Technical co-founders are necessarily naïve.
Because once they've been one once, they don't want to be one again. The only "serial" technical co-founders I've encountered have usually failed to get to the MVP stage of any of the companies they've founded, and thus don't know the hell their path leads to.
I speak from first-hand experience. I would sooner chew my own legs off than do this again. Not because I dislike my company, or don't like what I do today, but because it's traumatic, and I've no desire to go through it again.
It costs you years of your life, you don't get sleep, or friends, and at the end of it all, nobody will thank you, they'll just resent you, as those that were there from the start never realised just how much the technical co-founder did to make things work in the early days (not so fond memories of not leaving my desk for 9 grim, sticky days), and those that started later don't see the technical co-founder getting as involved in the technology as much, and thus view them as disconnected.
Damned either way.
If you get someone in with experience, they'll tell you to get bent, won't do the death-marches that you often need to get the ball rolling, and will want to be paid their worth, rather than nothing.
So yeah - your only hope is to get to know technical folks while they're still learning, and get them in then - otherwise they'll know better and will refuse your poisoned chalice.
> From the founder’s perspective this is a very sweet deal. “All the hard work is done,” they proclaim, “All the tech person has to do is build it.” Ultimately, the sole founder becomes increasingly frustrated when every potential tech lead they speak with says “no thanks”.
I can't tell you how many times I've said "no thanks"--though it was probably more along the lines of "hell no!" I love it when a "business" person approaches me with their Great Idea™ and they're like, "I have the program all figured out, all I need is someone to code it." My response: "Then learn how to code."
Right now I'm working on a project with a non-programmer co-founder and the only reasons I agreed to it was 1) he's a longtime friend and I trust him, 2) he has expertise that I lack in the domain space (chemistry), 3) it was my idea in the first place and I have control over the development/vision. It still doesn't feel nice to have the weight of ALL THE PROGRAMMING on your shoulders.
I have begun to hear it, and try to explain it as:
"Okay, so I want to build a house, but it's just a SMALL house, we're talking just one room on the first floor and one on the second, and it only needs ONE toilet and ONE electrical outlet. And I've already spent a few weeks learning how to use a hammer and am pretty damn comfortable with hammers now -- and getting there with a drill too! So this should be pretty straightforward right? I just have one question that maybe you can help me with, something I've been confused about: Do electrical outlets and toilets use the same kind of tubing to connect them, or different kinds of tubing?"
I usually don't even know where to begin. I can give advice on how to learn how to write software, but they're gonna have to start from the basics, it's gonna take em a while (months at least, of constant work) until they get to the point where they know enough to build what they want, they may not get there at all if they find they don't actually enjoy programming or have no aptitude for it, and once they DO get there, THEN they can start actually building what they want to build -- which will take 3x as long as predicted even by someone who knows what they're talking about (which they don't yet), because that's how it is. They don't want to hear that and think I'm being 'elitist'.
To me it's always amazing how little equity some technical cofounders obtain. Ideas, like talk, is pretty cheap. Coding for years is pretty damn expensive.
I think most of these non-technical founders just have a fantasy about a product idea and it really is worthless. But if they have a good network of contacts and people ringing their phone for whatever they want you to build then that is some value.
If these idea people are so sure of their ideas, they can finance development using freelancers and they don't need a technical cofounder. If technical cofounder is just doublespeak for programmer willing to work for free + equity, only someone very naive will take it.
It also demands respect. They may not give it to you, but if something actually happens you'll be starting on the right foot, and the author claims this does not turn everyone who approaches him off.
It also gets the big issues right out there: how much is an idea and anything else they're bringing to the table worth vs. how much is the technical effort to make it live.
Well crap, I'm in my second go-around as startup CTO (and I definitely want to do more), so I guess I'm doing something wrong because I've loved every minute of each startup.
I think the big thing that makes all the work and stress worth it for me is that these are projects I would volunteer for with or without pay. Last time it was a fitness network that helped people develop a sustainable healthy lifestyle. This time it is shaving 10-20% off the installed price of distributed solar. Got way past the MVP stage last time (over a million users), and close to getting there this time (more business LOIs coming in every day).
