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.
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. 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. 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.
: 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.
: 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”.