First, a prelude – though I’ve mostly written technical articles on this blog, it’s called techfounder for a reason – it was my original intention to also talk about startups from the view-point of the technical founder. I have been involved in several ventures so far in this role (currently at Binpress), each giving me more perspective on the overall picture.
I’ve just stumbled upon a nice article titled “Why you can(‘t) recruit a technical co-founder“. The author makes some solid points about why it’s hard to recruit / find a technical co-founder for a startup, but it seemed more common sense than deep introspection.
Idea is nothing, execution is everything
If you’ve started up your own venture, you know this saying is not just a cliche. Ideas, however great, will get nowhere without execution. On the other hand, solid and above execution can get very far with even below mediocre ideas.
How many times did you see a company in a crowded space or doing something that seems utterly useless, and they seemed to somehow do very well? it happens all the time. Was Facebook hailed as the next big thing when it launched and MySpace was ruling the social world? it didn’t. And it wasn’t a novel idea – there were many social networks at the time and more getting started everyday. Facebook just out-executed all of its competitors to become the huge success they are today.
I’m not really saying the idea itself is useless (as the headline might suggest), but I am much in agreement with the concept that the idea is a multiplier of execution (summarized neatly by Derek Sivers). A better idea raises the cap on your potential, but without execution to support it it’s just a multiple of nothing.
Founders need to be McGyvers
Going back to the article I mentioned at the beginning – technical founders are not different than any other type of founder. All founders must bring something critical to the table. Be it business acumen, marketing, socializing and connections, deep market knowledge – they must be very good at something to start a company. There is no room for “idea men” – all founders must be ready to pull their weight to make their equity worth something.
Furthermore, all founders should be like McGyver (if you don’t know who this is, you’re missing on a piece of classic TV culture) – they must be extremely adaptable and able to constantly find solutions to problems with very little resources. They need to be able to step outside of their comfort zone and do something they never did before – and do it well. They need to be able to multi-task and be able to switch hats on a dime. One day you’re doing your marketing thing and the next day you’re setting up servers and another day you’re doing customer support or schmoozing at some event (it actually changes more like every hour than every day).
If one of the co-founders can’t do this – you have a weak link, and someone will be pulling a heavier load than the other. A healthy co-founder relationship can’t be built around one guy doing more than the other(s).
Do you need a technical co-founder or a CTO?
When I hear someone is looking for a technical co-founder, it seems more often than not what they are looking for is a CTO. They are looking for someone to take over the technical aspects of the product, but not really touch the business aspects.
Why am I making this distinction? because founders need to care about and be involved in all the core business decisions. They need to do all the things I’ve mentioned previously and pull their weight equally in the company. In short – they need to be entrepreneurs and not just brilliant engineers.
If you are looking to fill out a position (technical lead), it doesn’t necessarily mean you are looking for a partner. Understanding what you need will help you find the right person by adjusting your expectations and requirements of a potential addition to your team.
Where do you find technical founders?
I am of the opinion that real partnerships happen organically and not through a recruiting process. You either knew your startup partners previously or hit it off after talking about the idea for the venture. And by the way, you should talk about it with anyone who would listen – no NDA’s, no secrecy, no patent pending bullshit. If you bought in to the “idea is nothing …” concept, it should be plainly obvious why.
Discussing your ideas with other smart and knowledgeable people will allow it to grow and evolve. Through criticism and resistance will you be able to sharpen rough edges and bring out something that shines. The other benefit is that you might actually find people who’ll be interested in joining! how will you find those without sharing your idea and polishing it so it sounds attractive enough?
So where do you find those technical founder guys? well, like everything else in the startup process, you have to put in the work. Start with your inner circle of friends and acquittance – is there anyone there who might fit the bill and you have a good chemistry with? ask that same circle for recommendations and assistance. Start cruising online portfolios – find someone who seems both technically qualified and with entrepreneurial aspirations – someone who’s been involved in other projects / ventures and seems to understand what starting up is all about.
The most important qualities in founders in my opinion is versatility and team chemistry – along with one key expertise. Don’t settle for one-trick ponies if you are looking for co-founders – otherwise you are actually looking to fill a position, like I mentioned before.
What do technical founders want?
Technical founders want what every founder wants – to be an equal partner. We want to be involved in the specification process, in the business decisions, with user experience decisions and even marketing. Don’t underestimate us just because we come from a technical background – real entrepreneurs will have an opinion on everything. We want to be given authority over technical matters, but also that our partners will not be ignorant of the technologies involved – and we want your input on that as well.
We want to see you working as hard as us and adding as much value as us to the venture. When meeting with a potential technical co-founder, you must be able to clearly transmit what value you are bringing to the team.
But the most important thing – we want to work with good and talented people. Entrepreneurship is a difficult and draining vocation. If you can’t get along with and depend on your co-founders – you are not going to make it. Partnering up on a venture is a commitment not unlike a marriage – you need to be able to survive the good and the bad times, work through disagreements and make compromises.
Don’t compromise on your co-founders – and don’t expect us to do the same. Here’s to all you aspiring entrepreneurs out there – may you find your “significant other” and start creating amazing products.