How to find a technical co-founder

This post is part of the Nontechnical Founders Series – a set of posts aimed at helping would be nontechnical startup founders get answers to their questions around the technology side of starting a company.

So you’re committed to founding a tech startup, and you know that you need the right technical co-founder to come on board to build and launch your product, right? Good. Now where do you find this mythical co-founder, and how do you know what to look for?

I’m not gonna sugar coat this. Finding a technical co-founder to partner up with you and build your product from scratch will be a long, time consuming process. Unless you have plenty of money to offer up front in salary in addition to large amounts of equity to give away, expect to spend about 2-6 months on the hunt for the right co-founder. Since you won’t be working on your product in the meantime, the best things you can do are to get smart on your business, and to contribute intelligence to the community.

The worst thing that you can do is try and recruit a technical co-founder based solely on the idea that you came up with the previous day. If you’re not really smart on the idea, and already well connected within your market, there won’t be any incentive for a technologist to join up with you and build your product for you for only 50% or less of the business.

Getting smart on your business should be a given. Do the market research, talk to as many people with knowledge on the subject as possible, come up with a set of assumptions around a strongly crafted model that will need to be proven, and then collect data on those assumptions. 

Contributing intelligence to the community is a little bit less intuitive. The easiest way to get your voice out there in the open is to start a blog. Write often about your business, your thoughts on technology, marketing, distribution, and existing business models. Comment on other well read blogs, and engage in the discussion. Aside from writing, actually participate in community events, attend meetups, speak on panels, and schedule frequent meetings with potential candidates for the co-founder position.

You’ll meet plenty of these candidates through the startup community in your city if you put the time and effort into immersing yourself into the experience. Contact people from the online communities like Hacker News, email people you’re connected to on LinkedIn, set up followup meetings after you meet a potential candidate at a meetup. 

 

When you actually talk with technical candidates, how will you know you’ve found the right one?

First of all, look at what they’ve already built. This will be the best evidence of what they’ll be able to build again. If it looks like, sounds like, and acts like the product that you want to launch for your business, then that’s a great sign.

Secondly, ask them what their specialties are, and what they contributed to their previous projects. At the early stage of startup life, it’s important that you hire generalists and not specialists. That means that you’d rather have someone who’s built an entire application from beginning to end, instead of someone who was pigeon holed into just working on the design, or the front end, or the database, or the API. A key word to use here is the full stack. This means that they’re comfortable working in almost every area from the database all the way up through the front end design. The right technical lead for your team will have worked on all of them a little bit. They needn’t be an expert at any one area, and in fact they may be really weak at certain areas, but they need to be confident that they can at least find the right person to help them out when needed.

So if the candidate seems to get along well with you, they’ve built something interesting before, they have the commitment and tenacity required in a co-founder, and they seem to have confidence in their own technical ability, do you sign them on the spot? No. There are still two more steps that I’d recommend. 

You’ll want someone technical who you know and trust to interview them to vet their technical ability. Your trusted friend will be able to dig deep on technical ability to make sure that they really will be able to live up to what they told you they will. Even if they pass this test, I recommend you’ll want to work with them at least on a trial project to see how the two of you work together. Pick a small project (it can be unrelated to your business), and you work on the business related strategy while they work on the technical side. After a few days if everything still feels right, it might be a match.

I’ll leave you with a high level checklist. All of these needn’t be fulfilled, but the more that you can check off, but more likely the long term partnership will be successful.

  • They’re highly technical
  • They have active projects online that they’ve built and can show you
  • You get along personally (don’t need to be best friends, but at least need to tolerate each other)
  • They’re a good communicator
  • They’re around your age
  • They’re located in your city
  • You have similar financial needs over the coming years
  • They come with strong references that you can check out
  • You both have similar goals about what you want out of the company 

Good luck. As a highly technical developer who’s joined up as a co-founder with a nontechnical partner, I can vouch for all of the above from the side of the person who’s being recruited. Disagree or have any thoughts? Let me know in the comments or on twitter.

  • Linda Day Harrison

    Thank you for considering all of us co-founders out there looking for a prince! Believe me, I have kissed alot of frogs as well. While kissing frogs many of the wanna be princes just seem to disappear into the sunset, therefore, I highly recommend that whether or not you think you have found your prince, do not make a move unless you have things backed up for safekeeping. Be sure you keep careful records and continue to have all of the knowledge on where the actual code lives and how to gain access to it 24/7/365. I also suggest that you secure and own any IP and not relinquish those rights or controls until you are sure your prince is real. Maintaining control of IP is super critical. I have been there, done that and do not want to remember. It is a learning curve to say the least. Thanks,Linda@ManagerLabs.com

  • Doug Petkanics

    Very good points about protecting the IP Linda. After signing on for a partnership you should always be sure that the IP belongs to the company. Normally you’d want the co-founder on a vesting schedule as well to be sure that even if things don’t work out they won’t be leaving with a large portion of the company.

  • Linda Day Harrison

    Thanks Doug. Are there examples of the vesting schedules anywhere online or examples? That makes tons of sense to me as well.

  • Doug Petkanics

    A traditional vesting schedule sometimes looks like the following:Stock vests monthly over 4 years, but the first stock might not vest until the 1 year mark. So for example a co-founder with get 1/4th of their stock after they’ve worked for a year, and 1/48th of their stock every month thereafter.Sometimes the 1 year cliff isn’t necessary, and sometimes there’s accelerated vesting that takes place in a much quicker time period than 4 years. You’ll want to iron this out with your lawyer before coming to an agreement on any word of mouth terms.

  • Linda Day Harrison

    Thank you, yes I will indeed discuss with my attorney as well. Thanks.   P.S. Two excellent books I can suggest to readers are:   The Entrepreneur's Guide to Business Law by Bagley and Dauchy and Founders at Work – Stories of Startups' Early Days by Livingston.