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Finding a tech co-founder is like trying to get married (wannabevc.wordpress.com)
24 points by Major_Grooves on Sept 26, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 51 comments

As compared with being a prospective tech co-founder, which is more like hanging out in a Vietnamese pool hall in a short dress. There's money to be made, but you know the chances of being mistreated are pretty high.

I think there is a difference though between a tech guy who wants to implement an idea a business guy has, and a tech guy who HAS an idea already and wants a business guy to help sell it.

The latter is hard to find too, so it's not like tech guys have it any easier.

Unleas you're an undercover ladyboy. Then you can "flip the script" and dish out some pain.

Wait, what are we taking about?

Well played Rch. Well played.

Your simile is right, but I think the problem is always in part these things:

1) Programming isn't impossible to learn. An outsourced MVP might be a sign that the non-tech founder is not fully committed (my grandpa owned a small factory, but stressed the importance of knowing how to work all the equipment even if he stayed in the office).

2) Technical people (of which I am one) frequently underestimate technical challenges. I'm a good developer but at times have have massively missed deadlines, released buggy/untested shite, and mis-predicted technologies (e.g. I once thought Flex would take over the world).

So if we have worked for years in a field and made these mistakes, we have a hard time trusting a non-technical person the even guess at the challenges/tradeoffs up ahead. And to tell when it's time to right the ship or pivot from an idea they are attached to.

So to flip it, you need to market yourself more than your project. I think the best non-technical cofounder is somebody who is a some-time developer. As a manager at Vanderlay Industries once said:

"If you think I'm looking for a guy to sit at a desk pushing around papers, forget about it. I got enough headaches trying to manufacture the stuff."

The other end of this would be that splitting up from a co-founder (especially on less than great terms) is pretty much the same thing as getting a divorce, in terms of stress, hassle and potential emotional toll...

Yup - that's what I've been saying - and potentially more expensive!

Of course, coming from the other side of the coin - trying to find a proper business guy that you match well with is just as challenging. Unless you work well and it just feels right, well, it will just be a marriage that won't last.

True - trying to find a good match is difficult, but if we're honest, the tech guys are in much higher demand than your "biz guy" (excuse the generalisations - of course tech guy can be biz guy).

I know of exactly one person that I've worked with and would take as a business-side co-founder in a heartbeat. And he won't leave his current job.

I can definitely agree with your comment.

It is surprising you are having a tough time finding a tech co-founder; of all the bullshit MBA types, you have traction, a site that seems fairly developed, and a decent idea. In theory, I for one, after a cold intro, would be interested in what you have to say, as opposed to my typical "I am too busy to build your idea for you" default. Honestly, I think your biggest problem is Java, it's just not going to hit a large enough cross section of 20/30 year olds, that want to take a risk, that are into tech.

> It is surprising you are having a tough time finding a tech co-founder ... you have traction, a site that seems fairly developed, and a decent idea.

It's like a handsome, successful, wealthy, socially well-adjusted man who has trouble finding a new girlfriend because he only goes out with his current one. Any developer's first reaction to a new project is to wish they could raze it and start over from scratch, imagine how much more intense that is when the initial development was done by an MBA.

Ummm I didn't develop it with my own fair fingers. Can we stop with the MBA-insults please?

The code is good. Enough people have looked at it for me to know that. Unless we change language it is something to be built upon, not razed.

That should be the least of your concerns. Finding a co-founder is hard enough without expecting him to know Java. Pick based on other criteria, then let him rebuild it as he sees fit. There's a good chance that even a Java guy would end up refactoring it beyond recognition. It's exactly what I would do.

OK, I think this will have to be the subject of another blog post as I have never seen tech guys to polarised between "pick based on other criteria" versus "you've built something solid in Java, you'd be mad to change". It's almost a 50:50 split, and not much middle-ground.

I do think though, a lot of this will depend on the code, and how complicated his site actually is (doesn't seem too crazy complicated though). I think this is more of a developer market fit/social question.

I'm not saying it's not good, my point is that a "technical co-founder" will want to redo it _regardless_ of whether it's good or not. (Also not trying to disparage MBAs, it's just that's how technical co-founders will think of them.)

well tbh I don't have any trouble getting people initially interested. As you say, I do have some filters that should separate me from the "MBA chaff" It's getting the few people that I have felt I could work with to actually decide I am the one for them.

hold on... "of all the bullshit MBA types" - that means you are calling me one of the bullshit MBA types! :( Perhaps you meant "compared to the usual bullshit MBA types"? ;)

The Java point is interesting, and something I have discussed lots with various people - including people who have contacted me today after posting this blogpost. Half the people think I should stick to Java - it's a fine tool for the job, half the people think I will need to switch language. No doubt being in Java reduces my pool of potential co-founders.

