Finding a technical co-founder: You’re doing it wrong


When you’re trying to create a new product as a non technical person, it might seem easy at first, until you start looking for real technical partners. Either you need to pay more than you can afford, or they simply aren’t interested in what you want. As a potential technical co-founder, there’s often so much work that has to be done before an idea gets validated, it sometimes feels like you’re on your own, with a non technical co-founder just waiting for things to happen.

Creating true partnership is what’s required to if you want to offer your deep gifts to the world. For myself, it took a while to find a real technical partner. Hopefully this post will make your efforts a bit easier.

The incident that made me want to write this article

I was at a tech mixer recently where I was talking to a gent, let’s call him John, who had been looking for a co-founder for months, with no success. His project was technically challenging, leveraging a monetization strategy for a platform that had no track record. John was banging his head against a wall. He didn’t realize the sacrifice that his potential technical co-founders would have to endure for a risky startup. I felt bad for him, and explained most of what I’ve put in this post. I’m hopeful that this effort will help you avoid some of his pain.

A startup is like raising a child

When joining a startup, founders implicitly agree to a multi year commitment to each other. It takes time for ideas to prove out or fail, and there’s a huge opportunity cost. People could take paying gigs instead, or simply do a different startup. The startup is like a baby, that could mature into something great, but there’s a required sunk cost that could be years of work before the magic happens. Because of this, your partner should be someone who you enjoy sharing the journey with.

Technical co-founders early on in a startup really are playing the nurturing role. So much of their time goes into product, whereas it’s sometimes hard to see what a business co-founder brings to the table other than cash. When approaching someone for a possible committed relationship, ideas by themselves are cheap, action is what counts. If you were to approach a potential mate and simply say, “we should get together and have sexy children” that wouldn’t cut it, and neither is a simple business idea.

This doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t form relationships, as successful ones happen all the time. It just means that you have to create the foundations in yourself before approaching someone, expecting a positive outcome

Ways to show value

1. Be authentic If you want to show that you’d be a good partner, you need to be human and genuinely relate with people, not objectify them by assuming they are there to do things for you. Interact with the WHOLE person by talking with genuine curiousity about their interests and desires.

2. Validate your product idea If you’re providing business skills for the startup, back it up with action. Take steps towards product market fit, such as getting signed Letters of Intent (LOIs) which show that your product will have revenue on day 1. You could also create a business model canvas, and collect real world data for each section of the canvas.

3. Cocreate an experience There’s value to be found in most social interactions. Don’t presume an outcome, go with an open mind and a belief that there is some spontaneous positive result that can happen if you have an open mind. You can create with the other person, and meet them where they are to get to a new place. It’s hard to tell if you’ll work well with someone until you actually do so in some way. Startup Weekend is a great shortcut that can help see how people work.

4. Give a gift regardless of expected outcome In a recent article, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman talks about “giving helpful help” as a means of nurturing new relationships. To be able to do so, you need to know the other person well enough to figure out how you could help them with a reasonable investment of time. In the past, I’ve pointed people to different books, or made introductions. As long as this feels like a personal gift, you’re golden.

5. If needed, bring cash Just like the technical co-founder who is putting tons of hours in, you need to have skin in the game. Executing the non-technical parts of your business plan is a must, but often this translates to providing funding for enough runway for V1 and possibly a major pivot afterwards.

Genuinely check for a good fit

Just like dating, it helps to know what you’re looking for if you want to avoid wasting time, and create something wonderful. Have a set of criterion, such as values, skillset, and work ethic, which will help you select on a logical level.

So how do you know if your values are compatible? Here’s a shout out to Tony Wright, who shared some key startup values with me. Here’s a paraphrasing:

  • Passion-How passionate do they need to be about the problem space?
  • Risk tolerance-Are they willing to endure the financial hardships of a startup? Do they want to raise funds ASAP to limit risk or maximize ownership?
  • Motivation-Do they want money? Fame? To serve a particular audience? To solve a problem they’ve been enduring?
  • Target-How big do they want to get? Would they be happy with a lifestyle business, an IPO, or something in between?
  • Appreciating skillsets-Do you value each other’s respective disciplines? If not, over time you may resent your co-founder as being dead weight, which is a recipe for disaster.

A lot of these values are about risk. If you’re serious about the same problem, agree on the financial risks, and are going for the same sized goal, you probably are compatible with respect to risk.

Finally, a major benefit of being genuinely selective is that it projects that you value yourself. Most people want to be with someone that knows their own worth. It also helps to listen to your gut, because you’re deciding on a relationship, not solving a mathematical equation.

Build up your network

It helps to have a solid network of friends, not only to have more candidates, but to lay the groundwork for business partnership. I go over an example of this in my blog post about volunteering for a non-profit, Vittana, which ended up turning into business. In general, what you want is a T shaped network, which is wide and sometimes deep, as a catalyst for great ideas and partnerships.

Wrap up

Just like dating, you need to get out there a lot! Ideally spend time in places that you’d enjoy, regardless of outcome, such as a tech gaming night. Building up a group of friends in the startup community takes time, but like anything worthwhile, the time spent pays off in profound, life changing ways.

Tags: Business , Startups , Recruiting , Networking

Written by Eric Siegfried

As co-founder and CEO of TangoSource, Eric is passionate about helping people express themselves through technology. As a software developer turned business developer,  Eric has experience in product development, business development, project management, and user centered design.
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