How to find a technical co-founder

TL;DR;

There’s no silver bullet to finding the right technical co-founder, but from the technical side of the table, here are some helpful tips for your search.

Recently I’ve started to get much more involved with PSL (Philadelphia Startup Leaders). If you’re in the Philly area, I highly recommend going to a few events in person.  I’ve noticed after going to the events over the last year, and seeing discussions on the listserv, frequently people working on ideas or a project will make a statement about lack of tech talent or the difficulty in finding a technical co-founder. Being a technical person, and having built several technical teams, let me pass on my advice. These are things that I, as a technician, would notice if I were starting to look for a new startup.

First, it’s pretty much the same everywhere. In fact, I would wager a six pack that it’s probably harder to find a technical co-founder in NYC or Silicon Valley. Technical people in general are in demand, and this means that even the average developers (and you’re trying to get better than average I’m sure!)  can be selective. On top of that, if you have read anything like Working with Emotional Intelligence you’ll know that generally speaking developers tend to fit a certain mold that isn’t necessarily consistent with entrepreneurship.

Tips

So how do you find a technical co-founder? I can’t guess at your situation: funded vs. non-funded, full-time vs. side project, ideation stage vs. proof of concept stage. I don’t know your specific network, so my suggestions on getting the word out aren’t unique: in Philly you should post on PSL, go to PSL events, maybe participate in some of the weekend startup events.

What I can do, however, is offer some tips that might make it easier for you to find potential co-founders and maybe help you vet them:

  • Now (in the mid-2010s), here in the Philly area developers with just a little bit of experience can get salaried or contract positions in the $80k – 180k+ area[1]. Just know that’s what you’re competing against. This is also why the candidate pool might appear small. They’re there, but they’ll all generally pretty comfortable. You have to make sure that you have an idea that they think is worth working on.
  • If you don’t have a product yet, but you have an idea, don’t worry about your tech stack at all. Your technology doesn’t matter at this point. You want to find a person that can execute, and they’ll execute on whatever stack he or she knows best. Chances are if things go well, the original technology will need to be thrown out anyways. Pre-traction vs. Post-traction development is very different. If you’re dictating a technology stack, you’re likely turning away potential candidates.
  • Are you asking too much for one person? Development is pretty specialized these days, so you’re probably trying to find someone who is generally good at full stack development. They’ll also be good at figuring things out, which is good because they’re going to have to be doing a lot of that in the early days before you have a full development team. Don’t expect to find a radiologist who is also a surgeon who is also a endocrinologist. Also don’t be afraid if the person has not done a particular type of technology. For example don’t rule out someone who has a track record of full stack development, but you’re trying to launch a mobile app.
  • I’ve interviewed more than a hundred developers in this area and probably less than 25% of them have CS or related degrees, and the degree has not been a reliable predictor of performance. Formal education matters less than you think. What’s more important is their background: have they shipped products in the past? Some of the best engineers I’ve worked with were college drop outs.
  • The good potential fits are going to press you on your current idea. The really good ones will press you on your business model. Take that as a good sign. You might be surprised. You want your technical co-founder to have a business mind and not be a Architecture Astronaut. They also want to own part of the problem as well.
  • Be realistic on compensation. Offering 5% ownership won’t cut it. If you’re pre-funding and a sole founder without a technical background but an idea, you are talking 50/50 here[2]. The idea is great, but execution–both technical and non-technical–is what matters.
  • Someone who you might be able to work, someone who likes the idea, should give you some pro bono time. Get to know the person on a part-time basis. First, they’ll likely do a few technical spikes to get an idea of the scope of the problem. Second, you’ll also see if you work well together. This holds especially true if you’re not yet funded and not yet generating any revenue.

It is hard

There’s a reason why sites like FounderDating exist: it can be hard to find the right person. From personal experience, there are developers out there who just want to find the right business person to meet up with. Hopefully these tips help a non-technical person see the process from the other side. What do you think? What challenges have you run into in your search for a co-founder? Let me know in the comments.

Notes
[1]: A developer with just a few years of experience can quickly get into the $70-80k range. You may be able to get by with someone with just a few years of experience, especially if they are a 10x developer. If you start getting into people that have been Directors of Development, Architects, or similar roles, you’re getting into the mid to upper $100ks.

[2]: Your situation may be different and a mix of sweat equity and actual pay. The point is, don’t low-ball or you’ll quickly run into “why should I work on your crappy startup idea”.

Advertisements

5 thoughts on “How to find a technical co-founder

  1. “I’ve interviewed more than a hundred developers in this area and probably less than 25% of them have CS or related degrees, and the degree has not been a reliable predictor of performance. Formal education matters less than you think. What’s more important is their background: have they shipped products in the past? Some of the best engineers I’ve worked with were college drop outs.”

    I’m curious about this statement. For the past 8 years I’ve worked for two software companies, one enterprise level, and the other more or less a start-up that has been able to eke out a living for the past decade. I am not a developer, but at work I have been learning on the side, more for fun and to keep things interesting. The development team asked me to help out on a couple of projects as well as doing some QA testing. I’m familiar with agile development etc., because of this involvement.

    Because of this I have decided to start a post bac CS program at a local state college. My decision to do so is mainly due to hearing the statement: “Without a CS degree no start-up or development team will take you serious.” With your comment from someone first-hand in-the-know I think I may have to reevaluate my idea with obtaining a CS degree. Could you elaborate on your viewpoint in this realm? What would you recommend for someone in my position, that is, someone just starting out as a developer with little to no experience and without a cs degree? Thanks for your input, it’s really appreciated.

  2. Tegan, I would challenge the statement that “without a CS degree no start-up or developer team will take you serious.” I’m not sure what part of the country you are in, but here in the Philly area, less than half of the candidates have formal CS degrees. (And even then, those that do, many don’t pass my technical screen.) I’ve not seen any our the development teams question each other about their education. About their development practices, yes.

    Real world experience that I have:

    – worked at a growing start-up where the CTO was a college drop out
    – one of the best hires I’ve ever made was a college drop out that was working in QA (QA is a good way to get started because you can start coding automated tests)
    – worked with people with math, history, and various other majors.

    Having a EE, CS, or CpE degree will help get your foot in the door. But it’s not an absolute requirement. If the CS post bac is something like an 18 month program that you can do, I am sure it will help and probably teach you a lot that you don’t know. If you don’t go that direction, you’ll have to be very disciplined and driven to learn what the current better practices are.

    JB

  3. Thanks for the note!

    As much as you emphasized that there are many developers without a CS degree, I just feel it may be necessary to get my foot in the door. I suppose, unless I end up having a number of projects under my belt to prove I can code, the CS degree may not be needed.

    Further, I agree with you that the CS degree would be worthwhile because it will teach me much, including how to think and solve problems like a developer. The downside is the cost. Around $28,000 for the 18 month post bac CS degree. I assume in another couple of years developer salaries will still be up there to pay it off, but man, that’s a chuck of change!

    Finally, what exactly is your technical screen? Maybe I can start working on it now? 😉

    • Having a CS degree will definitely help you. Your investment of $28k will be paid back in spades over your career. Salaries have only ever gone up, especially for talented developers.

      I actually have queue another post on my technical interviewing style. I’ll be publishing it on the 24th or 25th. If you subscribe to this blog, you should get emailed when it’s published.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s