Haha...sorry, no I didn't mean to lump you in with the hn-stereotyped non-co-founder masses (and I don't even agree with it, in most cases, but it's easy to use it as an explanatory tool). Java, for sure, is a fine tool for the job, technically speaking; I was referring more to the business/social aspect of having to sell the stack to a developer, and convincing them to work on it. This also may be developer bullshit too? who knows. I do think that the results will speak for themselves, if you can find a great java dev, that wants to work on it, etc, etc, than my theory is probably BS. If you haven't found anyone, than I would seriously consider letting a dev run with the new stack.

There is no reason whatsoever to switch from Java. Ignore this noise.

Of course there is, if he can't find someone to work on it for equity, but can convince someone to write it in PHP for equity.

Everyone knows Java. It's the first programming language taught to every freshman Computer Science undergrad, everywhere in the world. Even most die hard Rubyists know how to write Java. They may hate it, but they know it. Who in the world teaches PHP?

> Everyone knows Java.


> It's the first programming language taught to every freshman Computer Science undergrad, everywhere in the world.

Except where Python is used. Or something else.

> Even most die hard Rubyists know how to write Java.

Well, a lot of the move to Ruby (particularly Rails) was a reaction to perceived issues with Java, so, yeah, Java skill is probably overrepresented in the Ruby (particularly Rails) community.

> Who in the world teaches PHP?

Judging from a quick googling, plenty of places teach PHP.

That is not my point.

The website referenced in the post, FounderDating, is unusable, unfortunately. They got in trouble recently for using dark patterns to spam the linkedin contacts of potential users' references, and when called out on it the CEO tried to debate the use of the word "spam" when referring to their behavior:


That you have to get approved and give references is also the biggest "f* you" to potential users. Why would any sensible person waste their references' time and goodwill with this nonsense?

Hopefully someone will make a worthwhile "founder dating" service that just lets users find others who want to work on something and gives them a way to make contact. Don't make users jump through hoops, and don't abuse users.

yeah - did you read the blog post (mine) I linked to?: http://wannabevc.wordpress.com/2013/04/28/founderdating-nice...

Not good.

as the business guy in a tech startup, i feel your pain. everything you've said, i've gone through myself on a smaller scale. the difference between us is that i, fortunately or unfortunately, was blessed/cursed with a mildly successful startup exit which gave me a substantial amount of money to build my next startup. why unfortunately? i squandered almost all the money by trying to make too bold of a leap from my unsophisticated first startup to what i aspired to be a very technologically-driven and innovative startup. i too used a contractor, except it wasn't just one dude but i hired an indian software firm to build my product with a team. this was a terrible decision because the machine i wanted to build was too ambitious, and far too complex for the indians to understand.

anyway, i started seeking tech co-founders after the failure of that outsourcing attempt. it was too hard - the few talented people in my school (i was still in college at the time) who i befriended were either more interested in gainful employment with competitive salaries after graduation, or they wanted to do their own startups and not ride on mine. i believe i have successfully sold my vision to a few of them, and a few of them have informed me that when i described my ideas, it has changed the way they look at the industry i'm tackling (advertising). some has expressed interest, but without external funding and significant traction, they usually fizzle off after a short period.

so anyway, right now i'm at a stage where since i can't find a tech cofounder, i've decided to BECOME one myself. that's right - i'm returning to school for a computer science degree. i start school in january next year, and hopefully over the next 3-4 years i will build my skills up to a level where i'm either a successful founder, or i'm one of those engineers you mentioned in your article who are deluged with attractive offers.

good luck to you and your startup though, as a fellow entrepreneur i sincerely wish you the best. it's a hard road to tread.

That's cool that you're going back to school to learn CS. Can I ask how old you are? It's something I've thought about, but I'm 33, and at some point you have to accept your skill set and focus on your strengths. If I was 23, I would probably try to learn programming.

That sort of talk usually prompts a bunch of people to say - hey - you can teach yourself to be quite decent in just 6 months! Possibly true - but that requires a lot of spare time that I don't have. Also, there's no way I would have been able to build Satago with 6months of experience.

In fact I briefly tried and started blogging about it: http://newbiehacker.wordpress.com/

i'm 27 this year, and i too consider myself very old to return to school. unfortunately, i'm also a foreigner (to US) and the only viable way i can continue pursuing a startup in the US, where i want to be, is to return as a student. so i guess there are a few different reasons i choose to return to school, including getting a visa as well as pursuing technical knowledge.

if i was allowed to return on a different visa, i would not choose to go back to sch for CS and would instead learn these stuff on my own. unfortunately, i was denied such a visa and thus... here we are.

