Why you can(‘t) recruit a technical cofounder

By Jennifer

Our vision for LaunchBit centers around helping people get their web business ideas off the ground. There are a lot of aspects to this ranging from finding your first paying customer and validating your idea to putting together a minimum viable product that let’s you learn about your business as quickly as possible. We know, however, that at some point, especially if you yourself are not technically-savvy, there will be a time where getting some technical expertise on the team is essential to continue progressing.

Putting aside the questions of when you should find a technical person or whether that technical person should be a cofounder or an employee, today I’m going to focus on the question that Elizabeth and I hear over and over (and over) again: How do I find a technical cofounder??

Over the past 2 weeks or so, we put together a short survey and invited “technical” people to fill it out. We didn’t put strict specifications on what “technical” means, but the general idea was people who may qualify as a technical cofounder of an internet/tech startup and in particular, those who have been pitched ideas before. As it seems that the people with the most difficulty finding technical cofounders are non-technical people, we wanted to focus the survey on what it would take for non-technical person with an idea to convince a technical person to join the venture.

As a disclaimer, there was no intention of creating a statistically rigorous set of results. As of today, we received 104 total submissions with 69 saying they were not currently working full-time on their own idea and the remaining 35 saying they were. The reason for the differentiation is that we hypothesized those who were already working full-time on their own idea would be much harder to “poach” away. We asked people to rate 5 different factors on how important each would be in affecting the decision to join the non-technical person’s startup. 1 = Not Important and 5 = Very Important. Then, we asked a few open-ended questions. The last two questions of the survey were added by Greenhorn Connect, and they will be discussing the results on the Greenhorn Connect blog soon. 

On to the results!

Relationship

Generally speaking, potential technical cofounders indicated that having a prior relationship with the non-technical cofounder or the location of the non-technical cofounder was not necessarily a deal-breaker. While the reponses for both leaned toward more important, both had a significant number of people saying it wasn’t such a big deal.

The background of the non-technical person, on the other hand, is a huge deal, especially to those who were currently working full-time on their own idea. The result is also reflected in the open-ended question about other important factors for consideration. The most popular point that was brought up was the non-technical person’s “track record.” In particular, potential technical cofounders indicated they wanted to see successful entrepreneurial experience and a complementary skillset that would be brought to the table. Some people suggested proven success in marketing or business development and possibly even an MBA.

Nobody thought idea validation was not important. To be clear, the way the question was set up was to ask whether the idea had been validated in the technical person’s perspective, not the non-technical person’s perspective. Approximately 80% of potential technical cofounders polled said idea validation was of great importance. Of the people who were working on their own ideas, almost 65% of them said idea validation was Very Important. Take note, if you want to convince someone to stop working on their idea and start working on yours, you better have extremely strong evidence that your idea is going to be successful.

Our survey did not ask exactly what it meant for an idea to be validated in the technical person’s mind. In the open-ended portion of the poll, one person indicated, “If they have $1 million in sales and have shown that people are willing to buy this thing without it even existing.” Another said, “Validated early adopters / customers who said they’re going to pay for the product when the MVP is out for their use.” Still others mentioned that the idea was already funded. I would imagine that there’s no cut-and-dried description of a “validated” idea simply because every person has his/her own risk profile.

Finally, we asked people to rank the importance of the type of compensation offered. In retrospect, we may not have been clear enough about this question. The original intention was to get at whether the type of compensation offered would dramatically change a person’s intent to sign on with the non-technical founder. Again, it was overall, more important for people currently working on their own ideas than those who weren’t. The question itself didn’t attempt to ask whether equity or salary was preferred. In fact, one respondent clearly described a scenario in which he/she would be willing to take a combination of the two. Another respondent told me personally he would only consider joining up if he got equity.

After rating these factors, we gave the respondents an opportunity to tell us about any other factors that were important to them. The most popular mention was the non-technical person’s track record, as I mentioned before. After that, potential technical co-founders were concerned about team dynamics. Many people indicated that there has to be some chemistry between the them and the non-technical person and if there were other people involved, everyone had to be able to work together. A few mentioned that the non-technical person’s marketing skills and experience were important, and a few others claimed it was very important that the non-technical person be willing to learn something technical. This might be alluding to the ability for the non-technical person to understand the technical person. Misunderstandings and unrealistic expectations was a major pet peeve.

