Entrepreneurship · Hiring

How can I hire a software developer with no money?

Chris Wilson I have a product idea, a business plan, and a clear route-to-market - but no idea how to build it

December 10th, 2018

I appreciate that software developers everywhere will now run for the hills. However, if you have a product idea, a route-to-market, possible investors but no clue how to build the product, how do you employ someone to build it for you? Promise equity? Promise CTO position? And how do you find the right person?

Dom DaFonte I build products and see if they stick.

Last updated on December 17th, 2018

Here is my feedback as the technical co-founder of a product and a Software Engineer that is asked frequently to work on someone's idea.


I will never work on a stranger's project for free. Time is the one limited commodity we have in life. We all get 24 hours/day and we all hope to live past 100. everyone needs something to pay for their time. To work on a project without actual compensation I'd need:

  1. To believe in your mission and confidence in the contacts and revenue path you discuss.
  2. An existing revenue that could compensates me for the hours of work I'd spend in developing the product in question, or a targeted date where that revenue would be available to pay me and an understanding of what that compensation would be.
  3. Certainty that our time will be equally contributed to the project. We'd need a trackable list of deliverables (both technical and business related) that would allow us to see how our times are being split equally.
    1. I will focus on product development, data design, and building the infrastructure
    2. You build out the corporate structure, canvas customers, discuss the idea with potential clients to understand interest, market the potential product ahead of launch and do everything else in your power to feel confident that either this project will be a success, or we kill it fast and minimize the amount of time either of us spend on it.
  4. Shared equity in the project that gives me confidence that I'll be rewarded for delivering the product well.

If all of those needs aren't met, then we'd have to discuss the premium on the added time I'd have to spend on it. Alternatively you can employ that person and give them a salary. If you have a clear path to revenue then it should be easy for you to raise capital to pay me.


Honestly, as you can see from my question yesterday, Title doesn't mean much at an early stage of a launch. Linkedin is full CEO's and CTO's of incubator ideas who never really fulfill the obligations of that title. And when a company is mature enough to really need a C level executive the existing ones will likely be re-allocated to a role that best suits their skillset if they aren't at that level.


Hope this helps. I can't tell you how many people have an idea that will make us both millions if I could only build it.

Paul Garcia marketing exec & business advisor

December 10th, 2018

I'd like to focus on the word you chose, "employ." Because perhaps the strongest route-to-market is having your own developers that have a stake in the outcome of their work. That means, if it doesn't happen on-time and well, they're unemployed because there's no company. I would encourage this option as often as possible as the top choice when possible.


A lot of people feel they can't afford the cash and commitment to take on employees and prefer to diminish risk but possibly raise costs and management overhead by using contractors. That is one route, but as you've noted, comes with some risk in knowing first how to communicate with developers, second to understand how to manage them, and third how to evaluate the quality of their work. Some of those are still inherent in having employees.


You've stated that you have no money (assuming this means cash). So, you would be asking anyone working with you to take on a very high degree of risk for possibly no payout. Would you do it, if you weren't the idea source? What can you do to reduce the risk for someone willing to invest with their time?


Possible investors=no investors. You can't count those chickens. A title, CTO or anything else, means nothing because there's no company if there's no product. And CTO is a title that may have nothing to do with what you actually need, developers. Don't use the title until you understand what a CTO actually is expected to be. Reserve it for when you have that specific need. CTO doesn't mean first and in-charge. It means a lot more than that.


It sounds like you have some more work to do before work can start. My suggestion would be to map out your idea in terms of what most people call an MVP, minimum viable product. What is the actual problem your software should solve and has to include in order to do that. Make a separate list of the nice-to-have items, features, bells and whistles, slick interface, and focus on what is the absolute minimum it needs to do perfectly to get the job done.


Take this description around to some development shops and ask them to estimate the amount of work it would take to reach the MVP goal, and how they would schedule it. If you have some friends you can lean on who program software, ask them how they would break up the steps. Remember that in software development, each time you reach 80% done, you probably have the same amount of time required to get to that 80% as you do to get through the next 80% of the remaining 20. It's not a straight path, because it involves testing and smart planning.


So, the answer is that you, like everyone else without cash, will likely struggle greatly to win the mind of someone willing to risk as much or more than you to work on something with an extremely uncertain future. Not an easy path. So, once you shop around your project with some development shops, you'll have some idea of the scope of the time and risk you're asking someone to take. It will be generally quantified, and you can attach a dollar figure to what it should be worth if you were paying someone a normal rate to perform the work.


Then you can focus on doing something that will allow you to accumulate most or some of that money before you move forward as personal capital. Don't focus on investors yet. It's extremely unlikely they're going to give you any attention until you can demonstrate your idea. Focus on where you can generate money personally so you can get past the first hump of a minimum product. It is most likely that you will have to pay someone something to get it done. Or, if you can't, then the next option would be to learn how to do it yourself.


But if you say "I could never learn that!" Then you're not willing to take the kind of risk you're asking someone else to take by not paying them for their work. That's why you (probably rightly assume) they will run away from you.


These are the same challenges every idea person faces. You have an idea but no simple way to turn it into reality. And that's why it's called work. You either have time or money. If you don't have money, you put in your time. Don't expect others to do it too on the ghostly promise of a dream that may never turn into gold. Even good ideas can turn out poorly. But that doesn't mean you have to give up.


Good luck.