I love being a technical cofounder. My skills are technical, so I can contribute the most in that role. But the startup has to be something I would volunteer for. So I guess you're right, startups don't find me. I find them.
There are really only two jobs in an early-stage startup: engineer and money man. If you're not building the product, and you're not bringing money in the door either, you're not helping. "Idea guy" is not a job.
I think you're absolutely right. But so is the person you were replying to. Becuase you know what _isn't_ as valuable as any of those things? "Having a really good idea that I think could make a lot of money."
And that's what a lot of people think, I have a great idea, all I need is someone who knows how to program to implement it (shouldn't take very long), and we're gonna make lots of money!
(Actually, I'd challenge the 'product positioning' as a useful thing to bring, because it is too easily confused with "Having a great idea." But sales, marketting, investor relations, actual market research, actual evidence-based feedback gathering -- sure.)
If you're a non-technical co-founder, the primary value you bring to the business is the people you already know, who have money. It's not your ideas and it's also not your visual design taste.
Is this really true? Hustling is a valuable skill, too. If you're bootstrapping, you don't need endless connections to people with money, you just need customers. So a non-technical business guy, in theory, just needs to be willing to hustle in order to contribute to certain kinds of enterprise.
In other words, "it's the money, stupid." If you're a non-technical founder with just an idea and no existing funding or paying customers yet, that is why you can't find a technical co-founder. No good tech talent is going to work for equity in a bootstrapped business, because equity is worthless without the
"hockey stick" growth trajectory you're shooting for when you take funding.
- Tech guys can just sit back once the website is built and cash in forever, while the marketing and business guys have to keep on the ball.
- You can rent an army of developers in Eastern Europe for no money at all. He had 30 guys doing his one-pager color split testing for him.
- All the value is in the marketing and supply chain. He's 80% of the value and feels screwed giving the tech people 25%.
Funnily enough we never got that one launched.
A good business guy realises that the right technical backing and understanding is essential in today's world - if you don't understand the technology, or the impact that your business decisions have on your development - i.e. the costs they incur vs. the marginal benefit - and you're not prepared to talk to your technology team because you view them as valueless... you are unequivocally screwed, because you'll end up coded into a corner with your development staff walking out on you, your customers let down, and you on the hook.
Likewise by the time you're scrounging around looking for technical cofounders, you're at meetups and startup weekends, and most capable technical folks never end up going to those - they're either happy in their current situation, or working on something of their own.
"Look," he exclaims to his friend, "a $100 bill!"
"Nonsense," remarks the other, "if there was a $100 on the sidewalk, someone would have already seen it and picked it up."
The same can be said about programmers, I guess. What a horrible attitude.
FYI: many startups fail because the founders don't have a clue that a business involves far more than writing code. Sometimes you need "people skills", and when you think you're God's gift to a business, you're probably lacking there.
I'm not at all saying everyone who is at every networking even is a total loser. Far from it. I've met some interesting folks at events over the years (cofounder dating, meetups, startup weekends, etc). But I also tend to meet a disproportionate number of "idea folks" who try to push NDAs before telling you about their next "big idea".
And on the tech side, there's usually a few tech god/wizard folks who can literally do almost anything with a few keystrokes, and other people who are just getting started, have a lynda.com or treehouse account, and want to hack away. It's not necessarily a bad attitude to have, but usually the skills aren't enough to execute enough to get traction.
I'm sometimes surprised at how far people get with so little, and those are the people I tend to want to work with or help out in some way - regardless of the industry/work/project. I like working with people who can get stuff done. It's just harder to do that at many networking events, because the people who are 'getting stuff done' usually don't have time for those events because they're getting stuff done.
Couldn't tell if you meant "horrible attitude" at me directly because of the comment or what.??
You mean there isn't something wrong with me for not being in a constant networking-extrovert mode? :p
With this particular guy, I don't think his shop relied much on tech excellence. He talked a lot about how to show people ads that were against the ToS for various platforms. Of course if you're doing that, you won't think that tech is providing any value.
