it will probably be a good learning experience for the both of us if nothing else we will both make a new friend or connection.

email: imechura AT gmail DOT com

"In my opinion software and programming skills are worth LESS THAN NOTHING if they don't have a business idea to monetize them... "

Tell that to the developers that Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc are fighting each other to bring on board. The skills are worth a job with a guaranteed paycheck.

"And last time I checked, my programming colleagues rarely possessed valuable insights into what problems non-programmers are willing to spend money on."

Nobody possesses this without putting in the legwork to see if the idea will somehow make enough money to be worth the effort. You do the legwork and from that feedback, decide to keep moving forward, drop the idea, or pivot. The key is getting the process started. Sure, different people have different industry knowledge, but nobody can predict success from the beginning.

I thought the "Have an impressive track record of expertise / success in the relevant industry" implied that he does in fact value business domain knowledge.

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