I want to put a Drake quote here from "Too Much", but I think that's too much so I'll just paraphrase it: there's still time to check things off your bucketlist.

Have you tried any one of the plethora of code-school type websites that'll teach you what you need to know over the web for a fraction of the time and cost? A degree will get you what you need to progress into employment, not necessarily what you need to become a technical founder.

I agree. I am not sure exactly what the poster was trying to tackle, but a CS degree can be overkill for a developer.

yes, i've completed most of the tutorials on codecademy and other self-help books as well. however, as i've explained in my other post, the other reason why i'm returning to school is also because of the visa which would allow me entry back into US.

While it's hard to find a tech co-founder, it's twice as hard to find a tech co-founder willing to work on an existing codebase. Techies love to create new things from scratch.

If there's existing code then it typically means one of two things: 1) it was outsourced and, therefore, terrible and painful to work with or 2) there was a developer who was either pushed off or decided to part ways with the project at a very early stage, which isn't a good sign considering how self-described "business" people often view and treat developers.

"You need to have someone in the team that can fix a crashed server at 3am, or burn the midnight oil to hit a new feature deadline."

Looks like this guy needs to write down the list of qualities his co-founder will need to have and which one he is prepared to discuss; I mean if he is in his late 20s, early 30s, it is likely he would choose someone around his age and that's probably around the time someone is starting to be concerned about settling down.

I have been looking for years. I have been applying to Ycombinator by myself. I live in El Paso Texas, which apparently, is the equivalent of the moon when it comes to finding like minded tech driven partners. This is a really frustrating topic for me. I hope to move to San Francisco soon so I can be around other developers.

personally as a Dev and entrepreneur with about 50 ideas for startups I would like a confounding team to simply bounce ideas off and share the load... my top idea is a CRM for rental property that - collect rent, schedule maintenance, list rentals, handled roommate splits, background checks, financials, and more... but would be nice to have another back end coder to help(laravel), and a designer for front end, a business developer.. monetization would be 6-7$ per month per unit. Building something great can be hard when you are a one person shop.

Dear Europe,

Stop trying to turn middle-manger types into tech startup CEOs.

What does that even mean??

It wasn't directed towards you in particular, I promise. It's just that since I moved to Europe, I've noticed an incredible difference in how many middle-manager types get funding from the accelerators here vs the US. In fact, here they strongly encourage former middle-managers to become founders. In US accelerators, often the whole founding team in engineers.

In response to your article, maybe you might consider showing more of a love and understanding for technology? Perhaps even acknowledging that traditional business knowledge may be a hindrance to a startup, instead of a clear benefit? [1]

[1] http://www.avc.com/a_vc/2012/01/the-management-team-while-bu...

Don't insult people and then deny that you've insulted them and attempt to back it up with a blog post that isn't an authority for what you just said.

OP worked at Rocket Internet for 2 years. Say what you like about them, there is nothing 'traditional' or 'middle-manager' about a role like that. OP also has a PhD in genetics and an MBA, a not-too-dissimilar set of qualifications to US founders. You don't have to be a software engineer to have useful startup skills...

I am insulting Europe's tech business culture, yes, if that's what it takes for us to begin to discuss this topic. Coming from me, that's saying a lot, because I usually never find culture similarities that span the whole of Europe. Please don't take this as a personal insult towards anyone.

The obsession with PHDs and higher level education.. great, another Euro-obsession.

Look, I'm not saying that he can't be a great startup founder. I'm just offering a different perspective for how to present one's self to potential tech cofounders. Emphasizing "business skills" and higher level education is definitely not the best way.

Oh believe me I have a strong love and appreciation for technology. In fact, I've always said that maybe I don't understand the tech, but I appreciate it.

I've come from a company where the tech guys are treated like second-class citizens to the business guys. I want the opposite of that - somewhere where developers love to work (and share in the equity/options etc).

I think your comment about middle-managers becoming CEOs is partly because we still have less tech startup culture here vs the US. Not so many Facebooks and Googles. Also places, like I mention, where business guys are valued too highly.

I'd say my business knowledge is far from traditional: PhD Genetics, biotech consulting, database redevelopment and management, MBA, industrial-scale eCommerce incubator, entrepreneur. I agree with the AVC article. The team described there is my ideal team. I am in effect at the moment the Product Manager.

In fact, the tech side of things in my startup have gone extremely well - it works well, the code is good, the product build speed has been good - mainly due to the good relationship between me and the contractor. The tech side of things is the least of my problems, but I still want a business partner because it is impossible for me to do everything on my own - it just makes sense that my business partner is also technical.

