Finding cofounders

Business developer or programmer: with whom should I take the next step, and why?

Adam Crabtree Founder, Strollbar

January 12th, 2016

Hey FD community, I’m developing a concept that fits somewhere along the periphery of the mobile app photo-sharing market-space (it’s a bit disruptive and unique, hence the periphery). The concept is rooted in my research in the humanities / social sciences, and as one who has spent years and years in advanced education, I’m pursuing the co-founder journey through Mordor as one who treats ideas the way Gödel treats theorems (seriously, my bedroom walls are lined with schematics like a guy who needs to go outside more). This is just to say, YES, I’m an idea person, YES, I get upset when people say ideas are a dime a dozen (although, I understand where they are coming from), but, NO, I don’t think my idea alone can carry the weight of my journey, obviously. So, I’m now looking for the ones who can help execute. Just so you know, I’ve validated (and continue to validate) the concept extensively, with good results so far. I’ve wireframed the concept and have several story-boards / thin-prototypes. And I’m great with public relations and interviewing / conducting focus groups (my background is in ethnography). I’m NEITHER a business developer NOR a programmer. Yes, I know I’m a biz dev in the sense that I’m moving through the pain-points of entrepreneurship and learning the ropes along the way, and, yes, I’m trying to learn what I can about programming, and am even dabbling in it a little. Nevertheless, I don’t have the wallpaper credentials of either, and I think this can turn some people away who want to see one of these “badges” posted on my LinkedIn profile.

So, my questions are directed to two types of co-founders: the hacker / programmer and the hustler / business developer. Moreover, these questions are intended to be structured in a way to get answers not only for myself but for anyone in my situation who may come across this post.  

To business developers: Do you prefer that a programmed prototype (something demonstrable that potential customers can use) exists prior to coming aboard a situation like mine? Not the full architecture, necessarily, but something functional that is up and running? To be clear, by business developer, I mean someone who can assist with areas like fundraising, marketing, and financial metrics. Or, is substantial validation minus a programmed product enough? Lastly, if more remains to be desired in terms of validation (although progress is, in my case, good so far), how likely are you to come aboard?

To programmers: Do you prefer that someone who is business savvy in the areas of fundraising, marketing, and/or finance is in place prior to you coming aboard and building a working prototype? Validation is one thing, but I’m guessing you would like the piece of mind of knowing that the finished product will be in the hands of those who can confidently press forward. Or, is validation enough to come aboard without a bona fide biz dev person in place?

Please be candid and try to speak for yourself, not to what you believe to be the case for most biz devs or programmers (although your sentiments may align).     

Finally, the point of asking these questions is twofold: 1) to get an idea of what type of co-founder I should aim to collaborate with first, and 2) to try to bring to other FD members (via this post) some clarity to this enormous chicken-or-egg problem. I’ve seen others try to get to the bottom of this issue in various forms over the course of reading other site-members’ posts and related responses, and I hope this helps.

I would be most grateful for any feedback you may have to offer. Apologies for going all “War and Peace” on you; I tried to keep it short, but...

