Finding a Technical Co-Founder

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My own anecdotal evidence indicates that the number of tech startups being founded is on the rise again. YCombinator received a record number of applicants in the most recent batch, and has extended the number of interview slots this year because of both the increased number of applicants and the quality of applicants. In the recent weeks, I have also had no less than three people email me and ask about finding a technical co-founder, which has also been a very frequent topic on the Hacker News forums.

Rather than reply to people who ask me via emails, I figure I plug any advice that I have gathered together into a blog post.

Hang out in tech entrepreneur rich communities

Perhaps the easiest way to find potential technical co-founders is to hang out in both online and offline communities where technical entrepreneurs gather. Engage in the community by asking and answering questions, and become known by filling in your profile information with a link to your own blog or website that outlines who you are and what you are working on. There is no need to be specific about your idea, you may just want to mention the industry you are working in.

There are many online tech communities, but here are just a few:

  • Hacker News - Probably a must-engage site. Full of smart people willing to help and give advice, but many technical people there are either starting their own companies or working at startups.
  • Reddit - Specifically the programming, business and startup sub-redits.
  • Slashdot - Not as vibrant as it once was, but still a large tech community
  • Stack Overflow - A Q&A site but one where you can get to know good technical people
  • Quora - Increasingly becoming a popular online hangout for tech people and entrepreneurs.
  • Webmasterworld - A popular forum for web developers.
  • SitePoint Forums - A popular marketplace and forum for web developers.
  • Business of Software - Joel Spolsky's forum which has been running for over a decade now. Full of smart people running their own startups and ISV's (independent software vendors).
  • Twitter and blogs - Participate in discussions on Twitter and blogs. The main tech influencers are not hard to find (Twitter will suggest them to you) and most are friendly and engaging
  • IRC - I booted my entire tech career through people I met on IRC. Freenode is the network most popular with developers today, especially with open source projects (channels such as #python, #rubyonrails, ##php etc. are full of smart tech people)
  • Regional communities and Alumni orgs - Google search for regional message boards and forums and check your own alumni organizations. People often cite the groups and organizations they are members of on Facebook and LinkedIn.

Do not be afraid to ask questions, most people are generally friendly - but remember that communities are a two-way process of giving and receiving.

Ask former co-workers

Get the word out that you are starting a company. Email and connect with former co-workers and let them know that you are working on starting a new company. This can often lead to introductions to suitable people, or into networks where you can find a technical co-founder.

Ideas alone are not worth a lot

Simply having an idea and a promise of working on marketing is not enough to attract a capable technical co-founder. You will need to bring more to the potential relationship. Most co-founder relationships flounder when one co-founder believes that the other is not holding up his or her end of the bargain.

Instead of simply waiting for a technical co-founder to build a product (by which point they will likely become frustrated and strike out on their own), you can do a lot of other work in preparation for an early product launch or preview. This includes:

  • Researching the potential market and assembling a lot of research material. Evernote or OneNote are both great applications you can use to collect clippings of research from online or offline sources about your potential market. You can also track online research using Google Docs. A potential technical co-founder will be more willing to work with you if they see that you are putting effort into understanding the market.
  • Talk to customers - Work out who your ideal first 20 customers will be, and email them and ask them what their current pain points are. Collate this research and use the information to guide your product planning.
  • Competition Analysis - Find out who your competitors are as part of your research. What do they do that sucks so much that you can do better? Is there a similar product that already exists that perhaps you can partner with? (ie. instead of doing a GroupOn clone in South Korea, how about contacting GroupOn and asking if you can franchise? (just an example))
  • Partnerships - B2B business development work can commence before you have a product. Just be upfront to your potential partners about the state that the product is in at the moment (ie. it doesn't exist) and work with them to build something that they would partner with you on.
  • Spec the product - Based on your research and feedback from potential customers, you should be putting together a product plan. This is separate to a wireframe or prototype and is a simple document with bullet points that outlines the core features for the next x releases of your product, and why they are in that order. It is the result of your market knowledge an research condensed into a product spec.
  • Wireframe - Take the product plan and by researching what works and what doesn't with good products start to wireframe what the product will look like. Make sure you take into account your target market (ie. will they care about Facebook connect or connecting with Twitter? What countries or regions are they in? You should know this already)
  • Branding - You do not need to be a genius designer to come up with a brand. See my recent post here about naming a product or company. Sites like 99designs will let you buy a design from a selected freelancer from dozens of prospective designers bidding for your work. Spending some money and making a financial commitment in the form of a domain name, a logo and a brand also demonstrates that you are committed to the startup idea.

