When I speak with a group of non-technical startup founders, the most commonly-asked question is: ‘How do I recruit a technical co-founder?’
My usual answer is: ‘How do you know that now is the right time to recruit a technical co-founder?’
If you aren’t technical, or already know someone who wants to collaborate with you on your startup, the right time is now. But for everyone else, the right time may be later.
Finding a great tech co-founder can be so hard it feels almost impossible. In the Australian startup ecosystem, they’re just not a very abundant commodity and probably never will be.
It’s important to admit that for most of us, trying to tell a great one from a bad one is like trying to choose your own neurosurgeon. For most of us, what a software engineer is doing while they’re coding is as unknowable to us as what a neurosurgeon does — we’re effectively unconscious for the whole experience. We have to wait and see if our arms and legs still work when it’s all over.
Build an MVP first, if you can
Consider the possibility you may not need a tech co-founder yet. Maybe you just need a prototype or MVP to get started testing whether your startup idea may be a viable business. Consider that you may not need to surrender 50% of your equity to a CTO to get that done. Maybe all you need is a software developer.
Some advice from an experienced software developer can be useful to help you scope and cost out your prototype and may help you understand whether your central idea is technically feasible, but much of the work of building a basic prototype isn’t rocket science, and compensating a rocket scientist to do it, whether with cash or equity, may not be necessary.
Your clumsy, unreliable, partly-manual MVP could be enough to get you going too, if what you’re doing is providing an awesome solution to a very big problem. And while a rocket scientist of a technical co-founder can definitely help you identify that very big problem and awesome solution, these people don’t grow on trees and they don’t come cheap.
If you’ve got enough traction from your MVP to raise some investment capital at a good valuation or to use revenue for salaries, you might think now is the time to recruit that great tech co-founder.
Chances are, through the process of building an MVP, you know a lot more than you did at the beginning about how to assess engineers, how to relate to them, how to scope work and what your tech platform needs to include. You might have met some potential tech co-founders as freelancers or team members in the team that have helped you build your MVP.
Make a personal connection
They are probably the most likely category of employee in the community to already be doing something rewarding, professionally and financially, so it’s usually no good just offering equity or cash — you need non-fiscal motivation.
One kind is a personal relationship — our community sometimes makes the mistake of thinking you have to be an asshole to be a great chief executive, but being great at friendships is probably the most important inherent trait in a potential chief executive.
So, become a great friend of a talented engineer who aspires to be a tech co-founder. Engineers are wired differently to the rest of us, so it might take a bit of work on your part to learn about their interests, how they like to relate, what they pay respect to and who they aspire to be, but it’s worth the investment. Help them with the things they find hard to do well in their life and then maybe you can persuade them to dump their job and join you.
Present an interesting problem to be solved
In the short-term, you need something to hook the potential tech cofounders you meet at startup meet-ups, and they aren’t motivated by the usual ‘in 50 words or less’ elevator pitch.
They are more often motivated by solving what they consider to be interesting problems while most elevator pitches seem to imply that all the interesting problems are solved and that only the execution remains.
That’s all backwards — if you want to motivate a potential tech cofounder you need to rephrase your elevator pitch to be about the interesting problems yet to be solved: ‘My hypothesis is that we could really change this industry if we could just find a way to solve [interesting problem] but nobody’s solved it before because the solutions are just too hard or expensive.’
Bad potential tech co-founders will tell you they’ve already solved the problem at startup X. Or that they already solved it working solo but aren’t interested in bringing it to market as part of a team.
Good potential tech co-founders know about startup X but can see that there’s probably a better way, and just can’t let that interesting problem go by without wanting to do just a little work on the answer, just to prove that maybe it’s not as big or as unsolvable as you think it is. That’s a great entree into working on the problem together, and into figuring out what it might take to get them out of their current job and working on the problem full-time.
Great potential tech co-founders will tell you they have a broad understanding of how to chunk the problem up into addressable bits, and that they would really get a kick out of bringing on some less experienced engineers and working on knocking those mini-problems all over.
This article was originally published on the BlueChilli blog on January 6, 2016.