Many thanks,


Rob G

January 12th, 2016

Adam; good question and thanks for posting with some detail. I find all too often entrepreneurs posting questions with far too little detail to offer informed feedback. 3 important missing detail, however, are:
1. who is your target market (businesses or consumers - i'm guessing consumers) and
2. how do you expect to generate revenue?
3. are you suggesting paid positions or equity co-founder positions? I'm going to assume equity in my answers below.
I'm a recovering engineer turned salesman. The terms "business development" is often misunderstood and misused, but I'll address this from the perspective of "business developer". First off, be clear about what it is you are asking for lest you focus your efforts in the wrong areas. Correct me if i'm wrong, but I suspect what you are really after in a "business development" person is someone who can: "get customers, figure out pricing, generate revenue, close deals, etc." and later 'close investors". Please correct me if i'm wrong. You use the term "business developer" as someone "savvy in fundraising, marketing and/or finance", yet fundraising, marketing and finance have little to do with true business dev or your key needs (getting customers and generating revenue) in an early stage startup. Biz dev is about generating indirect revenue via partnerships. That takes time. marketing is about generating indirect revenue by educating buyers through a variety of means including advertising, PR, content, SEO, etc. In my book the minimum viable company is product and sales which means, at a minimum, someone who can build the product and someone who can sell it. Since you are building a software product that means you need a programmer. In an early stage startup you need to be in close, 1-to-1 contact with your prospects/customers - i.e. "selling". To sell said product you need a sales person. certainly if you can afford business development and marketing and finance and fundraising right out of the gate it likely can't hurt, but if you can only afford 2 skills (in addition to yours) in your startup then i would focus on programming and sales. If you can get sales and marketing/biz dev/fundraising/finance experience in the same body that helps too, but in the early days focus your efforts on directly closing customers and revenue.  As you gain traction (market knowledge, customers/users, revenue?) then, depending on your business model, you can add marketing and business development and even finance and fundraising. If your model is B2C then an emphasis on marketing and in fact supplanting sales with marketing and perhaps adding biz dev too is a likely scenario. You can't afford to scale by "selling" a $10 subscription to every consumer via a direct sales model - that's where marketing and biz dev come in. If B2B however, then adding marketing and business dev to compliment sales with sales being the key to driving revenue growth is the likely scenario.
So, now that we have that out of the way, if i were considering joining a startup (other than my own) i would not do so full-time unless i was very passionate about the market and product and, most importantly, i was convinced that there was a clear, well defined and well thought-out path to near-term revenue AND a sellable product existed AND it was clear you were a subject matter expert AND i felt we could work together. The key words being 'full-time'. You need to validate the product/market fit before you to build anything anywat. That means go sell it. get committed customers. Committed does not mean you pitched the idea to some friends and family and maybe some strangers and they said "yeah, that's cool, i'd use that". Committed means signed contracts and/or tangible evidence that customers have committed resources to implement/use your product. If that has already been done then, as a sales person, there's not a lot of need for my skills until you have a product with which to generate actual revenue/customers/users. If you don't yet have committed customers and all the above criteria existed (passionate about the market, product, business model, etc.) then i could see helping part-time to go get those early customers and to evaluate your expertise and business style. There are plenty of necessary activities, but if they don't involve building a product or getting customers you shouldn't be spending much time/resources doing them.

Also, to be very candid, if i were to consider coming on as the "business person" i would want to have a clear understanding and some candid conversations as to your role and how your background in "years and years of advanced education" and social science research would mesh with me, the person tasked with getting customers/users in the door. Startup failure is closely correlated to founder conflicts and that is something i would want to spend time exploring - have you done a startup before? have you managed key operational disciplines like product development and sales and marketing and finance? etc. Have you had to make payroll? fire people? hire people? negotiate contracts? How did you come to the conclusions in your revenue model? etc., etc.

For what it's worth, and again, assuming only equity, as an engineer i would not come on board until you could show me that the product/market fit had been validated and you could demonstrate a very clear path to revenue and what that runway looks like AND that clear path to revenue includes the person(s) who will generate said revenue. I'd also have to be passionate about the product and i'd want a lot of freedom to define architecture and make technology decisions.

Gray Holland founder / director at UX-FLO

January 13th, 2016

BOTH.... you need them both, so get them both.

Adam Crabtree Founder, Strollbar

January 13th, 2016

Rob, thank you for your detailed response. There's a lot there to consider, and it's just the kind of information I'm seeking. Great to know!

Mary Camacho Product & Develoment Management | UI/UX

January 13th, 2016

As a product developer and founder, I would not consider working on someone else's' idea unless they had answers to how they planned to take it to market.

I recently ran into someone who had a great idea that on the surface seemed very marketable, and he was looking for a dev founder. When I asked about the go to market strategy - the immediate response was that was not my concern or that it would come later. That is the biggest red flag for me that can exist. Getting real traction is so much harder and less predictable than building a product or prototype.

I know there are highly successful examples where the business model and marketing plan has come later in the process but I don't think data is on their side - they are outliers.

So to specifically answer your question - I don't think a business development person needs to be in place per se - and I certainly don't think a finance cofounder is necessary early on. I do think that the idea person should do the work to develop the go to market strategy and should have an idea of how they will attract and sell to customers. Depending on how complex the prototype is and whether or not you are looking for someone to work for free (equity or future equity) or work for cheap (some cash now and future equity), different levels of completion on that work would be necessary.

At the end of the day - it would need to be believable. I would need to trust that:
  1. it is a good product idea; solves a real problem and is scalable at the very least,
  2. it is marketable and sellable; that is, the end users need it and it won't be hard to find them and there won't be too many barriers to them wanting to buy or use it,
  3. the main founder has the leadership ability to get this off the ground; being smart and having expertise in something only goes so far, the real question is can you lead a startup; can you be flexible and take advice but still hold to your vision? Can you persuade others to work with you, give you money for the business or use the product? Can you identify quickly when you don't know what you need and figure out ways to learn it?... and the list goes on...,
  4. investors will be interested, (preferably there is some idea of who would want to invest, why they would, whether this is IPO or Acquisition oriented and how the investors would make their money)
  5. and finally, I would want to know that I would enjoy working with the others involved.