How to find a technical co-founder

Written by Andrew Askins on July 06, 2017

Finding a technical co-founder is one of the most important decisions you will ever make. It’s also one of the earliest decisions you’ll have to make. Investors typically don’t invest in companies without any technical talent in-house. A technical co-founder is also critical to steering the ship and recruiting talent. Not to mention starting a startup is the hardest thing you’ll ever do, and having someone by your side makes a world of difference.

You could always learn to code yourself, and you should absolutely learn enough to be dangerous. Learning to code makes it easier for you to have intelligent conversations with your team. But you really need someone focusing solely on the business side, and as a non-technical founder that should be you.

But finding a good, technical co-founder is far from easy, and almost every company we see try is going about it the wrong way. It takes time and work, like every other aspect of building a business.

What does a technical co-founder do?

Depending on the stage of your company and the resources at your disposal, your technical co-founder’s role will vary. Unless you have the money to work with contractors (more on this later), in the early days your technical co-founder will be focused exclusively on building the product.

This means you need someone with serious programming chops. And like all early hires you should lean towards a generalist over a specialist. There’s so much to be done in the early days that someone with a very specialized skillset is going to have a tougher time adapting. This doesn’t mean they have to call themselves a “full stack developer.” There are lots of ways we programmers describe ourselves, and most good developers don’t give a lot of thought to titles.

Which full-stack developer are you? by CommitStrip (http://www.commitstrip.com)

Instead focus on looking for people who have worked with early stage startups before, or have side projects of their own. And above all, look for a voracious appetite for learning.

Eventually though if you’re successful your technical co-founder will write less and less code. As the move from technical co-founder to CTO, their responsibilities will begin to look more like the rest of your early hires’. They’ll need to build your product team, create the development culture, make high-level architecture decisions, and lead the product side of the company.

Note: You can always bring in an outside CTO but they won’t know the product and the team the way your co-founder will.

What makes a great co-founder?

The skills that make someone a great technical co-founder instead of just a great programmer are the same skills that make anyone a great co-founder. Based on our experiences building Krit, there are 3 attributes to look for in any co-founder.

1. Communication skills

Communication is one of the most important skills any human being can have. Whether you’re scoping your MVP or building a team, communication is key in everything. Pay attention to how well people listen; good communication isn’t all about talking.

2. Team-first mentality

Building a startup requires sacrifices. A great co-founder puts the success of the team before their own personal success. The CEO of ZipRecruiter talks about looking for “we” people. When someone is talking about their experience do they use “I” or “we?”

3. Long term thinking

There is no such thing as an overnight success in the world of startups. You need co-founders who are thinking 5-10 years into the future, but are still capable of executing now.

Bonus: 

Find someone whose strengths complement yours. This goes beyond technical/non-technical. If you’re not organized, consider finding a co-founder who is.

When to look for a technical co-founder and when to hire contractors.

Many people often ask if they should find a technical co-founder or contract out the development of their MVP.

If you don’t have access to funding then you don’t have as many options. You can learn to code or find a technical co-founder.

But even if you can fund the project and find, say, a kickass development team in a dope town like Charleston, SC to build your MVP, you should still find a co-founder. It is incredibly helpful to have someone to lean on and push you when times are tough. And you’re eventually going to have to build a tech team, so you need someone who can speak the language and lead the team.

Our goal at Krit is for all of our clients to eventually become successful enough that they have to replace us. Working with a team like us is a great way to get your product to market before you’ve found the right co-founder. But eventually you need someone in house.

Getting Hitched

They say co-founding a startup is like getting married. You spend 8+ hours a day together, make lots of important decisions, worry about your finances… it’s quite literally a legally binding contract between two people.

Would you ask someone to marry you on the first date? No. It would be creepy. And suppose they said yes. What if it turns out you’re a horrible match? You don’t know anything about each other.

How not to find a technical co-founder

But people do this all the time with startups. They rush into a co-founder relationship. Or they ask a developer to build their app when they barely know them.

Finding a co-founder is not an overnight process. You have to build a relationship slowly over time. Don’t expect them to commit on the first date.

How do you build this relationship? The same way you would any relationship. Talk to them. Get to know them. Go to a meetup together. 

Maybe things are going well. You like them and you’re pretty sure they like you. So you want to take it to the next level. So ask them to build you a landing page. Something small, not a huge commitment. But something that will give you a chance to work together.

And remember, you asked so you pick up the check. Pay them.


How much should you pay a co-founder?

To start with, it’s a good idea to do small projects together. Build a landing page, create some wireframes, architect the project. For these projects, you should pay your potential co-founder a standard hourly rate for their time. If you’re not willing to put a small amount of money into the project, that’s not a great sign of confidence to a developer. Not to mention most developers have been burned by “idea guys” who offer a 10% equity stake if they’ll just recreate Facebook from scratch in 2 weeks.

But eventually if they’re you’re co-founder, they’re going to need to have equity. And you should want them to have a significant stake; you want them to be bought in to the success of the project. We’ll write a whole post on how to divide equity later on, but here are some questions to guide the conversation.

  • What skills, relationships, or unique value does each person bring to the table?

  • How much time will each person be devoting to the project?

  • What will each person’s responsibilities be?

  • How much money is each person putting in?

  • Will anyone be drawing a salary? If so, how much and when?

  • How much time/money have you put in so far?

Note that the ownership of the idea isn’t in the list of questions. Ideas are cheap, execution is everything. And the whole team should have ownership of the problem you’re tackling.

Also you should be on the same vesting schedule as your co-founder.

Where to look for a co-founder

The best places to find potential co-founders are local tech meetups. But don’t try to fake it, or walk in pitching your startup. Try to learn enough to be dangerous and then go to meetups you’re actually interested in. You’ll learn something and meet some cool people. The best way to impress developers is to learn a little bit about their world. You may also consider looking for meetups that bridge the gap between tech and business, such as meetups that focus on products.

If you don’t have any tech meetups in your area then you’ve got look online. Reddit has some awesome developer communities. Dev.to is a newer community full of developers. Spend time to get to know the community, learn the language. You don’t have to learn how to code to learn how to speak to coders. Don’t understand something? Ask someone. Developers are typically friendly folks, especially towards people who are eager to learn.

r/ProgrammerHumor is a a great resource for learning how to (and how not to) talk to developers

How to know if a developer is legit

If you don’t know enough to look through their code, the best way to tell if a developer is legit is to look at past projects. Have they worked on serious applications that are being used by real users? As you’re getting to know them find out the things they’re interested in and the projects they’ve worked on.

Above all else look for a willingness to learn, and understanding and appreciation of the business side, and a passion and drive. Any good developer can pick up a new language or tech stack given enough time. Don’t worry about which languages or frameworks they’ve worked with as much as how well you work together and their capacity for growth.

Homework

Comment below with 3 places you’re going to start spending time to look for a co-founder. These can be IRL (in real life) or online.

I’d also love to hear about what problems you’re struggling with. What posts would you be interested to read? Let me know.

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Header Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Andrew is our fearless leader. If you want to chat about startups, football or cooking shows you can hit him up on Twitter. If you enjoyed this post it would be a huge help if you shared it or signed up for our newsletter.