Grant du Toit

December 10th, 2018

I was in your position with our project. We struggled to get a developer on-board even with payment and most messed us around to chase the big money and dropped the project as they deemed fit. I eventually found someone with interest and have started a phase of the prototyping using the agile approach. I work very closely with the developer.


In exchange for his involvement, he has been offered an interest in the business subject to performance. Naturally, since there's no payment, he has a full-time job and that means I've got to be patient, work a lot of after hours and weekends and put up with a lot of lost time. Considering the time isn't paid for and the developer does carry risk, I gain time instead of having no time. One suggestion is to be very good at motivating.


I wanted to rush into my project and find a developer however my advice to you is be patient, get a feel of the developer even if it's a paid job. Doing a phase of the project to establish whether you can work with them in the future is recommended. The developer you're going to work with must both understand what you need and share your passion. The later is the hardest and even those who got paid often had no passion and were too busy chasing only the monetary aspect.


Good luck and take your time.

Sheldon Poon Technical Director, Drive Marketing

December 11th, 2018

ask yourself: how would you convince an investor to give you money? if you can come up with a convincing argument for someone to trust you with a monetary investment, that same deal is what you need to convince someone to work on your project for free.


as a developer, i can tell you that the amount of time it takes for every idea you come up with will take 100x or 1000x the amount of time to implement. when building out an MVP, the developer is taking all of the risk

John Bilicki III Able to dramatically improve the entire landscape of the web with the right business connections.

December 11th, 2018

There are programmers and there are "programmers". You might find someone who will work for little to nothing for the right match...but that is a chance I wouldn't take. LEARN TO CODE! Seriously, it'll give you insight in to what is going on and just how long it takes things in software to come together. If you learn to program WITHOUT frameworks and libraries and do real code then you're on the right path. Granted if you find a programmer who has built enough and didn't do all the shortcuts they can work some serious magic but no pay or compensation and high competence? That is a bridge too far. Learn to code!

Mohammed Mahmoud Esmail Founder Code Ops Lab

December 27th, 2018

The only thing I know is give him market share, but this need search hard

Dmitri Toubelis

Last updated on December 10th, 2018

- First of all, find a technical advisor or a consultant, i.e. a senior technical person who can for a small portion of equity or small amount of cash guide you through technology field and help you find and choose right people. Just few hours a month will go long way. This person would help you to answer questions you are asking here, set requirements for potential candidates and help with interview. This person can also oversee if the developer(s) you hired driving development in the right direction and identify problems before they bite you.

- Find a developer who will work for equity effectively becoming your co-founder. This person is rather hard to find and you will more often than not end up with someone very junior. Make sure that the person is eager to succeed and eager to learn. Be prepared that this person may require a lot of guidance and make sure that help is available for them. Use your advisor/consultant for help.

- Do not promise CTO title as an incentive, you will shoot yourself in a foot. CTO role is absolutely crucial for your success and it entails way more that you currently think. If you don't follow this advice you may face a very unpleasant choice at some point in time to either keep the promise to your loyal co-founder or for your business to fail. Either choice will be damaging for your success.

- Outsource. There is lots of agencies out there that will do work for equity. This is okay scenario but there are few things to keep in mind. One is that there is conflict of interests between you and them - even though they are your investors, they work to benefit of their own business first. In particular, these companies usually will insist on arrangement when they maintain full control of the development environment as well as the source code and the infrastructure. They may and will use this as a leverage against you when negotiating any additional requirements. They also may stop the development at any time if they decide that your business does not worth the investment, they just cut their loses leaving you hanging. Again, use your advisor to help with negotiations, to make sure you keep your IP in your possession and you have business continuity strategy if they bail out.

- Do it yourself. Depending on your situation it may be an option as well. Learning new skills is essential for any new business and even if you don't go all the way you will have much better understanding (and appreciation) of the development process.

In either of these scenarios you will need to approach people or companies you partner with as your investors. They invest their time and skill in your business idea and thake significant risk. You should be able to convince them that it worth the trouble. Try to do as much homework as you would for seeking cash investment and present your business value to potential candidates. Ability to convince people is the only currency you have at this stage.

Syam Chunduru Technology Architecture and software delivery professional

December 13th, 2018

I think there were many great suggestions made already on the thread. The one thing I would like to add is to look at 'low-code' or hpAPaaS platforms. Basically, these are platforms where non-technical or semi-technical background be able to implement their product ideas.


Choosing the best platform depends on the nature of the product idea as they have different strengths. Also, whether it's low-code or no-code platforms, there are limitations on how far you can go without seeking out help from traditional developers.

Examples of such platforms are Mendix, OutSystems, Appian among others.

Hope that helps.


Chris Roth Technical cofounder looking for cofounder

December 20th, 2018

You don't. If you are asking someone to work on your company with you for free then they are a founder and they will require founder-level equity. As a technical cofounder, an idea, route-to-market, and potential investors is worth nothing to me. In fact, it's a red flag because it means this will always feel like *your* company, not *our* company.


Rethink your perspective and find a technical cofounder.

Maxine Pierson CEO, MJ BIOTECH, INC.

December 17th, 2018

Equity /CTO position all good ideas- but YOU will have to sell them on the idea that they are sitting on a potential Unicorn . A skilled sophisticated developer worth his/her salt can tell in a couple of hours if this concept is a fantasy island or viable and has a chance in an overcrowded brutal market sector to be monetized