Programmer · Finding cofounders

Cowboy Programmer - What Can I do with No Money Yet?


May 20th, 2016

I worked with someone for 4 months on a deadline presentation, we had a contract and a specific goal. He didn't communicate the challenges well and we ended up not having the right MVP to show the investors. Will agree in advance, not all his fault as the tech situation was changed on us. 

After, I wanted to keep going and asked him to meet me and finish the work that was intended. He missed the call (was sleeping apparently) and just kept feeling he didn't listen to what is needed for an MVP product at all. I stopped talking to him or having meetings and took a break for a few weeks because I needed it and and I was pissed off and tired of the programmer attitude trying to do it all by himself. We are back working on the project and he says (and seems from Trello) he is still working on the software portion of the product while I do sales, marketing, design.

Here is the history: He never makes a deadline, late for almost all meetings, and frankly ignores any priorities I set.

We have no money (yet) and he has to work on other things, so I understood things were not as timely as I usually like and gave some slack and trust.

I have some code sample downloaded from GitHub that is running on an smart phone, but nothing works for a MVP that connects to my hardware. I told him we have trust issues between us, but maintained cordial project discussions since I don't want to give up and need software work. He's not a horrible person, just smart and a bad communicator. That is actually worse and more dangerous than someone malicious (in my mind).

I imagine this is what it felt like for the Winklevoss twins dealing with a cowboy programmer (Mark Z.) hiding his work till he can get someone to invest and then takes the whole idea for himself. Luckily, I do all the hardware, came up with the idea, have the manufacturing and so on and so on. It's not all about the software; which saves me a bit. But, I feel completely trapped by this person in a time of need when people are asking for the product and I'm trying to close deals.

Today I heard he's in town and headed over to an event where he is being asked to show the product. I asked a number of times if we had any updates so we can show it. Then got a text at 11:00 a.m. asking me if I am bringing the product. same day of the show, after 3 weeks and emails saying we don't have the software and thus no product to show. He says I need to be patient. 

I really don't know what to do, but it's slowly driving me insane not having a product to show and yet his FB posts show he's working on this project and bragging about his involvement. He even posted photos w/out my say or knowledge (which I have been explicit about not doing).

All this, while I watch as this person takes months to complete the 2 tasks needed for the MVP and spend whatever time he has doing wildly huge and complex backend of the product. The backend may work, but if I can't access it or show how it works on the physical product, who cares!

I am sure we can sell this thing if we can just get some basic functions running. We have 1.6M Youtube hits and 17K followers on the idea right now, but need a working MVP. Investors want to see the MVP as well. We are soooo close! Currently, I am doing everything in my power to figure it out on my own... but frankly I suck at programming.

I really need some support. I don't know what to do. A 1/2 built product with no cash to get a new person just feels hopeless. I want to hear that it isn't. I want to hear there are programmers I can find that I trust to finish and follow through and communicate, not just code. I want to hear I don't have to start all over again so close to the finish line. I want to know what to do with this person who says they are very emotionally invested and have no problems putting their face on the product, yet haven't done their basic requirements OR if they can't don't communicate that well so the team can get it done. 

Joe Emison Chief Information Officer at Xceligent

May 21st, 2016

This is only happening because of the insane demand for technical talent. It's not OK, and you shouldn't put up with it.

In the short term, you need to figure out how to mitigate your losses. In the long term, you need to be working with someone else. You're not going to be successful with the person you have described.

Adam Berlinsky-Schine

May 21st, 2016

You need to fire him. As scary as it is to start over on the software, it's much scarier to build a business with the person you described. Hopefully you can part ways gracefully and recover whatever work he's done, but even if you can't, you still need to cut your losses. His unreliability concerns me more than the potential to steal your idea; it sounds like you have some protection against that. You can't build a business with somebody you can't trust.

I know it's hard to find great software developers, but you have options. While outsourcing is a mixed bag, it can work best at the MVP stage. When you eventually hire a full time engineer, they will probably throw away most or all of it, but it will get you through your investor pitch and will buy you the time you need to find someone amazing.

Nadir Ait-Laoussine

May 21st, 2016

A few have already commented that many details are missing, so take this with necessary grain of salt.

I was advising a startup founder last year that was going through a similar situation. He owned the IP, but was not a developer. He also had an earlier version of the code base. My suggestion was to try to resolve as amicably as possible, but be determined to replace the person as having to deal with these types of problems when you start only means it's going to get worse when you scale.

He ended up rebuilding from the earlier code base, as the developer became completely unwilling to communicate and collaborate. 12 months on, he has a better team around him, a better code base, and is able to focus his attention on growing and selling. It came at a cost, but was worth it.

Gabor Nagy Founder / Chief architect at Skyline Robotics

May 21st, 2016

I'll second / third others here : you need to get rid of this guy.
I can't imagine working with someone like that, long term.