All of this work will help you in convincing a potential technical co-founder that you have what it takes to do the non-technical work necessary. You have some skin in the game (both time and financially) and you aren't simply trying to find a dev who will do all the work (from their point of view).

Learning enough code

Triple-threats in the startup world are rare. I classify a triple-threat as an entrepreneur who has the combined skill base of being technical, knowing how to market a product and running the operations side of a business. These three roles are critical in an early-stage company, so if a non-technical co-founder can bring two of them to a startup while also being able to bridge the communications to technical people, you will be in a much better position.

You do not need to know how to build the product yourself - you just need to know the difference between Django and RubyOnRails, the different cloud computing platforms and the pros and cons of each (or at least the terminology). Your last resort if you are not able to find a technical co-founder is to step through the numerous tutorials and books available and learning to build a prototype yourself, or better yet, find a contract developer to do it for you. It is always easier to learn how to code when you have a product goal in mind, rather than just churning through dozens of mundane examples.

It is also unreasonable to believe that you can become a competent developer in 24 hours or a week (as some books may lead you to believe), so it requires patience on your part and dealing with frustration when your application is not responding in the way you think it should be.

The better option though, covered below, is to find a contract developer to build your prototype for you.

Prototype

In terms of learning technical skills, there is no solid advice to go one way or another - if you can't find a technical co-founder then learning to assemble a prototype (or better yet, finding a cheap developer to do it for you) will help you in attracting a potential co-founder (this along with your product and marketing work).

There are a number of freelance sites where you can find developers who will work on a contract basis and will build your product prototype to a spec. The first note here is that with many of these sites and with many of the developers you find, the success rate of the project will largely depend on how good your specification is. Begin by placing a project with a 2-3 paragraph description, but have a full detailed product description and wireframe ready to send to serious bidders.

Andrew Warner of Mixergy conducted an excellent interview yesterday with an iPhone application development firm who have developed almost a dozen iPhone apps using online contract workers. They do the spec and marketing work and are seeing $80k a month in revenue, so a successfull relationship with contract development work is very possible.

The sites to consider to find potential developers are:

  • Elance - This is the original offshore/contract development site and has been around since the late 90s. I first used this site over 10 years ago and have had very successful results finding developers and contractors in other fields such as SEO, marketing, etc. You will need to signup as a purchaser which requires a subscription of a few hundred dollars, but the quality of contracts available is generally high. Be wary of the generic response templates (ie. those who reply with a boilerplate response of 'yes we can do this') and narrow down to those who have read your description and have written a bespoke response/proposal.
  • Odesk - I have less experience with oDesk - but I have found good developers on the site. It is worth subscribing and browsing the categories and the developers.
  • Rent-a-coder and Guru - These sites, and the millions of others like them, are in a different category. The average quality of contractor is lower than Elance or ODesk, and you will need to work harder to find good developers on these sites, but they do exist. The extra effort you put in to find good developers here can be worth it as you could uncover some gems who are less established but are cheaper. One of the longest running dev relationships I had was a small firm I found on one of these sites and they ended up being very good.

You will need to project manage the developers you find, and invest in the order of $1000-3000 for a prototype. The combination of having the market research done, the beginnings of business development work with potential partners, your branding, a product plan and now a simple prototype is more than enough to attract even the best technical co-founders and other core team members (and even to attract funding).

Evaluating a technical co-founder

As a non-technical person it is difficult to evaluate a technical co-founder. One you have a candidate, ask a technical friend to evaluate their skills. Be careful with how you approach this, as technical people can be touchy and sensitive about being queried on their skills, especially by a non-technical person.

Approach the task like you would with hiring and speak to references from previous employers, and speak to prior co-workers (approach it casually). Get a feel for their technical capabilities by looking at any projects they have released or built in the past (there is no better indicator than released code - a surprising number of technical people have never actually shipped code that is used by other people.)

It is fair to question their commitment, such as if they are planning on keeping their full-time job while working on a startup part-time (apparently this is a red flag to YCombinator, and it probably should be). By this point you should have demonstrated your own commitment by following the steps above, so it is fair to ask a potential technical co-founder to do the same. If in doubt, pass on the opportunity and move on to find somebody else.

Once you have put in the effort and found a potential technical co-founder, be generous with equity distribution. Co-founders are partners, and you want to address the question of equity split and be done with it sooner rather than later. Not settling the question of equity while working on the company is a ticking time-bomb.

With a good technical co-founder and all the other initial work you have done, you should be close to releasing a preview of your product and/or being ready to raise money or start charging initial customers and bringing in revenue. The process isn't easy - but if it was, (warning: cliche ahead) then everybody would be doing it.

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