Easy to do by accident while drunk in Vegas?

I hadn't actually thought about trying to get a developer drunk.... Underhand tactic, but it could work. Unfortunately I'd probably end up married to Britney Spears!

Do you really need a co-founder? I think co-founders are over-rated.

> You need to have someone in the team that can fix a crashed server at 3am, or burn the midnight oil to hit a new feature deadline.

Almost every contractor I've worked with on elance has been willing to work whatever hours were required. For $5 an hour. Why give up precious equity for something you could hire out for a few dollars an hour?

> To date I have been using a contractor to build Satago, and whilst he is very good (one of the best developers I’ve worked with to be honest, but sadly based very far away from me in Russia) the fear is that without the large chunk of equity that a co-founder would be working towards, he could just down tools, and then Satago would grind to a halt.

If I were you I would find a few other good developers to work with. Elance has them in abundance and they'll be more than happy to work for you at $5-$10/hr. (I prefer fixed-budget projects, personally.)

Here's how I get projects done: I take a few INDEPENDENT features from the product roadmap, set clear expectations with the developers, hand off the code, iterate, finalize, then pay my main developer to integrate their code into the main code-base. In my case I'm the lead developer so I do the code integration, in your case maybe it would be your contractor from Russia.

If the developers I've hired write good code and deliver as promised I keep them. If they don't I move on to someone else. In one year I've gone through 6 developers and kept 2 of them. 2 competent, hard working, reliable developers.

When I said "set clear expectations", some expectations I've found useful to establish with a contractor are: clearly define the project specifications (you need to be able to tell them exactly what needs to be done), clearly define the project deadlines (first iteration due in 2 weeks), clearly define the budget ($300 for features X, Y, and Z), and clearly define the communication requirements (respond to emails within 24 hours, provide constant work status updates). It's also a good idea to let them know that you're looking for developers with whom you can establish a long-term relationship and that this small project they're about to work on is a test. If they meet your expectations you will keep working with them, if they don't you won't be repeating business.

I also make sure to tell them that the code needs to be thoroughly documented. It helps the other developers who have to work with their code and it could help you get an idea of what's going on under the hood.

In summary, I think technical co-founders are over-rated. I see no reason to give up equity for something that can be easily contracted out. Ok, finding good contractors isn't "easy". It takes a lot of time -- it's taken me 9 months to find 2 solid ones. But the ones I've found can reliably get the job done, on time, within budget, guaranteed. I own 100% of my company.

well tbh, it depends how you determine "need". The need has really been driven by the VCs - they all insist on it.

I don't think that is just because of the code-ownership. Doing this stuff is tough and I really need to delegate to someone - and at this stage I can't afford to hire someone on good money, so I'd rather find someone who is apssionate about the idea and with whom I could work well.

In fact the technical development has gone very well - I am working with a great contractor.

> The need has really been driven by the VCs

Do you really need VC money? I mean really need it. Most projects I've come across can be bootstrapped.

> they all insist on it

Did you counter them with "I have 3 contractors at my disposal on-call, round-the-clock"?

> I can't afford to hire someone on good money

£30k is a lot of money. Nearly $50,000 USD. How much do you have left? How much are you paying your Russian developer? (too much, I'd bet). $50,000 is 5 developers salaries, full-time, from India, for a year.

> I'd rather find someone who is passionate about the idea and with whom I could work well.

If that's the direction you want to take it, I wish you all the best of luck. I personally would go a different route.

> I am working with a great contractor.

It's entirely plausible that a business run by 1 technical contractor will fall apart (life happens... I've had contractors break contract several times due to personal issues that arose). It is, however, much less likely that a business run by 5, competent, well managed developers will fall apart.

Just sharing what's worked for me. Best of luck whichever direction you go.

Thanks for comments.

No I don't really need VC money. I need more money, but I'm pretty sure I can crowd-source it again via Seedrs.

£30k is a lot but not that much... I had to pay for non-tech stuff too. My Russian dev is very good value compared to hiring in Europe. I'd really rather have one top-notch guy than 5 ok guys. The quality of dev so far has been 1st class.

> I'd really rather have one top-notch guy than 5 ok guys

1. Your one top-notch guy who getting in a car crash would put your business on hold for months until you could find a replacement. My 5 "ok" guys are fault tolerant, providing constant development regardless of what life throws at them.

2. My 2 developers aren't just "ok", they're rock stars. 1st class all the way. I pay them $5/hr. Don't underestimate India or the Philippines because they're low cost. Don't overestimate the difficulty of programming. It may seem hard to you but to someone who knows how to program it's incredibly simple. To a fluent developer, writing code is like writing an essay.

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