Maybe I shouldn’t even call it a pet peeve. When we asked what was most annoying or frustrating when a non-technical person pitches an idea, the shout of “unrealistic expectations” permeated throughout the answers. This ranged from unrealistic assumptions about what the technical person will do (“Some non-technical people want a software engineer to not only code, but also be the PM, graphic designer, online ad expert, etc. Frankly if I’m going to be making such key decisions and putting in so much work, I’m going to do it for my own company.”) to unrealistic expectations of marketing (“They have underbudgeted the marketing necessary — they think the Internet is ‘free’.”) to unrealistic optimism about the idea (“Unrealistic expectations like ‘this is going to be the next Google for sure!’”).

There was certainly a lot of ranting about the idea being more important than the execution. The technical people who ranted on this unanimously agree that execution (of the idea and of the marketing / business development) is way more important than the idea. They hated it when non-technical people wanted more equity just because they came up with the idea. And even worse, the respondents were utterly turned off when the idea being pitched was presented as the coolest, most novel idea ever when in fact it was something that has already been done by multiple companies. Unless there was a clear and compelling differentiation, the respondents chalked it up to the non-technical person having little idea of the competitive space and absolutely no clue what the hell they’re talking about. If you want to look like an absolute doofus when pitching to a potential technical cofounder, this is the way to do it, folks! 

So, what are the major takeaways if you’re a non-technical person searching for a technical cofounder?

 

  1. Bring something to the table. Preferably it will be prior entrepreneurship experience but if not, bring connections, marketing and business development skills, funding, etc.
  2. Get sales, users, sign-ups — any concrete evidence to show that you have a web idea that people want.  Have a validated idea that has a high probability of success for everyone in the startup.
  3. Be realistic. Be realistic about your idea and your market. (“Be realistic. Engineers can handle negative information.”)  Understand the competitive space of your idea. Be able to talk about your competitors’ products and differentiate your product.
  4. Present a clear execution plan for the roles people will play, where everyone will be pulling their weight and doing their job.  You are not an idea-guy/girl.  Your role needs to be operational.
  5. Build rapport with your potential cofounder. You’re gonna need chemistry between the founders and a great team dynamic is invaluable.

For a step-by-step guide on creating a web business without coding, check out the LaunchBit Startup Guide.

  1. Carl Seglem says:

    Nice. No surprises, but nice to see clear patterns across many potential co-founders.So let’s say someone has 1. less-or-non-technical skills and entrepreneurship experience, 2. evidence of there being a viable business, and 3. realistic understanding of business opportunities and risks…Any thoughts on where or how to efficiently and effectively meet potential technical co-founders? This seems to be a perennial challenge.(My guess is that with market/business validation you’d be much better able to network effectively with good introductions to potential co-founders, and without it, you’d just be referred to networking events.)Any thoughts on how to be realistic about implementation feasibility, options, costs? For less technical folks, this seems to be a chicken-and-egg problem.(My guess is similar here: with market/business validation, you’d be able to find people interested in talking about what you prototyped and get some feedback and guidance about implementation possibilities.)Again, nice to see this. Thanks.

  2. JeremyHutchings says:

    As soon as “recruit and tell what to do” turns into “partner with and listen too” …. I’ll be interested.

  3. Jennifer Chin, Elizabeth Yin says:

    @Carl: Good thoughts. Agreed — it is a challenge and going to lots of events / meetups definitely helps. But, mentioning your validation to other people / startups certainly helps. You’re right — ppl are more willing to introduce you to others in their networks when they feel like it won’t be a fool’s errand. To all the people who have ever asked me for help in finding a technical co-founder: I would have gone the extra mile to make intros if I thought you had validated your idea enough, so that I wouldn’t look like a fool doing the intro. As far as how to get validation without technical skills, I think there are lots of things you can do: get potential customer quotes (not survey numbers but ppl actually saying they want this), pre-sales, signups, etc… All of these things don’t even involve a prototype. If you can build a prototype using WYSIWYG web builders + wizard of oz the service, even greater props. @Jeremy: Agreed. Although, to be fair, I think there are a number of non-technical people out there who don’t come into a business with that kind of attitude, though I’ve certainly met my share of them.@WT: Perhaps that’s what motivates you. But, a number of ppl who took our survey were more excited about equity. (Those are the ppl who wanted to be co-founders not employees). The caveat was that they wanted to make sure they got fair equity — either equal or greater share.