Last year I was in my final year of university. The school I graduated from, BYU, has a strong business program and a culture of entrepreneurship. A number of my friends and acquaintances contacted me with ideas for tech-empowered businesses they wanted to form, but I had the sense to stay away from anything that sounded like "I had this great idea for a business last week, why don't you build it for me and we'll see what happens."
When my now-cofounder Sam approached me, it was a very different experience. It was obvious that he had put months of work into developing his idea on his own time, with mockups and tons of user testing of various ideas, and literally had gone as far as he could without actually building the product. Even after we decided to start working together, we spent several months contracting together for a 3rd party, before we finally decided to strike out on our own. When we eventually did form a startup, we split the equity 50-50 and we've both been working 110% since day 1.
In retrospect, I didn't end up joining with Sam because the idea was much better than the other ones I'd heard about, or because he had access to connections or capital that I couldn't easily find myself. It was because he demonstrated clearly that he didn't consider the idea alone to be 80% of the value, respected what I brought to the table, and worked hard enough to bring his half to the table too.
I guess my best advice to the non-technical looking for a cofounder (beyond learning as much as you can about the tech side of the business on your own) would be to try to find ways to demonstrate, through your actions, that you have what it takes to push a new company forward. The actions Sam took on his own, and when we first started working together, demonstrated that to my satisfaction, which is why I was more than happy to sign on as a cofounder.
Sounds like he had a bucket-full of clues, including the equity distribution, which doesn't sound like it was hard to negotiate.
What I noticed from some bad examples of business guys I tried something with is that some of them 1) don't have a clue nor willingness to improve 2) are very frustrated they don't own the additional 1% to be completely in charge 3) try to restrict the flow of business information towards me 4) treat tech as an easy thing that must work 100% on autopilot while they don't do much at all.
Whenever this happens I give those persons an out; we can shut the business down immediately (for me it's just another business test that didn't go well and it needs to be resolved ASAP as I don't like to waste time) or those things must change.
It's difficult to find a business person that doesn't want to become super rich in like one year and that really wants to treat the business as an equal partnership and have fun growing it. If you find one, stick with them, it's pure gold.
1. Non-technical people (myself included) often have a bit of a complex about being non-technical. They are well-steeped in the YC/Stanford/Valley zeitgeist and believe their project won't be taken seriously if it doesn't have legitimate engineering talent on the founding team. Depending on the product and the team's growth strategy, this may or may not actually be true.
2. I would posit that fear of not finding a technical cofounder (FONFATC, I just coined an acronym) is really three related, but distinct fears:
a. Fear of not being able to get the MVP / beta / 1.0 versions built.
b. Fear of not being able to raise money to grow because VC's won't take your team seriously if you don't have a technical cofounder.
c. Fear of not being able to recruit good engineers as you scale from, say, 3 people to 15 people. (The reasoning being, good engineers are going to have doubts about working for an organization that doesn't have a technical cofounder; both in terms of not wanting to be supervised by people who don't understand the technical fundamentals and in terms of working in a non-engineer-centric culture).
3. Non-technical people in some cases spend more time trying to find/recruit a technical cofounder than they would have to spend to learn the necessary technical skills to build a basic MVP. Not 1.0, ready-to-ship-to-paying-customers product, but MVP. Getting technical people to join your project is a less painful proposition once you have a product, even a crappy one.
4. Technical friends might not be willing to join your project as a cofounder, for reasons including: you can't pay them the salary they want/need; they're working on their own thing; they don't want to quit their sweet job; they think your idea is dumb. Even in these cases, you can get a lot of help from them if they are in fact your friends. They may not be interested in getting on your cap table, but they'll probably do a monthly code review with you if you ask nicely.
I'm a technologist (developer), but over the years have morphed into doing sales and strategic direction for our platform. Sales and technology are a seriously winning combination that most folks seem to shun - but if you look at successful startups, again and again, you'll see that the "technical co-founder" does as much sales and speaky-speak as his non-technical counterparts.
