Internet technology, mobile technology & startups

Securing a Technical Co-Founder: Facts, Myths & Tips

Image taken by flickr.com/photos/deltamike

Image taken by flickr.com/photos/deltamike

It seems everywhere I turn lately I meet enthusiastic individuals who are looking for a Technical Co-Founder to turn their idea into a reality, and experience implies they are in very short supply. If you find yourself in this position, I’ve set out some of the facts and myths, alongside some top tips which should help you achieve your goal.I’m in the rare position of having run businesses and worked as a software developer (although rarely at the same time). I’ve had a lot of exposure to both ends of the spectrum, and the people who occupy these positions – I’ve heard moans and gripes from both parties! This is what I’ve picked up along the way…

Do you want a Co-Founder or a worker?

This is a question you need to ask yourself. Are you desperate to find a Coder who can build your dream product so that you can go out and sell it, or are you looking for someone who has multiple disciplines and will have a strong say in how the business operates? The latter is a Co-Founder, the former is an employee. The term ‘Co-Founder’ shouldn’t be used as a convenient way to describe someone who gets a few token shares in exchange for working for a pittance. A Co-Founder is someone who will live, eat and breathe the business and feel they have as much say in the way forward as you do – and they’ll do this for two reasons:

  1. They enjoy it.
  2. They believe there is the opportunity for big reward if it is done right (via significant equity)

If you merely want your product built on the cheap, then you may have to go back to the drawing board. A few token shares, a crazy idea, and working hours that make a sweatshop look like a holiday camp is not appealing to anyone. When it comes to equity, be generous. Why aren’t you offering your Co-Founder half the business? If this is because it’s your idea then read on…

Your idea sucks

Seriously, I’ve heard so many bad ideas. You sit there waiting for the revelation and it doesn’t come. I’ve done this myself, we all have our fair share of bad ideas, and we really don’t want to believe it when it’s spelt out to us. Unfortunately some people are belligerent, and there is no telling them otherwise.

To convince a Software Developer that they should come on board, you need to convince them that your idea is great. We both know you can’t code, so find out how else you can show them. Get some feedback from potential customers, letters of intent, appoint an industry Non-Exec Director. Don’t show them a business plan and hockey stick growth, because all that does is to reaffirm your own delusional concepts.

Accept that you’re probably wrong about what people want. A few months in and there is a reasonable chance you will pivot the idea based upon customer feedback. That original idea doesn’t look so great now does it? Maybe some of the people that told you that in the first place were right? This WILL happen so be ready for it. An attitude that you have an idea that needs further input will get you much further than an attitude of “I AM RIGHT”.

Your idea is great – but worthless

Countering the previous point, maybe, just maybe, you have hit upon a really good idea. You’re still wrong about exactly how it will work, but you know that already. Unfortunately for you, without a product and a business, your idea is worthless, really! No-one buys an idea. You can have the best idea in the world, and an inexperienced and unskilled team will ensure it fails; compare this to an average idea with a great team behind it, and the chances that a successful business will follow is greatly enhanced. All the value that can be delivered from your idea is in the execution. ALL. THE. VALUE. Take this into account and you will start to see that your idea is worthless.

Visit some startup events or hack weekends and you’ll see just how many great ideas there are out there – you may hear some that seem even better than yours, but this does depend upon the power of your own reality-distortion field. I never mind talking to people about my ideas, and never ask for NDAs, because quite frankly, I back myself to deliver. If you think you can take my idea and do it better, then go for it – I don’t care!

So now you know your idea is worthless, you’ll understand why your potential Co-Founder might be a little miffed that you want to retain the lion’s share of the equity. The odds are your business will fail, and the facts are that the equity is currently worthless – give them half (assuming equal commitments) and avoid breeding future resentment.

Your idea is great, but you are not

So you’ve convinced the techie you are onto something, and you’ve offered him equal footing, but they are still hesitant to come on board. What’s their problem? It could be you!

I’m a firm believer that in any business, everyone has to sell, but clearly for some people it’s their primary role to sell, and for others it is not. In any startup, it’s unlikely that the technical guy is also the one who is responsible for drumming up interest in your business, after all, he’s working 24/7 to build a great product. The techie needs to be convinced that you can ‘do your stuff’, in exactly the same way that you need to be convinced that they can build a product. Think about how you can demonstrate your expertise and how you are going to get this business off the ground.

You have incompatible profiles

This is actually a good thing, but can prevent you from even getting started. I’m afraid I’m going to have to generalise here. Good business people and leaders typically are not detail people. They are great at seeing the bigger picture and getting others to buy in to that, but they are not so great at the finer detail and the nitty-gritty of getting those things done. In contrast, good software developers are detail people. You can’t write software without being concerned about the detail – it just isn’t going to work.

When you are trying to convince a Co-Founder to come on board, you need to be aware that the detail is important to them, probably more so than you. Avoid phrases like “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there”. Prediction is hard, especially when it comes to the future! You are probably more predisposed to the uncertainty that will come, than the steady, detail oriented developer. You need to work hard to convince them that you can deal with the eventualities. Convincing them to quit a well paid, predictable job to work 100 hours per week for no pay is a tough one. They need to have the confidence that in 6 months time when their cash runs out, that there will be some money coming in to pay the rent, whereas for you it doesn’t become an issue UNTIL the money runs out and the landlord keeps phoning you up.

Do not learn to code yourself

Really, I hear this suggested so often, and I find it annoying. If you are looking for a Co-Founder to build a product, doing a half-baked job yourself first is really not going to help. And it will be half-baked. A decent software developer will not want to develop it any further as it will likely be quicker to start over. There are only a few valid reasons for learning to code if you are intent on taking this course of action:

  1. You may want to be the Technical Co-Founder yourself.
  2. You might want to be a single founder who can do everything, although I would recommend against this approach.
  3. You are struggling to convince anyone that your idea is good, and you have no money to commission a prototype. You decide you’ll build it yourself to validate the market.
  4. You are a masochist.

I’ve heard reasons for doing this such as “It will help you know whether the person you are hiring is any good”. No it won’t! All you’ll be able to do is demonstrate that you are an amateur and really do not know what you are talking about when it comes to coding. I’ve never heard anyone suggest you should learn accountancy in order to hire an accountant – software development is no different.

Treat it like a job interview

This may appear a strange suggestion that conflicts with the advice of searching for a Co-Founder as opposed to seeking out a worker, but it is an important one.

You need to be sure that this person is committed, they need to understand the size of the challenge, what will be expected of them, and what they should expect from you. This person will likely be working hard to build a product without getting paid, and when there is no pay cheque, keeping people focussed on the goal can be an enormous challenge.

Get all the stages right and make yourself really appealing to potential Co-Founders and you will find people who say yes, but this does not mean that they are a good selection, even if you are convinced they can build a great product. It can be hard to have that ‘difficult conversation’ with someone who is underperforming when they are not getting paid, but the fact is they are being paid - by way of equity, and that equity could end up being worth a lot more than a career’s worth of pay cheques. Set expectations and make it clear what the consequences will be if those expectations are not met.

Conclusion

There are Co-Founders out there, but they won’t instantly see your vision and have your passion. There is work to do to get them on-board. I’m happy to advise if you feel stuck, so get in touch and let me know what you are up to. What worked for you? What mistakes have you learned from?

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