  4. Andy Freeman says:

    > Any thoughts on how to be realistic about implementation feasibility, options, costs? For less technical folks, this seems to be a chicken-and-egg problem.What’s wrong with asking your potential technical co-founder?As a potential technical co-founder, I don’t mind technical problems. In fact, solving technical problems is what I bring to the table.The problem (as explained in the survey results) is with technical solutions that are clearly wrong.I assume that there’s a complementary set of issues wrt finding biz co-founders.And, reread what Hutchings wrote. If you need a partner, don’t ask someone to be an employee.

  5. Jennifer Chin, Elizabeth Yin says:

    @Andy: Thanks — what do you mean by “the problem is with technical solutions that are clearly wrong.”? That the non-techies tend to approach people who are not the “right kind of technical person” for a particular idea? Or that non-techies haven’t validated their particular ideas before pitching their “wrong mocks/ideas”?

  6. Andy Freeman says:

    I don’t mean either of those.I’m referring to “solutions” to technical problems that non-technical people include in their pitch to technical people. Examples include “It’s only 1TBy of data, so we use a single $70 hard disk from Fry’s”. “this is perfect for Amazon Web Services”, and “It will only take 3 man-months of development”.It’s good that you went to the trouble to figure out some of the relevant factors, but you’re likely to misunderstand their consequences.Even if you’re in the ballpark, presenting technical solutions raises two issues – you’re looking at me as an employee, not a partner, and you might be a know-it-all. Since you won’t always be as lucky, the latter has me thinking about how hard you will be to work with.Instead, be a collaborator. Tell me what you know, why you think that it’s correct, and then engage me in a discussion as to its consequences.Here’s another way to think of it. If I’m asking you to do sales and marketing for an enterprise software product that I want to build, what are you going to think when I tell you how to sell it, including how long it will take?

  7. froilanmendoza says:

    >The technical people who ranted on this unanimously agree that execution (of the idea and of the marketing / business development) is way more important than the ideaOf course… you asked the techs so they’ll answer that. I’m sure if you polled the ‘idea’ people (aka those who are looking for technical cofounders), they’ll lean the other way. That said, one of the keys when looking for a ‘technical co-founder’ is the “co-” part — in a small, boot-strapping team, it is vital that every member of the founding team bring as much as they can to the table, preferably complementary. When potential technical founders sense their potential value, they’ll be more inclined to build the startup.Good post, thanks.

  8. Andy Freeman says:

    > Of course… you asked the techs so they’ll answer that. I’m sure if you polled the ‘idea’ people (aka those who are looking for technical cofounders), they’ll lean the other way. Oh really?Then why do they want to be CEO?BTW – If you think that tech people aren’t idea people, you’re likely to get tech people who aren’t idea people. Since you’re going to need idea people when it becomes obvious that your initial idea isn’t viable, this pretty much guarantees that the company is going to tank.And then there’s the problem that you don’t actually have a coherent idea. You have a sketch.However, let’s ignore all that/assume that your stereotype is reality and ask a couple of questions.(1) Part of your job involves people skills. What does the above tell us about your people skills?(2) You’re supposed to be smart about money and economics. Do you really think that the “fact” that we need you more than you need us implies that you can get some of us? If you can’t get some of us, what’s your ROI?It’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you get for it.As far as the value of the idea, we’re constantly being pitched good ideas. How often are you hit up for ideas?Our BATNA is that we keep making $150k/year at a fairly secure job. What’s yours?

  9. Jennifer Chin, Elizabeth Yin says:

    @froilanmendoza Actually, if you read the survey, we did not lead people on by asking whether the idea or the execution was more important. This came across in the free-for-all input boxes that we had in the survey. People wrote what they felt / wanted to. I’m sure that there are indeed many non-technical entrepreneurs who believe their idea is the most important thing. But, this article was all about how you can or cannot recruit a technical co-founder, and execution is more important than ideas to those who took our survey, who represent a subset of this group. This article is *not* about how you can find a non-technical idea person.

  10. Jake says:

    Great article. I was actually thinking about this the other day. IMO it’s a bit of a wake up call to non-technical people looking for technical cofounders. I would like to add that I find it amusing that there are A LOT of non-technical people who want to do internet startups. They think it’s hip and cool. They think it’s easy. “I’ve got the idea. Hire someone to do my website. Boom. I’m rich”. You wish.I’ve had my fair share of encounters and listening to pitches by this group and I always reject them. Many try to get me to be a partner and offer me equity. Sorry, no thanks! I notice most of them don’t meet the first criteria you mentioned, which is probably the important one – bringing something to the table.It’s baffling that they want to an online biz when they have no knowledge of anything. They don’t know design, programming or marketing. No prior entrepreneurship experience, etc. Ideas aren’t worth much really. Don’t mean to be discouraging majority of successful internet startup founders have great technical skills or have extensive connections in the industry.