Having someone that actually knows what they're talking about sell a product can be a boon.
It can also be a boondoggle, as unfortunately the words "yes, that is in theory possible", which you will hear from technologists frequently, are taken by pure business folks as "yes, this is possible and can be done yesterday, at no cost". Bitten me in the ass more times than I care to admit, and I'm now very careful with how I state things, but it's still a winning combo.
Networking is important. IMO it's very hard to identify those people without a sufficiently large sample size.
A truly valuable non-technical cofounder will be a product developer, not a sales/management guy. The most valuable type of marketing is baked into product development.
And there's no shortage of B2B markets where the tech takes as long to sell into enterprise as to build.
All the non-technical cofounders told me, they didn't build a product but the product idea, business plan and marketing strategy are already done. Now they just need a dev to implement the software and they are good to go.
If they say this, their failure probability is too damn high. What many first time founders don't understand is that startup is a search process in the outlandishly uncertain world. You can't "do" the product idea and strategy before you iterated on your initial hypothesis and verified/discarded/revised it.
This is like startups 101, explained in the basic level entrepreneurship courses on edx/coursera and founder must read books like "lean marketing for startups" and "startup's owner manual".
If a business-side guy or girl doesn't know that, disregard them.
> You can't "do" the product idea and strategy
Most of them tell me, they did marked research as a proof for their idea.
Even more importantly they add slack. This means there's someone to take out the trash and stock the refrigerator with Diet Coke, Caffeine Free Coke, and almond milk.
One thing I always look for, in every member of a startup, is that they aren't too proud "to sweep the floors" if needed.
Above jumping into the dumpster to retrieve a dollar isn't limited to one skill set.
Also "slack" might be a useful concept here. E.g. I frequently ended up doing the backups at the startups I worked for, because it's one of my specialties and I really care about avoiding data loss. And after doing the setup, "turning the crank" each day was some non-intense work to do, a welcome break from the 7 hours of heads down programming that's always been my max of "real work".
More aggravating are the ones who think they're the next Steve Jobs and just need their Woz.
If you really, truly care about solving some problem, it should drive you crazy that there's something that you have no idea anything about. IMHO.
And my response, every time is : "Stop talking about it and do it - or don't."
I mean, if you're not prepared to knuckle down and do the work yourself - do you actually believe in what you're doing?
These words were said to a very drunk me in a bar in London some 12 years ago, while I was fucking about with my first botched trainer-wheels startup (social networking for the elite - got serious traction, but we lost interest), and was garrulously asking some poor fucker what he thought I should do about idea X. That was his off-the-cuff response, but I've lived by it since.
Most people I heard asking that question had no clue about technology, and more importantly, never showed interest in understanding the basics.
My feeling was that they thought of such partnership as a way to get someone work for free.
Something I would add though, if you are a non-technical cofounder it needs to be either equal equity footing (if you are bringing a fair amount of sales/marketing). Otherwise, forget it, I would want 60 - 70% equity. Without my ability to code, you've got nothing. It seems a lot of technical founders sell themselves short in this regard.
Finally, for me, it's always been hell finding a decent designer. The two I talk with regularly are outrageously busy, but usually they can help out. It took me a year or two to find these guys and now we have some synergy, but finding a designer is hell.
Most of the time they are teams of a few business people who do marketing and biz-dev.
When they tell me about their idea, I often think that the only bad thing about their idea is the part, where the company has to supply 4 people, where only one of them can build something.
Also they often see a technical cofounder as a work-horse and not a partner...
If you can't "sell" something until every single pixel is perfect and it scales up to instagram levels on day one and everything else is in place because you "only get one shot at impressing person X (or... first customer)"... you're doing something wrong.
That said while we're on this topic, I've always enjoyed Drew Houston's take on it:http://www.quora.com/How-do-I-find-good-technical-co-founder...
"Unfortunately this is a classic problem. "How do I find a really hot single girl to go out with?"