Gabor Nagy Founder / Chief architect at Skyline Robotics

May 21st, 2016

There are a lot of critical details missing from your post:
So, you gave a hardware prototype to this software guy and he effectively "disappeared" with it, trying to develop his own product?
Does he have access to the HW design?
Is it something he can easily duplicate?
Wouldn't the investors realize that he essentially stole your hardware prototype, when he can't make design changes to it?
Is the hardware modular-enough to break it down into functional parts?
Did you give him a rough / early HW devkit, with only the parts needed to write his part of the software, or complete, final-looking HW?
Did you sign a contract with the SW guy? Is he paid in equity? Any vesting timeframe, or straight-out equity?
Is his compensation tied to milestones / deliverables?
This is very important.
As a founder, it's your job to break things down into achievable milestones, finding the right people and figuring out scheduling and compensation, based on those.
It's a lot easier to avoid getting screwed that way.
(You don't have the resources of a large corporation, to just write off bad employees, or go after them legally).

Do you have access to the latest source code, even if it only runs on Android?
Is it reasonably well documented (code comments)?
If so, it should be a lot easier to get another SW engineer, to port it.
Depending on if you have a contract with the guy / the conditions in such contract...

Tom Jay

May 21st, 2016

The idea might be the most important part, anyone can code the app and integrate the hardware. If its a great idea there are lots of developers who are willing to work on it simply for the possibility of payment one day.

I know my mortgage company is always happy when I'm working on a project and tell them I can pay them once it is completed and we get funding, they have been very understanding so far.

If he is not a partner and has no stock at all then he should be happy with the payments you have been making to him. If there is no payments then he should be happy with the possibility of being a multi-millionair based on the 50% stock he has in the company.

Has he invested cash into the company? How Much? Much much cash have you invested?

I agree with everyone that its time to cut your losses.

If you have trust issues at this point just walk away.

Maybe this is a learning lesson for you.

One thing yuo might take away is that if you learn to code yourself you will never be in this position, I find founders that are also developers never had these issues.

Mark Turturo President at Nicola Turturro Enterprises, L.L.C.

May 21st, 2016

Anonymous, You did not post enough background information relative to whether a company has been formed and in which jurisdiction, nor your contractual relationship with  "the programmer".

On the surface your asking for either legal advice or how to manage employees.

I would not rely on the information on this forum as an alternative to legal advice from your attorney or other professional legal services provider specific to your current situation! 

You should never delay seeking legal advice, nor disregard legal advice.

From the tone and wording of your post, my first impression is that you may be in danger of having your idea copyrighted/trademarked by the "programmer" as their work. If they haven't already! They would then be able to commence litigation against you claiming your infringing on their work or worse. My second impression was that "the programmer" may be considered an employee of yours, which could lead to many nasty and costly enforcement actions by the federal, state, and local authorities!

Schedule an appointment with your legal counsel, ASAP!, 

When scheduling ask them for a list of documents to either bring with you or send ahead of time for their review. If short of funds for a consultation, ask for a fixed fee/time limit say 2-4 hrs  and $500-$1000 USD. 


Irwin Stein Very experienced (40 years) corporate,securities and real estate attorney.

May 21st, 2016

If you have to ask what to do, you are in trouble. This is common problem. If you are hiring a key employee who might be in a position to steal your idea, you tie them up with an good agreement up front.  Unless their work is superlative, the second time they blow through a deadline, you show them the door.  If he posted photos of the product after you told him not to, he is telling the world that this is his product. That is why he is demoing it without telling you.  Of course you tied all this up because you went to a good lawyer up front.  If not, you are now looking at spending a lot more to stop him and get your product back.

Rob G

May 24th, 2016

"....we had a contract and a specific goal."  presumably your contract includes an IP assignment - to you or the company?  You don't say what your relationship is other than "we had a contact..."  so should we presume you control the company and are 'paying' him... i equity or future profits, or ?? You do need to part company with him. You can't build a company with someone you don't trust.  Things will only get worse.  Cut your losses now.  The question is how.  If you think his code is usable then see if you can reach an agreement on how much it is worth and come to an agreement on how/when to compensate him.  Make sure that you have at least a signed IP assignment before you pay him (even if you pay him for his work he still owns the code unless he explicitly assigns it to you - crazy, but true). I've been in a similar situation and it is not fun, but not the end of the world either.  valuable lesson learned i hope. 

Kawal Arora Technologist , AI/ML,Blockchain

May 21st, 2016

wow you are in tricky position . If he is not communicating with you , something wrong . he wants to take off with the project if he is demoing without you .
and maybe he is sick of you and wants to go on his own .
Do you have any MOU signed , any company formed ? consult a legal expert about it . 
Best course of action would be to meet him and sort things out .
If he is not interested and he is ok with u developing further that is the best situation for you .You can find developers , you will have to network a lot and find some one who really likes the Idea.