  11. Jennifer Chin, Elizabeth Yin says:

    @Jake: that’s true — but to be fair, I think we’re going to start to see a number of online businesses that are actually not about technology and very much about business. Companies like Groupon (and all their clones) are entirely about doing business development right — building a landing page is trivial. Companies like Rue La La, Gilt Groupe, One Kings Lane, Woot (now part of Amazon), and all those other flash sales sites are all essentially business development — without those amazing deals, no one would care about whether the site is crappy or not. And, companies like Airbnb, Uber, Hipmunk, etc — sure those companies certainly have more complex websites than just a landing page with deals, but you’ve got to admit that without the relationships with your first customers who want to rent out their spaces/taxicabs/hotel rooms (as Hipmunk goes after that space), the website is unimportant. Sure, if the website is good, hopefully your subsequent spaces will join the site, but getting your first suppliers is still business development. So my take is that business people, if they truly have these sales/BD skills or special relationships with particular industries, they need to deliver on them if they want to be taken seriously as a business partner. They need to get initial sales or signups or what not.

  12. BrianMalkerson says:

    Great post. I am going to recommend everyone going through our pair up program (www.pairupnyc.com) checks it out. Thanks!

  13. RLeon says:

    As a non-technical person I am very disappointed at the complete disregard for others and arrogance that some of the above posts reveal about their authors. Technical skills are skills like any other such as sales, writing, management, marketing and art. Let’s start by respecting what everyone is bringing to the table, including industry experience that may very well be translatable into an e-business. If someone comes up with an idea and wants to be CEO, have x% equity and decision power, you need to negotiate and talk about your trade-offs up front. Business people generally expect you to do so. Second, it may be difficult for a non-technical person to prove their model if they don’t understand the limitations and specs that their idea requires. That is likely why they are approaching you to begin with. Moreover, investors (and even business plan competitions) generally like to see complete teams before rewarding startups, so it is unlikely that as a tech person you will find a proven, funded, successful business ready for you to join. And if so, your % offered at that point will be much less than that of the non-tech founder who took the early risk. The way that I have solved this problem for myself (after much trial and error) has been to outsource a prototype just to get something running that will prove both potential tech partners and investors that the idea, model and operational soundness are there. Expensive? Yes. But I am hoping that it will be a fair way to attract the kind of tech person that I am looking for.

  14. Collin says:

    Thanks for the post Jennifer and Elizabeth, it was very valuable. I’ve come to the realization myself that having a great idea is useless. Ideas are only valuable when paired with validation, execution, and then iteration. And as it shows here, that’s when a non-technical person becomes valuable to a technical person.I’m a non-technical person working on a startup called SproutUps. We focus on connecting cofounders together to make ideas come to life. I’ve also just created a survey to gather data like you did and would love if you could pass the survey along to any entrepreneurs. Here’s a link to it: http://svy.mk/fy8nvEI hope the results of this survey will elude to some powerful information just as yours did. Thanks!Collin

  15. arshammm says:

    This is awesome and I couldn’t agree more with the take aways. I am the technical cofounder of WebMechanix, a Baltimore-based Search Engine Optimization company. If you know about SEO & Internet Marketing, you know it’s half art and half science. http://www.seobywebmechanix.com/blogMy cofounder and I are actually cousins – have lived together and tried MLM together in the past.Since being successful in business for over 2 years now, we often find ourselves giving advice to those who want to start their own business. THE ONE THING WE ALWAYS TELL THEM: Find yourself a semi-opposite partner. Starting a business by yourself can be really hard as you’re often alone, don’t have all the necessary skill sets to run the business, and (most importantly) there isn’t enough time in the day for one person to do all the tasks… We’ve found our partnership to be key in growing our business… He has the art, I have the science, we both have the financial/business mindset — it’s gold.

  16. roomplug says:

    Great article! As the technical founder of http://www.roomplug.com, I agree that the non-technical co-founder must bring real world and sound marketing and sales experiences to the table. This person must have the know-how and walk the walk, not just use a startup to gain experience. Also, I could agree and relate with #5 – cofounders must have the chemistry and rapport in order for the business to survive and grow.

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