* Good technical people will have ideas of their own that they're excited about, and working for a non-technical founder who, by the way, doesn't know or appreciate the difficulty or time it takes to make something well-engineered and undervalues you from an ownership standpoint, gets old quickly.
* People who are not hands-on building the product at the very early stage of the startup are usually not terribly useful until later, because building the product is most of the real work early on.
* Good engineers have a wealth of compelling opportunities at any given time, so it gets even worse if the non-technical founder is inexperienced, or hasn't already brought a lot to the table (funding, etc.) See, for example, http://www.cs.uni.edu/~wallingf/blog/archives/monthly/2010-1... one view of how technical people perceive "idea guys" who "just need a programmer."
So, what can you do?
* One is look for a technical cofounder, not just an early employee, and give commensurate equity. Again, bear in mind that frankly he or she will be more valuable than you at this phase.
* Two is learn to code enough to bang out a prototype -- this will also make you a better engineering manager if you can appreciate the technical craft and can empathize with engineers. And there are tools like Balsamiq that can help create reasonable mockups that can convey your idea without writing code.
* Three, search the far corners of the earth for talent -- maybe you'll get lucky and find a CS student who hasn't been jaded by bad experiences with arrangements like this.
Or, if the technology you need developed isn't rocket science, you can try outsourcing, which is its own Pandora's box. Derek Sivers has a good post on managing that: http://sivers.org/how2hire
Good times, but this is what business cofounders bring to the table, right? They figure shit out, and it's hard work. Hiring the early team is just the beginning."
I've always been confused by how this is meant to help - could you explain further? I've always been a technical founder, but I've never had any idea how to find a technical co-founder - as you correctly say, good technical people will have their idea they're excited about! So I'm always skeptical that "make a prototype" would work to convince anyone, but perhaps it would - is there some hidden pool of good engineers who exist in some weird fugue state of "show me a cool semi-working website and I'm on-board", outside of, like, 1st year CS?
Similarly- I don't think it's "show me a cool semi-working website and I'm on-board", but more of- "Show me something that I recognize immediately as a really good idea, even though it's kind of crappy in execution."
I'm reminded of what Jong-Moon Kim wrote about Pixar movies: http://jiggity.com/kitchen.html
> Pixar uses a structure known as a braintrust to delicately examine works-in-progress. The braintrust is composed of some of the best storytellers of our generation who take a supreme effort in understanding the director's intent before offering suggestions.
> What's most incredible is that this feedback from the world-class cabal is merely suggestive and the director has the power to reject changes. The braintrust is aware of the danger of heavy-handed feedback squashing the soul of the product.
> New ideas are delicate and brittle. What starts off as a ugly, tangential feature later grows up to become a fundamental part of the final product.
The second big idea of the article is that a technical cofounder may be unnecessary in some technology enabled companies because technical employees or freelancers can build the system in exchange for cash.
Finally, and perhaps most usefully, the article suggests that when the resources for a particular business model are unavailable, the business model is not viable despite its feasibility. Technical talent within a business model should be considered a resource. Find a business model based on available resources.
I think Drew's advice is a sort of last-ditch, "you shouldn't have to be asking this, but if you're asking... these are probably your best shots..." sorta POV. Cofounders should have deep friendships and a lot of common understanding, etc.
I'm not qualified to talk about technical cofounders or freelancers, but as a writer/marketer I can tell you that a freelance marketer, however good, will never CARE about your product the way a founding team member will. And I'm guessing building a product is even more complex (it is to my eyes, at least) and hard to do justice to with freelancers.
It could work for say, gimmicky little games that make a surprising amount of money on the side (I have a friend who commissioned freelancers to build him a sort of spot-the-difference game, and he continues to make residual income on it), but it definitely won't work if you're trying to build a "Big Serious Product". In my opinion!
Prioritizing cofounders over spouses surrenders Silicon Valley's moral authority and undermines its cultural leadership.
I've always found prioritizing cofounder over spouse a sad depressing commentary on priority of money over change by bad actors. Innumerable colleagues and VCs have quoted me unprompted, "You can divorce a wife, but you can't divorce a cofounder," leading me to doubt their integrity; It's only true if you prioritize your business over your vows.
