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!
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?
- Bring something to the table. Preferably it will be prior entrepreneurship experience but if not, bring connections, marketing and business development skills, funding, etc.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.