It is far more difficult to succeed when prioritizing family, but such is the burden of leadership. Moral authority, a prerequisite of true leadership, derives from such commitments.
 Power derived when a leader embodies the values of their followers.
It is the startup world, there's risks everywhere. Find someone, and if you kick off well with them, then go ahead and try.
If you spend too much time bothering about details like the perfect technical cofounder or non-technical cofounder... chances are you're not putting your time and effort into your actual startup.
In my experience, it's simply been the potential of something that attracts people who actually have a passionate interest. They're the best people. Technical or not.
First, for non-technical founders,
get technical yourself or at least get
started: Get a computer, settle on
Linux or Windows, get documentation,
read, type in code, get it to
work, and then build at least something
Second, for technical people
considering being a technical co-founder,
here are is a threat you should watch for:
Basically, the people in the start up,
especially the non-technical people,
may believe that it is in their interest
to block your entering the company
or, if you enter,
throttle or block your contributions
and push you out of the company.
Here those people may understand that
what they are doing is bad for the
company but believe that it is, still,
good for them in the company.
In the B-school subject organizational
behavior, such behavior is
called goal subordination because
the person places the good of the
company lower (subordinates it)
to what they see as their own good.
In particular, a non-technical person,
might work hard to hire
a technical person
with the intention that the
technical person will fail
so that, then, the
can have an excuse for
not being more technical themselves.
Can such wacko things actually happen?
I'm in the fortunate position of being on the technical side and, I suspect like a lot of technical people, I've turned down plenty of 'opportunities' from ideas people. If you were coming to me hoping to get me on board with your idea, offering anything other than equal footing on the equity side would be a total non-starter. In the majority of cases even that would probably be a crappy deal.
One thing with this:
"If you just need someone who can understand your vision and create the software which allows it to function, you are searching for an employee."
I guess it depends on how technical your product is but I think in the beginning you need to have serious commitment from the technical team. They really need to care about getting the product right or dropping what they're doing on the weekend to deal with a support request. It could mean the difference between life and death for your company.
In the two years after we started working together, we grew our customer base about 40x.
I'm not sure if this is a scaleable answer to the "where do I find a technical co-founder" question, but it has worked at least once. :) If you're a non-technical person looking for a startup opportunity, I'd recommend it.
Also, how do I get someone to work for me for free, and I'll mange the cap table?
And last: is it possible in non fantasy world to be gainfully employed, but not even know HTML?
Right now, business co-founders trade 2-4 points higher on a 10-point scale. I'm a Tech 8, and a Biz 8 wouldn't, realistically speaking, mix with me. A Biz 6 would try to push me down to 5-10% equity, with the cliff and vesting that would make me more of an employee than co-founder anyway, and take the CEO job.
A Biz 6 can deliver Sequoia on an idea, and a Biz 8 is turning away executive-level offers and board positions and 11-to-3, 7-figure jobs at VC funds. A Tech 8 is happy to break $140k and get interesting projects. I've written at length about this skew: https://michaelochurch.wordpress.com/2014/10/23/an-insight-o... . Biz 8 have other, very lucrative, options. A Tech 8 who is objectively just as good at his job (and a harder job) doesn't have the same.
The Tech 8+ drop out of the co-founder market around age 30 (and it's rare that someone even gets to Tech 8 before that age) because they get used to Biz 5's offering 2.5% equity to work on someone else's idea (as opposed to a shared idea with hard technical problems at the core).
See, too many business co-founders want to charge so much for the investor-level contacts, like they're Marlo fucking Stanfield charging $10 million for "a connect", that people usually trickle out before they even get to the Tech 6+ (much less Tech 8+) level. Jeff Dean stays in-house at Google for a reason.
Technical co-founders wouldn't be hard to find if the market could clear. They're hard to find because, while early-stage startups can't pay market salaries for understandable reasons, sociological factors keep equity amounts at shortage prices for good tech talent.
If it's anything more than zero, they are a poser and fake.